Albums du jour: Arca, “Mutant” & Ólafur Arnalds/Nils Frahm: “Collaborative Works”

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Arca: “Mutant.” Alejandro Ghersi, a London-based Venezuelan who produces electronic music under the non de musique Arca, does not do pretty. Gritty, grimy, crunchy, crusty and downright filthy, you bet. Pretty, no. Yet if you can accept the idea of finding a kind of awful beauty in, say, an earthquake, or in a volcanic eruption, then “Mutant” might be for you. And it rocks, in both the geological and musical senses of the word.

 

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Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm: “Collaborative Works.” If your taste for electronica also extends to the gentler, mesmerising sub-genre known as “ambient,” then you’ll find rich pleasure in this 2-CD collaboration between two prolific stalwarts of electronica, Iceland’s Ólafur Arnalds  and Berliner Nils Frahm. The first CD — really three EPs gathered onto one full-length — is a “collage of our studio experiments of the past,”tossed off when Arnalds and Frahm would get together between gigs for rest and relaxation. The second, “Trance Frendz,”consists of improvised duets, both acoustic and electronic, performed last July in a Berlin studio following the sessions for a promotional video for the first CD. They had me by the first note and didn’t let me go until the last; then again, I’m a sucker for such stuff. You? Here’s a playlist of CD1:

Four for Halloween

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George Crumb: “Black Angels.” Any reasonably culitvated list of Halloween music has got to include something by George Crumb, the king of modern classical ooga-booga. Let’s go with the 1970 “Black Angels (Images I),” a thirteen(!)-movement piece for amplified (“to the threshhold of pain”) string quartet, the players also whispering, shouting and variously shaking, striking and bowing percussion instruments and glass goblets to eerie effect. Like all good Halloweenery, it’s both faintly ridiculous and genuinely disturbing. And catch the quote from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.”

P.J Harvey: “White Chalk.” Dressed on the cover like Dickens’s Miss Havisham just before her wedding day, mercurial English singer-songwriter P.J. Harvey seems to have imbibed of the spirit of 19th century Gothic literature before composing the blood-chilling songs on this great 2007 album. Listen alone and in the dark — I dare you.

William Bolcom: “Black Host.” Pulitzer-winning composer, ragtime revivalist, and half of the American popular song duo Bolcom & Morris (known for their many appearances locally at Mohawk Trail Concerts), William Bolcom turns the creepiness up to eleven in this insane mish-mash of styles, scored for organ, percussion and tape. Remember tape? If the Phantom of the Opera were around today, this is what he’d play.

Momus: “Circus Maximus”  Reissued just in time for Halloween, this 1986 album introduced an unsuspecting world to the dazzling talent and outré preoccupations of Scotsman Nick Currie, a.k.a. Momus. I’ll leave Momus’s later music as an area for personal exploration, though don’t say you weren’t warned. As for this debut, imagine Nick Drake’s voice and songcraft, Scott Walker’s love of the bizarre, Edgar Allan Poe’s sense of the macabre and a dash of Davie Bowie glam, toss in references to Christian martyrs, Doctor Faust, the Marquis de Sade, Bela Lugosi and others — and you still don’t have an idea how cool it is. It all blows by so lightly and swiftly that you’ll need a few listens to catch it all.

A trumpet for all seasons

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Q. What do you call someone who can stand a front of a symphony orchestra to play a famous classical concerto one evening, then return to the same city two weeks later with his jazz chamber ensemble to perform sophisticated originals based on the words and works of a 20th-century French visionary?

A. A musician.

Which description fits Thomas Bergeron like his trumpet and fluegelhorn mouthpieces fit his well-trained embouchure. Read all about Tom in Jerry Noble’s excellent profile for the Republican and MassLive.com. (I especially like the part where Tom says his studies at the UMass school of business gave him “a practical understanding of the capitalist world we live in.” Would that all serious musicians would attempt to attain a similar level of understanding.) Here’s the link to the November 7 Springfield Symphony Orchestra concert on which Tom solos on Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, and joins English hornist Nancy Dimock in the front line of Aaron Copland’s delicate and moody “Quiet City.” And here’s the link to the Bing Arts Center, the intimate Springfield venue where on November 21, Tom’s jazz chamber ensemble will perform music from his album “Sacred Feast,” featuring new music based on melodies and words of the great French composer Olivier Messiaen (sample his music on Spotify here), as well as jazz interpretations of Debussy, Chopin, Schumann and (according to Tom) “new surprises!”

Jazz Messiaen — what could that possibly sound like? I could gush for paragraphs on its warmth, originality and inventiveness, and how much I loved the unique colors and voicings, but instead, head on over to Tom’s Bandcamp page to sample from and purchase the “Sacred Feast” album. Not too many trumpeters could dream up and play (complete with improvisations) such striking music and also knock the Haydn Concerto outta the park. But Tom Bergeron’s not just a trumpeter, he’s a musician.

