Album du jour: Stephen Layton & Polyphony, “American Polyphony”

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To be filed under “better than which it does not get.” The 35-voice Polyphony is among the best of the seemingly infinite number of English chamber choirs without whom the classical CD collector would be seriously bereft. Having recorded previous albums devoted to superstar American choral composers Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, Polyphony devote (sic) their newest release (.pdf of the booklet here) to the greatest a cappella hits of four leading figures of the “greatest generation” of American composition: Randall Thompson (including “Alleluia”), Samuel Barber (“Agnus Dei,” “Reincarnations,” et al.), Leonard Bernstein (“Missa brevis”) and Aaron Copland (“Four Motets”). Anyone who’s been in choirs for any length time will have sung most if not all of the chosen works, but could only have dreamt of singing them as well. We expect beauty of tone and scrupulousness of preparation from the best English groups, and have no reason to be disappointed on these criteria here. What we’re spared, fortunately, is the frequent concomitant blandness. No cotton-candy tones here — the performances whisper, thunder, rush forward, make time stand still, and have the hairs on the back of one’s neck standing at near-permanent attention. Now what might Maestro Layton and Polyphony include on a second volume? Let’s see, Copland’s “In the beginning,” Elliott Carter’s “Heart not so heavy as mine” and “Musicians wrestle everywhere,” David Del Tredici’s “Acrostic Song”…

No Spotify playlist for this or other Hyperion releases, though you may sample and purchase for download here. Thanks from this proud American chorister to Stephen Layton and Polyphony for showing us how it’s done.

Cool sounds for a summer drive

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(Left: Bobby Hackett. Right: Arnold Dean)

Here are a couple of the things that have been blaring out of my car stereo of late:

One Night Stand with the Big Bands. My friend and former colleague Tom Reney hipped me recently to a 1972 interview on Hartford radio station WTIC with Bobby Hackett, the great Providence-born trumpeter, cornetist and sometimes guitarist (especially, as Hackett put it, if someone were to punch him in the mouth) whose gorgeous tone and beautiful melodies graced classic recordings by Glenn Miller, Jackie Gleason, the Eddie Condon gang, et al. What a find! Were there more like it?

You bet; in fact, it came from a substantial archive of interviews with big bandleaders (e.g., Artie Shaw in especially voluble form, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton), sidemen and arrangers (e.g., Hackett, Sy Oliver, Billy Butterfield), singers  (e.g., Bob Eberly, Helen O’Connell), the big band historian George T. Simon, and even a lone be-bopper, saxophonist Charles McPherson — who, along with bandleader Larry Elgart, is the last survivor among the interviewees.  Alas, the list of those who’ve since passed on includes host Arnold Dean (D’Angelo), a Connecticut radio legend best known for sports, but whose unassuming but very sharp hosting recalls the old adage that interviewers, like referees and umpires, are best when least noticed. New Englanders will get a kick from the local focus of many of the guests and subjects. And man, dig those crazy commercials! A vast and precious treasure trove, this.

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Four Tet: “Morning/Evening.”  Kieran Hebden, the 37-year old Brit who produces music under the moniker Four Tet, has reflected his Indian heritage on previous releases, but never to the extent of his eighth album, “Morning/Evening.” The title refers both to the daypart-specific nature of Indian raga, as well as to the names of the album’s two tracks. Stronger of the two is “Morning,” based on a sample of Bollywood legend Lata Mangeshkar singing “Main Teri Chhoti Behana Hoon” from the film “Souten.” (Admission: While I have many friends who would have recognized the song right away, I had to look it up.) Click here to see it “sung” on-screen by actress Padmini Kolhapure — Bollywood songs, if you didn’t know, are invariably dubbed by “playback singers,” of whom Lata Mangeshkar and her sister Asha Bhosle are the most prolific and most celebrated. Anyhow, while the song clip loops in and out, all sorts of cool stuff happens above, below and around it. The somewhat less consequential “Evening” also samples what sound like Bollywood vocals though wordless and unidentified (hey aforementioned friends, I need some help here!). Like the interviews above, “Morning/Evening” makes for a splendid time-passer during a boring drive. And if you’re like me, you won’t find yourself reaching to take it out of your car stereo when it ends. One more spin? Sure!

Coming up: A man, his cello, and lots of Bach

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(Photo: The console, loudspeaker and accessories of Gregory Beaver’s International Touring Cello, powered down to save energy.)

Last time out, I reviewed a performance by an amazing young musician whose appeal, it has to be admitted, relies to a substantial degree on flair, showmanship and some pretty cool whistles and bells.

This time, I direct your attention to its near-antithesis: a single performer, a low-tech set-up, and some bare lines of music from 300 years ago. Yet the results promise to be equally inspiring.

