Review: A Tiny Garage Explodes in Pianistic Madness

Posted June 25, 2018 2:18 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Chatter about the future of classical music tends to focus on major orchestras and opera companies, and how they can entice new audiences. But there has always been another layer of activity — call it the classical music underground — in which dedicated artists and curious audiences gather in small, offbeat spaces for adventurous programs.

One of the smallest and most offbeat is Spectrum, across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard; it still has the look and feel of the garage it used to be. But with a Steinway grand piano and a high-tech sound system for electronic music, it has become a go-to place for contemporary fare. (Spectrum moved here last year from its original location in a loft on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.)

On Sunday evening, violinist Miranda Cuckson, a champion of new music, and pianist Ethan Iverson, also a composer and best known for his acclaimed work in jazz, played an engrossing program of duos and solos, as part of Spectrum’s Modern Piano (+) Festival, running through Sunday.

There were just two dozen people in the audience. Yet I would argue that events like this one are essential, because they keep music focused on the essentials.

Of course, these two artists routinely appear in major halls, as well. Next month, for example, Cuckson will be the soloist with the Stuttgart State Orchestra for the European premiere of a violin concerto by Georg Friedrich Haas. Iverson has only recently stopped touring with the idiosyncratic jazz group the Bad Plus. But a tiny laboratory like Spectrum surely enables these artists to renew themselves and take chances.

The program began with Louise Talma’s Violin Sonata (1962), a 15-minute piece that has the feeling of an episodic suite. In this score, Talma, who died in 1996, deftly combines spiky 12-tone writing with stretches of radiant violin lines that float atop sonorous piano harmonies. The sonata segues into a perky toccata-like finale, though it ends quizzically, with a questioning coda. The other duo was George Walker’s 1958 Sonata in One Movement, a flinty yet beguiling piece that abounds in industrious counterpoint, though these passages alternate with moments of lyrical proclamation for violin, cushioned by thick, pungent piano chords.

Cuckson, who seeks out works that experiment with innovative sound possibilities on the violin and require intensely physical approaches to technique, began her solo set Donald Martino’s daunting “Romanza” (2002). This restless, fantastical music shifts from bursts of fidgety runs to fleeting passages of searching lyricism. She then played two of Salvatore Sciarrino’s Six Caprices (1976). In the first, Sciarrino, clearly inspired by Paganini’s dazzling violin caprices, writes an avant-garde equivalent, with whirlwinds of jagged, scratchy-toned arpeggios that flow into slinky, sliding tones, then erupt in staccato madness. Cuckson ended with a new work by Josiah Catalan, “Aperture Perpetuum,” music driven by perpetual-motion repeated riffs, though things calm down during atmospheric timeouts that you know will never last long.

Iverson improvised three solos, taking inspiration from a friend in the audience (“Blues for Justin,” he called it) and Spectrum’s neighborhood: “Brooklyn Navy Yard of Bust.”

Event Information:

Modern Piano (+) Festival Through July 1 at Spectrum in Brooklyn; spectrumnyc.com.