New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: messiaen

Organist Yuri McCoy’s Symphonic Roar: Truth in Advertising

A cynic would say that the title of organist Yuri McCoy‘s new album Symphonic Roar: An Odyssey of Sound from the Paris Conservatoire – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is redundant. After all, epic grandeur and volume are what bring out the faithful in the organ demimonde and keep them coming back. On the other hand, as explosive and adrenalizing as this album is, it’s also remarkably subtle.

McCoy discovered that he had a couple of organs in his native Houston which were especially well suited to the wide expanse of characteristically French colors in this program, a mix of popular repertoire, a dazzling rarity and a brand-new arrangement of a strange relic from the Paris Surrealist movement.

He opens on the spectacular 1997 Fisk-Rosales organ at Rice University with Jean-Louis Florentz’s showstopper La Croix Du Sud. If you’ve ever wondered what Malian psychedelic rock would sound like on a pipe organ, this is it, rising from a hypnotically assertive Tuareg riff to an increasingly wild swirl of variations meant to evoke the dizzying ecstasy of Sufi dance. Florentz was a student of Messiaen, so that influence is apparent, especially in the piece’s starriest moments; Jehan Alain is another one, along with another piece that will follow later on the program here. The frenetic polyrhythms camouflaging an anthemic, Alainesque theme early on, the sudden flares over a brooding pedal note and the series of long climbs afterward will give you goosebumps. What a way to kick off an album.

McCoy follows with an increasingly blistering, breathtakingly dynamic take of the famous allegro vivace movement from Guilmant’s Sonata No. 2. He mines burbling phantasmagoria and finds a creepy anthem in Joseph Bonnet’s brief Will O’the Wisp. Then he concocts a bracing blend of icy, wafting and majestic registrations for Saint-Saens’ Fantaisie in D Flat, rising from an unexpectedly wistful introduction, to stately, airy angst, an anthemic hymn of sorts, and back.

McCoy moves to the 2017 Nichols & Simpson organ at his home base, Houston’s South Main Baptist Church to play a particularly expansive, deep-sky take of Louis Vierne’s iconic Clair de Lune. He winds up the record with his own brand-new arrangement of Edgar Varese’s sprawling 1926 symphonic work Ameriques. Varese had left France behind for the US by then: there’s a classic European wonder at American energy and vitality here, as well as a dissociatively shifting, one might say schizophrenic expanse of remarkably forward-looking ideas that sometimes edge over into the macabre. Percussion plays every bit as much a part as the organ: Brady Spitz and his “assistants,” Colin Boothby and Grant Wareham have just as much fun with their sirens and castanets and assorted implements as McCoy has in the console.

A Haunting Album For Our Time by Iconic Pianist Satoko Fujii

You can tell how serious people are by the extremes they go to. Pianist Satoko Fujii managed to finish her new solo album Hazuki – streaming at Bandcamp – with an icepack on her neck. That may not be as much of a display of superhuman endurance as the two Curt Schillling bloody sock games, but it’s in the same league. Yet, the Boston Red Sox pitcher humbly requested to be taken off the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Likewise, Fujii also doesn’t seem to want anything more than the opportunity to sell out a jazz club, as she routinely did before the lockdown. Undeterred, she keeps putting out brilliant albums as a way to stay current and maybe make a few bucks since live music has been criminalized in so many of the parts of the world where she used to play.

The album title is medieval Japanese for “August,” which is when she recorded the record in the unventilated music room in her Tokyo apartment in almost hundred-degree heat last year. How hot is this music? It’s a distinctive, elegantly articulated portrait of the desperation of a career on ice and a world slipping toward a holocaust. As usual, Fujii often goes under the piano lid for all kinds of unorthodox sonics: approximations of an autoharp, a koto or a monsoon crushing the coast, which she intermingles with increasingly portentous, menacing variations on a simple, ominous lefthand riff in the album’s opening track, Invisible.

The second number, Quarantined is part Messaienic, carrilonesque study in making do with what we have and part monstrous apocalyptic tableau: this record is one of Fujii’s most energetic, even explosive albums in recent memory and this is one of its most haunting interludes. She works those close-harmonied chords with even more of a funereal angst in Cluster (possibly a take on the concept of “COVID clusters,” real or imagined). Throughout her work, Fujii typically maintans a distance from the macabre, if only for the sake of suspense, but not here.

