Category Archives: Symphony Space

Cutting Edge Concerts: Better Get There Early Tonight

Monday April 4 took me all the way across the street to Symphony Space, where I encountered a long,snaking line at the box office, for the second program of the Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival 2011.  There’s another concert tonight at 7:30, and I’ll get there early, both to pick up my ticket and get a good seat.  Music by Mumford, Ferneyhough, Meltzer, and the festival’s artistic director Victoria Bond, performed by the Argento Ensemble and the Da Capo Chamber Players.

It’s another event publicized by Gail Wein (which I’m making a point of because one of the reasons I’m in to NY is to see how to get people to concerts, and very good way seems to be to hire Gail), and, like the previous day’s Baby Got Bach show, last week’s performance was sold out.  Selling out a new-music concert, even in New York, is not easy, so congratulations to everyone involved.  (The first concert in the series, on March 28, got a great review in the NY Times.)

Last Monday’s concert, performed by Sequitur, included music by Robert Sirota, Armando Bayolo, Daniel Godfrey, David Glaser, and Victoria Bond.  It was long–first half was over 90 minutes.  Producing new-music concerts takes an incredible determination, sense of mission, organizational skills, people skills, fundraising, etc., all of which Victoria Bond seems to have in abundance  So I guess it’s natural to jam as much music in as possible.  For most of the audience, which I assume was primarily New-York new-music lovers, and the composers (and their friends and family members) that’s probably a good thing.  There aren’t many opportunities to get things performed. (And Symphony Space has a long history of marathon events.)

Now if you were looking for a new audience for this music, maybe shorter concerts would be the thing.  I’m just wondering out loud here. I confess I stayed for just the first half;  it was well after 9:00 PM by the time intermission came, and I really wanted to watch, of all things, a basketball game.  I’ve lived in Indiana for almost a quarter century;  the amazing (Indianapolis) Butler men’s team was playing UConn (my son’s favorite team) in the NCAA FInal Four championship game, and, well, even though I’m not much of a basketball fan, I couldn’t resist.

Before the basketball, the concert’s first half was great.  My favorite was Robert Sirota’s A Sinner’s Diary for two violas, flute, cello, piano, and percussion.  Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre has a smallish stage, so the percussion was set up in front of it.  You’d think that would make for ensemble challenges, but it didn’t.  Bond interviews the composers on stage before each piece–which works very well.  Sirota explained, among other things, that he wrote the piece for his daughter Nadia‘s graduation recital at Juilliard.  She now seems to own the new-music viola market in New York–seems like she’s played every concert I’ve been to (and if not, I see her in the audience).  Her brother Jonah is the violist in the Chiara Quartet, hence the two violas in the instrumentation.  The music was varied, lively, emotionally intense and evocative, and, natch, had a huge viola solo movement.

Armando Bayolo’s Mix Tape for solo double bass gave the very skilled Pawel Knapik quite a workout.  Movements were based on well-disguised fragments of pop songs.

Daniel Godfrey’s Anika used letters from Anika, a young Polish Jew, writing to a cousin with increasing horror as the Holocaust impinges on her life, contrasted with a horrifying speech by a top Nazi official (I think it was Himmler or Goebbels; the program notes don’t say and I forgot to write it down).  This was an unsettling, powerful piece to experience-maybe that’s one reason I felt I’d had enough music for the evening and went home to watch basketball.  Sometimes there’s only so much one can absorb.  The contrast of the texts, and the terrifying Nazi sense of mission, has stayed with me.

I’m looking forward to tonight’s concert.  And I’ll be sure to take a little “disco nap” before heading over to make sure I have plenty of endurance!

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Filed under audeince building, Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival, Gail Wein, Publicity and Publicists, Symphony Space

Amit Peled at Symphony Space

Casting a tall, dark and handsome concert cellist–who’s also charming on stage and a sweet guy off– in a movie? Look no further than Amit Peled, the Israeli cellist and Peabody faculty member with a fast-growing career.  In his terrific Cellobration recital (also the title of one of his CDs, although a different program and pianist) last night in the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater at Symphony Space, he was joined by the fine pianist Dina Vainshtein in a varied program (Eccles, Schumann, Britten, Beethoven, and Tsintsadze).  As the cellist friend who accompanied me to the concert pointed out, Amit is beautifully set up (musician-speak for a well-functioning physical relationship with the instrument and way of using his body) with a fluid, easy technique.  His impetuous, energetic, Romantically-spontaneous playing incorporates daring rubati as well as a wide range of dynamics and tone color.  Playing a terrific, recently-built Wolfgang Schnabl cello, Amit drew a large sound that helped make up for the dry acoustic of the hall. He really owned the program, too, playing everything from memory with conviction and a risk-taking aliveness that was the opposite of a sterile, careful, let’s-make-sure-everything-is-perfect approach.

