Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.

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The Anniversary That (almost) Everyone Missed: Bill Doggett (1916-1996), Wizard of the Hammond Organ


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Bill Doggett with his combo (getty images)

William Ballard Doggett, better known as Bill Doggett was born in Philadelphia in 1916 and was introduced to music by his church pianist mother.  He played in a combo while still in high school and went on to work with a plethora of stars in rock, jazz, rhythm and blues amassing a string of hits but, sadly, seems to have barely been noticed on this the 100th anniversary of his birth.  Where is NPR at a time like this?

Well, all is not lost.  Fortunately his nephew and namesake Bill Doggett is doing justice to the memory of this important American musician.  This younger Doggett is an archivist, lecturer, curator, strategic marketer, photographer, filmmaker, and arts advocate (his website is well worth your time).  I am hardly as well prepared to provide more than an overview of this musician’s work but I feel obliged to do my small part in recognizing this man’s work.

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Promotional poster for the September 28, 2016 centennial celebration curated by nephew and namesake, Bill Doggett.

Doggett’s list of chart singles:

  • “Be-Baba-Leba” (vocal by Helen Humes) (Philo/Aladdin 106) 1945 (#3 R&B)
  • “Moon Dust” 1953 (#18 R&B)
  • “Early Bird” 1953 (#21 R&B)
  • “No More In Life” 1953 (#20 R&B)
  • “High Heels” 1954 (#15 R&B)
  • “Honky Tonk, Part 1″/”Honky Tonk, Part 2” (King 4950) 1956 (#1(14) R&B/#2(3) Pop)
  • “Slow Walk” (King 5000) 1956 (#4 R&B/#19 Pop)
  • “Ram-Bunk-Shush” (King 5020) 1957 (#4 R&B)
  • “Soft” 1957 (#11 R&B)
  • “Leaps And Bounds, Part 1″/”Leaps And Bounds, Part 2” (King 5101) 1958 (#13 R&B)
  • “Blip Blop” 1958 (#11 R&B)
  • “Hold It!” (King 5149) 1958 (#3 R&B)
  • “Rainbow Riot, Part 1″/”Rainbow Riot, Part 2” (King 5159) 1959 (#15 R&B)
  • “Monster Party” (King 5176) 1959 (#27 R&B)
  • “Yocky Dock, Part 1″/”Yocky Dock, Part 2” (King 5256) 1959 (#30 R&B)
  • “Honky Tonk, Part 2” 1961 (#21 R&B)

 

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    Doggett’s best known work.

While his last chart hit was 1961 his collaborations with  Lucky MillinderFrank FairfaxJimmy Mundythe Ink SpotsLouis JordanJohnny Otis, Wynonie Harris, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie,  Lionel HamptonRed Holloway, Clifford Scott, Percy France, David “Bubba” Brooks, Clifford Davis, and Floyd “Candy” Johnson; guitarists Floyd Smith, Billy Butler, Sam Lackey and Pete Mayes; and singers Edwin Starr, Toni Williams and Betty Saint-Clair attest to the scope of his work.  Doggett continued to play and arrange until his death from a heart attack in New York in 1996 at the age of 80.

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Bill Doggett photographed in France in 1980 by Lionel Decoster (from Wikipedia article)

The Hammond Organ is known for being the workhorse of modern classical as well as rock, rhythm and blues and jazz.  It was Bill Doggett who became one of the early masters of this (then new) electronic instrument.  While he was also a highly competent pianist, it was with the Hammond Organ that he had his greatest success. There is little doubt that his playing has influenced subsequent musicians who took on this instrument.

Here’s hoping that astute musicians and producers will take on the task of recognizing the work of the late great Bill Doggett.  Toward that end here, from Wikipedia, is a discography of his work:

10 inch LPs

  • Bill Doggett: His Organ And Combo, Volume 1 King 295-82 (1954)
  • Bill Doggett: His Organ And Combo, Volume 2 King 295-83 (1954)
  • All Time Christmas Favorites King 295-89 (1954)
  • Sentimentally Yours King 295-102 (1955)

12 inch LPs (on King Records)

  • Moon Dust King 395-502 (1956)
  • Hot Doggett King 395-514 (1956)
  • As You Desire Me King 395-523 (1956)
  • Everybody Dance The Honky Tonk King 395-531 (1956)
  • Dame Dreaming With Bill Doggett King 395-532 (1957)
  • A Salute To Ellington King 533 (1957)
  • The Doggett Beat For Dancing Feet King 557 (1957)
  • Candle Glow King 563 (1958)
  • Swingin’ Easy King 582 (1958)
  • Dance Awhile With Doggett King 585 (1958)
  • 12 Songs Of Christmas [reissue of King 295-89 plus 6 additional tracks] King 600 (1958)
  • Hold It! King 609 (1959)
  • High And Wide King 633 (1959)
  • Big City Dance Party King 641 (1959)
  • Bill Doggett On Tour [this is NOT a live album] King 667 (1959)
  • For Reminiscent Lovers, Romantic Songs By Bill Doggett King 706 (1960)
  • Back With More Bill Doggett King 723 (1960)
  • The Many Moods Of Bill Doggett King 778 (1962)
  • Bill Doggett Plays American Songs, Bossa Nova Style King 830 (1963)
  • Impressions King 868 (1963)
  • The Best Of Bill Doggett [compilation] King 908 (1964)
  • Bonanza Of 24 Songs [compilation] King 959 (1966)
  • Take Your Shot King 1041 (1969)
  • Honky Tonk Popcorn King 1078 (1970)
  • The Nearness Of You King 1097 (1970)
  • Ram-Bunk-Shush [compilation] King 1101 (1970)
  • Sentimental Mood [compilation] King 1104 (1970)
  • Soft [compilation] King 1108 (1970)
  • 14 Original Greatest Hits [compilation; reissued as ‘All His Hits’] King-Starday 5009 (1977)
  • Charles Brown: PLEASE COME HOME FOR CHRISTMAS [this vocal album includes 4 instrumental tracks by Bill Doggett] King-Starday 5019 (1978)

12 inch LPs (on other labels)

  • 3,046 People Danced ‘Til 4 A.M. To Bill Doggett [this is a live album] Warner Bros. WS-1404 (1961)
  • The Band With The Beat! Warner Bros. WS-1421 (1961)
  • Bill Doggett Swings Warner Bros. WS-1452 (1962)
  • Rhythm Is My Business (Ella Fitzgerald with Bill Doggett) Verve V6-4056 (1962)
  • Oops! The Swinging Sounds Of Bill Doggett Columbia CL-1814/CS-8614 (1962)
  • Prelude To The Blues Columbia CL-1942/CS-8742 (1962)
  • Finger-Tips Columbia CL-2082/CS-8882 (1963)
  • Wow! ABC-Paramount S-507 (1964)
  • Honky Tonk A-La-Mod! Roulette SR-25330 (1966)
  • The Right Choice After Hours/Ichiban 4112 (1991) Note: this is Bill’s last recorded album of original material; also released on CD.

