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The Best New York City Concerts of 2017

New York’s best concert of 2017 was Golden Fest, with two nights and about seventy brass and string bands from across the Balkans, the Middle East and the USA on several different stages. Year after year, this annual January extravaganza is unsurpassed in terms of both quality and quantity of talent. This blog managed to catch about fifteen of those acts over that marathon weekend, including but not limited to agelessly soulful Armenian reedman Souren Baronian, rapturous singer Eva Salina  and her whirlwind accordionist Peter Stan, haunting tar lute player Amir Vahab, the searing brass of Zlatne UsteNovi Maleshevski Zurli, Raya Brass Band and Cocek! Brass Band. Golden Fest 2018 is this coming January 12 and 13 at the magnificent Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

There were four other multiple-night events that deserve a special place on this list. In March, the first-ever collaboration between Lincoln Center and the annual Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde in Essaouira, Morocco resulted in a trance-inducing series of concerts that began at the Upper West Side cultural mecca, moved to a cozy auditorium at the the New School for an approximation of a Moroccan lila healing ceremony and wound up at Pioneer Works in Red Hook for a collaboration with some New Jork jazz dudes including Marc Cary and Marcus Strickland. Three of the great sintir lute-playing maalems (masters) of mesmerizing gnawa music –Abdeslam AlikkaneHamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa – got to flex their chops.

The annual Drive East Festival at Dixon Place in August featured a similarly rapturous, weeklong series of Indian classical music and dance performances. Poignantly nuanced singer Indrani Khare and sitarist Kinnar Seen shared one of the midweek bills; theatrical Punjabi folk troupe Rajasthani Caravan headlined the Saturday night show. But the most amazing set of all might have been sarod virtuoso Aashish Khan, with his gracefully flickering, saturnine ragas.

The 2017 Bryant Park Accordion Festival, a weekly series spread out over more than a month in midsummer, featured mini-sets from scores of artists playing everything from klezmer to forro to swing jazz. Balkan and Middle Eastern music in separate corners of the park. Closing night began with some of the world’s greatest Middle Eastern musicians playing a riveting recreation of Ziad Rahbani’s iconic, bittersweet 1975 Bil Afrah suite.

And for the first time ever, this blog was present at every single night of an artist’s monthlong weekly residency at Barbes. Clarinet powerhouse and composer Michael Winograd picked April since there were five Saturdays in the month, where he was joined by a killer cast of musicians including rising star pianist Carmen Staaf for some small-group shows as well as a midmonth big band gig that was the best of them all. New klezmer sounds never sounded so edgy, so purist yet so fresh and wildly fun.

Otherwise, dig in for the longest year-end concert list this blog’s ever put together. It was impossible to whittle it down to any less than a grand total of fifty shows. The real estate speculator blitzkrieg keeps turning neighborhoods to rubble, yet people in this melting pot refuse to stop making great music. The rest of the year’s concerts are listed in chronological order since trying to rank them would be an exercise in futility.

If you don’t see your favorite band or your favorite show here – “What, no Dream Syndicate at Bowery Ballroom, are you guys nuts?” –  it’s a good bet that this blog wasn’t there. If you think this list is epic, just imagine the wishlist that went into it. But it’s one thing to plan on going out every night; it’s another thing to actually do it. Counting all the nights when it actually was possible to get out of the house or the office, there was more than enough good music to somewhat mitigate one of the worst years in memory for the world as a whole.

David Yengbarian, Borbely Mihaly Polygon and Meszecsinka at Drom, 1/5/17
The annual showcases put on by the APAP booking agents’ association can be an insanely good bargain. Cover was ten measly bucks for the dynamic Balkan accordionist, the noir cinematic trio of saxophonist Mihály Borbély, pyrotechnic cimbalom player Miklós Lukács and drummer András Dés, and the wild Hungarian trance-dance band.

LadamaAlash,Eva Salina and Peter Stan, Miramar and Innov Gnawa at Drom, 1/7/17
This APAP evening was even more insanely good – and this isn’t even the whole lineup! Pan-latin, mostly female dance band Ladama made a good opener for the energetically trancey Tuvan throat-singing trio, the stellar Balkan chanteuse and her accomplice on accordion, the hauntingly psychedelic Puerto Rican bolero revivalists and the only sintir lute-driven, mesmerizing traditional Moroccan trance-ritual band in this hemisphere. That group has good management: Innov Gnawa managed to get themselves on more than one bill on this page.

The Pre-War Ponies and Tipsy Oxcart at Barbes, 1/12/17
Singer/uke player Daria Grace’s swing band opened the evening on a lush, elegantly romantic note; the fiery Balkan band ended up charging into the audience as the show hit peak intensity.

Shilpa Ananth, Rini and Humeysha at Drom, 1/29/17
A diverse triplebill of Indian-influenced sounds, from psychedelic soul, to towering cinematic art-rock and spacerock.

Dave Fiuczynski’s Kif at Drom, 2/3/17
The legendary jamband leader’s microtonal guitar trio were as otherworldly as their albums – and funny too.

The Super Bolus at Footlight Bar, 2/5/17
With half the nation supposedly glued to a soporific pre-Super Bowl gabfest, a posse of A-list Brooklyn improvisers from the Gold Bolus  circle including but not limited to singers Anne Rhodes  and Anais Maviel, trumpeter Daniel Levine, saxophonists Angela Morris and Erin Rogers, vibraphonist Sam Sowyrda, bassist Lisa Dowling and oboeist Dave Kadden paired off for all kinds of strange and beguiling sounds. Kadden’s rampaging microtonal assault was the high point, in fact the most intense solo performance at any show on this list other than Amir ElSaffar’s Soho set in January.

The Musical Chairs String Quartet at the Staten Island Museum, 2/11/17
An unlikely spot to see a riveting performance of Shostakovich’s macabre, anti-fascist String Quartet No. 7 and two world premieres of fantastic quartets by Andrew Rosciszewski.

