Album du jour: A Far Cry, “Dreams & Prayers”

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What a great album.  Then again, anyone who attended either of this year’s Pioneer Valley concerts by the cooperative Boston-based chamber orchestra A Far Cry would have expected no less.  But can’t you recall cases where the magical spell cast by a concert failed to materialize from the “take-home version” of the same music?  I sure can.  Well, not this time.  While no recording can duplicate the real thing, a great recording can be a work of art unto itself.  This is one such case.

A major share of the credit for this goes to producer Jesse Lewis and to the recording venue, Sacred Heart Church, Fall River, Massachusetts.  The sound is warm and enveloping, while also being precise and frighteningly real.  Lo-fi enthusiasts, especially in classical music, please take note:  This is what you’re depriving the listeners and the music of.  Why?

Typically for The Criers (as the orchestra is also known), the intelligent program of selections was curated by one member, then vetted the entire membership.  In this case, violinist Miki-Sophia Cloud has put together a wide-ranging but cohesive selection of works which, in her words, “explores music’s role in religious mysticism as the ultimate passageway between the physical and the spiritual.  In each of the four works on the album, drawing on three faith traditions and 1000 years of history, something very simple — a breath, a word, a turn, a single note is transformed into something transcendent, and even holy.”

In that case, one just has to start with Hildegard von Bingen, the recently-canonized Medieval German abbess, poet, musician and mystic whose visionary hymns have been embraced by both the early music crowd and new music performers in recent decades.  The Criers’ own collective arrangement of Hildegard’s “O ignis spiritis paracliti” (“O spirit of fire, bringer of comfort”), played in awesomely unanimous unison by A Far Cry’s violinists, allows us to savor the simple perfection of an unadorned melody, shaped and inflected in ways almost too subtle to apprehend, but which are crucial to the narrative flow.  The word for this effect is: Musicianship.

Next was my introduction to the music of Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, a 40-year old composer, pianist and scholar on the faculties of Holy Cross and Brown, and with specialties in western classical, jazz, Turkish and “New Ottoman” musics.  His brief, effective “Vecd” (a state of rapture in Sufi mysticism) evokes the practice of the chanting of a mantra over an ostinato (repeated rhythmic pattern), each accelerating in tempo and intensity until a state of ecstasy is achieved.  Commissioned by A Far Cry, “Vecd” would fit nicely in the repertoire of other ensembles looking for a stimulating work with which to diversify their programs.

The mystical tradition moves from Sufism to Kabbalah in the next work.  Named for the 12th/13th-century Provencal Rabbi Yitzhak Saggi Nehor, , Osvaldo Golijov‘s “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” has become one of the most-performed works by the 54-year old Argentine-American composer, also on the faculty of Holy Cross.  A spectacular tour-de-force for klezmer clarinet, “Dreams & Prayers” gets an all-stops-out performance here by the amazing David Krakauer, who also made the first recording of the work’s original chamber version with the Kronos Quartet.  Fine as that was, I don’t mind saying that I substantially prefer this new version with larger performing forces, allowing for greater dynamic range while also softening the occasional stridency of the string writing of the original.

To express a similar preference for orchestration over original in the album’s final work would practically be sacrilege, even if I really felt that way.  But many of the legendary conductors, including Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini, performed string orchestra versions of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets, so A Far Cry’s expansion of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” from the Op. 132 Quartet continues a distinguished tradition.  That movement, Beethoven’s “Holy Song of Thanks,” composed after recovery from serious illness, alternates between mystical hymn-like passages in a Medieval mode and more vigorous dance-like sections expressing renewed strength.

Kudos to The Criers for their sensitive decisions on when to maintain the intimacy of the original, and when to let the sound bloom with added instruments.  Their performance of the Beethoven no more supplants the original than would any fine cover version of a song off your favorite album.  But right up to the luminous final chord, Beethoven’s sublime, otherwordly song of thanks makes a moving conclusion to an album to reach for repeatedly, especially when in need of the spiritual sustenance great music provides.

For instant gratification, you can purchase and download the album in CD-quality or better (the only quality I permit my readers to purchase — no mp3s allowed!) here and here.  To preview on Spotify:

Coming Up: A Far Cry from the Norm

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Music of reflection and reverie, melodies of sensitive youth and defiant old age, three chapters of a novella-in-sound, told by a troupe of instrument-wielding minstrels visiting our fair valley from the east…

Or, in plain English, a chamber orchestra from Boston is coming to Amherst to play a program of idyllic works by two young composers and one old one.

