Monday, July 29, 2019

[37] Davóne Tines and the Dover Quartet play Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Barber, and Caroline Shaw at Caramoor | #1Summer50Concerts

Perks of reviewing for legit organizations: actual professional photos (PC: Gabe Palacio)

WHO: Davóne Tines, bass-baritone; Dover Quartet
WHAT: MENDELSSOHN Theme and Variations, Scherzo, and Fugue from Four Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 81; BARBER Dover Beach; CAROLINE SHAW By and By; DVOŘÁK String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, Op. 105
WHERE: Spanish Courtyard at Caramoor
WHEN: July 12, 2019 at 8:00pm

I'm not going to say much about this performance -- I reviewed this concert for Opera News and I don't want to give away my opinions before it gets published. I'll link the review here once it gets published -- you can read it if you're a subscriber.

In the meanwhile, here are a few things that I didn't get to mention in my review:
  • Davóne Tines's stage outfit was a black suit with no shirt. Let me tell you, he ROCKED it.
  • There was some action with candles onstage -- Tines lit a candle in the silence between Dover Beach and By and By, and an ill-timed breeze nearly burned the stage tent down.
  • At the pre-concert Q&A session, a(n over-)zealous chamber-music camp parent chaperone asked Dover cellist Camden Shaw how he handles it when he gets lost in a performance. After a short pause, he answered in his booming, croony voice, "I don't know, look pretty?"
  • Caramoor is absolutely LOVELY. You know why? Because nature is great. NYC almost made me forget that.
  • Caroline Shaw was not there or I would have said hi to her this time. I promise.
Stay tuned for the full review!

[36] Pauline Kim Harris and Spencer Topel perform original compositions at The Stone @ Mannes | #1Summer50Concerts

DSL-92235 Album Cover.jpg

WHO: Pauline Kim Harris, violin; Spencer Topel, electronics
WHAT: HARRIS/TOPEL Ambient Chaconne; Deo
WHERE: The Stone @ The New School
WHEN: July 11, 2019 at 8:30pm

In theory, going to concerts shouldn't be tiring. You get to sit. In air-conditioning, usually. Other people do the work of filling your ears with beautiful music. It's all included in the ticket price -- you just sit back and relax.

But going back to what I said a couple posts ago about not being able to turn my critic brain off -- concerts are tiring for me. In my mind, listening to music is synonymous with forming judgments. I don't see that as either a good thing or a bad thing. It just kind of is how I work.

Occasionally, though, I wish that I could lose myself in a concert. Turn off my brain for a few minutes.

I'm not going to tell you that I succeeded. But I came damn close at this concert.

I'm usually not a huge consumer of ambient music, but there are some great classical-ambient crossovers. I think that the Harris/Topel duet is going to join the greats of the genre when their new album comes out in September. Armed with only a violin, a microphone, and a soundboard, the two presented a refreshing take on Bach (and also another composer -- I'll explain in a second).

I can't tell you a whole lot about the music itself. It moved slowly, sometimes changing so slightly over such a long period of time that I couldn't detect the transformation until after it had already happened. There were no jagged new-music-characteristic jump scares; just the sweet tone of Harris's violin, looped and amplified and augmented.

The first piece, Ambient Chaconne, was a transformation of the famous chaconne from Bach's D minor violin partita; bits and pieces were recognizable throughout, but the already-long piece was lengthened from 15 minutes to almost half an hour with a range of clever electronic fillers. (Side note: I turned to my trumpet-playing friend after the performance and asked if he'd heard the original chaconne. Blank stare.)

The second piece was based on a Deo gratias -- I heard the composer as Lachenmann, my friends heard Bach. Neither of those people wrote Deo gratias settings. Phooey. But it was great.

Update: I just looked at the album's liner notes. It was Ockeghem's Deo gratias. I think I was closer.

You can pre-order the album, Heroinehere, or just wait until September 27, when it will hopefully be available on Spotify. Fingers crossed.

EDIT: It's September 27, and the album dropped and is just as good as the live version was! 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

[35] Pauline Kim Harris and friends play John Zorn at The Stone @ Mannes | #1Summer50Concerts

I didn't take any photos. So here's a video.

WHO: Pauline Kim Harris, violin; Christopher Otto, violin; Ches Smith, drums
WHAT: JOHN ZORN Passagen for solo violin; Apophthegms for two violins; Ceremonial Magic for violin and drums
WHERE: The Stone @ The New School
WHEN: July 9, 2019 at 8:30pm

So this is my third concert so far at The Stone, and I have to say it's one of my favorite new concert venues in Manhattan. They run on a jazz-club schedule: artists take up weekly residency from Tuesday to Saturday and play a different hour-long show each night at 8:30pm. I have to imagine it's hard for the artists, but I've never seen any player at The Stone that looks like they don't want to be there, so they must be doing something right.