Laurie AndersonChristian McBride and Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall, 2/23/17
Avant garde violin icon joins forces with renowned jazz bassist and protean cello wizard for a night of sometimes lively, sometimes raptly sepulchral improvisation, with Anderson’s signature political relevance

Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, 3/2/17
She may be the foremost songwriter working right now, and treated an intimate crowd to a typically eclectic, intensely lyrical set of noir cabaret, Renaissance rock, latin-tinged parlor pop and pricelessly funny between-song banter.

Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal at the French Institute, 3/3/17
The Malian kora player and French cellist teamed up for a magical duo performance staged by the World Music Institute that blended phantasmic, cinematic themes, jaunty West African melodies and the baroque. More than one audience member was brought to tears.

Girls on Grass at Halyards, 3/23/17
Guitarist Barbara Endes’ psychedelic janglerock band sounded like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front – that good, that anthemic, that catchy.

Steve Ulrich and Mamie Minch, and Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation at Barbes, 3/25/17
Minch’s playful live movie score and Big Lazy mastermind Ulrich’s noir cinematics followed by the former Snow bandleader’s hilarious, brilliant English language parlor pop versions of Georges Brassens classics.

Changing Modes at Webster Hall, 3/26/17
The album release show by New York’s most smartly lyrical, unpredictable, keyboard-driven art-rock band was as protean and poignant as the record.

Miqayel Voskanyan at Drom, 4/5/17
Speaking of protean, the Armenian tar lute virtuoso and his quartet shifted between Near Eastern art-rock, folk-rock, Balkan turbo-folk and Romany dance music.

Meklit at Lincoln Center, 4/6/17
And while we’re still on the protean tip, how about the charismatic, fearlessly populist Ethio-jazz soulstress and her amazing band airing out new tunes from her kinetic, eclectic new album?

Easy Dreams and Karla Rose at 11th Street Bar, 4/11/17
Further proof that some of the best shows sometimes happen way under the radar. Rose, arguably the most captivating and versatile singer in all of New York and a haunting tunesmith as well, took a turn behind the drums in a mini-set by the uneasily jangly indie band, then picked up her guitar and haunted the crowd with her own brooding, film noir-influenced soul and psychedelic rock.

Gato Loco at Barbes, 4/20/17
This was more of a show for the drinkers than the stoners, a toweringly crescendoing mix of slinky noir instrumentals, psycho guitar-driven mambos and bouncy, carnivalesque themes.

Michael WinogradKill Henry Sugar and Las Rubias Del Norte at Barbes, 4/22/17
Goosebump-inducing klezmer clarinetist and his quartet, artfully lyrical, sardonic Americana rock duo and a farewell show (for now, at least) by keyboardist Alyssa Lamb and singer Emily Hurst’s hauntingly harmony-driven pan-American noir band.

Miklos Lukacs’ Cimbalom Unlimited at Drom, 5/22/17
Lukacs’ second appearance on this list was as a bandleader, playing fiery, relentlessly crescendoing themes, fingers flying across his magically rippling Hungarian dulcimer.

Rahim AlHaj at Lincoln Center, 5/25/17
The Iraqi oud virtuoso, joined by Iranian santoor player Sourena Sefati and Palestinian percussionist Issa Malluf, played the most haunting and understatedly relevant small-group New York show in a year when anti-Muslim bigotry reached a new low.

Sara SerpaSofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson in the West Village, 6/2/17
Three of the most distinctive, individualistic voices in all of music – the intense, noir-inspired Serpa, the irrepressibly fun Rei and the enigmatically lustrous Johnson – shared a characteristically eclectic bill of a-cappella songs and improvisations in a storefront church space. Unexpected venue, magical show.

Hearing Things at Barbes, 6/3/17
Brooklyn’s funnest band – JP Schlegelmilch on organ, Matt Bauder on sax and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – are a cross between the Doors, the Ventures and maybe WIBG. The result: a brand new style. Psychedelic surf noir jazz dance music!

The Barbes Benefit at Drom, 6/9/17
Brooklyn’s best venue was in trouble. Some of New York’s best bands joined forces for a wildly successful fundraiser to make sure it’s here for another five years. On the bill: thunderous Brazilian drum troupe Maracatu NY, noir icons the Jazz Passengers, Romany song maven Sanda Weigl, a subset of the haunting, soaring all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache; charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Afro-Colombian trance-dance choir Bulla en el Barrio , the similar but lower-register Innov Gnawa; one-off Balkan brass supergroup Fanfare Brooklyn – and Lynchian guitar-bass-drums trio Big Lazy .

Michael Winograd and Ben Holmes, Sean Cronin and Dolunay at Barbes, 6/10/17
The clarinetist and his trumpeter compadre opened an eclectic early-summer evening with a quartet show and lots of darkly chromatic new tunes, followed by the similarly eclectic guitarist and his purist band playing Hank Williams covers, and then riveting singer Jenny Luna’s haunting, oud-infused Turkish band

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Outdoors in the Financial District, 6/16/17
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer and his big band played a titanic set of Middle Eastern jazz from his latest album. His show at the Fridman Gallery in SoHo back in January, which he began with a distantly harrowing solo trumpet improvisation, was much more quietly transcendent.

Rose Thomas Bannister and Goddess at Corkscrew Wines, 6/21/17
A witchy, psychedelic twinbill in a comfortable Fort Greene back courtyard with the lyrically ferocious, Shakespeare-influenced chanteuse and the theatrical psych-folk band. Backed by lead guitar monster Bob Bannister, she was also awfully good there a couple of months later on a doublebill with oldtime Americana singer Stephanie Jenkins.

Lara St. John at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, 6/27/17
In front of an impressively game pickup group, the violin virtuoso treated the crowd to a kinetic Jessie Montgomery piece, a lyrical take of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and a harrowing world premiere by Matthew Hindson, Maralinga, a narrative of terror in the wake of a 1950s Australian nuclear disaster. After that, Stravinsky was anticlimactic.

