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The 20 Best New York Concerts of 2020 Which Can Be Publicly Discussed

When Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator and ordered a lockdown of the state of New York on March 16, that didn’t stop musicians from playing, or prevent crowds from coming out to see them. Chances are that most of the players you know have been doing underground shows since then. But because a lot of those performances were forbidden under lockdown regulations, careers could be jeopardized if the Cuomo regime were to find out about them.

Someday the whole story can be told and those artists, and their supporters, can receive due credit for their heroism, for helping to keep hope alive when it seemed there was none. For the time being, here’s a salute to the artists who played the year’s most entertaining shows before the lockdown, as well as a handful who played dictatorially approved gigs in the time since.

There were three multiple-night stands this past year that deserve special mention. Over the course of barely a couple of weeks in February, the Danish String Quartet played the entire Beethoven cycle at Alice Tully Hall. The group’s chops are world-class, but it was their insight, and attention to detail, and flair for picking up on both the hilarity and the angst in the immortal works as well as the more obscure parts of that repertoire that made those sold-out evenings so unforgettable.

At the end of January, Juilliard staged an equally memorable series of concerts featuring mostly obscure works by women composers from over the past couple of centuries. The quality of the material, as well as the student ensembles’ performances, were astonishingly strong. Much as it was rewarding to see some better-known works like the Ruth Crawford Seeger String Quartet, and Grażyna Bacewicz’s withering second Cello Concerto on the bill, it was even more fascinating to discover pieces like Israeli composer Verdina Shlonsky’s phantasmagorical 1949 piano suite Pages From the Diary. along with dozens of chamber and symphonic pieces, practically all of them New York premieres. Juilliard’s Joel Sachs, who programmed the shows and tracked down the material, deserves immense credit for what was obviously a mammoth job. Too bad concerts at Juilliard no longer officially exist – and unless we get rid of the lockdown, the continued existence of Juilliard itself is imperiled.

And, of course, in the middle of January there was Golden Fest, New York’s wild, annual Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music event, which always raises the bar impossibly high for the rest of the year. Slashing, female-fronted Russian Romany party band Romashka, slinky brass band Slavic Soul Party, the volcanic Raya Brass Band, the even louder rembetiko heavy metal band Greek Judas, agelessly soulful Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian, a rare New York appearance by the Elem All-Stars, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers”  – romping original klezmer band Litvakus and the Navatman Music Collective – this hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir – were highlights among dozens of other acts over the course of about ten hours of music.

In keeping with the annual tradition here, the rest of the concerts are listed in chronological order. 2020 was looking so good until the lockdown, wasn’t it!

Andrew Henderson at St. Thomas Church, 1/5/20
The organist played a sometimes stately, sometimes thrilling program of works by Buxtehude, Howells, Reger and others

 Linda Draper at the American Folk Art Museum, 1/10/20
With her calm, resonant chorister voice, the eclectic songwriter mixed up edgy earlier material as well as several characteristically, pensively intense, lyrically brilliant new songs.

Sara Serpa at the Zurcher Gallery, 1/11/20
This era’s most luminously haunting jazz singer/composer aired out a soaring, immersive mix of new material featuring brilliant guitarist Andre Matos and keyboardist Dov Manski

The Susan Alcorn Quintet at Winter Jazzfest, 1/11/20
This era’s great jazz pedal steel player mixed up a set full of new material, by turns immersively haunting, raptly atmospheric and sometimes riotously funny

Mames Babagenush in the Curry Hill neighborhood. 1/12/20
This supremely tight but feral Danish klezmer band started out in the afternoon in a church basement and ended the night with a crazed coda at a scruffy hotel. A lot of aquavit was involved: it didn’t phase them. And they’d just played Golden Fest the previous night.

Souren Baronian and Big Lazy at Barbes, 1/24/20
The octogenarian king of Middle Eastern jazz followed by the similarly slinky, minor key-fixated, chillingly cinematic and strangely danceable noir soundtrack band at the top of their game. Best twinbill of the year.

