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Tag: matt herskowitz review

A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.

The Matt Herskowitz Trio Jams Out the Classics

It seems that about half of the lucky 150 or so people who saw the Matt Herskowitz Trio last night at the Yamaha Piano Salon had been at his Naumburg Bandshell concert last August that got rained out about halfway through. This was a makeup show of sorts, not heavily advertised, although the promoters took care to tell the audience at the series’ next concert about it. Which if everybody had showed up, would have filled the room to capacity many times over. Herskowitz is one of those rare rugged individualists whose music defies categorization. Is it jazz? Classical? Jewish music? All of the above, and more. He started out by making jazz out of Bach, surfed out Chopin and ended by taking Gershwin to its logical jazz extreme, with the most interesting material, his own, sandwiched in the middle. Academics call this stuff third-stream; crowds call it fun.

Much as Herskowitz has the kind of fluid, seemingly effortless technique that it takes to play Bach well, it was the jamming that everybody wanted to hear, and he delivered plenty of that with both fire and wit, respectively, on a selection from the Well-Tempered Clavier and then an amusingly loungey version of the Air on a G String. Emcee Midge Woolsey suggested during the intermission that the composers Herskowitz interprets so irreverently would probably enjoy what he does, and she’s right: Bach was no stranger to improvisation, for instance, and the others had to come up with their repertoire one way or another, jamming out ideas until they made enough sense to transcribe.

Bassist Mat Fieldes, who turned a third Bach selection into slinky funk, alternated between standup and bass guitar, a couple of times adding a snarling, dark chordal undercurrent; drummer David Rozenblatt hung back with a straight-up 4/4 shuffle until Herskowitz led them into 7/4 variations on a Schumann sonata, a portent for what was to come. The highlight of the show was an arrangement of several themes from Herskowitz’ own Jerusalem Suite. Through torrid torrents of Middle Eastern tinged chromatics, unselfconsciously warm, bucolic interludes and noirish bustle, Herskowitz painted a complex and compelling picture. As they switched to Chopin, they hit a surf music interlude and then Rozenblatt switched to a wry disco beat as the bass ran a wary minor-key hook over and over, anchoring Herskowitz’s alternately bluesy and acidically chromatic runs.