Fred Hersch Trio – Live at the Village Vanguard

Fred Hersch Trio.
Photo: John Rogers.

Fred Hersch Trio

Village Vanguard

January 5, 2019

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Beginning the new year with a six-night long residency at the Village Vanguard, pianist Fred Hersch had a lot to celebrate. His current trio, in which he is joined by bassist John Hebert and drummer Kevin McPherson, has been together for a decade. They have received a Grammy nomination for their 2018 Palmetto Records CD Live in Europe. In December, Palmetto released another recording of Hersch in a trio setting, this one from 1997 with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. 97 @ The Village Vanguard is the only live recording of this acclaimed ensemble. The CD also documents Hersch’s debut as a leader at the Village Vanguard.

 

Many celebrations include guests and Hersch’s residency was no exception. For the last three nights of shows, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, a Grammy nominee himself and a Guggenheim Fellow and MacArthur Award winner to boot, joined the trio. It proved to be a felicitous pairing. After the trio opened the set with Hersch’s meditative “Plainsong,” Zenón joined them on the pianist’s salsa original “Havana,” sending its sinuous melody soaring and building an exquisitely paced solo. Hebert and McPherson created a fulsome groove. McPherson’s ability to move from the pianissimo textural playing of “Plainsong” to the driving polyrhythms of “Havana” demonstrated versatility that turns on a dime. Hebert keenly targeted his playing too, moving between registers, engaging in melodic colloquy with Hersch, supporting the changes, and acting in concert with McPherson. All of this is even more noteworthy when one considers his uncanny ability to know exactly when and where to provide Hersch’s playing registral space.

 

Hersch’s music is often rhythmically intricate. In addition to the facility of the rhythm section, Zenón proved his mettle in the abstract phrasing and polyrhythmic environments of Hersch tunes “Snape Maltings” and “Skipping.” The latter tune elicited a verve-filled solo from Hersch. The pianist and saxophonist also made great foils for each other, one developing melodic breadcrumbs that the other had strewn in a previous solo. Zenón’s playing had a bite in the post-bop material, but was smooth and suave in the Lerner and Loewe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Zenón’s composition “Temes” was an engaging part of the set, and it was fascinating to hear Hersch go to town on material new to him, displaying  a vivid imagination.

Hersch frequently writes compositions in homage to other jazz artists. “Lee’s Dream” is a contrafact tune, using the changes of Nacio Herb Brown’s “You Stepped Out of a Dream” with a new melody. It is dedicated to Lee Konitz. “Monk’s Dream” is dedicated to Thelonious Monk. During his set at the Vanguard, Hersch had Monk in mind. The closer was a one-two punch of the pianist’s harmonically inventive version of “Round Midnight,” followed by the group playing a rousing rendition of “Let’s Cool One.” Obliged by applause to share an encore, Hersch chose Billy Joel’s “And So it Goes,” starting in eloquent simplicity and then transforming the tune with intriguing modulations into a Chopin-esque reverie. The sold-out crowd seemed delighted to share in the celebrations.

 

An Evening with Simone Dinnerstein (Concert review)

Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Simone Dinnerstein in Recital

Miller Theatre – Columbia University

December 8, 2018

Published on Sequenza21.com

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – On Saturday, December 8th, pianist Simone Dinnerstein made a return appearance to Miller Theatre to perform an intriguing and eclectic solo recital. The stage was set with subdued lighting, with electric “candles” placed throughout and, over the course of the evening, small shifts of color. Ms. Dinnerstein, dressed in elegant, flowing attire, created an atmosphere through her performance demeanor as well. The recital was announced with no intermission and the pianist paused from playing only once, midway through, to acknowledge applause and take a brief break. However, by otherwise starting each piece immediately after the final notes of the one it preceded, she communicated clearly that this was not to be an event in which musical continuity would be broken by applause between numbers. Thankfully the audience complied, mutually agreeing to allow the atmosphere to envelop them too.

Dinnerstein played two pieces by the Eighteenth century harpsichord composer Francois Couperin, one at the beginning and another right before the break. This is the first time she has programmed the composer. Her approach to Les Barriades mystérieueses was sonorous, eschewing ornamentation in favor of unadorned, shapely melodies. Like the Goldberg Variations, the second piece required interlacing the hands to play everything on the piano keyboard that would have required two manuals on the harpsichord. Le Tic-Toc-Choc, ou Les Mallotins featured motoric clockwork and brisk filigrees that were an excellent foil for the Philip Glass work that immediately preceded it.

