Saturday, December 19, 2009

CRPDX to present 3rd annual Bachxing Day on Dec. 26th.

Following is a press release from Classical Revolution Portland:

Classical Revolution Presents The Third Annual:
Bachxing Day!! December 26th at The Someday Lounge
WHAT: Bachxing Day
WHO: Classical Revolution PDX
WHEN: December 26th, 2009. 9 PM
WHERE: The Someday Lounge – 125 NW 5th Ave, Portland OR 97209
COST: $5

Bachxing Day has become staple Portland celebration as members of Classical Revolution PDX perform their own interpretations of Bach sonatas, cello suites, cantatas and a special performance of the Third Brandenburg Concerto in honor of their third year at the Someday Lounge.

“Bachxing Day is always one of my favorite Classical Revolution events,” says CRPDX founder Mattie Kaiser, “the evening is all about how we personally express the music of one of the greatest composers of all time. At the Someday Lounge every interpretation is valid - whether it’s Bach on baritone, bassoon or banjo!”

All are encouraged to bring their instruments and show Classical Revolution how they play Bach. Audience members can also join in on the fun by creating ridiculous Bach names, puns and haikus to win prizes.

Happy Bachxing Day!

For more information please visit

As a sidenote, I'd like to add that this event is really a blast and there's no better way to shake off thos post-Xmas blues. I'll probably even be playing a little something at this one...


Friday, December 4, 2009

Poetry and Purcell; my upcoming gig.

So a couple months ago, my very talented friend Jan Van Stavern asked me if I wanted to be involved in a project with her. She's written a book of poetry based upon her and her husband's experiences in adopting their daughter Zoe from China, and her publisher asked if she would do some readings by way of publicity's sake. (Read all about it here at Jan's entertaining blog.) I was honored that she asked me to collaborate with her and play some music, so next month we'll be doing two gigs: one for the kiddies and one for the grownups. I'll be playing mandolin and piano in a range of selections, including Bach, Henry Purcell, Eddie Vedder, Chinese folk songs, and even an original or two of my own. Would love to see any of my friends/peeps/fans who like wine or beer, poetry and music in the audience. No cover charge!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Seattle Rep delivers a knock-out with 'Opus'

Seattle Repertory Theatre turns to music as a central theme with playwright Michael Hollinger’s hilarious, moving, and insightful work Opus at the Leo K. Theatre. The play offers a detailed look into the frenetic existence of the imaginary world-class Lazara Quartet as they begin preparations for the gig of a lifetime at the White House. They have only one week to prepare the monumental Beethoven string quartet Opus 131 with brand-new violist Grace (Chelsey Rives), a fresh-faced, idealistic young woman who presents a stark contrast to the world-weary companions who have made music together for decades.

Hollinger’s insight as a violist who has played many string quartets was obvious; judicious name-dropping, high-brow insider’s jokes and the occasional below-the-belt one liner were present throughout, and even when the play got more serious as it moved toward the climax there were countless, genuinely hilarious moments. His portrayal of the volcanic frustrations and sometimes uncomfortable intimacy thrust upon men of mercurial temperament who have worked together so closely for so long, on something as personal as this music, never comes off as anything other than sincere. The love, cynicism and rancor between the men, and sometimes between them and their music, paints an honest, multi-layered portrait of these complex relationships.

The delivery by the five actors was by and large extremely convincing, and their timing was impeccable in the oft razor-sharp repartee called for by Hollinger’s dialogue. Of particular note was Allen Fitzpatrick’s brilliant performance as Elliot, the harried, antagonistic first violinist who is tormented by the fact that his lover Dorian (Todd Jefferson Moore), who is a much better musician than he, had been relegated to the viola despite Dorian’s superior skills, his ability to “hear things that we don’t,” as the second violinist portrayed by Shawn Belyea puts it.

The structure of the work is non-linear and consists of many flashbacks that flesh out the circumstances behind Dorian’s mysterious disappearance, shortly after erratic behavior forces his ouster from the quartet at the beginning of the play. One feels genuine sympathy for the plight of this bi-polar genius whose unpredictable personality dooms any attempt to seal the rifts in his disintegrating relationship with the maddeningly self-absorbed Elliot. Rapid-fire changes of the minimalist set served to highlight the quick firing-off of the flashback sequences, and the soundtrack was poignant and familiar; lots of Bach, and Beethoven. Hollinger succeeds marvelously in portraying the passion, love and conflict the characters feel toward their music and each other; indeed one of Hollinger’s stated purposes was to use the intimacy of the players as an allegorical tool to portray the inter-play between the instruments in a string quartet.

