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Tag: musical theatre

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

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A Captivating World Premiere and Two Playful, Relevant Works in Progress Wrap Up This Year’s Sounds of Arts Festival

This year’s Sounds of Arts Festival in Long Island City, staged by arts organization Multicultural Sonic Evolution, featured a variety of performances from jazz to dance to indie classical music. The final program was an auspicious trio of works in progress by Chinese-American Alicia Lieu and Japanese composer Yui Kitamura along with a world premiere commission from Mayalsian-born JunYi Chow.

The highlight of the first night was Chow’s colorful, dynamic partita The House of Smells and Noise. Inspired by a story about a boy’s experiences with Nyonya (Chinese Malaysian) culture in Lee Su Kim’s book Sarong Secrets, it was replete with tensions and dichotomies: tradition versus modernity, calm versus bustle, humor versus solemnity. Percussionist Maiko Hosoda really got a workout, beginning with a stroll around the back of the theatre, clanging her cymbals. From there she took charge of the rhythm on a variety of instruments, including the dreamy microtone-laced plink of a Malaysian kalimba.

Austere call-and response gave way to somewhat more expansive passages that bordered on carefree but never quite went there, played with care and restraint by an impressively unorthodox ensemble of violinist Michael Mandrin, cellist Jay Tilton, oboeist Kevin Chavez, flutist Chrissy Fong and harpist Margery Fitts.  The electroacoustic ending packed a subtle emotional wallop and is too good to give away.

Kitamura’s brief suite, from a forthcoming opera, was sung with expressive power in Japanese by soprano Hirona Amamiya. The text explores the struggles of the daughter of famous 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika, widely credited with much of her father’s work since art in Japan at the time was a career essentially closed to women. Asian melodies were alluded to rather than stated outright; themes ranged from a poignant waltz that recalled Belgian musette, to more sweeping, distantly angst-fueled, cinematic passages.

To close the night, a quartet of singers delivered the first part of Lieu’s comic opera Unwrapping Fortune, exploring cultural and parent-child tensions in a Chinese-Jewish New York family. Not to spoil a good and relevant plot, but a chow mein sandwich is involved. A quartet of singers – sopranos Caroline Miller and Estabaliz Martinez, baritone Brian J. Alvarado and tenor Stephen Velasquez – brought drama and sardonic humor to the narrative over pleasant, baroque-tinged melodies.

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis, which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

Gay Marshall Channels Parisian Depth and Joie de Vivre at Pangea

Chanteuse Gay Marshall‘s show last night at Pangea turned out to be as memorable and dynamic as Paris itself. It was also riotously funny – a Parisian might call it “marrant à chier.” In a little over an hour onstage, Marshall made good on her promise of a very individualistic musical tour of her adopted hometown, more imbued with knifes-edge intensity and current-day relevance than vaudevillian flair. Opening with a witheringly cynical Dave Frishberg number and closing with classic Piaf, she mined the depth and intensity of half a century’s worth of iconic and obscure chanson. She’s bringing this spectacle back to Pangea for a monthlong, weekly residency, repeating next Tuesday, Oct 25 and then consecutive Wednesdays, Nov 2 and 9 at 7 PM. Cover is $20 in this lowlit, intimate space, the scent of Mediterranean herbs wafting through the room. Most cabaret food sucks; this place is a refreshing exception to that rule.

To say that Marshall’s plushly crystalline, endlessly mutable mezzo-soprano vocals are disarmingly direct is an understatement. Being an actress, you would expect her to sing in character, yet there was zero affectation in these individuals’ angst, and longing, and devilish joe de vivre. Alternating between her own vivid English translations, and flawless French throughout each of the night’s numbers, she was joined by pianist Ian Herman, who switched seamlessly between wry barrelhouse theatrics, wistful blues, neoromantic lustre and the occasional blazing coda.