Hoffen (German for “hope”) is aptly titled, a matter-of-factly imploring atmosphere infusing this soberly cascading, crescendoing, relentlessly emphatic ballad without words. Fujii builds an even more tightly claustrophobic, raga-like, modal intensity in the next number, Beginning, perhaps ironically one of the album’s catchiest tunes.

She develops Ernesto, a Che Guevara homage, around an artful assemblage of climbing phrases, complete with looming, stygian atmospherics and a seemingly withering parody of generic ballad architecture. Expanding, an older but previously unrecorded tune, begins as a study in leapfrogging modalities but rises toward a hard-hitting, catchy, late 50s Miles Davis-style tableau. Fujii closes the album with Twenty-Four Degrees and its steady, Mompou-esque chimes, a cool settling in after the oppressive conditions under which Fujii made the record. Three months into 2021, and she’s already released two of the strongest contenders for best album of the year: this one, and her Prickly Pear Cactus duo collaboration with vibraphonist Taiko Saito.

A Resonant, Dynamic, Sometimes Haunting New Album by Pedal Steel Icon Susan Alcorn

Susan Alcorn is this era’s great master of jazz pedal steel. Her music can be stark and haunting, vast and atmospheric, but also riotously funny. If Buddy Emmons was the Charlie Parker of the pedal steel, Alcorn is its Messiaen. Her new quintet album Pedernal is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with the title track, the bandleader’s spare, desolate minor-key blues theme joined by bassist Michael Formanek’s looming accents and then an altered march from drummer Ryan Sawyer as guitarist Mary Halvorson shadows the melody. They pulse in and out of space bubbles, get loopy and coyly chaotic, with a fleeting break for violinist Mark Feldman before returning to an Appalachian ballad without words.

Circular Ruins, inspired by a Utah landscape, has Alcorn at the center of an acidic pool, the band around her fililng out the space with uneasy atmospherics or jagged accents. A subtly playful violin/bass conversation over Sawyer’s muted flutter finally draws Alcorn back into the picture, where she adds echoing, otherworldly, gonglike accents, Feldman fueling an austere haze. The ending will give you goosebumps: this place is haunted!

R.U.R. is Alcorn in amusing mode, with a tongue-in-cheek, quasi-cartoon theme, warpy bubbles from the guitar and steel over a floating swing that drops out as the carbonation bubbles over. The austere washes afterward only last so long before Alcorn brings the revelry back.

The album’s big epic is Night in Gdansk, keeningly atmospheric at first and then slowly coalescing: the way the whole band throw off sparks alluding to a calm folk ballad is artful to the extreme. Hints of Angelo Badalamenti and Bernard Herrmann filter through persistently uneasy ambience; austere resonance alternates with playful, clustering squiggles and blips.

They close the album with Northeast Rising Sun, a rousing, anthemic portrait of Alcorn’s native Baltimore that evokes early Pat Metheny without the ubiquitous chorus pedal. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page here at the end of the year. 

Escaping the Nazis with a Quartet for the End of Time

Olivier Messiaen premiered his Quartet for the End of Time in a Nazi prison camp. There’s no way of knowing exactly what he was thinking at the time, but it’s probably safe to say that he considered that maybe this could have been his last concert, and the last piece of music he’d ever write. And while much of it is macabre, there’s a transgresssive subtext: we’re going to make a break for it and get the hell out of here, Messiaen seems to be saying. And he got away with it, right under the Nazis’ noses!

As it turned out, Messiaen didn’t have to go through with an escape plan, and there were no reprisals. Either the Nazis didn’t get it, or they didn’t take him seriously. He would eventually be liberated in 1941 and go on to write lots of other somewhat less creepy music. The new recording of the Quartet for the End of Time by clarinetist Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – streaming at Spotify – is worth owning just for the liner notes. Long story short: new scholarship reveals that the composer didn’t write all of it in the Nazi camp. Like so many other European artists, he’d volunteered to fight the Nazis, but this harrowing suite underscores how much he hated wartime conditions.

