New York Music Daily

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The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.

Vast, Turbulent, Troubled Oceans of Sound From the Chelsea Symphony

The Chelsea Symphony’s performance in the vast downstairs oceanically-themed space at the American Museum of Natural History on the 22nd of this month might well turn out to have been this year’s most epic, intense, mightily enveloping concert. It’s hard to think of a program more toweringly and often fearsomely majestic – and relevant – than the world premiere of Michael Boyman’s The Howling Wilderness, Alan Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales and John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean. To witness all that under deep-sea light beneath the museum’s famous fullsize facsimile of a blue whale really drove the show’s theme home. Much as the world’s oceans can take our breath away – literally and figuratively – they’re imperiled like never before in history.

Conductor Matthew Aubin didn’t bother trying to conceal how much fun he was having – or how closely he related to the music – during the program’s first half. The Chelsea Symphony are New York’s orchestral home to rising star composer-performers, and typically introduce at least one premiere at every concert. Boyman’s composition turned out to be a masterwork, Rimsky-Korsakovian in its use of every inch of the sonic register, from stygian lows to cirrus-cloud highs, something akin to a Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock film score underwater. Boyman is a violist, so the menacing, rustling strings and macabre tritone cadenzas from the high strings came as no surprise. Mighty deep brass, basses and cellos, and harrowing hailstorms from the timpani anchored this dynamically rich depiction of a world in peril, an apt choice for Earth Day 2018.

The ensemble followed with an impressively seamless performance of Hovhaness’ electroacoustic work, featuring samples of actual whale song timed to the split-second to coincide with the music. From its brassy depiction of undersea mountain ranges to its mighty swoops and dives, It’s hardly an easy piece to play. But the orchestra had really pulled out all the stops, with a grand total of four rehearsals. The whole crew seemed to relish its proportions, yet with close attention to the elegance of the Asian-tinged, pentatonic melodies that Hovhaness became so obsessed with during his later years.

Led by conductor Mark Seto, the orchestra’s take of Adams’ gargantuan work – which the composer introduced with a brooding, ecologically-themed poem – was a revelation. Given the size of the space and its rich natural reverb, were the orchestra going to take it into Titanic territory? Hardly. It’s impossible to imagine a group interpreting the most epic tone poem ever written with more clarity and vividness. Every clever echo effect, subtle metric shift and handoff of one looping phrase from one section of the orchestra to another – spread out in three separate configurations – had a focus so striking that that the overall lush, enveloping ambience seemed almost an afterthought: it just lingered while the soloists dug in and concentrated. Which they had to. Imagine playing the same pedal note or riff over and over again, with the exact same timbre and volume, for minutes on end – your fingers cramp, your carpal tunnel sounds the alarm! Yet there was no flinching.

Beyond mere attention to detail, Seto’s choice to begin the work at barely more than a whisper paid magnificent dividends when the percussion finally rose from the depths to launch a tsunami of a wave about four-fifths of the way through. Likewise, the long descent from shoreline-crushing turbulence to panoramic calm was just as spellbinding.

The Chelsea Symphony’s next concerts are on June 1 and 2 at 8:30 and then 7:30 PM, respectively, featuring works by Samuel Beebe, Jonathan Bruce Brown, and Respighi’s Pines of Rome, at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St. The Friday concert features soloist Susanne Chen on the Victor Bruns Contrabassoon Concerto. the Saturday bill switches that out for Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto featuring soloist Emanouil Manolov.

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.