New York’s Classical Music Pre-Season Off to an Impressive Start

New York’s classical music “pre-season” is off to an impressive – and momentous – start.

This evening’s opening concert of the New York Chamber Music Festival at Symphony Space commemorated the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the United States with a mixed program of poetry and music, including many compositions written in the aftermath of the attack. Actor B.D. Wong was a dignified master of ceremonies and was also one of many poetry readers, the most impressive of who were his Law and Order co-star Tamara Tunic, who brought nuanced oration mood to her readings, and Frank Messina, whose tribute to one of the delivery men killed in the attacks at the World Trade center was accompanied on piano by the multitalented David Amram.

Two noteworthy public figures also spoke: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke of two people she knew who lost their lives at the World Trade Center ten years ago, and Rev. Al Sharpton of MSNBC’s “Politics Nation” recounted his experiences that morning and the unity it brought to New York’s diverse population.

There were of course beautifully played selections from the more traditional classical repertoire – Schumann and Wagner by way of Liszt, Liszt himself, Brahms, and the adagio from Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11, but I was wowed by the consistent excellence of the contemporary works:

  • David Amram, whose music was featured during last year’s festival, played his subdued, beautiful “Variations on Amazing Grace” for penny whistle – you’d be surprised how compelling the instrument sounds when played by a skilled instrumentalist (early music multi-instrumentalist and Cirque du Soleil wind player Wayne Hankin comes to mind).
  • Lera Auerbach’s Sonata for Violin and Piano “September 11th”, played by the festival’s main mover and shaker, violinist Elmira Darvarova, and pianist Tomoko Kanamaru , is a direct, visceral, and substantial short sonata; its sudden shifts from lyrical to angular and jarring reflect the feelings many people, particularly New Yorkers and Washingtonians, felt that day, in music that is at turns terse, meditative and angry, with material reminiscent of Prokofiev, Schnittke, hints of Ustvolskaya – and a startling brief quote from “America the Beautiful”.
  • Laura Kaminsky’s “Transformations II” for string quartet begins with ominous, edgy contrapuntal material in fragmented half step melodies that gradually transform into more sweeping phrases and gestures, with much riveting and often rhythmically intense material.
  • Jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis played his own mournful, bluesy “War and Peace” accompanied by David Hazeltine.
  • Sean Hickey, like Lera Auerbach, is one of my favorite New York composers, and I was struck by the dramatic beauty of his short piano piece “The Birds of Barclay Street”; Kanamaru summoned forth sounds that shifted between forcefully doleful and serene.
  • Drew Hemenger’s “Union Square September 14th” for piano four hands sounded at turns like William Schuman and Darius Milhaud, with fragments of “The Star-Spangled Banner” colliding with “When the Saints Go Marching In” getting tossed around until they emerge as full-fledged phrases at the end of the work. Pascal and Ami Rogé, returning for their second season with the festival, sounded like one pianist.One work that is not new but quite noteworthy received its American premiere this evening: the all-too-underrated Franco Alfano’s “Nenia and Scherzino”, played with lyricism, tenderness, and impetuous playfulness by Darvarova and pianist Scott Dunn. If you like Ravel, Respighi, or Casella, this is music you’re sure to like. Darvarova and Dunn have recorded it as part of a second program of Alfano’s chamber music for Naxos.
  • Jon Deak wore both of his hats – virtuoso double-bassist and composer – this evening, performing his “Mose, the Fireman 1840” for violin and double bass doubling as narrator. It’s an amusing and whimsical tribute to a first responder of nearly two centuries ago – and, of course, the woman in his life.
  • Justin Torke’s brief “Remembrance” for flute, horn, violin and double bass makes what sounds like an allusion to Barber’s “Adagio” at the outset, yet never descends into treacly sentimentality or lugubriousness.

Most notably, the program did not have one weak moment during its three-hour, no intermission duration. The pianists – the Rogés, Ann-Marie McDermott, Simon Mulligan, Scott Dunn, and the afore-mentioned Tpomoko Kanamaru, were particularly impressive this evening; Elmira Darvarova was enjoyablyly chameleonic, slipping with assured ease between genres, styles, and moods. The present concert was an auspicious start to more than a week of what should be world-class music-making.

You can find a complete list of concerts here – there are too many tempting programs and world-class musicians to mention, and something for just about every taste.

There are a few other events going on around town this week. The US premiere of contemporary composer James Dillon’s “Nine Rivers” for multiple ensembles and voices is being presented at Miller Theater over three nights later this week. On Friday, amazing violinist Miranda Cuckson is performing Luigi Nono’s work “La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura” for violin and eight-track tape with sound artist Christopher Burns at Union Theological Seminary.

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