Orkesta Mendoza and Lila Downs at Prospect Park Bandshell, 6/29/17
The slinky psychedelic cumbia and noir mambo band set the stage for an epic set of classic mariachi and fearlessly political ballads by the iconic Mexican-American singer and her titanic band, joined on several numbers by Mariachi Flor de Toloache. The afterparty down the hill at Barbes, with wild Veracruz-style folk-punks Radio Jarocho, was pretty intense too.

The Mary​ ​Halvorson Octet at the Village Vanguard, 7/18/17
The world’s best jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot and her lush, enveloping ensemble – featuring brilliant pedal steel player Susan Alcorn – aired out a lot of dynamic, uneasy new material.

Rev. Billy & the Church of  Stop Shopping Choir and Sexmob at Prospect Park Bandshell, 7/27/17
A brand-new set of original apocalyptic, anti-fascist and anti-racist original gospel tunes by the firebrand activist and his gargantuan choir, followed by the cinematic jazz quartet playing a darkly undulating, colorful live score to the 1920s Italian silent film Maciste All’Infierno.

The Trio Joubran at the Lincoln Center Festival, 7/29/17
The three Palestinian oud-playing brothers charmed and haunted the crowd with a dynamic tribute to their late collaborator, iconic poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/4/17
Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s cinematic noir trio made it onto the bill on more than one of the year’s best concerts, but their best single show – this blog was in the house at many of them – might have been this wildly jam-oriented night, two creepy sets at the band’s Park Slope home base. How did it feel afterward? “Free,” grinned drummer Yuval Lion.

Kill Henry Sugar and Anbessa Orchestra at Barbes, 8/11/17
Guitarist Erik Della Penna and drummer Dean Sharenow’s Americana lit-rock band have a ton of new material up their sleeves, and aired it out here before the wild Israeli Ethiopian dance band took the intensity to redline with a ferocious, psychedelic couple of sets.

Castle Black at the Well, 8/25/17
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s power trio have grown from a haphazardly promising band into a dark, fearsome monster: not even the sonic interference from the adjacent labyrinth of rehearsal rooms could silence this beast.

Melissa & the Mannequins at LIC Bar, 9/3/17
Put up a good youtube video and the crowd will come. With their killer chops and songs, New York’s best new band switched from jangly new wave to psychedelic soul and tantalizing hints of noir.

Bobtown at the Brooklyn Americana Festival, 9/23/17
Plaintive Anglo-American folk maven Jan Bell books this annual event: it would have been a lot of fun to have been able to catch more of it. With their gleaming four-part harmonies and songs about ghosts and other dead people, New York’s finest folk noir band were at the top of their game.

Greek Judas and the NY Fowl Harmonic at Hank’s, 9/28/17
Volcanic twin-guitar heavy metal versions of Greek songs from the 1920s and 30s about smoking hash, smuggling drugs and outrunning the cops, followed by Gato Loco bass sax monster Stefan Zeniuk’s carnivalesque punk-mambo group.

Seungmin Cha and Ned Rothenberg in Tribeca, 10/1/17
A riveting, intense, enveloping electroacoustic jazz loft set by the paradigm-shifting avant garde Korean daegeum flute player with the downtown multi-reed virtuoso.

The 24-Hour Raga-Thon at the Rubin Museum of Art, 10/22/17
This blog was only around for the wee-hours part that started about three in the morning: prime time for haunting, rarely heard morning ragas reinvented by an adventurous cast of Indian musicians including but not limited to saxophonist Aakash Mittal, guitarist Rez Abbasi, sarodist Camila Celin , trumpeter Aaron Shragge, bansuri flutist Eric Fraser and santoor sorceress Deepal Chodhari. 

Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized Playing Twin Peaks at Barbes, 10/29/17
Brooklyn’s best and most individualistic jazz guitarist led his fearlessly adventurous group through some careening and some absolutely chilling versions of iconic David Lynch tv and film scores.

Edna Vazquez at Lincoln Center, 11/2/17
You could call this charismatic guitarist/singer’s music “noiriachi” – haunting, kinetic, fearlessly relevant dark mariachi rock.

La Mar Enfortuna at the Jewish Museum, 11/9/17
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow’s lush, luscious twelve-string jangle and his bandmate, singer Jennifer Charles’ multilingual reinventions of ancient Ladino songs and themes from across the Sephardic diaspora ran the gamut from haunting to even more so.

The ClaudettesBrian Carpenter and the Confessions and Big Lazy at Drom, 11/10/17
The piano-driven Chicago group have reinvented themselves as a catchy blue-eyed soul band; Carpenter, a connoisseur of oldtimey swing jazz, mined a deep noir rock vein, capped off by NYC’s finest noir cinematic instrumentalists.

The Navatman Music Collective at Symphony Space, 11/19/17
This hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir sang and played a mammoth, shapeshifting set of reinvented classical themes from across the centuries.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra in the Lincoln Center complex, 12/2/17
A poignant, violin-fueled take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and Michael Daugherty’s timpani concerto Raise the Roof set the stage for a withering performance of Shostakovich’s classic antifascist Symphony No. 10. Anybody who thinks classical music isn’t relevant wasn’t there.

The Todd Marcus Orchestra at Smalls, 12/3/17
The bass clarinetist/bandleader led his brilliant eight-piece group through his brand-new, catchy, picturesque Middle Eastern jazz suite.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Salute a Beloved, Tireless Champion of Classical Music in This City

Beethoven was just about to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon, but then Napoleon got too big for his britches, crowned himself emperor…and missed his chance to have a Beethoven symphony named in his honor. Last night at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s sold-out performance in the Lincoln Center complex, conductor Barbara Yahr dismissed the speculation of what unnamed “great man” the composer actually dedicated the mighty piece to after Napoleon went over to the dark side. “I’ve decided that it’s for the greatness in every one of us,” Yahr intimated, and with that, dedicated this concert to the orchestra’s late cellist and longtime publicist Trudy Goldstein.

