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December 2007

I Hate Top 10 Lists

Repairs01 'Tis the season for the obligatory Top 10 lists, in which critics make an unwise attempt to comb through a full year's worth of events to come up with their favorite art shows/films/plays/dance performances of the year. The music critics have it hardest, with every night in this town bringing a triple-digit selection of concerts. And, that's assuming they stay in NYC, and only stick to one particular genre.

So, you can imagine my challenge, having seen well over 200 shows this year, most of them memorable. Here, then, is a somewhat arbitrary list (in chronological order) of the best twenty shows I saw this past year. All took place in NYC, unless indicated. (Click on the hyperlink to read the original post.)

1) Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, 3/7/07

2) Leon Fleisher, People's Symphony Concert, 3/10/07

3) Audrey Chen, Issue Project Room, 3/15/07

4) Karlheinz Stockhausen: World Premiere of  “Cosmic Pulses”, Auditorium Della Musica, Rome, 5/7/07

5) Konstantin Lifschitz, Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Books I and II, Town Hall, 5/28/07

6) Emerson String Quartet, Complete Beethoven Quartets, Carnegie Hall, 6/2007

7) Bang on a Can Marathon, World Financial Center Wintergarden, 6/2-6/3/07

8) Philip Miller: REwind Cantata, Celebrate Brooklyn, 7/6/07

9) Farm Aid, Randall's Island, 9/9/07

10) Austin City Limits Festival, Austin, TX, 9/14/07

11) Margaret Garner, City Opera, 9/29/07

12) Nico Muhly and Sigur Ros, Wordless Music Series, 10/5/07

13) Blonde Redhead/LCD Soundsystem/Arcade Fire, Randall's Island, 10/6/07

14) Paul Jacobs: Messiaen’s Livre du Saint Sacrament, Church of St. Mary Virgin, 10/8/07
15) Brooklyn Vegan CMJ Showcase, Pianos, 10/18/07
16) London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Colin Davis, cond., Avery Fisher Hall, 10/21/07
17) Fun Fun Fun Fest, Austin, TX, 11/3-11/4/07
18) Berlin Philharmonic: The Rite of Spring Project, United Palace Theater, 11/18/07
19) John Scott: Messiaen's La Nativite du Seigneur, St. Thomas Chruch, 12/20/07
Photo_123007_001
As for No. 20, I'm going to have to go with Sander Kleinenberg's gig last night at Pacha: the NYC outpost of the Ibiza nightclub, and the only big-name club left in town. No chortling: when it's done by a skilled producer/DJ such as Kleinenberg, house music is just as legitimate as any other, basically using the same architecture as classical: crescendos, signature changes, polyrhythmic structures, etc. And, Pacha's sound is by far the best I've ever heard: the state-of-the-art system was designed in Germany, and the sound is loud, clear and deep anywhere you stand. I can only dream of hearing sound that good at an indie rock show.
All in all, a banner year for live music in New York, with the promise of more to come in 2008. Hope to see more of you out there.
 

Burnt Sugar

Pc270031 On Thursday night, part of a weirdly short stretch of work this week, I ventured out to Zebulon: a friendly Francophile boite on a fast-developing stretch of Williamsburg between Grand and Metropolitan Aves. I was there for a set by Burnt Sugar: an Afro-acid jazz orchestra led by Village Voice critic Greg Tate. Tate started the band back in '99, inspired by Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and Sun Ra's Arkestra, incorporating elements of rock, funk - even some bits of Reich and Glass.

The sizable band - which includes cello, violin, keys, four brass, three guitars, drums, percussion, and occasional vocals - doesn't appear to use charts. Instead, Tate leads the band using a method called "conduction", through which his improvisations mirror the vibe of the audience. The results were mixed: I heard as much blaring noise as clear, bright unisons. But, the sound seemed to improve as the night went on, with Tate throwing down some tight stops and soaring crescendos for effect.

They ended abruptly around 1230, just as it seemed they'd finally caught their groove. We shouted for more; they weren't having it. Gyp.         


Must Have Mortier

For those looking for a little taste of what to look forward to with the arrival of Gerard Mortier as City Opera's next director, WNYC's Katherine Lanpher hosted a 90 minute segment with him during their recent Must Have's Festival, in which he offered his thoughts on music and played selections by Ligeti, Messiaen, Coltrane, Jacques Brel and Billy Holiday. Some notable quotes:

"All singing is beautiful, not just classical. There is only good music and bad music."

"Avant-garde means you are in the front. Every masterpiece was avant-garde."