There are parts of the new album that sound fast, and others that sound slow, although that perception uptimately proves false. It’s probably due to how intensely Severe and the group – pianist Théo Fouchenneret, cellist Volodia van Keulen and violinist David Petrlik– tackle the piece. The many passages that evoke the songs of the birds that Messiaen loved so much are muted and distant, a taunt to a prisoner who can only hear them. The aching, acidically immersive, apocalyptic rapture of the final movement drags on and on – exactly as the composer persuaded his bandmates to play it the first time around. But the frantic, stormy moments before then are just short of grand guignol. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, left no doubt how sincere his liturgical themes of struggle and salvation were, but here the real-life horror narrative is inescapably, barely concealed amidst the shrieks, sprints and sudden swells.

There aren’t many other pieces of music for such a strange lineup as piano, violin, clarinet and cello, but the group found one: Thomas Ades‘ Studies from his opera The Tempest. These short character sketches – Messiaen-inspired instrumental arrangements of operatic themes – run the gamut from calm pensiveness to brooding melancholy.

 

Rapturous, Eclectic Creative Music This Fall in an Unexpected Chinatown Space

One of this year’s most fascinating and eclectic ongoing free concert series is happening right now at the James Cohan Gallery at 48 Walker St, west of Broadway, in Chinatown. Through mid-October, a parade of improvisers, from Middle Eastern and Indian music to postbop and the furthest reaches of free jazz, are playing solo shows in the midst of Josiah McElheny’s futuristic, outer space-themed exhibit Observations at Night. There’s not much seating but there is plenty of standing room.

Last week’s performance by pedal steel legend Susan Alcorn was rapturous, and haunting, and revealingly intimate. Although she used plenty of extended technique – plucking out flickers of harmonics up by the bridge, generating smudgy whirs by rubbing the strings and, for a couple of crescendos, getting the whole rig resonating like at the end of A Day in the Life – she didn’t use a lot of effects, just a touch of reverb from her amp.

She opened the show like a sitar player, building subtle shades off a dark blues phrase, finally flitting and pinging across the strings to contrast with the stygian buildup. Throughout the night, she talked to the crowd more than usual. She explained that the first of many epiphanies that drew her from her original style, country music, to more harmonically complex styles was when, on the way to a gig, she heard Messiaen’s requiem for war victims and was so blown away that she had to pull off the road to listen to it. She was late to that gig, and it took her over a year to tackle the mail-ordered sheet music for the piece, but it was a life-changing event.

Then she played her own original, which she’d written as a requiem in a more general sense for victims of fascism. The Messiaen influence was striking, right from the stern, chillingly chromatic series of opening chords, but from there she went from eerie close-harmonied minimalism to sudden, horrified leaps and bounds, back to mournful stillness.

She explained that she’d always tried to keep music and politics separate, but that the current climate has made that impossible. From there, she shared her horror at how the ugliness of past decades has returned, on a global scale, particularly in Trumpie xenophobia and anti-refugee hostility here at home. With that, she segued from an austere, unexpectedly rhythmic take of Victor Jara song made famous by Violeta Parra, to a brief, longing coda of Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom.

On a similarly outside-the-box if less harrowing note, she made her way methodically from the old countrypolitan ballad I’m Your Toy – which Elvis Costello covered on his Almost Blue album – and then couldn’t resist a verse or two of Almost Blue itself. The man himself couldn’t have been more clever. From there she built reflecting-pool Monk echoes, reveling in the lingering tritones. She closed with an austere, guardedly hopeful take of Song  of the Birds, the moody Catalon folk tune that Pablo Casals would close his infrequent concerts with after he’d gone into exile.

The next show at the gallery is on Sept 25 at 6:30 PM with intense free jazz alto saxophonist Makoto Kawashima.

A Harrowing, Shattering Quartet for the End of Time Uptown

Olivier Messiaen premiered his 1941 prison break suite Quartet for the End of Time in the very same prison he wanted to break out of.

And got away with it.

The program notes for last night’s performance of that immortal partita at the Crypt Sessions uptown quoted the composer as saying that “Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.” That the Nazis there missed the point speaks volumes. The prisoners obviously got the message.