Either way, a concert decidedly worth your time and attention, marking the unofficial opening (hooray!) of the Pioneer Valley’s classical concert season, takes place this Sunday afternoon at 3:00 at Amherst College’s Buckley Recital Hall.

The artists, the Boston-based chamber orchestra with the intriguing name A Far Cry and the German violinist with the German name Augustin Hadelich, are amazingly good.  Take it from me:  I presented “The Criers” (as they’re known) in concert last spring, and watched as a (shall we way) veteran audience of music lovers fell in collective love with an endearing and dazzlingly talented bunch of musicians one-half or one-third their age.  I’ve heard Mr. Hadelich during his summers at the Marlboro Music Festival, as well as on many recordings and broadcasts, and can tell you without equivocation: He’s the real thing, a bona fide star.

If you know anything about The Criers, you know that they don’t do boring programs.  As violist Sarah Darling put it about this Sunday’s program:

Like every program A Far Cry plays, “Return to the Idyll” was the original idea of one of the Criers, vetted and voted in by a long process which slowly shifts ownership from the original individual to the entire group. Once every member feels that the program truly belongs to him or her, the real art of experiencing/expressing it together can begin.

Yes, they take the democratic thing very seriously.  In this case, the program opens with “Arcadiana” (program notes here),  a 1993 suite for string quartet by then 22-year old British wunderkind Thomas Adès, now one of the best-known composers in all classicaldom.  The arrangement for string orchestra was the collective work of the Criers, who did a splendid chart on a Quintet by Antonín Dvořák on the concert I presented, so don’t let the idea of a transcription get in the way of your enjoyment.  The central work is also a transcription (by Russian musicians Michail Zinman and Andrei Pushkarev), but of a great composer closer to the end than the beginning, the 1969 Violin Sonata by Dmitri Shostakovich (program notes here).  After intermission, youth will be served again, though with a composer we usually hear in vigorous old age, in Leoš Janáček’s Idyll for String Orchestra of 1878/9 (program notes here), thirty years before his greatest acclaim.

Back to Sarah Darling’s program note:

“Return to the Idyll” was originally conceived of by violinist Annie Rab­bat, who wrote the following:

“This program presents a truly idyllic work alongside one that evoke(s) various vanished or vanishing ‘idylls,’ and a third work which was written as a birthday gift, but in an environment that was all but idyllic . . . We start with the Adès, get lost in our search for the idyllic in the Shostakov­ich, and return finally to the beauty of the Janáček.”

One could read this program as a tortured search for simplicity, for ease, for innocence. Beginning with a protracted farewell, we then move into a state of darkness and despair, only to unexpectedly emerge on the other side of it and reclaim what one Zen koan beautifully refers to as “your original face.”

Annie had imagined collaborating with Augustin Hadelich from the very beginning of this project, and all of the Criers enthusiastically agreed that his “unbelievable” combination of rich, meaningful sound and intellectual rigor would be a perfect match for the Shostakovich. We are thrilled and grateful to be bringing this program to life with such a wonderful collaborator.

See you there?

Labor and management fiddle while orchestras burn

As I hope you’ve had the pleasure of not knowing up til now (sorry to be the bearer of bad news), another important American orchestra has the opening of its new season threatened by labor/management strife.  In this case, it’s the second time in three years for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which went through a wrenching dispute in 2012, one which resulted in pay cuts for the musicians and a shorter season for the audience.

The sides are back at it again; you can read statements from both here.  To spare you the effort of wading through the self-serving rhetoric, the issue boils down to management, citing severe financial stress, asking the musicians for further give-backs, and the musicians, having already given plenty, not willing to give more and risk diminishing the orchestra’s artistic quality.  It’s the latest variation on the song we’ve heard several times before, and will likely hear many more times in the next few years.

Predictably, the classicalsphere, largely made up of musicians, music critics and music lovers, has placed the white hat on the musicians and the black hat on management.  Perhaps the staunchest defense of the musicians’ side comes from Kevin Case, an attorney with a specialty in arts law.  Case, who also vocally sided with the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra in their recent labor strife, has now weighed in on the ASO.  See if you can count in his piece the examples of “clearly,” “of course,” “crystal clear,” “plain and simple” and other formulations intended to express omniscience and thwart rebuttals, to which we may add his superb ability to read the minds of his adversaries in order to find the base and craven motives within.  My respect for a writer’s fairness and objectivity goes down with each such fallacy, but that’s just me.

