Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chronicle of July 2010

July 8

Garage a Trois. Maxwell's, New York, NY. "The terminology can’t be trusted when it comes to Garage a Trois, a band consisting of the drummer Stanton Moore, the saxophonist known as Skerik, the percussionist Mike Dillon and the keyboardist Marco Benevento. That’s four people, not three, despite the group’s chosen name; it doesn’t have much stake in garage rock, either. And while Garage a Trois fits the profile of a jam band, its music feels more focused and less freewheeling than that particular pigeonhole might suggest. Garage a Trois formed just over a decade ago, originally with Mr. Moore, Skerik and the guitarist Charlie Hunter. Its sensibilities have skewed grittier and more psychedelic with the current lineup, largely because of the fuzz-tone output of Mr. Benevento. . . . [T]he band played a shrewdly overdriven show, combining heavy-riff distortion with a rough-and-tumble funk delirium. Almost all the songs were from its most recent release, Power Patriot (Royal Potato Family), a respectable album but only a faint intimation of what Garage a Trois can do live. (That may ultimately be the strongest link the group shares with its jam-circuit brethren.) The band’s life force is rhythm, both at a subterranean level and on the surface. Mr. Moore is also a founding member of Galactic, which has evolved into an all-purpose New Orleans house band equally at home with bounce music or Mardi Gras funk. He has a knack for disarming bombast with elasticity, sounding sly and adaptable even when jackhammering at his toms. And he had a ready sidekick in Mr. Dillon, who began the set on vibraphone before turning to congas, tablas and effects. There was mathematical complexity in some of the tunes, like Rescue Spreaders, which involved a whorl of superimposed meters, in groupings of four and five. (During a vibraphone solo by Mr. Dillon the rest of the band shifted neatly into swing.) But it was no less satisfying to hear the album’s relatively simple title track rendered tougher and wilder, with Mr. Dillon socking a pair of cowbells and Skerik howling through his horn. One tumultuous stretch of the tune recalled the Brecker Brothers at their fusioneering peak, when their sound was best described by the title of a live album: Heavy Metal Be-Bop. Skerik and Mr. Dillon also played an opening set as two-thirds of the Dead Kenny G’s. (The other third is Brad Houser, on bass and baritone saxophone.) Their rapport in this setting was a bit more feverish than in Garage a Trois, and their tone a lot more juvenile. Skerik was freer and more impulsive with his improvising as the trio pinballed between styles: Afro-pop, Balkan klezmer, pocket funk lashed to Middle Eastern modality. The jumpiness felt a little dated and obvious — very 1990's Knitting Factory — as did the ostensible target of the band’s fury. There are few easier marks than Kenny G, the living symbol of simpering instrumental pop. Skerik and crew know this, but why would they let that stop them? What’s in a name, anyway? [Nate Chinen, The New York Times, 7/11/10].

July 13

Washington Square Music Festival Chamber Orchestra. St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, New York, NY. "Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Tanzsuite (1931) [is] a light-spirited, zesty quintet by a composer best known for intensely emotional scores like the Concerto Funèbre, and for having removed himself from German public musical life as a protest during the Nazi years. The suite shows why the Nazis would have frowned upon his music. You hear in it the same jazz and cabaret impulses that animate Weill’s early music, as well as some Stravinskyan snarkiness. The program ended with the Dixtuor — a double quintet for winds and strings — by Théodore Dubois, a French composer who flourished around the turn of the 20th century and directed the Paris Conservatoire briefly. His influences seem decidedly Germanic: much of this 1906 work draws on Wagner’s rich harmonic world, and with the help of the church’s resonance it had an almost symphonic heft" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/14/10].