We lost Trudy a couple of months ago. She insisted that the shoulder problems that brought an end to her performing career were caused by years of tuning cellos for her school students: she was that dedicated. Publicly, she was always first in line to champion young performers. Privately, she lamented the Sovietization and one-size-fits-all approach that’s become so commonplace in music education. Ever the individualist, Trudy wanted everybody to be themselves.

Where an awful lot of people on the business end of classical music tend to be stuffy and stand on ceremony, Trudy was a bon vivant. Her beaming smile, big hugs, unselfconsciously down-to-earth personality and infectious enthusiasm won her a wide circle of friends, but also paid dividends in terms of growing the fan base.

Big-hearted, determined and generous to a fault, Trudy’s biggest dream was to share the transcendence and thrills she’d experienced in a lifetime in classical music. She listened widely and voraciously: she was always up for hearing a new idea or interpretation. She loved everything oldschool about her city: diners, neighborhoods holding their own against an onslaught of gentrification, traipsing all over Chinatown and Greenpoint with her husband Sidney, an erudite and passionate devotee of jazz and fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese. In her own sweet way, Trudy was a potent influence on an awful lot of people over the years, one of the real unsung heroes of classical music in New York in the late 20th and early 21st century. She is dearly missed.

She would have loved what the orchestra did with Beethoven this time out. His symphonies are all about punchy, catchy hooks and this might be the hookiest and punchiest of all of them. The constant rhythmic shifts are daunting, but the group negotiated these mini-mazes with a seamless grace. And this wasn’t a steamrolling performance: it was a translucent, nuanced one. The way Yahr held the orchestra in check through a deadpan, winking interpretation of the scherzo, where Beethoven is saying, “What on earth are we doing, getting our underwear all up in a knot over this guy,” was almost devastatingly funny. Likewise, the triumph of the coda was more ballet than ballroom blitz. There are some new faces in the brass section, crisp and clear and on their game. Let’s hope they stick around.

As good as that was, the Sibelius Violin Concerto was arguably even better, in context a requiem that packed a wallop. What a haunting tale this one told. Soloist Tosca Opdam painted a harrowing portrait of inconsolable sadness with her angst-fueled shivers, austere grey-sky harmonics and mournful cadenzas as the basses and timpani fluttered through the gloom below. And oboeist Jason Smoller hit a bullseye with his silky solo in a boisterous take of the Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture to open the night.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s season last year was ambitious to the extreme, the centerpiece being Beethoven’s Ninth. This year is all about relevance and some heavy issues we’ve all had to deal with since last November. Their next concert is on December 2 at 7:30 PM, back at Good Shepherd/Faith Presbyterian Church at 52 W 66th St with Rachmaninoff’s poignant Vocalise, Michael Daughterty’s explosively kinetic Raise the Roof and Shostakovich’s savagely anti-fascist Symphony No. 10. Tix are $20/$10 stud/srs and considering that last night sold out, this concert probably will too.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Play the Show of a Lifetime with Beethoven’s Ninth

It’s hubristic to even think of staging a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Just the amount of space required for orchestra, choir and soloists is daunting. Not only is it one of the most technically challenging pieces of music in the entire classical canon, it’s also one of the most physically taxing. “It didn’t feel like we were onstage as long as we were,” one of the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s cellists exclaimed, flushed and practically winded, after their lavish performance of it yesterday evening.

“Beethoven was insane when he wrote this!” groused one of the bassists. “It’s like the Grosse Fugue.” He was referring to the notoriously thorny coda to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13. But he and the cellist and the rest of the low strings – whose fingers really take a beating in the symphony’s final movement, leaping between registers at breakneck speed – dug in and delivered a performance that was more of a hymn to adrenaline than the ode to joy in the famous Schiller poem from which Beethoven took his inspiration. The rest of the orchestra followed suit. And that’s fine, that’s what music should be about a lot of the time. In context, it was the perfect choice. If you can play this at all, chances are it’ll be good. And it was. The roar of a pretty-much sold-out house afterward affirmed that.

After she’d led the orchestra through a brief fanfare well-known to NPR listeners, conductor Barbara Yahr offered her usual insight. She sees Beethoven’s narrative in the symphony’s four movements as contiguous. The first, a vibrant life somewhat in disarray, awash in ups and downs. The second, a “diabolical dance,” which as she accurately pointed out draws a straight line back to the pizzicato third movement of the Sixth Symphony. The third, a love ballad, and the fourth, a tug of war between orchestra and the low strings, who refuse to accept a new theme again and again until finally, “The one we know from childhood recitals,” as she said with a grin, finally takes centerstage and redeems everything and love wins over all.

Whew. Beethoven influences people who write about him too.

Now here’s an alternate interpretation. Those of us who love Beethoven know how, for all intents and purposes, his Fifth Symphony was really his Fourth, and vice versa, and how the disconnect between when he happened to write a piece and when his publishers put it out occurred all the time. Just like pretty much everyone who writes music, Beethoven had a “song junkyard” full of unfinished ideas in one form or another. It therefore stands to reason that he took the four favorites he had kicking around and strung them together as a swan song. That he was able to tie them together as much as he did, and in the process made it pretty much impossible for any other symphonic composer to follow him, conceptually at least, underscores why the Ninth is such an important piece of music . Even if, say, you find the famous final theme cloying and the Schiller poem it’s based on trippy and unfocused.

So from this point of view, the piece de resistance at this performance was that clever and richly interwoven first movement. The doomy main theme is akin to the theme from the Fifth Symphony, times two. Watching conductor and orchestra weaving through the waves of uneasy bluster juxtaposed with moments of joy, holding nothing back in reserve for what was to follow, was a blustery joy to witness. The second movement came across not as diabolical but heroic and triumphant, precision matched to unrestrained passion. Maybe the composer put the third movement in for the sake of a momentary breather, awash in lustrous high/low harmonies, and the ensemble seemed glad to back off for a bit.