To wit: Gregory Beaver, the cellist of the superb Chiara String Quartet, will perform the complete set of J.S. Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, Tuesday evening at 7:00 in the new barn of the Greenwood Music Camp in Cummington, Mass. Here’s Greg’s personal message:

I’d be honored if anyone joins me in this journey. Bach is humbling, and these Suites are well worth the 20 years of effort I have exerted to prepare this evening. The energy they provide will sustain all who come.

See you there?

Emerson, Lake and…Carpenter?

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Prog rock came to Tanglewood last Friday evening, at least in spirit — and ear-splitting volume. Hard as you may have tried, you haven’t forgotten progressive rock, have you? Just in case, here’s the first article in a splendid five-part series on prog by David Weigel in Slate. Oh yeah: Genesis. Yes. Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.” Emerson, Lake & Palmer blaring and bashing their way through “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Keyboards galore, huge drum sets, big hair, big sounds, very big ideas — too big for the musical abilities of most of the groups. But it was part of the fun to pretend that it was all so profound. Now, for those who still find it profound, I suggest you get more fresh air.

Such as a trip to Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Heck, if you had been there last Friday evening, you’d have felt right at home. For on stage, in addition to all the normal orchestra instruments and conductor’s podium, was a ginormous monstrosity that would have made Keith Emerson do handstands: The International Touring Organ, designed and built by the Needham, Mass. firm of Marshall & Ogeltree.

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Holy s***, what a cool thing! That’s my intermission-time phone pic of the console above. What else has it got? Oh, just “a supercomputer/amplifier unit in two road cases, with one spare; and a proprietary audio system consisting of specialized speakers mounted in ten wheeled road cases and eight wheeled specialty subwoofers,” to quote the specs on Cameron Carpenter’s website.

Carptenter, for those not in the know, is the 34-year old American organist who has taken mondo organo by storm with his virtuosity, originality and flamboyance. And for once, what happens in organ world has not stayed in organ world, one of the tiny, mostly isolated planets of the classical solar system that I blogged about in my radio days. Not since Virgil Fox played Bach at the Fillmore East has an organist communed with the common music-loving folk as effectively as Carpenter.

Well, the ostensible purpose of Carpenter’s guest spot with the BSO (led by charming guest conductor Stéphane Denève) was to take the solos in two great French works: Francis Poulenc’s Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani (which followed without pause the concert’s opening work, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings), and the Symphony No. 3 (aka “Organ Symphony”) by  Camille Saint-Saëns (final “s” pronounced unvoiced, as Denève instructed us in his witty remarks).

The Poulenc provided Carpenter much more interpretive scope than the Saint-Saëns, in which the organ part mostly supports the rich and inventive orchestration, and Carpenter’s phrasing and coloration in the Concerto were quite eloquent. I have to admit, at no time during these works was I totally unmindful of the fact that I was hearing an electronic instrument perform a superb imitation of a pipe organ. It’s close, but it’s not the real thing. Then again, how we define “real” in music (and in every other field) constantly shifts over time. And having the organist out front and visible and the pipes — er, speakers placed ahead of the orchestra helped project the intricate solo part to the large audience inside the Tanglewood shed. Plus, as Carpenter put it in subsequent remarks, he enjoys the ability to tour with an instrument with which he can develop a close rapport, as do violinists, pianists, et al.

But after the three scheduled works on the concert — that’s when the fun started. Off went the orchestra, front and center went the organ console, and back on stage came Carpenter, this time in a tight black t-shirt. Show time! A little Gershwin, Wurlitzer-style (“Strike Up the Band”), some dazzling Bach with lightning-fast footwork (Toccata in F major, BWV 540), back to the Wurlitzer era (a lusciously throbbing and overripe “Moon River”), a bit more Bach, this time filtered through Rachmaninoff (Preludio from the Violin Partita No. 3) and, of course, wouldn’t you know, without which it would not have been complete, a Wagner transcription (Prelude to “Die Meistersinger”), everything performed with the virtuosity, originality and flamboyance I told you about above. His hands and and feet were everywhere, coaxing a new sound out of his organ every second. Now, was everything in 100% U.S. Grade A good taste? Hell, and thankfully, no.

Finally, the encore to Carpenter’s encores, the inevitable “Stars and Stripes Forever.” But Carpenter had one more trick up his sleeve, or I should say, on the toes of his sparkling organ shoes. When the time came for Sousa’s famous piccolo obbligato, the master showman played it as crisply as you’d like — on the pedals. With his feet. This feet, er feat, dominated the conversations I eavesdropped on as we headed back to our cars.

Was it all art? Of course not, at least not of the highest and noblest sort. But it was sure entertainment, something classical music has, to its detriment, mostly ceded to other musical genres. And just as prog fans remember with greatest fondness the most outrageous and over-the-top albums and concerts, I’m certain that no one at Tanglewood last Friday will ever forget the organist, his instrument, and man-0-man, them flying feets!