(DISCLOSURE: Tom performed Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto with Springfield Symphony maestro Kevin Rhodes at the 88’s on a 2013 concert celebrating my retirement from New England Public Radio. But considering what a cold, ungrateful jerk I can be under such circumstances, accusations of favoritism would be unfair.)

Album du jour: Larry Gus, “I Need New Eyes”

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In “I Need New Eyes,” Milan-based Greek computer engineer Panagiotis Melidis, who produces music under the name Larry Gus, writes and sings lyrics suffused with pain, doubt, love (which encompasses plenty of the first two) and divers other timeless themes, samples widely from the music of those parts of the world that we Westerners hath decreed to be The World, invents attractively exotic tunes containing about as many hooks as a fishing tackle, plays pert near all the instruments (electronic and otherwise) himself, produces it all into a busy and attractive mid-fi soundscape, and comes up with an eminently listenable and/or danceable album very high in entertainment value. Take it from The Wife, who, as she (brave woman) entered my listening lair during playback, immediately got with the beat and flashed a thumbs-up. And you don’t want to disagree with The Wife, do you?

Album du jour: Ursula Oppens & Jerome Lowenthal, “Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! • Four Hands”

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It’s been twelve hours since my last hearing of the major work on this great new album, and I’m still shaking as I play it back in my head.

One definition of a masterpiece is a piece that both speaks for its time and stands up to the test of time. By that and many other definitions, Westfield, Mass. native Frederic Rzewski‘s  1975 “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” qualifies as a masterpiece. A set of 36 variations on a Chilean protest anthem (read more about the work and download the album and booklet here), “The People United” is practically as rigorous in structure as Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and as eclectic as a late-night, free-form Pacifica radio show of the ‘seventies, though much more entertaining. Imagine inviting such varied pianists as Oscar Peterson, Cecil Taylor, John Cage, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Charles Ives, Glenn Gould and Ray Charles to take turns with their own variations, and you get the idea.

Now, one might (I would say should) take issue with the work’s obvious political content — it qu0tes, with evident approval, Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler’s “Solidarity Song” and the Italian communist anthem “Bandiera rossa” (“Red Flag”) — but that’s the zeitgeist for you, as anyone who was near a college campus at the time will recall. If that’s what it took to get Rzewski’s juices flowing, then it worked — “The People United”is a tour-de-force of non-stop creativity, and the kind of artwork that leaves one astonished once again at the capacity of human achievement.

That last phrase goes as well for Ursula Oppens, the work’s dedicatee, who gave the premiere and made the first recording (which knocked me and many other listeners on our collective backsides) of “The People United” going on forty years ago. In the meantime, there have been over a dozen other recordings of it, some very fine, and two, by the composer himself (one audio, one video), essential. Yet another new recording by Russian-German pianist Igor Levit (part of a 3-CD set also containing Bach’s “Goldberg” and Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations!!) will be out by the end of the month. Oppens’s remake, beautifully produced and engineered, is vital, deeply felt, and as profound an engagement with the work as I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of performance Richard Goode would give if he ever played it — and I mean that as a high compliment.

An appealing new piano duet called “Four Hands” follows “The People United”as dessert — or, perhaps, as anti-climax. Never mind. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be so moved and, yes, shaken by the album’s pièce de resistance that you won’t want anything but silence when it’s done. Most urgently recommended.

Album du jour: Max Richter, “from SLEEP”

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Now here’s an original concept for you: Eight hours of music designed to put you to sleep. “It’s my personal lullaby for a frenetic world,” says composer Max Richter of his “SLEEP.” “A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”

No offense to Mr. Richter, but I do not need someone else’s manifesto to regulate the pace of my existence, anymore than I need yet another pundit to amaze me with the revelation that if you turn off your electronic devices you can actually do cool stuff like talk to other people. Maybe it’s the cynic and libertarian in me and I’m being close-minded about such things, but that’s who I am.

On the other hand, I’m no less susceptible to the soothing powers of music than the next listener, and have been known to nod off occasionally during concerts, especially of the Sunday afternoon (i.e., nap time) persuasion. So, if Mr. Richter has a nice new musical soporific to offer, I’ll snooze to that!

Basic info: Max Richter is a prolific German-born British composer of post-minimalist music for concert, stage, film and electronics. His resourceful and entertaining “recomposition” (his term) of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was one of the biggest classical hits of 2012-2013, and a favorite of listeners to my NEPR classical show. His latest and longest opus, “SLEEP (received) its world premiere this September in Berlin, in a concert performance lasting from 12 midnight to 8am at which the audience (were) given beds instead of seats and programmes,” to quote from the Deutsche Grammophon record label’s website. No word on whether crackers and juice were served prior to sleepy time.