But even though they started as a jazz club of sorts (before they went under and The New School picked them up), the conservatory atmosphere has been infusing more experimental classical music into their ranks. Pauline Kim Harris was the first artist this summer who I would confidently say falls firmly in the classical camp, but she started her residency with a program from John Zorn, a composer who treads the line between experimental classical and experimental jazz.

Zorn's music is the most organized chaos you've ever heard. After a few minutes, you sort of write off any possibility that the instrumentalists are still in the correct place in the music -- of course, as soon as you do that, they come to some sort of serendipitous moment with *gasp* a consonant major chord or something like that and you realize that all of that chaos was just a means to an end (or vice versa?).

Pauline Kim Harris's playing was great, although her sound felt a little bit stifled by the red velvet curtains that were drawn around the audience and stage. Of course, that's not her fault -- her instrument has a quieter setup, so it needs a hard shell around the stage. But, for her sound problems, her playing was still vivacious and accurate.

Her co-conspirators didn't overshadow her, but were tremendous in their own right. JACK Quartet violinist Christopher Otto, armed with a louder instrument than Harris's, performed that Apophthegms as if it were encoded in some collective strand of DNA that he and Harris shared (it became eminently clear that their friendship was primarily musical by the awkward hug they shared after the performance). Ches Smith's drumming was possibly the highlight of the program -- the paradox between his sticks playing passages that would make Whiplash go pale, contrasted with the calm, slackjawed look on his face, was especially amusing.

Go to The Stone. That's all I'm going to say. Best $20 you'll ever spend.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

[34] shadows of love at Bethesda Lutheran Church, New Haven | #1Summer50Concerts

WHO: Matthew Cramer, bass-baritone; Stephen Gamboa-Diaz, harpsichord; Michael Rigsby, viola da gamba
WHAT: Works by Dowland, Lambert, d'Ambruys, Purcell, and Bach
WHERE: Bethesda Lutheran Church, New Haven CT
WHEN: July 7, 2019 at 4:00pm

Concert #34: In Which I Immediately Review Someone Else I Know, Even Though I Just Said That It's A Bad Idea

I discovered this 4th-of-July weekend that New Haven is a ghost town in the summer. Some students stay behind for research; a moderate horde of high schoolers come for summer sessions. But when you walk around, the thing that strikes you is the quiet -- other than the cars, there's no student chatter around campus. It's part eerie and part relaxing.

I was only there for three days (I took a day go to visit my brother in Boston), but by the time my trip was ending it had been five days since I had seen a concert. Far too long, in my humble opinion.

Luckily, a couple of friends decided to beat the summer boredom (not the heat, mind you -- there is no air conditioning at Bethesda) with a half-hour concert of renaissance and baroque music. It was an intimate affair -- maybe twenty people in the audience, half of them wearing shorts and/or crocs (myself included).

I think Matt Cramer sang it in a better key, to be honest, but this is the best recording out there.

So, again with the reviewing-people-I-know thing -- it feels weird to write formal reviews about friends and colleagues, but here goes nothing. The programming for the concert was fantastic, full of tunes that I heard for the first time that afternoon and am still humming right now. Matt Cramer, though a choral conductor by trade, lent inventive and clearly-sung ornamentations. Stephen Gamboa-Diaz showed his harpsichord prowess both as an accompanist and as a soloist; Michael Rigsby rounded out the crew.

But the charm of this concert came not in the music-making, but in the purpose. This wasn't part of a summer concert series or anything like that. When I asked Stephen what compelled him to put on a concert like this, he shrugged and said, "I don't know, Matt was in town for a little while and it was time to do something other than sightread in our living room." And if that's not inspirational, I don't know what is.

[33] Jordan/DelGiudice: Collaborative Compositions & Improvisations at Scholes Street Studio

The cover of the album -- link below!

WHO: Joe Jordan, oboe/English horn/piano; Dylan DelGiudice, guitar/drums/saxophone
WHAT: Collaborative Compositions & Improvisations
WHERE: Scholes Street Studio
WHEN: July 2, 2019 at 8:00pm

Reviewing people you know is generally ill-advised. At best, you look biased; at worst, you lose a friend.

But you know what else was ill-advised? 50 concerts in one summer. And that didn't stop me, did it?

In simpler words: I care about supporting my friends more than I care about the rules.

Anyway, you know the drill. Tiny little venue in Brooklyn. I love those. Friends. I love those. New music. I love those.

I thought the performance was great. My grandmother would disagree. You see, when we start playing music, we are taught that there are "good sounds" and "bad sounds." Certain combinations of fingers lead to "good," and others lead to "bad."

But for this duo, nothing was off limits. It's one thing to push a random combination of keys and hope for the best; it's another thing to know exactly what toot, honk, or squawk will come out and to use that to make organized(-ish) and well-thought-out music. And it's yet another thing to have that knowledge on more than one instrument.

