New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: ravel

Philip Glass’ Agenda Remains the Same

“The years catch up with you, but my agenda remains the same,” Philip Glass said, five years ago. This past evening at Carnegie Hall, to celebrate Glass’ eightieth birthday, Dennis Russell Davies led the Bruckner Orchestra Linz through two New York premieres of Glass works as well as the world premiere of his Symphony No. 11. By and large, the concert was as much of a present to what appeared to be a sold-out audience as it was to the composer.

It was a shock to discover that Glass’ 1997 Days and Nights in Rocinha – an equally kinetic and hypnotic tone poem of sorts – had never been performed here. It’s sort of the Ravel Bolero as the bastard child of Julia Wolfe and Angelo Badalamenti might have written it. The orchestra gave it a meticulously dynamic performance. Davies, a longtime Glass champion, looked nervous as its first unexpected, muted burst of low brass appeared, but by the end the music had reached his hips and he was swaying along triumphantly. Meanwhile, Glass sat in the front row of his balcony box, leaning on his elbow, chin in hand, inscrutable. The piece made a good choice of opener: the few moments of percussive sprinkling, wryly humorous stops-and-starts and hints of Egberto Gismonti tropical elegance foreshadowed a good proportion of the music to come.

Angelique Kidjo sang the New York premiere of a Yoruban creation triptych that she’d written with Glass. He’d done his homework, a rigorous analysis of the language’s phonetics and syllables so as to enable a smooth correspondence between lyrics and music. The first part was something akin to Jeff Lynne gone latin. The second, with its steady volleys of arpeggios over uneasy chromatics, was a striking and familiarly haunting look back to Glass’ iconic and perhaps career-defining Dracula soundtrack. The third was the closest to an orchestrated African folk song. Kidjo matched raw emotion to blues-inflected sophistication, notwithstanding some sonic issues early on – she was amplified, the orchestra wasn’t.

The show concluded with the new symphony, which could be viewed as a career retrospsective. It had every one of Glass’ signature tropes: dry humor matched by a similar flair for the unexpected; artfully subtle rhythmic reshaping; those broken major triads that the composer loves as much as wary chromatic vamps and moodily shifting accidentals; and unabashedly resonant beauty. Much of it was like one of his string quartets fleshed out with dense washes of extra strings.

Until the third movement, there weren’t many individual voices flickering through the enigmatic cycles of notes, but when they appeared, those motives – a droll oboe, a ghost of a tuba, a woodsy clarinet – were perfectly precise. The ensemble negotiated the second movement’s sudden but very cleverly disguised change of beats with similar aplomb. The third began with a rather vaudevillian percussion intro and for awhile was a real scherzo, until the orchestra turned a corner abruptly and…that’s where Glass’ joke became too good to give away. Glass’ music is so easy to get lost in that there are some things that are hard to see coming despite what can be innumerable deadpan hints of it.

What you should really do is not spoil the ending for yourself: just go see it the next time it’s performed here. Which it will be, probably sooner than later. Lucky concertgoers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina can see the orchestra play the first and last pieces plus Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Robert McDuffie tomorrow, Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at UNC Memorial Hall at 114 E. Cameron Ave; $30 tix are available.

Roger Nierenberg’s InSight Concert Provides a Rapturous, Under-the-Hood Look at a Symphony Orchestra

What was it like to be seated between the basses and the kettledrums at conductor Roger Nierenberg‘s InSight Concert at the DiMenna Center Saturday night? For those who gravitate toward the low registers, pretty close to heaven, when those instruments were part of the sonic picture. The rest of the audience was interspersed between various other orchestral sections…and then were encouraged to move to a new spot for the second half of the evening’s program. Not a brand-new idea – the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony played a revelatory version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in this same configuration last winter – but in any event, a memorable one.

Nierenberg has carved a niche for himself helping corporate clients employ orchestral-style teamwork, and the orchestra’s performance of a very smartly chosen program made a striking reminder just what a monumental feat it is to pull off a successful symphonic performance – the primary difference between a musical ensemble and a corporate environment being that backstabbing musicians have very short careers. To get a piece of music to work, everyone playing it has to trust each other.

