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April 2007

March 2007

Where I Hang My Hat


Barbes just keeps cranking out the aural magic. On Sunday night, I stopped by the back room by for the monthly Barbes Classical night, presented by the Concert Artists Guild. This month's installment featured the Brazil Guitar Duo, comprised of Sao Paolo natives João Luiz and Douglas Lora, performing classical and traditional works with quiet intensity and awesome ability. Currently on a North American tour, they'll be back in NYC at the Miller Theater on April 14, performing on a program of pocket concertos with the Perspectives Ensemble.

0329072228Last night, Marta Topferova, who I've written about previously, returned and charmed the crowd with her exotic mix of Latin and Czech songs. She performed with an amazing group of backing musicians, matching Topferova's own excellent Cuatro playing. I saw her smiling throughout, almost as if she was in an uncontrollable state of ecstasy. Believe she, she wasn't the only one. 

As for this weekend, I'll be at Carnegie tomorrow to catch the St. Louis Symphony performing Mahler, Ravel and Adams. (The concert was to have featured the premiere of Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony, but Adams reportedly underestimated the amount of work involved, and so the SLSO will instead offer his Harmonielehehre.) On Sunday morning, I'll be at the 92nd Street Y to hear Alex Ross speak about Debussy and Schoenberg, and maybe offer an excerpt or two from his as-yet-unpublished The Rest Is Noise. Tickets are $37 and include brunch, but if you're 35 or under, you can get in for $10 (w/o the brunch, though.) 

NDR Symphony at Carnegie

Dsc03668 I really wanted last night's concert at Carnegie to be better than it was. And, on paper, it looked like it would be: the North German Radio (NDR) Symphony of Hamburg, Germany, led by it's esteemed chief conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, the former music director of the Cleveland Orchestra.

The program started well, with an unsettling performance of Ligeti's Lontano for large orchestra. (For those who think I might be a bit biased about Ligeti's music - guilty as charged.) The performance had an added poignancy, given that Ligeti lived and taught in Hamburg for nearly 20 years, and surely had a relationship with many of these players.

Bizarrely, the next piece on the program was Mendelssohn's 2nd Violin Concerto in E minor, with Russian Vadim Repin as soloist. The performance was capable, but Mendelssohn after Ligeti? Depending on your point of view, it either makes the former sound like bathwater, or the latter a bitter pill. When are music directors going to stop trying to please everybody and realize that a program like this alienates just about everyone? I would have much rather heard Alfred Schnittke's brilliant Violin Concerto No. 4 (1984), which Repin played with the orchestra on Monday night. I'm sure the thought of putting Ligeti and Schnittke on the same program is anathema to most orchestra directors, but a little courage goes a long way in today's fractured concert scene.

I moved downstairs for Gustav Mahler's 1st symphony, hoping to experience the same revelation I had when I heard the Leipzig Gewandhaus play Mahler's 5th three weeks ago. Sadly, neither the conductor nor the orchestra were up to the task: the playing was often fuzzy and uneven, and Dohnanyi - who is 78 and less than spry - appeared lost in his own world at times. The First may have been programmed because it's a tried-and-true crowdpleaser, with it's blazing fanfare in the final movement. But, it is a young man's symphony (Mahler wrote it when he was 28), and requires a youthful approach from whoever's leading the charge.

I left the concert wondering to myself why Mahler's First keeps getting programmed when he wrote eight (nine, depending on who you talk to) symphonies far superior to this one. After all, how often do you hear Beethoven's First symphony? Or Bruckner's? Or Schubert's? And then, I remembered my visit to the New York Philharmonic archives two weeks ago, when I had the chance to review a facsimile of the last score Mahler used when he conducted the Philharmonic in 1911. It was his own First Symphony. Mahler may have been the great symphonic composer of the century, but he made his money as a conductor, working at the pleasure of his board of directors, who were more interested in receipts than artistic advancement. Some things never change, I guess.

Some Old New Music

0324072206Local new music ensemble Continuum says that their name comes from their belief that new music and old form an unbroken tradition. They demonstrated this belief last night at the Peoples' Symphony, with a wide ranging program that featured composers from Latin America, Europe and the U.S., mostly written in the past 25 years.