Saawee at Flushing Town Hall. 2/21/20
Violinist Sita Chay and percussionist Jihye Kim’s all-female Korean dance-and-ritual group summoned the spirits via a witchy, hypnotic, delicately shamanic performance

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore at Barbes, 2/22/20
With his otherworldly, crystalline trumpet, edgy Balkan chromatics and wry sense of humor, Holmes’ trio with guitarist Brad Shepik and percussionist Shane Shanahan built biting variations on subtly familiar klezmer themes.

Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin play a live movie score at Temple Ansche Chesed, 2/23/20
The iconic klezmer violinist and her pianist collaborator delivered a dynamic mix of haunting traditional tunes, spirited originals and some coy classical interludes as a live score to E.A. Dupont’s irrepressibly sweet, groundbreaking 1923 German silent film The Ancient Law

Lara Ewen at Rockwood Music Hall, 2/24/20
Well known as the impresario behind the amazing, mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays concert series that ran for years at the American Folk Art Museum before being put on ice by the lockdown, Ewen is also a songwriter of note. And a hell of a singer, and a storyteller, and she’s really come into her own as an acoustic guitarist.

Jackson Borges at the organ at Central Synagogue, 2/25/20
Another excellent, long-running performance series that bit the dust when Cuomo’s insane lockdown regulations were imposed was organist Gail Archer’s semimonthly Prism Organ Concerts in midtown. Borges was the latest of a long line of global performers to play there, with a dynamic mix ranging from a majestic Mendelssohn sonata, to many more obscure works

Nicholas Capozzoli at St. Thomas Church, 3/1/20
What, another organ concert? Hey, this past year officially got cut off in mid-March. And this was a rousing one, with another mighty Mendelssohn sonata plus airy modern works by Leguay and Peters

Slavic Soul Party at Barbes, 3/3/20
Their mainstage show at Golden Fest was all the more traditional, blazing Balkan stuff. This one had the hip-hop, and the funk, and the James Brown and the Ellington. With breaks for European tours, they played this little Brooklyn boite just about every week for fifteen years until the lockdown.

The Vienna Yiddish Duo at the  Austrian Cultural Center, 3/10/20
A rare mix of edgy, Moldovan-flavored versions of klezmer classics as well as some ubiquitously familiar sounds from extrovert pianist Roman Grinberg and virtuoso clarinetist Sasha Danilov

Dolunay at Barbes, 3/12/20
Another one of the many Golden Fest bands on this list, playing an undulating, plaintive set of Turkish laments and originals…with just three people in the audience for most of the night.

The Pedro Giraudo Tango Quartet at Barbes, 3/14/20
The possibly last-ever indoor crowd at the historic Park Slope venue gathered for a sweeping, gorgeous set of originals and a couple of Piazzolla classics.

The American Symphony Orchestra String Quartet at Bryant Park, 9/14/20
The first of two outdoor shows featuring works by black composers was an alternately stirring and stark mix of material by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery and William Grant Still.

And that’s where it ends. Get ready for some fireworks in 2021!

“Live Music Calendar” for NYC for November 2020

Moving at a snail’s pace, there are a handful more publicly announced concerts this month than there were last. Due to Andrew Cuomo’s increasingly desperate efforts to maintain a police state at all costs, most artists are still playing under the radar, and most venues that were closed when the lockdown was announced remain closed.

But there are good things happening, most of them outdoors, as both audiences and musicians are waking up to the fact that there was never any need to close venues or cancel performances, ever, this year. Here’s what’s on tap so far this month: more shows may be added to this page, so if you’re really dedicated to getting a concert fix this month, you might want to bookmark this page. Like last month, most of this is jazz and classical music.

And there are tons of artists out there busking – swing by your local park and you never know who  you might see.

11/3, 7 PM epically ferocious art-rock jamband Planta at Terraza 7, $10

11/4, noon violinist Elena Moon Park (with accordionist Nathan Koci on the pedestrian mall on Willoughby north of Jay in downtown Brooklyn

1/4, 7 PM former and future ubiquitous jazz bassist Peter Brendler leads a quartet at Terraza 7, sug don

11/5, 7 PM Venezuelan pianist Cesar Orozco’s Kamarata Jazz at Terraza 7, sug don

11/6, noon, banjo player Hilary Hawke and fiddler/spoons player hilippa Thompson of M Shanghai String Band at Albee Square on the Fulton Mall in downtown Brooklyn

