Ljova and the Kontraband review in Newsday

For those of you couldn’t attend the recent LJOVA AND THE VJOLA CONTRABAND performance at Joe’s Pub in New York, or for those who were turned away (it was completely sold out!), here is a wonderful review from the Newsday music critic Justin Davidson – enjoy!

This eclectic violist’s music is anything but plain folk
Justin Davidson, NEWSDAY
January 19, 2007

Quick, name a violist, any violist! There are plenty of marvelous ensemble players and two or three who live by the handful of oddball concertos, but nobody quite like the polymath Lev Zhurbin, who likes to be known by his diminutive, Ljova.

Though he was born in the string quarry of Russia and refined in the purifying precincts of Juilliard, Zhurbin turned out to be a lover of gritty hybrids. The music he writes and plays is full of Brahmsian tone, Bartók lines, hiccupping Hungarian rhythms, Klezmer soul and the sexy plaintiveness of tango and the blues.

Zhurbin and the group Vjola Contraband played the late set at Joe’s Pub on Wednesday, and the crowded, overheated room was the perfect venue for young musicians still scouting out their own creative terrain. The violist, whose pleasantly geeky stage presence contrasted with the swagger of his sound, described traveling around Hungary and Transylvania in search of the perfect folk tune.

Bartók must have been on his mind, since the Hungarian composer was one of the first and most crucial ethnographers of Eastern Europe’s rural traditions. But while Bartók scoured the countryside for the voice of his country’s people, Zhurbin’s spiritual home is really Queens, that living anthology of ethnic music. It’s poetic, really, that a master of the middle-voiced instrument should write a soulful piece named for the neighborhood of Middle Village.

Like many of the most interesting and entrepreneurial musicians of his generation (he was born in 1978), Zhurbin is an avid collector of influences, beginning with his father, Alexander Zhurbin, the composer of a Russian rock-opera version of the Orpheus tale.

The band is likewise a purist’s nightmare. The Swiss percussionist Mathias Kunzli sat astride a cajón, a beatable box of Peruvian birth, and tapped out rhythms that commuted between Havana and Sarajevo. The accordionist, Patrick Farrell, hails from Cajun country, and his chameleonic instrument now took on the hues of a Buenos Aires bandoneón, now a gypsy squeezebox.

Of course, you don’t get good music just by raking together a pile of ethnic traditions and jumping in. What matters is the personality behind the mix and the technique to extract all the various essences. Ljova’s command of the viola extends from the quiet melancholy with which he draws out a slow melody to high-speed flaming licks.

In concert, he mocked his own propensity for limping meters, intricate harmonies and moderate tempos. “I always feel like fast music goes too slowly,” he said. I know what he means: When beats click by quickly, music can get simplified, like a car speeding boringly along a straight desert road. So, just to prove himself wrong, Zhurbin and the band batted out a dizzying, up-tempo piece with syncopations so insistent and a downbeat so shifty that it felt like it had reversed direction in mid-measure.

If this sounds like music you wish you hadn’t missed, there’s always his Ljova’s new CD: “Vjola: World on Four Strings.”

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