The audience was most transfixed by the darkest material. With its harrowing portrait of over-the-edge despair, tricky thematic shifts and vocal leaps and bounds, the night’s most challenging number was Stone, a roof-raiser from the obscure French musical Starmania. The night’s high point was not a whimsical love song but a harrowing triptych of Jacques Brel antiwar ballads. Taking inspiration from Marshall’s father-in-law, a World War II vet, the duo segued from the elegaic Les Grognards to the macabre tritones of La Colombe and finally the Vietnam-era Sons Of (Fils De), which reminds how the kids we send off to war have the same dreams, and nightmares, as those we don’t. Marshall was moved to the point of tears by that number, as well as when she recalled a moment busking on the banks of the Seine, where a homeless guy put money in her beret. Artifice is not a part of what she does, at least here.

Her between-song banter was priceless. She’d set up a whimsicallly minimalist building-block Paris atop the piano, using it as a springboard for wry recollections of her experiences as an American there. A vocal coach who couldn’t bear Marshall showing up in shorts with her skateboard; a Centre Pompidou exhibit exploring the meaning of nothingness (it happened; Marshall went); and the ne plus ultra vanity of people like the woman in Boris Vian’s playfully lyrical, satirical J’suis Snob.

As someone who’s lived in both Paris and New York, Marshall absolutely nailed the connection between the two cities. Much as we may love our respective stomping grounds, we’re equally cynical about them. Which is where her insight and unselfconscious depth really took centerstage, particularly on the more lighthearted numbers. She left out the third verse of Yves Montand’s Les Grand Boulevards because that was where the guy in the song whisks a girl into an alleyway: Marshall considered this “Trump-worthy,” and the audience roared. And she brought out the underlying unease in Piaf’s Marie la Francaise, a broodingly wistful take of Charles Aznavour’s La Bohème and a new translation of Autumn Leaves, reminding that its original title is Les Feuilles Mortes.

Fun fact: Marshall casually related that she used to bike up to the top of Montmartre. For anyone who’s ever walked that hill, especially after a few drinks, just thinking about that makes you want to jump over the fence and collapse in that meadow at the top. N’est-ce pas?

ThingNY Debuts a Blackly Amusing, Sonically Rich Reflection on Hurricane Sandy

ThingNY‘s provocative, often hilarious performance piece This Takes Place Close By debuted last night, making maximum use of the spacious, sonically rich Knockdown Center in Maspeth, a former doorframe factory recast as adventurous performance venue. Through the eyes of various witnesses to Hurricane Sandy, the multimedia work explores apathy, anomie and alienation in the wake of disaster. It raises more questions than it answers – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Is this limousine liberal self-flagellation, a vain attempt to demonstrate eleventh-hour empathy? A simpering, self-congratulatory meme for gentrifiers hell-bent on their fifteen minutes on Instagram? A welcome dose of perspective on where the hurricane falls, historically speaking, in terms of disastrous consequences? A caustic and often poignant critique of narcissism raising its ugly head at the least opportune moment? You can find out for yourself when the piece repeats, tonight, September 25 through Sunday the 27th at 8 PM; general admission is $20.

Ostensibly an opera, this is more of an avant garde theatre piece with music. The six-piece ensemble lead the audience from one set to another, creating a surround-sound atmosphere, voices and instruments leaping unexpectedly from the shadows. The live electroacoustic score – a pulsing, rather horizontal, minimalistic theme and variations – is gripping and often reaches a white-knuckle intensity, and the distance between the performers has no effect on how tightly they play it. The narratives vary from more-or-less straight-up theatre vignettes, to phone calls, harrowing personal recollections and surrealist spoken-word interludes. Other than Gelsey Bell – whose pure, translucent chorister’s soprano is the icing on the sonic cake – the rest of the ensemble do not appear to be trained singers. Yet they gamely hold themselves together through some challenging, distantly gospel-inspired four-part harmonies. Violinist Jeffrey Young‘s shivery cadenzas and the occasional creepy glissando enhance the suspense, while Bell’s keyboards and Dave Ruder’s clarinet supply more resonantly ominous ambience. Percusssionist Paul Pinto wryly doubles as roadie and emcee of sorts with his trusty penlight. Bassist Andrew Livingston distinguishes himself by playing creepy tritones while sprawled flat on his back in the rubble; meanwhile, Bell projects with undiminished power despite the presence of Livingston’s bass on top of her diaphragm.