Well, call me wishy-washy, blasé, willfully ignorant or anything else you choose, but I really can’t be bothered getting into the nitty-gritty of each side’s argument here.  Because while labor and musicians are fiddling with percentages of this and numbers of that to gain short-term advantage, the entire enterprise of American orchestras, Atlanta included, could any year now go up in a conflagration that would make this latest squabble seem like a backyard cookout.

Hyperbole?  I wish.  And I hope it doesn’t happen.  Alas, the numbers regarding aging and declining audiences, increased pressure on unearned (i.e., non-ticket) income, rising costs, growing debt, shrinking endowments and other indicators are not pretty overall, even if they’re worse in some places than others.  To see what I mean, read the latest of many clear statements of the unpleasant facts on Greg Sandow’s essential blog.  While Greg starts off by writing about the Metropolitan Opera here, he soon gets to the pattern that many, if not most orchestras have fallen into.  Eventually, and perhaps sooner rather than later, the current, aging structure may come crashing down and have to be built up again.  Frankly, that might not be the worst thing that could happen, if it’s used as an opportunity for fresh thinking on both sides.

Now, if the musicians and management of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, perhaps after they’ve reached a cease-fire and gotten their season underway, can take advantage of their labor peace to look five, ten and twenty years into the future, and come up with ways to cope with the almost inevitable restructuring (artistic and managerial) that will be necessary for survival — then I will read with interest.  Otherwise, wake me when it’s over.

Album du jour: Imogen Heap, “Sparks”

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Great music is a great pleasure, no matter whence it comes.  How do you recognize it?  We all have different ways, but for me, as someone once said of a great melody, great music is music that once you’ve heard it, you could never imagine the world without it.

The latest great music in my life (save for this week’s premiere performance of my friend Matthew Whittall’s amazing orchestral work, “The Architecture of Happiness,” available for listening here, starting at about 1 hour, 6 minutes in) comes from 36-year old British singer-songwriter-composer-multi-instrumentalist Imogen Heap.  Known as a member of the electronic duo Frou Frou and for her solo work, Heap is, alas, a member of a creative generation of non-classical musicians I missed through my own willful ignorance.  Well, I’ve caught her now, and she immediately earns a place in my list of Fabulous Femmes of pop, a sorority without whom life would be a dreary proposition indeed.

And to think that I might have overlooked Heap’s new album, “Sparks,” were it not for the recommendation of one of my trusted advisers at Northampton’s Newbury Comics.  But once I started listening, I was hooked.  Here are ideas in abundance, directness of expression, subtleties of scoring and song structure, fine attention to detail, consistency and variety and, not least, Heap’s intriguing, smoky, London-accented mezzo, one of the most alluring vocal instruments in current pop.

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The result of a three-year project, with audience input, “making of” documentaries (see her website) and other trappings of modern music-making, “Sparks” hasn’t a lazy, uncared-for bar of music over its entire 14-track, 60 minute duration.  Memes and themes that we’ve heard a hundred times, such as the disconnectedness of our digital lives (in a song called “Telemiscommunicatons”), are engaged with imagination and elicit real emotion.  Tracks recorded in Hangzhou, Bhutan and Rajasthan, far from mere multi-culti “we went there!” exotica, fit seemlessly into an aural palette of fabulous richness.  Interesting touch:  a second CD containing just the instrumental tracks of the entire album.  I haven’t been tempted to sing along yet, but you might be.

Fans of Kate Bush, Björk, Tune-Yards, Beethoven, Charlie Parker, the Beatles, and great music of any time, place or genre, lend an ear.  Take it from me and my buddy at Newbury Comics.  And if you like what you hear, please buy the CD.  It sounds so much better than the on-line stream.

 

The Beeb stubs its toe

8th April - LONDON  ;  Harrison Birtwistle.( Photo by Graeme Robertson)

Imagine all your favorite summer classical festivals rolled into one:  Tanglewood, Mostly Mozart, Lincoln Center, Santa Fe Opera, Boston Early Music (OK, it’s held in the spring), a chamber fest of your choosing.

That’s about what you get with the one, the only BBC Proms, a two month extravaganza of 76 orchestral concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, plus a substantial offering of chamber music, matinees, park concerts and other special events at various London venues. A more than century-old tradition, the Proms (short for Promenade Concerts) has been since 1927 under the aegis of the BBC, who do a terrific job broadcasting, telecasting, webcasting, archiving and otherwise making the programs easily available to an worldwide audience.  There’s nothing like it.

