New York Music Daily

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Tag: satie

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

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

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

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

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

Haskell Small Plays a Shattering, Haunting Program on the Upper West

More musicians should do what Haskell Small does: he plays what he likes, and brings it to life, sometimes quietly, sometimes somewhat more boisterously, putting his heart and soul into it. He gravitates toward music that’s on the quiet and rapturous side: his performance of Federico Mompou’s Musica Callada here last year was absolutely riveting. Friday night on the Upper West Side, Small revisited that theme, bookending an absolutely shattering performance of his own suite The Rothko Room with music of Satie and Alan Hovhaness.

Kicking off the evening with Satie’s first suite for piano, Four Ogives, set the stage perfectly. The title refers to church windows; with a delivery that managed to simultaneously embody stateliness, a warm gospel tone and an understated tension, Small left no doubt that by 1886, when Satie wrote this, he’d already found plenty to be vexated about. The evening’s piece de resistance was Small’s original work, an uninterrupted theme and variations based onboth  the life of Mark Rothko as well as an immersion in the Rothko paintings in the Phillips Collection’s Rothko Room in Washington, DC. Centered around a mournful bell-like theme that immediately brought to mind Mompou, Small worked dynamics that ranged from minute to occasionally jarring, through an unexpected boogie-woogie flavored passage and another, longer, bitingly animatedly interlude that strongly evoked Small’s early mentor Vincent Persichetti. The depiction of a late-career resurgence for Rothko brought back a hopeful, once again gospel-tinted ambience, but that quickly dissolved into an increasingly spacious, imploring and then utterly defeated series of motives. Small quoted Rothko beforehand as declaring that the only emotions worth depicting are doom and suffering, then made good on that statement.

The pianist picked up the pace after that with a series of ruggedly pastoral solo works by Hovhaness, illustrative of that composer’s fixation with mountains (he saw them as transitional from material to the spiritual, halfway between earth and sky). The Lullaby from the piano sonata Mt. Katahdin (a peak in Maine which barely qualifies as a mountain) took shape as a steady, morose dirge, contrasting with the tricky tempo and cruelly challenging staccato octaves of the Macedonian Mountain Dance, a Balkan boogie of sorts. Small made a different kind of challenge, the contrast between low-register, resonant malletwork inside the piano and the steady righthand melody, seem easy.

“Now for some rock n roll!“ Small grinned, winding up the program on a defiantly celebratory note with the Hymn to Mt. Chocorua., from Hovhaness’ 1982 sonata portraying the New Hampshire hill where the Indian warrior it’s named for reputedly lept to his death rather than surrendering to the bounty hunters who’d chased him to the summit. With its blend of traditional Armenian kef music and savage, Lisztian block chords, it was quite a change from the mystical, somber mood Small had brought to life so vividly earlier, an atmosphere he returned to with the encore, a tender, lushly spacious version of Arvo Part’s minimalist classic Fur Elina. Small’s spring tour featuring these works continues on April 11 at the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Armen Donelian Reinvents Revolutionary, Haunting Armenian Classics

The first thing that comes to mind when listening to pioneering pianist Armen Donelian‘s new double album Sayat-Nova: Songs Of My Ancestors – due out on April 15 from Sunnyside – is why aren’t these songs world-famous? Thanks to Donelian, someday they might be. With his new arrangements for solo piano and trio with bassist David Clark and drummer George Schuller, Donelian has reinvented over an hour and a a half worth of music by iconic 18th century Armenian composer Sayat-Nova. Celebrated as a national hero and a paradigm-shifting intellect whose plaintive, angst-ridden, often shattering melodies both resemble and predate Chopin by practically a century, Sayat-Nova is also renowned as a lyricist. He was a master of the kamancheh fiddle and the tar lute. His main gig was as a court minstrel for a local tyrant, a relatively cushy job, but one from which he was eventually fired. Within his compositions’ elegant, often enigmatic phrasing, there’s often a seething if restrained anger, and more frequently an absolutely depleted, wounded sensibility. We don’t know why Sayat-Nova got canned, or why he subsequently more or less abandoned music – at least professionally – joined the priesthood and later retired to a monastery. He may have known or figured out too much for his own good – or slept with someone he shouldn’t have.

Donelian’s feeling of kinship with Sayat-Nova is as strong as his passion for Armenian music in general, having played Armenian-influenced jazz for many years with reedman Souren Baronian, drummer Paul Motian and chanteuse Datevik Hovanesian. The operative question, obviously, is how to translate this music – written to incorporate the microtones of the fiddle and voice – for the rigid digits of the piano. Donelian does it chromatically. Yet while improvisation is the key to this whole thing – as it assuredly was when Sayat-Nova himself was playing it – Donelian keeps the main themes true to the originals. His arrangements and melodic variations maintain a similar consistency with the themes’ emotional content: this is a deep album. It’s not at Spotify yet, but watch for it after the release date.

The first of the double-disc set is solo pieces. What’s most stunning is how contemporary this music sounds even though some of it is 250 years old. The bittersweet lullaby Without You, What Will I Do? could pass for a rock ballad from the 70s, as does the gentler but considerably more jaunty I Call Lalanin (ostensibly a coded message to the composer’s secret love). The only concert recording here, Were I Offered Your Weight In Pearls switches up the time signatures as it recalls Dave Brubeck taking a stab at Chopin. The Polish composer is evoked – or, more accurately, prefigured – most vividly in the angst-ridden I’ll Never Know Your True Worth (the famous E Minor Prelude comes to mind).

Donelian brings out a similarly grim bitter edge and sense of longing to the plaintively crescendoing Where Do You Come From, Wandering Nightingale?, and the foresaken stranger’s lament I Have Traveled the Whole World Over. He blends elements of the Middle East and the neoromantic in Surely, You Don’t Say That You Also Cry? and Praised Among All Instruments. a late-career danse macabre that may foreshadow the composer’s downfall. The downright scariest of all the songs here is the Erik Satie-esque With the Nightingale You Also Cry, with its stunned, spaciously pitch-black sense of loss.

As you would expect, the second cd, with its jazz arrangements, is more rhythmically complex and improvisational. King of Cathay grows from a careful stroll with hints of Asian music to dancing variations; Your Headdress Is Silver And Silk builds out of an otherworldly, rapt intro with allusions to ragtime. You Are Golden And Exotic Brocade rises from a stately march to a snazzy, blues-tinged racewalk. The best of the trio pieces is the long, serpentine As Long As I Draw Breath, which foreshadows Satie again, Donelian bookending a long, loungey interlude with a morose waltz. There’s also a ringer here, My Sweet Harp, by a more recent Armenian composer, Khachatur Avetisyan, with a similar blend of creepy, stately and eventually Arabic tonalities. Donelian has stated that this is a lifelong labor of love for him, the high point of an already distinguished and original career and he’s probably right. He plays the album release show on April 4 at 7:30 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St.; $20 standing room tix are available.