Classical performers are starting to speak to the audience more, which many audiences enjoy but can easily go wrong.  Amit does it very well, with a charmingly friendly stage presence, strong voice that needed no amplification (mumbling is a major pitfall), and well-prepared, succinct remarks that avoided rambling (my own tendency) without seeming stiffly formal (which can defeat the purpose of connecting with the audience).  He and Vainshtein began with the Henry Eccles Sonata in G Minor, which, as he explained, is played by nearly every eighth-grade or younger cellist, but is rarely included on professional programs.  It was great to hear in post-middle-school hands, especially once I turned off my mental historically-informed-performance-practice listening circuit and enjoyed it in Amit’s very personal, Romantic style.

The Schumann Fantasiestücke (Op. 73) and Beethoven A Major sonatas are pieces I’ve played a lot, and once you have your own interpretation it’s hard not to find yourself internally objecting to someone else’ very different approach.  I haven’t played Britten’s Suite No. 3 for Cello Solo, though, and found Amit’s performance captivating in its dramatic intensity and shifts of mood.  It’s now on my cello bucket list.  And Sulkhan Tsintsadze‘s Five Pieces on Folk Themes is as well.  Amit told us it was more-or-less forced on him be a friend last fall, and which he discovered (to his surprise) he loved when he finally tried it (them?) out around Christmas.  Very entertaining showpieces, perfect for ending a traditional varied-program recital.  A very free performance of the Bloch Prayer was the encore.

So it was a night off from unconventional programming and/or performance spaces for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed attending a good old-fashioned cello recital by a important young cellist.

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Filed under Amit Peled, cellists, Instrument Makers, Symphony Space, Wolfgang Schnabl

Kahane, Thile, and Mehldau, followed by the Turtle Island Quartet. (And uh-oh, young audiences like small venues.)

What a fantastic night last night.  Met a friend for a quick supper at Quantam Leap (moderately priced vegetarian/fish restaurant, where the salmon chowder is great) on Thompson St., just a block from [le] poisson rouge, our first music destination of the evening (hmm . . . I went from eating a red fish to going to a show in one).  Gabriel Kahane, Chris Thile (Wikipedia link; http://www.christhile.com brings up a “this account has been suspended” notice), and Brad Mehldau, none of whom I had heard before (live, anyway;  I do have a Gabriel Kahane album and sorry wallet, we’ll be buying more music of all three) were the performers. After hearing much of that, we ducked out, grabbed a cab and headed to Symphony Space for the second of two Turtle Island Quartet Hendrix Project concerts.

When we slipped into LPR  at 6:45PM for the sold-out 7:30 show, the place was already packed.  Luckily, a friend of my friend was saving us seats at a table, maybe the last two in the room.  An evening standing held little appeal, so my heart (and my feat) warmed with gratitude for my new acquaintance.  He works at a major traditional classical venue and, after I told him about what I’m doing this spring, commented:

“With this generation, it’s all about the size of the venue.”

Did I emphasize that enough to get your attention?  If correct (and it’s consistent with what I’ve been seeing), it is good news for innovative small groups and entrepreneurial club owners, and horrifying, global-warming, climate-is-changing, the-glaciers-are-melting, holy-shit news for those working to maintain (or salvage) the health of large concert halls and opera houses, symphony orchestras, etc.  If it’s indeed a generational shift, the problems for large venues are only going to get worse as time goes on.  At a marketing seminar, I heard a speaker point out that it doesn’t take much to sell cold water to a thirsty crowd on a scorching day–supply and demand.  Likewise, it’s hard to sell ice cream cones during a blizzard.  There are limits to what you can do with marketing.  Large halls may find themselves more and more to be those ice cream cones in a blizzard. But I digress.

The LPR how was so good, and I’m tired of the usual adjectives, so I’ll just say it was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

I’d already fallen in love with Kahane’s silky/sexy/intelligent/witty singing/songwriting as he’s musically seduced me through my iPod on the subway.  His opening set was mostly his own music, ranging from laid-back, sensitive energy with which I was already familiar to the almost riotously funny (in the concluding number from his Craigslistlieder) and left me an even bigger fan.  When Brad Mehldau–an extraordinary jazz pianst–accompanied him for one song, Kahane, who otherwise accompanied himself on the piano or guitar, gave us what I found to be his most deeply nuanced singing of the evening.  And who wouldn’t be taken to a new level making music with Mehldau?  Somewhere in the middle of all this, he did “two favorite breakup songs”–the least stiff and pompous performance of Schumann’s Ich Grolle Nicht I’ve ever heard, which morphed into [pop song title to be inserted!], complete with a audience singalong.

