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The 20 Best New York Concerts of 2020 Which Can Be Publicly Discussed

When Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator and ordered a lockdown of the state of New York on March 16, that didn’t stop musicians from playing, or prevent crowds from coming out to see them. Chances are that most of the players you know have been doing underground shows since then. But because a lot of those performances were forbidden under lockdown regulations, careers could be jeopardized if the Cuomo regime were to find out about them.

Someday the whole story can be told and those artists, and their supporters, can receive due credit for their heroism, for helping to keep hope alive when it seemed there was none. For the time being, here’s a salute to the artists who played the year’s most entertaining shows before the lockdown, as well as a handful who played dictatorially approved gigs in the time since.

There were three multiple-night stands this past year that deserve special mention. Over the course of barely a couple of weeks in February, the Danish String Quartet played the entire Beethoven cycle at Alice Tully Hall. The group’s chops are world-class, but it was their insight, and attention to detail, and flair for picking up on both the hilarity and the angst in the immortal works as well as the more obscure parts of that repertoire that made those sold-out evenings so unforgettable.

At the end of January, Juilliard staged an equally memorable series of concerts featuring mostly obscure works by women composers from over the past couple of centuries. The quality of the material, as well as the student ensembles’ performances, were astonishingly strong. Much as it was rewarding to see some better-known works like the Ruth Crawford Seeger String Quartet, and Grażyna Bacewicz’s withering second Cello Concerto on the bill, it was even more fascinating to discover pieces like Israeli composer Verdina Shlonsky’s phantasmagorical 1949 piano suite Pages From the Diary. along with dozens of chamber and symphonic pieces, practically all of them New York premieres. Juilliard’s Joel Sachs, who programmed the shows and tracked down the material, deserves immense credit for what was obviously a mammoth job. Too bad concerts at Juilliard no longer officially exist – and unless we get rid of the lockdown, the continued existence of Juilliard itself is imperiled.

And, of course, in the middle of January there was Golden Fest, New York’s wild, annual Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music event, which always raises the bar impossibly high for the rest of the year. Slashing, female-fronted Russian Romany party band Romashka, slinky brass band Slavic Soul Party, the volcanic Raya Brass Band, the even louder rembetiko heavy metal band Greek Judas, agelessly soulful Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian, a rare New York appearance by the Elem All-Stars, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers”  – romping original klezmer band Litvakus and the Navatman Music Collective – this hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir – were highlights among dozens of other acts over the course of about ten hours of music.

In keeping with the annual tradition here, the rest of the concerts are listed in chronological order. 2020 was looking so good until the lockdown, wasn’t it!

Andrew Henderson at St. Thomas Church, 1/5/20
The organist played a sometimes stately, sometimes thrilling program of works by Buxtehude, Howells, Reger and others

 Linda Draper at the American Folk Art Museum, 1/10/20
With her calm, resonant chorister voice, the eclectic songwriter mixed up edgy earlier material as well as several characteristically, pensively intense, lyrically brilliant new songs.

Sara Serpa at the Zurcher Gallery, 1/11/20
This era’s most luminously haunting jazz singer/composer aired out a soaring, immersive mix of new material featuring brilliant guitarist Andre Matos and keyboardist Dov Manski

The Susan Alcorn Quintet at Winter Jazzfest, 1/11/20
This era’s great jazz pedal steel player mixed up a set full of new material, by turns immersively haunting, raptly atmospheric and sometimes riotously funny

Mames Babagenush in the Curry Hill neighborhood. 1/12/20
This supremely tight but feral Danish klezmer band started out in the afternoon in a church basement and ended the night with a crazed coda at a scruffy hotel. A lot of aquavit was involved: it didn’t phase them. And they’d just played Golden Fest the previous night.

Souren Baronian and Big Lazy at Barbes, 1/24/20
The octogenarian king of Middle Eastern jazz followed by the similarly slinky, minor key-fixated, chillingly cinematic and strangely danceable noir soundtrack band at the top of their game. Best twinbill of the year.