OK all you producers, have at it.

 

 

 

Gene Pritsker and Some of His Collaborators, a Heady Mix


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Gene Pritsker

We have here three very different CDs all of which feature composer/performer Gene Pritsker along with a variety of his colleagues and collaborators.  Each of these CDs is a unique production and reflects a marvelously creative group of composers and performers.

I first came to know of Pritsker’s work when he sent me a copy of his wonderful chamber opera, Manhattan in Charcoal and when I began to learn of the scope of his work through his numerous You Tube videos and his website I found myself rather overwhelmed and wholly intrigued.  In fact I can’t shake a comment which Leonard Bernstein once made about Igor Stravinsky to the effect that he was able to switch between different styles at different times with seeming ease and certainly skill (It was a comment made on a vinyl disc in which Bernstein spoke of Stravinsky in general on one cut and described the imagery of Petroushka on another.).  Pritsker’s Russian origins certainly play a part in reminding me of this association but it is the sheer extent and variety of his compositional visions and techniques that drive me to be reminded of this.  His virtuosity on the guitar also puts me in the mind of Frank Zappa at times too.  And he seems to be doing it pretty much all at once too, utilizing a wide palette of styles selectively with care and subtlety.  Pritsker switches between some very classical sounds to rock, jazz, rap, etc. as though the distinctions don’t exist or matter.  In the end they don’t matter really.  All is music I suppose and he seems be able to use them all pretty well and these discs are a nice sampling of some of this interesting musician’s various guises and interests.

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Fortunately I am not attempting a comprehensive cataloging of all that but rather reviewing a nice little selection of some current releases which Mr. Pritsker was kind enough to entrust to my critical ear.  First up here will be a Mozart tribute of sorts. Regular readers may recall another entertaining Mozart-based recording by John Clark (here). Indeed Mr. Clark makes an appearance here both as composer and performer.  This curious little disc consists of short, clever glosses on Mozart by Gene Pritsker, Patrick Grant, John Clark, Milica Paranosic, Dan Cooper and David Taylor.  Pritsker in particular seems to have a penchant for reworking music by other composers.  His Bach-based works also deserve attention as well.  But that is another matter.

There are 13 tracks and all have a somewhat improvisational character.  Of course variation forms are ubiquitous and varied throughout music history and these are, if not strictly speaking, “variations”, then something close which is why I have chosen the term glosses.  But all are entertaining and reflect a sort of new music take on Mozart who appears to have some meaning for each of the composers (Mozart is my desert island composer by the way).  I am sure that Mozart himself would have been amused and honored.  These are most certainly homage at the very least.

The CompCord Ensemble consists of Charles Coleman, voice; Chanda Rule, voice; Milica Paranosic, voice/gusle; Patrick Grant, voice/harpsichord; Lynn Bechtold, violin; Dan Barrett, cello; John Clark, horn; David Taylor, bass trombone; Gene Pritsker, guitar; Dan Cooper, bass; Javier Diaz, percussion/voice; Gernot Bernroider, drums; Franz Hackl, trumpet.

There are no liner notes here and perhaps that is for the best.  I have no doubt that there are a great deal of personal stories here as to how these pieces came about and what they mean to the respective musicians but they do stand on their own as entertainment and to my ear sound like they could even work as a film soundtrack (most likely a non-American film). This is entertaining material, perhaps a bit “inside” with its references but not difficult or obscure.   I will leave it to some future musical archaeologist to elucidate those details. The listener need only sit back and be entertained.

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Now to the second disc.  This is quite different in character being a duo between a guitarist (Gene Pritsker) and a drummer (Peter Jarvis).  Such scant scoring tells one nothing about what is to come.  Each of the six tracks is by a different composer (Peter Jarvis, Gene Pritsker, David Saperstein, Joseph Pehrson, Jessica Wells and Daniel Palkowski).  As with the previous disc there are no liner notes so one is left with nothing but the sound.

This appears to be much more of an improvisational nature than the previous recording considered above.  The style here ranges from free jazz to rock and perhaps some contemporary musical styles as well.  Each track is a succinct statement and none of the tracks seem to go longer than necessary.  The musicianship is superb so if you are fond of the sound of guitars and drums played creatively and well you will enjoy this disc.  These musicians extract a great deal of varied sounds from their instruments.

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Finally we have this disc of song cycles.  Now the only song cycles I know at all well are those of Franz Schubert but that is, I think, an adequate place to begin to understand what is going on here (still flying without liner notes).

Eight composers and eight poets are featured in six song cycles. The first and last cycles (tracks 1-3 and 16-19) are the only ones which include instruments in addition to the voice and piano.  Only one song here (Inside on track 15) features poetry by the composer.  The rest, like Schubert utilized existing poetry.

Most of these composers are unknown to me which is both the joy and the bane of reviewing such discs.  All of these fall roughly into the classical art song tradition even with their occasional blues inflections (as in the Pritsker songs) or extended instrumental techniques.  David Gutay, Zach Seely, Patrick Hardish, Luis Andrei Cobo, Eleanor Cory are all new names to me and it Mr. Pritsker is to be commended for his efforts to promote others’ music.  The two composers here who are familiar are Mr. Pritsker and, another reason for commendation, Lester Trimble (1923-1986), a man embraced by Leonard Bernstein and cut from similar sonic cloth as both Bernstein and Copland.  This recording of Trimble’s Canterbury Tales is a welcome addition to the discography of mid to late twentieth century masters who deserve at least another listen.