I'm pretty sure Joe and Dylan explored every possible noise on their collective six instruments throughout the night. Guitar effects. Fluttered oboe overtones. Plucked piano strings modified with a guitar slide. Everything, really.

I can't think of a better way to spend a Tuesday night. And, lucky for you, they released it onto an album! See for yourself!

Monday, July 22, 2019

[32] Vivica Genaux and New York Baroque Incorporated at Caramoor | #1Summer50Concerts

Her outfits are to die for

WHO: Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano; Aisslinn Nosky, violin; New York Baroque Incorporated
WHAT: Works by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Hasse, and Geminiani
WHERE: The Venetian Theater at Caramoor
WHEN: June 30, 2019 at 4pm

Concert #32: In Which I Was a Bad Gay

June 30, 2019 was World Pride. Four million people poured into the lower quadrant of Manhattan and celebrated with rainbows and glitter and hoopla. I was not one of them. This could just be me, but being stuck in a four-million person crowd with no place to go to the bathroom doesn't exactly sound like my idea of a good day.

Plus, I rationalized, it's not like I hadn't been prideful for the entire month leading up to World Pride. I will direct you to concerts #23 and #25, which literally had the word queer in their names.

The truth is, I actually just made a dumb scheduling mistake. I was 100% convinced that the pride march was on Saturday 6/29, so I made plans with a friend's mother to go see this concert on 6/30 (yes, I'm that kid who makes plans with his friends' parents). Turns out I was wrong, and I decided that I wanted to see Vivica more than I wanted to buy a rainbow shirt and ruin it in one go by standing for eight hours in the sauna that is the West Village. Sue me.

Anyway, I think I made the right choice. Katonah is absolutely gorgeous. Everything is green. The air smells less like garbage (why doesn't NYC have dumpsters???? anyone????). I love NYC, but it's anything but a relaxing place. I took one step off the greenery-lined platform at the Katonah Metro-North stop and it was as if my responsibilities vanished -- crazy considering that I was probably ten concert reviews behind at that point.

Weirdly enough, Vivica Genaux never comes to the US. She made only two appearances stateside this year, and she has not a single one scheduled for the 2019-2020 season. Based out of Italy, she gives most of her concerts in western Europe.

The concert, at face value, looked like old-people bait. That one Corelli concerto grosso that everyone knows (D major, Op. 6, No. 4). The obligatory concerto from The Four Seasons. Vivaldi. Handel. Vivaldi knockoff. You know.

But New York Baroque Incorporated did a great job of treading the line between crowd- and connoisseur-pleasing. Their Corelli was whimsy and spontaneous as concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky  goaded solo second violin Alana Youssefian with a twinkle in her eye; on passages of repeated notes, Nosky dared Youssefian to rival her creative ornamentations (Youssefian obliged with a smirk).

The video looks a little bit like one of my fifth-grade iMovie projects, but the playing is top-notch!

Aisslinn Nosky stole the instrumental portion of the show. When I saw her in ChamberQUEER a few weeks before, her motions were moderate (the audience, after all, was about five feet in front of her), but her playing still effectively colored her the badass-du-jour. On the stage of the Venetian Theater, she let loose. Her stylings on "Winter" from The Four Seasons were agitated and overflowing a controlled, but chaotic energy; Nosky's emotion seemed more like that of a rock guitarist than that of a baroque violinist, her blood-red hair barely keeping its faux-hawk. And though harpsichordist Avi Stein was sitting in the conductor's chair, it was obvious throughout the concert that Nosky actually wore the pants in the ensemble -- once again the badass-du-jour.

Badass-du-jour, of course, apart from Vivica Genaux. As soon as she (and her dress-tail) swept on-stage, the presence was palpable. She alternated with facility between the opera seria archetypes: from lovesick, woebegone, and hopeless to oozing bravura at the very touch. Her technique was a little weird -- she produced vibrato and pitch changes by wobbling her lower lip, so even in the arie di bravura she still looked a little bit sad. But close your eyes, and you couldn't tell the difference. In the second half of the concert, she changed to a white pant-suit to sing Handel's cantata Armida abbandonata, the heart-rending story of a Saracen queen's lost love. She continued on with two encores written for Handel's favorite castrato (look it up if you don't know what it is) Farinelli, each delivered with joy and pizzazz.

Did you know one of the B's in ABBA stands for baroque? True story.

So TL;DR, no, I don't regret my decision. I came back to the city in the late evening and I was hydrated, fed, and had Handel in my ear. I heard World Pride was a spectacle to behold. But honestly, my biggest regret was not seeing the MET float, complete with Anthony Roth-Costanzo in drag and Stephanie Blythe in flashy surrealist garb. All the other corporate BS, I was happy to do without.

Caramoor's summer is almost over -- make sure you stop by before the end of the summer festival or for one of their precious few year-round performances!

