Monday, November 25, 2019

Review: Miller Theatre presents Vox Luminis at Church of St. Mary the Virgin

Image result for vox luminis
My hot take: all concert dress that is not
concert-black-with-pop-of-color should be outlawed.

WHO: Vox Luminis; Lionel Meunier, artistic director
WHAT: ANONYMOUS (XII CENTURY) Lamentation de la Vierge au Croix; LOTTI Crucifixus
a 8; MONTEVERDI Lamento della ninfa; Adoramus te Christe; DELLA CIAIA Lamentatio Virginis in despositione Filii de cruce; D. SCARLATTI Stabat Mater for ten voices and basso continuo
WHERE: Church of St. Mary the Virgin
WHEN: October 19, 2019 at 8pm

When I saw this concert, I had been waiting to see Vox Luminis live for a good long while. I was all slated to go see them last year in southern Connecticut, but a friend called me in at the last second to sub in his run of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I wasn't angry at the time -- I love that show, and I figured I'd get to see Vox Luminis again relatively soon. They tour the US every year, and always end up in NYC at least once.

Well I ran into that friend on the street a couple weeks ago. And told him very matter-of-factly that I'm now angry that he tore me away from that concert. Retroactively. Because, I've decided, any moment that I don't spend listening to Vox Luminis is necessarily inferior to any moment that I do spend listening to Vox Luminis. And any moment I spend listening to Vox Luminis live is better than any moment I spend doing anything else.

Yeah. This concert made me feel feelings. This concert made me cry tears. This concert might be the best I've reviewed on this site thus far.

Vox Luminis changes size based on the performance. They numbered fifteen in this concert -- eleven rotating singers (SSSSAATTTBB) plus a four-person continuo team. They brought along their own organist and viola da gamba player, they hired a lutenist (one of my professors, as it happens -- hi Grant!) and a harpist from the NYC freelance pool.

The concert started with a 12th century French lamentation, sung facing the altar by Vox Luminis's wondrous first soprano, Zsuzsi Tóth. She's kind of my idol -- the soprano I'd want to be in another life. Her voice is too light to float; it just transcends. She has this perfect straight tone that makes her both an ensemble singer and a soloist. Everything that passes through her vocal chords turns to pure syrupy goodness. I even tolerate the low-def YouTube video of her singing the final lament from Carissimi's Jephthe. Because she's that good. I keep hoping she'll release a solo album of her own, though she hasn't yet; I'd give my left arm to hear her team up with a lutenist to record some Josquin or Dowland.

I've been told we resemble each other -- what do we think, peanut gallery?

Their Lotti Crucifixus was great as always, preceded and followed by profound improvisations by organist Anthony Romaniuk, but the thing that brought tears to my eyes was Lamento della ninfa, Claudio Monteverdi's classic tale of lost love. The narrators, a consort of two tenors and bass, stood behind the continuo team; they set the scene with a short introduction. The continuo then started the Lamento's hallmark tetrachord -- A, G, F, E, repeated ad nauseum. Usually, the soprano (la ninfa) gets at most four bars before she makes her entrance. But this time, seven, eight, nine repetitions, and no sign of the soprano.

But...why were the hairs on my neck standing on end? Why did I have chills up my spine? What was that clicking noise coming from next to me?

Clack. Clack. Clack. The slow steps of Estonian soprano Marta Paklar echoed throughout the sanctuary. The continuo must have done close to twenty cycles before she finally got up to the stage -- just further proof that four chords can get you very, very far in the music world. Anyway, Paklar turned around, her face as if she had just finished crying and was about to start again. And then she started singing. And I welled up with tears because her singing was like the most beautiful sobs you've ever heard.

To cap the concert off, Vox Luminis pulled out their signature piece: Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater for ten voices and basso continuo. This was the piece that inspired Lionel Meunier to bring the ensemble together for the first time fifteen years ago. I first heard it on their premiere album from 2007, and their live version did not disappoint. They're have such a forceful composite sound, and yet each vocalists remains a soloist -- how?

I'm hooked. Vox Luminis is my crack. As soon as I left the concert, I put on one of their albums for the walk home. The next day, another. I'm just counting down the days until their next USA tour -- ten months to go I think?

Oh, and by the way, Lionel Meunier says Yale has been holding out against bring Vox Luminis to campus -- I'm about to @ every Yale music handle on Twitter and see if I can change that. Plus, Lionel said he'd buy me a drink if I convinced Yale to have them for a concert -- help a guy out.

Fun fact: Lionel Meunier also plays recorder. Really well.
On the first eight tracks of this album.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Review: Heinavanker at The Cloisters

Image result for heinavanker
I bet their shoulders are really warm.

WHO: Heinavanker; Margo Kõlar, artistic director
WHAT: "From runic songs to Pärt"
WHERE: Fuentidueña Chapel at The Met Cloisters
WHEN: October 20, 2019, 8:00pm

"From runic songs to Pärt," could mean just about anything. I mean, I sort of assumed that the nucleus of their program would be....runic songs....and Pärt. But safe to say that this was the only concert from my October break where I didn't really know what I was getting myself into.