One might have liked a bit more (indeed, any at all) finger-movement by the actors as an added verisimilitude, but thanks to Hollinger’s clever writing, the time-span in which the audience watches the group ’play’ music without moving their fingers across the neck is relatively short. The structure is such that the play takes about 90 minutes and is uninterrupted by intermission, so that by the time the shocker at the finale takes place, the audience is breathless and wondering if it’s actually over. The standing ovation was well-deserved.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Filmusik turns to the kaiju genre with 'Gamera vs. Guiron'

Filmusik, an enterprise that combines film with live entertainment in a hearkening-back to the days of yore, presented the first performance of the Japanese cult classic 'Gamera vs. Guiron' last night at the Hollywood Theatre. Members of Classical Revolution Portland delivered live music by composer Galen Huckens, the Willamette Radio Workshop provided voice actors and live sound effects were by David Ian, Pat Janowski and friends.

An enthusiastic showing of geeks, film buffs, and scenesters of all schools and ages showed up for the premier. Huckens' composition began the film with a pleasant, pastoral spacescape, accompanied by a rich voice-over monologue extolling the wonders of the limitless universe. 'Over-the-top' was the watch-phrase of the evening, as the foley (sound effects) crew and voice actors paid imaginative homage to the campy production values of the movie. The intense concentration and accurate timing of the foley artists was something to behold all evening long; many times all four of them were producing more than one effect simultaneously, with an impressive variety of objects: balloons, rattles, voice synthesizers, even a hand-cranked wind machine came into play.

The kaiju genre of films (kaiju are monsters, more or less; think of Godzilla as the king of the kaiju) are renowned for their hokey production limits and histrionic emotional scope, and because of that they have retained a large cult following to this day. Gamera, a giant, fanged, flying space-turtle who can retract all his limbs and turn them into smoky, flame-belching jet engines, was well-known as a 'friend to children,' as the film repeatedly stated.

The main protagonists, two young boys who board an abandoned spacecraft and mistakenly launch themselves to the evil alter-ego of Earth, planet Terra, are emotionally attached to Gamera. The whale-song-like wailing of the foley artists in providing Gamera's voice succeeded in portraying him as a sympathetic, heroic creature, and the audience delighted in this, clapping, hooting, cheering him on in battle, and commiserating with his suffering. All of the performers involved, while definitely revelling in the kitsch, also seemed to understand the taken in its entirety, the film was not meant to be a laughable rollick, though it is hard to imagine it as anything else viewing it through our eyes today.

CRPDX played sensitively and intuitively all evening long. Huckens' score throughout provided an almost consistent counterpoint to the laughs and cornball acting, imparting a sombre, darkly beautiful element that balanced the overall mise-en-scene and kept intact the emotional import of brave, besieged children battling immensely evil forces way beyond their control. The knife-headed bad-boy kaiju Guiron who shoots throwing stars from his head, the giant silvery, fox-headed bat Gyaos who breathes laser beams, the cannibalistic Japanese-Terran babes who are the sole human survivors on their destroyed planet, the skepticism of their own parents--all these elements are aligned against the children, who want nothing more than to free the world from war and traffic accidents. Their only protector--Gamera, who has his own bouncing-ball theme song that appears throughout the movie, which the audience is encouraged to sing (and eventually does, inspite of themselves.)

Filmusik has succeeded brilliantly once again; Huckens seems to be getting better and better at what he does. The entire live production manages to capture all the camp, humor, and drama inherent in this battle of foam-rubber titans. At the beginning of the film the children lament "Gee, grownups have no dreams." Fortunately they are wrong in that observation, as this darkly comedic reverie at the Hollywood theater so vividly points out. There are three performances left: November 6th, 11th, and 13th.

Friday, October 23, 2009

OTO lets it all hang out in 'The Beggar's Opera'

Opera Theater Oregon opened their 2009-2010 season Thursday the 22nd at the Someday Lounge with a fresh re-telling of John Gay’s 1728 Beggar’s Opera, a farce based on the operatic traditions of the day that lampooned London personages and featured low-life characters involved in seedy plots. All of these core elements were kept, but the scene was updated to modern day Portland in this work featuring the talents of librettist/director Stephen Marc Beaudoin and composer/arranger Michael Herrman.

The show began even before the ‘curtain,’ with a group of shoddily dressed performers wandering through the audience and arguing loudly, so that at first it was difficult to tell if it was real or some sort of clever gimmick. The performance began with on-stage vocalises by the ensemble that turned into a wailing cacophony and then morphed into a declamatory air sung by the whole ensemble that directly addressed the audience and explained the purpose of the opera.

The opening scene was set in a pornography store called Peachums-n-Cream. One of the principals, Mrs. Peachum, a sadistic proprietress who wielded a riding crop against virtually everyone in the course of the evening, was sung by Beth Madsen Bradford. She put her comedic talents to good use, often dropping ghastly French phrases spoken in phonetic English, and her opening aria ‘God bless these tools of lust’ was sung with the utmost sincerity and lascivious intent in her full, glorious mezzo. The role of the groping pervert Felch (Peachum’s husband) was sung by Arne Hartmann who also got great laughs throughout the evening.