The poets include: Tony Roberts, Jacob Miller, Dorrie Weiss, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, Eleanor Cory and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Performers include Elizabeth Cherry, soprano; Thomas Carlo Bo, piano; Katie Cox, flute; Charles Coleman, voice; Derin Oge, piano; Patricia Songego, soprano; Taka Kigawa, piano; Lynn Norris, soprano; Amir Khorsrowpour, piano; Eleanor Taylor, soprano; Christopher Oldfather, piano; Circadia Ensemble consisting of: Melissa Fogarty, soprano; Kaoru Hinata, flute; Christopher Cullen, clarinet; Jenifer Griesbach, harpsichord (in the Trimble cycle).

The performances are uniformly excellent albeit a collection of separate recordings all mastered, as were the previous two discs by Sheldon Steiger.  If you love art song this is a treasure trove of current compositions but with a healthy respect for the past.

 

 

A Really Great Brass and Organ Album, Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble


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MSR Classics MS 1598

At first this disc seemed to be one of those “audiophile spectacular” niche market items designed to show off one’s stereo system.  I expected a well-recorded album with wide dynamic range and a clarity that would stun the listener but these types of albums frequently have well-recorded but uninteresting music or, worse, cloying showpieces that don’t bear repeated listening.

The first listen dissuaded me from that notion immediately because this is interesting and well-played music.  Except for three clever transcriptions of late 19th/early 20 century pieces all the music is from 2005-2013 (as are the transcriptions for that matter).

The music is, on the whole of a somewhat conservative nature but that is not a negative thing.  All of the music is pleasantly engaging and/or downright exciting.

The first four (of a total of 15) tracks present the music of Carlisle Sharpe (1965- ).  The first work Flourishes (2005/10) is a festive fanfare which was revised for this ensemble. The next three tracks contain the Prelude, Elegy and Scherzo (2012) is a commission by the present artists.

Next we move on to one of the arrangements by Craig Garner (1959- ).  This is, I think, a difficult arrangement to play but is handled with such ease by these players that one could be fooled into thinking it was easy.  The arrangement of the popular drinking song from Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) is a lucid and detailed transcription.  It is the clarify of the recording that makes this obvious as we are able to hear the various challenging lines that allow pretty much everyone in the ensemble to demonstrate their facility.

William Whyte (1983- ) is the next featured composer with a satisfying little suite called Dwarf Planets (2012).  It is in five brief movements.  The piece was also commissioned by and dedicated to Chicago Gargoyle Brass and artistic director Rodney Holmes.

Earthscape (2011) by David Marlatt is cast in a similar vein and, with the previous five tracks these are effectively musical appendices to Holst.  Marlatt, a Canadian composer has written this lyrical piece for the Gargoyle Brass.

Tracks 12 and 13 are another great transcription of a type of work which conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was fond of calling “bon-bons”, an appellation that was a proto-pop concert concept describing short, popular encore pieces.  It is the Polka and Fugue from “Schwanda the Bagpiper” by Jaromir Weinberger (1896-1967), a Czech composer whose reputation lies pretty much entirely on this work.   Originally for orchestra, this engaging work is very effectively arranged for this ensemble.

Tracks 14 and 15 comprise another transcription, this time of two movements from Camille Saint-Saens’ (1835-1921) 3rd Symphony (1886).  This is another truly great piece of music that always plays well with audiences.  The original is for a large orchestra and an organ.  The transcription is remarkably faithful to the score and it’s hard not to get hooked on that finale.  The entire symphony is actually based on the “Dies Irae” chant from the Requiem Mass though this is not a somber piece at all.

The last track is Velvet Blue (2012) by Peter Meechan (1983- ), a British born Canadian composer.  Originally written for a “rock” organ (the Hammond variety) and here played on a traditional pipe organ this is one of the most unusual pieces here.  It’s blues/jazz inflections harken back to big band sounds of the 1930s.

Brass instruments and organs are not instruments known for their agility.  Combine that with the resonant recording space of the churches involved and you have some serious engineering challenges.  Hudson Fair at Hudsonic has met these challenges and succeeded in capturing these performances in lucid detail with a true audiophile recording.  The dynamic range is wide and the the recording is about as clear as I have ever heard done  in this setting.

The musicians Lev Garbar, trumpet; Andrew Hunter, trumpet and flugelhorn; Amy Krueger, horn; Kathryn Swope, horn; John Grodrian, trombone; Graham Middleton, trombone; Ryan Miller, trombone; Andrew Vandevender, tuba; Paul Ramsler, tuba; Joshua Wort, tuba; Michael Schraft, tympani and drum set; Jared Stellmacher, organ; Mark Sudeth, piano; and Steven Squires, conductor all play with precision, lyricism and feeling.

One more piece of what I call “audio porn” is nicely included, the statistics on the two beautiful organs played at the two churches where these recordings were made.  Nice touch. Great fun album.

 

Other Minds 21, the Dawn of a New Chapter and the Raising of the Dead


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Charles Amirkhanian with the composers of OM 21

Much needed rain pummeled the city by the bay on all three days of OM 21 dampening, perhaps, some attendance but not the enthusiasm of the audience or the performers.  In most ways this concert was a continuation of the celebration begun last year commemorating 20 years of this festival.  Returning this year were Gavin Bryars (OM7) and Meredith Monk (OM1).

Until last year no composer had appeared more than once at this series.  For those unfamiliar with OM it is worth noting that the process has been for the 8-10 selected composers spend a week at the Djerassi Arts Center in Woodside, California sharing and discussing their work before coming to San Francisco for performances of their work.

As it turns out this year’s concert series will be the last to follow that format.  Apparently OM has become the victim of gentrification and has had to move out of its Valencia Street offices and will now opt for various concerts throughout the year as they have done but without the big three-day annual festival and the residency at Djerassi.

The archives of OM are now going to be housed at the University of California Santa Cruz where they will reside along with the Grateful Dead archives.  I do believe that Mr. Amirkhanian lived near Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead when he lived in San Francisco some years ago so it seems fitting that these two archives will peacefully coexist in that space (also coming to UCSC will be OM 21 composer Larry Polansky though not in an archive).