Intentionally or not, the star of this show is multi-saxophonist Erin Rogers, whose vaudevillian portrayal of a 911 operator slowly losing it under pressure – in between bursts of hardbop soprano sax – is as chilling as it is funny. Happily, she later gets to return to give the poor, bedraggled, unappreciated woman some dignity. And playing alto, she teams with Livingston for a feast of brooding foghorn atmospherics during a portrait of a philosophical old bodega owner for whom the storm is “been there, done that.”

The characters run the gamut from enigmatic or gnomic to extremely vivid. Young gets to relish chewing the scenery as he channels a wet-behind-the-ears, clueless gentrifier kid who’s just self-aware enough to know that he ought to cover his ass while expunging any possible guilt for gettting away with his comfortable life intact. Livingston’s shoreline survivor, horror-stricken over the possible loss of his girlfriend, really drives the storm’s toll home. Bell’s baroque-tinged ghost is more nebulous, as is Pinto’s mashup of tummler and historian at the end – in a set piece that seems tacked on, as if the group had to scramble to tie things together just to get the show up and running in time. Yet even that part is grounded in history – which, if this group is to be believed, does not portend well for how we will react when the waters rise again. And they will.

John Kelly Winds Up His Memorably Tragicomic Performance Piece on Governors Island

The foreshadowing of Jarrod Beck‘s masterfully surreal, decaying, apocalyptic steampunk set design for John Kelly‘s latest performance piece, Love of a Poet, intimated a cruelly ominous fate for its protagonist. Based on Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle setting of lovelorn Heinrich Heine poems, Kelly’s piece is a grimly tragicomic study in self-absorption. In typical multimedia fashion, Kelly employed projections of an alter ego of sorts, ghostly images of a girl strolling through a black-and-white Blair Witch-style set, left and right of the stage while he sang and performed the suite with his usual nuance, operatic flair and lithely muscular grace.

Pianist Christopher Cooley opened with blackly menacing, minimalist motives, building to an aptly murky, riveting ambience from which Kelly arose, literally, from flat on his back, just beyond the sold-out crowd’s sightline. From there the two worked a dynamically rich tension, both singer and pianist sometimes veering into rubato, each following the other, raising the level of angst and fullscale alienation.

Kelly is an artist who likes to push himself to the limits of how he portrays a character, both physically and on an emotional level, and this performance was no exception. Tragic historical figures are favorites of his. This interpretation of the doomed poet offered suspense – was he going to bury himself alive, drown himself, stab himself, all of the above, or survive it all? – as well as Kelly’s signature wry humor. A brief, anachronistic bit involving a laptop was irresistibly funny. Even more so was the suite’s most vaudevillian number, a blackly droll little song whose gist was, in case any of you think that all this nonstop heartbreak is funny, it happens every day…and it’s gonna happen to you! There was a physical element to that which made it all the more priceless, but it’s too good to give away. Throughout the piece, Kelly worked from the soaring top to the eerily resonant bottom of his famously vast vocal range, singing in both the original German as well as in English, cautiously and then frantically weighing just how much torment an artist can take…or simply subject himself to.

Originally written to be performed at what is now the Governors Island ferry terminal, at the Battery, this new set took advantage of its new digs in the performance space on the lower level of the building just to the right of the Manhattan ferry landing on the island itself. The audience whisked themselves in, slowly, single file, being made to wade through gusty sheets of plastic. Was this more eerie foreshadowing? An immersive prelude to the struggle of the poor poet to maintain his santity?

Yesterday’s performance here was the final one, at least for now, although there are several other intriguing upcoming concerts on Governors Island, including the world premiere of a new large-scale composition by Serena Jost and Matthew Robinson for fifty-piece cello orchestra, outdoors on July 25 at 3 PM outdoors at the southwest corner of Fort Jay.

