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Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall, with Igudesman and Joo

by Steven Pisano

46195656155_8d242657e5_o(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The pianist Yuja Wang has been wowing audiences worldwide for over a decade. Her exuberant virtuoso technique has always been one of her hallmarks. So it seemed an intriguing idea for her to perform at Zankel Hall earlier this week with the musical comedy duo Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo.

Igudesman, a violinist, and Joo, a pianist, first met as 12-year-old music students at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England. Much later they decided to perform together, following in the footsteps of classical musicians such as Victor Borge and PDQ Bach (Peter Schickele), and have been performing their act now for about 15 years, often with some leading orchestras. Their You Tube channel has over 50,000 subscribers. 

Yuja Wang is known for her flashy fingering technique on the piano. But what earned her as much attention early on, and still does partly, is her penchant for wearing very, very short dresses, and for showing off eye-catching swaths of skin. She is not a demure and sober musician like the younger Daniil Trifonov. She is a showwoman of the highest order and clearly loves to dazzle her audiences, with her costumes as well as her playing.

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Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" at the Crypt Sessions

by Steven Pisano

Crypt Sessions - Quartet for the End of Time photo  credit Andrew Ousley 06(Photo by Andrew Ousley/Unison Media.)

Last week, the Crypt Sessions, a series of concerts curated by Andrew Ousley in the burial crypt underlying the Church of the Intercession, presented Olivier Messiaen's twentieth-century masterpiece, the "Quartet for the End of Time" (Quatuor pour la fin du temps). Featured were Jay Campbell on cello, Stefan Jackiw on violin, Yoonah Kim on clarinet, and Orion Weiss on piano.

The story of how the French composer came to compose and then first perform his most famous piece is one of the most harrowing and memorable in musical history. Messiaen was in his early 30s at the start of World War II. By then, he was already an accomplished composer and teacher, having started his formal music studies at the Paris Conservatoire at age 11, having earlier self-taught himself the piano. Because of his poor eyesight, when he was drafted into the French army he was assigned to a non-combatant role. Nevertheless, in May 1940, as France was succumbing to the Nazi invasion, he was captured at Verdun and taken to a war camp in a town near the border of Germany and Poland.

There at Stalag VIII-A, he discovered other French musicians who had also been captured and imprisoned--a violinist, a cellist, and a clarinetist. This was not a death camp; nevertheless, the conditions were said to be overcrowded and austere. A Nazi guard helped Messiaen obtain pencils and paper on which he could compose his work. This same guard also helped him obtain instruments, and later had a hand in seeing the composer released the following year.

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Robert Ashley's "Improvement (Don Leaves Linda)" at The Kitchen

by Steven Pisano

20190209-DSC01732(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The composer Robert Ashley's opera Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) is an interesting case as an opera because it was not conceived traditionally as a work of theater with music, to be presented live on a stage, but as a sonic production, to be presented as a recording. There are characters, yes. There is a story (of sorts), yes. But the beauty of the work--and the beauty is often quite extraordinary--is in the sound, particularly of the voices.

In the new production of this late 1980s work now playing at The Kitchen, produced by Mimi Johnson, Ashley's widow, the central defining voice is the smooth, sinewy instrument of Gelsey Bell, who has been a notable presence on the new music scene for many years. She is perfectly cast to deliver Linda's low-key West Coast-inflected torrent of words about her life. Bell has appeared in other Ashley works before, including the TV opera Perfect Lives (with the group Varispeed, which has championed Ashley's work on several fronts) and one of his last works, Crash.

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Winter Jazzfest 2019: The "Half-Marathon"

By Dan Lehner 

Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies at SubCulture

Winter Jazzfest’s famous marathon, a two-night musical expedition that lasts eight hours and stretches almost the entire width of Manhattan, had apparently become so popular that a third needed to be added to sate the voracious appetite of New York creative music fans. No less crowded than the full marathon has been - and likely will be when it returns next weekend - fans packed into clubs and performances spaces along Bleecker St hoping to grab a seat, or at least a window between heads, to see new acts and old favorites.

Ghost Train Orchestra’s reputation as a historicist band with modernist proclivities was in full effect during their tribute to one of New York’s most iconic and idiosyncratic composers: Louis Hardin (better known as Moondog). GTO’s episodic tribute to the Viking of Sixth Avenue brought to light the warm, approachable dualities of his Hardin's music: attractive melodies that seemed to belong to no one genre in particular, with themes that were approachable but buoyed by snaky polyrhythms and counterpoints. Horns, strings, vocalists and blocky percussion broke down barriers between indie rock, Native American music and bucolic American classical, with particular stylistic provinces supplied by the exuberant avant-rockisms of guitarist Brandon Seabrook and the probing, history-laden soloing of clarinetist Dennis Lichtman.

Pianist Marta Sanchez’s music was a similar dance between the complex and the simple. Sanchez was both sensitive and spry in her solo development, setting themes into forward motion but darting in delightfully unexpected ways. Her compositions, particularly the way her band performed them, also had the same sort of layered development, with tunes like “Cascadas” wringing all the tricky underlying rhythmic subdivisions of 3/4 time and soloists like Jerome Sabbagh soloing around the melody to let the band envelop him. Much of the material was brought to life in particular by drummer Daniel Dor, milking different rhythmic and stylistic possibilities and squaring the often spiky and complex counterpoint of Sanchez’s music with it’s gentleness.

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