Messiaen was eventually liberated from that Nazi POW camp, where he’d debuted it in on a grim, rainy night, playing a barely functional piano alongside a violinist, clarinetist, and cellist who had to make do with only three strings. Talk about chutzpah!

Almost eight decades later, amid the rich natural reverb beneath the vaulted ceiling in the stone crypt at the Church of the Intercession in Harlem, the quartet of violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell, clarinetist Yoonah Kim and pianist Orion Weiss channeled the terror and defiance and hope against hope that kept Messiaen going at a time when he had no idea that he’d survive the war, let alone be released the following year.

The official story, of course, is that the suite is a portrait of a biblical apocalypse. Considering that Messiaen was a devout Catholic and had a whole liturgical script worked out, there’s no reason to doubt that. But the subtext here screamed as loudly as it possibly could: GET ME OUT!

The four musicians had obviously sized up the sonics, realized what powerful amplification they had in the space’s rich natural reverb, and rolled with it. Kim’s long series of slow upward crescendos, requiring daunting displays of circular breathing, left the audience as breathless as she was. Campbell’s shivery, masterfully nuanced, white-knuckle ascent later on was every bit as haunting and elegaic. And Jackiw’s final pairing with Weiss at the end peaked with an almost horrific cadenza, throwing off the Nazi chains to make way for the opening of heaven…or maybe just a return to prewar normalcy

The interweave of birdsong (Messiaen was cruelly tantalized by birds singing outside his cell window) and stark, jagged close harmonies was all too clear early on. The escape sequence and subsequent chase scene – uneasy, sometimes Indian-tinged harmonies furtively scampering and spiced with one sudden, horrified cadenza after another – in the sixth movement could not have been more vivid, or Hitchcockian.

And in the preceding movement, Weiss’ decision not to go for the jugular with grand guignol but instead to hang back and let the menace linger was ultimately the key to the whole performance. Despite the temptations of innumerable creepy tritones and endless dirge passages rising slowly with mournfully tolling, upper-register belltone accents, the group went for foreshadowing. Yet at the end, Weiss didn’t try to mask Messiaen’s forlorn echo phrases, underscoring a vision of a very Pyrrhic victory.

The likelihood of this same group getting together for this same piece is pretty slim, but the next concert in the Crypt Sessions series, on March 7 at 8 PM, has a similarly dark theme. Baritone Lucas Meachem and his wife, pianist Irina Meachem – who will be six months pregnant by the time she plays the concert – will be performing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder suite.  To get tickets, you need to get on the email list – the website, http://www.deathofclassical.com says it all.

The crypt is easy to get to, two blocks up the hill from the 157th Street station on the 1 line. There’s plentiful wine and cheese and crudites and banter beforehand. The crowd tends to skew young, and old: lots of twentysomethings out on a date along with more than a few seniors doing the same. And there never seems to be anyone gratuitously gramming here; this crowd comes to descend into the darkness and listen.

Awestruck, Transcendent, Epic Grandeur from the Spectrum Symphony

One of the most transcendent concerts of 2016 happened Friday night at St. Peter’s Church in midtown, where the Spectrum Symphony played not one but two rare concertos for organ and orchestra by Poulenc and Balint Karosi, the latter a world premiere. First of all, beyond the famous Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, there isn’t much organ repertoire that incorporates much of anything other than brass – simply because church organs are loud. And paradoxically, to mute the organ as a concerto instrument would make it redundant: you can get “quiet organ” with woodwinds. So this show was doubly auspicious, incorporating both the Poulenc Concerto for Orchestra, Strings and Timpani in G along with works by Bach, Mendelssohn and the exhilarating, rivetingly dynamic Karosi Concerto No. 2 for Organ, Percussion and Strings, with the composer himself in the console. Conductor David Grunberg, who is really on a roll programming obscure works that deserve to be vastly better known, was a calmly poised, assured presence and had the group on their toes – as they had to be.

