SubCulture, 45 Bleeker St, Manhattan
March 25, 2018

Here’s a bright idea. GatherNYC, a weekly program of chamber music, is the brainchild of Australian guitarist Rupert Boyd and his partner American cellist Laura Metcalf (if you’re lucky, you might have caught them touring Australia last year as the smartly-monickered duo Boyd Meets Girl). Held in downtown Manhattan – Tribeca to be precise – the hour-long concerts are touted as what do on a Sunday morning if music is your religion. As a bonus, they come complete with a sermon (sort of) and an opportunity for meditative reflection. If that smacks of piety, not a bit of it. Held in the appropriately-named SubCulture – right next to the subway on Bleeker St – the basement bar vibe lends a groovy, grungy feel to proceedings, ideal for breaking a few conventions.

The audience – a real family crowd – gathers ahead of the concert for the chat and the (reasonably decent) coffee, plus plenty of cookies for that Sunday morning sugar rush (pretty essential if you’ve had to negotiate the usual NYC subway weekend engineering advisories). The performers talk to you – and it’s amazing how many still don’t – and do you know what? Who cares if a small child makes a little noise?

Rupert Boyd introduces Trio Sisu. Photo © Beth Haley

On this particular Sunday’s bill was Trio Sisu (James Shields, clarinet, Laura Metcalf, cello and Conor Hanick, piano) playing music by Johannes Brahms (his masterful late Clarinet Trio) and Magnus Lindberg, a Finnish composer whose always interesting, if never easy, music earns the programming immediate kudos. The latter work is in three movements, entitled respectively Sound Big Sound (a gnarly, granitic affair), the more reflective Like The Silence That We Seek and the concluding Crash Waves Crash, an exciting angular dance.

With a look of intense concentration on his face, Hanick got things off to a gripping start, the Steinway erupting from the depths beneath his supple digits. Metcalf followed suit, digging viscerally into her lower strings, before the oaken tones of Shields’ clarinet joined seamlessly. The opening movement has storytelling written all over it. It also screams conversation and Trio Sisu are nothing if not good conversationalists, whether nattering away or taking time for more profound ruminations. Alert to Lindberg’s multiple mood changes – he can veer from Celtic Twilight to maverick Modernism in an instant – they are also tightly disciplined, their big-boned sound and crashing fortissimos at times almost too much for the intimate acoustic.

The second movement starts like a Renaissance consort before wacky twitterings give way to intense lyrical passages, the two frequently overlapping making for an emotional roller-coaster. The pianist’s roulades were most magically articulated (in fact, Hanick was an especially compelling presence throughout) with the clarinet and cello’s russet tones well-matched here, particulary strong in the frequent virtuoso passages. The opening of the final movement was pure Bax, though of course it soon became pure Lindberg. The three players took the semi-lumbering dance by the ears and made it swing, only the intense concentration required preventing them from visibly enjoying it more. The hymn-like ending gave it all an appropriately Sunday morning feel.

The aforementioned sermon of sorts came from Peter Aguero, potter, poet and storyteller. His self-described “first person autobiographical narrative” (you can’t choose a simple name for something you make your living out of, he tells us!) went to prove that the best stories are ones about about change, which is why they are not often entirely happy. His was a tale of hustling, borderline depression and the joy of pottery classes with a ceramicists moral in the mantra: “You take a breath, you make a movement, and the shape changes”.

The GatherNYC culture includes a two-minute silence – rather special in itself – but then, coming out of such a meditative moment, the first movement of the Brahms Clarinet Trio was particularly moving, engendering a deeper engagement than might otherwise have been expected. The opening was finely shaped and full of dramatic twists and turns, the three players beautifully connected and with bags of innigkeit. Emerging from a surging ocean, the sunny second subject was passed between around with a deft sense of Brahms’ structural contrasts.

Metcalf and Shields really came into their own in the second movement (one of the loveliest Adagios that Brahms ever wrote), the songful lines rendered with exquisite tone and never overindulgent. The third movement waltz was dispatched with grace and style before a rollicking finale where high spirits were neatly offset by autumnal shades.

Tickets for future concerts are available through Airbnb, a smart piece of 21st-century commercial/arts pairing. “In these uncertain times, GatherNYC provides a place to fortify beauty and peace,” is how the sales pitch puts it. I look forward to revisiting a concert series that does what it says on the can.

GatherNYC takes place at SubCulture, 45 Bleeker St, Manhattan at 10:30am Sundays until June 10