New York Philharmonic and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Great Lawn, Central Park, New York, NY. "For the first time in the 46-year history of this summer music tradition, the Philharmonic was sharing a parks program with a guest ensemble, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. All day Monday the forecasts were predicting a strong likelihood of thunderstorms. But the Philharmonic administration took a chance, as did some 30,000 people who showed up, according to New York Police Department estimates. The air was thick with humidity, but the skies were fairly clear, and the concert went on as planned. And not until 10:45, just as the ovation started at the end of the Philharmonic’s performance of Ravel’s “Boléro,” the final work on this long double program, did it start to rain. People scattered, and as had previously been announced, the postconcert fireworks display was skipped. The Philharmonic made one concession to the iffy weather predictions: the order of the program was switched, and the Shanghai Symphony played first, with the Philharmonic following after intermission. On one level this was the polite thing to do: guests first. But there was more to it. This leading Chinese orchestra was in town, in part, to promote World Expo 2010, taking place in Shanghai. By sharing this parks program, the Shanghai Symphony was basking in the Philharmonic’s renown and reaching new audiences. For the privilege, the Chinese orchestra helped defray the cost of the concert. So it was more essential to get in the performances by the visitors. There was no possibility of a rain date, since the Shanghai musicians were scheduled to leave New York on Wednesday. In any event, it was a pleasure to hear this impressive Chinese orchestra, which won standing ovations throughout its performances. . . . Ode to the Expo by Guang Zhao [was] a lush, soaring neo-Romantic crowd pleaser that made the composer seem a Chinese Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lang Lang, the superstar Chinese pianist, joined the Shanghai Symphony for its final work, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. As always, there were stunning aspects to Mr. Lang’s playing: uncanny control of inner voices; sensitivity to color and nuance that came across even through loudspeakers; impressive lightness in rustling passagework; chiseled tone for steely bursts of chords and octaves. He played the piece with jazzy vitality, as if he were improvising on the spot. But -- also a Lang Lang trademark -- he teased melodic lines for maximum expressiveness and jerked the music this way and that. The Chinese orchestra sounded quite at home in Gershwin, complete with bluesy wa-wa trumpet solos. . . . Finally, Andrey Boreyko, the dynamic Russian conductor, led the Philharmonic in vibrant performances of . . . Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances From “West Side Story” and Boléro [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 7/14/10].

July 15

New York Philharmonic in music of Anatoly Liadov, Alexander Glazunov, Erwin Schulhof, and Sergei Prokofiev. Great Lawn, Central Park, New York, NY. "But occasionally the orchestra offers rarities at these summer concerts, and the program . . . was split evenly between the novel and the familiar. That can be tricky: a virtually unknown curtain raiser by Liadov and obscure saxophone concertos by Glazunov and Erwin Schulhoff made up the program’s first half, but as an audience lure, the Philharmonic engaged the popular saxophonist Branford Marsalis as soloist. . . . The conductor was Andrey Boreyko, a 52-year-old Russian with podiums in Bern, Switzerland, and Düsseldorf, Germany, who made an impressive Philharmonic debut in 2007. If Russian music is his comfort zone, he did not stray far from it. Only Schulhoff, a Czech composer, represented a different corner of the repertory. (And Schulhoff took Soviet citizenship in 1941, just before the Nazis deported him to the Wülzburg concentration camp, where he died in 1942.) Mr. Boreyko began with Liadov’s Baba-Yaga, an evocation of the same folk-tale witch whose hut makes an appearance near the end of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. But where Mussorgsky painted in crude, powerful strokes, Liadov was more expansive, surrounding the witch’s dramatic, low-lying theme with splashes of color from the woodwinds and brasses. Glazunov filled the solo line of his Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra (1934) with sweet melodic turns and ample filigree, and he gave the instrument a richly detailed, virtuosic cadenza. The work’s connections to jazz are few and fleeting, but you hear them, distantly, in its slow movement. Even so, the music seemed perfectly suited to Mr. Marsalis’s velvety tone, lush vibrato and soulful approach to phrasing. Schulhoff’s Jazz Concerto is actually a recent arrangement of his Hot-Sonate, a 1930 work for saxophone and piano, by Richard Rodney Bennett. Schulhoff loved jazz. You can hear it in the bluesy turns of this work’s Andante and in the zesty syncopations of the Molto vivo finale, which in Mr. Bennett’s scoring hints at a big-band sound. Mr. Marsalis’s energetic, beautifully proportioned reading made a powerful case for the work. . . . [A]nyone who wanted to hear the orchestra at full throttle had the chance after intermission, when Mr. Boreyko led a vigorous, rich-hued suite from Prokofiev’s ballet score Romeo and Juliet [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/16/10].