Another problematic issue with music for pipe organ and other instruments, from both a compositional and performance prespective, is the sonic decay. Not only do you have to take your time with this kind of music, you have to be minutely attuned to echo effects so that the organ and ensemble aren’t stepping all over each other. The acoustics at this space happen to be on the dry side, which worked to the musicians’ advantage. The strings opened by giving a lively, Vivaldiesque flair to the overture from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No, 3, BWV 1068, a clever bit of programming since the eight-part Poulenc suite – performed as an integral whole – opens with a robust shout-out to Bach before going off in all sorts of clever directions.

Organist Janos Palur parsed the piece with a deliberate, carefully crafted approach well-suited to its innumerable shifts from one idiom to another, from the baroque, to vividly lingering Romanticism, to a robust, completely unexpected dance and more astringent tonalities. Poulenc’s genius in assembling the piece came through in how integrally the organist and ensemble played it: both were clearly audible and rewardingly supportive of each other when in unison, and when not, transitions between solo organ and the strings were confidently fluid and natural. As the piece unwound, it took on a Gil Evans-like sweep and lustre, the lowest pedals and bass paired with sonic cirrus clouds floating serenely above the dark river underneath.

Percussionist Charles Kiger got even more of a workout with the Karosi premiere than he did with the Poulenc. Switching seamlessly from one instrument to another, his vibraphone amplified uneasy pointillisms that a different composer might have arranged for glockenspiel. Otherwise, his terse kettledrum accents bolstered Karosi’s stygian pedal undercurrents, and his mighty, crescendoing washes on the gongs provided the night’s most spine-tingling, thundering crescendos.

Yet for all its towering, epic grandeur, the concerto turned out to be stunningly subtle. Seemingly modeled on the architecture if not the melodies of the Poulenc, Karosi quickly quoted from the same Bach riff that Poulenc used and then worked his way through a completely different and even more adventurously multistylistic tour de force. There were allusions to the haunted atmospherics of Jehan Alain, the austere glimmer of Naji Hakim, the macabre cascades of Louis Vierne, and finally and most conclusively, the otherworldly, awestruck terror of Messiaen. But ultimately, the suite is its own animal – and vaults Karosi into the front ranks of global composers. It’s almost embarrassing to admit not being familiar with his work prior to this concert. Not only is this guy good, he’s John Adams good. Let’s hope for vastly more from him in the years and decades to come. And the Spectrum Symphony return to their new home at St. Peter’s on January 27 at 7:30 PM with a Mozart birthday party celebration featuring his “Prague” Symphony No. 28,

Haskell Small Takes a Harrowing Journey Inward with His Latest Raptly Mystical Suite

Pianist Haskell Small‘s work is a prime example of the rewards of finding a muse and following that inspiration to the deepest reaches possible. He’s carved himself out a niche as a composer and champion of quiet, mystical, often viscerally haunting sounds. His 2014 album The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence is a masterpiece of spare, lingering, often chilling inwardly-directed themes. He’s also one of the world’s foremost advocates for the otherworldly, bell-like music of Federico Mompou. Last night at St. Malachy’s Chapel in midtown, the pianist played an unselfconsciously transcendent solo program comprising both his own suite A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours, along with the New York premiere of John Tavener’s Pratirupa. Small is reprising the program tonight, May 10 at 8 PM at the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession. 550 W 155th St. If there’s ever been music written for the spacious sonics of a sacred space, this is it. The concert is sold out, but if you’re in the neighborhood, it would be worth checking to see if there are any no-shows.

Introducing the program, Small – father to another individualistic, intense composer, Sarah Small – explained that as he saw it, silence doesn’t equate to the absence of sound. Rather, it’s an invitation to look inward, a proces that can be pretty scary. The new suite, due out later this year, follows the moods of a monastic day’s routine. It’s replete with moments of lingering woundedness, quiet torment and even despair, yet offers a surprising counterbalance to all that trouble. Small began it with one of his signature, poignant, plaintive belltone themes: Satie, and Messiaen, and Debussy in gamelanesque mode echoed vividly in the distance.. The music peaked with incisive cascades of eerie tritones. then receded back into uneasy, resolutely unresolved territory.

