New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: indie classical

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Bring Their Haunting, Otherworldly Exploration of Near-Death Themes to the French Institute

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s latest album, Crossing Over – streaming at Spotify – is as haunting a collection of music as has been released over the past year. It’s meant to be. Making their way through a dynamic mix of works from around the globe and the past hundred years or so, with an emphasis on contemporary composers, the lustrous choir explore themes addressing an end-of-life dream state and the prospect of life after death. They’re bringing their rapt intensity to a concert at the French Institute/Alliance Française, 55 E 59th St. on April 27 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be singing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine along with stark American Civil War hymns. Tix are $30, $10 for students, and worth it.

The album opens with Daniel Elder’s Elegy and its somberly memorable variations on a stark three-chord theme based on the familiar trumpet tune Taps, punctuated by an energetic soprano solo. The group follows that with John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, an eight-part suite of mostly Japanese haiku-inspired miniatures. A calm processional sets the stage for brief variations that vary from more hazy to disarmingly direct and minimalist, to fluttering and echoey, often anchored by an unwavering resonance. The suite concludes with the warily anthemic The Butterfly, an austere Acoman Indian folk tune and an overture on the main theme. Hardly easy material to sing, but the performance is steely and focused.

Nicolai Kedrov’s brief Otche Nash maintains the steady, sober ambience, followed by Jón Leifs’ Requiem with its cavatina-like pulse and low//high contrasts. The harmonies grow denser and more nebulous, then pair off in treble and bass registers in the dynamically shifting, brooding John Donne-inspired Heliocentric Meditation, by Robert Vuichard.

The melodies leap around more in William Schuman’a triptych Carols of Death, although they’re far from celebratory and awash in tense close harmonies. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Heyr þú oss himnum á has the stately pace of a medieval funeral procession. Strange as it is to say, this new setting of an ancient psalm is a lot more upbeat than the rest of the composer’s vast, spacious work. The album concludes with a final hymn-like Tavener piece, Funeral Ikos.

Bearthoven Take a Bite Out of the Accessible Side of the Avant Garde

Bearthoven’s piano/bass/percussion lineup would be as orthodox as orthodox gets if they were a jazz trio, In the world of indie classical and chamber music, that’s a much less likely configuration. The eclectic, disarmingly tuneful debut album by pianist Karl Larson, Gutbucket bassist Pat Swoboda and Tigue percussionist Matt Evans, aptly titled Trios, features the work of six cutting-edge composers and is due to be streaming this May 5 at the Cantaloupe Music Bandcamp page. They’re playing the album release show at 7:15 sharp on April 18 at the Poisson Rouge; advance tix are $15.

A lot of this music follows a rapid, steady staccato rhythm that is maddeningly difficult to play, but the trio make it sound easy. Brooks Frederickson’s catchy, anvilling, minimalist Undertoad opens the album, a steady but intricate and subtly polyrhythmic web of melody. A little later on, Ken Thomson’s Grizzly follows a similar tangent with bells, both struck and bowed, dancing through the mix as it brightens, then descends into the murk briefly only to emerge re-energized. By contrast, Anthony Vine’s From a Forest of Standing Mirrors moves glacially and raptly through an Arvo Part-like haze to slightly more kinetic, distantly Japanese-flavored belltones.

Fjóla Evans’ tone poem Shoaling explores individual voicings within a group arrangement, rising out of almost imperceptible, shifting fogbanks of sound to a series of grimly catchy low-register piano melodies within the smoky vortex. Larson’s subtly dynamic yet forceful attack pierces the surface above his bandmates’ bowed bass and other instruments. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s atmospheric/arrestive dichotomies come to mind: it’s album’s the most intense and captivating track.

Simple Machines, by Brendon Randall-Myers is a a cleverly and dauntingly arranged series of polyrhythmic melodies, its motorik cadence interrupted by the closest thing to free jazz here on its way to a triumphant, cinematic sweep. The album’s final piece is Adrian Knight’s uneasily serene The Ringing World, which appropriates its title from the journal of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Swoboda’s wispy harmonics flit like ghosts in a churchyard amidst Mompou-like belltones played in unison by Larson and Evans on piano and bells. 