"If you ran your business today the same way you did 20 years ago, you would be out of business. Why is opera any different?"

"Regardless of the kind of day you've had, horrible or marvelous, after a night at the opera, you will leave feeling better about yourself, about everything."

Go here to listen to the full show.


Other Holiday Music

Dsc01690 New York is not lacking for live holiday music: you can find performances of Handel's Messiah or Bach's Brandenburg Concerti nearly everywhere you turn. But, there are other holiday musical traditions in New York for those who might be looking for something a bit more different.

Last Saturday, Phil Kline held his annual Unsilent Night, where he leads a parade of several hundred boomboxes from Washington Square to Tompkins Square, all playing his minimalist composition on tape. Unfortunately, I was out of town, but from all accounts, it is as loud and aggressive as its name. This year, Kline has expanded the performance to 25 cities around the world, in places as far away as Australia and the Yukon Territory. (If you happen to be on the west coast, San Francisco's is tonight, Vancouver tomorrow.)

Dsc01685On Thursday night, the boys' choir of St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue gave their annual performance of Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, under their director John Scott. Unfortunately, I got stuck at work, but I've heard the performance twice previously, and the choir is magnificent, certainly as fine as any you'll hear from the UK.

I did, however, make it in time for the second offering of the evening: Olivier Messiaen's La Nativite du Seigneur, played by Scott on the Aeolian-Skinner organ. Scott, who I've written about previously, spent 26 years as the organist and Director of Music at St. Paul's Cathedral in London before coming to St. Thomas four years ago. This was the fourth year in a row that Scott has offered this holiday performance of La Nativite du Seigneur, cementing his reputation as one of the great organists of our time.

Dsc01682Messiaen was only 27 when he completed the hour-plus Nativite, but it is a work of staggering genius. It is laid out in nine meditations, with a reading of scripture - selected by Messiaen - preceding each of them. But this is definitely not your typical holiday fare: the multi-colored, often dissonant sounds come close to sounding like noise, and sent those who had come for the Britten scurrying for the door. As a result, I was able to grab a seat in the front of the nave, where I could literally feel the air moving out of the massive pipes. Scott was simply astonishing: he played the delicate trills with breakneck speed, and blasted the tutti with unbelievable power.

The final mediation, "God Among Us," recalls Mary's visitation with her cousin Elizabeth, who reveals that the child Mary is carrying is the Son of God. The music, which built steadily in complexity and volume until the walls began to shake, was horrible, beautiful, terrifying and ecstatic. Mary's response to her cousin could well have been what Messiaen thought to himself as he wrote this music:

"My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior."

Dsc01682_2After the final E-major unison, Scott came out and took two polite curtain calls. He is a meek-looking man of 52 in a plain blue suit, hardly resembling the madman we'd all just listened to for 70 minutes. For him, it's all just part of his duties - just as it was for Messiaen, who was the organist at Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris for over sixty years.

Dsc01707_2Last night, the engaging new-music quartet Ethel presented a Winter Solstice celebration at the World Financial Center's Wintergarden. An opening narration reminded us that the Solstice has been celebrated by cultures for thousands of years, far longer than Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or any other holidays this time of year.

Dsc01714The performance, called "In the House of Ethel," was a collaboration with the director Daniel Flannery, who placed the musicians at various points throughout the atrium, occasionally augmenting them with costumed characters and evocative lighting. They performed new and recent works, several composed by Ethel members. Much of it had nothing to do with Christmas or the Solstice, but was instead meant to evoke the sort of ritual one would have heard in celebrations past. Highlights included Phil Kline's driving Tarantella; Raz Mesinai's Citadelle, with its repeating techno-rhythms; and Neil Dufallo's Take the 2 Train, which evoked Steve Reich's Different Trains.

Dsc01725For the grand finale, an illusionist (Jarrett Parker) took the stage and did some impressive sleight-of-hand for six handpicked children, to holiday music arranged by Ethel members Mary Rowell and Ralph Farris. The crowd loved it: who said new music has to be a bitter pill? Watch out, Kronos: these guys are giving you a run for your money.

I'm headed out for some more traditional fare tomorrow: a matinee performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the New York Baroque Soloists at St. Bart's Church on Park Ave. Tickets are $25-$35, available at the door. 

Dsc01730Postscript: Speaking of new holiday music, I've been listening to John Adams' El Niño the entire time I've been writing this, in the original recording with Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Willard White. An extraordinary achievement, one-upping Messiah with its incorporation of medieval and modern texts in English, Spanish and Latin. I missed the BAM performance in 2003; one can only hope there are plans to bring it back sometime soon.