New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: indie classical

An Intriguing Outdoor Concert of New Classical Works on the Water Next Week

A rare auspicious development that surfaced during the past sixteen months’ lockdown was that New York musicians became more resourceful than ever. Deprived of venues and concert stages, people improvised in more ways than usual, creating new spaces for audiences and players with a much greater inclusiveness than the old, profit-driven club model. One holdover from the days when indoor concerts were forbidden – not so long ago! – is a very intriguing outdoor show this July 21 at 7 PM where 21st century classical ensemble Contemporaneous play a program of new works by Alex Weiser, Zachary James Ritter, Yasmin Williams and toy pianist Lucy Yao, plus a world premiere by Yaz Lancaster at Pier 64 at 24th St. and the Hudson. The show is free with a rsvp.

For an idea of at least part of the bill, dial up Weiser’s 2019 album And All the Days Were Purple at Bandcamp. It’s a series of often very moving settings of poems from across the Jewish diaspora which the composer found during his archival research at the YIVO Institute, where until the lockdown he ran the public programming.

The first track is My Joy, a minimalist, slowly vamping setting of a regretful text by Anna Margolin, pianist Lee Dionne following a subtle upward trajectory in contrast with the hazy strings of violinist Maya Bennardo, violist Hannah Levinson and cellist Hannah Collins beneath soprano Eliza Bagg’s understatedly plaintive, soaring vocal.

The strings rise to swirls and subside, punctuated by dramatic shocks in the second track, a brief tone poem of sorts simply titled titled with an asterisk. It segues into a haunting setting of Edward Hirsch’s poem I Was Never Able to Pray, Bagg’s airy, austere delivery in contrast with a somber bell motif.

Longing, a very thinly disguised early 20th century erotic poem by Rachel Korn, follows a series of elegant, upwardly stairstepping figures. There’s a similar subtext in Poetry, a text by Abraham Sutzkever where Bagg channels a deep, soul-infused sound over a slowly drifting piano backdrop.

She takes an airier approach to Margolin’s Lines for Winter over Dionne’s insistent, reflecting-pool piano and the swells of the strings. A second asterisked instrumental interlude follows as a segue, awash in extended-technique strings, swooping and dipping microtonally and shedding high harmonics.

The album’s big, understatedly angst-fueled ballad is We Went Through the Day, which Bagg sings in the original Yiddish. The big concluding epic is Three Epitaphs, with text reflecting on the brevity of life by Williams Carlos Williams, Seikilos and Emily Dickinson. Percussionist Mike Compitello joins in the pointillism of the first part, Bagg’s long, resonant tones sailing overhead. A reflecting pool of echoes and then a wistfully drifting outro conclude this soberingly immersive collection.

A Slashingly Relevant New Album of New String Quartet Works From Quartet121

When Quartet121 put out a call for string quartet scores, they really scored! The ensemble – violinists Molly Germer and Julia Jung Un Suh, violist Lena Vidulich and cellist Thea Mesirow – are a magnet for world premieres. Their new album, simply titled Call for Scores – streaming at Bandcamp – comprises three acerbic and powerfully relevant new works.

The first piece is Rachel Beja‘s Punti Invisibili di Contatto, with a theme focusing on the tension between individuality and being part of a whole. The group flit through playful exchanges within lots of space, then the harmonies begin. Lots of extended technique is involved: percussive flickers, keening harmonics and slithery glissandos The more the piece coalesces, the more severe the harmonies and gestures become. A wicked slide signals a muted pedalpoint, but the rhythms remain unsettled the rest of the way: this is a posse of rugged individualists! A state anthem for South Dakota, or the freedom fighters in Beja’s native Israel, maybe?

Latvian composer Anna Ķirse’s electroacoustic Mundus Invisibilis, a contemplation of how the microscopic world influences the one we can see without magnification, is next. There’s computer-voiced text about the birth of a mushroom, then sheets of astringency balanced by plucky accents. The dynamics shift to a rhythmic insistence versus haze and brief poltergeist bursts. The mushroom eventually blooms with acidic tremoloing phrases and sharp, short, stabbing motives: not your typical forest-floor presence.