Soprano Leah Yorkston sang the role of Polly Peachum, their ingenue daughter who, thanks to her parents, discovers in the first scene that her beau, up-and-coming PDX indie rocker Mack the Guitar (sung by tenor Scot Crandal), has been moonlighting in gay porn films. Yorkston was convincing in the role of the poor, confused girl who tries through the course of the evening to figure out what to do with her boyfriend, and showed a fine voice in her aria ‘Mackie my love–I’m shocked he’d do this on film.’ Scot Crandal carried much of the burden of advancing the drama, as it becomes clear that many people are plotting against him and trying to take advantage of his success. His singing was spot-on and well-suited to the role, but the acting was sometimes lacking in conviction. Emily Zahniser played the role of Lucy Lockit, a corrupt cop’s daugher, doing a gratifying send-up of Portland personality Storm Large. Her best singing was as a rocker in the Herrman original tune ‘Lucy’s Song.’ Gigi Urban also deserves mention for her beautiful aria ‘There was a time when life open’d just like a perfect flower.’

Musically the production was a great success. (See the interview with the composer and librettist here for more information on the musical structure.) Herrman wrote a number of original tunes, the most compelling of which were ‘Little Sparrow’ and ‘Song of Redemption.’ It was somewhat incongruous to hear these modern tunes interspersed with other songs from Gay’s opera that retained much of their centuries-old structure (but for the most part with new lyrics by Beaudoin). The incongruity was fun though; it helped to update the ‘attitude’ of the piece, and made for a nice change from the old tunes.

There is very limited staging space at the Someday Lounge, so the cast took the interesting step of just hanging out in the cramped space on stage in full view whenever they weren’t part of the action. The costuming was original, and it was interesting to watch the clever costume changes right on stage. From a staging perspective, the opera was a brilliant case of maximizing the small space and limited set in order to focus most of the attention on the story itself. There were stretches, however, especially in the second half, where the pacing seemed a bit slow for this type of story.

There was lots of good stuff for Portlanders who are in the know as far as local happenings, scandals, personalities and politicians, so its freshness was very effective. With the scenes being set in a porn shop, a strip club, a jail and under the Burnside Bridge, the down-to-earth (yet still intelligent) humor came off smartly for the most part. There were so many coarse one-liners that when one didn’t go over, it didn’t really matter because there was another one right around the corner. This was an ambitious project, and for those who like more than a dash of daring in their opera, who enjoy beautiful music coupled with bawdy humor, it should prove a very enjoyable outing indeed.

Cross-posted at NW Reverb.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Columbia Symphony plays Beethoven, Sibelius

On Friday, October 16th at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Portland, the Columbia Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Huw Edwards began their regular season with a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, and Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D. Major, Op. 43. The concert was themed 'Awesome Openings' partially in reference to the unique opening moments of each work.

Portland-area pianist Barbara Roberts was the soloist for the Beethoven, which opened the evening. She began the concert beautifully, with a simple, intimate opening for piano alone, an unusual feature for a concerto of the day. Her playing was smooth but the long scale runs were sometimes blurred by a bit of excessive pedalling, leaving one wishing for a more crisp articulation. Edwards did well in keeping the orchestra sounding full, yet not intrusive during the many delicate moments of this work.

During the final Rondo the repartee of orchestra and soloist came off quite well, the tricky syncopations being tossed off between the two sounding vibrant and fresh. After an octave run towards the end where Roberts seemed to lose her place for a moment, she asserted the thunderous pomposity that one often associates with Beethoven into the final cadenza, using the moment as a springboard to achieve a fiery, satisfying final flourish.

The Sibelius opened with a three-note theme that was heard throughout the piece. It felt as though it took a few moments for the full effect of the dynamic contrasts to manifest themselves; for the orchestra to take the pianos as seriously as the raucous fortes. In the second movement the brass choir and percussion were exceptional, very intuitive and responsive to Edwards' direction in what was a challenging section for them. The rich, handome sound that marks the CSO's string section was put to good use in the heavy tremolo used by Sibelius to heighten the tension towards the end of the second movement.

In the finale Edwards and his group wowed the crowd with the revolutionary ostinato theme that built slowly but steadily in a minor key until it exploded in the glorious major sunburst, to shine briefly and then decline once more into the depths. The orchestra was largely sensitive to the many colors called for in this symphonic heavyweight. This concert will reprise Sunday the 18th at 3pm at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham.

Crossposted at NW Reverb.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

SideNote: Complete conversation with Stephen Marc Beaudoin and Michael Herrman about the Beggar's Opera

On Wednesday September 30th I sat down and talked with Stephen Marc Beaudoin (librettist/director) and Michael Herrman (composer/arranger) and spoke at length about the process of creating an opera. Stephen was there first and Michael showed up later (a dynamic that I've noticed more than once during this project). A distilled version of the interview was posted at NW Reverb, but I chose to present a transcript here of the entire conversation, complete with interruptions and swearing and laughing and irrelevant sidebars, and a few editorial comments as well. All editorializing of any kind is presented within brackets. To make this a little shorter textually, I've sometimes compressed multiple short exchanges onto the same line

I turned on my digital voice recorder a few minutes after arriving at Sherman Clay/Moe's pianos. S is Stephen, M is Michael and L is me. Without further ado, here it is.