Kahane’s set transitioned into Thile’s as the pair did a couple of songs together.  Learning that I hadn’t heard Thile perform before, a table companion had said, “I think he’s a genius,” and I think that’s right.  Relaxed, laid-back, with bed-head hair, his virtuosic mandolin playing and inventive musicianship were astounding.  Since the event started late, my friend and I only got to hear four or five of Thile’s numbers before we had to leave. We slipped out just as he finished a brilliant, nuanced, and wonderfully shaped performance of the Prelude from the Bach E Major Violin Partita.

With about 20 minutes or so to go before the 9:30 PM Turtle Island concert on the Upper West Side, we splurged on a cab and made it just in time for the first number.  This group, when it started, was, along with Kronos, but in a very different way, trail-blazing in taking the traditional classical string quartet and doing something different–jazz, pop, and rock arrangements.  They’ve had a hugely successful career, won Grammys, played all over the world, and probably did more than anyone else to start the movement that string educators call “alternative styles.”  Many cellists, including me, are big fans of the group’s cellist Mark Summer, whose solo piece Julie-O has become a virtual standard for young cellists venturing outside the standard classical rep.

I’d never heard them live.  Founding members Summer and David Balakirshnan, who plays violin, baritone violin and does most of the group’s arrangements, are now joined by young guys Mads Tolling (violin) and Jeremy Kittel (viola).  (Given the generational differences on stage, the gay-culture voice in my head realized that if they wanted to tour gay clubs they could promote themselves as “Twinks and Daddies.”)

Amazing–absolutely amazing–technique (or I should say array of traditional and non-traditional techniques) displayed by all four, great arrangements of Hendrix and and John McLaughlin and original music by Balakrishnan, and Summer did a terrific solo version of Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”  I was so excited to see them.

Full of appreciation for the group’s historic “genre-bending” (as they say on their website) influence, and all that’s great about what they do, I have to say I found the concert surprisingly unengaging on an emotional level.  Hendrix!  I expected some sort of balls-t0-the wall, hugely emotional (at least at times), free-wheeling performance.  Other than being causally dressed (untucked long-sleeve shirts and jeans), their stage deportment, much to my surprise, was like that of any calmly dull classical quartet and the performance oddly unenergetic.  The dynamic range was (most of the time) narrow, and all four were usually staring intently at the music.  What I thought should have been wild-and-crazy, improvisational-feeling solos looked careful and calculated.  Some people close their eyes when watching classical performers they find overly histrionic;  I closed my eyes quite often last night because they looked so tired and blasé to me (it sounded better than it looked).  At one point Tolling, while not playing, was leaning so far back in his chair, with his legs stretched out, that it looked like he wanted (or was starting) a nap.  I’m all for informality in performance, but it needs to be accompanied by electricity and range–all of which had been abundant in the show I left.

This may have been an off-night and perhaps they were worn out from a busy tour.  It was their second show of the evening (and they may have done other stuff during the day), and the audience was smallish.  I’m harping on this for a reason, to drive home the point to my students, and offer a friendly reminder to myself and other performers, that every concert needs to be special. That’s what we need to aim for. My friend and I spent a lot of money on tickets and a cab, and we tore ourselves, mid-performance, from an incredible event  in order to come to what seemed to be just another gig for them.  Someone I know in the audience, a longtime Turtle Island fan, told me, “I hate to say it, because it was great music, but I was bored.”  The Turtle Island Hendrix CD was for sale in the lobby, along with others.  I just wanted to go home and download some real Hendrix on iTunes.  Well, c’est la vie.

That said, I was thrilled to hear them in person.  I had a nice short chat with Summer, which felt awkward and I purposely kept brief, because I knew I was going to bitch about the concert here this morning and I didn’t want to say, “gee, I admire your skill and historic importance but this show was disappointing.” I saw Balakrishnan in the bar, who asked if I’d been at the show and liked it, and I said, with total honesty, “Your arrangements are fantastic.”  And he shared how wonderful it is to write for this group–”a kid in a candy shop”–which I totally get.  That little taste of his joy was, for me, the emotional highlight of the Turtle Island half of my evening.

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Filed under Chris Thile, Le Poisson Rouge, Symphony Space, Turtle Island Quartet

YCA Marathon: Everything Right and Everything Wrong

Oy!  I’ve been to so many concerts in the last 9 days and want to write about them all.  Just a quick comment on one before I go off to the 7-hour marathon honoring Gunther Schuller at Symphony Space (which I can see from my NY bedroom window).