Grace McLean Steals the Show at Lincoln Center

There’s no one in the world who sounds exactly like Grace McLean. With a stiletto sense of humor, a sharp sense of history, an irresistibly infectious stage presence and a quirky, individualistic sense of melody that’s nothing short of avant garde yet incredibly catchy,  she charmed and seduced a young, energized, very drama-school-looking crowd at Lincoln Center Wednesday night with her inimitable mix of bouncy loopmusic and savagely deadpan between-song banter. McLean’s lyrical references and tunesmithing may be in the here and now, but her sensibility is pure, early-80s edgy downtown NYC punk performance art. Among more contemporary artists, she brings to mind both Killy Dwyer and Tammy Faye Starlite.

Her genius is that she draws the crowd in with her catchy, dancing hooks – her timing, rhythmwise and otherwise is as amazing as her music is strangely compelling. Then, when she’s got your head bobbing, she smacks you right there. She’s got an opera about Hildegard von Bingen currently in development, and this time out chose instead to do a song inspired by a Hildegard counterpart, St. Ursula. As McLean told it, that woman led a thousand virgins on a pilgimage to the Holy Land…where they were intercepted by Huns, who killed them all. “That’s what you had to do to be famous in the eleventh century if you were a woman,” McLean mused. But that also meant achieving the pinnacle of success for a medieval girl: “You got to join in everlasting marriage with god,” McLean beamed.

She performed most of her set by layering loops of vocals against each other and then singing over them, an art that takes split-second timing and perfect pitch to pull off, and she made it look easy. She opened the set seated at the piano for a single number, joined by a rhythm section and backup singers who’d return at the end of the show. The first couple of songs had a suspiciously sardonic urban top 40 flavor, but exactly what McLean was spoofing, if anything, wasn’t clear.

From there, things got interesting in a hurry. Her cover of Heather Christian’s Wild Animals – employing rhymes from Gertrude Stein’s lone children’s book – was as funny as it was disconcertingly trippy. McLean’s own Natural Disaster raised the gallows humor factor, something that would permeate much of the rest of the show. A mighty, anthemic number titled Where Is the White Light evoked My Brightest Diamond as McLean took a swipe at new age cluelessness, while the ethereally crescendoing waves of a diptych a little later on brought to mind Bjork at her artsiest and weirdest. Existential angst was everywhere, particularly in a later number whose momentary refrain was “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.”

Elsewhere, McLean had plenty of fun with guy/girl dynamics, particularly when the music lapsed toward faux “R&B,” most memorably with a couple of what were ostensibly diary entries from her gradeschool years. She wound up the show by finding the missing link between a couple of iconic Beatles and Stones songs, closing with a rousingly Memphis-flavored take of her big va-voom crowd-pleaser My Friend’s Roommate and then a Broadway standard where she pulled out all the stops to show off a powerful, brassy mezzo-soprano. It’s impossible to think of an edgier, more entertaining way for Lincoln Center to introduce this year’s Great American Songbook series.

The Minetta Lane Theatre Stages a Sinister, Politically Spot-On New Rock Musical

“If we act like we know what we’re doing, people will think we know what we’re doing,” Marrick Smith’s tirelessly ambitious yuppie character announces at a particularly pivotal juncture in Ivar Pall Jonsson‘s surrealistically sinister, fearlessly relevant new rock musical, Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, Furniture Painter, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Inspired by the Enron-like run on the Icelandic krona by currency speculators in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, the musical is a cruelly telling parable of how the ruling classes and those elected to represent them manipulate the rest of us – and convince us that their failures are somehow ours instead. As both political and musical satire, it’s surprisingly subtle, considering how much dramatic fireworks take place and how over-the-top the parody gets in places. With roots in hippie agitprop, glam rock and George Orwell, it’s well worth the price of admission and with better branding would have a very high upside on Broadway.