Saturday, July 20, 2019

[31] Duplexity: Elissa Cassini and Ashley Bathgate at National Sawdust | #1Summer50Concerts

The piece is based on Bach's fourth cello suite -- see the resemblance?

WHO: Elissa Cassini, violin & Ashley Bathgate, cello
WHAT: WINKELMAN Rondo with a Janus Head; SAARIAHO Aure; NORMAN For Ashley; WINKELMAN Ciaccona; RAVEL Sonata for Violin and Cello
WHERE: National Sawdust
WHEN: June 29, 2019 at 7:00pm

I had a depressing conversation with another music critic friend the other day -- the topic was a syndrome that I like to call "critic brain." After reviewing 30 concerts, I feel jaded and hypercritical, like I never really enjoy anything to its full potential. In other words, I have started to wonder whether anything can really wow me anymore.

But every now and then a concert sets me straight, and makes me realize that my standards (which generally run a little too high) can be met. Can you guess what I'm going to say about Elissa and Ashley?

Yeah, they killed it. Like, jaw-on-the-floor.

Cassini has been spending the past couple years touring as a solo duo, so to speak. She teams up with anyone and everyone -- string players, non-string players, classical, jazz, world music -- to bring the gospel of duo music to her audience. And, what's more, she tries to engage with her audiences -- that's right, more audience participation! (Although this particular performance was not so heavy on the repeat-after-me songs I've been dishing on throughout the summer.)

Her partner this time was Ashley Bathgate, current cellist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars (one of NYC's first and foremost new music ensembles). Bathgate has always been a force of nature; critics went crazy for her first album, a 2016 recording of six new works for solo cello by Australian composer Kate Moore. She was actually what drew me to this concert in the first place, quite frankly.

But both Cassini and Bathgate played astoundingly well. They are longtime friends, and it just sort of felt like we were sitting in on another Saturday-night jam session. Smiley and energetic, the duo were in sync to the millisecond -- the NY premiere of Helena Winkelman's highly technical Rondo with a Janus Head showed off their two-as-one synergy, while Kaija Saariaho's Aure showed each's individual musical prowess a bit more.

The two performers each channeled Bach through a pairing of solo movements; the first was a Bathgate-commissioned piece by LA native Andrew Norman, the second, another NY Premiere by Helena Winkelman. The Norman was particularly cool, taking one rhythmic module and modifying it by microtones throughout. The concert finished with the Ravel duo which is sort of proto-modernist -- it uses a lot of the same harmonic language as did Andrew Norman or Kaija Saariaho.

I don't know. I feel like I'm not saying anything particularly inspiring about this concert. But I have to emphasize that it was truly fantastic. Maybe I just remember that it was fantastic and don't remember a ton of the details. But it was amazing. Trust me.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

[30] Wadada Leo Smith and friends at The Stone @ Mannes | #1Summer50Concerts #JazzWeek

Image result for wadada leo smith

WHO: Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet; Mariel Roberts & Okkyung Lee, cello; Erika Dohi, piano; Gabriel Zucker, synthesizer
WHAT: WADADA LEO SMITH Red Autumn Gold; Silence
WHERE: The Stone @ The New School
WHEN: June 28, 2019 at 8:30pm

So here's the thing.

I loved Wadada Leo Smith's performance. I think that what he did was innovative, and cool, and kept me interested the whole time.

There's only one problem: I don't really know what he did.

I think it was some sort of free jazz. Let me try to describe it. All the musicians were reading off of graphic scores, the kind that don't really specify anything other than direction and approximate time. The keyboard played a lot of single drone notes. The pianist alternated between random, Messiaen-tinged licks and dissonant chords for which she leaned over the top of the piano to damper the strings. The cellists never really played notes so much as effects -- a lot of sliding, a lot of weird in-between harmonics. And Wadada Leo Smith would occasionally come in with a super super loud entrance that would disturb the peace like a comic book character who pops a thought bubble with a pushpin.

Free jazz isn't the right term. It was just kind I think Wadada's goal was to let the music flow for itself. He sort of vaguely conducted occasionally, but really it was up to the players how the music went. They weren't given too many instructions. They did what they wanted. Wadada nodded in approval.

I mean, I don't have a ton to say about the performance. It was exactly what I needed on a Friday night. It wasn't particularly tough to listen to. Wadada's occasional loud entrances made me jump a little bit, especially considering that the #@%$ing column in the middle of the venue (huge design flaw) kept me from seeing him half the time. The performers all had good imaginations and, even in moments with repeated modules, every note was novel.

If you want to get into new music, this is not where you should start. But if you're interested in exploring a new sound world -- my date and I concluded that it was a sound world rather than a type of music -- then give Wadada a try.

Also, one parting observation: we need more cello jazz in this world. That is all.