Far from concentrating on casual, crowd-pleasing fare, the Proms offers an extremely varied roster of hits, blockbusters, novelties, challenging rarities, and, to its great credit, a substantial proportion of works by living composers.  This year, for instance, the schedule contains tributes to two elder statesman of British music, Sir Harrison Birtwistle (pictured above) and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, on the occasion of their eightieth birthdays.  If you know their music, you would also know that neither gentleman’s works would exactly fall into the category of easy listening.  A couple dozen or more living composers, many of the younger generation, made the cut for this season’s roster.  New music is very well served by the Proms.

But that’s not the impression you’d get from the reaction of the British musical press and new music fans to a decision the BBC has made regarding some of its delayed (i.e., non-live) telecasts of Proms concerts.  As reported here by The Guardian, works by six living composers, including Birtwistle, were omitted from the delayed telecasts of the concerts on which they were featured.  Why would the BBC do that?

On the BBC Blog, an explanation is offered by Greg Sanderson, Commissioning Editor Arts and Music (why didn’t I ever get a cool title like that?) and participant in the Proms telecasts.  In very short, changes in production style this year meant that not every piece would fit into the time allotted for the telecast.  So something had to go.  Sometimes, those somethings were the new work on the program — sorry, programme.  Still, Sanderson wrote, “70% of the music broadcast on TV this year is from the 20th and 21st Centuries, and we are broadcasting as many new works this year as last. So, contrary to some claims, we’re actually making more filmed Proms performances of contemporary music available to viewers than ever before.”  And in any case, the omitted works are still available to watch on the BBC iPlayer.

Critics of the BBC’s move are not convinced.  In the Guardian piece, Judith Weir, Britain’s Master of the Queen’s Music (i.e., Composer Laureate) is quoted as accusing the BBC of the “ghettoisation” of contemporary music.  To noted composer James MacMillan, the implications of the omissions are “tragic.” In an opinion piece earlier in The Guardian, new music executive Susanna Eastburn writes that the BBC’s decision was a sign that the BBC doesn’t value new music.  Then there was composer Birtwistle’s response to the BBC’s reasoning:  “crap.”

Strong words, these.  Are they really deserved?  Not in my opinion, or at least not yet.  One would hope that the immense good will — at least it should be immense — that the BBC has built up with the new music community over the decades would not be wiped away by the omission of six works on just one of the multiple platforms by which the Proms concerts are disseminated.  (Does anyone have viewership figures for these telecasts, by the way?)

But as sports fans know, a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude prevails among supporters of even the most successful franchises.  So, such overreaction and ingratitude comes with the territory, and can be chalked up to human nature — to which we can add the not totally unjustified paranoia of new music lovers when it comes to perceived attacks on their favored and endangered sounds.

On the other hand, while I’m sympathetic to the BBC’s reasoning, having been in Mr. Sanderson’s shoes many times myself, I don’t think the public relations hit the BBC is taking is worth whatever benefit they gained by making the changes that resulted in such hurt feelings.  Yes, sometimes changes have to be made in the broadcast biz, changes that result in short-term pain and long-term gain.  You make the change, weather the storm, and emerge the stronger for it.  Even non-commercial, publicly-funded broadcasters must occasionally make risky changes, lest their ability to serve the public fall behind the times.

But sometimes, the changes just aren’t worth the grief.  I think this is one such case.  And in such a case, rather than provide a lengthy, technical “inside baseball” explanation that will placate no one, you instead thank your critics for their feedback, you eat a little crow, and you promise to rethink the decision — then, actually carry through with your promise.  If the BBC does that in what is, when you really see it in perspective, a fairly minor situation, then all will be forgiven and forgotten.  And the BBC Proms will get back its reputation for being one of the best friends new music has.

 

 

Album du jour: Bryce Dessner, “St. Carolyn by the Sea”/Jonny Greenwood, “Suite from ‘There Will Be Blood'”

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Like Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, whose “Music for Heart and Breath” was the most recent album reviewed in this space, the composers featured on today’s album also both play in very respected rock bands:  Bryce Dessner in The National, and Jonny Greenwood in Radiohead.  After hearing the two albums, can one make generalizations about what classical works by rock musicians can be expected to sound like?  No, but there are some similarities between and among the three composers, as well as telling differences.

Of the three, 38-year Dessner is the only one with academic training in composition (Yale).  He also has the deepest experience in classical music, having previously collaborated with such new music stalwarts as the Kronos Quartet (who have recorded his music) and Bang on a Can.  And though not totally pertinent to today’s review, allow me to suggest that you check out the  very cool music of Clogs, the unclassifiable part-indie, part-jazz, part-classical group that Dessner co-founded in New Haven in the mid-nineties.

