Culture Vulture: Dessoff Choirs and Alice Coltrane, or how many black female harp players can you name?

May 24, 2017

5.21.17Malcolm J. Merriweather – remember that name. He’s going to be famous in the music world one day, and you can say you heard it here first. He’s currently the music director of the Dessoff Choirs, the distinguished group that has been performing choral works in New York City since 1924 (my boyfriend Andy has been singing with them since 2008). On Sunday they closed their season with a beautifully conceived, musically ambitious, philosophically inspiring concert at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Central Park West called “A New Amorous World,” which took on the theme of love as it is viewed all over the world not just as a personal human emotion but as a spiritual and political force.
The title of the program comes from the work that opened the concert, an eight-part 20-minute wackadoodle piece called “The New Amorous World” by a young composer named Lembit Beecher based on the writing of 18th century French utopian philosopher Charles Fourier. I knew nothing about Fourier until I read Beecher’s program note about him, and now I want to know all about him. In this piece he lays out his conception of the impending end of Civilization as we know it, to be replaced by what he calls Harmony, which will see “the establishment of perpetual peace, universal unity, the liberty of women.” The score mainly has the choir singing a cappella, lightly accompanied by two horns and a harp (all played by young women) – who does that??? And the text, mostly sung but sometimes spoken by individual singers, veers far beyond what you usually hear a choir singing, on the subject of love, work, and passionate attraction.

Sample passage: “Manias relating to love will be common in Harmony. Manias will be completely equal before the law in Harmony. People forget that love is the domain of unreason. The more unreasonable a thing is, the more closely it is associated with love. Some manias are spiritual; some manias are physical in harmony. How can people assume that God intended love to be no more than an agent of a tyrannical bond called marriage? How shameful it would be for God if he had created the most noble of passions only to yield the most contemptible result. How impertinent of man to impute such ineptness to God. Amorous heel scratching, hair plucking, fondness for lesbians, desire to eat spiders – all varieties of love.”

Did I mention Fourier’s concept of the Archibras, a sixteen-foot-long tail that men and women living on the sun will have in the time of Harmony? “It has a firm grip with retractable claws. It enables man to swim like a fish, dig in the ground, slide down a tree, grab onto rigging. It is infinitely useful!”

Imagine singing lines like that! The music is pretty tricky and difficult yet quite beautiful, and the Dessoff pulled it off spectacularly, which must have been gratifying to the composer, who was sitting just a few feet away from me.


And that was just the beginning of a program that moved through traditional Arabian muwashshah, Syrian, Turkish, Chinese and Japanese folk songs, Hebrew liturgy, Haitian and Sufi songs, and an amazing wordless piece called “Past Life Melodies” by Australian composer Sarah Hopkins performed by the United Nations International School Senior Chorus (conducted by Daniel Stroup), who also joined the Dessoff for two numbers, including the finale, the Navajo prayer “Now I walk in beauty” set to music by Gregg Smith.

The singers did a spectacular job with these contrasting styles and multiple languages. The acoustics were superb for largely unaccompanied (or lightly accompanied) singing. And besides his canny, knowledgeable sense of programming and fine-tuned conducting, Merriweather has a distinct flair for theatricality from the way he has the singers process to the stage area to the way he arranges soloists and small groups around the house to distribute the sound. He’s young (31), tall, handsome, gay, black, super-talented, and clearly going places. Here he is with Andy, after the concert.


I was amazed to see Ashley Jackson playing the harp (below) because I knew that right after the Dessoff concert I was running out to the Knockdown Center in Maspeth (a neighborhood in Queens I’d never heard of before) to see a concert paying tribute to Alice Coltrane, the most famous black female jazz harpist in the world — not that it’s a gigantic population, but two in one day!?!


Well, Alice Coltrane (above) died ten years ago, but for this occasion her parts were played by Brandee Younger, in a ten-piece band led by Coltrane’s son Ravi that also included Reggie Workman (erstwhile sideman for Ravi’s legendary father, John Coltrane) and the great pianist Geri Allen. The event, entitled “The Ecstatic World of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda,” was presented by the Red Bull Music Academy NYC and was inspired by an album of the same name recently released on Luaka Bop, the label formed by David Byrne (who showed up for the concert, bicycle helmet and all).