Continuum has been a frequent guest of the PSC over the years, despite the fact that the hall was noticeably less full than at other concerts this season - a testament to series director Frank Solomon's commitment to new music. What struck me was the group's longevity: Continuum was founded in 1966 by Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer, and both still perform actively with the group. To me, it was strange to see septuagenarians playing music that so often seems to be the exclusive province of the young. Whatever last night lacked in the freewheeling, rock-and-roll style of today's new music concerts, it more than made up in ability and seriousness of presentation. Continuum obviously believes that this music belongs on the same stage as Beethoven and Brahms, and that it's only the prism of time that separates them. (I wouldn't necessarily agree, but I admire their conviction.)

The crowd favorite last night was Francis Schwartz's theatrical "Daimon II" (1986), which featured exuberant gestures and audience participation: at one point, Sachs had us all stomping our feet in unison. When it ended, I saw several in the crowd rise to their feet in applause, an honor I haven't even seen the Juilliard Quartet receive at these concerts.

The final concert in the People's Symphony Chamber Series will be on April 14, with pianist Richard Goode playing music by Mozart, Brahms and Debussy. Sure to be a sellout; call soon if you want tickets.

Music Without Borders

Dsc03652_2 Ronen Givony (pictured) the impresario behind this season's new Wordless Music Series, told the mostly young and trendy crowd last night at the Good-Shepherd Faith Church that a big motivation for putting together this series was to shake up the standard conventions of music programming.

"The first group you'll hear tonight calls themselves an indie rock outfit," he said. "The second says they play chamber music. I've heard them both, and I can't honestly tell the difference. Maybe someone can explain it to me."

At first hearing, it's clear that our neighbours (sic) to the north are less concerned about musical genres than making cool sounds, regardless of whatever instrument they happen to be playing, or whether it's notated or improvised. I couldn't help but draw parallels to the Arcade Fire's sold out shows at the Village's Judson Church last month, and how their large ensemble also blends rock and acoustic instruments in powerful combinations.

The first group, Polmo Polpo, is the mostly solo project of Sandro Perri, who plays steel guitar and laptop. He was joined here by a small brass section, cello and electric guitar, adding a darker tone to his ambient compositions. The first piece, Like Hearts Swelling, took a long time to get going, but ended with a bowed guitar leading into what to me sounded like the Adagietto from Mahler's 5th Symphony. With one difference: after the instruments faded away, an unsettling electronic hum lingered for another full minute. Eerily, the lights flickered on and off, as if demon spirits had suddenly invaded the sacred space.    

Dsc03654_4 Toca Loca started their set with Georges Aperghis' Le corps a corps (1978) a rousing, almost primitive work for solo percussion and vocals, performed by Aiyun Huang. Next was pianist Simon Docking from Tuesday's MATA Festival performing Dai Fujikura's Half-Remembered City for piano four hands with his friend Gregory Oh. Docking said beforehand that Fujikura wrote the piece so that the two performers' hands would often be intertwined, hoping the performers would develop an "intimate relationship."

"Greg's a good friend," Docking joked, "but I'm sorry to say our relationship hasn't progressed beyond that."

Dsc03658Andrew Staniland joined the group to perform his own Adventure Music, which he accurately described as being like the sound of an ice pack breaking apart. They finished with Louis Andriessen's minimalist composition Workers Union (1975), which was written without specific pitches for "untrained musicians" of no particular instrumentation, other than they be loud and play "with conviction." As the title indicates, it is a politically motivated work, designed to give the musicians (i.e., the "workers") more freedom to play as they see fit.

Even more loose was the piece that concluded the program, Terry Riley's In C. Polmo Polpo and Toca Dsc03661Loco were joined by members of the Social Music Work Group, a loose organization of Toronto rock musicians who have been performing In C in various size ensembles over the past year. In C requires all musicians to play the same 53 "melodic patterns" in sequence, repeating each an unspecified number of times before moving to the next pattern. Riley doesn't tell the performers to play together, nor does he say if they should play loud, soft, slow or fast, the result being that the music often connects and contrasts in unexpected ways. I was often lulled into a state of submission by the hour-long performance, only to be jolted back to attention by a sudden unison or crescendo. When it finally ended, In C got the biggest applause of the night.

The next Wordless Music performance will be on Monday, April 2, featuring musicians from Iceland and Switzerland. Tickets are $15, and includes all the Two Buck Chuck you can quaff. (I saw several youngun's around me drinking straight from the bottle - you won't see that at Carnegie!)

Waiting on the subway platform to head back to Brooklyn, I was joined by a huge crowd that had just gotten out of the Met's new production Richard Strauss' The Egyptian Helena. No disrespect to the Strauss, which I wouldn't mind seeing, but I couldn't help smiling a little, thinking of who had the better night out.