New York Music Daily

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Tag: debussy

Deep in the Catacombs, Harp and Strings Never Sounded More Menacing

You probably wouldn’t expect a concert in a graveyard to be particularly lively. But this past evening’s program deep in Green-Wood Cemetery was as intimately ferocious as it was macabre. With only candles and a couple of low-watt ceiling lamps illuminating the private catacombs there, impresario Andrew Ousley introduced Bridget Kibbey as “The dark gothic goddess of the harp.” That description no doubt reflected her decision to hang out by herself down there before the show and practice for a couple of hours, in the company of about 120 fulltime residents contained in thirty family crypts.

Obviously, not everything Kibbey plays is morbid, nor were there any dirges on this particular bill. But the performance had enough grimness and sheer terror for any respectable Halloween event. Joining forces with an allstar string quartet – violinists Chad Hoopes and Grace Park, violist Matthew Lipman and cellist Mihai Marica – Kibbey opened with Debussy’s Dances Sacred and Profane. Beyond the piece’s kaleidoscopic dynamics, what was most viscerally striking is how loud it was down there. For anyone who might assume that chamber music is necessarily sedate, this was a wild wake-up call.

The space’s resonance is just as remarkable: no matter how intricate Kibbey’s lattice of notes became, they all lingered, an effect that powerfully benefited the string section as well. And the sheer volume afforded a listener a rare chance to revel in Debussy’s echoing exchanges of riffs, not to mention his clever shifts in and out of Asian pentatonic mode, his jaunty allusions to French ragtime and occasional gargoylish motives.

As omnipresent and fiery as Kibbey’s volleys of notes were, the most adrenalizing point of the concert was Hoopes’ solo midway through Saint-Saens’ Fantaisie, robustly arranged by Kibbey for violin and harp. Careening like he was about to leave the rails for good, his notes lept and flailed with a feral abandon, grounded by Kibbey’s alterlnately sparkling and looming attack.

Likewise, her use of the harp’s low register was one of the most stunning aspects of her solo arrangement of Bach’s Toccata in D. In that context, it was fascinating to hear how much of that organ work’s pedal line she retained. As perfomance, it was pure punk rock. Kibbey confided that she’d come up with it on a dare – and that the dude who dared her remains a friend. At the very end, she abandoned Bach’s seesaw drive toward an end that’s been coming a mile away for a long time, then blasted through every red light and tossed off that otherwise immortal five-chord coda in what seemed like a split second. The effect was as funny as it was iconoclastic.

Lipman took centerstage with his alternately balletesque and plaintive lines in Kibbey’s cinematic duo version of Britten’s Lachrymae. As she explained it, the piece is far from morose – describing it as a tour of a mansion was spot-on. The group closed with a piece that Kibbey and Marica have had creepy fun with in the past, Andre Caplet’s Conte Fantastique. As it followed the grand guignol detail of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death, the ensemble spun an uneasily rising and then suspensefully falling tapestry. They maxed out the trick ending, the 11 PM hour where the entitled types at Poe’s masked ball get a hint of a reality check. When death himself showed his face, the carnivalesque payoff was a mighty one. Despite temperatures in the pleasantly loamy-smelling catacombs being at least twenty degrees lower than they were topside, everybody was out of breath by the end.

Afterward, a refreshingly airconditioned shuttle bus returned to pick up anyone who had to rush for the train down the hill. Those not pressed for time had the option of taking a leisurely fifteen-minute walk back through the graves, lit only by the night sky and the occasional tiki torch.

This concert series began in a smaller crypt space in Harlem and has made a welcome migration to Brooklyn. Along with the music, there are always noshes and drinks beforehand as part of the package. This time it was small-batch whiskey: upstate distillery Five & 20, whose overproof rye glistens with the bite of five New York varietals, stole that part of the show.

If these mostly-monthly events intrigue you, be aware that the best way to find out when they’re happening is via the organizers’ email list. You can sign up at deathofclassical.com, unsurprisingly, tickets go very fast.

