There was magic in the air at Joe's Pub on this night as a quintet of Theremin masters plied their craft, evoking sounds from the ether in front of the assembled audience's astonished eyes, like a bevy of magicians pulling musical rabbits from a hat.
The evening was emceed by master Thereminist Rob Schwimmer, whose down to earth demeanor and comfortable presence provided a relaxed atmosphere to dominate the proceedings. Rob opened the evening with his own short set, acted as roadie, moved the Theremins and gear around the stage and introduced each performer.
The instrument was invented, as a by-product of Russian government sponsored research into proximity sensors, by Lev Sergeevich Termen, (Leon Theremin) born August 27, 1896. He perfected his new instrument and took it on a tour of Europe to both acclaim and popularity. Later moving to the United Stated he patented the Theremin in 1928, eventually returning to the Soviet Union in 1938, under mysterious circumstances and not returning until 1991. He died in 1993.
The Theremin is a devilishly difficult instrument to master, played without actual physical contact, but by moving your hands between two metal antennas or polarities. The antennas actually act as plates rather than receptors for receiving incoming frequencies. One hand of the performer is utilized for pitch, the other for volume. The hands act as grounds, one's body being the connection to the ground. The slightest variance in movement or distance changes the pitch of the Theremin greatly. It requires enormous levels of concentration and control to get "good" sound from the instrument let alone an exquisite sense of artistry enabling one to make it "sing" with emotion, sensitivity and nuance.
And this is where Rob Schwimmer comes in. I have heard quite a few people play the Theremin, including the justly acclaimed Clara Rockmore and Lydia Kavina, but have never heard anyone approach this instrument with a more singing legato line nor nuanced approach to song renditions than Rob Schwimmer. He is self deprecatory in the extreme but beneath that unpretentious exterior there is a master of his instrument and an artist of supreme insight and sensitivity. His rendition of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars was as fine a performance as any vocalists that I have ever heard. Quite the same could be said for his performance of Wagner's Träume. It was simply exquisite. His control and intonation were peerless and the highlight of the evening in that department. He completed his set with Beck's Why Did You Make Me Care? And Bernard Herrmann's Scène d'Amour from Hitchcock's Vertigo. Both were exemplary and rousing. I wonder if Mr. Schwimmer has written original pieces for this instrument and if so, would love to hear them.
All of the subsequent performers offered a variety of style and varying degrees of expertise in their playing which made this an enriching evening of music making.
The Japanese artist Llamano opted to play three original compositions, Night sky at the depth of the sea; Under the mercury arch; Over the long night bridge, which offered a refreshing change of pace. Her gestures were extravagant and her tonal control very fine. I wish I could say the same for her works which I found a bit on the bland side, although they garnered a good response from the audience.
Next up was Englishman, Charlie Draper. He presented a commanding and elegant appearance, choosing to wear a formal tuxedo. His stage demeanor was wryly and sophisticatedly humorous. I enjoyed his performance immensely if not his playing which struck me as a tad nervous with too many intonation problems throughout, although I must say he redeemed himself at the end of his set with a rousingly good presentation of Alexander Courage's theme from the original Star Trek that brought down the house.
Anthony Ptak was introduced and proceeded to knock my socks off with an original and emotionally compelling composition entitled Simplexity.13, that screamed edgy, hardcore, creatively improvisational punk in attitude and certainly got the attention of everyone in attendance. He is the type of artist who dares to take extreme chances. When you jump off of the cliff he leapt from, you either believe you're gonna fly or you drop to the bottom of the canyon and crash. Mr. Ptak soared in spite of some "technical" difficulties.
Thorwald Jørgensen proved to be the perfect bookend to Mr. Schwimmer's opening act and a wonderful climax to an extraordinary evening. He brought high minded seriousness to his performances with a virtuoso's commitment to craft and artistry. His Sérénade Mélancolique of Tchaikovsky was delicately refined. deFalla's Pantomine was finely drawn and Cassado's Requebos was a study in phrasing and articulation with wonderful coloration (I loved the warmly dark and woody tones he evoked from his Theremin) and his coloratura passagework was impressive. He saved the best wine for last and Alyabieff's Nightingale sang, trilled, swooped and glided as if alive and fluttering around the room at Joe's Pub. He proved to be a phenom and a virtuoso of the highest order. There was the occasional intonation variance but I believe this to be more a question of "bad" choice on his part which was speedily corrected by his exemplary technique.
Not to be left out of the equation, Katie Leung's pianistic services were employed by both Mr. Draper and Mr. Jørgensen. She proved to be a more than equal partner bringing her own sensitive and expertly insightful artistry to bear on her accompaniment.
Kudos to the New York Theremin Society and most especially Rob Schwimmer for bringing this unique and thoroughly enjoyable musical evening to fruition.
For the techie aficionados out there Mr. Schwimmer provided me with the following: He played a few pieces on a new custom theremin by Charlie Hobbs as well as Vertigo on a 1959 Moog Melodia. Llamano played a standard Moog Etherwave. Anthony Ptak played a Gakken Theremin Premium, Charlie Draper played a Moog Etherwave-Pro and Thorwald Joegensen played a Thierry Frenkel (French theremin maker and wizard) custom tube theremin w. built in speaker.