As accessible as it is cutting-edge, this album could go a long way toward changing plenty of misconceptions. As if we need more proof that this century’s serious concert music isn’t all necessarily awkward and spastic, this is it.

Olga Bell’s Irreverently Funny, Relevant Lincoln Center Debut Trumps Adversity

Olga Bell is hilarious. In her American Songbook debut at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse last night, the Russian-born art-rock/avant garde keyboardist/singer validated a brave piece of booking, in the process triumphing over all sorts of adversity. This was a tough gig from the git-go. Cheefing on what seemed like a bottomless thermos til it was gone, then finally switching to water, she battled a cold along with some unfamiliar gear that malfunctioned to the point of threatening to completely derail her show. But she persevered, cheerfully breaking the fourth wall when she wasn’t mercilessly pillorying the yuppie careerism, incessant status-grubbing and money obsessions of gentrifier-era Brooklyn, which she now calls home.

And she did it with more than just her lyrical jabs, which turned out to be a lot subtler than her musical barbs. Those drew the heartiest laughs from a sold-out audience of well-heeled twentysomethings whose mere presence in Manhattan on a Friday night was something of a surprise: turns out that not everyone in zip code 11221 is petrified of being geotagged outside it.

When she hit her pitch pedal and ran her vocals through a toddler-voice patch to make fun of a guy who’s too big for his britches, and then a little later turned the kiss-off anthem Power User into phony hip-hop, the crowd roared. She had similar fun with her electronics and all the loops she’d stashed away in her sequencer, particularly a Bernie Worrell-style low bass synth setting that she worked for every droll riff she could think of.

Her between-song patter also had edge and bite. Acknowledging that for her, this gig spelled revenge for having been rejected by the Juilliard folks a few floors below, she played elegantly nuanced, neoromantically-tinged piano when she wasn’t fiddling with her mixer, or loading a stubborn loop device, or feeding layers of melody into an arpeggiator. Such things exist: clearly, there’s a market among players who prefer chords instead. She namechecked “aspirational hipsters,” including the guy at the corner bar who’s on the take more than he’s on the make.

“Wherefore art thou, Doppio?” she posed to another would-be romantic doofus. Even the simpler, techier, disco-oriented numbers were laced with taunts and sarcasm, particularly Stomach It and Your Life Is a Lie, among other tracks from her 2016 album Tempo. Toward the end of the show, she was joined by cellist Andrea Lee for a moody Russian border-rock ballad from the 2014 album Krai, and then soul singer Sarah Lucas, who belted out one of the more pop-oriented electronic numbers. Bell encored with a vaudevillian piano tune about finding romance on the L train, which she’d written in 2006 for the Rockwood Music Hall open mic. Who knew there was once such a thing – and who knew that somebody who played there would someday headline at Lincoln Center.

This year’s American Songbook series continues to venture much further afield than the theatre music and pop hits from the 1930s and 40s that it was created for almost twenty years ago. There are two Kaplan Penthouse shows next week that deserve special mention: on Tuesday, March 28 at 8 PM, the Cactus Blossoms, who have an eerie resemblance to the Everly Brothers, bring their rapturous harmonies and disconsolate Americana ballads. And the following night, March 29, powerhouse Ghanian-born oldschool soul belter Ruby Amanfu leads her band.

A Rare New York Appearance by Haunting Norwegian Soundscaper Deathprod

For more than twenty-five years, Helge Sten a.k.a. Deathprod has been creating hauntingly provocative sounds that are impossible to turn away from. Elements of minmalism, Eno-esque soundscapes, spectral, microtonal and film music all factor into what he does, but he transcends genre. Three of his European cult favorite albums – Treetop Drive, Imaginary Songs from Tristan da Cunha, and Morals and Dogma are being reissued by Smalltown Supersound and are all scheduled to be streaming at Bandcamp (follow the preceding three links or bookmark this page) He’s playing a rare New York live show on March 28 at around 9 at Issue Project Room, 22 Boerum Place in downtown Brooklyn; cover is $15/$12 stud/srs.

