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From Rags-time to Resplendence

New York
Greenwood Cemetery
08/04/2021 -  & August 6, 7, 2021
PUBLIQuartet: Mind The Gap: Sancta Femina: improvisations on the music of Hildegard von Bingen, (Francesca) Caccini, and (Margarita) Cozzolani
PUBLIQuartet: Mind The Gap: Reflections on Beauty: Honoring the life and legacy of Madam C.J.Walker
Jessie Montgomery: Break Away
Elektra Kurtis: Hasaposerviko

PUBLIQuartet: Curtis Stewart, Jannina Norpoth (Violins), Nick Revel (Viola), Hamilton Berry (Cello)

PUBLIQuartet (� Courtesy of the artists)

“Consort not with a female musician, lest thou be taken in by her snares.”
Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira, The Book of Wisdom (Ecclesiastes) (190 BC)

“The man who is not thrilled to the bone by the sight of a woman playing the flute, blowing a clarinet or struggling with a trombone is no man.”
Conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967)

The most execrable movie about Beethoven (or anybody) I ever saw was a circa 1950�s Hungarian proto-feminist story about the composer hiring�against his misogynist judgment�a woman to clean his office. It turns out that she not only knows about music, but is a terrific editor as well. So when he returns to see his opening chord of �Pathétique� turned from major key to minor key, he is apoplectic.

�Vat is this??� he yells in woeful English dubbing.

�Just try it, Herr Beethoven,� she smiles. He them presses his C Major chord, then the C minor chord, looks at her in astonishment and says, �Hmm, that is not terrible. Perhaps a vuman might know something about music.�

The movie gets far worse after that. (She helps him conduct the Ninth Symphony), But PUBLIQuartet, those singular string players using stamping feet, clacking violin-boxes and jazzy or bluesy or Webernian improvisations gave visceral strength to what antediluvian folks called �the weaker sex.�

Six female composers, ranging over a millennia from the 10th to 21st centuries encompassed the �twilight performance� in the Catacombs of Greenwood Cemetery. Yet these were not your Clara Schumann bagatelles. PUBLIQuartet combined music of the Medieval convent with a rollicking dance. They took the music of Madame C.J. Walker, the first African-American millionaire, changing tempos and melodies, going from Joplin-style rag to Foster-style semi-opera.

And yes, this might sound patronizing, but nowhere did one discover something new about �female� music. These were catholic selection that would give joy to any concert hall.

Then again, PUBLIQuartet has been sending music sky-high throughout their career. Unlike Kronos, the very first ground-breaking quartet, PUBLIQuartet never takes the high road. They aren�t afraid to physically become emotive but they never sacrifice their technical chops.

This was the first of two concerts. The �Moonlight Performance� (to be repeated tonight) was to include Carolyn Shaw�s Valencia (the orange color, not the city) along with improvs on Ella, Fats and others. That would be far too much for these delicate ears, so I opted for the �Twilight Performance�, tramping through Greenwood Cemetery to the Catacombs.

The first work, Sancta Femina, took in three dissimilar artists, along with improvisations which almost brought them to 2021. Hildegard von Bingen is of course the avatar of �women� composers, and her soaring chants�especially in the dim catacombs set the scene for�

Well, a rich wondrous melodist for the Medici family, Francesca (not her better-known father, Giulio) Caccini. And this led to some rollicking music from another convent denizen, one Margarita Cozzolini. I YouTubed her for some glorious religious music. But here, the PUBLIQuartet probably took great liberties with all three composers, the mystical Hildegard turning into a rollicking finale. This was no parody: it was respectful but filled with joy, real joy.

The next Reflections On Beauty was an homage to Madame C.J. Walker, the cosmetician who started in slave days, then went on riches. Or, should one take the first Joplin-inspired piece here, from rags (Joplin style) to riches. In a way, this was a musical documentary with words, chants, a collection of African-American tunes going over a century, with happiness for all.

E. Kurtis/J. Montgomery (�Courtesy of the Artists)

The next Break Away by the eminent violinist/composer Jessie Montgomery was more a collaboration�rather, an improvised collaboration�with the PUBLIQuartet itself some years ago. It had, in fact, so many facets�and so many attempts to break away from these facets, that this listener went through two stages of understanding., The first was trying to link together a Webernian opening, atonal, fragmentary with a second section obviously devoted to birds. Cellist Hamilton Berry in his highest glissandi, followed at times by others in the ensemble replicated bird sounds.

Where did these two come together? I realized two minutes in, that they didn�t have to come together, that they could break into repeated cadences for an improvised jazz break. Ending with an improvised bouillabaisse, an eponymous Break Away.

The end was a dance of real and ultimate happiness by Elektra Kurtis, the �Mom� of violinist Curtis Stewart, who introduced it. The title Hasoposerviko is part Turkish (hasop means �butcher dance�), part Serbian (the servko part), and all Greek, Rather, a northern Greek popular dance from the 1920�s. It started with a melody that could have come from any part of ethnic central Europe. One could feel the sounds of Bart�k and Enesco and Jan�cek�as well as Skalkottas dances. The second part was the dance itself.

PUBLIQuartet made the most of all the pieces. They were uninhibited, they used voices and shoes together with fingerboards and dazzling fingers. And despite its pompous title, Faith and Freedom they were yes, free, but less faithful than fervent.

Harry Rolnick



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