It took a total of three all-ages choirs: the Ars Musica Chorale, directed by Dusty Francis; the Brooklyn Conservatory Chorale, led by Nelly Vuksic, and Seraphim, conducted by Robert Long, to deliver the fourth movement’s titanic polyphony, and they did with a precision and robustness to match the orchestra’s herculean efforts onstage. The choral soloists: baritone Peter Stewart. soprano Rachel Rosales, mezzo-soprano Jan Wilson and tenor John Tiranno, all punched in strongly when their moments came.

Not having seen this performed since childhood (and hating it at the time, and wishing it was over), it was impossible not to be caught up in it – and to be grateful for the opportunity to revisit it and learn something new. Plenty of new things, actually. The Greenwich Village Orchestra conclude their most ambitious season to date with a pops concert – something which, if they’ve done it before, they haven’t in almost twenty years – on May 7 at 3 PM featuring singers Grasan Kingsberry and Betsy Struxness.

Imri Talgam and the Greenwich Village Orchestra Play the Real Rachmaninoff

“This is extremely sarcastic, cynical music,” conductor Barbara Yahr explained, introducing the selections from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije suite that she’d chosen to open the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s concert last night. “Particularly apt for our time, I think,”she added, alluding to the upcoming events this Tuesday. The crowd chuckled knowingly. Beyond simply bringing the music to life, Yahr usually has a way of focusing on its most relevant aspects.

The five segments she’d chosen illustrate something completely different: the ineptitude of of the Soviet army and its bureaucracy. The joke is that the officer in the suite’s title doesn’t officially exist, and his eventual death has to be covered up: otherwise, there would be paperwork to deal with, and who really wants to fill out a death certificate, anyway? Yet as broad as the satire is, the music came across as surprisingly subtle – other than a completely over-the-top passage from the high woodwinds, portraying the army as a ragtag little regiment that can barely keep up with itself. Which was a stretch for this ensemble: ragtag is not their thing. Sleekness and formidability are more like it.

Both of which came to the forefront during the phony pageantry that followed: taken out of context, absent a few funny cadenzas from the trumpets and a little little over-the-top squonkiness from the bass trombone, the music almost could have passed for a particularly sophisticated soundtrack to a Thanksgiving parade making its way down Central Park West. Then there’s that silly, famous sleigh ride scene, as pointillistically precise and deadpan funny as it could have been.

Next on the program was a similar mini-suite taken from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Yahr introduced the selections as a sort of synopsis of the plot. Does a more venomously emveloping introduction – illustrating the bad blood between the Montagues and the Capulets – or a more lushly sensual interlude – the two lovers on the balcony – exist in classical music? Maybe not. Yahr had the ensemble working every inch of the sonic picture, from top to bottom, as she typically does.

Although she did just the opposite with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which came across as lush and luscious rather than static. A lot of orchestras play it like an early classical piece, or like chamber pop: piano backed by a string section, more or less. But it’s actually the opposite of that, and Yahr seized the opportunity to meet the towering, glittering angst that soloist Imri Talgam was channeling, from his first harrowing, haggard steps out of the shadows. As stormy as the symphonic arrangement is, most of it is pretty straightforward and simple, as opposed to the rapidfire virtuosity required of any pianist with the nerve to tackle it in public.

There’s a slithery cascade downward early in the second movement where the composer basically says, “OK, pity party is over, it’s time to party for real.” If you know the piece, you know the backstory: it’s as good advertising for the benefits of therapy as anyone has ever written. Basically, Rachmaninoff’s therapist told him, “Repeat after me, ‘I’m gonna write something great!’” And a pretty full house got to revel in that epic sweep and rewarded both orchestra and soloist with several standing ovations.

The concerto is about being hurt – to the quick, to the core – and eventually being pulled off the ledge. Or maybe pulling oneself off the ledge. Which goes a long way in explaining its perennial appeal. Talgam played the most poignant passages with an intuitive restraint, often with a genuine tenderness, acutely attuned to context. As a young composer, Rachmaninoff was regarded as erratic, if capable of moments of brilliance; the dismissive critical reaction to his Tschaikovsky-esque First Symphony, which is actually a decent if derivative piece of music, crushed him. This was his big comeback, after which there was no looking back for the man many consider to be the greatest classical pianist of all time and the unrivalled king of Russian Romanticism. Talgam kept a steely focus through one challenging stampede and cadenza after another while Yahr kept the orchestra front and center in tandem with the piano, a welcome and ultimately exhilarating change from how this piece is so frequently performed.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert is their annual family show December 4 at 3 PM at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 17th St. and Irving Place featuring some of the talented youngsters from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. Suggested donation is $20/$10 stud/srs, reception to follow.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Celebrate 30 Years with Their Most Ambitious Season Ever

The premise of the Greenwich Village Orchestra, along with the other community orchestras throughout the five boroughs of New York, is that there isn’t enough room in the New York Philharmonic for all the first-rate classical players in town. This year marks the GVO’s thirtieth anniversary, half of that under the direction of maestro Barbara Yahr. And it’s their most ambitious season ever, in fact, arguably the most ambitious season of any orchestra in New York this year For example, their next concert, on Nov 6 at 3 PM includes the hauntingly immortal “Rach 2,” the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with Imri Talgam as soloist, along with some highlights from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet as well as his Lieutenant Kijé Suite. Further down the road, they’re doing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, along with a more playful Broadway-themed program that will probably be heavy on Leonard Bernstein.

The opening concert of the orchestra’s 2016-17 season was similarly ambitious: an all-Dvorak bill that began with a tightly focused romp through the first of his Symphonic Dances. On one hand, it was a signal that the orchestra wasn’t going to waste auy time bringing the energy to redline. Yet, Yahr’s calmly unassailable direction gave the piece a balletesque precision in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a more elegant take on a centuries-old folk tradition.