The final work is Mexican composer Rafael Rentería‘s Hashtag Capital Gore, a glitchier electroacoustic piece on themes of violence against women. The score calls for the performers to immerse their feet in buckets of ice while playing. They follow a series of brief crescendos, a forest of shivery tonalities that stops short of sheer horror, then the tension rises with greater intensity. There’s a false ending and a coda that’s too apt to give away. To the group’s credit, if they in fact put their feet into the ice for this, they don’t race to warm up again. As the world wakes up from the media-induced terror and paranoia of the past seventeen months and returns to normal, let’s hope this group continues on a path that’s off to a flying start.

A Far Cry Storm Back into Action at the Naumburg Bandshell

From 1905 through 2019, the Naumburg concerts in Central Park became one of the longest-running annual series in the history of music. It has been as much of a godsend to witness the return of these performances this year as it was tragic to lose them in 2020. Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell, huddled under their umbrellas in relentless rain that finally grew to monsoon proportions, a crowd of about a hundred undeterred concertgoers thunderously welcomed back a familiar presence on the stage here, seventeen-piece string ensemble A Far Cry.

They were just as happy to see the audience. This was the group’s first concert since February of last year. Violinist Jae Cosmos Lee mentioned that they’d played their share of webcasts and broadcasts, as just about every other ensemble that managed to stay together during the sixteen-month lockdown here in the northeast ended up doing. Still, he confided that his most sobering realization during that time was how crucial the relationship between performers and audience is. “Without you, all this would be…” he searched for a word, “Nothing!” This wasn’t just Sergeant Pepper trying to take all the girls home. This was sincere.

That energy was more electric than the sky overhead: Lee enthused that this was the group’s most exciting moment onstage, at least since a show in Slidell, Louisiana where it was “raining sideways” and one of the violinists burst into a solo version of Orange Blossom Special while her bandmates waited for the sky to clear.

Throughout this particular downpour, the music was transcendent in the purest sense of the word. They opened with Grieg’s Holberg Suite, bristling with dynamics, from the stiletto staccato of the first movement, black velvet resonance from bass and cellos in the anxious second part, and a lithe pulse throughout the baroque-tinged dances they wound it up with.

Joseph Bologne, a.k.a. Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a slightly older and very colorful contemporary of Mozart, is all the rage now, represented on this bill by a kinetically stately take of his 1778 Sinfonia Concertante Op. 13, No. 1, which has actually never been recorded. Maybe A Far Cry can jump on that bandwagon too.

The two pieces de resistance among many were a couple of Jessie Montgomery works. She’s one of us, Lower East Side born and bred, and the group did her justice with a plucky, emphatically circling, meticulously playful take of her 2012 work Strum for String Orchestra. And they luxuriated in the wealth of subtly cached microtones and slowly glissandoing swells in Source Code for String Orchestra, from a year later.

Silouan’s Song, a 1991 Arvo Part composition, made an apt segue with its somber, spaciously paced minimalism. The group closed with the High Romantic joy and angst and ultimate triumph of Teresa Carreno’s 1895 Serenade for Strings: a love song, a passionately wary waltz that offered a fond nod to Chopin, moments of pensive calm ceding to a heroic coda that simply would not be denied. Meanwhile, the cadences of the storm overhead seemed to be keeping pace with the music to the extent that the crowd started laughing whenever there would be a pause, or a crescendo capped off with a thunderclap or an explosion of rain.

This year’s Naumburg Bandshell concerts continue on July 20 at 7:30 PM with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra playing works by Purcell, John Blow and others. The recently renovated bandshell is a little closer to the west side; take the 72nd St. entrance and get there early – an hour and a half early isn’t too early – if you want a seat.

Cellist Arlen Hlusko Finds Mesmerizing Beauty in Scott Ordway’s New Solo Suite

Cellist Arlen Hlusko’s new recording of Scott Ordway’s Nineteen Movements for Unaccompanied Cello – streaming at the composer’s music page – is a bundle of contradictions: sprightly and immersive, old and new. Drawing equally on the baroque and current-day minimalism, it’s on the slow, pensive side, but with all sorts of dynamic shifts and demands on extended technique. Hlusko really sinks her teeth – and her bow, and her fingers – into this. It’s quite beautiful in its own austere way, emphatically rooted in the lows. Some of this could be a work for solo bass.

She begins the suite with a stately, minimal, circling baroque-tinged pizzicato theme which  instantly reveals the room’s rich natural reverb. She picks up her bow for the echoingly brief second movement, its long, rising tones and harmonically-spiced chords.

Her attack grows spikier and more forceful, occasionally with percussive boom or plucked glissandos, There are a handful of passages with striking low/high contrasts and uneasy close harmonies, as well as one centered around expressive allusions to a well-known Bach theme.

