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December 2010

November 2010

Braids/ARMS/Neighbors @ Mercury Lounge

DSC03501On a dark and quiet Monday coming off a long holiday weekend, one could be forgiven for not wanting to venture out into the early winter cold. But, after five days of no shows, I took a chance that last night's Mercury Lounge bill would help take the chill off. Indeed, it did not disappoint.

Brooklyn's Neighbors kicked things off in front of a half-filled room, playing 90's synth pop over Noah Stitelman's hushed, emotive vocals, which came off sounding like a carbon copy of The National's Matt Berninger. Not that that's a bad thing, but if you can't lay claim to your own voice, then what's the point?

Far more arresting were ARMS, the one-time side project of former Harlem Shakes guitarist Todd Goldstein that has evolved into a full-time ambition. Goldstein, looking like the fifth member of Mumford & Sons with tie, vest and mustache, sang with passion and energy, backed by a wall of synth, guitar and drums that rose, fell, and rose again. It was easy to imagine these guys playing some festival stage this summer, with the golden sun setting behind them.

DSC03489But, the real discovery of the night was Montreal's Braids, who held up their city's rep for well-crafted, startlingly original music. Using a mix of synths, drums and guitars, they crafted an immersive, magical soundscape that mixed everything from Afrobeat to shoegaze, sounding a good bit like High Places and (early) Animal Collective. Indeed, Raphaelle Standell-Preston's echoing vocals sounded a lot like Mary Pearson's for most of the set, but erupted towards the end in a frenzied wail that belied her willowy frame. Braid's other members - keyboardist Katie Lee, guitarist Taylor Smith and drummer Austin Tufts - all contributed multi-layered support, singing harmony and playing with pedals to conjure an angelic, irresistably pretty sheen. This was music to fall asleep to: dreamy and full of love. 

Surprisingly, Braids had zero merch for sale last night: no t-shirts, no CD's, not even a button. Poetic justice, perhaps for those of us who made the effort to be there, but sad in the sense that we couldn't bring it home to remember, or share. Until next time, then.

DSC03497More pics on Flickr

Better Than Wings

DSC03812Through an unexpected twist of fate, I've begun spending occasional weekends in Buffalo: that western New York city best known for the Bills, Ani DiFranco and Hot Wings. And, while Buffalo's musical offerings on tap aren't nearly as broad or rich as their cross-state rival, there are some real jewels in the rough, if you know where to look.

Take the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, whom I saw last Saturday at their longtime home, Kleinhans Music Hall. The orchestra, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, has had an impressive string of music directors over the years, including William Steinberg, Michael Tilson Thomas and, most notably, composer/conductor Lukas Foss, who, during his 8-year tenure, programmed more contemporary music than any orchestra in America, turning Buffalo into a veritable mecca for new music. 

The BPO's current music director is JoAnn Falletta, who was appointed in 1999 and remains one of only a handful of women leading major orchestras in this country. In 2009, her Naxos recording of John Corigiliano's "Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan"  won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition; in all, she and the BPO have recorded a dozen albums for the label. 

Walking in the doors of Kleinhans, situated in the middle of the leafy Elmwood neighborhood, I thought I'd mistakenly stumbled into a high school auditorium. The hall, designed in 1940 by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, was considered state-of -the-art at the time of its construction, and still claims to have some of the best acoustics of any concert hall in the country. But, with its plain walnut walls and narrow green metal folding seats, it isn't all that inspiring to look at. 

Fortunately, the orchestra itself was far stronger than one might expect from this isolated city on the shores of Lake Erie. The concert opened with a new work by Buffalo-native Philip Rothman, Arc of Visibility, inspired by the lighthouse beams that guide ships to safety. After some early promise, with startling glissandi in the cellos and brisk, clanging percussion, it unfortunately devolved into a muddle of Hollywood-sounding music. 

Following were a pair of Gershwin's works for piano and orchestra. No, not the Rhapsody in Blue, but the less known Concerto in F and Rhapsody No. 2, confidently played by the exciting young pianist Orion Weiss. While missing some of Blue's toe-tapping excitement, these lesser-known works still showed plenty of swing and verve, if lacking somewhat in substance.

The concert ended with William Schuman's New England Triptych: an evocative homage to Ives' Three Places In New England. Schuman, who divided his time between composing and serving as president of both Juilliard and Lincoln Center, has been unfairly overlooked, with a catalog of that includes ballets, choral music, and no fewer than ten symphonies. One of his best known works, New England Triptych was driving and sonorous, tender and brisk, with long lyrical lines and brilliant textures. Finally, here was music you could sink your teeth into. 

After spending so much time of late at Lincoln Center, a trip to hear this regional orchestra was sure to disappoint on some levels. But, for the folks that live in Buffalo, they should know that they have a real treasure in their backyard, offering them ready access to performances at the highest level of some of the great music of the past two centuries. 

Speaking of which, I'll be back again this Saturday for an excellent-sounding concert including Rautavaara's Isle of Bliss (1995), Elgar's Cello Concerto (with Lynn Harrell), and Brahms' 4th Symphony. Seems like a good way to stay out of the cold. 

More pics on Flickr.

