New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: dvorak

Intimate Electricity From Joshua Bell

Isn’t it funny how some of the world’s most exciting sounds get lumped into a category with the most boring name? And who would have thought there would be such a mighty upsurge in chamber music in 2020? With established concert venues padlocked and imperiled – outside of Sweden, Moscow and Nicaragua, anyway – intimate performances largely by and for family and friends have become the new paradigm in classical music, at least until the lockdown is over.

And in keeping with the zeitgeist, some of the biggest names in the field are making intimate recordings. None other than Joshua Bell has made a diverse and often electrifying new live album, At Home with Music, streaming at Spotify. Although virtually all of it is arrangements of standard repertoire, the violinist seems especially amped to play it.

He opens with the famous first movement from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, jauntily trading riffs with pianist Jeremy Denk. The two play it fast: in their most animated moments, the lack of digital separation between the instruments enhances the carefree energy.

Peter Dugan takes over the piano, joining Bell for a much more rubato, Romantic take of Dvořák’s Slavonic Fantasy in B minor. Bell’s rise from silken vibrato to raw, Romany intensity is unselfconsciously electrifying, a real crowd-pleaser.

Next, he teams up with soprano Larisa Martínez and pianist Kamal Khan for a somewhat understatedly lyrical take of Mendelssohn’s “Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro” from the opera Infelice. They return to tackle a Puccini aria later on.

The rare treat here is Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert in D Major, Op. 4, with Dugan back on piano, both musicians digging in hard for its anthemic leaps, slashes and devious dips. Their remarkably steady, unvarnished take of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 makes a good segue, quiet as it generally is. And hearing Bell revel in the virtuoso ornamentation of the Jascha Heifetz arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime is an expected thrill.

Martínez and Khan return for the closer, an alternately bracing and warmly familiar medley from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. with a triumphant coda.

It’s Been a Typically Eclectic Year at Upper Manhattan’s Home for Adventurous New Classical Sounds

If new classical music is your thing, don’t let any possible twee, gentrifier associations scare you away from the Miller Theatre‘s series of so-called “pop-up” concerts. For almost a decade now, Columbia’s comfortable auditorium at the top of the stairs at the 116th St. stop on the 1 train has been home to an often spectacularly good series of free, early evening performances of 21st century works along with the occasional blast from the past. The name actually reflects how impromptu these shows were during the series’ first year, and while the schedule now extends several months ahead, new events still do pop up unexpectedly. Sometimes there’s free beer and wine, sometimes not, but that’s not the main attraction, testament to how consistently solid the programming here has become.

This past fall’s first concert was a revelatory world premiere of John Zorn’s new JMW Turner-inspired suite for solo piano, played with virtuosic verve by Steven Gosling; that one got a rave review here. The October episode, with indie classical chamber ensemble Counterinduction playing an acerbic, kinetic series of works by their charismatic violist Jessica Meyer, was also fantastic. Various permutations of the quintet, Meyer joined by violinist Miranda Cuckson, cellist Caleb van der Swaagh, clarinetist and bass clarinetist Benjamin Fingland and pianist Ning Yu began with the dappled shades of I Only Speak of the Sun, then brought to life the composer’s many colorful perspectives on Guadi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in a dynamic, high-voltage partita. The most bracing number of the evening, Meyer explained, drew on a David Foster Wallace quote regarding how “ the truth will set you free, but not until it lets you go,”

There were many other memorable moments here throughout the past year. In February, Third Sound played an assured but deliciously restless take of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 along with a mixed bag of material from south of the border. A month later, pianist Marilyn Nonken parsed uneasily lingering works by Messiaen and Tristan Murail.

Then in April, Rebecca Fischer delivered a fascinating program of solo violin pieces along with some new arrangements. The highlight was a reinvention of Missy Mazzoli‘s incisively circling Death Valley Junction. Fischer also ran through an increasingly thorny, captivating Paola Prestini piece, along with brief, often striking works by Lisa Bielawa, Gabriela Lena Frank and Suzanne Farrin.