In short, Dessner is neither a classical newbie nor just another rock musician aiming over his head (like the subject of this review).  And it shows in the three pieces on today’s album.  Solidly constructed, assured if not extremely imaginative in scoring, they’re more-than-representative 21st-century classical works that would not be out of place on your local symphony or chamber orchestra’s next program.

Of course, the local orchestra would most likely program just one of Dessner’s works per concert, rather than play three in a row, the way they come at you on the album.  And having taken in all three in one sitting on several occasions, I can safely opine that a one-at-a-time strategy would better enhance Dessner’s compositional reputation.

For while the names of the pieces and their putative inspiration are different, the basic game plan of all three is the same.  They begin in a quiet, misterioso mood, with isolated, out-of-time solos over a hushed, suspenseful background — think Alexander Courage’s music for the beginning of Star Trek (“Space…the final frontier…”).  Eventually, the mists part, the isolated gestures coalesce, the tempo picks up, and the piece gets its groove on.  That groove falls somewhere between a Baroque-style ground bass (i.e., a repeated bass line and harmonic pattern overlaid with melodic variations) and Steve Reich-ian minimalism, driven by a moto perpetuo rhythm.  What happens after that is unique in all three cases, though in general, Dessner’s endings strike me as inconclusive and not fully convincing.

But hear the first piece, “St. Carolyn by the Sea” (named for a passage in Kerouac), on its own, and you can savor the unusual combination of full orchestra with two guitars (playing some blatantly Arvo Pärt-like figures, it must be said), as well as the remarkable rhythmic complexity of its main section.  Stick with just the second, the all-string “Lachrimae” (title taken from a piece by John Dowland), and you can enjoy picking out Dessner’s admitted inspirations in the string writing of Dowland, Benjamin Britten and Béla Bartók — not a bad trifecta.  Start with the third and oldest piece, “Raphael” (composed while experimenting with an out-of-tune harmonium), and you can have fun tracing the diverse drone (sustained note) effects throughout, as well as some very resonant scoring for orchestra and electric guitar.  This one is my favorite of the three.  Are you listening, local conductors and guitarists?

When we get to the oldest of our three classical rockers, 42-year old Jonny Greenwood, we hear a style that, unlike that of the other two, shows little influence of minimalism or other stylistic trappings of the “alt-classical” scene into which Parry’s and Dessner’s works fit fairly comfortably.  Rather, Greenwood’s interest in classical music started with his discovery of the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, the Polish avant-gardist-turned-neo romantic with whose music Greenwood shared an earlier recording I praised in one of my old NEPR blogs.

Other than some multiple string glissandi (sliding from note to note) and a few tone clusters, there’s little of the avant-garde in the Suite from Greenwood’s music for “There Will Be Blood,” one of six films Greenwood has scored.  Rather, these musical vignettes are mostly filled with the kind of lush, haunting romance one would associate with the likes Samuel Barber.  OK, one section is more rhythmic, featuring col legno (played with the wood of the bow) cellos and basses, but I wouldn’t call it rocking.  The scoring is for strings only, except for an oddly brief oboe part in the first movement — a part that, considering tight budgets, might prevent otherwise willing orchestras from taking the the piece up.  That would be too bad, for the Suite is very lovely music, even if (or partly because) it’s not terribly consequential.

 

Album du jour: Richard Reed Parry, “Music for Heart and Breath”

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“It’s not every day that a composer invents an entirely new way of creating music,” writes annotator Adam Sweeting in the booklet to the new album under review here, “but Richard Reed Parry may have succeeded in his Music for Heart and Breath.” Hmmm…is either part of that sentence true?  Let us see.  First, some background.

36-year old Parry plays in the Montreal-based Arcade Fire, among the better-known ensembles in indie rock.  From a musical family, though not academically trained in classical composition, Parry cites influences ranging from Guillaume de Machaut and J.S. Bach to John Cage, Steve Reich and Brian Eno as formative in developing his own style, one which fits comfortably into the “post-minimal” or “downtown” or “alt-classical” groove.  Here’s Parry talking about the new album:

Following an earlier 2014 release of orchestral works by Bryce Dessner (of the group The National) and Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead), Deutsche Grammophon, probably the world’s most eminent classical CD label, has just put out an entire album devoted to a cycle of chamber works by Parry.  An undeserved distinction, considering the fine work of so many of his lesser-known peers without indie rock credentials?  That’s really up to DG to decide.  If they think (probably correctly) that Parry’s rock affiliation will spark interest and sales, they’ve made the right choice.

But how about musically?  And what about the sentence in the first paragraph?  Let’s take on the first part of the sentence first:  “It’s not every day that a composer invents an entirely new way of creating music.”

