New York Music Daily

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Tag: shostakovich

The Up-and-Coming Verona Quartet Bring a Vivid Program to MOMA Summergarden This Sunday

Among urbane hot-weather New York traditions, nothing beats a trip to MOMA Summergarden on a Sunday evening. The thematic programming that they used to have here has given way to a more eclectic series of acts. Doors open at 6 on the 54th Street side; the music starts at 8 and getting there on time is always a good idea. This Sunday, July 23, the auspicious young Verona Quartet, who got their start at Juilliard just a year ago, play US premieres by a global cast of contemporary composers: Japan’s Teizō Matsumura, Costa Rica;s Alejandro Cardona and Poland’s Elżbieta Sikora. Admission is free.

The quartet’s concert last month at WNYC’s Greene Space was a showcase for their close emotional attunement and versatility. The only questionable choice they made was the sequence of works. On one hand, it makes total sense to open with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 7 and then follow it with Ravel’s String Quartet in F, which is more physically taxing. And maybe the group didn’t want to send the crowd home on a down note – although the Ravel concludes enigmatically. Whatever the case, the program packed a wallop,

The Shostakovich is one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music ever written. It’s a requiem for the composer’s first wife, who left him, then he persuaded her to come back, then she left him again for keeps. As the quartet portrayed her, she was graceful and elegant…and fatally flawed. “If only…:” Is the central theme. Violinists Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violist Abigail Rojansky and cellist Warren Hagerty channeled that with a spare, poignant intensity, from its elegaic, balletesque introduction, through moody circles foreshadowing the danse macabre and eventual, sepulchral defeat that followed – and itself foreshadowed the hunted grimness of the composer’s next quartet.

Their performance of the Ravel was fueled by precise gearshifting between idioms – written on the cusp of late Romanticism and early Modernism, you can hear Cesar Franck’s calm amidst the Parisian bustle, but also Debussy’s Eureka moment when he saw the  gamelan for the first ttime.  The quartet simmered the balmy lustre in the opening movement, then made a meticulous, surgically precise run through the sharp, emphatic pizzicato of the second movement and the carnivalesquely waltzing variations that followed.

It was on the third movement that they really dug in. Ravel wrote this piece very generously – everybody gets time in the spotlight, and this is where the viola and cello get called on to lead the trail out of a revisitation of the summery first movement as it takes a turn in a far darker direction, and Rojansky and Hagerty both rose to the occasion. Likewise, Hagerty didn’t hold back as he anchored the shivery flurries and uneasy, often aching waltz of the concluding movement. The material this Sunday is completely different, but it’s fair to assume that the quartet will go just as deeply into it.

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Who Wouldn’t Go to Staten Island for Shostakovich?

Sitting at the bar yesterday afternoon, a new musician friend’s eyes widened. “You went to Staten Island last night to see the 8th Shostakovich? I’d go to Staten Island to see that!”

An intimate crowd of Staten Islanders, a cool couple from New Jersey and at least one Manhattanite made it out to the Staten Island Art Museum Saturday night to see a string quartet subset of the Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble deliver a meticulous, absolutely chilling, transcendent performance of that harrowing piece of music along with two eye-opening world premieres, plus a similar work from the 70s, a smashingly intuitive bit of programming.

Dmitri Shostakovich reputedly wrote his eighth string quartet over a three-day span in 1959. As he put it, it was a self-penned obituary. The story goes that he was under the assumption that the KGB – who’d murdered so many of his friends and colleagues  – were about to come for him. He’d been asked to formally join the Soviet Communist Party, a choice he’d dodged for decades.

Composer Andrew Rosciszewski – whose two premieres would follow on the bill – counted 158 moments when Shostakovich musically referenced his own initials throughout the piece: tracked, and followed, and as he saw it, ultimately dead in those tracks.

The group – violinists Izabella Liss Cohen and Mikhail Kuchuk, violist Lucy Corwin and cellist Timothy Leonard – channeled every frantic moment, every steady upward trajectory toward horror. The relentlessness they brought to the introductory chase scene, then the crushing irony in the merciless kangaroo court references afterward were a a cautionary tale to the extreme. One can only imagine how much more easily a death squad could have targeted dissident composers if Facebook had existed in 1959.