Last month, Tak Ensemble tackled elegantly minimalist chamber material by Tyshawn Sorey and Taylor Brook. And December’s concert featured firebrand harpist Bridget Kibbey, who played the Bach Toccata in D faster than any organist possibly could, then slowed down for simmering, relatively short pieces by Albeniz and Dvorak among others.

The next Miller Theatre “pop-up” concert on the calendar is next January 21 at 6 PM with violinist Lauren Cauley.

Slashing, Richly Acerbic New String Music and Reinvented Film Noir Sounds in the West Village

This past evening at Greenwich House Music School, the Sirius Quartet wound up their two-day annual festival of category-defying music with an incendiary, dynamic set, followed eventually but the historic live debut of a trio legendary for a classic of film noir music from two decades ago.

The quartet’s latest album, New World is a searing portrait of the here and now, focusing on discrimination and terror experienced by immigrants and minorities as well as the fascist assaults and bigotry of the Trump administration. While artistic communities as a whole have mobilized against the Trumpies, there are few ensembles in any style of music, let alone new serious concert music, who’ve been writing as consistently and acerbically as this group.

Violinist Fung Chern Hwei’s slashing downward cadenza early on in the night’s opening number, Beside the Point, reaffirmed that commitment, terrorized but still defiant. This piece came across as even more epic live than on album, cellist Jeremy Harman alternating between stark washes and a catchy, trip-hop flavored pizzicato bassline, Fung delivering a couple of mighty crescendos with tantalizingly brief, shivery solos. The tersely conversational interplay between violinist Gregor Huebner and violist Ron Lawrence provided sobering contrast.

They vividly brought to mind the great Kurdish composer Kayhan Kalhor with To a New Day, rising from relentlessly tense, sustained close harmonies to a fluttering, soaring theme punctuated by spare, similarly suspenseful pizzicato passages and a grimly sardonic Vivaldi quote from Lawrence. A little later, they reinvented Radiohead’s Knives Out as a spare, swinging. quasi-baroque string-rock anthem, diverging toward chaos for an instant before reconfiguring with a wary intensity.

The centerpiece was the new album’s savagely colorful title track, a portrait of the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election. Quoting from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as well as Shostakovich’s shattering, horrified String Quartet No. 8, the group shifted grimly from anxious, massed, chattering voices, to mournful sustained passages spiced with sarcastic faux-pageantry and a buffoonish accent or two. Huebner took centerstage, finally rising to a frenetic, terrorized crescendo over the rest of the group’s plaintive, doomed ambience in Still, based on the Billie Holliday hit Strange Fruit and its grisly, surreal portrait of a lynching.

Theremin Noir – the trio of thereminist/keyboardist Rob Schwimmer, pianist Uri Caine and violinist Mark Feldman – put out a single 1999 album that’s become revered as a classic of film noir composition. The three seemed especially psyched to finally stage this material, a mix of reinvented Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock themes and originals. Schwimmer drew chuckles from the crowd, acknowledging the challenges of trying to lead a band, let alone turn pages, with both hands on the theremin:.. Throughout the trio’s hour onstage, a lot of head signals were involved.

They opened with Herrmann’s bookstore scene from Torn Curtain and its haunting, plaintive variations on a melancholy, neoromantic piano theme, Schwimmer switching between theremin and a touch-sensitive synth full of patches evoking everything from a choir to a wind tunnel to a bell tower, as well as a theremin. That enabled him to sit at the keys for long periods without having to leap up and switch back.

An enveloping, echoingly industrial tone poem brought to mind the lingering, metalloid menace of Philip Blackburn’s electronic tableaux. Schwimmer explained that his melancholy Waltz for Clara was a homage to the late, great theremin pioneer Clara Rockmore. His more film noir-inspired originals were spot-on, full of furtive, stairstepping motives, a wry interlude of door creaks amid angst-fueled, subtly shifting neoromantic piano-and-violin themes.