On the triptych that comprises three-quarters of Treetop Drive, originally released in 1994, the instruments are Sten’s “audio virus” and Hans Magnus Ryan’s violin. Steady minor-key chordal washes build a hypnotic backdrop, finally infiltrated by flitting, sepulchral shivers. A ghostly choir of sorts joins as the waves rise, and almost as if on cue, a wintry seaside tableau emerges. The second part, an assaultive industrial fugue, has a similarly insistent, pulsing quality. The spoken-word sample in the unexpectedly catchy, allusively motorik conclusion addresses a death fixation in late 20th century society that extends even to young children: creepy, at the very least. The final cut, Towboat, juxtaposes a calm minor arpeggio against waves of chaotic industrial noise

On 2004’s Morals and Dogma, Ryan also plays harmonium on one track, joined by Ole Henrik Moe on violin. The approach is more enveloping and layered: distant echoes of breaking waves, thunder, perhaps bombs and heavy artillery, are alluded to but never come into clear focus, raising the suspense and menace throughout the opening track, Trom. The almost nineteen-minute Dead People’s Things filters shivery flickers of violin, and then what could be a theremin, throughout a muted, downcast quasi-choral dirge. Orgone Donor, awash in a haze of shifts between major and minor, reaches for serenity – but Sten won’t allow anything so pat as a calm resolution. The final, enigmatically and ominously nebulous piece, Cloudchamber, is aptly titled. Heard at low volume, it could be soothing; the louder it gets, the more menacing it becomes. Perhaps Sten is telling us that just like life, death is what you make of it.

Looking Back at Some Wild String Madness at Barbes

Violist/composer Leanne Darling is the rare stellar classical musician who can school you with her improvisations. In the early part of this decade, she made a mark as part of the ambitious, dazzlingly eclectic Trio Tritticali. As she proved in that group, she’s as at home with latin and Middle Eastern music, string metal and funk as she is with the classics she was trained to play. She has a flair for quirky, sometimes hilarious arrangements of pop and rock hits. Much as she can be very entertaining, she can also be very poignant: it wouldn’t be overhype to put her on the same page with Jessica Pavone and Ljova Zhurbin.

The last time she was onstage and this blog was in the house, it was last year at Barbes and she was playing with wild chamber ensemble Tom Swafford’s String Power. And it was 4/20. But as much as there was a lot of improvisation going on, it wasn’t a 4/20 kind of show: everybody was pretty much on the same page. Considering how much time has passed since then, it’s hard to remember who was onstage other than the violinist/bandleader, Darling, and bassist Dan Loomis. Her old Trio Tritticali cello bandmate Loren Dempster, maybe? Patti Kilroy on violin, if memory serves right, with a handful of other string players? Regardless, the performance represented everybody well.

They opened with a striking, emphatically swaying baroque number – Pachelbel, maybe? – with a series of tightly wound solos and cadenzas from throughout the group. Swafford’s arrangement of the Velvets classic Venus in Furs was closer to Vivaldi than Lou Reed, full of neat counterpoint and polyrhythms that took on a menacing swirl as the individual group members diverged from the center, Swafford taking a shivery, slithery solo that would have made John Cale smile.

The first of Darling’s arrangements, Boogie Wonderland, was the funnest part of the evening. It’s surprising that only a few punk bands have covered it. Darling’s chart turned it into a constantly shifting exchange of voices. Later in the set she and the group had fun with another one of her charts, turning a schlocky dance-pop hit by Muse into something approaching Radiohead. And Bohemian Rhapsody was as over-the-top hilarious as it possibly could have been, as ridiculously fun as the Main Squeeze Orchesta’s accordion version. That kind of insanity aside, the high point of the evening was Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab Egyptian classic Azizah.