This is certainly a change but this is a festival which has endured various changes in time and venue led throughout by the steady hand of the Bill Graham of contemporary music concerts, Charles Amirkhanian (both men have had a huge impact on music in the bay area as well as elsewhere and it is worth noting that the Contemporary Jewish Museum will have a tribute to Graham this year).

Actually Other Minds traces its provenance to the Telluride, Colorado Composer to Composer festival (also led by Amirkhanian) and later morphed into OM with the leadership of president (now emeritus) Jim Newman back in the early 1990s.  There is a short excellent film describing OM’s history on Vimeo here.

It is the end of a chapter but, as Amirkhanian explained, there are many exciting concerts coming up which will keep Other Minds in the earshot of the astute contemporary music aficionados on the west coast.  Next year, for example, will include several very exciting concerts celebrating the 100th birthday anniversary of beloved bay area composer Lou Harrison.

My apologies for the delay in posting which was due to both the richness of the experience and the exigencies of my day job and other responsibilities.  I hope that readers will find this post to have been worth the wait.

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Nordic Voices

Starting our rainy day were the extremely talented singers known as Nordic Voices.  Lasse Thoresen‘s Solbøn ( Sun Prayer) (2012) and Himmelske Fader (Heavenly Father) (2012) both required keen listening and required the use of extended vocal techniques such as multiphonics.  The singing appeared effortless and even fun for the ensemble but that speaks more to their expertise and preparedness than any ease in terms of the score.

It is always difficult to judge a composer’s work by only a small selection from their output  but Thoresen’s virtuosity and subtle use of vocal effects suggests a highly developed artist and it would seem worth one’s time to explore more of this gentleman’s oeuvre.

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Lasse Thoresen takes the stage to acknowledge the applause.

Next was an unusual, humorous/dramatic work by Cecile Ore called Dead Pope on Trial (2015/16) with a libretto by Bibbi Moslet.   This Other Minds commission was given its world premiere at this concert.  The work is based on the story of a medieval pope who was taken from his grave no fewer than six times for various perceived offenses.  It is a mix of irony and humor in a sort of madrigal context.  The work was in English and had the nature of a conversation between the singers.  No doubt a challenging piece, it was sung very well and the composer seemed as pleased with the performance as much as the audience.

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Cecile Ore smiling as she acknowledges the applause for the wonderful premiere performance of her new work, Dead Pope on Trial.

As if in a demonstration of sheer stamina in addition to virtuosity Nordic Voices took the stage again, this time for some Madrigals (2002/2016) by returning artist Gavin Bryars.  Bryars is no stranger to Other Minds or to madrigals and such older musical forms from the renaissance and before.  He has extensively explored vocal writing and medieval harmonies in many previous works.  Though categorized as being a “minimalist”, Bryars actually has produced a huge range of music in all forms including opera, chamber and orchestral music.

His madrigals have been written for the Hilliard Ensemble and each book is distinguished by the madrigals having been written on a specific day of the week.  The first book on Mondays, etc.  They are settings of Petrach’s sonnets and are sung in the original Italian of his day.  On this night we were treated to four madrigals from Book Two and the premiere of a madrigal from Book Four.  That madrigal was dedicated to Benjamin Amirkhanian, the father of Charles Amirkhanian who celebrates his 101st birthday this summer.

I had the opportunity to meet and speak briefly with the affable Mr. Bryars.  His generous spirit pervaded our conversation and he spoke very highly of both his visits to Other Minds.  If you don’t know this man’s music you are doing yourself a great disservice.

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A very pleased Gavin Bryars deflects the applause and adulation to the amazing Nordic Voices for their astounding performance of five of his madrigals.

The singers of Nordic Voices sustained a high level of virtuosity as well as sheer stamina as they sang for nearly two hours in the opening pieces of this concert series.  No time was lost setting the stage for the performance of the next piece, another premiere, Algebra of Need (2016) for electronic sampling and string quartet by Bang on a Can member Phil Kline.

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FLUX Quartet playing at SF Jazz, 2016

The Flux Quartet was featured in the next two (and last) works on this long program.  Algebra of Need is Kline’s meditation on the words and the cadences of the iconic writing and voice of the late William S. Burroughs (gone 19 years as of this writing).  The familiar voice seemed to go in and out of clearly audible, at times mixed more closely with the string writing in this intense homage.

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A satisfied looking Phil Kline leans in to embrace the first violin of the Flux Quartet after their premiere of his Algebra of Need.

The Bang on a Can collective was also represented tonight by Michael Gordon.  The Sad Park (2008) for string quartet and electronics put a most decidedly disturbing conclusion on the evening.  This piece, which samples the voices of children (one of them Gordon’s) as they spoke of their experience of the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks.

The effect was, as no doubt intended, harrowing leaving a pretty strange and unsettling feeling as we walked away from the concert into the still rainy night.

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Michael Gordon embraces the FLUX Quartet’s first violin after a stunning performance of The Sad Park.

The rain continued on Saturday but the crowd was noticeably larger for the second night which opened with the usual panel discussion.

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left to right: Meredith Monk, John Oswald, Nicole Lizee, Eliot Simpson, Larry Polansky, Oliver Lake and Charles Amirkhanian in a panel discussion prior to the concert

This evening began with a performance by the wonderful bay area violinist Kate Stenberg of a piece which was a sort of antidote to the somber, The Sad Park from the previous night.  Again the composer was Michael Gordon and the piece was Light is Calling (2004), a collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison.  Though hardly a happy piece Light is Calling is perhaps elegiac and the composer seems to achieve some of his stated intent to find some healing in the wake of a disaster to which he was all too close.

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Kate Stenberg plays violin beneath the projection of a Bill Morrison film in Michael Gordon’s, Light is Calling

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Michael Gordon and Kate Stenberg accepting the applause of an appreciative audience.

Next up was John Oswald, a Canadian composer whose career took off in infamy when his Plunderphonic CD, released to radio stations in the early 1980s, became the subject of legal battles over the meaning of copyright law in light of digital sampling.  Fortunately Oswald won the right to publish his work and his Plundrphonics concepts now underlie much of his compositional process.  Until this night I had not heard any but his Plunderphonic CDs so the introduction to his live music was a revelation.

