Concert critic: Cellist Sophie Shao, Pianist John Blacklow – Music by Debussy, Herschel Garfein and others (September 30, 2022)
Bargemusic is one of my favorite music venues in New York. Afloat on an old barge at Brooklyn’s Fulton Ferry Landing, you feel especially connected to the musicians, not only because it’s an intimate space, but because when the boat sways with the movement of the water, you’re fully aware that musicians deal with the same circumstances – while they play.
Cellist Sophie Shao and pianist John Blacklow showed no dismay 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 Layersa recent piece by Brooklyn composer Herschel Garfein.
Garfein’s king of the river for baritone and orchestra impressed me as “a wonderful piece of descriptive modernism” in May. I was looking forward to hearing his art in a chamber context. He could hardly have asked for a more sensitive and integrated interpretation of her music than she received from Shao, who had commissioned the piece, and from Blacklow.
As king of the river, Layers was inspired by an eponymous poem by Stanley Kunitz. But instead of setting the actual words to music, the composer has used the poem’s imagery here as a focal point for compelling instrumental music.
The first movement, “the carrion angels”, began with layered harmonies, low threats from the cello and sprinkled gestures from the piano. A tense series of climaxes dissolved in plumbing from the depths of sadness, but still with spirited action. In the poem, the speaker steadily walks through “many lives” and “a feast of loss” where “scavenging/rolling angels on heavy wings” over “abandoned campsites”. The power of the poem lies in the speaker’s determination to continue their journey despite the pains of loss and regret. The last part of Garfein’s first movement suggests a brisk march through the world described by the poet. Overall, the music married a romantic flavor with a cinematic sense of rhythm, 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, jazzy flavor and tension in unexpected transitional harmonies and an expanded sense of space. It was here too that the barge began to rock, adding to the hallucinatory aura of the music.
The rocking of the boat continued in the spectacular final movement, “every stone in the way”. Garfein had described it as a modernist klezmer piece, but it’s much more than that. It borrows klezmer rhythms and melodic twists for a completely original construction.
Klezmer elements emerge after a thunderous introduction. The composer’s use of this traditional form reminded me a bit of what Astor Piazzolla did with his more adventurous tangos. Although I found the time signature(s) impossible to identify, the bravery played by Shao and Blacklow drove the music forward inexorably and rather aggressively. Yawning double strings define a short, punchy cello cadence. When the coda came, it was too soon – I wanted even more excitement.
To listen Layers here.
The modernist language of Garfein derived quite well from that of Debussy Sonata. From the period of the composer’s late return to chamber music, this masterpiece introduced the warm, lucid tone that Shao drew from his cello throughout the concert. Pastoral sweetness and stammering pugilism, dynamic pizzicatos, humor mixed with alarm – all shone heartily in Shao’s unwaveringly confident playing and Blacklow’s luminous expressiveness.
The pair brought an equally bubbly energy to George Walker cello sonata, playing the “Allego passionato” with brio and rhythmic precision. A celestial piano touch cut through shifts in mood and tempo that all made perfect sense. The dirge-like “Sostenuto” swayed gently, like the barge, as I again noticed Shao’s unusually sure intonation. Blacklow’s supple playing lit up the finale “Allegro”, a rhythmically dense and complex fairy march that showed off the superb synchronicity of the two musicians.
Three charming miniatures by Nadia Boulanger closed the compact but arduous programme. It turns out that Walker studied with Boulanger. (But then, who hasn’t?) This final connection symbolized the entire concert – a stereooptic of early 20th-century modernism with the vivid creativity of today, exemplified by composers like Herschel Garfein.