Mad Rush (1979), one of Glass’s best known piano pieces, was first composed for the organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where the composer performed it for an appearance by the Dalai Lama. Arranged for piano, the piece is forceful and filled with contrasts. Its delicate passages were played with a spacious sense of breath by Dinnerstein, while the more emphatic central section in piece’s the repeating loop was performed powerfully with fleet-fingered accuracy. Last year, Dinnerstein’s account of Glass’s Third Piano Concerto was impressive; here, she made a further case for a place in the pantheon of Glass pianists. Contrast played a large role in Dinnerstein’s rendition of Robert Schumann’s Arabesque. Once again, she emphasized the breath between phrases, allowing the audience a sense of deft transition between the various emotive sections as they unspun.

Erik Satie’s Gnossiene No. 3 received the mysterious performance its ambiguous markings and lack of bar-lines evokes. One part cafe music and another modal Impressionist excursion, the piece was rendered with an evasive, lilting quality.

The pianist, in general, avoids overt and flashy displays of hyper-virtuosity, preferring instead to pick distinct places in which she allows her playing to be unrestrained. Dinnerstein’s performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana provided several excellent opportunities for effusive virtuosity, and they seemed all the more special for the way that the pianist set them in relief against the more contemplative portions of the work. Fleet arpeggiations flew and the fugal passage in the final movement was a brisk cannonade.

Dinnerstein’s aforementioned penchant for allowing the music to breathe, as well as the atmosphere she created for her performance, encouraged a normally bustling New York audience to truly slow down and breathe themselves: a welcome respite during the busy holiday season. When the encore she favored them with was not some barnstormer but instead a reprise of Les Barriades, allowing the program to come full circle, it seemed entirely appropriate.

Tallis Scholars Premiere Nico Muhly in Midtown

Tallis Scholars: A Renaissance Christmas

Tallis Scholars. Photo: Nick Rutter.

Miller Theatre Early Music Series

Church of St. Mary the Virgin

December 1, 2018

Published on Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, made their annual appearance in New York as part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music series at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Midtown. The program was billed as a dual celebration — the 45th anniversary of the Tallis Scholars and Miller Theatre’s 30th anniversary season.

In honor of the occasion, Miller Theatre commissioned a new piece for the Tallis Scholars by composer Nico Muhly. Muhly has, of late, garnered a great deal of attention for two Metropolitan Opera commissions  — Two Boys and Marnie — but he often talks about his first love being choral music (he began his musical career as a chorister). Muhly’s choral works are exquisitely crafted and texturally luminous. Rough Notes (2018), his new piece for the concert at St. Mary’s, took its texts from two diary entries by Robert Falcon Scott, written near the end of his ill-fated voyage to Antarctica. The first excerpt describes the aurora australis, providing words such as “arches, bands, and curtains”  that are ripe for colorful musical setting. The second was Scott’s stoic expression of confidence in his team’s ability to accept their impending deaths with dignity. Muhly’s use of lush cluster chords in the first section gave way to more sharply etched, but still glinting, harmonies in the second, as well as poignantly arcing melodies. The divided choir of ten voices was skilfully overlapped to sound like many times that number. It is always fascinating to hear the Tallis Scholars switch centuries, and thus style, to perform contemporary repertoire; for instance, their CD of Arvo Pärt’s music is a treasure. One hopes that they might collaborate on a recording with Muhly in the future.

The rest of the program was of considerably earlier music, but ranged widely in chronology. The earliest piece was an elegant and under-heralded Magnificat setting by John Nesbett from the late Fifteenth century that is found in the Eton Choirbook. Chant passages give way to various fragments of the ensemble that pit low register vs. high for much of the piece. It culminates by finally bringing all the voices together in a rousing climax. The Tallis Scholars has, of yet, not recorded Nesbett, but Peter Phillips has committed the Magnificat to disc in an inspired performance with the Choir of Merton College, Oxford (The Marian Collection, Delphian, 2014).  

Palestrina’s motet Hodie Christus natus est, and the eponymous parody mass which uses this as its source material, were the centerpiece of the concert. The motet was performed jubilantly and with abundant clarity. The mass is one of Palestrina’s finest. He took the natural zest of its source material, added plenty of contrapuntal elaborations, and made subtle shifts to supply a thoughtful rendition of the text. Although we are, in terms of the liturgical calendar, in the midst of the reflective period of Advent, being propelled forward to the midst of some of the most ebullient yet substantial Christmas music of the Renaissance was a welcome inauguration of the season.