The story is simple. Elbowville is a sleepy town full of people situated deep in the titular laborer’s body, south of Mombreast and north of Knee York City and its trendy suburb, Hipburg. As befits satire, the characters are all pretty broad. Cady Huffman’s Manuela, the mayor, starts out egocentrically brassy and gets increasingly diabolical as the plot unwinds. Smith’s Peter, inventor of the Prosperity Machine that brings the town great joy and hilariously spoofy bodily “enhancements,” is insatiable in his quest for more and more until the whole scheme seems on the brink of collapse (a crisis that resolves itself via flashback early on). Jesse Wildman methodically emboldens the persona of Brynja, the ingenue who can’t decide between bossy Peter and his shy, good-hearted brother (Graydon Long). Brad Nacht is exasperatingly unwavering and amusing as doofy third-wheel brother Stein, who will avoid a decision at all costs just to get along. Kate Shindle lends an acerbic fire to his status-grubbing but increasingly suspicious wife Asrun, while Patrick Boll is wickedly perfect as Manuela’s sneaky, kiss-ass straight man, Kolbein (which sounds suspiciously like “Cobain” throughout the performance).

The satire goes beyond politics to Broadway spectacle itself. A good portion of the action unfolds during song sequences, and not a single character bothers to imbue his or her vocals with anything other than a rote, smiley-faced, Disney-approved cheer (which seems to be a directorial decision, a very effective one). The music, also by Jonsson, is catchy and tuneful, drawing heavily on Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie as well as the more anthemic side of 80s new wave pop, with a bit of metal crunch or goth horror in the tenser moments. The band – Matt Basile on bass, Bryn Roberts on keyboards, John Kengla and Rob Ritchie on guitars plus a terse, swinging drummer who somehow managed not to let an injured leg in a thigh-high boot stop him – play with dynamics and intensity.

Interestingly, the narrative positions the local powers that be as the villains, without taking into account external factors conspiring against them – there are a couple of very amusing repo man/woman scenes, but that’s about it. As the bank or its facsimile gets run on, pandemonium ensues and it looks like somebody’s going to get strung up. The sudden ending packs an unexpected wallop. This show succeeds on all levels: as comedy, as corrosively cynical political commentary, as a rock show. And there’s a soundtrack album – sung by the actors and band in the original Icelandic production – that you can listen back to.

Back to that title: it’s got to go for this to succeed on any sizeable level in the US.  A show this accessible yet this impactful could have a real future on Broadway (that Fela managed to last as long as it did is good reason to believe the time is ripe for a similarly edgy 99-percenters’ tale). But xenophobic American tourist audiences won’t buy Ragnar whateverhisnameis. Elbowville would work just fine.

An Overlooked Lorca-Inspired Art-Rock Treasure from Rima Fand

Much as this blog’s raison d’etre is to keep an eye on what’s happening now, the past is littered with unfairly overlooked albums. One recent one, from 2011, is Rima Fand’s Sol, Caracol (Spanish for “Sun, Snail”). It comprises many of the songs from her theatrical project Don Cristobal: Billy-Club Man, which sets Federico Garcia Lorca poetry to frequently haunting, flamenco-tinged original music. This is the closest thing to an original soundtrack recording that exists, part dark flamenco rock, part noir cabaret, part chamber pop. Besides playing violin, the Luminescent Orchestrii co-founder distinguishes herself on mandolin and keyboards as well, accompanied by an all-star cast from many styles of south-of-the-border and Balkan music.

Although Don Cristobal and his sidekick Rosita are a Spanish version of Punch and Judy, there’s very little here that’s vaudevillian, consistent with Garcia Lorca’s full-fledged rather than one-dimensionally farcical depiction of the characters. The opening track, Midnight Hours, sets a dramatic lead vocal by David Fand over a spiky blend of the bandleader’s mandolin with Avi Fox-Rosen and Chris Rael’s guitars, a soaring choir behind them. You might call this art-flamenco. Lucia Pulido sings the dynamically charged Replica, Rima Fand doubling on mandolin and accordion. Cicada, a shivery, hypnotically suspenseful string piece, blends her violin with those of Sarah Alden and Not Waving But Drowning’s Pinky Weitzman and Matt Moran‘s vibraphone.