An ode to joy

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How did I love last night’s Tanglewood concert by Apollo’s Fire? Let me count a few of the ways:

I loved the way the seventeen musicians interacted, as if they really liked each other and loved making music together. In particular, the looks on the faces of the backup players while they laid out during solos made for quite a contrast with the dour visages one sees too often from orchestras.

I loved the way the players used their whole bodies to express the music, especially in the final selection, Vivaldi’s “La Folia.” That this and the encore (a medley of reels from their new “Sugarloaf Mountain” CD) were the only selection performed from memory rather than read off music stands made me wish that they had also done so on the other selections. I know, easy for me to say. But isn’t it more fun to watch performers make eye contact with each other and with us than with a sheet of paper? Add this to the things that make classical music different but not better.

I loved the fluidity of the performances, in which tempo, dynamics, articulation and all the other interpretive elements never, but never, rigidified. I’ve rarely heard Baroque orchestral playing — or any orchestral playing — that was so free and alive.

Most of all, I loved the joyousness that pervaded every element of this concert. You would almost have guessed last night that the works on the program weren’t Great Classical Pieces by Immortal Masters but were actually, you know, really cool pieces that were played for our enjoyment.

Why can’t more classical concerts be like this? I know, I know, some works are much more serious, and it just wouldn’t do to treat them so joyously. I love some of those pieces too.

But I have to say, I’ve taken more pleasure of late in performances by artists like Apollo’s Fire, Brooklyn Rider, A Far Cry, Roomful of Teeth and Chanticleer — artists who perform varied and diverse programs with both great musicianship and a decidedly unclassical informality — than in most (by no means all) of the traditional classical concerts I’ve heard over the same span. I could be wrong, but something tells me that over the long run, due to a combination of cultural and economic factors, concerts like last night’s by Apollo’s Fire have a brighter future in American classical music than much of what will take place at the Tanglewood shed later this summer. Let’s get together in 25 years or so and compare notes.

Album du jour: Richard Thompson, “Still”

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I read the news today, oh boy: “James Taylor earns his first-even No. 1 album.” Good for Sweet Baby James, his many New England fans, and to singing-songwriting senior citizens everywhere.

Such as Richard Thompson. Especially Richard Thompson. Now that Dylan has taken to rasping out old Sinatra songs, does anyone deserve the title “Bard of Anglophonia” more than the 66-year old Thompson? Name me someone who has traversed more musical territory, told more compelling tales in song, and remained as vital for as long a time, while also playing some of the best guitar in the business. (You’ll get a kick out of Thompson’s tribute to some of his “Guitar Heroes” on the last track of the new album.)

Not that a No. 1 album is in the works for Thompson. His lead characters, most often female, are too forlorn, their lovers’ affections insufficiently requited for commercial success. We meet several of these sad ladies on the new album “Still,” including she who could never resist a winding road, Patty whom the singer asks not to put him down, a broken doll whom all the tears in the world won’t mend, Josephine into whose hall all the leaves blow in — and that’s just the first half of the album.

But for listeners of certain tendencies, these tales of woe produce emotional uplift, not whatever the antonym to uplift is, thanks in large part to Thompson’s musical craft. Every song has a mood, a style, an interesting harmonic path and an honest-to-goodness melody. Lots of songwriters can fill up a CD booklet with lyrics, few can make those lyrics come alive in music. And of course, there’s that soulful voice, captured with great immediacy by producer Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Listen.

Article du jour: Barbara Jepson on Alexander Scriabin

From today’s review by Barbara Jepson in the Wall Street Journal of Decca’s complete recorded edition of the works of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin:

Raiding one’s catalog to reissue discs from the past—particularly in tandem with major composer or performer anniversaries—is common practice, for obvious economic reasons, but Decca spent money on new performances. I only wish they had spent more.

I am reminded of the callers to sportstalk radio who demand that their team sign or trade for this or that high-priced veteran. Easy for them to say, since it’s not their money. Given the economic realities of classical recordings, Decca’s release of a complete recorded edition of a composer as marginal as Alexander Scriabin deserves a new Grammy award: “Best Classical Recording Devoted to a Lost Cause.”

Later:

According to annual repertoire surveys by the League of American Orchestras from 2000 to 2011, Scriabin’s symphonic compositions are vastly underplayed compared with those by contemporaries like Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. (That’s unlikely to change in the future, despite the boomlet at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the estimable Riccardo Muti.) Perhaps it’s because Scriabin’s works need conductors with a strong sense of structure and the ability to convey unfettered passion.

Or perhaps it’s because Scriabin’s symphonic compositions are vastly inferior to those by contemporaries like Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. You think?

True, the classical repertoire desperately needs renewal. But it’s not going to be renewed by unearthing the century-old bones of a corpse like Scriabin’s, eccentric and colorful as he was. How ’bout we find the Scriabins in our midst, not to mention our Debussys, Ravels and (even) Rachmaninoffs, and invest our funds and attention spans to them? If record labels and other classical institutions are going to take risks, they might as well help advance the art form at the same time.