11/6, 7 PM Cuban trumpeter Kalí Rodriguez-Peña leads a quintet at Terraza 7, sug don

11/7, 3 PM intuitive, lyrical pianist  Melody Fader leads a chamber ensemble playing works by Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart at St. Teresa’s Church, 141 Henry St, Chinatown, F to East Broadway, sug don

11/7, 7 PM flamenco jazz group New Bojaira at Terraza 7, sug don

11/14, 3 PM organist Mark Pacoe plays a program TBA at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 East 66th St at 1st Ave, sug don

11/15, 3:45 PM organist Michael Hey plays works by Ravel and others at St.Patrick’s Cathedral, free

11/19, 7 PM  poignant, eclectic, lyrical jazz bassist/composer Pedro Giraudo’s tango quartet at Terraza 7

12/12, 3 PM organist Maria Rayzvasser plays a program TBA at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 East 66th St at 1st Ave, sug don.

12/20, 3:15 PM organist Jennifer Pascual plays works by Tschaikovsky and others at St.Patrick’s Cathedral, free

 

NYC “Concert Calendar” for October 2020

Once again, this month’s calendar is little more than a sticky note for the fridge since most of the publicly announced shows are jazz and classical, and outdoors.

Continuing a free series of performances in Central Park honoring the legacy of U.S. Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis, 10/4, 1:30ish  saxophonist Darius Jones with drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Dezron Douglas at the mall in Central Park, south of the Naumburg  Bandshell, enter at 72nd St.

10/9, 7 PM bhangra mastermind Sunny Jain’s Wild Wild East on the elevated lawn at the northwest corner of the Lincoln Center complex

10/10, 1:30ish, the Nicole Glover Trio – postbop saxophonist Nicole Glover, bassist Daniel Duke, drummer Nic Cacioppo at the mall in Central Park, south of the Naumburg  Bandshell, enter at 72nd St.

10/10, 2 PM the Calidore String Quartet play a program TBA under the trees at the back of the Lincoln Center complex

10/10, 2 PM badass bassist and jazz composer Endea Owens and the Cookout outside the National Jazz Museum in Harlem

10/11, 1:30ish, high-voltage postbop jazz with the Chris Potter Trio: saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Joe Martin, drummer Nasheet Waits at the mall in Central Park, south of the Naumburg  Bandshell, enter at 72nd St. Wow – Potter with a chordless trio, this could be killer. 

10/17, 2 PM violinist Jennifer Koh plays a program TBA under the trees at the back of the Lincoln Center complex

10/17, 3 PM organist Austin Philemon plays a program TBA at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 East 66th St at 1st Ave, sug don

10/18, 5 PM Josh Sinton and his trio What Happens in a Year – Sinton on bari sax and bass clarinet with guitarist Todd Neufeld and electric bassist Giacomo Merega – celebrate their debut recording cérémonie/musique at In the Yurt at Courtyard 1 – 2, Industry City, 274 36th St, Sunset Park, $10, R to 36th St

10/18. 5 PM charmingly inscrutable Parisienne jazz chanteuse Chloe & the French Heart Jazz Band play the release show for her eclectic new album at an outdoor NYC house party show, email for address/deets

10/20, 5 PM, not in NYC but fairly close on the Metro North train, a septet of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra musicians perform Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 arranged by Franz Hasenöhrl, plus Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, in celebration of the composer’s 250th birthday,at the Reformed Church of Bronxville, 180 Pondfield Rd, Bronxville, free, bring your own lawn chair

10/23, 7 PM anthemic Cuban jazz pianist Elio Villafranca on the elevated lawn at the northwest corner of the Lincoln Center complex

10/23, 8 PM punk/downtown jazz icons Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog play the album release show for their new one from the roof of St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, looking down on the street below (rooftop is not open to the public)

10/24, 2 PM popular gospel/soul singer Alicia Olatuja under the trees at the back of the Lincoln Center complex

10/30, 7 PM Jorge Glem – the Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro – with pianist Cesar Orozco on the elevated lawn at the northwest corner of the Lincoln Center complex 

10/31, 2 PM baritone saxophonist Paul Nedzela and his trio under the trees at the back of the Lincoln Center complex*

11/14, 3 PM organist Mark Pacoe plays a program TBA at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 East 66th St at 1st Ave, sug don

12/12, 3 PM organist Maria Rayzvasser plays a program TBA at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 East 66th St at 1st Ave, sug don.