Justine Williams
sings the creepy, marching Rosita’s Song. The choir returns for Don Woodsman-Heart, a moody flamenco vamp lit up by Quince Marcum‘s alto horn, morphing into a dreaming, longing waltz. Pulido takes over the mic again on the terse, minimalistic Confusion over My Brightest Diamond cellist Maria Jeffers‘ bassline. David Fand returns to imploring lead vocals on the insistent Abre Tu Balcon (Open Up Your Balcony – that’s Don Cristobal imploring Rosita to have a word with him). They follow that with a cartoonish miniature, Te Mate and then Hat-Ache, another flamenco-tinged, angst-fueled, love-stricken ballad.

The album’s centerpiece is the macabre, carnivalesque Billy-Club Ballet, the bandleader on piano with guitar and percussion, Fox-Rosen’s jagged electric incisions adding menace up to a twinkling piano interlude and then back down. They follow a brief mandolin waltz with La Monja Gitana (The Country Nun), rising from another austere 3/4 rhythm, with a rich, bittersweet vocal from Rima Fand.

Eva Salina Primack and Aurelia Shrenker a.k.a. innovative Balkan/Appalachian duo AE sing the sweeping, tensely moonlit Lullaby for a Sleeping Mirror, building to a lush, anxious round. The album ends with the towering overture La Cogida y la Muerte, sung pensively in English and Spanish by Abigail Wright, the acidic close harmonies of the string section contrasting with Katie Down‘s anxiously dancing flute and the distantly circling trumpets of Ben Syversen, Sarah Ferholt, JR Hankins and Ben Holmes. Surreal, sad, eclectic and vivid, it more than does justice to Lorca’s equally surreal, sad, ironic poetry. The album comes with a useful lyric booklet including English translations.

Three More Chances to Watch Tammy Faye Starlite Channeling Nico

Irrepressible, subversive blonde cabaret personality Tammy Faye Starlite plays Nico in Chelsea Madchen, her wildly popular evocation of the iconic ice queen on Mondays in June at 8 PM at the lushly redesigned new Cutting Room on 32nd Street just west of Park Avenue. Serena Angelique Williams’  rave review of Tammy’s performance during a sold-out run at the Duplex originally appeared at NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture a couple of years ago:

I happen to be partial to divas, so it was with great fanfare and enthusiasm that I set out to see Tammy Faye Starlite’s new work, “Chelsea Madchen,” a self-styled performance piece she has put together from scratch. Though pleased that anyone had been brave enough to tackle the task of taking on the Teutonic temptress, and particularly a woman, rather than a drag queen, I was hesitant to believe that it could really be pulled off while eliminating the potential for excess camp. Impersonating Nico is a seemingly uphill climb for even the most accomplished actress. Were it not for Tammy Faye Starlite, a modern day diva in her own right, my skepticism may have won out – especially since my first attempt to see the show was thwarted. In true Nico style, it had been cancelled – in this case, on account of the unexpected October snowstorm of a few weeks ago.

I knew Tammy Faye Starlite from her noteworthy performances at Lakeside Lounge, fronting the Mike Hunt Band, the all-girl Rolling Stones cover group, as well as her hilarious turn as a country music songstress in Tammy Faye Starlite and the Angels of Mercy, where she croons original country songs as shocking as they are humorous. She has the chops to do many things very well, and had previously put this piece up at Joe’s Pub and Theater 80 at St. Marks Place. The Duplex’s cabaret is a much smaller house – it only seats 77 at full capacity – so I was aware that this would be a rare chance to see her perform in a more intimate venue, with hopes that it would add to the authenticity of the experience. It had long been my dream to see Nico, in whatever way I could get her, and I had never imagined my wish would ever surface as a reality. Still, I kept my expectations from brimming over, though I had read that Danny Fields, Nico’s former manager, had been impressed with Tammy Faye’s interpretation, a stamp of approval that carries considerable weight. In spite of this, I entered the cabaret more curious than hopeful, wondering how in the world she would manage to pull off this daunting task.

