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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Concert Review: Tomorrow's New Country

Gregg Kallor and the Attacca Quartet play new music. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Five alive: Gregg Kallor (left) and the Attacca Quartet in concert at the Sheen Center.
Photo by Andrew Ousley.
Even as towers of glass and steel encroach upon the quiet streets of the East Village, the spirit of musical experimentation lives on. One of its exponents is composer pianist Gregg Kallor. On Monday night at the Sheen Center, Mr. Kallor and the Attacca Quartet gave a joint recital that featured the world premiere of Some Not Too Distant Tomorrow. This was the centerpiece of the evening: a new work for piano and string quartet inspired by  the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The concert opened with Mr. Kallor alone at the piano, playing Notes from Underground, a three part suite inspired by the nearby venue SubCulture. This work offers the composer’s signature sound: quirky codes, jazz modes and sharp-tongued melodies that tease and please the ear as the move in and out of focus, Mr. Kallor’s nimble fingers drove the work along, taking the listener along on the twists and turns of his musical imagination.

The slow central movement, (”The Waiting”) owed something to Kind of Blue-era Miles, with its delicately shaded, impressionist chords contrasting with glittering fragments of melody. The work wrapped with "The Good Kind of Crazy”, with skipping dance rhythms and constant, shifting colors reflecting the colorful crew that succeeded in making SubCulture a key part of this city's musical fabric.

The pianist yielded the stage to the Attacca Quartet, an exceptional young ensemble that has that most important quality in a String quartet: its own distinctive sound and tone. They applied these gifts to the first movement of Mendelsssohn’s String Quartet No. 2, a slow-fast movement that dazzles with the complexity of its construction. All the wit and rigorous musical logic of this composer were heard here in full flight, an excellent argument for this ensemble to turn its energies to the performance and promotion of Mendelssohn’s chamber music.

Some Not Too Distant Tomorrow was commissioned by the Classical Recording Foundation and funded by a gift from Linda and Stuart Nelson, and reflects the lifelong fascination that Mr. Kallor has had for Dr. King. The work is an effort to provide a musical accounting of the civil rights leader's  incarceration in Birmingham Alabama, an incident that led to the writing of  the Letter from Birmingham City Jail on April 16, 1963. It incorporates modern melodic and jazz ideas in a flawless fusion of sounds, reflecting on the tension, unease and tragedy of Dr. King's too-brief life.

The work uses piano and string quartet in effective tandem, generating fresh voicings as the instruments are sounded, combined and recombined. The five movements are pure music,with some room for Mr. Kallor’s piano to improvise against the ensemble. There is a stunning fast movement where fast pizzicato work dives and leaps over a keening violin and Mr. Kallor's steady pianism. The slow final movement was the best of all. Here, slow, hypnotic chords and gentle string melodies forged a gentle, hopeful cloak of sound, a light and transparent comfort in these dark times.

Mr. Kallor and the Attacca Quartet had one more offering: his instrumental reworking of “Layla”, the Eric Clapton tune that the English guitar hero originally released under the alias of Derek and the Dominoes. The song is in two sections, a keening, heartrending opening with the first violin wailing away like Clapton's guitar, and a slow, transcendent finale, mined as a source of variations and improvisation by Mr. Kallor's endlessly inventive fingers.

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