In each of the six works on “Music for Heart and Breath,” Parry employs a unique (as far as I know) technique for the musicians to determine the speed at which they play many of the works’ passages:  Using stethoscopes, the performers use their heartbeats as organic metronomes, basing not just tempi but other decisions (e.g., changing harmonies, cueing other instruments) on their pulse rates.

And since each performer’s heart beats at a different pace, the passages meant to be played “together” will sound off-kilter rather than in perfect synchronicity.  Hearing the music once before reading the explanation in the notes (which all listeners should do, IMHO), I found the effect mesmerizing at first, and wondered how Parry could rhythmically notate such beautifully controlled chaos.

As I let the CD continue from piece to piece (which turns out not to be the best way to enjoy it), the effect progressively lost its charm, and actually began to get on my nerves.  But after I read how and why it was done this way, I heard the music again with greater pleasure, welcoming the heartbeat passages the way one might the successive appearances of an eccentric but endearing character in a TV series.  Add another case to the age-old debate on whether knowing the story behind the music is a help or hindrance to comprehension and enjoyment.

But speaking of age-old, while Parry’s concept may be a new one, the concept of employing a concept is anything but.  As far back as the “ars nova” of the early 14th-century, composers (of which the previously name-checked Machaut is best-known) used notational tricks to give some of their music the slightly-out-of-phase effect Parry achieves with his stethoscopes.

Closer to our time, “conceptual” works, in which some internal or external device triggers what is played and when, have been a mainstay of the avant-garde at least since John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Starting in the sixties, composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich innovated new techniques to give their works the complex interlocking quality that has since been a hallmark of the musical style they pioneered, minimalism.  Check out Riley’s “In C” (piece and explanation) or Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” (piece and explanation). And anyone who attends a decent number of new music concerts can no longer be immensely impressed by an “entirely new way of creating music.”  Composers are forever coming up with clever new ways in their works for musical event A to trigger musical event B, or for the combination of X and Y to lead to, of course,  Z.  I’ve heard some doozies in my day, and I bet you have too.

So, contra annotator Sweeting, it probably is “every day,” perhaps even several times a day, that a “composer invents an entirely new way of creating music.”  OK, chalk that part of his sentence up to hype.  How about the far more important second part?  Has Richard Reed Parry “succeeded” in his “Music for Heart and Breath?”

Well, if one measures success in this case as contributing music with style, personality and that combination of intellectual stimulation and aesthetic pleasure that makes you enjoy listening and want to listen again, I’d have to say he has.  Oh, some of the six variously-scored works are more successful than others.  Best is the one that’s featured twice, in different scoring, as both opening and closing selections, the “Quartet for Heart and Breath.”  Using very simple gestures to pace and shape the music, Parry expresses his ideas succinctly, and with a coy but thrilling sense of drama and suspense.  It would be fun to see what some talented choreographer could do with the Quartet.

The other selections, to varying degrees, combine the same drama and suspense with patience-trying longueurs, the risk a composer runs when sustaining a small number of gestures over the length of extended works.  There were moments in the “Heart and Breath Sextet,” for instance, when the Arvo Pärt-ish portentiousness of each note, each silence, had me rolling my eyes, though the piece redeemed itself by the end.  I liked the field-of-crickets effect of the pizzicati (plucked strings) in “For Heart, Breath and Orchestra,” though it might drive others up a wall.  Full kudos thoughout, by the way, for the performers, including yMusic, the Kronos Quartet and pianist-conductor Nico Muhly among a few others.

Later in his booklet annotation, Adam Sweeting writes: “Defining boundaries between musical genres is becoming increasingly difficult, not least because the most creative musicians increasingly prefer to ignore them.  But is it fair to say that artists such as Parry, Bryce Dessner and Jonny Greenwood are renewing classical music for the 21st century?”  Oh boy, another couple of sentences to decode and weigh in on!  But not this time.  Maybe when I get to the other new Deutsche Grammophon album of classical pieces by indie rockers.  For now, let me recommend that you give Richard Reed Parry’s “Music for Heart and Breath” a try.  And please, do tell us how you liked it.

When classical music went to the movies

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(Joan Fontaine, left, as the infatuated young friend of classical composer Charles Boyer, right, in the 1943 film “The Constant Nymph.”)

Snap quiz:  Which 1944 classic Hollywood film contains the following passage of dialogue?  Answer at the end of the blog.

DETECTIVE: You know a lot about music?

POSSIBLE MURDER SUSPECT: I don’t know a lot about anything, but I know a little about practically everything.

