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An Exhilirating, Revelatory Carnegie Hall Debut by the Aizuri Quartet

In their Carnegie Hall debut last night, the Aizuri Quartet played an exhilarating, “wonderfully quirky” program, as violinist Miho Saegusa grinningly characterized a lively, animatedly conversational performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in B minor, Op. 64, no. 2. And that wasn’t the highlight of the night. The suite of Komitas’ Armenian folk songs, via a colorful Sergei Aslamazian arrangement, were often gorgeously poignant. And Paul Wiancko‘s 2016 triptych Lift, an “ode to joy,” as violist Ayane Kozasa put it, was a thrilling, ceaslessly bustling, distinctly urban choice of coda. Wiancko is a cellist by trade: his work for strings takes maximum advantage of all those instruments can offer.

The theme of the night was “locally sourced” music inspired by the composers’ home turf that also resonated with the group members. Cellist Karen Ouzounian explained that the night’s five dances collected by Komitas – a Near Eastern musical polymath and proto Alan Lomax– were “a musical link for a lot of families in the diaspora to a distant home…a tiny window into Armenia.” Growing up in Toronto, she’d developed a passion for the repertoire, something the group clearly share.

The wistfully waltzing song without words they opened with set the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the night, lit up with Saegusa’s sparkling pizzicato. They’d revisit that plaintiveness with the third piece, a distantly Viennese-tinged waltz, Kozasa adding aching intensity with a solo toward the end. In between, a kinetic, celebratory number featured forceful call-and-response and a nimble pizzicato bassline from Ouzounian. The acerbic fourth tune, with its uneasy, Iranian-tinged modalities and stormy gusts, morphed into a jauntier waltz that set the stage for a bounciy vamping conclusion.

In the Haydn, violinist Emma Frucht got to indulge in some unusual single-string voicings that the composer had written for a string-playing buddy. The group reveled in the occasional puckish, peek-a-boo moment and coy instants of anticipation: they’d really taken the quartet apart to find all the best jokes. Dynamics were very hushed in the quietest passages, so that when the group really dug into the Romany-inspired minor-key phrases that Haydn would inevitably smooth out, the effect was all the more striking. Deft handoffs of neatly interwoven counterpoint between the instruments became more animated as the music grew more straightforwardly triumphant, to a playful coda.

Wiancko’s triptych had a cinematic restlessness, a hive of activity built around several intriguing thematic variations. The ensemble kicked it off memorably with a shiver of harmonics, quickly hitting a bustle that brought to mind Charles Mingus’ mid-50s work. Seemingly tongue-in-cheek rounds of pizzicato gave way to circular, Philip Glass-ine phrasing and some of the night’s most unselfconsciously lustrous harmonies between the violins. As the piece went on, lively swoops and dives along with a long series of short, colorful solo spots for each of the instruments mingled with hazy atmospherics, Debussy-esque echoes of ragtime and a return to a frenetic cityscape to tie up any possible loose end. What appeared to be a sold-out crowd exploded with a series of standing ovations.

The Aizuri Quartet’s next New York gig is Dec 15 at 11 AM at Subculture, playing a program TBA; cover is $20, which includes coffee and breakfast snacks. Concert Artists Guild, who sponsored this show, also have a characteristically innovative series of performances from future stars of the serious instrumental music world. Their next one is Feb 11, 2020 at 7:30 PM back at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, with pianist Yi-Nuo Wang playing works by Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Brahms, Chen-yi Lee and Liszt; tix are $30.

The Attacca Quartet Make a Strong Segue with Visionary Art-Rocker Jeff Lynne’s ELO at Radio City

No less august a figure than ELO’s Jeff Lynne had asked the Attacca Quartet to open his sold-out stand at Radio City this past weekend. The string quartet responded with an ecstatic, robust performance that, while tantalizingly brief, threatened to upstage the headliners. It was as much a testament to the group’s ability to connect with an audience most likely unfamiliar with their repertoire as it was Lynne’s confidence in his thirteen-piece band’s ability to pull off a similarly electric set of ambitious, iconic chamber pop and art-rock hits.

The foursome – violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee – spiced their set with codas by Haydn and Beethoven, practically jumping out of their shoes to be playing to such a vast audience. Beyond that, they impressed with their choice of material, opening with John Adams’ acerbically percussive miniature Toot Nipple, then a bit later slinking up his Alligator Escalator with its steady, apprehensive drive out of a rondo of sepulchral high harmonics. It was arguably the high point of the night. While the group could have taken the easy route with standard Romantic repertoire, or the ostentatious one with, say, Bartok, they cemented their cred by showcasing material from their pals, emerging composers Paul Wiancko and Michael Ippolito. Stark low-midrange washes and enigmatically lively exchanges held the crowd’s focus before the headliners hit the stage.

Opening with a low, ominously swirling vortex of sound – one of several recurrent tropes this evening – Lynne and company launched into the stark, misterioso intro to Tightrope, the uneasily dynamic, Dvorak-influenced first cut on the group’s platinum-selling 1976 New World Record. The only remaining member from the band’s several chart-topping 70s lineups is keyboardist Richard Tandy; the rest of Lynne’s merry band is on the young side, and they were stoked to the nines to be able to share the stage with one of the greatest rock tunesmiths of alltime.