As artists and audiences become more comfortable with staging and attending shows again, you’ll see more here. There are a few venues in town who have reopened, but so far it looks like they’re adhering to Cuomo’s Nazi lockdowner rules like enforcing a six-foot rule and such, and it’s hard to imagine anybody having any fun under those circumstances. Once all that BS is over, let’s look forward to a joyous return to the Old Normal!

Back at Bryant Park For an Even More Revealing, Entertaining Concert of String Quartets

The American Symphony Orchestra deserve immense credit for their courage in taking a frontline role in bringing live music back to New York at such a perilous historical moment. Likewise, the programmers at Bryant Park deserve just as much of a shout for giving musicians a space to perform when indoor spots have been ruled off-limits by Il Duce up in Albany. Concert-starved audiences whose daytime hours are free can catch an ongoing series of solo performances on the park’s electric piano at half past noon on frequent weekdays.

Monday night’s performance featured a string quartet of violinists Cyrus Beroukhim andRichard Rood, violist William Frampton and cellist Alberto Parrini playing a fascinating and entertaining mix of obscure and standard repertoire. Crowds have become immune to rote homilies like “You’re such a lovely audience, we’d like to take you home with us.” But when Frampton unselfconsciously gushed about how much of a pleasure it was to finally be able to play concerts again, there was no doubting his sincerity.

With full-on vibrato, they opened with an unabashedly Romantic rendition of Nino Rota’s Love Theme from the film Romeo and Juliet, and brought the concert full circle with the encore, Gabriel’s Oboe, by Ennio Morricone. In between, they confidently and vividly tackled three completely different but equally engaging pieces.

The first was Nino Rota’s lone string quartet, in three movements – considering the demands on his creativity as a film composer, it’s no surprise that there isn’t a fourth. From the initial movement’s soaring, lively, anthemic opening-credits energy,  the quartet turned in a robust, dynamic interpretation – more than a little cabin fever may have been exorcised at this show. The contrasts between the meticulously calm, baroque-tinged rondo and rise to a bracingly insistent minor-key coda in the second movement were striking, as the visceral triumph of the conclusion.

The group worked a spring-loaded, dynamically-charged intensity in the opening and closing movements of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11, its centerpiece being an even more dynamic, gossamer interpretation of the iconic Appassionate For Strings. Hearing that often whispery, achingly crescendoing movement – often played as a stand-alone piece – in the context of a greater whole was revelatory, especially when the quartet threw caution to the wind and reveled in the rise to the payoff at the end.

George Walker’s 1946 String Quartet No. 1 was the most technically challenging, thorniest work on the bill, but also the most fascinating. Much more rhythmic, bustling with constantly changing counterpoint, it’s  a crazy quilt of short, incisive, pervasively restless phrases, like a Bartok Jr. Never having heard the piece before, the simmering, nocturnal second movement came as a surprise – as did the shivery intensity of the reprise of the opening theme in the movement afterward. The dichotomy between bristling energy and plaintiveness was evoked even more strongly in the rather brief coda.

You can go on youtube anytime you want and look up every composer who ever wrote a note, but nothing compares to new discoveries brought to life before your eyes by a group who seem to be enjoying that every bit as much.

The next live performance at Bryant Park is a solo piano gig tomorrow, Sept 25 at half past noon by Yuko Aikawa.

Jazz on an Autumn Day

This has been a year of heroes and zeros like no other. One of the more recent heroes is Jimmy Katz of Giant Step Arts, who has stepped in to program a world-class series of weekend afternoon outdoor jazz concerts in Central Park at a time when musicians have arguably become more imperiled than at any other point in world history. Of the many nonprofits advocating for jazz artists, Katz’s is one of the most ambitious. Before the lockdown, he was booking a series of concerts at the Jazz Gallery, recording them for release on album and also on video, putting his own talent behind the lens to good use. Sunday afternoon’s performance on the southern end of the Central Park mall by vibraphonist Joel Ross and his quartet wasn’t like a hot Saturday night at Smalls or the Vanguard, but that didn’t seem to be the point anyway. Instead, a small, transient but generally very attentive crowd of maybe fifty people, at the most, scattered around the statue towering over the band, were treated to a thoughtful, very purposeful and occasionally outright haunting show.