S: So do you want to hear more of the tunes?

L: Yeah.

S: So the first order of business is…we have all this goddamn music. What are the tunes that we’re going to chose?

L: That was one of my questions: which homages to the original did you include?

S: The musical concept was interesting. What we did was we took about twenty tunes from the original and basically imported them wholesale into the show. And those tunes, and Michael’s arrangements, which are new, are the tunes from the original. Now sometimes we’ve changed some accidentals, or time signatures, that sort of thing. But those tunes from the original are the tunes that the characters sing in the context of the drama. So…scene one, in the office of Peacham and Felch [There is a character in the original Beggar's Opera named 'Filch. If you don't know what the word 'felch' means, there are a number of good online urban slang dictionaries you can consult. I suggest you do so.] She sings air one and then sings air two and then they sing air thirteen. [Per our previous discussion, Peachams and Cream is a porno shop, and Ms. Peacham the proprietress. Hey, this is P-town.]

L: Do you mind giving me that air one more time? I think I’m a big fan of it already.

S: With that lyric? [laughter] L: Yes please. [laughing]

S: So let me give it to you with the original lyric, because the original lyric is quite good as well. [A resounding minor chord sounds from the piano and Stephen begins to sing. He has a marvelous voice with a tight, focused vibrato, reminding me of a declamatory bardic air.]

Through all the employments of life, each neighbor abuses his brother,
Whore and rogue they call husband and wife
All professions berogue one another.
The priest calls the lawyer a cheat, the lawyer beknaves the divine.
And the statesman, because he’s so great, thinks his trade as honest as mine.

And this version…I’ll sing it and play the arrangement for you on my I-phone, which is pretty cool.

L: Alright.

S: God bless these tools of lust, each dildo, cock-ring and dog collar
There’s treats for your nuts and your bust; this buttplug is only one dollar.
The pervert, the wanker, the skank
Look to us for spiritual bread.
With their eyes upon heaven they wank
So buy up, go home and get spread.

L: [wryly] Beautiful.

S: Then, when you hear it in the context of the show [reaches for his I-phone]…what did I ever do before my I-phone?

L: Yeah, what did we ever do without all these gadgets? [motioning towards my digital voice recorder.]

S: [Talking to himself and fiddling with his iphone.] We uploaded it to a secret site on OTO’s website. [conspiratorial whisper] only we can find it.

S: [The door opens and in comes Michael with his guitar] Hi Michael! [pleasantries, introductions.] I’m just playing through some of the tunes so Lorin can hear it. Do you have speakers?

M: No, I’m playing my guitar. S: My iphone’s being slow. M: I can play it on my computer.

S: So obviously, what Michael does is we would get together and I would sing the tune for him, and be all ‘ok, here’s the tune, here is what I’m pretty sure the lyric would be [we previously discussed that in Gay’s original, just the lyrics and a naked tune with no textual underlay was given to the singers, and they had to work it out for themselves. Stephen is working from a battered, completely unbound paperback of Gay’s version, held together by a large binder clip.] And here are a few ideas that I might have’ without getting in his way musically, because he’s the composer, and ‘do what you will.’ And he would come up with all sorts of interesting things. [laughter from both of them.] Do you want to play Air one?

M: You bet. L: This is your composition, correct? M: Right.

S: So the tune is the original tune, but the composition is his. [quiet ride on the cymbals, organ music come from the laptop.] Sort of gothic horror. [listening for a moment.] What’s the instrumentation?

M: We have organ, bass, guitar and drums. S: And what’s the orchestration for your band?

M: Viola, violin, upright bass, piano, drums and guitar. It’s a six-piece.

L: So this is a group you play with regularly?

M: Yeah…my band, Buoy LaRue. L: Like the knife, plus LaRue?

M: Yeah, like the thing that floats in the ocean. Plus the French for ‘the street.’ [Chorus, of froggy, hackneyed ‘bien sur’ and ‘oui ouis’ from Stephen and I.]

S: So that gives you an idea: there’s the original, there’s the tune with the lyric, and then there’s the arrangement. And sometimes we took big departures…

M: Right.

S: So what would be a tune that would be a big departure? Let’s do Mac’s trial. So in Act Two the ensemble sings a song about Mac, who’s the hero of the piece, about…[misc crap]. So in the original I liked this tune --[to Michael] Don’t say anything—and this is the original tune. [Humming and playing.]

L: So it’s like a chanty…

S: I played it for Michael, and Michael’s like ‘that is so dumb.’(laughter) That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

L: ‘I hate that song!’

M: Literally. I was like, ‘there’s no way I can do anything with that.’ I was just like, ‘no.’

S: So we sort of sat for a minute and thought about it, and I was like ‘oh, let’s try this.’ [S turns back to the piano. The same tune is heard in some sort of minor modality.] That’s a much more interesting tune.

L: That’s not a straight minor modality, right?

S: No, just some other funny things…minor with…

M: And I was like ‘Yes, lets do this.