On the podium, Nierenberg personified purpose and clarity, and a sense of call-and-response, delivering an agenda that the ensemble made good on. As a bonus for concertgoers, he invited them onto a big platform behind him, to watch over his shoulder for a conductors-eye view of the concert throughout a dynamic reading of Kodaly’s Galantai Tancok. It was the third and most vivid of a trio of folk-themed suites on the program, alternating between upbeat airs and more brooding Balkan themes, oboe and clarinet delivered crystalline, minutely nuanced solos front and center.

Britten’s Suite of English Folk Dances came across as sort of an etude for orchestra, packed with all sorts of high/low dichotomies that kept audience heads turning as the focus shifted in a split-second from the flutes, to the low strings, to percussion and then brass. Nierenberg’s own Playford Dance Suite, drawing on the very same folk melodies that Britten appropriated for his, packed considerably more emotional impact, and was much more clearly focused as well.

As many conductors do, Nierenberg also had the orchestra pull illustrative quotes from the program’s concluding numbers, Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – a birthday wake-up present from the composer to his wife, the conductor explained – and Ravel’s Mother Goose Ballet. Again, the contrasts – balmy atmospherics versus kinetic phantasmagoria – were striking to the point where the crowd was left with a takeaway that most likely lingered long after the concert. If Nierenberg gets his way, it’ll leave a much more lasting impact: mission accomplished.

The Mimesis Ensemble Plays Vigorous, Dynamic Andalucian-Inspired Premieres at NYU

Last night at NYU’s Skirball Center, the Mimesis Ensemble delivered an insightful, often irresistibly fun, historically vivid performance of Spanish-themed works by Ravel as well as two New York premieres by Mohammed Fairouz. Violin soloist Rachel Barton Pine stunned the crowd with her wildfire cadenzas, rapidfire riffage and hair-raising high harmonics throughout the second Fairouz premiere, the violin concerto Al Andalus.

Fairouz’s music is as colorful and vividly lyrical as he is prolific – and he’s very prolific. And he doesn’t’ shy away from political relevance or controversy. This triptych was typical, and it made a tantalizing launching pad for Pine’s virtuoso sorcery. The first movement, Ibn Furnas’ Flight referenced the legendary eighth-century poet and philosopher whose attempt at human flight may be apocryphal, or may have made him the world’s first successful hang-gliding enthusiast. Expressive flutes and aggressively dancing motives leaping up throughout the orchestra contrasted with a muted low resonance, tension and suspense juxtaposed with moments of sheer joy, and a brief bolero. As the music told it, Furnas eventually got to take to the sky, but getting there wasn’t easy.

The second movement, meant to evoke a love poem by the 11th century intellectual Ibn-Ham, made a stark contrast with its slow, spacious, considered minimalist introduction and moody minor-key atmospherics that alluded to Middle Eastern modes more than it actually employed them. The final movement drew on a famous homoerotic poem, jaunty yet suspenseful, full of humor and drollery, from pianist Katie Reimer’s salsa-tinged tumbles, to a snippet of Hava Nagila and a big, pulsing, tango-flavored crescendo. Conductor Laura Jackson did an adrenalized ballet of sorts on the podium, seemingly willing the music to life with her muscles as  as much as with her baton.

Fairouz himself conducted the other premiere, his Pax Universalis. In the program notes, he cited the piece’s carefree pageantry as the most lighthearted thing he’s ever written, and he was right about that. Echoes of Afrobeat and bubbly 1930s Hollywood film music livened the theme, inspired by John F. Kennedy’s concept of a universal peace fueled by citizen engagement, as opposed to a truce enforced by a major world power.

Jackson and the group set the tone for the evening with Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole: she really had them on their toes as they slunk their way suspensefully through the opening nocturne into the series of folk dance-themed variations that followed. This was all about tension and then a payoff, as the music rose and fell, through liltingly rhythmic crescendos and a triumphant conclusion. Then they tackled the Ravel Bolero, which actually isn’t a bolero at all: it’s basically a vamp, a one-chord jam. And it’s a real challenge to play, whether you’re one of the winds or strings who have to pedal the endless rhythmic pulses that push it along, or you’re picking up the melody for a fleeting few seconds. Everyone did their part, seamlessly: the only thing missing was Grace Slick belting, “Feed your head!”