Well, the first thing I noticed, and the first thing I should say: god, I wish my choir robes were that cool.

Heinavanker's program did, indeed, include runic songs and Pärt, along with some 14th-century polyphony. A couple of anonymous French mass movements went off well, as did a Te Deum by artistic director Margo Kõlar, who sang while conducting minimally. The Pärt was also quite good.

But for now, I'm going to dismiss those pieces, because I remember almost nothing of them. Even right after I left, my mind was full of one thing and one thing only: Estonian runic song.

And here's the crazy thing -- Estonian runic song is so, so, so repetitive. Much of it is the same couple lines of music that just keep coming back to different text; occasionally the music changes a bit, but the changes are really very little, barely discernible. But thirty seconds in and you're entranced.

Heinavanker incorporated some simple choreography into their set, mostly stepping behind one another in some sort of hypnotized, down-beat conga line. As soon as they brought out their first runic song, the Kõlar arrangement that leads their 2013 album (which I've listened to at least four times since the performance [and may or may not be listening to now]), it as if this wash of calm descended over the audience. Something about the cyclic repetition combined with the kind of music that is just so....comfortable. No one's voice was stretched, no one's ear was challenged. It was just nice, good music.

I seriously cannot recommend this enough. Seriously.

And they were so in the zone. The verses and verses of text were second-nature to the ensemble, who performed mostly from memory. The voices blended effortlessly in the boomy-but-not-overly-so chapel; the plain chords were perfectly in tune.

I want to make one thing clear -- Heinavanker's program contained some of the simplest music I've ever reviewed. But they showed that simple does not necessarily equal unimpressive. They performed these simple runic pieces with the same focus and accuracy that they might have used for something fifteen times its difficulty.

This was another of those times that I came out of a concert and said: "I would sit through that again in a heartbeat." I was speechless. It's one thing to go into a concert knowing full well it's going to be fantastic; but the feeling of euphoria that follows uncertainty is even better.

Please, Heinavanker. Come back to the US. Pretty please, with Estonian runes on top.

P.S. This is one of their basses. Turns out he's an Estonian pop star. Who woulda thunk it?

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review: International Contemporary Ensemble performs George Lewis's "Soundlines"

Peep: Shick and Lewis trying to explain the meaning of music
in half an hour, in terms that a middle schooler could understand

WHO: International Contemporary Ensemble; Vimbayi Kaziboni, conductor; Steven Schick, percussion and orator
WHAT: GEORGE LEWIS Soundlines; P. Multitudinis
WHERE: Skirball Center for the Performing Arts @ NYU
WHEN: October 18, 2019 at 7:30pm

One of my friends told me I should drop everything to see this concert. By the time he finished telling me why, my tickets were already bought. I'm easily swayed.

The first amazing thing about this concert was the sheer density of objects and individuals onstage. In addition to the large Skirball stage, a large vertical platform stood front and center -- the kind of platform off of which I flung (and broke) a bow in my freshman year of high school while playing in the orchestra for Pippin. (That was my second broken bow that year. I broke the first by literally sitting on it during an orchestra rehearsal. I was a clumsy child.)

Spilling out of the pitch-black underbelly of said raised platform was a smattering of unusual percussion instruments -- drums, various shakers and rainsticks and whatnot. The conductor sat in the partially-lowered orchestra pit, visible to both those on the platform and on the stage. Basically, I'm trying to say that the setup was weird.

Within the first few measures of Soundlines, two LED panels lit up the dark underside of the platform, revealing the rest of the percussion setup surrounding a blank-faced Steven Schick.

Schick proceeded to tell the tale of an artistic mission upon which he embarked a few years ago: a daring seven-hundred-mile walk from San Diego to San Francisco. George Lewis designates his musical setting of Schick's memoir as a melodrama, but Schick's performance was anything but hyperdramatic. His face remained largely neutral through the piece, one of the more impressive feats of solo performance I've seen in the last year.

Lewis used the vast percussion set to emphasize Schick's oration syllable-for-syllable -- that was where the melodrama of this piece came from. The instrumental accents did not always match the syllable stress of the speech. That was part of the fun. Schick took it all in stride. His body was one, and the hands that operated the mallets were one with the mouth that narrated.

The rest of the ensemble snuck onstage at the end of the piece, and they seamlessly transitioned into P. Multitudinis, more a soundscape than a piece with distinct melody and harmony. The musicians were divided into distinct instrumental groups -- a wind quintet atop the platform, a string quartet stage right, a pianist stage left, a couple of hodgepodge ensembles in the side balconies. Each group had some discrete number of musical modules to play; it wasn't clear exactly how they decided when to switch, but from what I could tell motion was predicated on finger-numbers and Macarena-like hand signals. Conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni kept things moving by slinking around between groups, checking in as a waiter does on a table of guests. Amusing, and who am I to argue with results?

And the best thing about it all was the speech that George Lewis gave afterwards. He was very, very happy. And for me, that enhances the experience so very much. Satisfied composer + satisfied audience = satisfied critic.