Monday, July 15, 2019

[29] Teatro Nuovo performs Donizetti and Rossini at Church of the Heavenly Rest | #1Summer50Concerts

That's an ophicleide, the love-child between a tuba and a bassoon, but cooler (PC: Gregory D'Agostino)

WHO: Teatro Nuovo soloists, chorus, and orchestra
WHAT: DONIZETTI Symphony in E minor; ROSSINI Stabat mater
WHERE: Church of the Heavenly Rest
WHEN: June 27, 2019 at 8:00pm

I always feel a little bit mean when I review young artist programs. Like, I'm not currently a powerful reviewer by any stretch of the imagination, but what if a review of mine goes viral and ruins someone's career? I don't know. I could discuss the what-ifs of music criticism all day. But we just have to keep in mind what the wise Ratatouille character Anton Ego once said: "The bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

Now that I'm done being angsty and self-deprecating, I should say that I loved this performance. The young artists were great. No one's career is getting ruined tonight.
Everyone loves to perform German early romantic music as it might have sounded in Beethoven or Schubert's day. There are some fabulous period Beethoven recordings out there -- my go-to is the fiery symphony-and-overture cycle from Anima Eterna Brugge. But no one considers the historical sound of their counterparts down in southern Europe; Rossini's Barber of Seville premiered in the same year as Beethoven's seventh symphony! Perhaps it's that whole opera aesthetic -- howling is howling!

Listen to the beginning of Coriolan. Your soul will be seared.
Anyway, Will Crutchfield's Teatro Nuovo performs bel canto opera as it might have been at the time. Usually that means no conductor -- more on that when I go to see the fully staged operas. But this time, they were seated as an orchestra usually sits (except the bassists were divided, two on each side), conductor in front, just like usual.

The orchestra, made up of NYC's finest period-performance freelancers (i.e. all the same ones that played on all the other period performance concerts), started with a Crutchfield-led performance of a Donizetti symphony, one that hadn't seen the light of day since the bel canto-ist's heyday. The orchestra clearly had a lot of technical talent, but it was clear their opinion of the piece was similar to mine: perhaps it should be re-buried.

But the orchestra perked up for the Rossini Stabat mater, because everyone likes that piece. It's kind of like if Rossini wrote an opera in Latin. Is it the most pious work? Hell no. Did Rossini go to hell for setting a series of corny cabalettas to biblical text? Probably. But is it kind of fun? Yeah.

At the helm for the Rossini was Jakob Lehmann, who has regularly played with and conducted Anima Eterna Brugge in similar repertoire. His gesture was clear, his interpretation vibrant; he elicited something different out of the orchestra (or maybe that was Rossini, who knows?). The chorus ranks were filled with the Teatro Nuovo students, each of whom is an opera singer. The sound, while somewhat wobbly and unblended, felt authentic to the 19th-century Italian opera chorus that probably premiered the piece.
Lehmann staring daggers at the violin section (PC: Gregory D'Agostino)

Of the soloists, tenor Derrek Stark stood out with his "Cujus animam gementem" -- the frequent octave-plus leaps sounded like no skin off of his back. The next movement's duo was equally memorable, with cheery soprano Christine Lyons and mezzo-soprano profundo Hannah Ludwig blending their vibrato perfectly. Ludwig, unlike most mezzos I've seen, took her cadenza to the lowest part of her voice instead of the highest part; she convincingly hit a note low enough that mezzos don't usually sing it.

Teatro Nuovo is an incredible project, and they execute their mission flawlessly. I know this is short notice, but if you can you should go see Teatro Nuovo, this Wednesday and Thursday, doing Bellini's La straniera and Rossini's La gazza ladra, respectively. I know I'm going to be there.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

[28] Ethan Iverson and Mark Turner at The Village Vanguard | #1Summer50Concerts #JazzWeek

Image result for ethan iversonImage result for mark turner
I'm not allowed to use the picture of them together, because it's under copyright. Boo.

WHO: Ethan Iverson, piano; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone
WHAT: jazz standards, mostly
WHERE: The Village Vanguard
WHEN: June 27, 2019 at 10:30pm

I, like many musicians, love music. I profess my love often. I talk about albums, concerts, everything. Hell, I'm going to 50 f*cking concerts this summer -- that's something that only someone who loved music would do. Will I still love music after 50 concerts? Stay tuned to find out!

I tell people that I love music because I'm not a good enough performer to sound like I love the music. When Hilary Hahn pulls out the Bach violin suites for the umpteenth time, her affect, her expression, her energy conveys her love to the audience in lieu of speech.

Having attended their concert, I can tell you with utmost certainty that Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson love music.

Iverson and Turner both approach jazz from different perspectives. Iverson's compositions are on the cusp of classical and modern, as evidenced from The Bad Plus's big Rite of Spring project from 2014. He still regularly performs classical music -- I just found out that he'll be playing Schubert's Winterreise alongside British tenor Mark Padmore next May. Turner, on the other hand, is a little more heavy-handed on the modernism. He's not exactly a mogul of free jazz, but he's done some things that my grandparents may refuse to recognize as jazz (Ornette Coleman IS REAL JAZZ GRANDMA).