The two works that concluded the concert dealt with different aspects of the Christmas story. William Byrd’s Lullaby is actually quite an unsettling piece; its text deals with the Slaughter of the Innocents as ordered by Herod. One is left to imagine the infant Jesus being consoled by Mary and Joseph in the midst of their flight from persecution. Byrd composed it in the Sixteenth century (it was published in 1588), but Lullaby was the piece on the concert most tailored to this moment, evoking concerns of our time: the plight of refugees, the slaughter of innocent bystanders by acts of senseless aggression: particularly the vulnerability of children to indiscriminate bombing abroad and the epidemic of gun violence in our own country.

The last piece returned to a festive spirit and brought the Tallis Scholars to the cusp of the Baroque with Hieronymus Praetorius’s Magnificat V with interpolations of two carols: Joseph lieber, Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo. During the Christmas season, interspersing carols and sections of the Magnificat was a standard practice in Baroque-era Lutheran churches; J.S. Bach might even have done so in the services he led at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Praetorius plus two carols gave the Tallis Scholars an opportunity to share three of their most-performed Christmas pieces. From seemingly effortless floating high notes to sonorous bass singing, with tons of deftly rendered imitative passages in the inner voices, the group made a glorious sound. One eagerly awaits their return to New York during their 46th season.

Stile Antico at St. Mary’s

Stile Antico
Photo: Marco Borggreve

Stile Antico in Concert

October 13, 2018 Church of St. Mary the Virgin

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – The first concert in Miller Theatre’s 2018-19 Early Music Series, given in midtown at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, presented the acclaimed choral group Stile Antico from the UK. They have made regular appearances on the Miller series. As is their custom, Stile Antico sang without a conductor in a semicircle facing front. The occasional setup change consists of singers changing formation and, in pieces in which the full ensemble isn’t required, “extra” singers sit down.

 

They sing vibrantly and expressively with a sumptuous sound. The concert program, titled “Elizabeth I, Queen of Muses,” brought together masterworks of Tudor era polyphony and continental repertoire that had passed through the monarch’s orbit. Several of the latter group of works were taken from a gift from one of the Queen’s suitors, Erik XIV of Sweden: a partbook that included pieces by Lassus, Willaert, and Sandrin. The latter’s chanson Doulce Memoire was particularly fetching, performed with gentle grace. The group also sang three solemn and stolid penitential psalm settings by Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder, an Italian composer who was a member of the Elizabeth’s court, paid a handsome salary for music and, some say, espionage.

 

English music formed the bulk of the program. It included a piece from early in the sixteenth century, Tavener’s  Christe Jesu Bone Pastor, filled with brightly articulate slices of homophony and soaring passages of imitation. From the other end of the chronological spectrum, early in the seventeenth century, Stile Antico offered jaunty renditions of two of John Dowland’s best known ayres: “Now, O now I needs must part” and “Can She Excuse my Wrongs.”

 

The choir is one of the best on the planet for works by Tallis and Byrd. Several of these were performed, capturing a gamut of emotions. Byrd’s “This sweet and merry month of May” is a jubilant madrigal greeting to Elizabeth, while his Attolite porta is a richly attired setting of Psalm 23. “O Lord Make thy servant Elizabeth” is an extraordinary piece, and Stile Antico rendered its elaborate Amen cadence with fulsome power and beauty. Ne irascaris is another facet of Byrd’s art. A recusant Catholic, he composed a collection of motets with texts both coded and charged with defiance. Clearly Byrd was graced with Elizabeth’s favor, otherwise he would have been unlikely to get away with daring pieces like Ne irascaris. The Tallis selection on the program was his worshipful, declamatory Abserge Domine. I could have done with three more Tudor motets and no Ferrabosco, but that’s quibbling.

 

The concert concluded with a group of madrigals written in honor of Elizabeth, taken from “The Triumphs of Oriana,” a collection of 25 madrigals by 23 composers. After sterling renderings of “The lady Oriana” by John Wilbye (Oriana is a poetic title for Elizabeth) and “Fair Nymphs I heard one telling, the last, “As Vesta was, from Latmos hill descending,” by Thomas Weelkes, displayed the group’s vocal prowess at its finest, with high-ranging lines and overlapping melismatic passages converging to thrilling effect. Stile Antico’s annual visits to New York could easily be double or trebled: they have developed a strong following here and the reasons for this were amply demonstrated on 13 October at St. Mary’s.