They followed with Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Adele Anthony. As the program notes alluded, this piece has a funny backstory. The composer wrote it for Joseph Joachim, one of the 19th century’s greatest violinsts…who refused to play it, probably because it isn’t flashy enough! And flash is the last thing in mind Dvorak had in mind for it: at its ravishing heart (to quote one particularly astute, veteran GVO supporter), it’s a love story. And it’s noteworthy for how contiguous and integral the solo violin is within the context of the whole lush picture. For what it’s worth, Anthony played her cards close to the vest, an appropriate choice considering how intricately her part is woven into the work’s lavish and lively exchanges.

The orchestra closed with the most dynamic performance of the New World Symphony ever witnessed by this blog – and if you stick around the New York classical scene long enough, you see a bunch of them. One thing that made this special was that Dvorak very likely wrote part of the symphony on the very spot – 17th Street and Irving Place – where the orchestra performed it. Dvorak taught for a couple of years at the conservatory which remained there until it was razed in the early 1920s. What was equally special was how Yahr and her ensemble pulled it off. She is passionate and meticulous about details, particularly the most minute ones that a composer will hide away just to see if anybody gets them. In this case, it was the momentary, surreal dream-state rondo of an interlude that flashes by in maybe forty seconds in the symphony’s final movement, a secret key that seems to resolve every previous theme if you listen closely. After going deep into the score, Yahr had it sussed out: “I think this is about memory,” she asserted. “ And maybe Dvorak remembering his life in Bohemia, and being homesick.”

And the orchestra responded. It would be facile to explain the vast expanse they tackled, and conquered, by saying that Yahr started everything out hushed and sotto voce to give the musicians as much headroom as possible later on. What came into clearest focus – another point that Yahr emphasized – was that as much as Dvorak seized on African-American blues and spiritual themes, this is an indelibly European piece of music. Everybody who had to be on his or her game was. Horns, first and foremost, scouts surveying the terrain and foreshadowing the bellicosity in their path, were absolutely flawless, along with percussion and the tight-as-a-barrel string section. Other NewYork orchestras release every performance: a grab bag, to say the least, including the Philharmonic’s own performances. For the GVO, this was one for the ages. .

While we’re at it, here’s an alternate interpretation, one that Yahr might or might not agree with. Dvorak was definitely in memory mode – memory of conflict, and fear, and maybe war. Repression was a fact of daily life in the Hapsburg Empire, something that might well have factored into the volleys and frantic retreats that provide an understatedly chilling contrast with the earthy themes that recall Swing Low Sweet Chariot – and which both George Gershwin and Paul Simon would rip off years and decades later. Dvorak might well have had an ulterior motive to take up a New York society matron’s offer of residency here: to stay out of harm’s way for a bit.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Plays One for the Ages

The buzz after the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s concert yesterday evening was that they’d just made their definitive live album. There were mics prominently set up toward the front at Murray Hill’s sonically magnificent Church of the Incarnation: if the recording is in any kind of decent shape, they’ve got as good a representation as anything the New York Philharmonic have ever put out. Some audience members credited this sleek, insightful, literally flawless performance to the church’s sonics. Others more cynical considered that the shock of having to adjust to new digs might have jarred the ensemble into one of their firest performances of recent years, considering that their usual Irving Place home base is currently shuttered and under repairs in the wake of a fire.

Whatever the case, conductor Barbara Yahr led the group through an exquisite performance. They opened with Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo, Andres Cardenes the soloist on violin. Playing from memory, he approached the music with a purposeful drive and a subtlety of tone, very light on the vibrato and incisive rather than keening, in a Yehudi Menuhin vein. Yahr’s interpretation of the Agadio was as a pillowy nocturne, strings and winds so seamless that they seemed like one single, plush instrument. Sometimes Mozart gets carried away with his stereo effects, but not in the Rondo, and the orchestra matched that subtlety, both with dynamics and detail, Cardenes sailing overhead.

Interestingly, the program notes mentioned how Max Bruch had some doubts about how to characterize his Violin Concerto No. 1. Was it contiguous enough to be a real concerto, or is it just, say, some kind of partita or fantasy? Bruch’s virtuoso violinist pal Joseph Joachim reassured him that it was plenty cohesive enough. Which is kind of funny, because it’s sort of all over the place… in a good way. It’s a study in contrasts, amplified by both orchestra and soloist, tenderness juxtaposed against a marching theme that, after a lustrous, meticulously moody, spaciously paced second movement, takes a long upward climb toward a rather droll coda. It made a good segue with the Mozart.

Yahr explained to the crowd that she saw Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, “The Reformation” as cycle of transformation on a very personal level, mirroring the religious paradigm shift that the composer sought to illustrate. We don’t know for certain, but some think that Mendelssohn didn’t think too highly of it since it was never published in his lifetime. What became crystal clear from the moment the orchestra launched into it is how clever, and often very funny, it is. It’s a big shout-out to Bach and has the same kind of drama as the St. Matthew Passion, with quotes from both Bach and the German Lutheran hymnal deftly interspersed amidst the increasing drama. Typical Mendelssohnian ebullience and optimism took a dip into a stately waltz and then an absolutely luscious, cantabile third movement before rise to epically anthemic proportions that had Yahr, usually a very meticulous and composed presence on the podium, caught it up its irresistible sway. Forget the album for a minute: this would have made a great DVD.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is on May 22 at 3 PM, with works by Gershwin, Hindemith, Mozart and Tschaikovsky’s Capriccio Italian, the fantastic trumpeter Brandon Ridenour as soloist at a venue TBA. Watch this space.