If memory serves right – a dubious proposition at this point – they might have done a Mingus tune, a twisted mashup of psychedelia and bluegrass, and something that sounded like My Brightest Diamond without lyrics but wasn’t. Much as this is Swafford’s project, Darling played an important part in it, and her own groups are just as much fun. If you’re wondering why this blog would wait this long to cover the show, it’s because Darling had a Williamsburg gig scheduled for this week that apparently got cancelled: watch this space for upcoming performances. 

Two Brilliant World Premieres and a Masterful Interpretation of a Classic from the Chelsea Symphony

That the Chelsea Symphony’s Powerglide tour of the iconic vistas in Dvorak’s New World Symphony Friday night was upstaged by two world premieres speaks to both the quality of those works as well as the orchestra’s commitment to establishing them in the symphonic repertoire. With meticulous attention to detail, conductor Miguel Campos Neto first led the group through Danny Gray’s Summer Mountains, the winning piece from this season’s Chelsea Symphony composition competition.

Although inspired by eleventh century Chinese landscape portraiture, there’s nothing Asian about it: Gray could just as easily have called it Appalachian Spring. As the work built from distant but purposeful impressionism to awestruck brass riffs, it came across as something akin to Copland but without the fussiness. That, and Dvorak.

As it went on, a couple of dreamy, lustrous interludes referenced the night’s most famous work; otherwise, Gray utilized just about every available instrument, section of the orchestra and tonality. It’s a colorful, programmatic piece. A playfully brief interlude from the percussion section, and then towering heights fueled by brass and wind soloists were balanced with a couple of mystical idylls  and a surprise nocturne of an outro. Throughout the piece, solos were crystalline and distinct; the same was true of the work’s counterpoint and textural contrasts. The was one muddy moment where a flurry of percussion drowned out the strings, but that wouldn’t have been an issue in a larger venue.

Soloist Sarah Haines’ role in premiering Michael Boyman’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra had its virtuoso passages, most striking in a coldly enigmatic, slithery chromatic riff and variations. Yet more often than not, she served as anchor while a succession of dark, often Shostakovian melodies rose and fell around her. Boyman is also a violist, which made perfect sense in context. Cumulo-nimbus low brass loomed large against the litheness of the viola, strings and winds, a brooding, recurrent trope. A rather cynical, dancing scherzo gave way to a boisterous neoromantic crescendo and mighty upward swirl in the coda, a succession of nocturnal motives that again referenced Dvorak at his most lustrous. This moody, mighty suite very vividly reflects our current state of unease: it would resonate powerfully with a global audience.

The orchestra’s silkiness in the most low-key passages of Dvorak’s most famous piece gave Campos Neto a high ceiling for some absolutely bellicose heroic melodies along with wary calls across the plains from sentries and scouts. Chariots swung low and hard and Old Man River was foreshadowed mightily from the current, amid homey familiarity. This performance more than did justice to the ongoing New World Initiative instigated by the NY Philharmonic, an apt choice of a piece to be programmed at venues across this city in an era when the descendants of the African-Americans whose melodies Dvorak appropriated are facing perils that for awhile we thought we’d left behind in another century.

For eleven years now, the Chelsea Symphony have been introducing important, relevant new works while lending their signature flair to standard repertoire. Their next concerts are Friday, April 21 at 8:30 PM and then Saturday, April 22 at 7:30 at St. Paul’s German Church, 315 W 22nd St. off of 8th Ave. featuring an Aaron Dai world premiere plus music of Bach, Stravinsky, Carl Busch, Samuel Magrill and Henri Vieuxtemps. Suggested donation is $20.

Rising Star Composer Ayumi Okada Brings Her Vivid, Picturesque, Cinematic Sounds to Upper Manhattan

Pianist/composer Ayumi Okada writes vivid, cinematic songs without words. Her music is full of stories, and humor, and unselfconscious depth. Much as her sense of melody is appealingly consonant, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a neoromantic: she’s most at home in the borderlands with Debussy and Ravel. A composer-performer, she’s premiering a new piano quintet with a first-class chamber ensemble including star cellist James Waldo on March 10 at 7:30 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 20 Cumming St. in Washington Heights. The group will also play music of Dvorak, Bach, Johann Goldberg, Caroline Shaw and Doug Balliett; admission is $15/$10 stud. Take the 1 train to Dyckman St.