 

  • Christian Carey writes regularly for Tempo, Musical America, and Sequenza 21.

Quatuor Bozzini at Time Spans 2018 (Concert Review)

Bozzini Quartet.
Photo: Yuko Zama.

Quatuor Bozzini

Timespans Festival

DiMenna Center for Classical Music

August 14, 2018

NEW YORK – Quatuor Bozzini, a Canadian string quartet, have performed and recorded a plethora of contemporary music. While their advocacy is wide-ranging, the music of Canadian composers is near and dear to Quatuor Bozzini. They demonstrated this at the opening concert of Time:Spans Festival, five concerts this past week devoted to some of the most ambitious repertoire of today. The Bozzinis’ committed and razor-focused performances of works by Linda Catlin Smith and Cassandra Miller made them a tough act to follow.

Linda Catlin Smith’s Folkestone (1999) is inspired by an 1845 sketchbook of watercolors by J.M.W. Turner. While the Catlin Smith piece isn’t programmatic, Folkestone’s point of departure is the idea behind the sketchbook, that of returning to the same location over and over again to depict it in different light, weather, and events, thus creating a panoply of artwork that responds to it. The piece is cast in a series of twenty-four sections, called “panels” by the composer, interspersed with silences in between them to denote “page turns” between the musical sketches.

 

Composing prevailingly slow and soft music, allowing it silence and space to breathe, Catlin Smith is a kindred spirit of the Wandelweiser collective, John Cage, and Morton Feldman. However, she employs a highly individual pitch language. In places, piquant clusters populated Folkestone, casting adrift from pitch centers and offering instead rich polychords. However, peering out of the corners of her music are singable tunes and sumptuous consonances. All of these features in combination supply a slowly evolving, gently articulated music that is truly beguiling.

 

Cassandra Miller’s About Bach (2015) co-opts a phrase from J.S Bach’s Chaconne No. 2. However, the quotation is a jumping off point for an extended meditation on repetition. The melody, in the altissimo register, is repeated over and over by the violins in the quartet. They trade off the tune in a ricocheting antiphony that is among the most interesting aspects of the piece, underlining the element of space in the quartet. The other players provide brief, bustling lines in counterpoint.

 

In Catlin Smith’s piece, repetitions were varied and off center, requiring the listener’s attentiveness to differences in the various sketches she creates. Miller’s About Bach instead revels in repetition with the small differences of antiphony being the only change. One had to be willing to put aside the desire for differences of a large sort in Miller’s piece. But in the right headspace, going with the repeats instead of waiting for them to end, the piece proves spellbinding.

Both Smith and Miller have new CDs out on the British label Another Timbre. Miller’s disc, a recording by Quatuor Bozzini, is one of the label’s latest run of discs by Canadian Composers. Smith has been recorded both by the Bozzinis and, more recently, Apartment House. All Another Timbre outings are heartily recommended.

 

Philadelphia Gives NY Premiere of Van der Aa Violin Concerto

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Photo: Steve J. Sherman

 

New York Premiere of Van Der Aa Violin Concerto

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Music Director and Conductor

Janine Jansen, Violin

March 13, 2018

Carnegie Hall

Published on Sequenza21.com

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Dutch composer Michel Van der Aa (b. 1970) is best known for his imaginative and formidably-constructed multimedia works that incorporate both film and electronics. Notable among these are the operas Blank Out (2016) and Sunken Garden (2012), as well as a music theater work based on Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (2008). Even pieces for acoustic ensembles, such as the clarinet chamber concerto Hysteresis (2013), have frequently incorporated electronics as part of their makeup. Thus, when Van der Aa composed his Violin Concerto (2014) for soloist Janine Jansen and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the absence of electronics was significant. (Interestingly, after the success of the concerto, his follow up piece for orchestra, Reversal (2016), also abstains from the electronic domain). However, even in the analog realm, Van der Aa incorporates a sound world that acknowledges his interest in decidedly non-classical elements.

