Volume 19 Issue 52 | May 11 -17, 2007


Abrons Center fills shoes of defunct Downtown venue

By Todd Simmons

Last weekend the Abrons Arts Center at the Henry Street Settlement launched the inaugural shows of Blurring Boundaries, a series of new and experimental music concerts curated by Tonic’s Melissa Caruso-Scott, with the compositions of Downtown alt-jazz maverick John Zorn. Over two nights on the stage of the Harry Du Jur Playhouse, the Book of Angels Mini-Festival lit up the intimate theatre on Grand Street with vibrant sounds from gifted players, tackling the tunes from Zorn’s vast and intricate “Masada” project.

Saturday night’s program featured sets from the magnificent Shanir Blumenkranz Ensemble and the equally talented Masada String Trio, which was conducted by Zorn himself, perched on the edge of the stage wearing camouflage pants and a tee shirt. The musicians seemed to appreciate the quality of the acoustics that the nearly one-hundred-year-old room has to offer. Flute player Steve Gorn, who had never seen the space before his set with Blumenkranz said afterwards, “I play really soft instruments and there was no problem getting the sound out there. It’s a beautiful place.”

Led by the bearded and bespectacled Blumenkranz on the oud, the sextet ensemble conjured up a dramatic mood with Zorn’s Middle Eastern-tinged compositions. Alternating between fevered up-tempo pieces and hypnotic dirges that consistently defied musical boundaries, the relaxed yet confident demeanor of the group was evident. As the solos were dispersed around the circle, the collaborators fed off each other’s energy. Anchoring the rhythm section was Greg Cohen on bass, percussionist Satoshi Takeishi (who sat on a rug with myriad percussive devices) and the brilliant Erik Friedlander on cello. Gorn on flute and Rob Burger on accordion filled in the sound with higher-end flourishes that injected it with emotional resonance.

Towards the end of their set, Blumenkranz smiled, held up his sheet music and exclaimed, “Masada music!” reminding the crowd who was behind the proceedings.

After the intermission, John Zorn, who managed to take the weekend off from running his own club, The Stone, led the Masada String Trio out to the stage and immediately gave the mixing board some adjustments to make. Once he was satisfied, he conducted the first piece standing in the orchestra looking up at the returning Friedlander and Cohen and violinist Mark Feldman. He wouldn’t stay put for long, however.

Making another adjustment, he climbed onto the stage itself to conduct the rest of the set in the lotus position on the floor. Plucking and bowing their instruments at varying times, the trio played with the loose skills of musicians at the tops of their game, coaxing strange and compelling sounds that one doesn’t normally associate with their instruments.

Feldman and Friedlander tweaked out noises that sounded like alien transmissions between sustained sections with the bow. Cohen towered behind the others looking like a giant as he plucked and bowed and sent a rumble through the room with his stand-up bass. How he managed to maintain his pace and energy level through two full sets of energetic music is a mystery.

The group played with great enthusiasm throughout their hour-long show and were obviously aware that they were nailing the set, receiving raucous ovations throughout. They even high-fived each other between pieces. This was not your mother’s string trio. This was string music laced with punk rock energy and it was outstanding. Zorn’s dynamic writing flourished in such professional hands and all evening the room rang out with a palpable, driving energy.

Presented with the support of The New York State Music Fund, the spirit of the displaced Lower East Side club Tonic lives on in the Blurring Boundaries series and in other shows booked at this venue built in 1915. This well-kept secret of a performance space, with its terrific acoustics, feels like it could easily be another top-notch space at Lincoln Center. If the Abrons Arts Center continues to book shows as high in quality and originality as John Zorn’s Book of Angels Mini-Festival then we could be looking at a place that could potentially compete with some of Downtown’s more established venues.

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