Sunday, August 28, 2016


The International Contemporary Ensemble, ICE, one of the world’s most successful and high profile new music groups, was presented by Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival at Merkin Hall on August 23rd. Featuring five concerto premieres by four composers (the eldest just 42), there was palpable excitement among this sold-out event peopled with aficionados and successful musicians from the new and old guards, the experimental young and the adventurous reactionaries. American composer Anthony Cheung summed up the evening in a program quote: "The ensemble and soloist assume each other's roles, and a listener's assumptions about these roles are questioned, confirmed, and thwarted." Despite excellent participation from the soloists, ensemble, and conductor Karina Canellakis making her Mostly Mozart debut as an assured and selfless director of this impossibly squiggly-jiggly music, the two-and-a-half hour evening proved stultifying.

The two concertos of Japanese/English composer Dai Fujikura, the longest works on the program, tilled the most familiar territory. In his work for cello, soloist Katinka Kleijn shone in a vehicle that demanded her to be a heroic protagonist. She brilliantly mediated her quasi-pentatonic folkish material with the dialogue and support of the ensemble of the expected 21st century trappings’ spectral blooms and glissandied trills. Ms. Kleijn's gracious and irrepressible integrity showcased her as the night's outstanding performer.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Seattle Concert 5. Want A Ride? (Here's a Broom)

Beginning an evening of marvels was pianist Alessio Bax's recital of a well-matched pairing of Scriabin's 3rd Sonata and the Liebesleid of Kreisler in Rachmaninoff's version. Beautifully executed with his own voice, a sepia toned one, the concert transcription was more Rachmaninoff than Kreisler, more concerto than song, the finger-work more work than fingers. The wistfulness so inimitably sung by Kreisler was buttoned, and the smile with a tear at the ending in major missed the nostalgic. The textures in the cadenza were striking, distinct and well blended, but the crests of his waves tended to be a bit thick.

The concert featured three splendid performances. From Mozart's G Major Piano Trio K. 496, lines were spun as gold with the grace of the best humored dispositions and the delight of a fresh cloudless spring noon after a night's cleansing rain.

The ever-smiling pianist Inon Barnatan's pearly sound was almost ostentatious in its opulence, and Jun Iwasaki, violinist, was his every equal in their exchange, joyous as wee playing kittens in the Allegro. The development was dramatically participated in by all, but the cellist, Efe Baltacigil was the motor of the drama.
Mr. Baltacagil had glorious moments in the last movement, but this Allegretto: Theme and Variations was not always consistent in surprise. Nevertheless, this was a superb performance.

Stunning was Kodaly's Serenade for two violins and viola, played by Yura Lee, Karen Gomyo and Cynthia Phelps. These young wiccans, as gorgeously dressed as they were heeled, effortlessly exchanged the rôles of Goddess, Enchantress and Seductress. The Allegramente was marked by its earthy communication, and in the second movement, Ms. Lee's schizophrenic jabberings, foiled by Ms. Gomyo's exotic veiled atmosphere, became lunacy in the return and the three evaporated like steam at the end. The third had cackling (though wartless) crones flying on their folk brooms. How to play with such energy, yet be never manic or ugly? Ms. Gomyo in her solo turn here played with a mesmerizing vibrato. Fabulous, nothing less, describes the art of Cynthia Phelps.

Are they any superlatives left to describe this evening's conclusion, the Brahms A Major Piano Quartet? If the ensemble was an effulgent homogeneous whole, what was remarkable was the way each musician's unique voice gleamed out of the textures. Mr. Bax, returning to the stage, played with a sound of crème rolled unselfconsciously on the tongue, bracing the visionary cellist, Clive Greensmith; the tears elicited by Che-Yen Chen, violist; and the violinist Steven Rose, astounding for his direction. The magic began imperceptibly before the development of the Allegro non troppo; they sang like devout brothers. How could oscillating dyads be imbued with so many deep meanings from both Brahms and the performers?  The slow movement had sonorities gentle and profound from the very first notes, with a recap so movingly touching; Mr. Bax with the most assured calmness giving the strings every latitude. If towards the end there was a phrase to dwell on the fragrance of a road-side flower, Mr. Greensmith gloriously shepherded his comrades on.