Small very cleverly cached a couple of catchy, unexpectedly upbeat motives – a muted fanfare of sorts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cesar Franck epic, along with a brief cathedral chime – within its architecture, and then deftly inserted variations on each throughout the suite. This made room for an unexpected optimism throughout an often harrowing journey. Shostakovich does this, sometimes Rachmanininoff too. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but as Small finally reached an almost reluctantly heroic crescendo, the payoff was not explosive but mighty all the same. And then he descended toward stillness again, gracefully, until a few final, increasingly spacious, weightily suspenseful chords that ended with sn almost imperceptibly whisper.

The Tavener turned out to be considerably different. On one hand, there was a clear connection to the first part of the program, considering ite bell motives and stately, strolling, sometimes folksy hymnal passages. On the other, it was as if Small was reminding that he can also play fiercely when he wants. And was he ever required to here! But he gamely tackled its thorny thickets of chiseling, Louis Andriessen-ish righthand riffs over an exhaust cloud of lefthand rumble, each of those interludes kicking off with an almost droll upward glissando. That was when he wasn’t mining the composer’s pensive, Chopinesque prelude segments for as much rapture and wonder as he could conjure. But ultimately, it wasn’t up to the level of Small’s own magic. He encored with a Bach invention, a well-chosen benediction. After journeying so far inward with the rest of the program, the experience was akin hearing it for the first time, a richly gentle offering of comfort and joy.

A Characteristically Vivid, Potently Relevant Performance by Ensemble Pi

For the past ten years, adventurous indie classical chamber group Ensemble Pi have played an annual “peace concert,” featuring socially relevant compositions from across the years as well as most of the classical music spectrum. This year’s sold-out multimedia performance Saturday night in the comfortable downstairs auditorium at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street explored music and writing on themes of captivity and imprisonment. In an era when the Guantanamo Bay gulag is still open, and in a city where atrocities on Rikers Island have recently come to light, it was especially relevant, played with equal amounts vividness and attention to the underlying content.

Which was harrowing. Group impresario/pianist Idith Meshulam led a sextet comprising cellist Alexis Gerlach, clarinetist Moran Katz, violinist Airi Yoshioka, trumpeter Sycil Mathai and vibraphonist Bill Trigg through the thorny, endlessly looping Coming Together, Frederic Rzewski’s portrait of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. An illustration of the crushing tedium and repetition of prison life, it’s cruelly difficult difficult to play. But Meshulam and her steely right hand were undaunted by the challenge of its endlessly metronomic pulse and dizzying permutations. Meanwhile, actor Joseph Assadourian narrated the text, a similarly looping quote from a letter by inmate Sam Melville, killed when troops and police stormed the prison. Later in the program, Assadourian provided his own blackly amusing chronicle of arbitrary judicial conduct in New York criminal court.

Eleanor Cory‘s poignant, carefully voiced short work Riker’s Island, for piano, clarinet, cello and violin, was preceded by a similarly troubling account of women’s prison, read by poet Ashley Mote. The program wound up auspiciously with an unexpectedly and very strongly dynamic rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, in fact so dynamic that it seemed as if the group was playing it at a much faster tempo than it was written for. As it turned out, they didn’t, but the effect was visceral. Messiaen famously composed it in the men’s latrine in a Nazi prison camp in 1941, not knowing that he’d survive or be released. its instrumentation derives from the fact that clarinet, violin, cello and piano just happened to be the instruments played by the prisoners who debuted it.

Considering how unorthodox this lineup is, the piece is relatively rarely staged. It’s even harder for a musician to wrap his or her hands around since the group playing it is usually a pickup band, more or less. But Meshulam and the rest of her quartet left no doubt that they’d internalized Messiaen’s angst, and muted terror, and also his defiance. On the surface, like pretty much everything else the composer wrote, it traces a liturgical theme, but it’s also the story of a successful prison break. Katz animatedly voiced the birdsong beyond Messiaen’s cell window, not to mention his anguish at not being able to see his feathered friends…and all the subtext that image carries. Likewise, Meshulam scampered animatedly through the tiptoeing, furtive theme that recurs just before the rapt, awestruck conclusion – which seemed to pass by in a heartbeat rather than lingering as other groups tend to do with it. It’s hard to think of a more apt way to close such an impactful, meaningful program.