Classical Feed

The Public Domain: Working With Simon Halsey

IMG_3979When I first experienced Simon Halsey's work with the Berlin Radio Symphony Chorus in the Berlin Philharmonic's extraordinary 2014 production of the St. Matthew Passion, I never imagined that less than two years later, I'd be sitting in a Brooklyn rehearsal studio mere inches from him as he led the Orange strand through two complete run-throughs of the public domain on Friday night. But, far from being an imposing, remote podium presence, Simon - who is director of the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s Youth Choral Program, among other posts - went overboard to make himself accessible.

"Hi, I'm Simon," he said to us by means of introduction. "I'm the person who will be standing in the middle of the plaza playing traffic policeman. It's lovely to be here in Brooklyn!"

Before long, Simon, who wore shorts and a white polo shirt, was bouncing all around the rehearsal studio like a manic schoolboy. For the most part, he was deeply encouraging, telling us we were his "favorite group": a credit to our strand leader, Maria. Still, it soon became clear that hitting the right notes and following the tempi weren't going to be enough for Simon.

"Now, we can make it more daring. I have a feeling this group is going to be dangerously inventive."

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"The Hubble Cantata" and Tigue at BRIC's Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival

by Steven Pisano

(All photos by Steven Pisano)

"We are stardust/ Billion year old carbon/ We are golden/ Caught in the devil's bargain/ And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." --Joni Mitchell

For anyone interested in the origins of the Universe, the concepts of space and time, or the genesis of life, the spectacular, awe-inspiring photographs taken with the Hubble Space Telescope over the past 36 years have been a magical, almost religious source of wonder, enabling humankind to peer back 14 billion years into our collective past. These extraordinary photographs have inspired scientists to dream about what the future might hold for us. 

In Paola Prestini and Royce Vavrek's The Hubble Cantata, which received its world premiere as a full-length virtual reality experience at BRIC's Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival on Saturday night, the audience was invited to travel on a shared journey inspired by these majestic images, following the skeletal story of a woman who is born, dies, and seeks to be reborn, just as stars are reconstituted from their own stellar dust. Images of ex-New York City Ballet dancer Wendy Whelan were projected onto a scrim in front of the orchestra and chorus.

The tease of the show to the thousands of people in attendance was that it was the first-ever fusing of a major musical performance with Virtual Reality. But the VR experience--a wishy-washy video of the Orion Nebula called "Fistful of Stars" by filmmaker Eliza McNitt viewed on smartphones inserted into cardboard headsets--was underwhelming at best. I was anticipating oohs and aahs all around me, but mostly I saw a sea of shrugs. With a long line of feature film depictions of space from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Gravity, there has been no shortage of jaw-dropping footage of what space might look like.

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Tanglewood 2016: Towards the Future

LENOX, MA - It's been eighty years now since the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave it's first concerts in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts and, aside from a four-year hiatus during WWII, it's where they and a host of guest artists have performed every summer since. For many, like your's truly, summer just wouldn't be the same without a trip to Tanglewood

If you only had time for one visit to the Berkshires this summer, you couldn't have done much better than last weekend, not only for the sheer starpower on hand, but for the inspiration provided by the crack student ensembles that are Tanglewood's true raison d'être. I arrived on Friday evening, about halfway through the 6pm prelude concert in Ozawa Hall. (No matter how early I leave the city, I always seem to be late for these prelude concerts.)

Sitting on the freshly mowed lawn beneath blue skies and fast-moving white clouds, I first heard the weekend's two star soloists, pianists Jonathan Biss and Paul Lewis, play Schubert's Fantasy in F minor for piano four hands: one of those brooding, soul-searching works that characterized Schubert's final months before his death at 31. Lewis remained onstage with a trio of string players from the BSO (Victor Romanul, Michael Zaretsky, Mickey Katz) to play Mozart's Piano Quartet in E-flat, which never tried to be anything more than it was: pretty music for a pretty setting. I was content to lie back and listen to the piano blend with the wind blowing through the oak leaves overhead.  

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Brandee Younger and Camille A. Brown & Dancers at the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival

by Steven Pisano

Brandee Younger at the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! FestivalBrandee Younger may be one of the most talented jazz musicians on the scene today. But there are many music lovers, even jazz aficionados, who seem not to have heard her name. Maybe that's because she doesn't play the saxophone, or the trumpet, or the piano, or the drums.

Younger plays the harp. That's right, the harp. Quick, who else can you think of that played the harp? You might say Harpo Marx or, perhaps the angels in heaven. Most often heard as part of a classical orchestra, the harp just does not bring to mind a long list of players. In jazz, there's Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, both of whom Ms. Younger refers to reverentially each time she performs, as if she's tried to absorb their spirits into her music in a way that you can't think about one without thinking about all three. Coltrane may have been married to one of the greatest saxophonists ever, but Ashby was the true pathbreaker, playing bebop jazz from the late 1950s through the 1960s and later, her chops just as strong as players on other instruments.

When I first saw Ms. Younger last fall playing the first annual BRIC JazzFest, she made me a lifelong fan on the spot. She more than held her own, often topping her bandmates in a strong set of hard swinging jazz. I was thunderstruck. How could a harp--a half-joke of an instrument usually confined to playing celestial glissandos--rock out as hard as a saxophone? If Younger played any other instrument, she would be at the crown of the current jazz pantheon, a jazz goddess headlining the best jazz spots on earth.

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The Sketchy Orkestra Plays Le Poisson Rouge

by Nick Stubblefield

IMG_3901Guest Star Emily Braden sings

Applying genre labels to music and musicians can be a tricky business -- it sells a product, but is often at odds with the art itself. The Sketchy Orkestra, brainchild of pianist and artistic director Misha Piatigorsky, is a group dedicated to defying labels and convention, and the result is a unique, fun, and energetic ride.  Their performance this week at New York's le Poisson Rouge served listeners a hearty helping of genre-defying tunes. There were elements of jazz, rock, hip-hop and even Russian folk-song in a single program, and it was raucous energy bobbing and weaving through the tapestry of lush texture and color. 

To stage right, we saw a traditional jazz set-up. The rhythm section included Piatigorsky at a Yamaha concert grand, the bassist switching between electric and standup, and an auxiliary percussionist on the cajón -- a box drum I happen to personally favor for its Earthy timbre. To their right, a trumpeter and saxophonist. Dominating center stage, appropriately, was the twelve-piece string orchestra, the strings delivering a cinematic richness to each composition.

But the question was -- "could they groove?" In fact, they could, and they could groove hard.  The arrangements, while diverse stylistically, were often filled with fun surprises. Sudden bursts of energy, jumbo-sized ranges in dynamics, and elongated sectional solos kept the audience engaged throughout. Piatgorsky's piano touch, plus the arrangements and compositions themselves, evinced the ensemble's classical training.  "17 Rooms" evoked a Khachaturian-esque waltz; its folksiness gave the string soloists plenty to work with, and they were allowed to explore their full-range of abilities. In contrast, "Somewhere in Between's" heavy groove reminded me of a classic mo-town rhythm section. 

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