The Scherzo found the strings aligned like an astronomical singularity. The group's extraordinary pulse became ever more tumultuous without becoming roiling, a cataract that did not crush, did not scream. In the trio their sounds became even more specific, more clarion. This was grand. The Finale, like this review, had at last expended its capital, nevertheless, we lucky listeners are the richer for it.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

CrackCritic's Apologia

I, CrackCritic, would like to apologize to my readers for the long silence, but despondencies on the many levels that seemed to mirror that of my scene, city, country and world, proved paralyzing. I would like to restrict myself to describing only the musical ones. Ah, if only the reason could be simply deafness.

These past ten months I have heard too much that was glib - a Turangulîla that substituted dynanism for passion; a Pierrot presented without conductor on three rehearsals, and the Brahms Piano Quartets postured by over-inflection. I was discouraged to hear programs that seemed designed by marketers deriving ideas from focus groups.

(An exception was the Orchestra of St. Luke's Carnegie concert conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado featuring the superb pianist Javier Perianes in an all-Spanish program, which was spectacular.)  

 In contrast, a friend took me to hear some world and experimental music that, in their commitment to wrench the depths of feeling and understanding put most of the classical concerts to shame.

With their respective bands, the Armenian violinist Ara Malikian played his Middle-European tunes as divinely as David Krakauer relished his clarinet with an unquenchable furor. It is telling that, though trained traditionally, in their present careers classical music plays a diminished role.

On another hand, classical cellist Christine Walevska played three short pieces for a May memorial service, and if I had questioned my sanity as to be incapable of enjoying the music I have cherished for a lifetime, she proved me wrong. Dazzling, encompassing seemingly every human emotion in a ten-minute set, her playing was timeless. It is burned into the memory because it touched the soul.

Why doesn't everyone aspire to such heights? Why do so many things sound small and pat, or blustered and empty, busy, but not brilliant? Perhaps it is the consumerism of the bankrupt, or a reflection of the banal corporate culture that surrounds us.  
Music schools are financially pressured to produce winners and design questionable programs to impress donors at the expense of their student's development. The young are more afraid then ever of life after school in a field that becomes more competitive by the year, with dwindling opportunities. It hurts to see the stars from the conservatories scrounge for Suzuki work in the boroughs.

So, it is to be hoped (!) that this long gestation of our pessimism has shifted my center of gravity; it has certainly affected my priorities. A brief campaign on our subway system has this bit of word magic: "Be part of the solution, not the pollution". 

To move forward, I propose posting reviews from the last season in a series called "Cleaning Out the Closet"; rebuttals of the worst reviews, and appreciations of the best; noting what is great in our city's organizations, big and small. Or perhaps peeking into the arcana of musicology (one exciting newfound article is called Disintegrating Dominant Prolongation: A New Look at the Deceptive Cadence, or, as I call it: Dude's New Slow Burns for Your Lyin' Stealin' Cheatin' Ho*; surveys of composers one has never heard of, those known but not listened to, those one would hope never to hear again; personal anecdotes; flights of fancy; and finally, even glimpses into the pop world. Jump-starting it all presently, a report from CrackCritic’s presence at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, led by the great violinist James Ehnes.

Though I vowed to limit myself to topics musical, I do feel compelled to say my dis-ease with music has manifested in a decline of health physical, mental and professional. Working as an accompanist has become unsustainable after 40 years. If anyone feels amused or intrigued enough by my writing, a contribution to my Patreon account would be greatly appreciated.

And now, let's dance.


* in Russian, a deceptive cadence is called a 'feminine' cadence. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Turner Of Music

Before the world premiere of Jeremy Turner's The Inland Seas sponsored by the SCMS Commissioning Club this Monday evening, a lovely woman next to me asked about my scribbling on a waiter pad.

"Are you from The Stranger? The Seattle Times?" 
"No, just a blog. Do you come to the concerts often? What do you think about the night so far?" 
"I've been coming for 32 years." 
"Ah, so how do you feel about James’ stewardship compared to Toby Saks'?" 
"We loved Toby, and we love James, too. With James, the programs are so interesting, and he gets amazing musicians. You know that there will always be something that will make you rise to your feet and cheer. It hasn't happened in this concert, yet!"