July 20

New York Sufi Music Festival. Union Square, New York, NY. "Hands waved overhead. Voices shouted lyrics and whooped with delight. Children were hoisted onto parents’ shoulders. In the tightly packed crowd a few dancers made room to jump. T-shirts were tossed to fans from the stage. Yet in the songs that Abida Parveen was singing, saints were praised. They were Islamic saints, the poets and philosophers revered by Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. It was the first New York Sufi Music Festival, a free three-hour concert . . . and it had music from the four provinces of Pakistan, including traditional faqirs who perform outside temples, Sufi rock, and a kind of rapping from Baluchistan. The concert was presented by a new organization called Pakistani Peace Builders, which was formed after the attempted bombing in Times Square by a Pakistani-American. The group seeks to counteract negative images of Pakistan by presenting a longtime Pakistani Islamic tradition that preaches love, peace, and tolerance. Sufism itself has been a target of Islamic fundamentalists; on July 1 suicide bombers attacked Pakistan’s most important Sufi shrine. Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, spoke between sets . . . 'What we’re here to do today,' he said, is 'to be at peace with all of America.' The music’s message was one of joyful devotion and improvisatory freedom. Ms. Parveen, one of Pakistan’s most celebrated musicians, was singing in a Sufi style called kafi. Like the qawwali music popularized worldwide by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, kafi sets classical poems -- about the love and intoxication of the divine, about seeking the spirit within -- to visceral, handclapping rhythms and vocal lines that swoop and twist with passionate volatility. Ms. Parveen carried songs from serene, hovering introductions to virtuosic euphoria. Long, sustained notes suddenly broke into phrases that zigzagged up and down an octave or more; repeated refrains took on an insistent rasp and became springboards for elaborate leaps and arabesques; quick syllables turned into percussive exchanges with the band. Each song was a continual revelation, making the old poems fully alive. While the crowd was there for Ms. Parveen’s first New York City performance in a decade, the rest of the program was strong. The Soung Fakirs, from Sachal Sarmast Shrine in Sindh, danced in bright orange robes to devotional songs with vigorous, incantatory choruses. Akhtar Chanal Zehri, though he was introduced as a rapper, was backed by traditional instruments and seemed more of a folk singer, heartily intoning his rhythmic lyrics on a repeating note or two and, eventually, twirling like a Sufi dervish. Rafaqat Ali Khan, the heir to his family’s school of classical singing (khayal), was backed only by percussion, pushing his long-breathed phrasing into ever more flamboyant swirls and quavers. The tabla player Tari Khan, who also accompanied Rafaqat Ali Khan, played a kinetic solo set that carried a 4/4 rhythm through variants from the Middle East, Europe, New York City and (joined by two more drummers) Africa. There was also instrumental music from the bansuri (wooden flute) player Ghaus Box Brohi. On the modernizing side, Zeb and Haniya, two Pakistani women who started their duo as college students at Mount Holyoke and Smith, performed gentler songs in the Dari tradition, a Pakistani style with Central Asian roots, with Haniya adding syncopated electric guitar behind Zeb’s smoky voice. Under wooden flute and classical-style vocals the Mekaal Hasan Band plugged in with reggae, folk-rock and a tricky jazz-rock riff. But the lyrics quoted devotional poetry that was 900 years old, distant from the turmoil of the present" [Jon Pareles, The New York Times, 7/21/10].