Feldman opened his original, Real Joe with a moody solo before Caine’s piano and Schwimmer’s increasingly surreal synth flourishes joines the mix. Two pieces from Herrmann’s Vertigo score – Carlotta’s Portrait and Scene d’Amour – were the highlights of the night. The former was rich with aching, increasingly enigmatic piano from Caine and morose violin from Feldman as Schwimmer put the quavering icing on the cake. The latter made an apt closer for the evening, with an unexpectedly playful, tongue-in-cheek, loungey jazz interlude midway through, before a return to ineluctable grimness. If the trio had the presence of mind to record their set, and the quality is even remotely usable, they’ve got a brilliant live album to follow up the original studio release.

Riveting New Sounds and Old Crowd-Pleasers From the Claremont Trio

If the Claremont Trio’s forthcoming album is anything like their concert last week to open this year’s Music Mondays series on the Upper West Side, it’s going to be amazing.

The program was typical of this venue, a mix of rapturously interesting 21st century works along with a couple of old warhorses. The three musicians – violinist Emily Bruskin, cellist Julia Bruskin and pianist Andea Lam – offered some gleefully phantastmagorical Halloween foreshadowing with four folk song variations by Gabriela Lena Frank. Careful, wary long-tone overlays between the musicians quickly gave way to a devious, ghostly game of peek-a-boo, carnivalesque pirouettes and wary, lingering, Messiaenic chords.

Helen Grime‘s Three Whistler Miniatures – inspired by an exhibit at the Gardner Museum in Boston – were more austere and ominously resonant: rich washes of cello, mordantly assertive piano and slithery violin all figured into the mini-suite’s striking dynamic shifts and desolate reflecting-pool chill at the end.

The two warhorses were Dvorak’s Dumky Trio and Brahms’ final trio, No. 3 in C Minor. The former was a Slavic soul party, fueled as much by the violin’s elegantly leaping Romany-flavored cadenzas as much as by Lam’s alternately romping and unexpectedly muted attack. The three women played up the music’s pensive side, leaving a lot of headroom for the composer’s series of triumphant codas.

Where they pulled back on the Dvorak for the sake of emotional attunement and contrast, they did the opposite with the Brahms, Lam in particular adding extra vigor, which paid off particularly well in the andante third movement as she added a degree of gravitas. Otherwise, there wasn’t much the Trio could enhance: the music was lovely, and predictable, party music for the thieving dukes and abbots and the gentry of 19th century Germany. As proto-ELO, it wasn’t up to Jeff Lynne level.

Music Mondays continues on October 7 at 7:30 PM at Advent Church at the corner of 93rd St. and Broadway with the Aizuri String Quarte playing works by Haydn, Hildegard von Bingen, Brahms and Caroline Shaw. Admission is free, but you’ll have to get there at least least fifteen minutes early if you really want a seat at what has become one of Manhattan’s favorite classical spots.

 

A Starkly Relevant New Album and a Governors Island Show by the Very Serious Sirius Quartet

The album cover illustration for the Sirius Quartet‘s latest release, New World – streaming at Spotify – has the Statue of Liberty front and center, against a backdrop that could be a sunset with stormclouds overhead…or smoke from a conflagration. She’s wearing a veil. The record’s centerpiece, New World, Nov. 9, 2016 won the Grand Prize in the the New York Philharmonic’s New World Initiative composition competition a couple of years ago. The message could not be more clear. It’s no wonder why the group are so troubled by the events since then: both of their violinists are immigrants.

They’re playing a free concert featuring their own materal plus original arrangements of Radiohead and the Beatles this Sept 7 at the park in the middle of Governors Island, with sets at 1 and 3 PM. You can catch the ferry from either the old Staten Island Ferry terminal at the Battery – to the east of the new one – or from the Brooklyn landing where Bergen Street meets the river.

Violinist Fung Chern Hwei’s Beside the Point opens the album. In between a wistful, trip hop-flavored theme, the group chop their way through a staccato thicket capped off by a big cadenza where the violin finally breaks free, in a depiction of the struggle against discrimination.