In its full eight-hour version, “SLEEP” consists of 31 distinct selections scored for various combinations of instruments (played by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, aka ACME), electronics (programmed by Mr. Richter) and wordless voice (the angelic Grace Davidson). I economized in both time and funds, going for the one-hour, seven track single-CD sampler called “from SLEEP.”

And by and large, I found the music to be attractive, appealing and indeed quite restful, if not exceptionally original. In particular, the resemblance of the acoustic (i.e, non-electronic) selections to the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, especially such Pärt works as “Für Alina” and “Spiegel im Spiegel” (click on titles for Spotify playback) cannot be ignored. But originality and other typical priorities of many modern artists are not prioritized as highly by Mr. Richter. Quite the contrary:

I’m perpetually curious about performance conventions in classical music, our rigid rules that dictate how and what music we can appreciate. Somehow in Europe over the last century, as complexity and inaccessibility in music became equated with intelligence and the avant-garde, we lost something along the way. Modernism gave us so many stunning works but we also lost our lullabies. We lost a shared communion in sound. Audiences have dwindled. All my pieces over the last few years have been exploring this, as does SLEEP. It’s a very deliberate political statement for me.

There’s a bit of straw in that statement, and not just the kind you sleep on. The avant-garde, to the extent one currently exists in classical music, is hardly as devoted to “complexity and inaccessibility” as it once was. Under the influence of the aforementioned Arvo Pärt and others, quite a few younger composers now write in quiet, meditative styles, among them Caleb Burhans, who happens also to be a member of ACME, the ensemble featured on this album.

But once I freed myself of my customary cynicism and put aside my critical judgments, I derived considerable pleasure from this music. And despite Mr. Richter’s admonition that “the short one is meant to be listened to and the long one is meant to be heard while sleeping,” I enjoyed a brief nap during one session with “from SLEEP,” nodding off during the soothing second track, an overdubbed vocal duet with organ called “Path 5 (delta)” and coming to during the very lovely final track, “Dream 8 (late and soon),” featuring Ms. Davidson’s voice tolling like a bell in the middle of (almost) every measure. Nice!

And who in modern times hasn’t ever longed to escape our “frenetic world” for a “slower pace of existence?” A few years ago, the choir I sing in performed a number that ended with (in translation) these words:

Sing, ye birds, your tender ditties, lull the weary past;
haunts of men and busy cities, oh farewell, I rest at last.

In their original German, the words come from a Paul Heyse poem called “Waldesnacht” (“Woodland Night”) published in 1850, and set to music by Johannes Brahms in 1874. Some things never change, however many pundits and artists think that they just discovered them. Now please pass me my pillow…

Take this prize and shelve it!

As posted on the website of the British magazine Gramophone:

One of the most highly-regarded pianists of our time, Grigory Sokolov, has refused to accept the Cremona Music Award 2015 because it has previously been awarded to the blogger Norman Lebrecht.

A quick who’s who and what’s what: The Cremona Music Awards, given in the categories of classical execution (i.e., performance), composition, communication (i.e., media) and project, were established in 2014 by Cremona Mondomusica, an annual exhibition of musical instruments, and Cremona Pianoforte, described on its website as “the one and only trade fair exclusively dedicated to the piano world.” These and a few other musical events take place during CremonaFiere (Cremona Fair), held each September, and which credits itself to be “No. 1 for livestock, bioeconomy and fine musical instruments” — sort of like the Big E with a piano pavilion filled with Steinways, Yamahas and Bösendorfers. Grigory Sokolov is a 65-year old Russian pianist who, though not a household name even in most classical households, is held in the highest esteem by fellow musicians for his immense technique and impeccable musical standards. And Norman Lebrecht is, for better or worse, the best-known classical music journalist in Anglophonia, author of several books and writer of a blog called “Slipped Disc.” His position in classicaldom is, roughly, a combination of old-time gossip columnist like Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper, current media scourge like Matt Drudge, and love-him-or-mostly-hate-him media celebrity like the late Howard Cosell.

In very short, then, the Cremona Music Awards (given in its inaugural year to pianist Alfred Brendel, composer Michael Nyman and the Venezuelan FuturOrchestra project in addition to Mr. Lebrecht) is hardly the Nobel or the Pulitzer, or even as noteworthy as Gramophone’s own annual awards. Mr. Sokolov, an acclaimed artist of known reclusive temperament, doesn’t need another award, much less so unimportant a reward, to cap off his distinguished career. And Mr. Lebrecht will no doubt continue undaunted to chronicle the classical scene with the jaundiced ear and acid pen of Addison DeWitt, the jaded theater critic played to perfection by George Sanders in the film “All About Eve.”