So they met in the middle. Back to basics: blues and standards.

As you may recall, last time I saw standards, I was duly unimpressed -- I've just resigned myself to the fact that Renee Rosnes won't be inviting me to any of her garden parties in the future. Oh well. But there's a difference, I have found, between playing standards and playing standards like you mean it.

In any innovation, there's a degree of respect that has to be present. Iverson and Turner's innovative takes on Coltrane and Strayhorn and Just Friends were full of not only a love for the music, but also showed so much respect for the original composers. They didn't recompose or deconstruct any of the original framework, they simply infused it with a rollicking, Iverson-Turner flair. Think of it like a partially-possessed human -- when you hear Giant Steps for the millionth time, do you want to hear Coltrane, or do you want to hear the performer? Well, with Turner and Iverson, we heard both.

They didn't actually do Giant Steps. The whole set was far too laid-back for that. Iverson played a composition of his, something about duels and arguments, in celebration of the Democratic debate that was happening the same night -- even that felt like a debate between two people who had smoked a little too much pot. Not complaining, though. My brain was pretty fried by that point, and some easy listening was exactly what I needed.

This was the perfect everyman's concert. Two jazz icons, charismatic from the stage, playing to a weekday 10:30pm audience of about 12 people, playing fun, enjoyable music that doesn't require too much thinking. Were Turner's solos still perfectly thought-out? Of course. Were Iverson's 12-bar blues progressions still spot-on? Yes. But it wasn't finicky. It was simple, clean, and to the point. If you want to know what I mean, listen to their album from last year, Temporary Kings.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

[27] Miho Hazama's Jazz Mass at Saint Peter's Church | #1Summer50Concerts #JazzWeek

Image result for miho hazama
Hazama conducting her ensemble, the Danish Radio Big Band

WHO: Choir of Saint Peter's; Miho Hazama, piano
WHERE: Saint Peter's Church
WHEN: June 26, 2019 at 6:00pm

Okay guys, real talk: we're over halfway through. I'm starting to feel the burnout. Not from going to concerts, but 50 reviews, it's a lot to write. So tonight, I'm gonna take it easy: get ready for my bullet-point review of Miho Hazama's Jazz Mass.

I loved...
  • how the whole thing felt relaxing, suave, and not intended to blow the roof off.
  • how the Sanctus kept switching from 11/8 to 10/8 and then back again -- just as you got into the groove, the choir pulled the rug out from under you
  • Miho Hazama's piano part. Half the time it was an exact doubling of the choir, but the other half of the time it was soloistic and full of flourish.
  • the sermon, to be honest. You know I'm not man of religion, but their hearts, minds, and (most importantly) politics were in the right place.
I'm still thinking about...
  • the tenors who traded four-bar solos. They were very consciously walking the thin line between being creative and offending the pious Wednesday churchgoers.
  • the Kyrie, which lasted all of one or two minutes -- mostly homophonic, full of cool chords.
  • the sanctuary at Saint Peter's. Like, what is that shape?
I wish...
  • they had advertised better! I only heard about it because a friend was singing, and there were maybe ten people there. I was the only one (other than members of the choir) who didn't take communion.
  • I could hear the piece outside of a service. In the service, it was weird and clunky. Outside the service, it would have been a super cool 15 minutes of music.
  • we were allowed to applaud. Church is weird.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

[26] The Bad Plus at Jazz Standard | #1Summer50Concerts #JazzWeek

                                                          Image result for orrin evans
Image result for the bad plusImage result for the bad plus

WHO: The Bad Plus (Reid Anderson, bass; Orrin Evans, piano; Dave King, drums)
WHERE: The Jazz Standard
WHEN: June 25, 2019 at 9:30pm

Who decided it was time for Classical Music Geek's #JazzWeek? Well, blame the NYC classical music gods for not scheduling any concerts, and the NYC jazz gods for cramming all the legendary artists into one week. It was sort of just...fate.

I will admit, this was the second time in the last few months that I'd seen The Bad Plus. The first time was in March at the Village Vanguard, and Alton Brown (from Food Network) was sitting behind me. I even bumped behinds with him on the way out of coat check. Thinking about it a little harder, of course Alton Brown likes jazz.

This set was largely the same as the set that I saw them do in March. But you know what? It was equally good the second time. And that's how I define good jazz: it's never the same thing twice, and one time is never "better" than another. They're just different.

It would be sacrilegious for me to evaluate each player individually. One of the most incredible things about the ensemble is that, when they are playing together, they are not Reid Anderson, Orrin Evans, and Dave King. They are The Bad Plus, one six-armed three-headed multi-instrumental beast whose heart beats in time to the music.