City Opera: Intermezzo

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to attend City Opera for the first time this season to see a performance of Richard Strauss' Intermezzo: a two-act comedy of manners about a composer and his forlorn wife, who mistakenly accuses her husband of adultery while he is out on tour. (Yes, the opera is based on a real event that took place between Strauss and his headstrong wife, Pauline.)

The singers were all solid, especially Nicholas Pallesen as the composer Storch, and Mary Dunleavy as his wife, Christine. And, from what I could tell, the orchestra sounded fine under music director George Manahan. But, the real star here is the opera itself, which flows effortlessly over its three hour length, with a delightful and cutting libretto written by Strauss himself. 

"You're always around the house," Christine says to Storch in the opening act. "Other husbands go off to the office."

"I never learned anything else," he replies. "My work brings me great pleasure."

"Work is never a pleasure."

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to stick around for the Act 4 afterparty, which featured free drinks and a performance by Active Child, fronted by former choir boy Pat Grossi. A nice throwback to the free Big Deal parties City Opera used to throw, before things went south on them a couple of years ago. Let's hope director George Steel has more tricks like that up his sleeve to help fend off the behemoth across the plaza. (More pics below.)

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White Light Festival: The Manganiyar Seduction

DSC03843The final event of the inaugural White Light Festival, Roysten Abel's The Manganiyar Seduction, finally took place at the Rose Theater last night, after a week's delay caused by the difficulty of procuring visas for the 37 northern Indian musicians, most of whom are Muslim. (No word if they were subjected to full-body screens or friendly pat-downs upon their arrival at JFK.) It was well worth the wait, in more ways than one.

Abel, a theater director, has worked for years in both Europe and his native India, where he founded the Indian Shakespeare Company and has conceived numerous stage works for actors and performers. While on tour with his play Jiyo in 2006, he stumbled upon the ecstatic, trancelike music of the Manganiyars, falling completely under its spell just as the kings and nobles of India have for centuries. 

Abel's signature contribution was his arrangement of the Manganiyars in a grid of red velvet-lined boxes, arranged in stacks of four, nine across. As the performance unfolded over 1 1/2 hours, each of the boxes was gradually lit by bright white lights that illuminated the musicians inside, all of whom wore flowing white garments and brightly-colored turbans. (Abel claims the boxes were inspired both by the traditional women's quarters of Indian palaces and Amsterdam's red light district.) By arranging them this way, Abel fixed order on what would otherwise be a messy arrangement, and encouraged the audience to view the musicians as a single unit, rather than individual performers. 

DSC03847There was little in the program notes to indicate any sort of sequence to the performance, other than it took as its basis the traditional Sufi song "Alfat Un Bin In Bin," about the search for God in everyday life. Yet, for all my unfamiliarity with the language and music, it somehow felt warm and accessible. 

The stars of The Manganiyar Seduction were the singers, who ranged from 20 to 70 and sang with astonishing passion and zeal, gesturing with their hands just like in the Flamenco. At first, they sang solo; later, they sang in groups of three to ten, accompanied by drums, lutes, flutes and other exotic Indian instruments that contributed an infectious, toe-tapping rhythm that was nothing short of hypnotic.

Coordinating all of this incredible, unwieldy music was Daevo Khan, who was less conductor than cheerleader, gesturing to the musicians while dancing barefoot around the stage. Instead of a baton, he used wooden clappers to signal the musicians; at one point, he turned his clappers on us to initiate a call-and-response, which rose in speed and complexity until he left us clear in the dust. 

The performance built to an explosive climax with the lights running up and down the rows of musicians like some Coney Island attraction. After the final drum beat, the crowd leapt to its' feet in appreciation. 

Abel joined the musicians onstage, expressing his appreciation to Jane Moss and others for overcoming the many challenges they faced in order to bring the Manganiyars to New York. "Someone once told me that America is the white-hot center of the universe," he said. "And, it took a White Light Festival to bring us here."

DSC03853That, in nutshell, is the legacy of this entire festival, which by any measure was a tremendous success. Forgetting all the gripes about how White Light was nothing more than a "marketing ploy," the festival leveraged all the considerable resources of Lincoln Center to bring together an extraordinary collection of musicians from over a dozen countries, many of whom had never visited New York before (and may never again.) And, all for one very simple, humble purpose: to allow those of us who live in this go-go town to stop, take a deep breath, listen, and perhaps be moved. Was it worth it? For what it's worth, noone seemed to want to leave last night.

As if to put a final stamp of approval on the whole thing, I was standing near Jane last night at the post-concert reception in Alice Tully when the Magnaniyars - who forgoed the complimentary proescco for bottles of Heineken - spontaneously began to sing, filling the atrium space with their rapturous, transcendent song. The Times' Dan Wakin, who was also there, wrote this morning: "It was a spontaneous moment of music-making and a wonderful, striking contrast with the carefully organized, marketed and publicized world of Lincoln Center." Indeed.

Plans are already underway for next year's White Light Festival, but in the interim, Jane and Lincoln Center have announced yet another new festival, Tully Scope, to take place this spring at Alice Tully. Aside from the eclectic lineup (Tyondai Braxton, Manny Ax, Jordi Savall, etc.) the most awesome thing about this fest is the price: buy one ticket at full price ($45-$75) and all other concerts are $20. And, yes, there will be free prosecco. DSC03858

More pics on Flickr.