L: 'That can work.'

S: And then it became this [sample from the laptop as S sings.]

His trial, and now he will stand before the law
If only his music held him higher then somehow he’d escape this fall.
How can we of the poor try to help him?
Maybe it’s too late to be saved.
So we wait and watch and wonder: how soon until he lies in his grave?
We will judge him as his punishment
His fate is surely in our hands
And yet do we pardon him as innocent
Or kill him off as any other man.
How would you in our place try to help him?
It isn’t clear that there’s a choice
Do we wait and watch and wonder, bystanders to the drowning of his voice [x3]

Yeah, that’s a nice little tune.

L: What scene is that from?

S: That is in the second act, right as the people, everyone on stage except for Mac, are going to be making him pay for all the hell that he’s put them through. But they have conflicting feelings about it obviously. So, yeah, that’s one tune that we took to a different place.

L: [blathering for a moment] So how many of the original tunes from this…is most of the music based on these original tunes, or is it a mixture of original compositions that come from Gay’s opera?

M: What my job was was to do eight full-on new, original songs, and then arrange for Buoy LaRue to play somewhere in the ballpark of 20 of the old airs. So what we had was what you just heard Stephen playing on the piano—that was the melody line that we had to work with, with some small alterations, and try to do it in the sensibility of what Buoy LaRue would bring to it, so…

S: And also in the sense of what was going on in the show...

M: Obviously…so who was singing would determine what instrument was being featured, or what was happening in the show would determine the mood of the song.

S: And Michael’s approach was pretty sophisiticated…much like in opera, there were instruments in the band that match up with the principal singers. So you would hear that Mac usually a guitar, and he plays a guitar. Scott Crandall, I don’t know if you know him…

L: Nah.

S: He’s a fabulous singer, and he plays about twenty…he plays a ton of instruments. But he also plays guitar in the show. [to M] What are some of the other characters in the show?

M: Lucy is the violin, Jenny is the clarinet, so you know when the instrument is featured that you know as an audience member that...

S: So Michael’s original compositions [irrelevant discussion about the air conditioning for a minute] So Michael’s tunes comment on the action in some way, either in terms of foreshadowing what’s about to happen, or commenting on what just happened.

L: The original tunes? S: Yeah.

M: 'Little Sparrow'…want to play a few seconds of that. I could sing it for you.

S: Yeah, that’s much nicer. So the trick for the singers, first of all this is like the opposite of the way that most classical singers work. They’re expected to come in and you hand them the score. We didn’t print the score for the singers. We said ‘here are the tunes that we’re basing the stuff on, learn the tunes,' and I set down vocals for all the tracks once he did his arrangements I sang all the tracks, believe it or not, and said ‘learn it by ear.’

L: So you just gave them a recording of the way you wanted the vocals laid down underneath the tune?

S: Yeah, so that caused some singers no end of…

M: however, in the audition process that was one of the things we wanted to make sure of

S: We were looking for people who could learn by ear. And I think one of the things that is pretty impressive about this cast is that they have the chops to do a huge range of stuff. And you’ve got to.

L: Like as a cast or individually?

S: Well, individually and as a cast. Scott does pop music really nicely and has this really nice, light lyric tenor, but he can just bust out the serious shit as well.

M: [tuning, strumming guitar. To Stephen ] You wanna sing the ensemble parts?

S: Yeah!

M: So this one…I tried to vary the different styles of the original songs, and I felt like where we were in the show and where I was in the process of writing the originals that I wanted to do something really simple, that brought, dynamically, the whole thing down instead of making this big arrangement with all of the instruments and making this big song, I kind of stripped it all away and it became this solo guitar song, and I thought it added nicely to the tempo of the whole show. So it starts with a little intro.

[Folksy slow, vaguely Pink Floydian guitar]

Hey little sparrow start your song.
Your wings are short but your voice is strong
Sing to the ocean, shout to the sea
That big world out there is yours to see.
Fly, little sparrow, tree to tree
And don’t look down, the fall is [can't make this out]
Be quick [or this]

S: That’s the first part of it which is like, in a way, I think some of the cast was like, ‘this is so stylistically different than anything'[laughter] but at the same time it’s not. I think there is a sound world that’s created just by the virtue of having been composed by one person, and having one band of pretty specific, limited type of instruments playing it. [nods, murmurs of assent from M] So I think there... But the idea is also that you’re drawn out from that world of the drama for something very different.

L: An interlude of some kind? S: Yeah, or an ‘exterlude’ [laughter]

L: Or a Quaalude…[more laughter]

S: Yeah, there are definitely some Quaaludes in the show. M: That’s funny.

S: So what else can we like, tell you about the music stuff?

L: Well, let’s get to my little prepared… S: Yeah! M: Yeah! S: Do it up, do it up.

L: Well, my first remark is that I really wanted to have the interview somewhere where we could drink, [laughter] but I know from past experience that Stephen’s a teetotaler, so…[more laughter]

S: [incredulous] Yeah, right, [to me] that day that I was very drunk at the Holocene and I smacked your butt in the spandex at the Baroque Bash. [M claps.]