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A Rare Treat from the Harlem Quartet at Lincoln Center

Ironically, the Harlem Quartet haven’t played New York much lately. That’s because they have a ongoing London residency when they’re not on international tour. Last night at Lincoln Center, the ensemble – violinists Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador and cellist Felix Umansky – reaffirmed how much Manhattan’s loss is the rest of the world’s gain.

“I don’t want you to run away!” Gavilan grinned. He was referring to Walter Piston’s String Quartet No, 3, which as he explained has “A bit of a mathematical approach.” Much as the piece is a study in the counterpoint the composer was famous for, the quartet found a surprising amount of lyricism lurking within, particularly throughout the “grey and rainy” second movement, as Gavilan put it.

Soul battled with math through a Russian-tinged chase scene, austerely acidic washes grounded by viola and cello and a lively steady/dancing dichotomy to close: twelve-tone harmonies, lively classical gestures.

That the Debussy string quartet wasn’t the highlight of the concert attests to the strength of the rest of the program. This was a robust version, awash in wistful French proto-ragtime allusions: another great New York quartet, Brooklyn Rider, recorded a very similar take a few years back. Umansky reminded the crowd how much Debussy wanted to break free of the heavy German influence in the repertoire, so there was a sense of triumph – if often a bittersweet one – throughout the spirited flutters of the opening movement, the spiky pizzicato of the second and then finally a foreshadowed Twin Peaks theme at the end.

Gavilan’s dad, Guido Lopez Gavilan, was represented on the bill by his Quarteto en Guaguanco, which came across like Piazzolla with especially clever, shifting contrapuntal voicings. The group dug in hard, Umansky plucking out nimble basslines up to an interlude where everybody tapped out an altered salsa beat on their instruments.

The best number of the night was the encore, Take the A Train. Hearing a great string section play the blues is always a treat, this one elevated to even greater heights on the wings of the group’s dramatic flourishes and sparkles as they swung it – and maybe even improvised a little – Umansky again playing the role of bassist.

Much as the programming at Lincoln Center’s atrium space has a global scope, there’s an ongoing series of string quartet shows reflecting the organization’s original agenda. And all of these shows are free! The next one is with the brilliant Heath Quartet – whose latest album is an epic recording of the Bartok cycle – on March 22 at 7:30 PM, playing works by Haydn and Tschaikovsky. Get there early if you want a seat.

A Picturesque New Album and a Williamsburg Show From a Classical Piano Adventurer

Liza Stepanova’s new album Tones & Colors is not about synesthesia. Instead, the pianist explores the connection between visual art and classical music from across the centuries via an ambitiously vast, meticulously played range of works beginning with Bach and ending in our time with George Crumb. She’s playing the album release show this Jan 6 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $25. Considering that she’s sold out Carnegie Hall in the past, picking up a ticket now wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Stepanova smartly programs the album as she would a concert. It opens with a triptych of Spanish composers, followed by a quartet of pieces devoted to nature and impressionism. From there she makes her way through music influenced by art from previous eras, then gives the album a comfortable finale and a surprising encore.

She opens on a boisterous note with Granados’ The Strawman. Stepanova’s emphatic wave motion as the waltz picks up steam makes perfect sense considering that the piece is inspired by Goya’s painting The Straw Manikin, which depicts a group of women throwing a stuffed man back and forth. Is there cynical battle-of-the-sexes commentary in the music as well? That’s hard to say, but there’s humor and more than a hint of sarcasm in this performance.

Bury Them And Be Silent, from Moroccan-born composer Maurice Ohana’s 1944 suite Three Caprices is one of the rare treasures here. Another piece inspired by Goya – in this case, a grim Napoleonic War-era tableau – is the inspiration. Stepanova takes the listener on a morose stroll to graveside shock and then back – it’s arguably the high point of the album. Then she cascades, ripples and lingers in the colorful battle imagery of a Turina work inspired by a Velasquez celebration of medieval Spanish conquest.

