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Tag: Glass House Project review

The Glass House Ensemble and Muzsikas Play One of the Most Haunting, Exhilarating Shows of the Year

For one reason or another, this has been an amazing year for doublebills. Arguably the best one so far was last night at NYU, where the trans-continental Glass House Ensemble teamed up with iconic Hungarian Jewish string band Muzsikas for a sizzling show that offered both homage and reinvention to themes that, without some heavy lifting on the archival side, would have disappeared forever.

The Glass House Ensemble, led by soulful polymath trumpeter Frank London and his Hungarian multi-instrumentalist pal Béla Ágoston, opened. This blog was there when the Hungarian-American collaboration made their sensational debut performance at Drom last year – without having rehearsed together! London always manages to have his fingers in a whole bunch of good projects simultaneously. Lately he can be found on chanteuse Shulamit‘s poignant, historically rich Women in the Shoah album, as well on the reputedly amazing forthcoming album by Romany song reinventor and singer Eva Salina and her band.

The Glass House Ensemble – named after a legendary Hungarian safe house for Jews in World War II – opened with the same wild suite they played in Budapest this past winter.  Miklós Lukács’ machinegun cimbalom riffage led the pack through lushly dynamic rises and falls, Agoston’s soprano sax trading riffage with London, violinist Edina Szirtes Mókus’ powerful alto voice building to a rapidfire crescendo in a rampaging, eerily chromatic call-and-response with the rest of the band. That was just the first number.

Throughout the rest of the set, drummer Yoni Halevy jumped at the opportunity to surprise the crowd with trick endings. Pablo Aslan, a major force in nuevo tango, provided a slinky, slithering low end when he wasn’t taking acrobatic leaps or providing stygian washes of sound with his bow. Guitarist Aram Bajakian channeled Jimi Hendrix on one intro, otherwise hanging back with a judiciously jangly approach that filled out the dips and swells beneath the lushness of the violins, Mokus in tandem or exchanging hooks with Jake Shulman-Ment. London imbued one lustrous, cinematic theme with a wrenching sense of longing, awash in plaintive harmonies, like an unanswered cantorial call. Later he led the band into a one of several fiery, bristling, minor-key romps where Lukacs took the wildest yet most meticulously intricate, rapidfire solo of the night. At the end of the concert, they joined forces with Muzsikas for a similarly jaunty yet bittersweet theme, a mighty dozen-piece ensemble intertwining with a triumphant expertise as the audience clapped and stomped along. Bands like this live for moments like this.

Where the Glass House Ensemble were an elegantly stampeding, slashingly artsy orchestra, Muzsikas’ set was feral and ferocious – but also brooding, wounded and often otherworldly. Charismatic violinist Laszlo Portleki explained in impressively good English that they’d often had to learn their repertoire of Jewish themes from Romany musicians, considering that the Hungarian Romany population hadn’t been quite as decimated by the Holocaust (maybe a hundred thousand Romany people, maybe half a million Jews – what’s that to Hitler?).

Singer Maria Petras matched Mokus’ role with her dramatic, often riveting delivery of several numbers, in a potent mezzo-soprano. Violinist Mihaly Sipos took many of the night’s most adrenalizing solos, when he wasn’t switching to gardon, the Transylvanian percussion instrument with a cello-like body that produces an ominous hum when you beat it with a stick (that’s how it’s supposed to be played).  They opened with a pulsing, almost frantic, rustic two-step dance, seemingly closer to southern Balkan music than Hungarian folk…but that’s why Jewish music is so rich, because it’s so syncretic.

In about an hour onstage, with insightful song introductions from Porteleki, Muzsikas gave the crowd a fascinating tour of prewar Hungarian Jewish music in all its deliriously fun, and ironic, haunting glory. One stark number drew on the gorgeous Middle Eastern freygish mode, but a rather sentimental number from close to the Austrian border bordered on German schmaltz. Like the opening band, Muzsikas worked the dynamics up and down, the tempos leaping to warp speed and then back, or dropping out completely for a mysterious, melismatic violin intro, a swoopily shapeshifting crescendo against a low drone, or a sad, steadily stomping march. Underscoring all these amazing songs was that if the group hadn’t searched for them high and low, among old musicians and archives, none of this music would exist anymore.

The Glass House Project Reinvent Haunting, Exhilarating Jewish Themes

Friday night at Drom the Glass House Project played alternately sizzling and haunting new arrangements based more or less on old klezmer and Hungarian folk themes. The Hungarian-American collaboration take heir name from the best-known of the over seventy secret refuges for Jews that underground resistance hero Carl Lutz set up throughout Budapest during the Holocaust. Perhaps reflecting the triumph of that defiant achievement, the music was exhilarating, bristling with eerie chromatics and fiery solos from throughout the band. Trumpeter Frank London led the group through split-second shifts from suspensefully atmospheric, to frantic, to joyously triumphant. There was an uneasy, carnivalesque undercurrent to much of the music, as well as an explosive circus-rock drive peaked by wild crescendos from violinist Jake Shulman-Ment, guitarist Aram Bajakian, violinist/singer Szirtes Edina Mokus, multi-reedman Bela Agoston and cimbalom player Miklos Lukacs.

Drummer Richie Barshay supplied grooves ranging from mistily atmospheric, to slow and slinky, to crazed and vaudevillian while bassist Pablo Aslan anchored the songs with dark, fat, pulsing lines, often playing with a bow to max out the dark, sustained intensity. They played the show as a suite, more or less, launching into one theme after another: it was hard to tell just where one tune began and the other ended. Ethereal strings gave way to trumpet-fueled romps, Bajakian adding the occasional wryly skronky passage, eerily surfy solo or majestically spacious, bell-like accents on a twelve-string which still had a pricetag attached to the neck.

The high point of the early part of the show was a shapeshifting number that began with stop-and-start horn bursts, then a a misterioso noir theme with Bajakian’s guitar paired off against menacingly starlit cimbalom. Then it morphed into a march that Barshay took further outside, rhythmically, into a bit of a free jazz-inspired free-for-all and then back to the slinky menace – and then a lickety-split outro. The last song worked a similarly biting, chromatically-fueled theme over a beat that started out funky and then went into a madcap vaudevillian sprint. On one of the earlier tunes, Agoston played bagpipe, eventually holding a note for what seemed minutes as hs slowly squeezed all the air out of it. “Even some people in Hungary don’t know we have these,” said singer Kata Harsaczki, who contributed vocals on that song as well as on a rustic diptych that began slowly and then went lickety-split a little later. For anyone kicking themselves because they decided to not to brave the elements to see this show, the band will be at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 36 Battery Place (north and west of Battery Park; Battery Place runs parallel to Broadway) tonight, May 27 at 7:15 PM; admission is free, but you need to rsvp here. They’ll also be at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC yomorrow night, May 28 at 6.