They didn’t play Do Ya – the cult favorite by Lynne’s previous band the Move which ELO reprised much more ornately for an American audience – and that worked out for the better, since they didn’t use it as a segue like in years past. In lieu of that, they took an extended romp through the galumphing, phantasmagorical outro of 10538 Overture, the alienation anthem that opens the band’s 1972 debut album. Other than that and Tightrope, the night’s only other deep cut – an epically pulsing take of Secret Messages, title track to the band’s 1983 album – also rose out of a stygian reflecting pool.

The crowd saved their most heartfelt ovation for a particularly gorgeous, majestic version of the 1974 ballad Can’t Get It Out of My Head, lit up with terse Tandy keyboard flourishes that held very closely to the kind of fun the band would have with it onstage forty years ago. Otherwise, the band’s two additional keyboardists, as many as four guitarists at once and a couple of backup singers over a hard-hitting but swinging rock rhythm section brought new energy to Lynne’s already hefty studio arrangements.

The one new song in the set, from the late 2015 release Alone in the Universe, was the Lennonesque, autobiographical piano ballad When I Was a Boy. Otherwise, this was a clapalong show. The band followed an inspired version of the bluesy, minor-key 1976 kiss-off hit Evil Woman with a similarly terse performance of their 1973 British hit, Showdown. Their late-70s disco era was represented by the bouncy Shine a Little Love and All Over the World as well as a hypnotically spiraling run through Turn to Stone, from the 1977 double album Out of the Blue.

The rest of the set drew on fun, imaginatively orchestrated arrangements of radio hits including Livin’ Thing, with its slithery violin solo; a boisterously strummed Sweet Talking Woman; and the stately, angst-drenched ballad Telephone Line, shimmering with surreallistic, melancholy keyboard textures. They closed with the crescendoing pastorale Wild West Hero and then a full-length version of Mr. Blue Sky – a nod to a well-known jazz standard – and encored with an expansive cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, a popular FM radio staple from 1972. Throughout the set, Lynne sang strongly, from the bottom of his formidable baritone, to the falsetto he used with such frequency in the late 70s. It would have been a treat to hear Eldorado, or Kuiama, or similar early material voicing his visionary; dystopic worldview. Guess we’ll have to wait til next tour for that.

The Attacca Quartet’s’ next New York performance is on October 21 at 8 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 3 W 65th St. where they’ll be performing works by Beethoven and Caroline Shaw. General admission is $20.

Elegant, Serpentine Chamber Pop with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn

It’s hard to imagine that the String Orchestra of Brooklyn is ten years old this year. From the looks of some of the group’s members this past evening at le Poisson Rouge, if they’d been around since day one, they would have been in grade school then. This time out, the irrepressible ensemble backed a series of soloists straddling the worlds of indie classical and rock in a program that was more verdantly fresh and vivid than it was awash in the kind of lushly enveloping, dreamy sonics that strings orchestras are typically known for. A celebration of singles rather than an album of them, the program bookended often unpredictably knotty material around violinist Michi Wiancko‘s warmly minimal, poignant canon of a centerpiece, That Knock Is For Me (her first composition, she said), her cellist brother Paul adding a stark precision as he played standing up, as one would a kamancheh or erhu fiddle.

The New York premiere of William Brittelle‘s labyrinthine, surprise-packed, intricately dynamic mini-suite Canyons Curved Burgundy, was sung with moody resonance by Wye Oak guitarist Jenn Wasner, a frequent Brittelle collaborator. At the end, she went to her knees to elegantly tremolo-pick upper-register chords that were more raindroplets than dreampop washes. Her fellow guitarist Aaron Roche sang falsetto, off mic most of the time, so his harmonies often weren’t very present in the mix. Of his works on the bill, the most memorable was the slowly swaying, pensively 70s Britfolk-tinged Wooden Knife.

Wasner’s Everything Is Happening Today – scheduled for release on Flock of Dimes‘ debut album, due out next month – followed a more vigorous series of tangents, similar to Brittelle’s first piece. The group closed with his new single, Dream Has No Sacrifice, its central mantra within what by now had become an expectedly shapeshifting string arrangement replete with peek-a-boo voicings. Brittelle’s music in general is very translucent, so hearing him explain that the trials of fatherhood had sent him into a tailspin of jumping through some unnecessarily complicated hoops was quite a surprise. This, obviously, was a return to form, and despite its outward simplicity – “My Brightest Diamond on valium,” one wag observed – hardly easy to play.

A quiet, determined triumph for the soloists, who also included Robert Fleitz on electric piano and keyboards and Owen Weaver on syndrums – and the orchestra, whose members this time out also comprised violinists Gina Dyches, Quyen Le, Eric Shieh, Allison Dubinski, Shawn Barnett and Matthew Lau; violists Emily Bookwalter, Joseph Dermody and Brian Thompson; cellists Ken Hashimoto and Aya Terki; and bassists Luiz Bacchi, Valerie Whitney and Morton Cahn

The String Orchestra of Brooklyn’s next performance is at Bargemusic on Sept. 11 at 4 PM as part of a memorial concert, where they’ll be playing Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The concert is free, but early arrival is a must.