Early to Late: The Week in Music, Part I

I’ve been remiss in my live music blogging. I didn’t intend this blog to become just a second outlet for the CD and theater reviews that I already publish at Blogcritics. This week has turned out to be an excellent opportunity to change that.

It started with Soul of the Blues, my monthly series at Cornelia Street Cafe. This Wednesday’s show began with a tight set from Halley DeVestern and her band, playing blues-funk-rock songs from their upcoming CD. Halley sounds as great as ever, and you can hear a few of the new tracks at her Myspace page. Then Soul of the Blues favorite Matt Iselin hit the stage with his high-energy, creative piano pop. And finally, sight unseen, I had booked Kojo Modibo Sun, pianist Scott Patterson’s new band. I had played with Scott in Kevin So‘s band, so I knew he was a good musician, but I had no idea what his original project would sound like. It turns out to be a killer blast of soul-rock, largely inspired by Scott’s two-month trek on the Appalachian Trail, which won over a whole set of new fans who’d mostly come to see Matt. Watch for this band in the future. They play tonight at the Harlem Tea Room, 7 PM. Highly recommended.

The next night, Thursday, Elisa and I hit the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where our friend, publicist Crissa Requate, had invited us to catch Matt Morris, an artist on Justin Timberlake’s label, opening for Joan Osborne. Matt, who’s from Denver, played solo, and it’s a fairly big room, but he won over the seen-it-all crowd of Joan Osborne fans with his gorgeous voice and assured songwriting. Rarely will you hear a singer with as much control and sensitivity in switching between his regular tenor and his falsetto. I’ll be writing more about Matt in the near future. Meanwhile, New Yorkers can mark their calendars to hear him on Oct. 25, again with Joan, at the Highline Ballroom.

And on Friday night, they rested.

Then came Saturday, when we heard some of the oldest music (15th and 16th century) in one of the newest venues, the Times Center on 41st St. The Times Center is a strangely situated concert hall: the back wall, behind the stage, is clear, and through it you see, first, a courtyard with birch trees, and behind that, the lobby and elevator banks of the new office tower. It’s all painted a calming light-orange, but while you’re watching the concert you’re also watching, behind the action, the building maintenance staff pushing wastebaskets in and out of elevators. Far to stage right, you can also glimpse racks of suits in a brightly lit clothing store. The whole thing is like some sort of conceptual art-film experience, except it’s not.

The acoustics are excellent, and, because of the design, there are no bad seats. We heard three fine bands. I say “bands” because the GEMS Early Music/Early Season 2008 concerts are structured a bit like rock shows, where several bands play one set each. The first of the three, however, was an all-vocal quartet called New York Polyphony. They sang beautiful old liturgical settings by John Taverner, William Cornysh, and Christopher Tye. The Taverner piece was rather long, and consisted of plainsong sections (all four singing the same melody, as in Gregorian chant) alternating with multi-part (polyphony) sections. They followed it with an interesting modern take on the same structure, a much shorter but similarly designed piece by the modern-day English-Norwegian composer Andrew Smith. This brief interlude of modernistic close harmony made a nice contrast with the old stuff. I love hearing new musical sensibilities expressed with ancient sounds.

The group also makes a point of allowing the individual timbres of their four voices to stand out, rather than trying to blend so much that they sound like four iterations of the same voice. This came out strongly in the polyphonic sections of the music. It’s an effect that helps increase the entertainment factor, and that’s always a good bet with Early Music concerts. One feels a bit like a member of a secret club at these concerts, a club your average classical music listener doesn’t know about. Such concerts also tend to be more informal than classical music concerts, and this was no exception.

Following New York Polyphony came an enlightening performance of Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat, Op. 11, on period instruments in its original arrangement of fortepiano, cello, and clarinet (not violin). Ed Matthew of the Grenser Trio talked about his “classical clarinet,” a much lighter instrument than the modern version, with only five keys. Between that and the very light sound of the old-fashioned fortepiano, one felt one was hearing the music much as its very first audience must have heard it.

After the intermission came the act I had most looked forward to, Ex Umbris, a large group playing music of Renaissance Spain. This sort of thing is always a good time. It’s really party music, and the group treated it as such. Everyone plays a variety of instruments and also sings. There’s dance music, programmatic music, funny lyrics (provided in translation with the program), and an altogether humorous and delightful presentation.

Tell me, Moorish bitch,
tell me, slayer,
why do you kill me
and, while I’m yours,
treat me so badly?

Highlights of the set included Grant Herreid’s wonderful playing on the vihuela (the flat-backed Spanish lute), Nell Snaidas’s sweet soprano, and the playing of a sackbut (an early trombone which I think I’ve only seen before in museums), bagpipes, lots of recorders, and Priscilla Smith’s shawm-playing and pre-Raphaelite hair.

Everyone in the place happily
danced this way for five or six hours,
and at the end of such great fun
the bishop forgave them all.

Ah, the shawm. A concert just isn’t a concert if no one plays an instrument you’ve never heard of before.