Okada’s debut album is Here, Where the Land Ends and the Sea Begins – streaming at Spotify  – a beguiling mix of chamber works. It opens with Okada’s String Quartet No. 1 a steady, bittersweetly theme with echoes of Dvorak and baroque-inflected counterpoint that gives way to a stormily dancing pulse which she elegantly ends up bringing full circle. There’s an arthouse film with a philosophical poignancy that needs this for when the main titles roll, a strongly voiced performance by Waldo, violinists Karen Dekker and Meredith Ezinma Ramsay and violist Rose Hashimoto.

The second work, Cape Roca has a similarly picturesque sweep, Waldo’s austere lines against resonant glimmer and then gracefully ornamented neoromanticism from pianist Alyona Aksyonova. The miniature A Walk in the Park is a showcase for Okada’s playful sense of humor, Aksyonova’s devious leaps and bounds in tandem with peek-a-boo clarinet from Yumi Ito bookending a momentary cloud passing across the sky.

Okada’s Piano Trio No. 1, with the standard orchestration of piano, violin and cello hints at chromatic Shostakovian menace in between stately Piazzolla-esque passages and hints of late Romanticism. The album concludes with a triptych, the Light Princess Suite. Aksyonova plays a majestically enigmatic, emphatically waltzing theme over Waldo’s austere washes in the first movement. The second, where the rest of the strings join in, is awash in moody high/low, still/kinetic contrasts in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s more airy chamber works. Once again, Waldo’s starkness grounds the piano’s dancing, Debussyesque figures as the suite winds out, artfully shifting meters. It’s Okada at her most colorful and picturesque: this intrepidly dancing  creature takes a lot of detours, but she can’t be stopped.

An Irresistible, Globally Eclectic Show by Elektra Kurtis and the PubliQuartet

Violinist Elektra Kurtis’ latest album  is a fiery, often explosive electric jazz record. But she has many different sides. Last night at the Cornelia Street Cafe, she showed off as much elegance as kinetic energy in a completely acoustic set featuring irrepressibly adventurous indie classical ensemble the PubliQuartet.

She opened solo with a bravura Mozart interlude and closed the night with a full quintet arrangement of one of her signature originals, blending elements of flamenco, Romany dances and tarantella into a lithely stormy, polyrhythmic exchange of voices. An earlier piece, also featuring the quintet, resembled the work of Per Norgard with its enigmatically eerie, steady microtonal motion.

After a couple of flamenco-flavored solo original miniatures, Kurtis brought up Publiquartet violinist Curtis Stewart, who played a raptly hazy solo pastorale: the video for the song made it into the Inwood Film Festival, which makes sense since that’s where he’s from. Then the two violinists exchanged voices deftly throughout a neo-baroque Kurtis piece.

She then left the stage to the quartet. Valencia, a North Atlantic seaside tableau by Caroline Shaw juxtaposed ethereal, saline astringencies with churning, subtly polyrhythmic riffage circulating throughout the ensemble – violinist Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel and cellist Amanda Gookin – who then tackled the evening’s most surreal number, David Biedenbender‘s Surface Tension. It was inspired by a weird dream where a simple glass of water took on the texture of putty and other unexpected substances. Norpoth took care in explaining its strange elasticity, then the ensemble brought its slithery, uneasy shapeshifting trajectory to life, a showcase for pouncing, emphatic voices throughout the group.

Matthew Browne’s Great Danger, Keep Out illustrated what kind of havoc can result when a Tesla coil explodes: Norpoth called it “fiery” and she wasn’t kidding. The Publiquartet’s next gig is with wild, ambitiously carnivalesque large jazz ensemble the Cyborg Orchestra, led by Josh Green at National Sawdust at 7 PM on March 2; $30 advance tix are available. Kurtis plays frequently at the Cornelia; watch this space for upcoming dates. 