Love Slays Multitasking Yesterday Evening

If there was ever a symphony for our time, it’s Sibelius’ No. 7. And it’s practically a hundred years old:  completed in 1924, to be precise. Before leading the Greenwich Village Orchestra through it yesterday, conductor Barbara Yahr cautioned the audience that it would be as challenging to hear as it is to play. “But it’s one of my alltime favorite pieces,” she smiled. “What Sibelius says in a phrase would take twenty minutes in Mahler.”

As usual, she was right on the money. She’d always intuited that the symphony’s central theme is love: “It grows more human,” she explained, pointing to how the first movement coalesces and brightens out of ambiguous, restlessly shifting cell-like phrases. She pointed out that the program notes validated that understanding: the scherzo in the second movement is a lively dedication to one of the composer’s daughters, and the warm major-key theme in the third refers to his wife.

The notes also dismissively characterized the work as domestic. Domestic, shmomestic! It’s a relentlessly harried, sometimes haggard piece, and although more optimistic themes take centerstage as it goes on, it ends more enigmatically than anyone would probably expect given the triumph that comes before. Maybe that’s a cautionary tale for us. On an intellectual level, this is the late Romantic Sibelius listening to Modernism and thinking, “Hmmm, maybe there’s something to be said for this twelve-tone stuff.” This performance focused on the emotional content, “I know we’re crazy busy, but I still love you.” And if it isn’t one thing, it’s another. The barrage of ideas and motives flies by like a fast-forward film until at last the sun comes out – and what a warm sun that was, how funny that Nordic music has so many memorable “it’s finally not dark anymore” moments, huh? Yahr managed to bring her signature precision and attention to minute, revelatory detail to this vexing but ultimately rewarding work, one that nobody’s about to conduct from memory, let alone play without the music in front of them.

She and the ensemble bookended it with two considerably more accessible pieces about love: love for freedom, and pure undiluted passion and joie de vivre. The concert opened with a fervent, insistent take of Sibelius’ Finlandia, leaving no question that this was no mere national anthem: it was about giving Russian invaders a swift kick. That spirit brought to mind the similarly unleashed version that Dorrit Matson and the New York Scandia Symphony played at Symphony Space last year.

Pianist Ko-Eun Yi brought equal parts fire and luminosity to Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Together, she and the orchestra made it swing, made it rock, at the end threatening to crush the piano keys with her savage, fortissimo chords as the coda swung in like a construction crane run amok. No wonder its themes have been plundered by so many rock acts – for example, ELO, who made surf rock out of it, and the Fugs, who would have made it x-rated had their 1967 record label let them. From that bristling, wickedly anthemic six-chord hook that Yi really took her time with, making it resound for all it was worth, through gleaming cascades and dazzling sunset-on-the-waves ripples, she had come to bring the party, and Yahr and the group behind her were only too glad to raise a sturdy foundation and a wide-angle backdrop for all the Romany and flamenco-tinged festivities.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is on April 10 at 3 PM at Irving Auditorium, 17th and Irving Place (cattycorner from Irving Plaza), featuring the Mozart Adagio and Rondo, the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. Suggested donation is $20, reception to follow.

An Obscure Treasure, a Vivid Premiere and a Pair of Haunters from the Chelsea Symphony

The New York Philharmonic may get more press than the other orchestras in town, and a lot of that is deserved. But many of those other orchestras are doing great things as well. The Greenwich Village Orchestra plays tremendous theme programs, are family-friendly and don’t shy away from relevant issues beyond the music. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony have a towering Philadelphia Orchestra-like presence and sweep. The Queensboro Symphony are drawing musicians out to the middle of nowhere in Flushing because everybody wants to play for their conductor. And it’s hard to believe that the Chelsea Symphony are only ten years old; they’ve become an institution on the West Side. They distinguish themselves with their consistent support of new music, constantly premiering one thing or another. They also have a fondness for theatrics, a sense of humor that goes with that, and a penchant for very distinct, articulate playing. You don’t go to the Chelsea Symphony to get lost in a haze of sound: you go for the excitement of hearing an assembly of clear, individual voices working together.

Friday night’s program was typical. They opened with the world premiere of Hope for Two Voices and Orchestra, by their first-chair bassist Tim Kiah, who’s been more or less a composer in residence for the last few years. Beginning as a lustrous, more or less horizontal tone poem, soprano Emily Eagen and her baritone counterpart joined the ensemble in taking it almost imperceptibly to warmer, more Romantic territory, bringing the title to life. Obviously a reflection on current events, it resonated strongly.

Overcast low-midrange sonics lingered and soared throughout an equally vivid performance of Max Bruch’s famous Kol Nidre variations. Based on somber medieval Jewish themes, cellist Susan Mandel evoked a wounded, almost-imploring, cantabile quality above the strings’ grey-sky ambience.

That the next piece on the bill would upstage a genuinely picturesque performance of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition speaks to the orchestra’s sense of adventure. Conductor Matt Aubin explained that mid-20th century composer Fernande Breilh-Decruck lived a block away in the London Towers complex with her husband, who played with the Philharmonic. Her Sonata in C# Minor for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, with Rob Wilkerson in the role of dynamic soloist, turned out to be parade-ready. Part blustery late Romanticism replete with all sorts of innovative voicings and playful yet purposeful, Nielsenesque orchestration, part jauntily bustling, cinematic theme and variations, it foreshadowed Leonard Bernstein. Was Bernstein aware or, or influenced by the composer? Hearing this music, you have to wonder. Why is she not better known?

Reuben Blundell took over the podium for Moussorgsky’s venerable blockbuster, reveling in its Ravel arrangement. To early 21st century ears, it evokes dozens of old horror films and dramas as much as it does the composer’s friend’s eerie tableaux of tormented gnomes, menacing witches, ghostly catacombs, and a concluding megalith that brings to mind a giant prison door rather than the gateway to a bustling metropolis. It’s easy to find cartoonish ideas in this music, but, true to form, the orchestra parsed it for portraiture and restless angst. Standout soloists included but were not limited to horn player Adam Schommer, oboeist Phil Rashkin, tuba player Ben Stapp and the entire high string section, who when required – and this happened a lot – were seamless to the point of being a single voice.