July 23

Music of Terry Riley and Lou Harrison performed by the Voxare Quartet. Bargemusic, New York, NY. "Artists often argue that their works are wrongly categorized, and they are not alone. While introducing compositions by Terry Riley . . . members of the Voxare Quartet said they disagreed with the Minimalist label assigned to [him]. The concert was the first in a three-part weekend series featuring the Voxare Quartet and celebrating the 75th birthday of Mr. Riley, best known for In C, his 1964 masterpiece, which boldly defied the rigid intellectual and emotionless constraints of the modernism then in vogue. With its repetitive interlocking patterns and hypnotic, uplifting mood [the work] became a benchmark of the Minimalist movement and is now a repertory classic. The personable and passionate Voxare players -- Emily Ondracek and Galina Zhdanova, violinists; Erik Peterson, violist; and Adrian Daurov, cellist -- took turns introducing the works played on Friday, some of which certainly had Minimalist hallmarks: rhythmic ostinatos, repetition and slow harmonic development. But the eclectic mix also showed that Mr. Riley, whose interests include jazz and Indian raga, is not so easily pigeonholed. The program opened with his optimistic and visceral Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, composed in 1980 for the Kronos Quartet, a longtime collaborator of Mr. Riley’s. During the 1970's he focused on improvisation and North Indian raga instead of formal composition, but at Kronos’s insistence he notated the score for Sunrise. Still, as Ms. Ondracek explained, he wrote sections of the score on different sheets of paper so the performers could decide the order of performance. The Voxare Quartet offered a spirited, high-energy performance, vividly conveying the work’s beautiful colors. In total contrast were the spare, stark textures of Mr. Riley’s String Quartet (1960), his first work in that genre, written when he was a graduate student and under the influence of La Monte Young, who is sometimes called the first Minimalist composer. Mr. Riley was inspired by foghorns in San Francisco Bay, and the music conveys their distant, misty sounds, although the concept doesn’t effectively sustain the work. The Voxare players also offered a vibrant interpretation of The Wheel/Mythic Birds Waltz, which opens with a wistful ballade, then fuses ragtime, jazz and Indian raga in the contrapuntal and metrically complex waltz; and G-Song, which incorporates a set of variations on a melancholy G-minor theme that Mr. Riley used for a French film score. The concert ended with Lou Harrison’s striking String Quartet Set (1979), which reveals Mr. Harrison’s affinity with world and early music. The richly scored five-movement piece ranges from the melancholy Plaint to the exuberant Estampie, which uses the cello as a percussive instrument. The performance was excellent, with distinctive contributions from each player" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 7/26/10].

July 28

Ethel Fair: The Songwriters. Damrosch Park, New York, NY. "From its start, in 1998, [Ethel] has used amplification as well as the same pedals and sound-processing devices that rock bands use, and it plays only new music, including pieces by its members. . . . Ethel moved more decisively into the pop world by joining forces with performing songwriters from several corners of rock, pop and folk music. . . . [T]he concert . . . included collaborations with the Argentine singer and guitarist Juana Molina, the bluesy folk singer Dayna Kurtz, the guitarists Tom Verlaine and Patrick A. Derivaz and the guitarists turned film-score composers Mike Viola and Adam Schlesinger. As a prelude of sorts Ethel performed a few pieces on its own, starting with Marcelo Zarvos’s energetically rhythmic Arrival. In the best rock band spirit, it offered a couple of selections from its Cantaloupe CD Ethel, the post-Minimalist March from Phil Kline’s Blue Room and Other Stories and John King’s quirkily bluesy Shuffle from Sweet Hardwood. But in the best spirit of a classical ensemble, it neglected to mention the disc. The pop collaborations were fun, if a bit frustrating for an Ethel fan. The quartet stood toward the back of the stage, ceding the front and center to its guests. And the distinction was not only visual; often Ethel’s contributions were more deferential than substantial. But not always. Its accompaniment to Ms. Kurtz’s incendiary It’s the Day of Atonement, 2001 included an ornate violin part, played by Mary Rowell on an instrument owned by Ms. Kurtz’s grandfather. Ms. Molina’s Pastor Mentiroso and Mr. Verlaine’s Prove It were augmented by appealingly involved string writing. And Ethel coalesced as a tight band around Mr. Schlesinger’s account of That Thing You Do, the title song from the 1996 Tom Hanks film about a Beatlesesque rock band, and Mr. Viola’s song The Clap from this year’s film Get Him to the Greek. The one time you heard more of Ethel than you might have expected was in the full-cast finale, a version of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps. On balance, the arrangement was lovely, with attractive imaginatively filled-out textures, graceful vocal harmonies and striking individual contributions from Ms. Kurtz and Ms. Molina. But with several properly equipped guitarists onstage, not least Mr. Verlaine and Mr. Schlesinger, the song’s instrumental break turned out to be not a weeping guitar line but vigorous chordal interplay by Ms. Rowell and Cornelius Dufallo, the group’s violinists, Ralph Farris, its violist, and Dorothy Lawson, its cellist" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 7/29/10].