Movement nine has rich contrast between the almost feral attack of the first part and the wistful, wispy ending. From there, Hlusko shifts energetically from increasingly complex, raga-like variations around a pedal note, to aching, slowly crescendoing single-note lines, to what could be a fondly anthemic 19th century folk ballad. Ordway brings the suite full circle as a warmly resonant pavane.

A Box of Fresh Takeout From 2012

Of all the offbeat off-off-Broadway productions of the last decade, In Appetizing Proportions has to be one of the most original. Premiered at the now-defunct Tank in 2012, it parodied foodie memes and obsessions. Taking the meaning of slow food to new levels of deceleration, over the next eight years the musical members of the cast sporadically worked on a five-song ep of tracks from the show. Finally, this strangely compelling music is out and is streaming at Bandcamp.

The press release for the album describes it as “surreal scenes plucked from the thoughts of an Upper East Side woman attempting to cook her way into her mother-in-law’s good graces.” Guitarist Fritz Myers’ elegant, incisive compositions don’t seem to reference any specific kind of cuisine, or ingredients: you won’t hear anything that sounds remotely like Back at the Chicken Shack, or Rev. Vince Anderson’s tribute to fried lettuce, or the Cramps’ Don’t Eat Stuff Off the Sidewalk here. Clare Drobot’s lyrics are very straightforward, with surprisingly subtle humor.

The album begins with an austerely circling art-song in 6/8 time, Myers’ steady fingerpicking over Andie Tanning’s resonant violin. It’s probably the only song in history to have a lyric soprano (Samantha Britt, in an impressively focused, dramatic role) singing “chicken paillard.” Jay Vilnai‘s work for small ensemble comes to mind in places here.

Tanning’s violin sails on a sea of reverb in A Caloric Devotion, which is even more hypnotic and psychedelic beneath Britt’s unshakeable optimism and spine-tingling upper register: come hell or high water, she’s going to get this recipe right. Track three, Dumplings has even greater determination, if that’s possible.

Britt’s angst reaches fever pitch over contrastingly muted guitar and violin in Moral Obligation. The final track is I Float, a bittersweet, lemon-and-herb-flavored waltz of sorts.

2012: those were the days, weren’t they? Funny how the global death rate that year was practically identical to what it was in 2020. Yet back then, for some mysterious reason, we thought people who walked around wearing surgical masks were paranoid and creepy. And there were black-box theatres like the Tank where crowds of people would squeeze in to see strange, individualistic performances like this, and if anybody asked you for your phone number, you told them to go to hell. Freedom was so much fun!

Blythe Gaissert Tackles the Concept of Home in an Era of Refugees and Homelessness

What’s become more and more apparent as the lockdowers’ schemes continue to unravel is that a significant portion of the global population managed to keep the lockdown at bay. Yes, entire segments of the economy, most tragically the performing arts, were largely destroyed. But freedom proved too strong to die. We found places to shop and eat where nobody was traced or tracked or expected to be muzzled. When our favorite bars and restaurants were padlocked, we started speakeasies and threw potlucks. A lot of us entertained audiences in our newfound clandestine spaces. And some of us even made albums. One particularly noteworthy and fiercely relevant new release is mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert‘s album Home, streaming at Bandcamp.

Its central theme relates powerfully to the global refugee crisis, although it’s taken on frightening new levels of meaning since the lockdown. Joined by a dynamic, impassioned chamber ensemble, Gaissert has engaged an eclectic cast of composers and lyricists who range beyond the indie classical demimonde with which she is most closely associated.

She opens the album with David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s bracing Archaeology. Over a somber, steadily shifting backdrop from violinists Miho Saegusa and Katie Hyun, violist Jessica Meyer, cellist Andrew Yee and bassist Louis Levitt, Gaissert reaches for the rafters in this allusively ominous tableau: houses keep more secrets than anyone knows.

Gaissert sings in Chinese in Songs From Exile, a leaping yet pulsingly elegant diptych by Rene Orth utilizing an ancient Li Qing Zhao text, an expat’s view of absence and longing. The acidic glissandos from the strings in the second part are particularly disquieting.