The Chelsea Symphony’s next performance is their family concert on February 21 at the Brooklyn Music School, 126 St Felix St in the Atlantic Yards area (any train to Atlantic Ave; the closest is actually the G at Fulton), repeating on February 27 at the orchestra’s usual stomping ground, St. Paul’s German Church at 315 W 22nd St. in Chelsea with a program including Peter & the Wolf, Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals and a Seth Bedford world premiere for kids. Both start at 2 PM; suggested donation is $20.

An Ambitious Take on Some Familiar Challenges by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

It’s often overlooked how changes in one field of music often mirror those in another. The rise of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony into a reliably bonafide vehicle for first-class classical performance mirrors how the demise of the big record labels has relegated the realm of rock and other amplified original music to independent artists. Other volunteer New York orchestral ensembles – the well-loved Greenwich Village Orchestra, the innovative Chelsea Symphony and the fearlessly individualistic new Queensboro Symphony Orchestra – deliver quality programming, but in the past several months especially, none of them have surpassed their Park Avenue colleagues. Nor, it seems, has the New York Philharmonic.

Conductor David Bernard never made a connection he didn’t want to share with the world, an especially ambitious goal at the Park Avenue group’s concert this past Saturday night. First on the bill was a spine-tingling take of Borodin’s Polyvestian Dances. As a curtain-lifter, it was a whale of a challenge, but the maestro’s clenched-teeth, “we’re going to pull this off come hell or high water” presence pulled every available ounce of energy and impassioned playing out of the musicians onstage. A few years back, this group’s weak spot was the high strings, which would lag sometimes or fall out of sync. No more. Wow! What a thrill it was to hear the shivery, staccato cascades of this rampaging Russian dance suite fly with equal parts abandon and minute focus from stage right.

The intensity continued courtesy of guest pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who stunned the crowd with a fiercely and similarly impassioned, marathon run through the fortissimo torrents and machinegunning virtuoso volleys of Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22. While the dynamically rich, goosebump-inducing High Romantic swells and dips through triumph and angst and finally more triumph in the end were centered in the piano, the orchestra is also highly engaged rather than a backdrop, and the lushness and frequent solo passages from throughout the group were robust and assured.

Concluding the program was a particularly ambitious multimedia performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, with violinist Bela Horvath in the solo spotlight with his silken, often downright plaintive resonance. There were also projections, and narrator Peninnah Schram in the role of “storyteller.” Many times an orchestra will provide a program listing the various points in a piece that illustrate one thing or another; Schram, with her precise, rhythmic cadences, kept perfect pace with the music as she related the story, a triumph of feminist pacifism over a power-and-grief-crazed tyrant.

Here’s where things got crazy, and not because the orchestra and Schram weren’t locked in, because they were. When the narration was audible, the effect was a refreshing change from, say, flipping through the program like you might do with a paperback edition of Shakespeare at Shakespeare in the Park to follow along with the plotline. Trouble is, it wasn’t always, and this was neither the fault of the orchestra – which Bernard kept on a steady, dynamic pace through the work’s famously austere, ambered quasi-orientalisms – nor Schram either. The problem was that the speakers she was running through were placed too close to the stage, and facing the crowd rather than, say, facing each further back, along the sidelines where sonic competition with the mighty group onstage wouldn’t have been an issue. And this wouldn’t even have been a factor had the orchestra been playing Jazz at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, both venues where they’ve performed before with richly good results.

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is December 6 at 3 PM at Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center, focusing on a theme of innovation and paradigm shifts, pairing Gershwin’s Concerto in F with pianist Ted Rosenthal alongside Bartok’s challenging, high-voltage Concerto for Orchestra.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Play Tschaikovsky in 3D

Sunday evening in the Gilded Age Irving Place auditorium they call home, the Greenwich Village Orchestra played an insightful, richly intuitive concert akin to the “composer portrait” series uptown at the Miller Theatre. The composer was Tschaikovsky: in a moneymaking mood, in a good mood, and also in a very bad mood. Stepping in for music director Barbara Yahr, guest conductor Pierre Vallet led the ensemble through a program that ran the kind of rollercoaster of emotion that you would expect from this composer’s music.

They opened with the Festival Coronation March, a last-minute Tsarist commission that was reportedly a rush job. It’s what you would expect, a full-on High Romantic anthem whose pomp and circumstance came across just muted enough to hint at camp without actually going there. Was Tschaikovsky being subtly sarcastic with this piece? Russian music is full of irony, and history always gives tyrants the short end of the stick…or leaves them at the end of a rope.

By contrast, the Violin Concerto, with soloist Siwoo Kim ably negotiating the lightning staccato passages that violinists of its era considered too challenging to play, was all about tough tasks and triumph: at the end, there was an unspoken but palpable sigh of relief, everyone in the ensemble with the look of “OMG, we actually got through this!” As he did with the opening number, Vallet established a very wide dynamic range early on, allowing for a high ceiling, which the group built to as seamlessly as can be done with such a technically demanding work.

But the piece de resistance was the Symphony No. 4. As the orchestra played it, it’s all about subtext. Was this, as the program notes asked, the lament of a closeted gay man trying to make the best of a bad situation in a homophobic society…or simply a self-portrait of a tortured artist? Either way, it worked. The angst was relentless when it had to be, particularly during the stalking, vamping second movement, which has become a template for horror film themes over the years. Bookending it were steady, similarly relentless themes that came across, in a far more subtle way, as being just as tormented, if in their dogged pursuit of something that seems just around the corner but never arrives: a suspense film for the ears.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert is Sunday, May 17 at 3 PM, with Yahr returning to the podium for a dramatic conclusion to their season featuring Rossini’s William Tell Overture, a music video with music by Berlioz performed with special guest mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell, and then Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Suggested donation is $20/$10 stud/srs, reception to follow.