Pianist Ian Hobson Plays a Robust, Smartly Thematic Program at Merkin Concert Hall

How’s this for meta? The theme of pianist Ian Hobson‘s ambitious monthly series of concerts is…themes. And variations on those themes. With this series, he’s been pushing himself as hard as any other pianist out there right now. There’s no better example than next month’s April 13, 7’30 PM program at Merkin Concert Hall, where he’s going to open with a Faure theme and variations, then Schumann’s almost sadistically difficult Symphonic Etudes and then Rachmaninoff preludes, whose iconically harrowing beauty requires similarly daunting technique. If Wednesday’s program there was any indication, Hobson is up to the challenge. Tix are $20/$12.50 stud/srs.

Last night’s concert there found Hobson opening with a student work of sorts by Chopin, the Variations on Der Schweitzer Bub. It doesn’t sound much like Chopin. Rather, it draws a line straight back to Beethoven – contented, ebullient, carbonated post-soiree Beethoven, like, say, the Leonore Overture. How did Hobson handle it? As the flashy proto chamber pop that it is, but also as a study in contrasts, an approach that would work like a charm throughout the rest of the program.

Then he raised the bar with Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Those familiar with the piece are probably used to choppy, severe Soviet interpretations. Hobson’s was 180 degrees the opposite: lyrical, conversational, and revealing. Rachmaninoff pairs achingly searching righthand melodies against coldly brusque, fatalistic, even macabre lefthand riffs so often that it’s almost a shtick. Hobson worked that dynamic as a dialogue rather than grand guignol. His approach to the tempo and overall pacing was just as minutely attuned, with a legato so liquid that he seemed to be meeting the keys at the millisecond they bounced up, rather than crunching down on anything before its time had come. Not a lot of pianists play so convivially: Nancy Garniez is one. There could be an influence here.

Next on the bill was the world premiere of a series of Yehudi Wyner preludes, completed just a month ago. How heartwarming to see that the now-octogenarian Wyner is absolutely undiminished, and what a fantastic segue they made wih the suite of Debussy etudes that followed. Dynamics were once again front and center as Hobson switched elegantly between gnomic Kurtag-esque minimalism, Debussy gamelanisms and otherworldly, echoing bell tones that brought to mind Frederic Mompou.

Much as piano etudes tend to be perceived as simplistic and less than desirable for public performance, they actually tend to be very difficult. The program notes quoted Debussy doing his best to put Carl Czerny (patron saint of boring practice pieces) in his place by writing a series of rigorous numbers that brought some actual fun to the struggle of mastering complex late Romantic repertoire. Much as there was plenty of repetition, deliberate emphasis on crosshand technique, tendon-tormenting octatves and such, there was no step down from Debussy at his usual self. Hobson made the bells chime, the cascades gleam, and uneasy, enigmatic journeys into as much cherry resolution as this composer ever possibly alllows. That, and the frequent droll flourish that drew chuckles from an impressive crowd for a crisp early spring night.

And if all this wasn’t enough of a workout, Hobson – who’d broken into a sweat by then – encored with a robust take of Ondine, from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. The concert had come full circle: in order to play this even more uneasy, challenging showstopper, you might need a few of the practice pieces Hobson had built full steam with.

An Obscure Treasure, a Vivid Premiere and a Pair of Haunters from the Chelsea Symphony

The New York Philharmonic may get more press than the other orchestras in town, and a lot of that is deserved. But many of those other orchestras are doing great things as well. The Greenwich Village Orchestra plays tremendous theme programs, are family-friendly and don’t shy away from relevant issues beyond the music. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony have a towering Philadelphia Orchestra-like presence and sweep. The Queensboro Symphony are drawing musicians out to the middle of nowhere in Flushing because everybody wants to play for their conductor. And it’s hard to believe that the Chelsea Symphony are only ten years old; they’ve become an institution on the West Side. They distinguish themselves with their consistent support of new music, constantly premiering one thing or another. They also have a fondness for theatrics, a sense of humor that goes with that, and a penchant for very distinct, articulate playing. You don’t go to the Chelsea Symphony to get lost in a haze of sound: you go for the excitement of hearing an assembly of clear, individual voices working together.

Friday night’s program was typical. They opened with the world premiere of Hope for Two Voices and Orchestra, by their first-chair bassist Tim Kiah, who’s been more or less a composer in residence for the last few years. Beginning as a lustrous, more or less horizontal tone poem, soprano Emily Eagen and her baritone counterpart joined the ensemble in taking it almost imperceptibly to warmer, more Romantic territory, bringing the title to life. Obviously a reflection on current events, it resonated strongly.