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Pianist and (at least here) multi-instrumentalist Eve Egoyan performing with a Yamaha Disklavier and other instruments.

The first piece she did was called Homonymy (1998/2015) was originally written for chamber orchestra and was then transcribed for Egoyan and her prepared disklavier et al.  It is a piece based on linguistic elements and with a visual component as well.

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Eve Egoyan performing Homonymy with overhead projections.

Nicole Lizee’s David Lynch Etudes (2015) was the next piece  and also made use of the projection screen.  The subtitle of the piece indicates it is for “disklavier and glitch”.  Well life imitated art as some sort of glitch prevented the projection from functioning at first but this was rather quickly resolved and we were treated to excerpts of scenes from several David Lynch films with the piano playing some of the rhythms of the dialog in an exchange that puts this writer in the mind of music like Scott Johnson’s “John Somebody” and Steve Reich’s incorporation of speech rhythms in works like, “The Cave”.

Nicole Lizee is a Canadian composer and was the youngest composer on this year’s program.

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Eve Egoyan playing Nicole Lizee’s David Lynch Etudes with projected scenes/glitches from Lynch’s films.

The work is one of a series of pieces inspired by films and was executed with apparent ease by pianist Eve Egoyan who played the disklavier (both the keyboard and directly on the strings), a guitar and perhaps other gadgets .  The piece kept her quite busy and the associations I described above sound nothing like this work actually.  These etudes were a unique, typically Other Minds sort of experience, one that expands the definition of musical composition.

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Nicole Lizee (l) with Eve Egoyan absorbing the audience’s appreciation of the David Lynch Etudes.

Two more John Oswald compositions graced the program next.  Palimpia (2016) is a six movement piece for disklavier with pianist playing as well.  Oswald says it is actually his first composition for piano.

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John Oswald embracing pianist Egoyan and enjoying the audience applause for his work.

Well I did say there were two more Oswald pieces but this last one was a masterful plunder by this truly unusual composer.  Here Oswald conjured the playing as well as the image of the late great Glenn Gould who was seen actually playing Invaria (1999) with the disklavier performing along with the film of Gould performing this music.  It was, for this writer, a spellbinding experience.  He has raised the dead in the name of music.  Wow!  It was an amazing and heartfelt homage to a fellow great Canadian musician.

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Glenn Gould playing John Oswald

Larry Polansky (1954- ) is well known as a teacher and as a composer but one is hard pressed to find much in the conventional discography of his work.  The few discs out of his amazing electronic music (and one disc of piano variations) represent only a small fraction of his output and represent only one genre of music which he has mastered.  However the astute listener needs to be advised to look online to look, listen and hear some of the bounty of his creative output.  Check out the following sites: Frog Peak Music (Polansky’s publishing site which includes music and scores by a great many interesting composer in addition to himself and Dartmouth Page (which contains link to various recordings, writings, computer software, etc.

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Giacomo Fiore (left) and Larry Polansky playing Polansky’s ii-v-i (1997)

As an amateur musician who has enough trouble simply tuning a guitar it made my knees weak to watch these musicians effortlessly retune as they played.   Polansky’s experimentation with alternate tunings is an essential part of many of his compositions.

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Fiore and Polansky changing their tunings mid-phrase in a stunning demonstration of virtuosity with pitch changes.

The program then moved from the electric to the acoustic realm with Polansky’s folk song arrangements.  Eliot Simpson, the pedagogical progeny of the great David Tanenbaum (who played these concerts last year at OM 20), played the just intonation National Steel Guitar and sang.

Let me say just two things here.  First, these are not arrangements like Copland’s Old American Songs and second, I will never hear these folk songs quite the same way again.  Polansky’s interest in folk music and Hebrew cantillation along with alternate tunings produces what the ears hear as perhaps a different focus.  In these pieces he did not stray too far from the original (as he does in his Cantillation Studies) but one is left with distinctly different ways of hearing and thinking about this music and the listener is left richer for that.  It is a journey worth taking and Simpson played with both passion and command.

Eliot Simpson playing a selection of Larry Plansky's Songs and Toods

Eliot Simpson playing a selection of Larry Plansky’s Songs and Toods

Polansky returned to the stage for a performance of his 34 Chords (Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton) (1995). Again we were treated to the virtuosic use of alternate tunings performed live (and again with live re-tunings) by the composer.

Oliver Lake delivering a blistering free jazz improvisation.

Oliver Lake delivering a blistering free jazz improvisation.

Continuing with the solo performer theme we were privileged to hear the virtuosic jams of Oliver Lake (1942- ) whose long career is legendary in the jazz world.  The “mostly improvised” (according to the composer) Stick was played on two different saxophones in what appeared to be as intense an experience for the performer as it was for the audience.

Oliver Lake takes a final bow at the end of the second concert of OM 21

Oliver Lake takes a final bow at the end of the second concert of OM 21

The emotional workout was received warmly by the audience.

Charles Amirkhanian introduces Meredith Monk on the final day of OM 21

Charles Amirkhanian introduces Meredith Monk on the final day of OM 21

There was no panel discussion on the third day of OM 21.  This matinée was dedicated entirely to the work of Meredith Monk (1942) who, fittingly was one of the featured artists in the first Other Minds gathering in 1993.  Now a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts this beloved artist returns to OM 21.  Though the rain continued the house appeared to be full.

Meredith Monk playing a Jaw Harp in one of her early solo songs.

Meredith Monk playing a Jaw Harp and singing in one of her early solo songs.

Monk played a selection of material from various periods in her career in a mostly chronological survey which she called The Soul’s Messenger.  She began with selections from her solo songs and proceeded to her voice and piano music, then to her work with multiple voices and instruments.

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby

Most of the audience seemed to have a comfortable familiarity with the individual works she offered on this night which effectively gave a picture of her career.  Monk was in good voice and appeared to enjoy her performance.

Long time collaborator Katie Geissinger and Allson Sniffin joined in the next selection

Long time collaborator Katie Geissinger and Allson Sniffin joined in the next selection

The stage was set to allow for the dance/movement that is an essential part of Monk’s works.  She originally trained as a dancer.