Until we get Smalls and the Vanguard back again, in the short run this seems to be the future of live music in New York: communities coming together to support each other. Lately the park has become a pretty much daylong jazz festival, buskers everywhere, and several of them threw some of their own hard-earned cash into tenor saxophonist Sergio Tabanico’s open case as they passed by. A toddler sprinted up to the group in a joyous attempt to become their dancer, and the band loved it. His muzzled mom snatched him away: the child was distraught.

With mist from Tabanico’s sax and glimmer from Ross’ vibes, pedal down all the way, the group launched into the show with a wary take of what sounded like John Coltrane’s Birmingham. Drummer Craig Weinrib methodically worked his way up to the loose-limbed swing that would propel most of the set: like his bandmates, he was pacing himself. Tabanico set the stage for the rest of his afternoon, building slowly to a coda of insistent bursts and occasional shrieks against the beat.

Bassist Rashaan Carter maintained a more undulating, bubbling approach throughout the set, airing out his extended technique with harmonics in a couple of low-key solos. The bandleader was as terse as always, whether driving through steady but increasingly intense volleys of eighth notes, or providing spacious, judiciously ringing ambience behind the rest of the group.

One of the high points of Ross’ afternoon was an absolutely gorgeous, creepily tritone-infused solo to open the broodingly modal but increasingly funky third number. Another was the rivetingly allusive solo he took during an otherwise upbeat, bluesy swing tune toward the end. The group hinted they’d go further in a latin direction with a catchy, vamping minor-key number punctuated by another emphatically rhythmic Tabanico solo, but ended up holding back.

A return to pensive minor-key balladry – more Trane, maybe? – gave Ross a springboard for a stiletto-precise solo where he completely took the pedal off: it was almost as if he was playing a steel pan. Ross’ next scheduled gig is this Oct 9 at 4 PM with the Jazz Gallery Allstars at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

This particular Central Park series continues on Sept 26 at around 1:30 PM with drummer Nasheet Waits and saxophonist Mark Turner, plus Carter on bass again. It’s possible the players may not be at this exact location – on this particular afternoon, there was every possible kind of sonic competition further north, so sometimes you have to move around the park a little. The mall extends from the skating rink to the north, past the Naumburg Bandshell to about five blocks further south. The closest entrance is probably at 72nd St. and Central Park West.

Gail Archer Brings Concert Organ Music Back to New York with a Rare, Fascinating Ukrainian Program

Gail Archer is not only a trailblazing organist and rescuer of undeservedly obscure repertoire. She’s also been responsible for some of the most entertaining and often rewardingly unorthodox organ music programming in this city in recent years. So it was no surprise to see her back at the console Saturday afternoon, playing what has to be one of the first, quite possibly the very first organ concert for a public audience in this city since Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator. While the turnout at St. John Nepomucene Church just west of Tudor City was very sparse, this being Rosh Hashanah, Archer and the church’s very personable staff deserve immense credit for their commitment to bringing back the arts.

What was most immediately striking about the program – essentially a reprise of Archer’s new album, Chernivtsi, A Recording of Contemporary Ukrainian Organ Music – was how loud it was. She took full advantage of the 1956 Kilgen organ and the space’s impressive amount of natural reverb throughout a robustly seamless performance of mostly rather midrangey material.

Ukraine has a deep tradition of choral music, but less so with the organ, and as a result most of the works on the bill were 20th century vintage. Much as it was glorious to simply be able to see an organ concert in Manhattan again, this was a pensive glory. There was no Lisztian ostentatiousness, nor much reliance on the many more colors that composers from where the organ has more of a history might have brought into the music. Rather, the similarity of the timbres and registrations made for plenty of strong segues. And it’s a fair bet that Archer was premiering much of this material, whether simply for New York, or for all of North America.

What stood out from hearing Bohdan Kotyuk’s Fanfare live rather than on the album? The echo effects – a favorite concert device for Archer – and the prominence of the lows. His Benedictus: Song of Zachariah seemed much more distinctly Romantic, by comparison. The initial, blustery foreshadowing of Tadeusz Machl’s Piece in Five Movements brought to mind Charles Widor; its stormy bursts over lingering resonance later on evoked the work of contemporary composer Naji Hakim.