The event had two parts. For the first part, “The Sunset Set,” half of the Knockdown Center had been converted into a temporary ashram, to reproduce the Sai Anatam Ashram that Coltrane created in Santa Monica in 1975 for the study of the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta. Central to Coltrane’s spiritual practice were Sunday communal ceremonies of singing and chanting the original gospel-tinged arrangements of Sanskrit chants that made up the entirety of her musical output for the last ten years of her life.


For the event on Sunday, audience members were handed cloth bags for their shoes and comfortable pillows for sitting on the floor, both saffron-colored, as well as songbooks for singing along with the Sai Anatam Singers, a group from the California ashram led by music director Surya Botofasina. I assumed that anyone who showed up for this event would be familiar with the tradition of kirtan and eager to join in, but noooooo, this was a respectful quiet crowd of Brooklyn hipsters who treated it as a concert and barely responded, which made it much less fun.


Then there was a break, during which the audience was served free tasty vegetarian samosas while the band set up for part two, “The Evening Set,” in which Ravi Coltrane’s ensemble played selections from his mother’s jazz compositions. I daresay there’s no Alice Coltrane fan who doesn’t consider her essential track to be “Journey in Satchidananda” – it’s her “Love Supreme,” her “Thunder Road,” her “Smooth Operator.” I never thought I would hear it performed live in my lifetime, but there it was, opening the set – an ecstatic stretched-out 25-minute version with three different horn players and a flautist filling in for Pharoah Sanders’ solos on the original recording. They worked through four or five other classic Alice Coltrane pieces as well as a completely improvised interlude featuring two dancers. I went home happy.


In this week’s New Yorker

May 20, 2017

I’m always grateful when the New Yorker turns me on to people and phenomena that I’m not actively seeking out. For instance, I’ve been hearing about Cécile McLorin Salvant for a couple of years, I’d checked her music out a little bit and pretty quickly dismissed her as just another singer, nothing extraordinary. But Fred Kaplan’s profile of her demanded that I listen closer, and indeed further study has exponentially increased my respect for her and her chief collaborator, pianist Aaron Diehl.


Meanwhile, I’d never heard of Gerhard Steidl, but I love books, especially exquisitely produced art books, and apparently this guy is top of the line. How he works makes for a fascinating piece by Rebecca Mead.

Ian Parker tells the disheartening story of a brutal custody battle between two lesbians over an adopted son (“Are You My Mother?”).

Emily Nussbaum writes a compelling piece about Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the new TV version of it.

Then there’s this full-page cartoon by the nutty young cartoonist Edward Steed.


Not to mention another brilliant Barry Blitt cover, titled “Ejected.”


Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: “Expanded Visions” at Leslie Lohman

May 20, 2017

(click photos to enlarge)

I wanted to get together and check in with my friend Jeff Weinstein so we agreed to meet at the Leslie Lohman Museum in Soho. Weirdly, I’d never been to the museum since the collection moved in 2006 from a basement on Prince Street (in the building where Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman lived) to its spiffy new location at 26 Wooster Street, cater-corner to the Performing Garage, in a space that held a beloved downtown record store (Soho Music Gallery) when I first moved to New York. And we arrived just in time for me to get a look at “Expanded Visions: Fifty Years of Collecting” a couple of days before this terrific show closed. I was excited to take in the whole gamut: painting, photography, and multimedia pieces from famous names (Duane Michals, David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie) to plenty of undersung artists coming from a wide spectrum beyond white gay men, like these pieces by AndréTavet, Ayakamay, and Hunter Reynolds.


There was a time when the Leslie Lohman Art Foundation (as it was once called) was looked down on as cheesy because it tended to equate “gay art” pretty exclusively with “dick pics.” There’s still a fair amount of kitsch in the collection because, hey, there is a lot of gay art that focuses on naked bodies, and a big audience for it. But over time the couple’s art-buying morphed into a seriously curated collection, and the selection for this show is pretty stellar. And I’m not just talking about Stanley, one of my favorite photographers, himself a master at eye-catching male nudes.


I recognized several artists whose work Jeff and I had seen last summer when we walked through the “AIDS Art America” show at the Bronx Museum, including Joey Terrill and Patrick Webb.


A striking untitled piece by Nicole Eisenman.


And then all this intriguing stuff new to me (as mesmerized by swinging dicks as anyone else).


And then this headboard, which I would happily have in my bedroom.

By the way, the museum has a robust online presence, including a searchable database of images from Leslie Lohman’s vast holdings. Check it out here.