This piece could be described as a play within a play, though there are no programs distributed, which dispels the notion that we are seeing anything but a live and improvised performance. Tammy Faye cites that her inspiration to create this piece emerged in adolescence, listening to Nico obsessively as many a teenage girl (including myself) was wont to do before music so radically shifted gears. It was Nico who paved the way for many experimental musicians, a rare female innovator overshadowed by her predominantly male contemporaries. She was irreverent, an outlaw, a conjurer of emotionally charged sound from an era that unforgettably changed the way we perceive and listen to music. Yet she put out a relatively small body of work, and it still is a challenge to track down many of her more obscure recordings.

The band is onstage before Tammy Faye makes her grand, if understated entrance. They are a cohesive ensemble, and utterly faithful to reproducing the Velvet Underground’s signature sound. They start the set with the appropriately titled “Femme Fatale” while Tammy Faye as Nico quietly assumes her place, hesitating before beginning the set with an overlong pause, in character, while keeping everything in the moment. Then she starts to sing.

Though she resembles Nico, she is not a clone. Rather than attempting to present the “Dolce Vita” image of physical perfection that is characteristically associated with Nico, she seems instead to emulate Nico in her later life. This is a wise choice, although at that point, Nico had stopped dyeing her hair, and Tammy Faye retains the hallmark blonde tresses. In an all-black ensemble, wool sweater and heavily lined eyes, she is transformed into a version of Nico that is both aloof and believable, without inviting potentially unfavorable comparisons.

In fact, she is infinitely better-looking than Nico became in her hardcore junkie years, when her beauty was ravaged by self-destruction and bloated with excess. Tammy Faye’s voice is also stronger. However, it is not her intent to fall back on the timeworn stereotype of Nico as a drug addict – a wise decision, as it does not diffuse the focus of the work. Nico, as I’ve mentioned, is difficult, if not impossible to imitate, but the beauty of her vocals is also aided by certain imperfections, and a visceral, hollow resonance, unique unto her alone. Tammy Faye’s German accent, inflections, and phrasing are on point, her timing impeccable, but the better-known numbers from her days with the Velvet Underground lack the dark cultivation of Nico’s original recordings. Still, this does not seriously detract from the performance, and after the first song, she quickly settles into character. As the show progresses, her rhythm as Nico continues to gain momentum, and it is compelling to watch this transformation as it unfolds.

The premise of the piece is an interview – a skillfully assembled pastiche of actual Nico interview quotes from over the years – with a cheerfully inquisitive, if somewhat inept Australian (Jeff Ward deserves a big hand for this role) providing the necessary tension for Nico to play against. His queries are met with a series of blatant non-sequiturs and unabashed haughtiness, revealing an austere and singularly self-involved woman. Her intellect is equally apparent, despite many, many prejudices, echoed with a candid, sometimes beyond-the-pale precision that is surprisingly droll. Tammy Faye proves once again to be a gifted comedienne, and manages to balance these perceptions with such refreshing honesty that she is able to captivate the audience without alienating them with excessive arrogance or an obliquely slanted worldview.  We observe a Nico who is simultaneously astute, eccentric, opinionated, and flawed, a mosaic of contradictions which serve as the basis of her persona as blighted, yet gifted artist of infinite potential.

Nico was one of the great muses of her time. At one point, she explains that her one regret in life is that she “was born a woman instead of a man”. It may seem ironic that she would make such a remark, considering that her classically feminine style of beauty is so integral to her iconic status. She did not embrace feminism, yet she gradually cultivated a level of androgyny emphasizing her more masculine traits. She seems to have regarded her sex to be an extreme handicap, which she perpetually strove to overcome in spite of her attractiveness. She rebelled against her good looks, waging a later campaign that now seems a deliberate attempt to destroy them entirely. Her battle was a long-hidden struggle to desexualize herself in a quest for artistic self-realization. But equating creativity with masculinity, she fell victim to a rigidly established system of chauvinistic ideals. Consequently, nearly all of her work would become heavily influenced by the men in her life while she searched for her true voice as a singer. Handing over the reins, she allowed them to dictate and compose much of her material.

