Bargemusic is one of my favorite New York City concert venues. Afloat on an old barge at Brooklyn’s Fulton Ferry Landing, one feels especially connected to the musicians, not just because it’s an intimate space but because when the boat sways with the movement of the water one is acutely aware that the musicians are managing the same circumstances – as they play.
Cellist Sophie Shao and pianist John Blacklow showed no disconcertion on Friday night as they played a varied but emotionally integrated program beginning with a late work by Debussy and featuring the New York premiere of The Layers, a recent piece by Brooklyn composer Herschel Garfein.
Garfein’s King of the River for baritone and orchestra impressed me as “a marvelous piece of descriptive modernism” back in May. I looked forward to hearing his art in a chamber context. He could hardly have asked for a more sensitive and integrated interpretation of his music than it received from Shao, who had commissioned the piece, and from Blacklow.
Like King of the River, The Layers was inspired by an eponymous Stanley Kunitz poem. But instead of setting the actual words to music, here the composer used the poem’s imagery as a touchpoint for fascinating instrumental music.
The first movement, “scavenger angels,” began with layered harmonies, low threats from the cello and sprinkled gestures from the piano. A tense series of climaxes dissolved into a plumbing of depths of sadness, yet always with lively action. In the poem, the speaker walks steadily through “many lives” and “a feast of losses” where “scavenger angels / wheel on heavy wings” over “abandoned camp-sites.” The power of the poem lies in the speaker’s determination to continue his journey despite the pains of loss and regret. The later part of Garfein’s first movement suggests a brisk walk through the world the poet describes. Overall the music wedded a Romantic flavor with a cinematic rhythmic sense, driven and centered by Shao’s firm attack and superb intonation.
The slow movement, “when the moon was covered,” was softly lyrical with a rich, flowing melody, some jazzy flavor, and tension in unexpected transitional harmonies and a stretched sense of space. Here, also, is where the barge began to rock, adding to the music’s hallucinatory aura.
The boat’s swaying continued into the spectacular final movement, “every stone on the road.” Garfein had described it as a modernist klezmer piece, but it is much more than that. It borrows klezmer rhythms and melodic twists for an altogether original construction.
The klezmer elements emerge after a thunderous introduction. The composer’s use of this traditional form put put me in mind a little of what Astor Piazzolla did with his most adventurous tangos. Although I found the time signature(s) impossible to identify, bravura playing from Shao and Blacklow drove the music inexorably and rather aggressively forward. Yawning double-stops defined a short, punchy cello cadenza. When the coda arrived it felt too soon – I wanted even more of the excitement.
Hear The Layers here.
Garfein’s modernist language flowed quite nicely out of Debussy’s Sonate. From the period of the composer’s late return to chamber music, this masterpiece introduced the warm, lucid tone Shao drew from her cello throughout the concert. Pastoral sweetness and stuttering pugilism, dynamic pizzicatos, humor fused with alarm – all shone wholeheartedly in Shao’s unbreakably confident playing and Blacklow’s luminous expressivity.
The pair brought equally sparkling energy to George Walker’s Cello Sonata, playing the “Allego passionato” with gusto and rhythmic precision. A celestial piano touch ran through changes in mood and tempo that all made perfect sense. The dirge-like “Sostenuto” swayed gently, like the barge, as I noted again Shao’s exceptionally sure intonation. Blacklow’s supple playing lit up the “Allegro” finale, a rhythmically dense and complex fairy march that displayed the two musicians’ superb synchronicity.
Three charming miniatures by Nadia Boulanger closed the compact but strenuous program. It so happens that Walker studied with Boulanger. (But then, who didn’t?) That final connection symbolized the whole concert – a stereopticon of modernism from the early 20th century to the present day’s vivid creativity as exemplified by composers like Herschel Garfein.