Gaissert shifts to French for Nous Deux, Martin Hennessy‘s starkly string-fueled setting of a Paul Eluard text: “We ourselves are the evidence that love is at home with us,” is the crux of it. Laura Kaminsky and Kimberly Reed‘s Carne Barata (Chopped Meat) witheringly quotes immigrant Linda Morales’ cynical account of undocumented employees in the meatpacking industry. Colleen Bernstein’s vibraphone lingers beneath the opacity of the string section and Gaissert’s impassioned duet with baritone Michael Kelly.

She soars over Bradley Moore’s colorfully crescendoing piano in John Glover and Kelley Rourke‘s Home Is Where I Take My Shoes Off. a welcome moment of comic relief. The music calms with Kamala Sankaram‘s gorgeously ambered, wistfully imagistic Ramonanewyorkamsterdam.

The lush sway of Jerry Hammer, by Ricky Ian Gordon, belies the song’s creepy childhood reminiscence of the death of an outcast. Gaissert reaches to the depths of her register in the final composition, Bungalow, a diptych by Mikael Karlsson and Rob Stephenson. Its alternately blustery and seemingly Indian-influenced, nebulously swirling textures build levels of suspense that the lyrics never match. Otherwise, throughout this album, Gaissert has really nailed the angst of an era.

Arooj Aftab’s Misty, Organic New Album Transcends Tragedy

Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab’s new album Vulture Prince – streaming at Bandcamp – takes its title from a Parsi funeral custom, where a body is left for the vultures in order to continue the natural cycle of life. The backstory is grim: the singer lost her younger brother Maher while making the record. Somehow she found the perseverance to transcend that tragedy. The central theme is revisiting places, and situations, and people, who may not exist anymore. With the lockdowners still exerting an iron grip on much of the world, the album couldn’t be more relevant.

As usual, Aftab defies categorization. Several of these songs could be called ghazals, but the instrumentation is more jazz and art-rock oriented. Baghon Main is a verdantly catchy remake of a track from her debut album, Maeve Gilchrist opening the song with a flourish on her harp, then Petros Klampanis’ stately bass and Juliette Jones’ distant violin enter the picture. Aftab’s meticulously modulated voice has taken on additional gravitas and maybe even more nuance – if that’s possible! – in the the years since.. And it’s the key to the album. Instrumental voicings that would have been spun through a mixer earlier in her career are organic now – the echo and doppler-like effects from the violin, for example.

Diya Hai has a similarly catchy, spiky backdrop, Badi Assad supplying  acoustic guitar with Jones’ shivery violin entering later, Aftab’s gently emotive voice just as haunting. She keeps her melismas low-key and lustrous in Inayaat, awash in violin, Aftab’s spare, hypnotic piano contrasting with the incisive pings and ripples of the harp. Percussionist Jamey Haddad’s shift from a drifting, ghazal-like feel to an implied qawwali groove is a striking touch.

Aftab multitracks her vocals in the starkly catchy minor-key dub reggae tune Last Night, a setting of a Rumi love poem with a handful of lines in English. Mohabbat comes across as a gently undulating mashup of Elizabethan British folk and Punjabi devotional music, Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant trumpet calm above Gyan Riley’s guitar, the harp and the tremoloing lines of the violin.

Aftab’s misty intonation of her late friend Annie Ali Khan’s lyrics in Saans Lo – an encouragement to move on and the closest thing here to Aftab’s swirly, immersive earlier work – is unselfconsciously wrenching. She closes the album with Suroor, her hazy vocals contrasting with the lively, lightly processed harp and a dancing rhythm: as imaginatively arranged as this is, it’s the closest thing to a traditional ghazal here.

Sad and Anxious Choral Music for a Sad and Anxious Time

David Lang wrote his chorale Love Fail in 2012, long before the lockdown was anything other than a handful of World Economic Forum memos and hysterical flu-apocalypse memes bouncing around the web. But it’s an apt piece of music for this time in history. Loosely based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, Lang interpolates texts from sources as diverse as Lydia Davis, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, Béroul and Thomas of Britain into the narrative. All-female choir Quince Ensemble  sing this rather subtle theme and variations very matter-of-factly, in the style of a Renaissance motet, adding spare percussion in places. Their world premiere recording is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening segment, He Was and She Was is easily identiable as Lang: short syllables, subtle and almost imperceptible variations and harmonies that in this case draw on both early music and this era’s minimalism.The ensemble follow with Durreth, an allusive, stoic but melancholy miniature

A Different Man has glockenspiel and a distinctly Spanish tinge to the melody  By contrast, The Wood and the Wire is much more upbeat and soaring, and evocative of British counterpoint from the 17th century and before.