Archer surpassed her already colorful album version of Viktor Goncharenko’s Fantasia with a steady dynamism, and later brought out more of a lilt in the cadences of Svitlana Ostrova’s Chacona. The remaining two pieces on the bill were the most rapturous, beginning with the dark, slowly expanding majesty of Mykola Kolessa’s Passacaglia. Iwan Kryschanowskij’s arguably even more mysterious, symphonic Fantasie was an enveloping yet relentlessly restless choice of coda, Archer building starry ambience and broodingly stairstepping intensity amidst the swirl and pedalpoint, to a deliciously articulated series of chromatic themes right before the end.

The monthly series of organ concerts at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 E 66th St. continues on Oct 17 at 3 PM with a performance by Austin Philemon.

A Rare, Fascinating Program of String Quartet Music by African-American Composers at Bryant Park

Every year, this blog (and its predecessor) has chosen both a Brooklyn and Manhattan space as best venue of the year for each borough. In 2018, not wanting to settle for the obvious (i.e. Carnegie Hall and the Village Vanguard) and frustrated by the closure of so many small clubs, the pick for best Manhattan venue went to Bryant Park. Home to an annual, multi-night accordion festival as well as plenty of jazz festivals, chamber music and global sounds over the years, the space had earned it. In a long-awaited and highly auspicious return to live classical music there last night, a quartet featuring members of the American Symphony Orchestra played a rich, rare mix of music by African-American composers.

They opened with Adolphus Hailstork’s Three Spirituals For String Quartet, which quickly took on a gently benedictory ambience as the four musicians joined in unison in a lullaby theme. Cellist Alberto Parrini gave it a delicate pizzicato pulse, the group rising to distantly blues-tinged variations over an increasingly vibrant, dancing drive.

Violinist Phillip Payton, who’d put together this fascinating program, played first chair for that one and then switched positions with the ASO’s concertmaster, Cyrus Beroukhim for Jessie Montgomery’s 2008 piece Voodoo Dolls. Parrini and first-chair ASO violist William Frampton dug in with their bandmates for a recurrently grim, staccato pedalpoint, akin to Julia Wolfe at her bluesiest. Bracingly glissandoing chords set off a suspenseful lull, then the group bowed hard and swooped through the finale. Payton made no secret of how much he loved that piece: it was the big hit of the night with the audience, a relatively sparse but raptly attentive crowd of maybe sixty people scattered across the space behind the library.

Next on the bill were movements one, three and four of Florence Price’s Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet. The quartet matter-of-factly worked steady, Mozartean exchanges as the music shifted from a pensive, old-world minor-key theme to a more warmly enveloping atmosphere that seemed to draw as much on the French Romantics (Faure most noticeably) as the African-American gospel tradition.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, as Payton explained, bridged a lot of genres. He played in Max Roach’s jazz group and later arranged for Marvin Gaye. His String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary, ” contained “A lot of notes we’re not expected to play,” Payton grinned, “Very jazzy harmonies!” He wasn’t kidding. Steady, rapidly strolling bluesiness quickly receded for more chromatic, brooding passages, like Bartok at his most unadorned. From there the ensemble followed a counterintuitive downward arc, from shivery counterpoint, a tease of a big swell and then crepuscular, flickering pianissimo textures that gently filtered away. The final movement, with its wickedly catchy cello lines, delivered a triumphant, anthemic payoff.

Trevor Weston’s Juba for String Quartet, the newest piece on the bill, seemed to be a study in how far from the blues a series of variations can go. In this group’s hands, that meant pretty far, and involving some extended technique, but also not so far that the center was lost. Terse, spare riffs were spun through a kaleidoscope and then back, through numerous dynamic shifts and ghostly harmonics.

William Grant Still’s first symphony, Payton explained, was in its time the most-played orchestral work by an American composer. His three-movement Lyric Quartette (Musical Portraits of Three Friends), from 1960, was the final piece on the bill. The composer’s eclecticism was front and center here, more than alluding to Romany swing after a fondly Romantic song without words to open the triptych, later finding common ground between Indian carnatic music and the blues. Quasi-microtonal flickers added depth to the incisively minor-key, jubilantly emphatic conclusion and its coyly Beethoven-ish series of false endings.