 

 


Culture Vulture: THE ANTIPODES and HELLO, DOLLY!

May 8, 2017

New York theater in a nutshell: spent the weekend seeing the new play by Annie Baker, The Antipodes at Signature Theater, a characteristically intriguing piece by a terrific writer, beautifully staged and acted, and Hello, Dolly!, one of Broadway’s biggest hit musicals of all time and one of the most idiotic. One ticket cost $30, the other $189.

The Antipodes in some ways resembles Circle Mirror Transformation, the play that put Annie Baker on the map, in that it focuses on the manners and rituals of an emerging creative community — only this time we are not in a small-town Vermont drama class but in the writers’ room in the early stage of dreaming up a new series. The grizzled, enigmatic legendary show runner Sandy (the return to the New York stage of Will Patton) likes to start by getting his team to reveal themselves by poring through their personal histories for every last trace of what constitutes a story. Old-timers like Dave (Josh Charles) and Danny (Danny Mastrogiorgio) go straight for the most satisfyingly humiliating tales they can dredge up; new additions (Philip James Brannon, Josh Hamilton, Emily Cass McDonnell, all wonderful) wade more slowly into the self-revelations. Along the way they postulate the origins of storytelling. Time and space go flippy, even though we’re never looking at anything other than a bunch of people around a conference table and a giant stack of LeCroix soft drinks. Lila Neugebauer does a fine job of keeping up completely rooted in the unpredictable unfolding moment. Nicole Rodenburg pretty much steals the show playing what you’re sure is just a walk-on functionary.

Jerry Zaks’s splendid-looking production of Hello, Dolly! (sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto) is efficiently built to give the audience maximum opportunity to worship the presence of Bette Midler in a Broadway musical. It’s amazing how many minutes of stage time are devoted to nothing else. Although loosely based on Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker, the book is a piffle of thin heterosexist romantic pairings that make little sense. Nevertheless, the actors give their all. Kate Baldwin has an especially lustrous voice as Mrs. Molloy singing “Ribbons Down My Back.” Michael McCormick stepped in as Horace Vangelder, the role usually played by David Hyde Pierce — they couldn’t be more different actors but McCormick (a trouper whom I recall fondly from Kiss Me, Kate!) played it as if he does it every day. And Ms. Midler — well, she took this strange little piffle and squeezed out every last drop of silly business and funny faces in her best Lucille Ball clownishness, and the audience ate it up. Some classic Broadway musicals are just dumb fun, and some are just plain dumb. We enjoyed researching the original production via Wikipedia. The show was originally entitled Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman and Call on Dolly but Merrick changed the title immediately upon hearing Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly!” The show became one of the most iconic Broadway shows of its era, the latter half of the 1960s, running for 2,844 performances, and was for a time the longest running musical in Broadway history.

 


Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: The Whitney Biennial

May 2, 2017

(click photos twice to enlarge)

To be honest, the 2017 Whitney Biennial tried my patience. I had the experience of wading through acres of mediocre painting, ugly sculptures, and twee conceptual art to find a handful of works that pleased me aesthetically and intellectually. The show, curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, features a lot of painting on canvas, almost always multiple pieces by the same artist, which gave me an opportunity to get to know several intriguing artists new to me.

I found Tala Madani’s work edgy and amusing, especially Shitty Disco.

I very much liked Celeste Dupuy-Spector’s stuff, and not only because I loved this DJ’s playlist.


Of the three-dimensional work, my favorites were the black-magic melon piece out on one of the roofdecks – a wonderful bit of political dada by a Middle Eastern artist collective known as GCC – and Jon Kessler’s constructions, Exodus and (below) Evolution.

Also fun: Raul DeNieves’s rococo figures, which dance entertainingly between shamanism and kitsch.


On the down side: Samara Golden’s elaborate multi-level piece is undeniably impressive but emotionally opaque.


I found the amount of effort that went into Porpentine Charity Heartscape’s computer word games mystifying to the point of exasperating (and pretentious as the artist’s name); doubly true of Jordan Wolfson’s brutal virtual-reality audience abuser, Real Violence (below).

I walked out most impressed with two artists. Dana Schutz, whose controversial Open Casket has a devastating impact when you actually witness it in person (alongside the artist’s statement).

And Francis Stark, who created a roomful of paintings reproducing a provocative essay about censorship by post-punk essayist Ian F. Svenonious.

 


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