Right and Wrong is a web of simple deconstructed chromatic riffs. You Will Love Me has tantalizingly evanescent close harmonies, while Forbidden Subjects provides welcome feminist context and reminds how agillely Lang works space into his music.

The next variation, As Love Grows begins even more spacious but grows much more warily anthemic. Members of the group rise to the top of their voices in I Live in Pain – no wasted words there, huh? – over a rhythmic rondo of sorts.

The music grows much more sparse all of a sudden in Head, Heart and picks up only a little If I Have to Drown, a gruesome dilemma that Lang doesn’t foreshadow in the least until it arrives. There’s subtle irony in the otherworldly tones of the conclusion as well. Lang has been incredibly prolific lately and this is one of his more memorable work from the past decade.

Anna Heflin Blends Clever, Hilarious Spoken Word With Enigmatic New Music For Strings

Violist Anna Heflin calls her debut album The Redundancy of the Angelic – streaming at Spotify – “an interluding play.” Blending surrealistic, sometimes cut-and-pasted spoken word in between austere string themes, the record – which isn’t online yet – is alternately very serious and ridiculously amusing. Heflin is an acute observer and an imaginative composer; the push-pull of the album’s central dynamic ramps up the surreal factor. The album’s unifying and very best joke doesn’t reveal itself until the end, and it’s way too good to give away.

Tensely enunciating, Heflin opens the album with a disjointed poetic tableau, a beauty parlor recast as the center of a strangely benign universe. Then the music begins. A slowly sirening riff gives way to a close-harmonied string trio – Heflin with violinists Shannon Reilly and Emily Holden. Their alternately puckish, rhythmic and soberly spacious phrases and variations descend to a a hazy, hypnotic interlude, which they end up bringing full circle.

The second spoken word piece, Fell This Blonde, is devastatingly funny: let’s say it turns an ugly American beauty myth upside down. The strings return in As Above, So Below, first with an austere, stairstepping theme, then sandpapery harmonics and a hair-raising coda.

Heflin allusively ponders apocalyptic portents and escape therefrom in We Made It Out: ultimately, she’s optimistic. In Heflin’s closing pastiche poem, the joke is on the listener as she ties up all the loose ends, Hitchcock style: again, no spoilers.

Surrealistically Captivating Electroacoustic Solo Clarinet Sounds From Esther Lamneck

On one hand, clarinetist Esther Lamneck’s new album Sky Rings – streaming at Spotify – is primarily for fans of her axe, her silken sostenuto, her effortless legato and command of extended technique. On the other, devotees of adventurous new classical music ought to check it out. It’s a collection of six solo electroacoustic pieces, testifying to the fact that we’ve probably barely scratched the surface of how many solo records have been made in the fateful days since March 16 of last year. Often it’s hard to tell what’s an overdub and what’s getting reprocessed and spun back through the mix, enhancing the psychedelic factor.

The opening piece is Lars Graugaard‘s Quiet Voice. It begins as a wafting reverbtoned soundscape that picks up slowly: the distantly chimey multitracks sound suspiciously like the mixer picking up the clicking of the keys. A loopy, uneasy, chromatic phrase hints at the development of more anthemic melody, then Lamneck fires off a sudden cadenza akin to a stone hitting a pond. The sonic thicket grows thicker and more flutelike, even as it’s balanced by fliting low notes against the trills and leaps. Playfully bubbly phrasing alternates with austere atmospherics as she winds up this colorful showpiece.

The album’s title track, by Michael Matthews, has a bracing,, heavy-gamelanesque electronic introduction that gives way to lively allusions to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time and dynamically shifting variations which come full circle almost imperceptibly.

Kyong Mee Choi‘s Ceaseless Cease gives Lamneck alternately drifting and playfully percussive backdrops for leaps and bounds as well as more pensive phrasing that eventually weaves into a sort of catch-and-follow. She airs out her blues phrasing in the intro of Ihbtby, by Paul Wilson, a minimalist take on a Gershwinesque stroll; from there,surreal ambience alternates with hectic flutters.

Although it’s awash in gritty harmonics and keening duotones, Michal Rataj‘s Small Imprints is the most straightforward and subtly playful number here. Lamneck winds up the record with David Durant’s rather brooding Faji, sailing tersely and then glissandoing frenetically over an ominous series of noirish electronic textures and accents.