DETECTIVE: Yeah? Then why did you say they played Brahms’s First and Beethoven’s Ninth at the concert Friday night? They changed the program at the last minute and played nothing but Sibelius. 

Let’s overlook for a moment the implausibility of either program mentioned by the detective.  Isn’t it cool that in a mass-market movie, the characters would demonstrate such breezy familiarity with classical music, and that one of them would actually attend symphony concerts?  True, that last fact marks the potential suspect as a gentleman of more than average sophistication — but not that much more.

Watch enough vintage flicks on TCM or elsewhere, and you’ll pick up on other off-hand classical references, and I don’t just mean in classical-plotted movies like “Humoresque,” “Deception,” “The Constant Nymph” or “Unfaithfully Yours.”  But of course, the existence of these and other movies like them speaks to a time much unlike ours, a time when classical music was part of the American cultural mainstream.  To be a cultured person at the time was to have at least a basic handle on classical music.  Even a satire like the Marx Brothers’ immortal “Night at the Opera,” depended on its audience’s knowledge of and love for the object of the jibes.  Could you imagine such a movie being made today?  (As to subsequent use of classical music in the movies, a little creative search-engine use will bring up all sorts of web lists of more recent examples — though it will be instructive to compare how classical is used in movies now with how it was used then.)

Once upon a time in America (film reference intentional), classical music went where the audience went:  to the movies.  To do so wasn’t pandering or lowering its standards, nor was it the dreaded “dumbing down.”  Also, and crucially, the pop music styles of the day, which included quasi-operatic vocal ballads (e.g., Vaughan Monroe, Kate Smith) and “sweet” bands with strings (e.g., Guy Lombardo, Wayne King) alongside jazz and swing, stood far closer to the classical mainstream than does our current pop.

Thing is, while our popular culture, including pop music, movies and later media have continued to move forward over the decades, classical has basically stayed still.  And the two, the popular and the classical, are much farther apart than they were back in the day.  The audience, which by and large prefers the popular, has to make a fairly significant leap to latch onto the classical, to learn its ropes, to speak its language, to feel comfortable and welcome in its settings.

How is that gap to be bridged?  Well, when an art form needs to reach new audiences or die (a little melodramatic perhaps, but not by much), the art form is the one that needs to do most of the reaching, not the audience.  In presentation, repertoire, venue, media — everything, classical music needs to go where the audience goes.  Yes, a mainstream classical concert like last weekend’s all-Tchaikovsky program at Tanglewood with Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra can still draw huge crowds, but all available evidence tells us that such events are the exception.  This evidence exists, by the way (check out Greg Sandow’s blog), so there’s no excuse.

That’s why I’m hitching my wagon to the musicians who in at least one way are helping classical catch up with its potential audience.  No one has to do it all, but if I were Classical Czar, every classical event would have to include at least one innovative aspect — even an all-Tchaikovsky program at Tanglewood.  If you want classical music to make it back into popular movie dialogue, and into all the other media today’s cultured people use — which would, by the way, be a good thing — then you’ve got to do something.

Quiz answer:  Otto Preminger’s 1944 film “Laura,” with Dana Andrews as the detective and Vincent Price as the suspect.

At the Concord with the Goldbergs

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I was a little worried going into last night’s Tanglewood recital by pianist Jeremy Denk — not for him, but for the audience, myself included, and for the composers and works on the program.  Denk, you see, had presented us with a formidable challenge.  He selected for his program two monuments of the solo keyboard literature which, at first thought, had little to do with each other except for their monumentality.

The first, Charles Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, wrestles with the Big Questions of Existence for 45 minutes without letup in intensity.  Dense to the point of impenetrability, difficult to the point of unplayability, profound, bewildering, all-encompassing, craggy, hilarious, sublime — need I go on?

The second, J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (Denk’s witty thoughts here), may be as close to a perfect work of music as we’ll be permitted to enjoy during our earthly existence.  If you’ll forgive the perhaps overreaching metaphor, every note of the “Goldbergs” is like a star, each taking its rightful place in a constellation, that forms part of a galaxy, that subsumes itself into a universe of sound, and which at each level, from single star to universe, performs a celestial dance of peace and order.  I told you it might be overreaching, but this is what Bach’s “Goldbergs” mean to me.  It’s the sanest music I know, which is why I’ve never fully cottoned to either of Glenn Gould’s celebrated recordings, particularly the second.  I prefer my sanity untinged by madness, thanks.