The quartet encored with Price’s heartwarmingly familiar variations on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The organizers behind the music at Bryant Park seem to be determined to help this city get back to normal; their long-running series of solo shows on the park’s electric piano continues on several weekdays into next month. This string quartet return there on Sept 21 at 5:30 PM with a program including works by Samuel Barber and Nino Rota.

NYC “Concert Calendar” for September 2020

This is more of a sticky note for the fridge than a real concert calendar: lots of stuff going on, but nobody’s talking about it outside of small circles of friends. Most of the publicly announced concerts are jazz and classical since it’s unamplified, outdoors and unlikely to draw the attention of Cuomo’s gestapo.

9/5, 1 PM saxophonist Marquis Hill leads his Quartet at the Mall in Central Park, close to the Naumburg Bandshell, more or less mid-park, enter at 72nd St. Then the next day Sept 6, 1 PM saxophonist Michael Thomas is there with his trio.

9/7, 4 PM new all-female string quartet the Overlook play an amazing program of music by black composers: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and others at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, outdoors, 65 Jumel Terrace two blocks east of Amsterdam Ave just off 160th St., A/C to 163rd St 

9/14, 5:30 PM members of the American Symphony Orchestra play rare works by African-American composers including Jessie Montgomery, William Grant Still, Florence Price and others at Bryant Park

9/19, 1 PM the Leap Day Trio with drummer Matt Wilson, bassist/vocalist Mimi Jones and saxophonist Jeff Lederer at the mall in Central Park, close to the Naumburg  Bandshell, enter at 72nd St.

9/19, 2 PM guitarist Andreas Arnold plays original flamenco compositions and classics at an outdoor house concert in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, free, email for address/deets 

9/19, three sets at 1, 2 and 3 PM a quartet with members of the Harlem Chamber Players, perform works by African-American composers George Walker and Florence Price atop the  Hill of Graves in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, R to to 25th St. go straight uphill. The program repeats on 9/26.

9/19, 3 PM Gail Archer plays rare Ukrainian organ works at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 East 66th St, at 1st Ave, free

9/20, 1 PM wildfire vibraphonist Joel Ross’ Quartet with saxophonist Sergio Tabanico, drummer Craig Weinrib and bassist Rashaan Carter at the mall in Central Park, close to the Naumburg  Bandshell, enter at 72nd St.

9/20, 3:30 PM bass goddess/soul singer Felice Rosser’s ageless reggae-rock-groove band Faith outdoors at the Front, 526 E 11th St.

9/21, 5:30 PM members of the American Symphony Orchestra play string quartets by Samuel Barber and Nino Rota at Bryant Park

9/26, 1 PM drummer Nasheet Waits with saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Rashaan Carter at the mall in Central Park, close to the Naumburg  Bandshell, enter at 72nd St

9/26, 3 PM the S.E.M. Ensemble play works by Robert Ashley, Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier and Petr Kotik outdoors at 25 Columbia Place on the Brooklyn Prom, take State St to the Prom free, rsvp req if you want a seat

9/27, 1 PM intense saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins with drummer Nazir Ebo and bassist Burniss Earl Travis at the mall in Central Park, close to the Naumburg  Bandshell, enter at 72nd St.

10/4, 1 PM saxophonist Darius Jones with drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Dezron Douglas at the mall in Central Park, close to the Naumburg  Bandshell, enter at 72nd St.

10/10, 2 PM badass bassist and jazz composer Endea Owens and the Cookout outside the National Jazz Museum in Harlem

10/17, 3 PM organist Austin Philemon plays a program TBA at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 East 66th St at 1st Ave, sug don

10/20, 5 PM, not in NYC but fairly close on the Metro North train, a septet of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra musicians perform Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 arranged by Franz Hasenöhrl, plus Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, in celebration of the composer’s 250th birthday,at the Reformed Church of Bronxville, 180 Pondfield Rd, Bronxville, free, bring your own lawn chair

11/14, 3 PM organist Mark Pacoe plays a program TBA at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 East 66th St at 1st Ave, sug don

12/12, 3 PM organist Maria Rayzvasser plays a program TBA at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 East 66th St at 1st Ave, sug don

There may be other outdoor shows going on this month where the artists are comfortable inviting the public – if so, you’ll see them here.