As Nico, Tammy Faye recounts her several collaborative efforts and relationships with Warhol, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison, and even Gordon Lightfoot (one of the most poignant, confessional songs in her repertoire, is her cover of Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’,” describing her view of herself in relationships with affecting accuracy). She trusted them more than she could trust herself, and in turn, they used her as an inspiration for their own work. There are traces of bitterness in Nico’s harsh delivery of her side of some of these stories, yet she never makes an appeal for our sympathy. In their respective ways, it could be argued that each used the other. The difference lies in that Lou Reed, for example, would have remained Lou Reed with or without Nico: he brought her into the Velvets to serve as eye candy as much as to sing. She would never again achieve the same level of fame as she’d enjoyed with them after going solo, most of her best-known work being laid out during her earlier sessions with the band. When she objectively recalls her problems with Reed, deducing that “he could never get over what my people had done to his people–I can’t make love to Jews anymore,” this is beyond a mere catty or oblivious indictment. Reed’s excuse that they separated under the premise of cultural differences is unlikely. What is more believable is that they could no longer work together because he felt her to be his creative inferior. She simply moved on, to Dylan, and later John Cale, and other musicians, placing them all upon pedestals, and following their respective leads. Forever searching out mentors, lovers, and assistants, she unfortunately undermined her own talent. Dominated by a string of more successful male artists, Nico was all but swallowed whole. She literally fell to the wayside, eventually dying much too early, impoverished, obscured by her more famous friends and colleagues.

And therein lies the true genius of Tammy Faye’s opus as Nico. Tammy Faye is able to vividly capture the woman’s genius, while exposing her weaknesses, providing a completely three-dimensional portrait of a woman often marginalized, and one who continued to persevere despite a long history of folly and failed relationships. She is unapologetic for all of it. Ultimately she ended up with a beautiful catalogue of material that defines her as a modern chanteuse. These songs are timeless. When Tammy Faye sings them, we are reminded of their lasting value as groundbreaking contributions to the evolution of postmodern trends in music, art and performance art. When she sits before the piano and begins the first strains of “Frozen Borderline” from The Marble Index, for all intents and purposes, we are seeing art that is as stunning in originality as it is arresting in its realism. Resurrected from the great beyond, this diva commands her audience with such mastery that by the time she launches into her haunting version of Jim Morrison’s “The End” I was no longer conscious of Tammy Faye “channeling” Nico; the two had harmonically converged.

The show ended all too soon, though it clocks in at nearly ninety minutes, without intermission.  Nico left the stage abruptly after delivering the explosive denouement, a vengeful rendition of Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for My Man,” a powerful statement to conclude this story. There was no encore. No introduction of the superb backup band – Claudia Chopek, Dave Dunton, Rich Feridun, Keith Hartel, Craig Hoek and Ron Metz, nor of the brilliant interviewer. No greeting of the audience after the show. Like a dream, she seemed to have evaporated almost immediately, leaving me feeling overexposed as the house lights turned on. What was left was the lingering sense that I had just experienced the rare good luck to have been transported through time to a place forever obsolete, in the supreme presence of a living phantom. Tammy Faye Starlite–singer, writer, performance artist, comedienne and actress extraordinaire, has offered us a glimpse into the past, giving us a final chance to pay homage to a spirit we should honor and respect. These performances should not be missed. This diva will haunt you.

Tammy Faye Starlite is Nico in ”Chelsea Madchen” on Mondays in June at 8 PM at the Cutting Room, 44 E 32nd St. just west of Park Ave. Advance tickets are $20 and still available as of today, June 5.