As for what put Mr. Lebrecht on Mr. Sokolov’s s*** list, there were apparently some nasty and possibly unfactual comments about the pianist’s refusal to play henceforth Britian because of what Mr. Sokolov felt were excessive security requirements, but the blog post in question seems no longer to be available.

So what do I make of this? A few things:

  1. Classical spats like this are good. They show that people care enough to have strong opinions, even if they burst into flame once in a while. Show me an art form without spats, and I’ll show you a dying art form.
  2. Most awards are meaningless tokens of self-promotion, intended to call attention to the awarding organization by bringing in some famous person or two. And as in journalism, so in the arts: such awards are usually handed out by tiny committees to someone who shares the same biases and ideologies as the committee members. I stopped taking them terribly seriously long ago.
  3. The best way to deal with nasty critics, bloggers, journalists or journalistic organizations is not to attempt to squelch them, but to ignore them. It deprives them of the oxygen of notoriety without turning them into free speech martyrs. And it’s quite beneficial to the blood pressure and stomach lining. Anyhow, that’s my usual m.o., and my life is better for it.

Album du jour: Battles, “La Di Da Di”

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Remember, back in the ‘sixties, how AM rock ‘n’ roll stations such as New York’s legendary WABC used to play instrumentals by Duane Eddy, the Ventures, Sandy Nelson, et al., at the end of the hour, then fade them out to hit the timepost for the hourly newscasts? Heck, do you remember hourly newscasts? (An aside: I can remember the predictions of massive listener protests when we decided to drop hourly newscasts from NEPR’s classical shows a few years back, only to hear nary a peep. Then again, radio in the twenty-aughts was a totally different medium from radio in the ‘sixties.)

Something of the twangy, thumping, hard-rockin’ spirit of those classic instrumental artists lives on in the music of the trio called Battles, especially since guitarist, keyboardist, composer and vocalist Tyondai Braxton (check out his fabulous album “Central Market“) left the group in 2010. Now pared down to guitar, bass and drums, Battles specializes in the ultra-precise, rhythmically-intricate sub-genre dubbed “math rock” — another day, another rock sub-genre — which it plays with great energy and skill. There’s nary a note of improvisation on their new album, “La Di Da Di,” but there is constant invention that always leaves you guessing, then delighted with the results. Imagine three race cars hurtling around a track, all the while creating fascinating, ever-changing patterns, and you get the idea — except, I hope, while driving. Fasten your seatbelt and give it a spin.

Album du Jour: Ben Folds, “So There”

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And to think that I might have totally overlooked this wonderful album had my friend Matthew Whittall not done a Facebook post of its ninth track. That track by the way, which follows eight of Ben Folds’s typically inventive and engaging pop songs on the complete album, happens also to be the first movement of Folds’s new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, performed by Folds with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. (An aside: I promised Matt that if I mentioned him, I would quote the part of his FB post in which he complained sarcastically of how Folds was “condescended to by career Eurodouche Norman Lebrecht for having the temerity to top the classical charts in benighted America,” referring to this post from Mr. Eurodouche…um, Mr. Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog. Duty discharged, with an additional flipped bird in Mr. Lebrecht’s direction for his anti-American snobbery.)

First about those eight pop tunes, as inventive and engaging (as I already said and will say again) as any you’ll hear this year. Who but Folds would pen such a lyric as

Why didn’t you tell me that I got fat

Now I’m crying all the way from the photomat

Because I see I’ve got more chins than

A Chinese phonebook has

as part of a sweet, yearning ballad called “Yes Man?” Adding to the charm, Folds arranged these songs for his own voice and piano, some rock guitar and drums, and the six-piece hipster classical chamber ensemble yMusic, whose sympathy for the pop idiom (not always demonstrated in such crossover collaborations) is evident in every note, not to mention the occasional giggles and other asides left in the final edits. (Special treat: Check out the brief track 7 and see whether it doesn’t make you smile from ear to ear.)

Then about that Piano Concerto, a far more successful stab at long-form classical composition than earlier ones I had written about by such classical wannabees as Paul McCartney, Béla Fleck and The Dear Hunter’s Casey Crescenzo. Actually, to be fair to Folds, his Concerto deserves not comparison to such poor-to-middling works but consideration alongside George Gerswhin’s Rhapsodies (including “In Blue”) and Concerto, Leroy Anderson’s Piano Concerto, and other sophisticated, jazz-and-pop tinged light classical masterworks. Filled with great tunes (the sweeping opening melody coming straight from the world of Prokofmaninoff!), spiced with distinctive instrumental combinations, confident in voice and not overstaying its welcome by one single note, Ben Folds’s Concerto is a damned good piece — and lots of fun to boot. Of course, that may be the American in me saying that, in which case, three cheers for the red, white and blue!