Though the three were seemingly one in playing, each's compositions had their own signature twinge. Evans's compositions were rife with rhythmic complexity -- his chart "Commitment" (inspired by a Chia pet that Evans once cared for, according to a half-baked comedic interlude by Anderson) started in an intensely rollicking medium three-beat before switching suddenly to a quasi-waltz macabre in seven for a few bars. King's were a little more neo-rock influenced, heavy on the parallel chords and virtuosic drum breaks. "Lean in the Archway" reads as a jazz-rock fusion chart, but the usual four-beat is replaced by an amalgam of sevens, eights, and nines. Anderson's charts were the most balanced of the three, doling out harmonic and locomotive responsibilities evenly, as in the sparse "Kerosene."

The one thing that makes me partial to The Bad Plus over so many other groups is their evident selflessness. So many jazz musicians use music as a medium to show themselves off, to make themselves the center of attention. One could say that, by performing only original compositions, The Bad Plus does this inherently, but I don't agree. Their onstage affect seems to say that the music is chief. They don't engage in over-the-top showmanship; Evans bops his head, Anderson closes his eyes, King sticks his tongue out, but no visual gets in the way of the auditory experience.

Go see them. That's all I'll say. You won't be sorry. Rest assured, if they're back at a jazz club in NYC when I'm around, I will do the same. And the set may be the same for the third time in a row. And it'll still be great.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

[25] ChamberQUEER Closing Concert at Brooklyn Arts Exchange | #1Summer50Concerts #MyBigGayClassicalWeekend

Throwback to the short phase where my brother was convinced he
wanted to learn hurdy-gurdy -- talk about college application padding

WHAT: Works by Hildegard, Tallis, Caroline Shaw, Mazz Swift, Cavalli, Saunder Choi, and Monteverdi
WHERE: Brooklyn Arts Exchange
WHEN: June 22, 2019 at 8:00pm

“this isn’t about god
well it could be about god
it just depends how wide your perception of god is”

We're at the halfway point guys!

I sometimes feel like I need one of those Hermione Granger time-turner gadgets, because choosing between two phenomenal concerts always gets me stressed. In this particular case, it was either the second performance of ChamberQUEER or the Boston Early Music Festival’s stagings of three short French baroque operas. And in the end, I decided to go ChamberQUEER — French baroque opera makes my brain happy, but ChamberQUEER makes my heart happy.

Besides which, after the first concert, I had this lingering feeling that I was going to miss something monumental if I didn’t go to ChamberQUEER. And boy, would I have.

So I arrived back in Park Slope for the second concert, greeted again by the same lovely crew, and sat down in the tiny, stuffy room for another night of great music. Word had gotten out to at least some extent, so the audience was full, and mostly not of the same people from the other night. The performers, too, were all different (with the exception of the founder core and the harpsichordist) — they comprised an octet of singers, a couple of new violinists, and an electric guitarist.

Again, the program was pretty varied — everything from renaissance classics to new pieces, all tremendous. So here goes the laundry list again:

The concert started with a sing-in of original-feminist Hildegard von Bingen’s O quam magnum miraculum, accompanied by a real live hurdy-gurdy (played by harpsichordist extraordinaire Kevin Devine), followed immediately by a lovely Tennyson setting by ChamberQUEER friend and violist Jessica Meyer (she performed extensively at the first concert). A couple in manus tuas followed — first Tallis’s from a quintet of vocalists, then Caroline Shaw’s, as performed by attacca quartet cellist Andrew Yee.

There was only one fully instrumental piece on the entire program: excerpts from Mazz Smith’s 16 Hits or Misses. The name in itself is a disclaimer to the audience, but Smith, a lauded inter-genre violinist, was sure to provide her own warning that this piece “might not be that good.” I don’t know why she bothered to do that — the piece was charming. Modeled after the Bartók violin duos, Smith’s Hits or Misses straddled that ever-growing gap between classical tradition and popular music. I never thought I wanted to hear techno-funk played by two violins. But now I want to hear it again.

The final act of the first half was a series of scenes from Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto — the basic gist being that Calisto rejects Jove, so Jove dresses up like the goddess Diana in hopes of wooing Calisto. Calisto, then wooed, attempts to nuzzle up to the real Diana and is swiftly rebuffed — FIN. Kind of a crazy gender-bent story from the beginning, with a ton of big gay energy (I thought homosexuality was taboo in the renaissance?) — perfect for ChamberQUEER! Mezzo Liz Bouk’s (he/him) passionate Jove was only outdone by his disgusted Diana — he has the PERFECT what-the-fuck face for the role. Danielle Buonaiuto’s (they/she) Calisto was suave and sensual, aided by their complete and utter comfort on the stage. Oh, and the sass-flecked subtitles set on a plain PowerPoint were a riot.

I know I put this in the first review, but I'm going to put it here again
because it's important! Support ChamberQUEER!

