NEW YORK – The New York Jazz Philharmonic, founded by Greek-American violinist and composer Elektra Kurtis and pianist Sonelius Smith, presented a concert compositions conducted by their arrangers and composers at the Harlem School of the Arts on January 15.
Kurtis and Smith established the “improvisational orchestra that integrates symphonic and jazz band instrumentation” with a repertoire that is both contemporary and traditional” eight years ago.
Smith composed and presented “Hymn of Creation,” and Kurtis offered her “Triton” , whose name derives from the mermaid-like trumpeter of Greek mythology – Hellenic themes often appear in her music – but it is also homage to an important jazz chord known as the tritone.
Kurtis said she modified the piece from its premier form on her latest CD, Bridges from the East, and both versions delight, a tribute to her strong musical imagination which is enhanced by her life experiences.
The CD was inspired by her belief music from widely separated geographic regions are “all connected by human spirit, emotion, ethics, and expression,” according to the liner notes. Now a New Yorker, Kurtis Greek has roots in Alexandria, and was raised in Poland. She also graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory and the Sibelius Academy of Music in Finland..
She conducted not with a baton but through her expressive hands – like the brilliant Dimitri Mitropoulos who conducted the New York Philharmonic in the 1950s – which brought out playful and humorous moments that evolve into sultry passages spiced by stand up solos by string players Tomoko Omura and Melanie Dyer and some impetuous trumpeting by Stanton Davis.
Like Triton emerging from the sea in a splash, the piece ended on a crescendo elicited by the cymbal clashing motions of Kurtis’ arms.
Among the Greeks in the ensemble were Alexandros Louloudis on conga drum.
When Spiros Cardamis conducted “Eternamente Tu – Eternally You” the audience loved the music but they were also touched by the gesture it represented. The piece is his arrangement and orchestration of one the 1950s hits of his dear father, George Cardamis, a composer who also played clarinet and saxophone and was known as “the Benny Goodman of Greece.”
Cardamis conducted the piece with passion and purpose. He and the ensemble had only 20 minutes to rehearse it – but the audience would never have guessed.
In his comments Cardamis noted that his father wrote the song – its Greek title is “Irthes Kai Mas Fernis Tin Hara – You Came and You Brought us Joy” – with a swing beat, but the son transformed it into a bossa nova piece with a salsa flourish for an ending.
“Thank you, Elektra, for inviting me,” he said from the podium.
Akua Dixon, who often performs with Kurtis, composed and conducted “Circling.” Its driving rhythms have a “Mission Impossible” feel with brass accents. There are lengthy lyrical streams and the rise and fall of the violins’ volume evoke breezes on a summer’s day.
Warren I. Smith presented his piece “ReReconstrution,” a piece apropos both of the concert’s location and the approaching commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Smith, a student of African-American history, said he was inspired by recent events that raised his concerns that civil rights might be hurled backwards. It was like a historical tone poem, the music painting at times the violence and fear experienced by African-Americans deep into the 20th century. The music quickly descended into a cacophony, sometimes with the feel of the frustration and anxiety of blacks living in relative safety up North, and other times it was disturbing, reminding of lynchings and attacks down South.
There were moments that felt like they were accompanying children playing and adults going about their daily lines – traffic sounds, toy noises, that symbolized moments of peace and hope that could all too easily be shattered.
But soon there were stately passages, sounding like a procession, reflecting the progression in good times of justice and opportunity and suggesting the humanity and majesty of Dr. King’s vision.