Monk and long time collaborator Katie Geissinger reacting to the appreciative audience

Monk and long time collaborator Katie Geissinger reacting to the appreciative audience

In addition to the grand piano the stage was set with two electronic keyboards, an essential sound in many of Monk’s works.

Monk at one of the electronic keyboards

Monk at one of the electronic keyboards

Woodwind player Bodhan Hilash joined the ensemble for the last set of pieces.

From left: Bodhan Hilash, Meredith Monk, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger

From left: Bodhan Hilash, Meredith Monk, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger

The audience gave a standing ovation at the end resulting in 3 curtain calls.

Left to right Allison Sniffin, Meredith Monk, Katie Geissinger and Bodhan Hilash receiving a standing ovation.

Left to right Allison Sniffin, Meredith Monk, Katie Geissinger and Bodhan Hilash receiving a standing ovation.

And the properly prepared artist came back for an encore of her song Details.

Meredith Monk performing an encore at the final concert of OM 21

Meredith Monk performing an encore at the final concert of OM 21

 

It was a fitting finale to a great OM 21, fitting to have this artist who appeared on the first iteration of Other Minds returning now crowned with a National Medal of the Arts and clearly beloved by the audience.  Her music like her lovely smile fade to the edge of memory like that of the Cheshire Cat on a truly triumphant finale.

And, despite some format changes, who knows what treasures continue to lie in store?  I will be watching/listening and so, apparently will many others.  Keep an eye on www.otherminds.org .  I know I will.

 

A Glorious Other Minds 20th Anniversary


The 20th Other Minds festival completed its three concert run on March 6, 7 and 8 of 2015.  This was the first time in which composers who had appeared before came for a second time.  Ten composers were featured and a total of some 25 or so works were performed.  It also marked the first time that a full symphony orchestra was featured.

Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts Orchestra just fitting on the stage at SF Jazz

Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts Orchestra just fitting on the stage at SF Jazz

The first night opened with the wonderful guitarist David Tanenbaum performing music by the late Peter Sculthorpe who was to have attended this festival.  Sculthorpe sadly passed away in August of 2014.  Tanenbaum played his “From Kakadu” (1993) a suite for guitar in four movements.  This was moving and quite virtuosic music which was performed with passion and ease.

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

Tanenbaum followed Sculthorpe’s piece with the last composition by the beloved Lou Harrison called Scenes fromNek Chand (2001-2) played on a National Steel Guitar in just intonation.  As with the Sculthorpe, Tanenbaum displayed his well-known facility in interpretation of new music and left the appreciative audience wanting more.

David Tanenbaum holding his National Steel Guitar as he acknowledges the warm applause

David Tanenbaum holding his National Steel Guitar as he acknowledges the warm applause

Next up was a too rare opportunity to hear a composition by Other Minds Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian.  Bay area violinist Kate Stenberg took the stage to perform the solo violin part with prerecorded tape.  The piece called Rippling the Lamp (2007) is a musical depiction of a visual the composer saw involving the reflection of a lamp in water.  But regardless of the genesis this was a powerful and engaging piece even on a purely musical level.  Stenberg executed her part flawlessly in what was an almost romantic piece at times.

Kate Stenberg playing Amirkhanian's Rippling the Lamp.

Kate Stenberg playing Amirkhanian’s Rippling the Lamp.

Charles Amirkhanian warmly embraces Kate Stenberg following her performance of his piece.

Charles Amirkhanian warmly embraces Kate Stenberg following her performance of his piece.

And the first half concluded with a performance by the Del Sol Quartet of the world premiere of Miya Masaoka‘s Second String Quartet “Tilt” (2014-5).  This was a complex piece requiring a great deal of knowledge of special performance techniques that would be a challenge for any string quartet.  This complex work was difficult to grasp in only one hearing but it was a joy to see how easily these musicians handled the work.

The Del Sol Quartet performing Miya Masaoka's Second String Quartet

The Del Sol Quartet performing Miya Masaoka’s Second String Quartet

Following intermission we came to know what the origami birds were all about.  These along with video projections and a great deal of electronics came together to give utterance to Maja S.K. Ratkje’s Birds and Traces II (2015), another world premiere.  This was by far one of the most complex pieces involving a great deal of media as well as performers Kathy Hinde and accordionist Frode Haltli.  In addition to electronics and voice the musicians used bird whistles, computer controlled slide whistles and animated sculpture along with the projected videos.  This was more of the character of one of Allan Kaprow‘s “happenings” from the 1960s.  Truly a maverick piece in a concert series that prides itself on such.  The audience was clearly entertained.

Maja S.K. Ratkje, voice and electronics

Maja S.K. Ratkje, voice and electronics

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Three scenes from the video

Three scenes from the video

The first night concluded with a performance of Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 14 “Quamby”(1998) which includes a didjeridu.  Stephen Kent, who played the didjeridu, spoke a warm dedication in memory of the late composer.  The Del Sol Quartet along with Kent gave a deeply emotional reading of this beautiful work (I went a bought a copy of their recording of all of the composer’s string quartets with didjeridu right after this performance).  I had heard that uniquely Australian instrument before but had no idea how expressive it could be.  The audience was clearly moved and this was a fitting deeply felt tribute to the composer.

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The Del Sol String Quartet with Stephen Kent on didjeridu

The Del Sol String Quartet with Stephen Kent on didjeridu

I took the opportunity to speak to a few people after this performance and it confirmed for me that this performance affected and moved us all in what I think is the highest achievement of a composer and a performer, that of communicating emotionally with a audience.  We all seemed to share the sadness of Mr. Sculthorpe’s passing but also the joy of his having been with us to make this music which lives on.

Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

Those animated origami sculptures remained (though no longer animated) just above the stage for the remaining two nights and certainly added a bit of unusual flair which distinguished the look of this year’s series.  It is also worth mentioning that the stage management and creative lighting add to the professional and polished look for this series and those commonly unsung heroes deserve credit for their fine work.

Let me also mention that this year’s program booklet surveying the whole of the Other Minds series was chock full of beautiful by resident photographer extraordinaire John Fago.