A short intermission switched the concert's gears to a cappella choral music sung one-to-a-part. The opener, Saunder Choi's American Breakfast, was a powerful statement about...well, everything. Gun violence, LGBTQ+ issues, all set against a bleak and boring all-American backdrop. It's a piece easily capable of gutting anyone with half a conscience, as it did to me.

The finale to the weekend-long ChamberQUEER experience was a set of four Monteverdi madrigals, but with a “ChamberQUEER twist,” as the founders put it. Guitarist Grey McMurray improvised connective material between each of the pieces, a prospect which bewildered me until the music actually began. McMurray’s experimental interludes essentially filled in all the genres that the Monteverdi couldn’t fill, with looping and microtones and echoes beyond belief — the perfect character foil to the similarly emotional, though stark and strict Monteverdi. The one that particularly stuck with me was the interlude before the final lament, the famous Lamento della ninfa in which a nymph bemoans her unrequited love; McMurray pointed out the essential crux of the renaissance madrigal by repeating the quote above. Lamento della ninfa itself was tremendous, with the nymph represented by countertenor Jonathan May; the gender-bend was refreshing, and May himself only got better as the part extended more into the nymph’s soprano range. Plus, McMurray used some of his pre-recorded loops to fill in the continuo line, which was just another layer of innovation.

Well, let’s just say I got exactly what I expected. The concert was fabulous. My pre- and post-concert banter was tolerated gladly. I turned down drinks again because I had work the next day.

Long story short: ChamberQUEER makes beautiful music in a space that questions the canon that has been shoved forth into our hands since early childhood. They are the future. Keep ChamberQUEER in mind, because one day they will be big. Mark my words.

[24] NY City Opera premieres Iain Bell and Mark Campbell's "Stonewall" at the Rose Theater @ Jazz at Lincoln Center| #1Summer50Concerts #MyBigGayClassicalWeekend

WHO: New York City Opera
WHAT: Stonewall, music by Iain Bell, libretto by Mark Campbell
WHERE: Rose Theater @ Jazz at Lincoln Center
WHEN: June 22, 2019 at 2:00pm

I am so glad that the NY City Opera decided that this project needed to be a part of their season. It's almost like they picked up the slack for all of the organizations whose seasons had already ended. And, from what I gather, this wasn't a Stonewall50 one-off -- I think the City Opera has a pride concert every year (at least there was one last year and there will be one next year).

I went into Stonewall with high hopes, and in some ways, those hopes were wholly fulfilled. The cast was, for the most part, absolutely stellar in both acting and singing. Marc Heller's police chief in particular stood out from the rest, his shrill, yet full Puccini tenor piercing above the percussive mumblings of the police force. As recently-fired teacher Carlos, Brian James Meyer's Spanish rolled off the tongue just as easily as his English, all encased in a sweet, yet fiery baritone. Lisa Chavez was perfectly cast as butch-in-charge Maggie; her agile mezzo seemed incongruous at times, but it was eminently clear that was on purpose.

On the whole, the production, while minimalistic, was stunning. Colored LED lights were hung on the perimeter of the set wall seemingly willy-nilly, both setting the mood and casting an ominous glow on the characters themselves. A few upstage benches created a leveling system that made the chaos that ensued a bit more organized. Choreographer Leonard Foglia executed a complicated vision with military accuracy, both in the dance breaks and the chaos that ensued. The orchestra, conducted by Hartford Symphony music director Carolyn Kuan, also played beautifully, especially considering that the score was in a more "musical theater" style that classical musicians often fail to take seriously.

An early preview

But while the performances and production were praiseworthy, parts of the opera were rife with glaring missteps.

One thing that always strikes me about a Mozart, or Verdi, or even a Strauss libretto is that there's a clear line between what a character says and what a character thinks. Something is left to the imagination -- not everything is said straight out, some plot points are implied, and it's up to the audience how to interpret that. Every person gets something different out of the opera.

Mark Campbell’s libretto tramples that line with reckless abandon. The characters themselves have no character because the libretto forces them to say every word that comes through their head — no filter at all. The result is an ineffective, crowded libretto that tells rather than shows, and characters who end up as personality-less, word-spewing automatons. This was especially glaring in the opening section of the opera, where each role got a five-minute arietta to explain their situation; some were more effectively written than others (Carlos’s firing was well-staged), but any monologue was wordy and altogether too long. It feels as if Campbell wanted to produce identical experiences for every member of the audience, which is not a tenable modus operandi for an opera

And that’s not even touching the issue of stereotypy — it was as if the composer and librettist painted caricatures of every type of LGBTQ+ person that would have existed at the time. And that’s exactly what the LGBTQ+ community has been trying to avoid in the recent past.

So overall, A+ for the nod to Stonewall's 50th anniversary and the pride month. A+ for the performances. A+ for the idea. A+ for the set, and costumes, and lighting.

But the opera itself? Meh, C+.