Currents, a tone poem by cellist Jeremy Harman has stark, resonant echoes of Irish music and the blues: it could be a shout out to two communities who’ve had to battle bigotry here. The epic title track sarcastically juxtaposes contrasting references to Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8: look how far we haven’t come, violinist/composer Gregor Huebner seems to say.

Still, another Huebner composition, is based on Strange Fruit, the grisly chronicle of a lynching and a big Billie Holiday hit. Ron Lawrence’s viola chops at the air along with the cello over an uneasily crescendoing violin haze, the group coalescing somberly up to a horrified, insistent coda. Their version of Eleanor Rigby has a bittersweet, baroque introductory paraphrase and some bluesy soloing, finally hitting the original melody over a propulsive, funky beat. As covers of the song go, it’s one of the few actually listenable ones.

The album’s second epic, More Than We Are rises slowly through allusions to Indian music to a persistently wary, chromatic pulse fueled by Harman’s bassline: you could call parts of it Messiaenic cello metal. To a New Day is even more somber, flickering pizzicato passages alternating with a brooding sway grounded by a hypnotically precise, stabbing rhythm.

The Chinese-inflected 30th Night has a dramatic vocal interlude amid quavering cadenzas as well as phrasing that mimics the warpy tones of a pipa. The album’s second cover, Radiohead’s Knives Out is louder and more jagged than Sybarite5‘s lush take on the Thom Yorke catalog. The group return to the neo-baroque with the album’s rather sentimental closing cut, simply titled Cavatina. Contemporary classical protest music doesn’t get more interesting or hauntingly diverse than this.

The Chelsea Symphony Celebrate Audacity in the Face of Terror

The New York Philharmonic’s newfound dedication to socially aware programming is a welcome development, but among New York orchestras, the Chelsea Symphony got there first. This year their entire season has been devoted to music celebrating freedom fighters and the struggle against fascism. The coda of Saturday night’s program, Shostakovich’s audaciously transgressive Symphony No. 5, was arguably the most deliciously redemptive piece they’ve played in the last several months, at least from this perspective.

It was a loud yet remarkably distinct performance. It often makes perfect sense for an orchestra to play the lulls close to the vest, in order to max out the dynamics, but conductor Reuben Blundell did the opposite, right from the somber opening riffs, a paraphrase nicked from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The effect was the same: gloom and doom, in your face, and the rest of the symphony was as impossible to turn away from.

One by one, the ensemble absolutely nailed many of the composer’s future signature tropes: a creepy, satirical danse macabre, buffoonish phony pageantry, cynically strutting militarism and the terror and soul-depletion all those things create. In moments of guarded hope, the brass section, in particular, distinguished thesmelves with their lustrous clarity. Solos throughout the performance – notably from Michael Dwinell’s oboe, Sarah Abrams’ flute, Hannah Murphy’s harp and Tyler Hefferon’s timpani – had guided-missile precision.

The piece was an enormous gamble for the composer. In 1937, Stalin’s secret police were rounding up and murdering his friends; meanwhile, he was under fire from the censors for drifting too close to the Second Viennese School, i.e. ‘western” sounds, notwithstanding that so many of the leading figures in that movement were also Slavic. Shostakovich’s response was this wickedly catchy, emotionally panoramic, occasionally harrowing masterpiece.

Notwithstanding all its drama and hope against hope, the one section that might have been the group’s greatest triumph could have been the surreal, atmospheric interlude in the third movement, one which often gets away from other orchestras. Blundell seemed to offer contrasting hope with the robustness of the conclusion, which others often leave much more unsettled.

One thing that did get away from the orchestra was beyond anyone’s control. The DiMenna Center’s air conditioning kicked in hard and sent the string sections’ tuning awry as Nell Flanders led the ensemble matter-of-factly through Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A Minor. Soloist Bryn Digney played it from memory. She knew what she was doing, but stringed instruments tend not to adjust well to unexpectedly cold air on a warm night.