L: Yeah right, kinda like that… S: The first night I met you.

M: Off to a good start! Awesome. S: Yeah, definitely off to a good start.

L: So! The first question…whose idea was it…to do the Beggar’s Opera? Who was the first person that said ‘let’s do the…’

S: It was Katie [Taylor] at Opera Theater Oregon, who wrote me, and [mocking] she begged me to…no she didn’t beg, but she really wanted me to do it because I had really been wanting to do this piece for a number of years, and she had for some reason heard this through the grapevine. Actually I was talking to some of the guys from FourScore about like doing a theater piece, and I was like ‘wouldn’t it be fun if we did an all-male version of the Beggar’s Opera, with all the characters played by four guys.' And she had heard through the grapevine that I was talking about this and said ‘actually I’m thinking of doing that…do you want to write it and direct it?’ and I was like ‘well, fuck yeah!’ [laughter]. So she enticed me with it, and so obviously she waved like a big six-figure check in my face and that made all the difference.

L: Oh yeah, so you’re rich after this now, eh? [laughter]

S: Yeah, I am, I am.

L: Well that’s excellent, I’m glad to hear that.

M: That’s funny…why was mine two figures? [three men guffaw and cackle like hens.]

L: “Yeah, we’ll give this guy fifty bucks to write the songs and play the guitars.”

S: [to M] Because you’re a musician… M: Oh, I see, that’s cool…ok

S: That’s the way it goes…and, Michael was one of the very first people I thought of to do the project. I had known his music from before from when I was writing for Willamette Week, and I had known his band, and I’ve said this before and I think it bears repeating---Michael’s a strong songwriter, as you heard, and he’s a really nice songwriter, and there’s something cinematic about the sweep of his music that I found very appealing and sort of inherently theatrical and I thought it was funny that after we started talking more and he’s like ‘actually, I have a theater background.’ And I was a clogger, and I’ve like, choreographed some musicals, and [laughter from M] I guess we were meant to do this project.

M: Theater is definitely…I grew up…actually my dad grew up in theater too. It’s kind of in the family, you know. My grandmother had a PhD in piano music, and my grandfather had a theater in NYC, and my dad as a kid was always working the popcorn stand or taking tickets or whatever it was, and he got to see a young Liza Minelli come in and was part of the show…

S: I love it! L:Wow…

M: So anyway he did theater his whole life, and I grew up in that kind of an atmosphere and got really into it in high school, and then afterwards did some choreography, and all the while I was writing songs and doing my band music too, so…[vocal warm-ups are heard from outside the room]

L: [I shuffle through my notes] So, let’s see here, I guess, I think a lot of these things we’ve just sort of talked about here, in my questions, and…Oh, so one of the questions I had was that, uh, I, um, thinking back to the original Gay’s opera, lots of these [tunes], if not all of them were well-known to the people of the day; they would’ve heard it and said ‘oh, I know that song.’ Is there anything like that? Did you arrange or adapt any tunes from our popular milieu, or…

S: It’s a great question. We did not. I thought about that…[to M] I never actually approached you with that idea because my thought was, in a sense M’s music would be the sort of, contemporary pop…

M: The link.

S: Yeah, the link. Although it’s not, you know, what would be the modern equivalent? If I had a bunch of like…

L: Michael Jackson M: The Beatles

S: Yeah, or Kanye West, and like, Madonna or something like that, that would be like…[singing to the tune of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’] ‘Like Ms. Peacham’ [laughter]

M and S in unison, still singing the tune: ‘Fucked for the very first time! [more laughing]

S: We could add that to the show now.

M:[increculously] yeah…

L:'That’s in! That’s in! Write that down!' S: So we chose not to go that route. L: OK

S: There’s this sense that, whenever you’re adapting something that’s… I mean, to America it’s not a really well-known piece but to the English it’s very well-known…but when you’re adapting something you sort of walk this fine line between wanting to do honor to the thing…the original thing--it’s brilliant, it’s a masterpiece, but, at the same time just sort of like kinda kick it in the gut a little bit and slap it around and be very irreverent to it. But we’ve actually…I’m surprised thinking about it now about how reverent we’ve been to much of the intention of it. The fact that there’s not big choral pieces. I mean, there’s a lot of ensemble singing, but it’s usually unison, or two parts. The music is not…you know, when you think of the Britten arrangement of the Beggar’s Opera—it’s Britten’s take on it, so it’s very naughty, there’s a lot of intricate harmonies. We liked the…I…and I think you really responded to the simplicity of the original, the idea that there’s a tune, and an arrangement of it. It’s not overly messy.

M: But also to be said that I’m not a classical composer either. S: right.

M: So bringing me on board was kind of saying ‘ok, so we’re gonna run with this simplistic idea.’ Not to say that it’s all two or three chords, but you know, not having that kind of classical composition background, I..we were already working from that point of view.