Overcast low-midrange sonics lingered and soared throughout an equally vivid performance of Max Bruch’s famous Kol Nidre variations. Based on somber medieval Jewish themes, cellist Susan Mandel evoked a wounded, almost-imploring, cantabile quality above the strings’ grey-sky ambience.

That the next piece on the bill would upstage a genuinely picturesque performance of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition speaks to the orchestra’s sense of adventure. Conductor Matt Aubin explained that mid-20th century composer Fernande Breilh-Decruck lived a block away in the London Towers complex with her husband, who played with the Philharmonic. Her Sonata in C# Minor for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, with Rob Wilkerson in the role of dynamic soloist, turned out to be parade-ready. Part blustery late Romanticism replete with all sorts of innovative voicings and playful yet purposeful, Nielsenesque orchestration, part jauntily bustling, cinematic theme and variations, it foreshadowed Leonard Bernstein. Was Bernstein aware or, or influenced by the composer? Hearing this music, you have to wonder. Why is she not better known?

Reuben Blundell took over the podium for Moussorgsky’s venerable blockbuster, reveling in its Ravel arrangement. To early 21st century ears, it evokes dozens of old horror films and dramas as much as it does the composer’s friend’s eerie tableaux of tormented gnomes, menacing witches, ghostly catacombs, and a concluding megalith that brings to mind a giant prison door rather than the gateway to a bustling metropolis. It’s easy to find cartoonish ideas in this music, but, true to form, the orchestra parsed it for portraiture and restless angst. Standout soloists included but were not limited to horn player Adam Schommer, oboeist Phil Rashkin, tuba player Ben Stapp and the entire high string section, who when required – and this happened a lot – were seamless to the point of being a single voice.

The Chelsea Symphony’s next performance is their family concert on February 21 at the Brooklyn Music School, 126 St Felix St in the Atlantic Yards area (any train to Atlantic Ave; the closest is actually the G at Fulton), repeating on February 27 at the orchestra’s usual stomping ground, St. Paul’s German Church at 315 W 22nd St. in Chelsea with a program including Peter & the Wolf, Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals and a Seth Bedford world premiere for kids. Both start at 2 PM; suggested donation is $20.

Alexandra Joan Sings Through Her Fingers at Bargemusic

“Just about every piece of music that we can play is a song,” pianist Alexandra Joan nonchalantly told the audience at her luminous performance Thursday night at Bargemusic. That pretty much explains everything you need to know about her. Matter-of-factly and meticulously, she built a dynamically rich program with lyrical, cantabile, highly individualistic interpretations of a diverse program. from Bach to early Modernism, most of the works taken from her new album Dances and Songs.

She explained to the crowd that while not everything on the album is a dance per se, the material on it shares a kinetic character. She began the evening with a suite of Chopin mazurkas that aren’t on the album, but they turned out to make an apt opening salvo, Joan giving the audience a sort of guided tour via ample but judicious amounts of rubato, as if to say, “Watch this, here comes a really good one!”

Her take of Bach’s English Suite in G Minor, BWV 808 was especially gripping, not only because it’s an interesting piece of music, but because of how she accented the work’s rigorous and challenging ornamentation, awash in grace notes and trills. That made Bach’s tight rhythm all the more of a suspenseful contrast – and the plaintiveness of the second movement all the more affecting. Likewise, the high point of the night was Liszt’s solo piano arrangement from Schubert’s Der Doppelganger, vividly giving voice to a guy who can’t figure out if he’s himself or someone else and is completely lost as a result.

The program lightened from there, but just a little, with an edgy, acerbic run through Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, drawing a straight line back to the Schubert suite that inspired them even if the tonalities were from a completely different idiom (and radical enough in Ravel’s day to get him slammed by the critics). Joan ended the night on a celebratory note with the “champagne bubbles” of a couple of lighthearted if cruelly challenging Liszt pieces, the Valse Impromptu and then his whirling arrangement of the Spinning Chorus from Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Which in turn made her careful, plaintive Debussy encore all the more astringently gripping. Joan is also an impresario, so the idea of going from Bach to Romantic to Modern and linking it all together is less unlikely (and less ostentatious) for her than it would be for a lot of other pianists. She’s appearing next with the fantastic Grneta Ensemble performing Gerald Cohen’s Sea of Reeds at le Poisson Rouge on Nov 11 at 6 PM; advance tix are $15 and very highly recommended.