Live Music at Lincoln Center Again: #exhale?

What a beautiful, heartwarming experience it was to be walking past Lincoln Center in the early evening of August 7, right at the moment when a fifteen-piece brass ensemble was premiering a newly commissioned Anthony Barfield piece.

That’s not to imply that there hasn’t been plenty of live music all over New York during the lockdown. But lately a lot of it is restaurant gigs. On one hand, it’s great to see musicians being able to get at least a little paying work. But there’s no need for reportage on background music that hungry crowds with cabin fever are bound to talk over.

And much of the rest has been been fraught with anxiety. What if somebody on the invite list is a collaborator? Are we being too loud and obvious? Are we going to end up in some hideous new Auschwitz somewhere in the wilds of Arkansas if a sinister, nameless squad in riot gear shows up and catches us sitting a comfortable two or three feet from one another? The Afghani people dealt with issues like that under the Taliban. A wide swath of population from the Black Sea to the Danube dealt with similar situations under the Ottomans. Who knew that we ever would under Cuomo.

Which is why Barfield’s brand-new Invictus – latin for “unconquered” – was so uplifting to witness. He’d obviously sussed out the sonics on the Lincoln Center plaza to maximize the natural reverb that bounces off the opera house and back past the fountain, the musicians spaced at least ten feet apart in a semi-ellipse. The work itself is a guardedly optimistic, circular series of variations on a catchy three-note riff, with more than an echo of Philip Glass. The group played it twice, with some impromptu rehearsing in between. You can watch the final take at Lincoln Center’s streaming page. Introducing it, the composer explains that it reflects both the hope of the Black Lives Matter protests as well as the grim uncertainty of the lockdown.

Looking toward the center of the campus from the street, was that New York Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi in the hat? Actually not. The group, a mix drawing from several Lincoln Center ensembles, played with dignity and seamlessness. Hats off to trumpeters Marcus Printup, Marshall Kearse, Raymond Riccomini, Christopher Martin, Neil Balm and Thomas Smith; trombonists John Romero, Colin Williams, David Finlayson, Dion Tucker and Zachary Neikens, horn players Anne Scharer, Richard Deane and Dan Wions, and tuba player Christopher Hall.

There’s likely to be more like this in the weeks to come; you will probably have to be in the neighborhood to catch it live. And the Philharmonic are sending a truck featuring various small groups around the five boroughs for impromptu performances. They’re not disclosing where they’ll be for fear of drawing crowds. If such a beloved and life-affirming institution as the New York Philharmonic are that worried, you know we’d better be too.

Live Music Calendar for New York City and Brooklyn for July 2020

There have been concerts happening all over New York since the lockdown began, but most of them have been clandestine, so this blog hasn’t been able to list them. But there are some official performances featuring some of NYC’s best creative music talent happening this July at the cube at Astor Place: you can support the musicians here.

7/2, 7 PM masterful Middle Eastern-inspired drummer Dan Kurfirst jams with Ras Moche Burnett on sax

7/5, 7 PM Kurfirst is back with multi-reedman and trumpeter Daniel Carter, Rodney “Godfather Don” Chapman on sax and other artists tba

7/6-7 and 7/9, half past noon purist jazz pianist Kumi Mikami plays at Bryant Park

7/8, 7 PM Kurfirst and Carter return to the cube at Astor Place with fearless, politically woke trumpeter Mat Lavelle and supporting cast tba

7/11, 8:30 PM Turkish guitarist Emre Yilmaz on the sidewalk outside Drom

7/17, 7 PM noirish, tunefully scruffy pastoral jazz guitarist Tom Csatari leads a trio at the Flying Lobster, 144 Union St off Hicks, just over the BQE, outdoors, F to Smith/9th

7/17, 8:30 PM a rebetiko band tba playing old Greek revolutionary and hash-smoking anthems on the sidewalk outside Drom,

7/18, 8:30 PM Jorge Glem – the Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro – on the sidewalk outside Drom

More concerts will be added to this page as more musicians and concertgoers wake up to the fact that there is no scientifically valid justification for the lockdown, and that it is safe to play and attend shows.