Again, I knew that Denk would be up to the challenge of the program.  The guy’s an amazing dynamo, with an all-encompassing technique and a musical mind that operates several levels beyond those of us mere mortals.  But how would we mortals in the audience survive the challenge?  As for the “Concord” and the “Goldbergs,” how would each work stand up when juxtaposed with the other, and how would they harmonize?

Ah…that’s where Denk’s genius comes in.  Under his hands, Ives’s thickets of notes rang clear, true and balanced.  Denk’s delineation of line and clarification of texture were simply astounding.  What may with a lesser artist have been (and has been, alas) an arbitrary Ivesian jumble turned into an intelligible, if still endearingly eccentric, narrative.  The eclecticism that has gotten Ives into hot water with some critics and composers, mashing together as he does hymn tunes, brass bands, parlor piano and other homey materials with more abstract and dissonant music, took on the quality of skilled cinematic montage.  How magically Denk cast each seemingly disparate element in its proper light, making obvious its relation to the whole!  Here was an object lesson in real virtuosity — not just the ability to play the notes, but the ability to play the music.  I know of no greater tribute to Denk’s performance of the “Concord” than to say:   What a great piece!

Then the Bach:  Playful, spontaneous, very pianistic, absolutely delightful.  The canons that Bach spots throughout the work, where one melody chases the tail of the other, actually had me laughing out loud.  Other variations danced, marched, sang, swirled and plumbed the depths of emotion.  Was it perfection?  Not quite — it was too human for that, and all the more moving for it. Bach, of course, did not tell Denk to inflect the “Goldbergs” in the myriad ways we heard last night.  But, and this is the key, he also didn’t say not to. The work survives, even thrives on, a near-infinite variety of interpretations (OK, even Gould’s), of which Denk’s is among the most joyous.

So overall, it was a pretty good couple of hours for the human spirit, which, as you well know, can use all the bucking up it can get lately.  And for me, that vision of humanity — striving, searching,  singing, dancing — was the takeaway from a fine evening to be alive and a music lover.

 

The $400 blues

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As you may have heard on NPR or elsewhere, rock musician Jack White’s Third Man Records and the folk label Revenant Records have teamed up to reissue the legendary recordings by one of the most crucial labels of early blues and jazz, Paramount Records.  Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ida Cox, Charley Patton — these and other immortal artists can still be heard today primarily or exclusively on their Paramount sides.  Other celebrated artists, such as King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Alberta Hunter and Jelly Roll Morton, also waxed important music for Paramount.  How a Wisconsin-based chair manufacturer came to be such a major force in “race records,” as they were known in the 1920’s, is a fascinating story well told by Tom Cole in the NPR piece.

So, how will the Third Man/Revenant reissues be marketed?  As affordable CD sets?  User-friendly downloads?  No such luck, music lovers, or at least music lovers of the “75 Percent” or thereabouts.  Rather, the labels are soon to issue the “Paramount Records Wonder-Cabinet,” a luxurious package containing fancy print materials, high-end vinyl pressings of 800 tracks and a USB drive containing all materials in digital form, all stuffed into a “handcrafted quarter-sawn oak cabinet with lush sage velvet upholstery and custom-forged metal hardware.”  Price tag:  $400.  And by the way, this fabulous package, formally titled “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, 1917-1932” is just Volume 1.  Volume 2 comes out a few months later, no doubt in a separate casket — er, velvet-lined wooden box.

$400.  That’s about what you’d fork out for an extremely fine bottle of Single Malt, which would no doubt make a splendid complement to Blind Lemon’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” or Patton’s “Down That Dirt Road Blues.”  Such raw, authentic musical expressions of the human spirit!  Such a complex whiskey, with overtones of sea salt, peat smoke, butterscotch and leather!  You could even pretend that your exquisite Isla or Speyside was actually Sterno strained through bread, a favorite digestif of impecunious and unchoosy bluesmen.

All right, look — I tend toward the libertarian in matters of product pricing, preferring that market set the rate.  Perhaps Third Man and Revenant have choosen a wise business model here, and their Wonder Cabinet will be wonderfully successful.  And although they’ve made no noises about it, perhaps they’ll follow the big boxes up with more affordable issues of the same material.  I hope so, since the remastering I heard on the NPR piece was excellent, no small consideration given how the source material was notoriously lo-fi even for its time.

But isn’t there something a little unseemly and culturally arrogant about turning such downmarket (and fabulous) music into such an upmarket commodity?  I’m reminded of the French aristocracy of the 18th century, playing at shepherds and milkmaids, enjoying simple peasant foods (just more of it than the peasants got to eat) and country-dancing to the music of the humble bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy.  “Poverty Chic” is how others have described this distasteful phenomenon.  I think it fits here too.