National Sawdust
Photograph: Steve Smith

Best of 2017: National Sawdust Highlights

As I stated in my inaugural round of summary recaps this time last year, my position as a journalist, critic, and editor embedded at National Sawdust means that including my employer’s presentations and products among my general purpose year’s-end tallies would be inappropriate. Still, the fact remains that I saw and heard some excellent presentations over the course of this year; here’s an entirely personal summary of the shows and records that stuck with me most.

Yuka C. Honda: Revert to Sea
L-R: Alex Cline, Devin Hoff, Yuka C. Honda, Zeena Parkins, Nels Cline
Photograph: Steve Smith

Yuka C. Honda: Revert to Sea
Jan. 6

Revert to Sea was keyboardist and composer Yuka C. Honda’s entry in National Sawdust’s 2017 Ferus Festival, a series that leans heavily on the venue’s superabundance of multimedia tech. But the piece, a suite of almost entirely instrumental impressions based on the work of Japanese author and filmmaker Ryū Murakami, didn’t rely on flashy gimmicks, just a moody video to accompany its enigmatic, elemental flow. As I stated in my formal response, connections between Honda’s music and its inspiration were hard to perceive, especially for anyone not intimate with Murakami’s oeuvre. Even so, anyone could savor the fluid, fiery interplay among Honda and her band members: This was an all-too-rare opportunity to hear the protean guitarist Nels Cline (Honda’s husband) playing with his twin brother, the Los Angeles-based percussionist Alex Cline, with harpist Zeena Parkins and bassist Devin Hoff completing the band.

Sxip Shirey – A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees
Released Jan. 13

VIA Records, the National Sawdust house label, started the year strong with a beguiling album by a stylistically globetrotting multi-instrumentalist genius long known and beloved among New York cognoscenti. A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees is one hell of a balancing act: rustic and sophisticated, cosmopolitan and bohemian, sultry and occasionally silly, equally suited in temperament to the road trip or the Information Superhighway. And while Shirey unquestionably is the center of attention, he also provided some serious charisma in star turns from Rhiannon Giddens and Xavier. You’ll find a transcript of the flattering review Milo Miles recorded for NPR’s Fresh Air right here.

Nicole Mitchell’s Maroon Cloud
L-R: Aruán Ortiz, Fay Victor, Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid
Photograph: Steve Smith

Stone Commissioning Series: Nicole Mitchell
March 29

Performing under the banner of John Zorn’s newly launched monthly series at National Sawdust, flutist, composer, and bandleader Nicole Mitchell introduced Maroon Cloud, a dreamy, bluesy chamber project that showcased the earthy vocals of Fay Victor, Aruán Ortiz’s eloquent piano, and Tomeka Reid’s shape-shifting cello contributions. An eight-part suite that touched on Bessie Smith, Octavia Butler, and more besides, Maroon Cloud was especially impressive for the way its constituent voices mixed and melded in imaginative, unpredictable ways. The evening earned an appreciative, detailed review from Cisco Bradley on Jazz Right Now, and if you missed it, you’ll have another chance to hear it on January 18, during Winter JazzFest.

Spektral Quartet
L-R: Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, Russell Rolen, Doyle Armbrust
Photograph: Steve Smith

Spektral Quartet
April 21

This spirited, personable Chicago string quartet came calling with a wide-ranging program amiably titled “Playing Out.” Offering as its calling card a New Yorker’s piece as arranged by a current Chicagoan (Arthur Russell’s “I’m Hiding Your Present from You,” reworked by Katherine Young), the quartet reinforced bonds between the two cities in major pieces by George Lewis (Chicago-born, New York-based) and Anthony Cheung (a longtime New Yorker now teaching at the University of Chicago). And you’ll surely recall that flutist Claire Chase, who performed in Cheung’s piece, initially established the International Contemporary Ensemble in both Chicago and New York. A clever, appealing work by Chicago-based Samuel C. Adams filled the bill; the New York Classical Review ran an attentive account by David Wright.

Oracle Hysterical & New Vintage Baroque – Passionate Pilgrim
Released March 17; deluxe edition released June 2

The core notion behind Passionate Pilgrim is based on a collection of poetry once ascribed to Shakespeare, all but four selections from which subsequently were debunked. The composer-performers of Oracle Hysterical – Majel Connery, Elliot Cole, and Doug and Brad Balliett – fashioned the poems into a Baroque-pop song cycle, which they recorded with a bright young period-instruments ensemble. “The voices of Oracle Hysterical are sweet, fresh, and appealing, ideally suiting the poetry’s chaste ardor,” I wrote here about the project last January, well before the album’s release, continuing, “New Vintage Baroque’s accompaniment is lively and lithe, without a trace of mustiness.” The deluxe version released in June includes five additional pieces.

Ambur Braid and Anthony Roth Costanzo in ‘Aci, Galatea e Polifemo’
Photograph: Jill Steinberg

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo
July 12, 13, 19, 20

Baroque chamber opera on an appropriately intimate scale, with the caliber of stars (on and offstage) that you’d expect to find at the world’s greatest opera houses… no wonder the four performances of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo mounted by charismatic countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and director Christopher Alden sold out in a flash. True, the updated milieu – a servant-class couple tormented but ultimately unbroken by a moneyed overlord, spun here into a vaguely Trumpian tableaux – was about as subtle as a boxing glove closing in on your nose. But in the performance I saw on July 13 (reviewed for National Sawdust Log by Vivien Schweitzer), Costanzo, soprano Ambur Braid, and bass-baritone Davóne Tines delivered performances amply endowed with intensity, nuance, and vulnerability.

Du Yun & Royce Vavrek – Angel’s Bone
Released Sept. 22

The inventive, daring, and wrenching opera that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music, preserved for posterity in an honest-to-god studio recording. How often does that even happen anymore? As described in the Pulitzer Prize proclamation, Angel’s Bone is “a bold operatic work that integrates vocal and instrumental elements and a wide range of styles into a harrowing allegory for human trafficking in the modern world.” In the Washington Post, Anne Midgette put it still more succinctly and more memorably: “…a work that gave me nightmares, yet one that I would nonetheless see again.” (I was proud to provide the liner-note essay for this one.)

JACK Quartet
L-R: Jay Campbell, Austin Wulliman, John Pickford Richards, Christopher Otto
Photograph: Shervin Lainez

JACK Quartet
Dec. 21

So consistently well did the JACK Quartet perform Georg Friedrich Haas’s notorious String Quartet No. 3 (“In iij Noct.“)—which, according to the composer’s wishes, must be played in total darkness—that Haas wrote another quartet with the same stipulation expressly for this ensemble. Crowning a New York season that already had included a John Luther Adams premiere at the DiMenna Center and a series of events inspired by Cage and Calder at the Whitney Museum (both of which I wrote about here), as well as an audacious survey of American mavericks at Miller Theatre, the JACK Quartet played the U.S. premiere of Haas’s String Quartet No. 9 (2016) on the Winter Solstice, the unsettling darkness amplifying the score’s eerie rumination.

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