Another rarity began as a collaboration between 19th century German composer Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) and her painter husband Wilhelm, who illustrated her score. Stepanova’s agent could license this to innumerable horror or suspense films: its broodingly circling, baroque-tinged ilnes compare with anything any composer of soundtracks is doing in a neoromantic vein these days.

Stepanova makes jaunty work of Martinu’s Butterflies in the Flowers, which draws on the lepidopterous oeuvre of painter Max Švabinský. Debussy’s Goldfish ostensibly is not meant to be a depiction of fishbowl life but a musical attempt to mimic the layering often used in 19th century Japanese art: with a light touch on its machinegun rhythm, Stepanova maxes out its dynamics and contrasts.

Sculptor Heinrich Neugeboren once created a piece meant to capture a pivotal moment in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor, BWV 853, from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Stepanova gives the opening segment a romantic treatment in contrast to the sculpture’s architecture. Then she has fun with the muted inside-the-piano voicings of George Crumb’s Giotto-inspired, characteristically mystical miniature, Adoration of the Magi.

The most obscure work on the album is a careful, Bach-inspired fugue, one of only a few compositions written by 20th century painter Lyonel Feininger. Stepanova closes this concert in a box with a lively, understatedly precise performance of Liszt’s solo piano version of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. The first of the encores is György Ligeti’s Etude No. 14,  parsing the geometrics of a column by sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi with cell-like boogie-woogie allusions. The final number is a selection from late Romantic composer Leopold Godowsky’s cheery musical homage to the French rococo painter Antoine Watteau. The album hasn’t officially hit the web yet, consequently, no streaming link – stay tuned!

Haskell Small Takes a Harrowing Journey Inward with His Latest Raptly Mystical Suite

Pianist Haskell Small‘s work is a prime example of the rewards of finding a muse and following that inspiration to the deepest reaches possible. He’s carved himself out a niche as a composer and champion of quiet, mystical, often viscerally haunting sounds. His 2014 album The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence is a masterpiece of spare, lingering, often chilling inwardly-directed themes. He’s also one of the world’s foremost advocates for the otherworldly, bell-like music of Federico Mompou. Last night at St. Malachy’s Chapel in midtown, the pianist played an unselfconsciously transcendent solo program comprising both his own suite A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours, along with the New York premiere of John Tavener’s Pratirupa. Small is reprising the program tonight, May 10 at 8 PM at the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession. 550 W 155th St. If there’s ever been music written for the spacious sonics of a sacred space, this is it. The concert is sold out, but if you’re in the neighborhood, it would be worth checking to see if there are any no-shows.

Introducing the program, Small – father to another individualistic, intense composer, Sarah Small – explained that as he saw it, silence doesn’t equate to the absence of sound. Rather, it’s an invitation to look inward, a proces that can be pretty scary. The new suite, due out later this year, follows the moods of a monastic day’s routine. It’s replete with moments of lingering woundedness, quiet torment and even despair, yet offers a surprising counterbalance to all that trouble. Small began it with one of his signature, poignant, plaintive belltone themes: Satie, and Messiaen, and Debussy in gamelanesque mode echoed vividly in the distance.. The music peaked with incisive cascades of eerie tritones. then receded back into uneasy, resolutely unresolved territory.

Small very cleverly cached a couple of catchy, unexpectedly upbeat motives – a muted fanfare of sorts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cesar Franck epic, along with a brief cathedral chime – within its architecture, and then deftly inserted variations on each throughout the suite. This made room for an unexpected optimism throughout an often harrowing journey. Shostakovich does this, sometimes Rachmanininoff too. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but as Small finally reached an almost reluctantly heroic crescendo, the payoff was not explosive but mighty all the same. And then he descended toward stillness again, gracefully, until a few final, increasingly spacious, weightily suspenseful chords that ended with sn almost imperceptibly whisper.