A Darkly Intense New String Album and a Release Show from Edgy Composer Molly Joyce

As if we need more proof that Monday is the new Saturday night, on March 6 at 6:30 PM there’s an enticing indie classical performance on the Lower East Side. It’s free with a rsvp, and there’s a reception afterward. The main enticement is that violinist Kristin Lee, concertmaster of the Metropolis Ensemble will be playing the release show for composer Molly Joyce’s intense, acerbic ep Lean Back and ‘Release (streaming at Bandcamp). As a bonus, the composer will also premiere her new work for toy organ and electronics, ominously titled Form and Deform. The show is at the new gallery space that just opened at 1 Rivington St. just off Bowery. It’s about equidistant from the 2nd Ave. F stop and the J/M at Bowery.

There are just two tracks on this edgy little album, performed by violinists Adrianna Mateo and Monica Germino with unobtrusive electronic touches. The title cut, clocking in around seven minutes, is a stinging study in tension slowly unwinding. built around a rather haunting chromatic riff, descending from icy, airy heights to a nebulous swirl and an eventual, rewarding calm. Getting there isn’t easy: it’s hard to turn away from.

The other track follows a similarly dark but ultimately triumphant trajectory, a human-versus-machine tableau built on variations on an octave. All the more impressive considering that this is Joyce’s debut release. Fans of cutting-edge, intense string music would be crazy to miss this. What else are you doing after work on a Monday night, anyway?

Cocooning in Soho with Bing and Ruth

It took until about the halfway point in Bing and Ruth’s album release show last night at the Greene Space before the brunette in the front row finally rested her head on the shoulder of the adjacent sweaterboy. New Yorkers have been cocooning a lot lately: it’s hard to think of a more apt, or possibly more hopeful soundtrack for quiet reflection than the ensemble’s new record No Home of the Mind – available on vinyl and streaming at WNYC – which they played from start to finish.

Pianist David Moore has scaled down the original scope of the band from almost a dozen members to the current five, in the process further concretizing his signature blend of minimalism, indie classical and electroacoustic trance music. As the group’s instrumentals segued from one into another, they brought to mind acts as diverse as Anton BagatovDawn of Midi without the thump, George Winston without the sentimentality, or even Bruce Hornsby if he’d gone into minimalism after his time with the Grateful Dead.

What was most impressive was how little the group relies on electronics. Other acts would take Moore’s looping phrases and have a pedal do all the heavy lifting. Not Moore: it’s one thing to play his gnomic clusters, and elegant arpeggios, and Philip Glass-ine phrases once with perfect timing; Moore did it over and over, with unwavering intonation and touch and rhythm and made it seem easy. Much of the time, he had his eyes closed. Clarinetist Jeremy Viner, who supplied subtly shifting shades enhanced by a pedalboard, might have opened his once during about 45 minutes onstage. The two bassists – Greg Chudzik and Jeff Ratner – took different roles, one anchoring the music with a series of low drones, the other playing higher up the fingerboard and adding the occasional, understatedly emphatic slow glissando. Mike Effenberger sat stage left, running the sound through a series of mixers, sometimes for minute timbral shirts or oscillations, occasionally for dramatic low-versus-high effect. Moore began with his most energetic phrasing, segued down toward enigmatic ambience, took a turn into minor keys for the night’s most acerbic moments and ended on a warmly nocturnal note. 

Considering that Bing and Ruth usually play much larger spaces, it was something of a shock to see that the intimate Greene Space – a former deli about the same size as Hifi Bar – wasn’t sold out. Then again, everyone’s cocooning these days. Bing and Ruth’s next New York show is on April 10 at the San Damiano Mission, 85 N 15th St in Williamsburg, time/price TBA.

Just for the record, there is nobody with either the name Bing or Ruth in Bing and Ruth. There’ve been thousands of illustrious Ruths over the centuries; beyond a crooner of cheesy 1930s pop hits, a baseball executive, and the world’s most useless search engine, there haven’t been too many Bings. Here’s to this group for redeeming the name.