 

The second concert opened with what was, for this writer, worth the price of admission, that of Charles Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry live with multi-track tape.  His roles as sort of the Bill Graham of the avant-garde and his previous work as music director at KPFA could satisfy a life’s work just by themselves but he is also an accomplished composer and one of the most interesting and innovative sound poets/artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  So this live performance would have brought me to the theater were it the only thing on the program.

Charles Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry live with tape.

Charles Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry live with tape.

The pieces performed, Dumbek Bookache (1986), Ka Himeni Hehena (The Raving Mad Hymn, 1997) and Marathon (1997) all demonstrate the composer’s love of language and sound and, as Mr. Amirkhanian advised, his background as a percussionist.  This is music that seems to fit somewhere between poetry and music and, prior to hearing his work, I didn’t even know that there was a such a space.  His mellifluous voice, no doubt seasoned by years of hosting radio, executed the complex rhythms in sync with the tape flawlessly, just as the composer intended.

There is a humor and playfulness that is engaging as he deconstructs and reconstructs words and sounds (Amirkhanian is possessed of a great sense of humor).  The first and last pieces were plays on English language words and sounds.  The middle piece utilizes Hawaiian native language as its material.  All reflect the composer’s deep understanding and love of the sounds of languages and are intricately constructed musical compositions that deserve to be heard more frequently.  And recorded too.

Wallen performing her birthday song with the captive host of the evening looking on amused.

Wallen performing her birthday song with the captive host of the evening looking on amused.

Next we met Errollyn Wallen who performed 7 songs from her Errollyn Wallen Songbook but before she did that she surprised Mr. Amirkhanian with a newly composed song for his 70th birthday and for Other Minds 20th.  He sat, captive but appreciative as she rolled out the surreptitiously rehearsed dittie in which she called him “Charlesey” in a clearly affectionate tribute.

Errollyn Wallen at the piano with the Del Sol String Quartet.

Errollyn Wallen at the piano with the Del Sol String Quartet.

Wallen, in her set, sang first at the piano, then standing at a stage mic accompanied by the ever versatile Del Sol Quartet.  She sings a difficult to describe type of song that owes as much to jazz and pop and it does to classical and seems to have as much fun with language in song and Amirkhanian has with spoken words.  Wallen is a skilled and virtuosic performer and, as I found later when I chatted with her in the lobby during intermission, a delightful conversationalist.  Her performance left the audience wanting more but it was time for intermission and, after a grateful bow, she exited the stage.

This is the first time that this writer had heard her work and I can tell you that its friendly melodies and rhythms combined with her facility with lyrics make for a really compelling experience.

Pauline Oliveros, Miya Masaoka and Frode Haltli performing Oliveros' Twins Peeking at Koto (2014)

Pauline Oliveros, Miya Masaoka and Frode Haltli performing Oliveros’ Twins Peeking at Koto (2014)

After intermission we were treated to another world premiere from the great Pauline Oliveros.  Pauline, a beloved teacher and performer in the bay area, is based now in Kingston, New York but, as she acknowledges, she maintains ties with the bay area through performances, teaching, composing and now apparently through leaving her archive to Mills College where she was one of the founders of the Mills Tape Music Center (now the Mills Center for Contemporary Music).  Mr. Amirkhanian referred to her as the “Dean of American Composers”, a title once given to Aaron Copland, but equally suitable for this major composer/theorist/teacher/performer whose very presence adds to the auspicious nature of this series of concerts.

Her score is a written set of instructions for a sort of controlled improvisation that is common in her output.  Pauline’s warm personality and sense of humor are a part of this work which references the San Francisco landmark Twin Peaks and punningly refers to twin accordions as they peek at the koto which was played by Miya Masaoka.  Frode Haltli, who had performed yesterday did double duty as the second accordion in this work which requires, as does most of Oliveros’ work, close listening by performers as they execute the instructions creating the piece.  The most important lesson Oliveros has taught is the active nature of listening and that includes the performers as well as the audience because listening is itself a creative act.  And all who participated in active listening as the performers clearly did came to experience her wonderful view of the world of sound.

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Four views of Don Byron and his quartet.

Four views of Don Byron and his quartet.

Don Byron, backed by veterans double bassist Cameron Brown and drummer John Betsch along with a young and interesting Cuban pianist, Aruán Ortiz.  In addition to some amazing work on clarinet (playing sometimes inside the piano) the peripatetic Byron crooned a cover of a blues song in his unique vocal style announcing the disclaimer  that it was a “cover and this was supposed to be all new music but what the hell”.  Byron’s good humor, stage presence and eclecticism was supported well by his quartet who were given some nice opportunities to show off their chops.  A very satisfying set leaving the audience and this writer once again aching for more.

Tigran Mansurian singing an Armenian tune and accompanying himself at the piano.

Tigran Mansurian singing an Armenian tune and accompanying himself at the piano.

The last concert of OM 20 took place uncharacteristically in a matinee performance at 4PM.  This concert, also uncharacteristically, was given a political theme.  Sunday’s concert was dedicated in memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide which took place 100 years ago at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, a fact recognized by most countries but not, unfortunately, by the Turkish government.

This last concert occurred on what would have been the 104th birthday of famed Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness and this was acknowledged as well.  In the pre-concert discussion we learned that Mr. Mansurian had met Mr. Hovhaness and very much liked his music.  Then, in what I learned was a spontaneous decision, Charles Amirkhanian asked Mr. Mansurian to play some music by Komitas, an Armenian composer who collected Armenian folk songs and wrote music based on those distinctive tunes.  Komitas stopped composing after the 1915 genocide as he saw these atrocities and had much of his research destroyed.  Tigran Mansurian seemed almost to jump at the opportunity and he immediately went to the piano and gave a very focused rendition of one of his favorite tunes.

Charles Amirkhanian giving the background for his tape composition Miatsoom.

Charles Amirkhanian giving the background for his tape composition Miatsoom.

