Osvaldo Golijov, Last Round
Arvo Pärt, Fratres (version for string orchestra and percussion)
Jonathan Talbott, Helsinki – An American Tango
Àstor Piazzolla, The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
ClaverackLanding, Gwen Gould, Conductor and Artistic Director
Katie Hyun, solo violin
Sheila Reinhold, concertmaster
Sean Carney, Isadora Kohon-Teran, Stan Kurtis, Claudia Saslow, Dorothy Strahl,
Alexander Vselensky, violin
Ronald Gorevic, Liuh-Wen Ting, Ljova (Lev Zhurbin), viola
Caryl Paisner, Lucy Bardo, cello
Peter Weitzner, double bass
Ben Harms, percussion
Club Helsinki, the erstwhile restaurant and night club that was so popular in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, has arisen like a phoenix as the most interesting and sophisticated performance space in Hudson, New York. Given the many converted industrial spaces that now house galleries and theaters, Helsinki Hudson might very well become one of the region’s most significant venues for many of the arts: jazz, popular music, literary readings, cabaret, gallery exhibitions, and, as we heard tonight, classical music. While food and wine were served, the restaurant will formally open with a full menu later next month. The gradual and sometimes painful gestation of this restaurant-club over the past four years – with many preview events allowing us to sneak a peak at work in progress – has lent an aura of legend and unexpected cachet to the venture. Owners Deborah McDowell and Marc Schafler have great ambitions here, and a classical concert, although an unlikely fit for a debut, was, nonetheless, enjoyable if not fascinating. In their introductory remarks both Ms. McDowell and conductor Gwen Gould made mention of the evening as an “experiment.” Ms. Gould is the founder and conductor of the highly popular Columbia Festival Orchestra, an ensemble that culls from some of the finest talents in the region and New York City. One “experiment” for her was to create a more portable ensemble and repertory that could appeal to new audiences in new, perhaps unconventional, settings. She alludes to the pioneering spirits of the Dutch who settled Claverack centuries ago. Helsinki Hudson, with its coruscations of richly crafted trims, party lanterns, copper detailing, high gloss woods, funky blacks and reds, and a variegation of interior designs, might seem as exotic a venue as the Amazon jungle did for Herzog’s opera obsessed impresario, Fitzcarraldo. The natives here are friendlier and seem to welcome the possibility of the pastiche of music, noise, distraction, food, and the louche charm of a dimly lit salon. Ms. Gould has pared her group down to chamber size, keeping it string-only with a sole percussionist. The program was cagily centered around a tango motif, and presented traditional works (i.e., Piazzolla) and some contemporary works directly or obliquely linked to the genre.
The basic experiment at Helsinki was that of acoustics. Because the space is designed for amplified bands and performers, with special baffles in the rear to accentuate and facilitate stage cueing, the normal non-amplified logic doesn’t apply. Marc Schafler explained that minimal amplification was applied, again, as part of this experiment to accommodate a small classical ensemble. The lively but low-reverberant space, as Schafler explains, is ideal for recording, but presents a challenge for musicians who expect “natural” acoustics where attack and decay play a critical role. The only problem I noted was that the stage-right musicians seemed louder than those on the other side. However, the clarity of strings – and the many purposeful percussive string effects – was outstanding. Ms. Gould had her ensemble, so to speak, in the palm of her hand: the rhythmic complexity of these works never escaped her fine control.
Ms. Gould’s selections, while catering to the easy-to-hear insinuations of tango, could hardly be termed Tafelmusik: frequently, the strings were called upon for brash percussive effects, especially in the first and last pieces. Only in the Pärt was there a respite in mood. The program of mostly unfamiliar works was a welcome blend of tonal compositions with a biting edge – something like comfort food dashed with a habanero topping. The performers, all first-class musicians with conservatory pedigrees, were superb. Especially notable was the consistent intensity of first violinist Sheila Reinhold; Katie Hyun, a virtuoso by anyone’s measure, was dazzling in the evening’s major presentation, the Piazzolla Four Seasons.
The idea of the tango as “reusable” matière musicale is the major project of Argentinean composer Ástor Piazzolla. Disassembling the tango, as genre, down to the component level, a composer will wind up with a variety of reusable harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements. There are only a few harmonic progressions; some have scintillating harmonic changes – colors that early American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk knew very well. Harmonic repetition, through predictable ostinati, coinciding with distinctive rhythmic inflections, is equally prominent. Finally, a passionate, and, at times, improvisatory melodic line is a necessary ingredient to propel the music and to sustain interest.
Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round is work scored for two antiphonal quartets with a shared double bass. Written as a tribute to his musical forebear, Piazzolla, the work sported two contrasting movements. The first, a combative tango-like dialogue between ensembles, made much use of ostinati, jerky hockets, and string squealing: an appetizer that put one’s senses aflame. In the slow lament of the second section, a more somber, rhapsodic nod to Piazzolla was evident.
Pärt’s Fratres, while seemingly a departure from the evening’s tango motif, is, nonetheless, based on repetitive harmonic ostinati that eschew any momentum, buildup of tension, or passion. Thus, like much of his work, Fratres is a study in stasis and served for this listener as a place of calm and restraint – a cloister to the sexually insinuating tangos, and the occasional noise from the bar.
Jonathan Talbott, one of the secret ingredients in the success of Hudson’s Walking the dog Theater, has been writing scores accompanying plays as diverse as Hamlet, Our Town, and Twelfth Night. A violin prodigy, he also writes theatrical incidental works that feature only two or three instruments. Tonight, after a period of study with composer Joan Tower, Mr. Talbott presented a single-movement concerto of sorts for solo violin and string ensemble: Helsinki – An American Tango. Using two sensually evocative harmonic shifts, a pair that are favorites in tangos, Mr. Talbott builds a refreshing, sexy piece. It never fully bent itself to an outright tango, but, instead, left an indelible impression of its character and energy.
The chamber piece Plume by violist-composer Lev Zhurbin (aka Ljova) was similarly inspired by tango elements. Here, with a simple string quintet with percussion, Mr. Zhurbin brilliantly captured both the improvisatory and ostinato quality of the genre. A piece written with Mr. Zhurbin’s wife in mind as violinist, he explained, the “plume” metaphor was meant to describe the effusion of a certain musical spirit.
Ástor Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons, a hugely entertaining work, is full of colorful noises produced by violins scratching at the bridge with the bow’s frog. Cast as a series of concertos, one for each season, it is a playful send-off to Antonio Vivaldi’s overly familiar set. Piazzolla skilfully blends all the tango elements in a style that attempts to rethink the Baroque structure that Vivaldi so soundly established. Perhaps the most humorous winks and nods to the Red Priest were the borrowings that were hemispherically inverted in a corresponding season. Thus, we hear quotes from Vivaldi’s Winter in the Argentinean Summer (and vice versa). As a final tribute to “pop Baroque” as an analogue to “classical tango,” Piazzolla includes a variation of the ground bass (again, an ostinato) from Pachelbel’s Canon – only here without any canonic counterpoint: a gesture to our embracing the harmonic sensuality of Pachelbel’s work without its Germanic superstructure.
In many ways Gould’s ClaverackLanding keenly captured Helsinki Hudson’s eclectic and sometimes jarring charms. If what we heard was an experiment, let it be known how successful it was.