S: Yeah, that was the idea. M: That was the idea. Exactly.

L: [to S] o it’s kind of funny, ealier today I was looking at your Facebook post about the Beggar’s Opera, that, you know, this seems to be a popular time to be re-doing the Beggar’s Opera. So how does it fit in with that tradition of—and I think this is kind of something you were just touching on –this BO coming back over and over again for the last 300 years.

S: Again and again and again. Yeah. Why is it still important?

L: Yeah, like how does the way you’re doing it fit in with that tradition of doing the BO?

S: Yeah. I think that anything that’s worth it’s weight as, you know, like, what would be a touchstone piece that people…like Romeo and Juliet, is something that’s been kicked around a lot in terms of different interpretations, and new film adaptations, like that all-male R&J that was big in the 90s and all those sort of things. So I think that if something is timely in its way, it’s gonna want to be re-imagined again and again. We…there are certain…I make some winking references to the Threepenny Opera, and I make plenty of references to Gay in this. I’m going to be very interested to know what the audiences pick up, because obviously audiences are going to come from people who have no idea, who have never heard this piece before and don’t know it from Adam…this is a whole new piece for them, which is great. And we’re gonna have some people who are like ‘oh, I’ve studied this in college,’ and so it’s going to be interesting to see what they pick up in terms of…there are a couple lyrics that I’ve brought in wholehandedly…92% of the music lyrics are my own. A very small number of…

L: Brought in from...

S: Well, I took from Gay. Polly and Mac have a duet in the second scene which is [singing] ‘Were I laid on green’ [to M] wanna just do it? [guitar strumming]

S: [singing] Were I laid on Greenland’s coast
And in my arms embrace my lass
? amidst eternal frost
To soon the half-year’s night would pass.
Were I laid on Indian soil,
Soon as the burning day was closed
I could mock the soldiery toil
When on my charmer’s breast reposed
And I would love you all the day
Every night would kiss and play
If with me you’d fondly stray
Etc Etc.

L: That’s an example of where you took the lyric…

S: That’s Gay’s lyric, not mine. But in the context of the scene it just seemed so right… and actually it’s a lovely little pop tune.

M: And it’s because we kept the lyrics original almost original totally original? Almost like Gays, is it

S: It’s like 92-93% mine. M: on that tune? S: Oh on that tune that’s all Gay.

M: So because we kept that we had this idea of 'let’s make this like an old folk song, you know like this could be was something that was unearthed 100 years ago and played in Ireland or something like that,' so we, I don’t know let's keep it folky and Scott’s playing it on its own, so for me it worked with keeping the lyrics

S: But is is important for this piece to be seen today because…nothing’s changed. Like in London of 1728 when political corruption was running rampant and people were dying with you know, rats eating their fuckin' brains out on the streets of London, and you know and like, it was this filthy, festering, disgusting, wonderful place, and Portland is just like that.

M: [laughter. A pause] L: [wryly] It sure is. All: [laughter.]

S: And Portland is just like that. And we keep a lot of the spirit of the Gay. There’s social commentary in this piece, we make fun of Portland celebrities. You know Locket, who is the, both a Portland Police officer and also the Warden of the Wapato County Jail, is inspired by Randy Leonard; you’ll see some Randy Leonardisms in him. Lucy takes a few cues from Storm Large…

L: Nice.

S: …because if there’s one person that we need to hear fucking less of right now it’s Storm fucking Large, so

M,L [laugh]

L. Nice. Let’s see here, um one of the other things here, oh what did I have, it’s kind of funny here you guys are answering my questions before I get into them…

S: That’s good, that’s good. L: I’m not half as clever as I thought…[M,S laugh]

S: Twice as clever…

L: [incredulous laugh] yeah…The collaborative process between composer and librettist historically hasn’t always been the smoothest working relationship in music [M,S laugh] so how was it? Was it good for you?

S: [to M] You talk first.

M: I thought it was incredibly…well, first of all, yes. It was very smooth, and I thought…I think Stephen and I work very well together. Like, you know, having said that, this was also a brand new process for me. As a songwriter I am, you know, usually the lyricist and the composer, so, it’s like, this was a different process for me, absolutely. But, I welcomed it, I was totally all about it, like that’s part of what I want to do as a songwriter is to be stretched in these different ways, and try different avenues of writing songs, and Stephen and I just clicked. I don’t know, there isn’t an ego battle, or struggle between us at all…

S: [muttering] Because he knows who’s in charge [laughter]

M: Yeah…the guy holding the guitar. [laughter from all] But

S: That’s good.

M: But, no , it was just like right off the bat…first of all, we established the relationships…the you know, like the working relationship: 'this is what I’m gonna do, this is what you’re gonna do; we’re gonna come together and see how it goes, iron out any…problems.'

Conflict resolution at OTO rehearsal

L: So what was that? If you could just boil it down…

M: It was: Stephen was gonna write the lyrics and send it to me, and I’m gonna write around it. Basically.