Saawee at Flushing Town Hall. 2/21/20
Violinist Sita Chay and percussionist Jihye Kim’s all-female Korean dance-and-ritual group summoned the spirits via a witchy, hypnotic, delicately shamanic performance

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore at Barbes, 2/22/20
With his otherworldly, crystalline trumpet, edgy Balkan chromatics and wry sense of humor, Holmes’ trio with guitarist Brad Shepik and percussionist Shane Shanahan built biting variations on subtly familiar klezmer themes.

Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin play a live movie score at Temple Ansche Chesed, 2/23/20
The iconic klezmer violinist and her pianist collaborator delivered a dynamic mix of haunting traditional tunes, spirited originals and some coy classical interludes as a live score to E.A. Dupont’s irrepressibly sweet, groundbreaking 1923 German silent film The Ancient Law

Lara Ewen at Rockwood Music Hall, 2/24/20
Well known as the impresario behind the amazing, mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays concert series that ran for years at the American Folk Art Museum before being put on ice by the lockdown, Ewen is also a songwriter of note. And a hell of a singer, and a storyteller, and she’s really come into her own as an acoustic guitarist.

Jackson Borges at the organ at Central Synagogue, 2/25/20
Another excellent, long-running performance series that bit the dust when Cuomo’s insane lockdown regulations were imposed was organist Gail Archer’s semimonthly Prism Organ Concerts in midtown. Borges was the latest of a long line of global performers to play there, with a dynamic mix ranging from a majestic Mendelssohn sonata, to many more obscure works

Nicholas Capozzoli at St. Thomas Church, 3/1/20
What, another organ concert? Hey, this past year officially got cut off in mid-March. And this was a rousing one, with another mighty Mendelssohn sonata plus airy modern works by Leguay and Peters

Slavic Soul Party at Barbes, 3/3/20
Their mainstage show at Golden Fest was all the more traditional, blazing Balkan stuff. This one had the hip-hop, and the funk, and the James Brown and the Ellington. With breaks for European tours, they played this little Brooklyn boite just about every week for fifteen years until the lockdown.

The Vienna Yiddish Duo at the  Austrian Cultural Center, 3/10/20
A rare mix of edgy, Moldovan-flavored versions of klezmer classics as well as some ubiquitously familiar sounds from extrovert pianist Roman Grinberg and virtuoso clarinetist Sasha Danilov

Dolunay at Barbes, 3/12/20
Another one of the many Golden Fest bands on this list, playing an undulating, plaintive set of Turkish laments and originals…with just three people in the audience for most of the night.

The Pedro Giraudo Tango Quartet at Barbes, 3/14/20
The possibly last-ever indoor crowd at the historic Park Slope venue gathered for a sweeping, gorgeous set of originals and a couple of Piazzolla classics.

The American Symphony Orchestra String Quartet at Bryant Park, 9/14/20
The first of two outdoor shows featuring works by black composers was an alternately stirring and stark mix of material by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery and William Grant Still.

And that’s where it ends. Get ready for some fireworks in 2021!

A Landmark Weeklong Celebration of Brilliant Women Composers at Juilliard

If you follow this page, you’re familiar with the ugly truth that as recently as 2015, this country’s major symphony orchestras were performing music written by women less than two percent of the time. For a lot of those orchestras, that’s about once a year. That 25% of the New York Philharmonic s programming this year will be writtten by women – as part of the orchestra’s Project 19 initiative – is enough to bump that dial significantly. It’s about time.

And just as significantly, Juilliard devoted the entirety of their Focus 2020 series, which wound up last week, to women composers. Just think: some of the rising-star talent there may take some of those pieces with them when they graduate. This blog was not present for the full seven days, but did devote an entire work week to discovering some of the most riveting rare repertoire played in this city this year.

You can’t find most of this material on youtube, or anywhere on the web, either. The amount of work that Juilliard’s Joel Sachs and his crew put into casting a net for more than a century’s worth of scores is mind-blowing. But a global network answered his SOS, and the result was not only a consistently strong mix of mostly undiscovered treasures, but also some very smartly conceived programming. As closing night last Friday at Alice Tully Hall proved, it was possible to pull together a whole night of percussion-driven, noir-tinged symphonic material, all written by women. That these works aren’t already famous testifies to the barriers their creators had to overcome.