I was at Symphony Space on Saturday for part of the 12(!)-hour marathon concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of Young Concert Artists.  Through an annual competition, YCA finds exceptional young classical artists whom it then nurtures, providing debut recitals and management for three years.

I heard the last two movements of the Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence string sextet, performed by big names Ani (violin) and Ida (viola) Kafavivan, Toby Apel (viola), and Carter Brey (cello)), who were joined by the younger artists Ju-Young Baek (violin) and Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello).  Then came the “Chopin Hour,” with pianists Wendy Chen, Sergei Edelmann, Mona Golabek, and Edward Auer.  Then the Prokofiev D Major Violin Sonata with Dmitri Berlinsky, violin and Sergei Edelmann, piano.  After the first movement of the Schumann Piano Quintet (Chee-Yun and Stefan Milenkovich, violin;s Nokuthula Ngwenyama, viola; Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello; and, I think, Hung-Kuan Chen, piano–there was a different pianist for each movement and I’ve misplaced my program) I had to leave for other commitments.

Great playing by everybody, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Let me be clear, given what I’m about to write.  I loved it.

And as I sat there, I thought to myself this is everything that’s right with classical music and everything that’s wrong with it, right here.

What was right?  Beautiful, great music.  Played with extraordinary technical accomplishment, love, and care by everyone.  Fine, thoughtful musicianship.  Infectious joie de vivre, especially among the Tchaikovsky players. Big-name artists, rising fabulous young performers.  And the whole thing was free.

What was wrong?  Nothing, really.  But it was clear why these sorts of concerts don’t attract a younger audience (most of the audience looked as if they’d attended YCA concerts for the last 50 years and may have started in middle age at that). Here are the things that struck me:

  • Dry acoustics, no amplification.  I just don’t see attracting new audiences to halls with bad acoustics and no amplification
  • Lack of visual interest. You can argue that a concert shouldn’t [need to] be visually interesting, but it’s becoming quite obvious that this doesn’t work for younger generations.  Having been to some great concerts recently that were visually fascinating, the difference was very noticeable to me.
  • A host (a different one was scheduled for each two-hour segment) who made comments to the audience.  Not a bad idea in and of itself. The host while I was there, whom I’m purposely not naming, was very pleasant, but the comments weren’t well-planned, and often were along the lines of, “the next performer is ___.  Is he back there? Ready?”  So it gave a kind of nicely-informal but also amateur-hour feel to the thing.  This is not a standard feature of most classical concerts, in which often no one talks to or with the audience, but it did, to me, symbolize how little attention we often pay to production values and effectiveness when we do speak.  Let me emphasize that it wasn’t really bad, and it was pleasant.  It just wasn’t the sort of thing to make you want to bring  your college-age kid later in the evening. And the informality of the host’s comments was at odds with the stiff formality of some of stage presence of some of the performers, especially the pianists.
  • Short, clearly unplanned interviews with a player or players,which again were not the sort of thing you’d brag about having heard. One resulted in a long, boring, softly-told (cries of “louder!” from the audience until the microphone was held closer to the story-teller’s mouth) anecdote (climaxing in someone’s music getting blown off a piano–wow! hilarious!).  Also confessions of/bragging about lack of rehearsal time.  We learned the Tchaikovsky had one three hour rehearsal (“but we’ve all played it many times before!”).  Isn’t that something?  There were some amazed “oohs” from some of the audience.  And players of this level can read through a piece they know, decide on some bowings, and make great music on one rehearsal.  But is that the best thing to be telling an audience?  When asked how much they’d worked on the Prokofiev, one of the players (for whom English is not his first language) replied, “This is our first time playing together.”  From the not-quite together ending of the second movement, I could imagine that they hadn’t rehearsed (although I don’t think that’s what he meant to say). Fine, fine, fine.  Just don’t tell me about it.

My daughter, a college sophomore, joined me for dinner and we were spending the evening together.  I enjoyed the music I heard in the afternoon, and would have loved to have gone back for a good chunk of the evening.  But I knew she’d be probably be bored, and it would have been a very hard sell.  Come on, honey, let’s go over and to hear people play music on stage with a boring black backdrop curtain, dry acoustics, formal stage presence (much of the time) and then they’ll tell us how much they didn’t rehearse!  What, you don’t want to go out in the 50-mile-an-hour windstorm for that?  You’d rather order in and watch the Law and Order SVU marathon and House?

And see, if it had been just me, I would have been thrilled to go.  But I couldn’t get my daughter–and this was a father-daughter night–excited about that tremendous, traditional concert the way I can about going to see something with cool lighting at a place like [le] poisson rouge.  And that, folks, is the dilemma and challenge before us.

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Filed under Gunther Schuller, Le Poisson Rouge, Symphony Space, Young Concert Artists