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Other-Wordly Flutes

New York
Kosciuszko Foundation
05/24/2023 -  
James Nyoraku Schlefer: Sidewalk Dances
Ron Warren: Lunas y Agua No.5 – Love Song for This Earth – The Way of Mountains and Desert – Beads
Philip Glass (arr. Barnes): Sacagawea
Victoria Bond: Rashomon

James Nyoraku Schlefer (Shakuhachi), Ron Warren (Native Flute), Pauline Kim (Violin), Chieh‑Fan Yiu (Cello), Caleb van der Swaagh (Cello), Paul Barnes (Piano), Victoria Bond (Compère)

V. Bond/R. Warren (© Anna Ablogina/Washington Adventist College)

The flute is not an instrument which has a good moral effect: It is too exciting.
Aristotle, Politics

You cannot play the flute by merely blowing; you must use your fingers too.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The annual “Cutting Edge Concerts” last night honored the celebrated Native American flautist/composer/teacher Ron Warren. And yes, his tender sounds, the gentle warbling and spot‑on intonation were quite agreeable. Added to this, the regal faux‑British architecture of the century‑old Kosciuszko made for an elegant background to the Mr. Warren’s refined sounds.

True, an entire evening of Native Flute music might have produced an interminable tedium, Nor did his flute have the timbral variety of, say, Claire Chase in last week’s flute concerto by Kaija Saariaho. Wisely, though, the Cutting Edge administration, directed by Victoria Bond, gave a heterogeneous selection, with Mr. Warren paired with the most unexpected soloists.

Most notable (and in my ears, most successful) was Mr. Warren’s fifth Lunas y Agua. It was a duet between Native American flute and Japanese shakuhachi, the latter played by James Nyoraku Schlefer. Mr. Schlefer has long been honored as perhaps the only American master of the instrument. Here, though, the breathy, tender sounds of several shakuhachi sizes with Mr. Warren’s equally soothing sounds from his own instrument created an understated floridity.

P. Glass, P. Barnes

Another rare pairing was the second movement of Philip Glass’ “Lewis and Clark” Second Piano Concerto, based around the Shoshone lady who served as interpreter, guide and sometime heroine for the explorers. Paul Barnes had been the soloist for the premiere, though not for this movement. That had been written by Mr. Glass for Native American flute–and strings. Last night, pianist Barnes arranged the string orchestra for his piano, retaining the flute, with cello solo by Caleb van der Swaagh. The performance and music were both touching.

Both Mr. Schlefer and Ms. Bond had written their own impressive works. The opening Sidewalk Dances was a fast (city)‑slow (country)‑fast “walking” piece played with cellist van den Swaagh. His two shakuhachi could have been two 18th Century wooden recorders–except that the shakuhachi produces a real glissandi. The duet with cello were light, easy and filled with a most felicitous joy.

Ms. Bond, who interviewed the composers before each piece, is one of the truly deft and accomplished American composers. Her Rashomon, though, was not only based on–and included–Mr. Schlefer, along with violin and cello, the inspiration was from Japan’s most celebrated short stories. Like Bizet (who never visited Spain!), Victoria Bond has never visited Japan. Yet the original Rashomon folk‑tale, adopted by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, prompted her two write one hybrid theme with variations, themselves styled into “variation”, “passacaglia” and “rondo”.

At my first hearing, I had referenced the eponymous film. Now I realized it was taken from the original story–written by a narrator who killed himself at the age of 25–and it was not only entertaining to hear but was transparently a structural tour de force.

The longest work–both temporally and temperamentally–was Mr. Warren’s The Way of Mountains and Desert, played with evident respect by Paul Barnes. For a few seconds, the simple canonic and two‑part counterpoint had an interesting solemn tone. Plus the three‑movement pictures (“To Water”, “Songs of Gratitude for Desert Beings”, including a song for the rattlesnake) were interesting. After a few minutes, one felt a respect for the ideas more than the music.

The audience received Mr. Warren’s message with attention and–I suppose–esteem. My own feelings might have been tempered had I been in a candlelit room stoned out of my mind. Or perhaps in a Laotian opium den, where the music and the scent of fresh loam would have blended.

However, in this well‑lit room surrounded by well‑dressed people, my interest faded after a few measures. At times it resembled parts of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye without the inspiration. At other times, it resembled childish doodling.

At most, I felt it dehumanized both piano and piano‑player.

Two final short works for Messrs Warren and Barnes were notable both for welcome brevity and shots of levity and joy.

CODA: Last week, my predecessor on ConcertoNet passed away. Fred Kirshnit had the double‑edge sword of being both performer (percussion) and musical scholar. Initially a reviewer for the New York Sun, he joined ConcertoNet, and his reviews were enlightening, learnéd and a joy to read. He will be sincerely missed.

Harry Rolnick



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