Fortunately, that wasn’t a factor in the beginning and end of the concert, which the group kicked off with minute attention to sudden stylistic shifts throughout Courtney Bryan‘s Sanctum. A portrait of the attempt to stake out solid ground amid relentless police brutality and attacks on black Americans, it requires split-second timing to sync up with a backing track including field recordings  from the Fereguson, Missouri protests. But the Symphony were up to the task of elevating stark bluesiness out of the murk – and vice versa.

The Chelsea Symphony conclude their season on June 29 at 8 PM, repeating on the 30th at 2 at the DiMenna Center with a performance of Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 plus the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor with soloist Adam von Housen.  For Sunday’s performance, they switch out Mendelssohn for Beethoven’s violin cnncerto in that same key.. Suggested donation of $20 is about half what the Philharmonic is charging for the Corigliano ealier next month. It will be interesting to compare the two.

Slavic Surrealism, Somber Strauss and Bittersweet Beethoven at Lincoln Center

This past evening the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center staged a program on themes of endings and goodbyes. In various configurations, eight musicians contributed to a final work in a specific genre, an elegy, and what could have been a fervent wave goodbye to a composer’s beloved home turf. Each was performed in unusually high-definition, sometimes revelatory detail. What appeared to be a sold-out crowd agreed that braving late-winter bluster for a show like this was infinitely more rewarding than snuggling with a handful of favorite records (or with youtube).

Pianist Gilbert Kalish and violinist Bella Hristova opened the night with a remarkably straightforward take of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10. It seemed just a hair slow. That turned out to be a wise choice, considering that other musicians often romp through the whole thing since the piano part does not require typical Beethovenesque virtuosity (the duke who commissioned it also played the premiere). Likewise, Hristova held back on the vibrato until the hymnal second movement was underway: the effect turned what could have been sentimentality into genuine bittersweetness. Constant exchanges between piano lefthand and violin were coyly amusing, in contrast to the first hint of an ending in the third movement, which Kalish imbued with a distantly desperate quality, raising the ante with sudden extra vigor.

The centerpiece was an absolutely shattering performance of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, arguably the saddest tone poem ever written. Violinist Arnaud Sussmann, violists Mark Holloway and Richard O’Neil, cellists Dmitri Atapine and David Requiro, and bassist Xavier Foley joined Hristova to build a relentless, aching, meticulous interweave that finally came full circle, fueled by the cellos’ plaintive angst. Here as elsewhere, the septet’s attention to minutiae was such that Strauss’ cell-like permutations echoed Bach as much as they foreshadowed Philip Glass. At the end, the audience sat in stunned silence for what felt like a full thirty seconds before breaking into applause.

Dynamics bristled and sparkled throughout the night’s coda, Dvorak’s Trio in E Minor for Piano, Violin and Cello, best known as the Dumky. Joined by Sussmann and Requiro, Kalish seemed to revel in the suite’s almost gleeful phantasmagoria. The savagery in how the composer takes an initial, cloying dance theme and then twists it through a funhouse mirror had a magnetic effect on the trio, especially when Kalish decided to pick up the pace. The numerous contrasts, particularly a silken ending to the adagio second movement, were striking and unselfconsciously poignant…or just plain funny. Sussmann and Requiro approached their solo spots with a straightforwardness that matched the Beethoven. It wouldn’t be fair to call the ending diabolical, but it was close, a devilishly good time. Glistening with Slavic chromatics, if this was a goodbye, it could have been a salute to everything Dvorak loved about his home country…and also quite possibly a snide dismissal of everything he didn’t.

Student Orchestras Rule!

Among the ever-shrinking, rarefied elites who sometimes actually get paid to go to concerts and then share their experiences, there’s a feeling that student orchestras often do a better job than the pros. There are many logical reasons for this. Conservatory kids get more rehearsals, more guidance (which could cut both ways), they’re playing for a grade, and they’re not yet jaded to the point where they feel like phoning it in.