…but then it did.

 A standing surge greeted Mr. Turner's Seas, borne by James Ehnes and Chris Thile.  Mr. Turner, like Chris, is someone you can't help but address by his given name. Jeremy's five-movement suite, named after each of the Great Lakes, dwells on nature, and man's destructive ways, which he revealed in the pre-concert introduction a bit awkwardly (Jeremy, an adorable goof-ball, is always forgiven.) He mentioned waves, storms, wolves near extinction, rainbows, algae blooms, broken machines, pipes leaking waste, and birds at sunset flight. Written in a harmonic language that might be described as post-modal; from embryonic material he casts his net, not too far, with evolving Euclidian shapes. These affable natural musical descriptions were as deeply satisfying to hear as they must have been to play. In this sterling performance, what amazed most was the common ground forged from different perspectives, Chris' populist one and Mr. Ehnes' uncompromising one.
In the second piece, about wolves, it is not enough to call the alignment of the bowed and plucked tones pristine, but metaphysical. In the last sea, dusky birds were evoked by Chris's gossamer garlands to Mr. Ehnes's timeless lines. 

Before Jeremy's premiere, violist Cynthia Phelps offered Schumann's Marchenbilder with a warmth of hues and a sonority of fraise velvet. Her dress was of a magnificent lime-green. At the piano was Alessio Bax. A large part of Ms. Phelps' art is in communication and honest delivery, but she was stymied by a dammed cold fish. If a pianist of some elegance, he was unaccommodating, ungracious, uninterested, and uncaring. We could call this fairy tale The Princess and the Boor.

Nevertheless, for this evening let Jeremy, Chris and James take another bow!


Monday, August 1, 2016

Thile Thrifecta

A remarkable evening was presented by the SCMS with the riches of THREE concerts in one night featuring the astonishing mandolinist Chris Thile. The only appropriate way to address this man, this Huckleberry Finn that everyone would want to have as a son, a husband, a best man, a best friend, (since Mr. Thile would be for executives bearing contracts with six zeroes which I am sure he also has) is as Chris, and his appeal is universal. Playing his instrument with an abandon of the cosmos channels his physical ululations to a scale so personal as to be conversational.

The 7 p.m. show was solo, un-amplified, and he sang and played original material in a folk/bluegrass style. There were songs and tunes about Eve, the Queen, his son learning to walk, and goats, delivered with delicious charm and wit. His segue to the classical program was the Gigue from Bach's D Minor Partita, a whirlwind of notes yet flowing with the grace of thistles riding the currents. From such a small and delicate instrument Chris' sound ranged from starbeams to the greatest orchestras.

Toby Saks In Memoriam

A moving and fitting tribute to cellist Toby Saks, founder and beloved director of the SCMS was a recital of two elegies featuring three cellos, one somber, the other sweet. In Lawrence Dillon's Resonance, written to mark the occasion of Ms. Saks' passing they were joined by violinist James Ehnes. This unassuming quiet work shows there are still things of greatness to say in the tonal language. Over the cello choir toned like muted trombones, the violin rhapsodized cantilenas as sad as they were dignified, both in composition and execution. Most touching was when the music came nearly to a stop as the mind that reaches a cul-de-sac remembers a loved one. The art here was the exploration of near silence, of absence.
In David Popper's Requiem the relief came from memories that are cherished. If the three cellists played as one, seamless as honey, what fascinated were their distinct personalities. Robert deMaine played with a nobility, measured, originating from his core. Edward Arron has a vitality that is almost woodsman-like. Jeremy Turner's expression is of a full throttled fearless vulnerability. Pianist Andrew Armstrong lent optimistic support. 

The concert promised most, and delivered much. Ravel's Introduction and Allegro featured harpist Valerie Muzzolini Gordon. Though beguiling, this rendition was at times stiff and episodic from the immaculate approach of Ms. Gordon, and a squareness from the string quartet. The standouts were the winds, flutist Nadine Asin with a low register like a viola's C string, and the incredible Scott Williamson. Mr. Williamson does not allow himself to ever sound merely like a clarinet. With a sagesse unobtrusive to reticent, an infinite palette of colors are his gradations of texture. In this group, he was the sonic ambassador.