Opening Sunday afternoon’s concert was another opportunity to hear one Mr. Amirkhanian’s major musical creations.  This one, Miatsoom (1994-7), a word meaning, appropriately for this year’s festival, Reunion was, he said, about the only trip he ever took to Armenia accompanied by his father (born in 1915) to visit relatives in that country.  The piece is a sonic travelogue about that trip.  It features the voice of the composer’s father Benjamin and various sounds and voices from that visit.  Clearly this trip and this piece are very personal and cherished  things close to the composer’s heart.  Bringing the sounds of Armenia and its people into the concert space seemed like a wonderful way to set the tone for this concert as both celebration and memorial.  And isn’t the key to a memorial the act of memory, of remembering?

SOTA orchestral string with piano to accompany soprano Hasmik Papian in Mansurian's Canti Paralleli.

SOTA orchestral string with piano to accompany soprano Hasmik Papian in Mansurian’s Canti Paralleli.

The Canti Paralleli (2007-8) by Tigran Mansurian were written in memory of his late wife who by coincidence had also been one of the soprano soloist’s teachers.  These settings of Armenian poetry were lovingly delivered by Ms. Papian.  Her beautiful voice filled the hall with what seemed to be an air of sadness.  The SOTA orchestra with a pretty accomplished young pianist rendered these somber tunes poignantly in this U.S. premiere.

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The triumphant soloist and conductor accept the gratitude of the audience, the producers and the composer.

The triumphant soloist and conductor accept the gratitude of the audience, the producers and the composer.

Following intermission we were treated to an even more recent work by Mr. Mansurian, the 2011 Romance for Violin and Strings, also in a U.S. premiere.  The violin was played with both passion and virtuosity by the Armenian-American violinist Movses Pogossian.  The orchestra seemed to rally behind him nicely accompanying him in what was a beautiful, almost romantic piece that would no doubt please any concert audience.

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Movses Pogossian with the SOTA orchestra conducted by Bradley Hogarth.

Movses Pogossian with the SOTA orchestra conducted by Bradley Hogarth.

I haven’t yet mentioned our young conductor for this evening.  Bradley Hogarth is a trumpet player and an accomplished conductor who leads this wonderful youth orchestra.  Their ability to fit on stage in the final work requiring some 60 musicians was in doubt but fit they did.  And their performance of Michael Nyman’s Second Symphony (2014), another U.S. premiere was nothing short of amazing.

 

Mr. Nyman, who was unfortunately unable to attend due to illness, began writing symphonies in 2014 and has of the time of this writing written no fewer than 11 such works.  This second symphony was written for a youth orchestra in Mexico where it received its world premiere.  The four movement work traverses familiar territory with Nyman’s characteristic driving rhythms.  It is hard to imagine that he actually had a youth orchestra in mind because this work for strings, woodwinds, brass, piano, percussion and harp was anything but simple or easy to play.  Nonetheless the orchestra under Hogarth’s direction discharged their duties in an electrifying performance that brought the audience to its feet with appreciation.

All in all a very successful and satisfying set of concerts, a successful 20th anniversary.  Time to look forward to OM 21.  It would be hard to top this but I am sure that Other Minds will give its all to do so.  Thanks to all who composed, performed, supported and attended.  And, yes, that’s me sporting the OM 20 t-shirt with Mr. Amirkhanian.  See you next year if not sooner.

New music buff gets a photo-op with Charles Amirkhanian.

New music buff gets a photo-op with Charles Amirkhanian.

Undercover Performance Practices in the Bay Area


The practice of “covers” in pop music is part of the long tradition in music of making arrangements, variations, homages, etc. in response to a given composition.  To be sure the majority of these efforts are, though well-meaning, mediocre or worse.  But on the whole they can be quite fascinating and even revelatory.  Ravel’s masterful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ is so well done that few people are even aware that the original is a piano solo work.  The orchestration so enhances the original as to immortalize it and upstage the original version.  Similarly The Byrds’ cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ has become the most recognized version of that song.

‘Undercover Presents’ is a concert organization which has been producing a very unusual set of concerts.  Taking an album by a given artist and recruiting a different band/musician to cover each of the songs and then presenting  both a studio recording and a live concert of the results.  So far they have done  Velvet Underground and Nico, Pixies’ Doolittle, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and, most recently, Joni Mitchell’s Blue.  The musicians are all from the San Francisco Bay Area and that comprises a huge trove of talented and innovative artists.  Their albums are available on bandcamp.com

I saw the production of Blue this past September and I will be there again this coming Monday having recruited some additional friends, “You gotta come see this!”

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The first band, ‘Killbossa’ is inspired by the Brazilian art/music/political movement of the late 1960s known as ‘tropicalismo’ and is a combination of a variety of different musical styles including bossa nova, psychedelic rock, avant-garde and Brazilian popular music.  They covered the first song on the album, ‘All I Want’.

Next up Bharathi Palivela, a singer with traditional Hindustani vocal training teamed up with San Francisco bassist and teacher Daniel Fabricant covering ‘My Old Man’.

Georgia native, now San Francisco based bluegrass singer with her banjo and band put their spin on ‘Little Green’.

‘Carey’ was given a reading by clarinetist, vocalist Beth Custer with her strongly jazz inflected ensemble.

Kitka is an all female a capella group specializing in eastern european style folk singing.   Their a capella cover of ‘Blue’ was alone worth the price of admission.

Amy X Neuberg is an Oakland based singer, performer and tech wizard.  With her voice and electronics she created a unique version of ‘California’.

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Jazz/funk/hip-hop/R and B Jazz Mafia with  Aima the Dreamer and Erica Dee did a raucous version of ‘This Flight Tonight’.

Cajun/blues/southern fiddler and singer with her band did a country blues version of ‘River’.

The Seshen is an electro-pop ensemble that, like the other musicians in this show, is hard to categorize.  They did an ecstatic cover of ‘A Case of You’.

Katy Stephan and her group Classical Revolution ended the evening with ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’.

All the musicians barely crowded on to the stage to acknowledge the standing ovation from the very appreciative crowd.

Whether you know the original Joni Mitchell album or not you can’t fail to find something exciting, eye-opening and enjoyable in these performances.  The range of creativity and talent is staggering.  The bands played with a subtle but effective visual display that unified their efforts and added another aspect to both the music and the performance.  I’m sure Joni would be pleased.

Did I say that the ticket price includes a free download of the studio album?  Well it does and it serves as a great reminder of a truly unique bay area experience.  Maybe I’ll see you there.