The Tavener turned out to be considerably different. On one hand, there was a clear connection to the first part of the program, considering ite bell motives and stately, strolling, sometimes folksy hymnal passages. On the other, it was as if Small was reminding that he can also play fiercely when he wants. And was he ever required to here! But he gamely tackled its thorny thickets of chiseling, Louis Andriessen-ish righthand riffs over an exhaust cloud of lefthand rumble, each of those interludes kicking off with an almost droll upward glissando. That was when he wasn’t mining the composer’s pensive, Chopinesque prelude segments for as much rapture and wonder as he could conjure. But ultimately, it wasn’t up to the level of Small’s own magic. He encored with a Bach invention, a well-chosen benediction. After journeying so far inward with the rest of the program, the experience was akin hearing it for the first time, a richly gentle offering of comfort and joy.

Pianist Ian Hobson Plays a Robust, Smartly Thematic Program at Merkin Concert Hall

How’s this for meta? The theme of pianist Ian Hobson‘s ambitious monthly series of concerts is…themes. And variations on those themes. With this series, he’s been pushing himself as hard as any other pianist out there right now. There’s no better example than next month’s April 13, 7’30 PM program at Merkin Concert Hall, where he’s going to open with a Faure theme and variations, then Schumann’s almost sadistically difficult Symphonic Etudes and then Rachmaninoff preludes, whose iconically harrowing beauty requires similarly daunting technique. If Wednesday’s program there was any indication, Hobson is up to the challenge. Tix are $20/$12.50 stud/srs.

Last night’s concert there found Hobson opening with a student work of sorts by Chopin, the Variations on Der Schweitzer Bub. It doesn’t sound much like Chopin. Rather, it draws a line straight back to Beethoven – contented, ebullient, carbonated post-soiree Beethoven, like, say, the Leonore Overture. How did Hobson handle it? As the flashy proto chamber pop that it is, but also as a study in contrasts, an approach that would work like a charm throughout the rest of the program.

Then he raised the bar with Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Those familiar with the piece are probably used to choppy, severe Soviet interpretations. Hobson’s was 180 degrees the opposite: lyrical, conversational, and revealing. Rachmaninoff pairs achingly searching righthand melodies against coldly brusque, fatalistic, even macabre lefthand riffs so often that it’s almost a shtick. Hobson worked that dynamic as a dialogue rather than grand guignol. His approach to the tempo and overall pacing was just as minutely attuned, with a legato so liquid that he seemed to be meeting the keys at the millisecond they bounced up, rather than crunching down on anything before its time had come. Not a lot of pianists play so convivially: Nancy Garniez is one. There could be an influence here.

Next on the bill was the world premiere of a series of Yehudi Wyner preludes, completed just a month ago. How heartwarming to see that the now-octogenarian Wyner is absolutely undiminished, and what a fantastic segue they made wih the suite of Debussy etudes that followed. Dynamics were once again front and center as Hobson switched elegantly between gnomic Kurtag-esque minimalism, Debussy gamelanisms and otherworldly, echoing bell tones that brought to mind Frederic Mompou.

Much as piano etudes tend to be perceived as simplistic and less than desirable for public performance, they actually tend to be very difficult. The program notes quoted Debussy doing his best to put Carl Czerny (patron saint of boring practice pieces) in his place by writing a series of rigorous numbers that brought some actual fun to the struggle of mastering complex late Romantic repertoire. Much as there was plenty of repetition, deliberate emphasis on crosshand technique, tendon-tormenting octatves and such, there was no step down from Debussy at his usual self. Hobson made the bells chime, the cascades gleam, and uneasy, enigmatic journeys into as much cherry resolution as this composer ever possibly alllows. That, and the frequent droll flourish that drew chuckles from an impressive crowd for a crisp early spring night.

And if all this wasn’t enough of a workout, Hobson – who’d broken into a sweat by then – encored with a robust take of Ondine, from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. The concert had come full circle: in order to play this even more uneasy, challenging showstopper, you might need a few of the practice pieces Hobson had built full steam with.