Yesterday’s Juilliard performance of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony at Alice Tully Hall validated all of those arguments. There was no backing off: everybody dug in, and went as deeply as possible into the composer’s stubborn dedication to being counterintuitive. This is a mighty tough piece to play, with its constantly shifting web of counterpoint, sudden blustery exchanges of short riffs between instruments, and tantalizing fragments of melody that, just when you start to hum along, disappear into thin air.

It was a friendly and animated guided tour of eerie close harmonies, petulant defiance of any genuine resolution, and Schoenberg’s sometimes outrageous sense of humor. There’s a point about two thirds of the way through where he basically stops the music to make sure that the cello and bass are both in tune – and then makes a theme and variations out of it. The group nailed it with deadpan aplomb: it was shocking that the audience, at least the string players in the crowd, weren’t completely cracking up.

And has anybody noticed what a great string section the Columbia University Orchestra has this year? It’s Boston Symphony quality: lush, rich, epic and tight as a drum. Dynamics weren’t at the top of the list, it would seem, at their mighty performance of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite at Symphony Space last month, but their forceful presence gave the music a stunning freshness. This piece is proto heavy metal, and that’s exactly how the ensemble played it, going in hard for every bit of clever humor and grand guignol that the composer weaves for the strings.

They did the same thing with Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Anybody who’s gone to any of the classical halls over the past few years has probably been exposed to more New World than they probably could ever want. Yet, having heard maybe a half dozen different versions live since the New York Philharmonic made it their theme for a season, this ranked with the best of them. The rest of the orchestra wasn’t up to the level of the strings, but the rest of those other orchestras weren’t up to that level, either. What an undeniable, emphatic attack! It validated any bellicose interpretation of the symphony, and was every bit as fresh and new as the Grieg.

The Columbia University Orchestra’s next performance is a program TBA on April 6 at 8 PM at Lerner Hall on the Columbia Campus. And next month at Juilliard is the Focus Festival, featuring several public concerts of music originally commissioned for radio airplay, many of which are free. The first one is on Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at Alice Tully Hall, with orchestral works by Ligeti, Betty Olivero and Michael Tippett; tix are available at the hall’s box office.

Trio Vitruvi Make a Rapturously Vivid North American Debut at Carnegie Hall

It’s hardly realistic to expect a Carnegie Hall concert, let alone one that’s sold out, to be intimate. Yet the Trio Vitruvi’s American debut there this past week was exactly that. It was also intuitive and full of vivid narratives, tracing a rewarding historical path. And the virtuosic aspects of the performance were often downright breathtaking.

Was pianist Alexander McKenzie going to be able to maintain the blend of almost superhuman clarify and vigor that he brought to the opening movement of Schubert’s Trio in E Flat, D.929? When push came to shove, yes. And he seemed completely at home with setting the bar that impossibly high, right from the beginning. The first part is basically a little piano concerto, so he took centerstage, often with an insistent pedalpoint that would become a recurrent motif throughout the rest of the concert. The ensemble programmed it as well as they played it.

That particular trope ironically, came into clearer focus with the second movement, a cello concerto of sorts, Jacob la Cour’s alternately stark and soaring phrases complemented by Niklas Walentin’s gossamer violin textures.

As the piece went on and the interplay grew more lively, it was like being telepoted back to a particularly animated moment among the cognoscenti at a post-Napoleonic Viennese salon. Ostensibly, the central theme that recurs at sobering moments throughtout the rest of the work is an old Norwegian folk melody, but its brooding changes could just as easily have klezmer origins. It’s not out of the question that Schubert encountered it somewhere in Vienna and couldn’t resist appropriating it..

Following that with Shostakovich’s Trio No. 1 in  Minor, Op. 8 might seem like an odd pairing, but it worked seamlessly. Was this going to turn into a similarly vampy, subtly expanding exchange of personalities, or, as it seemed in the early going, rehashed Ravel? Hardly. McKenzie seemed to relish staking out the occasional, jarring dissonance that the composer sprinkles so artfully throughout the second half of the piece; Walentin’s calm shift away from silk toward sandpaper was every bit as deliciously uneasy.