 

The score indicates that the solo violin part should be played with the vibrato, portamento, and usual techniques common to the instrument in contemporary concertos. The accompanying strings however, are asked to refrain from using vibrato in sustained passages, creating a kind of sine tone effect. Various styles are incorporated in the solo part, from bluegrass fiddling to more angular contemporary passages. Other aspects of the orchestration hearken to pop music terrain: near the end of the first movement, for instance, a climax approaches house music in its boisterous brass and percussion.

 

On March 13th, joined by Jansen, the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, delivered an energetic and assured performance of the concerto at Carnegie Hall. The violinist played with the supreme confidence of a soloist who has endeavored to make a work entirely her own. With its variety of solo demeanors, both shaded and nuanced and explosive and mercurial, Van Der Aa’s Violin Concerto seems the ideal vehicle for Jansen’s multi-faceted artistry. The Philadelphians matched her playing with equal confidence, with strings sensitively taking up the “sine tone” accompaniment of the sostenuto passages and winds, brass, and percussion gamely taking on roles in the electronica mimicry of wide swaths of the piece. Interpretively speaking, Jansen and Nézet-Séguin were on the same page throughout. In a dramatic conclusion to the piece, the violinist played her last gesture nose to nose with the conductor, eliciting surprised exhalation and then sustained applause from the audience.

 

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is one of my favorite of the composer’s works and I have seen a number of performances of it in concert. While I might quibble here or there with Nézet-Séguin’s tempo choices, the conductor’s tendency to press ahead during the potentially “schmaltzy” moments of the piece rendered it free of several layers of sentimental “varnish:” still emotive yet utterly fresh-sounding. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s strings are justly renowned and were exemplary here, but the winds, brass, and percussion each contributed in both spotlight and ensemble moments as well. Thus, it was a touching exchange onstage when the conductor insisted on walking out to each of them in turn, bestowing embraces and well-earned praise.

 

Jansen and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, have recorded Van Der Aa’s Violin Concerto for Disquiet Media. It is paired with the aforementioned Hysteresis, performed by Amsterdam Sinfonietta, directed by Candida Thompson, with Kari Krikku as soloist. The performances are detailed and evocative, giving an excellent sense of the composer’s approach to ensemble works. One hopes that both the recent high-profile performances of the Violin Concerto and this persuasive recording prove inviting to other soloists and ensembles: Van der Aa’s work is worthy of wider currency.

 

 

Ljova in Princeton

Lev_Ljova_Zhurbin-photo_by_Mark_Gurevich-20160807-IMG_6331-Edit-red_background_hat-sm
Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin. Photo: Mark Gurevich.

“Sorry About the Mess – Portraits in Music:”

Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin and Friends

Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University

February 27, 2018

Sequenza21.com

By Christian Carey

PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY – Violist and composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin has been a guest artist this semester at Princeton University’s Atelier. The special courses in this program feature guest artists in interdisciplinary collaboration: student participants can “mirror” or “shadow” their work. Zhurbin’s course, “Grandma’s Russian Painting: Puppetry and Music,” also involves puppeteer Basil Twist.

As part of his residency, on Tuesday, February 27th Zhurbin gave a composer/performer portrait concert. Held in The Forum, at the Lewis Center for the Arts, the event’s vibe was casual; the intensity of the actual performances was anything but.

The core ensemble for the concert was The Secret String Quartet: Zhurbin with violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Jennifer Choi, and cellist Yves Dharamraj. They presented the violist’s first string quartet, “Culai,” an homage to one of the violinists in the Gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks. Boldly polystylistic and exquisitely well scored, it is a formidably challenging piece that hybridizes classical and folk music. All the members of the Secret Quartet amply demonstrated an affinity for the various playing styles contained in the piece. It is rare to hear such a seamless performance of demanding and versatile music.

Secret Quartet was joined by Vasko Dukovski for “Clarinet Quintet: The Refugee,” a poignant work that references the current refugee crisis in the United States and elsewhere. Zhurbin showed a depth of feeling in this piece with corresponding sensitivity to scoring and pacing. It equaled the quartet’s polished performance standard.

Much more music was on offer. A solo with loops provided an impressive sequence of post-minimal layering.  Arrangements of repertoire from Zhurbin’s other ensemble, Ljova and the Kontraband, as well as a set of Yiddish and Russian folk songs, added vocalist Inna Barmash and accordionist Patrick Farrell to the assembled musicians. Both are tremendously talented exponents of Eastern European folk music who supplied performances that encompassed lilting inflections and, where required, burning intensity. An excellent concert; one looks forward to what Zhurbin’s collaboration with Twist will yield.