Tragically, some of them didn’t. One of the festival’s most eye-opening and darkest works was the solo piano suite Pages From the Diary, a more brief but equally carnivalesque counterpart to Pictures at an Exhibition written in 1949 by Israeli composer Verdina Shlonsky. We don’t know if it was ever performed in her lifetime; she died in obscurity in 1990. It was part of the Monday night program, played with dynamic verve by Isabella Ma. One has to wonder how many thousands of other Verdina Shlonskys there may have been.

Was the highlight of the Tuesday night program Vivian Fine’s Emily’s Images, a vividly jeweled suite of miniatures for piano and flute, or the saturnine blend of gospel gravitas and Gershwinesque flair in Florence Price’s Piano Sonata, played with steely confidence by Qilin Sun? It was hard to choose: it also could have been Young-Ja Lee’s dynamically bristling, subtly Asian-tinged, intriguingly voiced piano trio Pilgrimage of the Soul. The night ended with a couple of early Mary Lou Williams piano pieces, reminding that before she reinvented herself as a composer of gospel-inspired jazz and classical music, she was a big draw on the jazz and blues circuit, a formidable counterpart to James P. Johnson.

Without question, the high point of the Wednesday program was the Ruth Crawford Seeger String Quartet, violinists Courtenay Cleary and Abigail Hong, violist Aria Cherogosha and cellist Geirthrudur Gudmundsdottir working its meticulous hive of activity with barely repressed joy. Its subtly staggered mechanics have the complexity but also the translucence of Bartok; it may also be the most clever musical palindrome ever written.

Otherwise, pianist Keru Zhang voiced the Balkan-tinged edge of Viteslava Kapralova’s 1937 mini-suite April Preludes. Harpist Abigail Kent won a competition of sorts among Juilliard harpists to play Germaine Tailleferre’s jaunty, Debussyesque sonata. And the night’s great discovery was Australian composer Margaret Sutherland’s alternately angst-ridden and ebullient suite of neoromantic art-songs, sung with acerbic power by Maggie Valdman over Brian Wong’s elegant piano.

It was also hard to choose a favorite from Thursday night’s bill. The easy picks would have been Amy Beach’s Piano Trio in A Minor, a richly dynamic nocturne, or organist Phoon Yu’s lights-out savagery throughout Ruth Zechlin’s Fall of the Berlin Wall-era protest piece Against the Sleep of Reason. But pianist TianYi Lee‘s incisive, intense interpretation of Louise Talma’s often ominously biting Alleluia in the Form of a Toccata made a powerful coda before the intermission.

Also on the bill were Tiffany Wong’s graceful performance of Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ solo Sonata for Harp, a picturesquely late Romantic trio of Lili Boulanger miniatures played by flutist Helena Macheral and pianist Ying Lee, and the rather sardonic, contrapuntally clever, carefully cached but no less vivid chamber work Des-Cantec, written by Romanian composer Myriam Marbe in 1986.

The big Friday night blowout was everything it could have been: stormy, explosive, often harrowing. What a thrill it was to witness the Juilliard Orchestra reveling in the wide-eyed, spooky percussion and foreboding Bernard Herrmann-esque swells of Betsy Jolas’ 2015 A Litlle Summer Suite. They echoed that with more distant Cold War-era horror in Grazina Bacewicz’ 1963 Cello Sonata No. 2, soloist Samuel DeCaprio drawing roars of applause for tackling its daunting glissandos and wildfire staccato.

The lush, epic Ethel Smyth seascape On the Cliffs of Cornwall made a good launching pad for wave after harrowing wave of Thea Musgrave‘s 1990 Rainbow.

Ironically, throughout the history of folk music, women have always played an integral role, from Appalachian balladry, to the Bulgarian choral tradition and the Moroccan lila ceremony. If Project 19 and Juilliard’s herculean efforts are successful in jumpstarting a nationwide movement, it will merely mean that we’ve come full circle.

Concerts and solo recitals at Julliard continue throughout the end of the academic year. The next installment of the Philharmonic’s Project 19 series is tonight, Feb 6 at 7:30 PM with a Nina C. Young world premiere alongside Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Mozart’s “Great” Mass. You can get in for $35, or if you’re feeling adventurous (no guarantees, good luck), you can try scoring rush tickets a little before curtain time.