The contrast between ebullient nocturnal cheer and poignancy rose to epic levels throughout the panoramic rises and lulls of an especially picturesque version of Dvorak’s Dumky Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90. A storyline quickly and forcefully materialized: the protagonist of the heroic opening movement suddenly grew wistful for his missing love. But then she came back, and all was bliss again! From there the dichotomies grew even clearer, particularly in the insistent/resonant tradeoffs among the instruments in the third movement as well as the sweetly nocturnal path that emerged in the fourth. As with the Schubert, the group seized every opportunity to tickle the audience with the occasional tongue-in-cheek flourish or vaudevillian cadenza. It’s the centerpiece of the group’s new album, just out from Bridge Records.

Trio Vitruvi reprise much of this bill and play additional works by Beethoven and Mozart this April 26 at 7:30 PM at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave. north of 37th St; cover is $20.

A Rewarding, Revelatory Visit to Nancy Garniez’s Upper West Side Piano Salon

About four times a month, sometimes more frequently, pianist Nancy Garniez hosts a salon in an Upper West Side studio about three minutes from the train. She’s been doing this for the better part of ten years. Like Pauline Oliveros, Garniez devotes this delightfully informal series to deep listening, Her playing, and her repertoire, take into account that an audience is always an intrinsic part of the performance. That, and her (some would say quixotic) understanding of how the physics of sound applies to the mechanics of the piano.

Asked how the series was going lately, Garniez said earlier this evening that it’s become one of the most rewarding projects she’s ever been involved with – in a career as a concert pianist, organist, chamber musician and educator since the 1960s. She calls her approach Tonal Refraction: she considers the piano a post-tonal instrument. Anyone who disagrees should sit down at one, put the pedal down, play a chord, play another one and then just try to count the number of notes resonating from inside. The closer you listen, the faster you discover that most of them don’t even exist in the western scale.

Garniez’s stunningly legato touch on the keys, and her fondness for letting a note ring out for emphasis when a piece calls for it, are her main distinctions as a player. Great drummers also know what has become second nature for Garniez: sound is something that you let out of an instrument instead of trying to bang it in.

This past evening’s program was a typically relevatory mix. Garniez began with a small handful of Clementi sonatas, emphasizing how melody isn’t limited to tones: rhythm plays just as important a role. Methodical and carefree, she gave voice to the composer’s artful, sometimes devilishly fun metric variations and expansions. No wonder Beethoven and Brahms held him in such high esteem.

Next on the bill were Chopin mazurkas. In Garniez’s hands, they transcended any peasant dance connotation: these ballads were haunting! As kinetic as the rhythms were, Garniez approached them with economy and understatement: when a particularly emphatic phrase would appear, it was all the more striking.

She closed with a delicious series of Dvorak waltzes and “eclogues,” as he called them. Long before Leif Ove Andsnes released his popular album of Dvorak solo piano works, Garniez was hip to this vastly underrated side of the composer. And it doesn’t have the ornate architecture of his orchestral works – if anything, its transparency is even more striking. “What’s the likelihood – a couple of upbeat country dances wrapped around what sounds like a Bach invention?” one concertgoer marveled.

“I think he was drunk when he wrote it,” Garniez grinned. She might be right – there was a dissociatively cheerful glimmer to that midsection. The rest of the program was as methodically paced, with dynamics so subtle that it would have been a considerable stretch to imagine an audience being able to connect in a huge concert hall. “That ninth chord,” Garniez mused. “That was really something”

And it was – a lingering, bittersweet, muted coda that Garniez let resonate as long as the score would accommodate. Garniez’s next salon is at 4 PM this Sunday, Feb 18; email for location and information. After this performance, there was wine, and eclectic snacks, and passionate conversation – which you would expect after something this rapturously interesting.