New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Kenji Bunch

Darkly Compelling, Lushly Relevant Orchestral Works in Washington Heights

This past evening a string subset of the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra played a lush, majestic, sweeping, potently relevant program of works by 20th and 21st century composers. The performance validated conventional wisdom in real estate bubble-era New York: the fringes are where the most cutting-edge artists are supposed to be. Ask yourself how many members of the Philharmonic actually walk to work: it’s a fair bet that a good percentage of this talented ensemble did.

The group echoed Music Director Chris Whittaker’s poise on the podium, at least with as much poise as a string section can maintain playing distinctly troubled music. The central theme was Japanese, comprising works by composers with Japanese heritage, setting up a harrowing look back at the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fukushima wasn’t addressed, but it might as well have been, considering how plaintive and elegaic the overall ambience was.

Both the opening and concluding pieces, Kenji Bunch’s Supermaximum and Christopher Theofanidis’ A Thousand Cranes opened with percussive rustles from the bass section, a neat pairing. The former was an alternately kinetic and stark interweave of 19th century gospel-inflected pentatonic melody and more distinctly Asian motives. Permeated with the call-and-response of chain gang chants, it spoke for itself as a reminder of how little has changed in over a century.

The showstopper was an understatedly aching, enveloping take of Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem For String Orchestra. Moving gracefully from an austere pavane to stabbing close harmonies that foreshadow Julia Wolfe’s work, and then to to cellular Glass-ine phrasing, the group locked in on its relentless, overcast atmosphere.

Karen Tanaka’s Dreamscape suite often had a similarly circular but more distinctly nebulous effect, their group parsing its starry pointillisms and sparely memorable hooks with delicacy to match their lustre, harpist Tomina Parvanova and concertmaster Mark Chien tracing lively comet tails and deep-space bubbles.

Theofanidis’ piece was inspired by the Japanese tradition of making paper cranes. As the myth goes, producing a thousand of them allows for a wish to come true. That activity became a meme among those stricken with radiation poisoning and all kinds of other horrible illnesses after August of 1945.

The triptych is a hard piece to play, partly because it covers so much ground, emotionally speaking. There was unexpectedly calm jubilance in the opening overture of sorts, which disappeared as reality sank in. The group nimbly tackled the precisely dancing pizzicato section and then let the mournful washes afterward linger. The steady procession up to a decidedly unresolved ending was just as poignant.

The orchestra are staging monthly concerts  this spring: the next one is March 23 at 3 PM at at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, 729 W 181st St. just up the hill from the 1 train, with works by Korngold, Britten, Anna Clyne and Michael Torke. Admission is free; $25 gets you into the reception afterward and for the rest of the season as well.

A Lushly Kinetic Album and a Chelsea Show by Inventive String Quintet Sybarite5

String quintet Sybarite5’s imaginative instrumental reinventions of Radiohead songs earned them worldwide acclaim, but their Thom Yorke fixation is only part of the picture. On their latest album, Outliers – streaming at Bandcamp – they bring their signature lush, kinetic sound to a collection of relatively brief, energetically balletesque pieces by some of their favorite indie classical composers. The result is part contemporary dance soundtrack, part 21st century chamber music: the connecting thread is tunefulness. They’re bringing that blend to a show at the Cell Theatre on Dec 7 at 8 PM; cover is $27.

The album opens with the catchy, punchily circling Getting Home (I must be…), by Jessica Meyer, the violins of Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney bustling tightly alongside Angela Pickett’s viola, Laura Metcalf’s cello and Louis Levitt’s bass.

Yann’s Flight, by Shawn Conley vividly echoes Philip Glass’ work for string quartet, right down to the dancing pizzicato from the bass and the cello’s stern counterpoint. As the group build the piece, hints of an Irish reel contrast with stillness, then more triumphantly rhythmic images of flight.

Eric Byers’ Pop Rocks is a playful, coyly bouncing staccato web of cell-like, Glassine phrasing. Dan Visconti’s triptych Hitchhiker’s Tales begins with the alternating slow swoops and momentary flickers of Black Bend, slowly morphing into a majestic blues with some snazzy, slithery, shivery work from the violins. The considerably shorter Dixie Twang gives the group a launching pad for icepick pizzicato phrasing, followed by another miniature, Pedal to the Metal, where they scamper together to the finish line.

They dig into the punchy, polyrhythmic scattato of Revolve, by Andy Akiho, with considerable relish; Levitt’s understated, modal bassline anchors the lithe theme, the violins eventually rising to a whirlwind of blues riffage. Mohammed Fairouz’s Muqqadamah, which follows, is the most pensive, airy, baroque-flavored track here.

The rest of the album is inspired by dance styles from around the world and across the centuries. The band expand deviously from a stark, wickedly catchy 19th century minor-key blues theme in Kenji Bunch’s Allemande pour Tout le Monde. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Kompa for Toussaint also builds out of a minor-key oldtime blues riff to some neat, microtonal hints of a famous Nordic theme, then an enigmatic mist. Sarabande, another Byers piece, slowly emerges from and then returns to a wistful spaciousness.

The album’s most shapeshiftingly catchy track, Michi Wiancko’s Blue Bourée blends blues, the baroque and a little funk. The final number is Gi-gue-ly, by cinematic violist/composer Ljova, a delicious, Balkan-inflected, trickily syncopated tune that grows to pulsing misterioso groove. It’s a party in a box, probably the last thing a lot of people would expect from a contemporary classical string ensemble.