That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to both the quality of the material and the performance. The group closed with Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, which like the Shostakovich was written behind the Iron Curtain and, while less grim, builds a coldly immutable atmosphere and also contains sarcastic faux-pageantry. It’s also much harder to play. Leonard is a beast of a cellist: pedaling the same note resolutely for what seemed like twenty minutes, with perfectly unflinching inflection is a recipe for muscle cramps, among other pain, and he didn’t let up. Corwin shared many such moments, often in tandem with him, and was equal to the challenge. This endless conflict between relentlessness and restlessness brought to mind the question, which came first, this, or Louis Andriessen’s similarly mechanical if much louder Worker’s Union?

In between, the world premiere of Rosciszewski’s String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 made not only a perfect segue but helped complete the circle; they’re essentially the missing links between the two other works on the bill, a homage to Shostakovich and Gorecki as well as a prime example of how a 21st century composer can springboard off their respective styles. The ensemble played No. 2 first, uneasily conversational, emphatically minimal phrases juxtaposed with subtly shifting permutations on a theme, with a twisted, wickedly difficult microtonal klezmer dance of sorts as a scherzo in the middle. Which was extremely demanding, especially for Cohen, but she sprinted between the raindrops and slid through pools of microtones and made it look easy, as did Kuchuk when his turn came up. Rosciszewski’s First String Quartet was much shorter and came across as something of a study for the second, beginning with a bracing minor-key polka. Like Shostakovich, Rosciszewski’s work is distinguished by considerable humor and an omnipresent sense of irony. These pieces instantly put him on the map as someone worth watching: he deserves to be vastly better known

The Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble are artists-in-residence at the Staten Island Museum. The theme of their current season there is revolution, an apt choice this year; their next concert is March 4 at 8 PM featuring a program of vocal music TBA. Cover is $15/$5 for students.

The Explosive New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories

The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.

The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.

With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.

The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.

Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.

Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.

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.

A Grand Finale for the Greenwich Village Orchestra

On Sunday the Greenwich Village Orchestra wrapped up its season with an emotionally-charged doublebill of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 and Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Conductor Yaniv Segal made a fond return to the podium here (he was previously assistant conductor, before founding the Chelsea Symphony across town), leading the ensemble with a precise and aptly puckish touch through the Shostakovich. It’s the most overtly western and the funniest of Shostakovich’s symphonies, ostensibly a celebration of Allied victory in World War II but in reality a vindictively campy satire of nationalist fervor and pageantry. The swirling, opening rondo rips off Haydn wholesale (although Shostakovich got a pass from the censors for that since the composer is a fellow Slav); by the time it returns a last time around in the concluding movement, it’s clear that the celebration is a sham and that the participants are just going through the motions beneath the stern eyes of the gestapo. But the orchestra didn’t just go through the motions: Segal resisted the urge to go over the top, settling for a brisk martial pulse that underscored the angst and sheer physicality of the whirlwind dance motifs. Stalin gets nothing more than a simple, cartoonish “uh oh, here comes the boss” riff early on. Solos by first-chair clarinetist Gary Dranch and bassoonist Daniel Liao had a crystalline, plaintive clarity, vividly projected Shostakovich’s wounded alienation: the brooding second movement is the one place the composer lets down his hair, and this made a potent contrast with, and setup for, the sarcastic hijinks to follow, where any hope of resolution or a real explosion of triumph is dashed within seconds. No wonder this symphony got Shostakovich in so much trouble: its transparency leaves no question that the composer felt the war was a pyrrhic victory. It wouldn’t be until after Stalin’s death that he felt safe enough to write another one.

The GVO’s Barbara Yahr then took over the baton for the Tschaikovsky, a potent illustration of a struggle that looks inward rather than outward. She and the orchestra wasted no time in digging in hard, giving its mournful opening theme a muscular gravitas that took on epic intensity as the first movement vaccillated between hope and unabated ache. That made the still rapture of the second movement all the more resonant, and when they came to the waltzing third movement, she held them in check even as the angst of the initial movement returned. So when they cut loose with the unbridled optimism of the endless, Beethovenesque series of codas that eventually wind their way out, there was no question that the enemy had been vanquished. The roaring blaze left a buzz in the audience even after several curtain calls: it was a message of hope that would linger long into the evening.