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Fond Farewells and New Revelations at This Year’s Concluding Naumburg Bandshell Concert

Tuesday night in Central Park, a collective “awwwwww” swept through the crowd when the Naumburg organization’s Christopher London announced that the East Coast Chamber Orchestra‘s concert with pianist Shai Wosner would be the final one of the summer at the bandshell. What a blessing it has been to have these performances at a time when orchestral music has never been more imperiled. And what a great year it’s been! At this time last year, who would have imagined that we would be in a position to be so celebratory now?

It was a night to revisit familiar Mozartean comfort in newfound intimacy, but also to be entranced by far more recent material. The evening’s piece de resistance was Hanna Benn‘s Where Springs Not Fail, based on a morbid Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. Dov Scheindlin, one of the three violists in the orchestral string collective, introduced it as “impressionistic and haunting,” which turned out to be an understatement. With an elegance that would define the night, the group parsed its slow, somber, insistent pastoralia with collegial attention to dynamics, anchored with visceral intensity in the lows.

Bassist Anthony Manzo introduced a mournfully tolling theme, the ensemble rising toward fullscale angst but not quite going there. Eventually a sense of closure, however mournful, appeared. The fade down at the end was obliterated by a passing helicopter. Technology destroying the soul: a metaphor for 2021 from above, literally.

The orchestra found even more angst in Osvaldo Golijov’s 1996 composition Last Round, equal parts boxing parable and salute to the composer’s iconic countryman and foundational influence Astor Piazzolla. As a portrait of the combative godfather of nuevo tango bedridden after a stroke and battling but slowly and ineluctably losing it, it’s set up as a couple of string quartets with the bass in the center as referee.

Sparks flew as agitation rose, then a poignant quote from Piazzolla’s Libertango appeared and was spun through a series of permutations. The sudden glissando at the moment of death was crushing; the group’s rise from a hush to a picturesque series of reflections was a vivid an elegy as anyone could have wanted.

The big hits with the crowd were Mozart favorites, which Wosner played from memory with exceptional attunement to underlying emotion. His approach to both the Piano Concerto No. 114 in E flat and No. 12 in A was unhurried, and spacious, and insightful to the nth degree: he’s really gone under the hood with this material.

He opened the night’s first concerto with a liquid, comfortably nocturnal legato, then left no doubt that the second movement was a love song. The conclusion was irresistibly fun, a puckish game of hide-and-seek, and the strings responded in kind.

The closing concerto was just as fresh and convivial, Wosner taking his time with the lustrous contentment of the opening movement, then backing away even further for a muted tenderness and then a sudden sense of trouble around the corner, a cautionary tale stashed away inside a glittery wine-hour piece for the entitled classes of Vienna, 1782-style. Both of these pieces are as standard as standard repertoire gets – and how rare it is that an ensemble can bring out as much inner detail as Wosner and the orchestra did here.

The pianist encored with a poignant, affectionately paced version of Schubert’s Hungarian Melody, D817. This is it for 2021 for the Naumburg Concerts, but a series for 2022 is in the works.

The Silkroad Ensemble Release a Haunting, Surreal New Osvaldo Golijov Epic

Over the past practically three decades, the Silkroad Ensemble have been the world’s great champions of a blend of music from south Asia, through the Arabic-speaking world and the west. Their latest album, Falling Out of Time – which hasn’t hit the web yet – comprises a single, lavish, thirteen-part tone poem by contemporary classical composer Osvaldo Golijov, which hauntingly dovetails with the group’s esthetic. It may be the most stunningly accessible orchestral work the composer has ever written. It’s certainly the most eclectic, drawing on such diverse idioms as Indian music, classical Chinese theatre, jazz balladry and sounds of the Middle East.

This is a frequently operatically-tinged work, tracing a surreal, grim narrative surrounding the death of a child. Mythical creatures and archetypes are involved. The introduction, Heart Murmur rises from a brooding, skeletal Arabic-tinged taqsim to a darkly catchy, circling ghazal-like melody over a dancing, jazz-inflected pulse and the achingly intertwining voices of singers Biella da Costa and Nora Fischer.

Night Messengers is a stark, increasingly imploring nocturnal tableau, the womens’ voices wary and enigmatic over an all-star string quartet comprising half of Brooklyn Rider – violinist Johnny Gandelsman and violist Nicholas Cords – with violinist Mazz Swift, and cellist Karen Ouzounian.

That sudden, stratospherically high harmony in the enigmatic Come Chaos is a real shock to the system: is that a voice, Wu Tong’s sheng, or a theremin? No spoilers!

Uneasy, fragmentary flickers from the strings followed by Wu Man’s pipa join to introduce the simply titled Step, rising to a harrowing intensity. The Lynchian dub interlude afterward comes as another real shock.

Shane Shanahan’s tabla and the singers’ acidic harmonies take over the hypnotic ambience as In Procession, a portrait of mass bereavement, gets underway, Kayhan Kalhor’s muted, desolate kamancheh solo at the center amid the string quartet. Troubled atmospherics waft and eventually permeate Walking, the suite’s drifting, central elegy, lowlit with echoey kamancheh, Dan Brantigan’s desolate trumpet and Shawn Conley’s spare jazz-inflected bass

An ambient lament featuring spiky pipa in contrast to Jeremy Flower’s synth foreshadows Fly, which with its aching ambience and jazz allusions mirrors the centerpiece. Go Now, the suite’s most immersive, restlessly resonant track, features a long, plaintive kamancheh intro, a similarly aching, vivid duet with the violin. Da Costa reaches for the rafters with the pipa trailing off morosely at the end.

Akeya (Where Are You) is a dissociative mashup of orchestral 1950s Miles Davis, Etta James moan and kabuki theatre, maybe. The ensemble hint at rebirth and redemption in the closing tableau, Breathe. Is the nameless dead boy at the center of the story a metaphor for the hope and joy that was stolen from us in 2020? What a piece of music for our time!