S: Yeah. And, well, improve upon it sometimes. And you know there are…this is my first time writing music lyrics without writing music, so…well, no, this is only the second. I wrote an opera libretto in 2002 in Boston for a one-act opera, so that was my first time writing words that someone else was setting to music. But this is the first time I’ve done it with a pop-tune writer. And I had to…it’s very hard for me to divorce myself from thinking about a tune while you’re writing it. And very often, to be totally honest with you, I would sometimes write a lyric with a song in mind.

L: Yeah.

S: Like, even a song that’s already composed. There’d be like 'oh my gosh, I really like that song, or that style,' so I would sometimes write in the verse-style of a certain song, and it was like: wow, this is something totally awesome.

M: Mmhm.

S: Like the very first song! Which is the first song of the show.[he starts humming] [muttering between them] It was like, I gave him this lyric, and was like ‘that’s not what I thought it was going to be—it’s so much better.

M:[laughter.] Well, I didn’t know what he had in mind either. I didn’t know that…and I didn’t want to know either, because it probably would’ve…

S: It would’ve unduly influenced you…

M: It would’ve influenced, it would’ve made me go look at the song or something. So…I just liked starting from printed page. 'This is what I’m working with, and so it’s like you know, let’s mess around with the melody…'

L: The printed page as in he gives you the lyrics? S: Yeah.

M: He e-mailed me the lyrics, I printed them out and that’s what I worked with.

L : And you knew the tune, then, was that all if I understand it correctly...

M: Well, if we’re talking about the originals, then we’re starting from scratch. If we’re talking about the airs, then yes, I had the melody…

L: You had the melody and the lyrics M: and the lyrics.

S: Sometimes not always the lyrics though M: That’s true.

S: Sometimes a working version, and that’s hard because, you know, Michael’s seen his share of crappy lyrics that I’ve given him, and I would be like ‘ok, well this is not the lyric, but like, this is maybe a first iteration of what will be a final lyric in three weeks…'

M: Yeah.

S: …but, I need to give you something because we’re behind schedule, so…work with that.' And Michael too deserves credit, especially when we’re talking about the original tunes…he was really good about improving on the lyric that I gave him, and there are some things that…for his delivery of it, and for where the tune was going it was like 'I need to drop that word, I need to add these little connecting things,' and that really helped a lot.

L: Cool. So of course you’ve answered my next question [laughter]

M: Which was…how did you connect the…

L: [self-mocking] what specific challenges did you face and how were they overcome? Boy isn’t that a nice, original question here. [loud laughter] And so then my last one was you know, are you guys like Mozart and Da Ponte now…are you gonna do…are there any envisioning for more projects, or is this kind of a one-off thing, and see how it goes down the road?

M: I’d like to get through this one. [ All laugh loudly]

S: That’s the goddamn truth. M: You know what I’m saying? S: Oh my god. M: Well…well…

L: I guess what I would say: it seems like you’re not at each other’s throats as this is coming together…

S: No. L: So… M: We’re each other’s allies in this.

S: Yeah. Very much so. I would love to create more stuff with Michael, and I think the challenge [laughing] just as Mozart and Da Ponte had, was, um…the fucking cabbage. The greens. You know? You gotta have some sponsors and underwriters to do it [murmurs of assent from L] And so we’re grateful, obviously, to Opera Theater Oregon for commissioning us to do this…

M: Absolutely.

S: And this is not our…this is OTO commissioning us to write the piece, which for OTO is huge step [M: Mmhm] and we’re grateful for the opportunity. We never could have done this, I mean we never could’ve said ‘Oh, we wanna put on this show, so let’s do it.’ I mean this is a major undertaking that requires the backing of a company or organization, or and institution or something, and so if we’re gonna do something again…and oh, you know what? I would be very curious to know what if any life this would have outside of this performance. And obviously, we’re creating it for a specific time and place

M: Sure. S: Which is now… L: But that’s what, you know…

S: But that’s what Gay did, and, you know…exactly.

L: And here we are, three hundred years later, and, we’re doing the same thing.

S: Yes. M: And it’s still now. L: Yeah.

S: So, three hundred years from now there’s [laughter], when they’re…

L: ...Portlanders in their spacesuits, and they’re hovering from building to building…

S: So, the idea of doing more stuff like this, I mean, this has been a year…I’ve been at this for a year [to M] You came on in February?

L: That’s a good point. I never thought to ask how long it’s been…

S:I’ve been working on this… M: It’s been February? S: January, February? January.

M: It’s been a while, yeah. L: So Katie [Taylor of OTO] came to you last fall, and…

S: Katie came to me in October…right around a year ago this time. Excuse me, September…of 2008. And then I signed on in late October, and spent some time thinking about what I really wanted to do with it before moving forward. You came in around January.

M: Yeah. I think that’s about right.

S: So it’s been…it’s a long… process. But…yeah. This is a project that, like, in many ways, could not happen in many other towns.

L: Yeah. S: So… M: Why is that? S: [thinking] Why is that?! Why is that?

M: Just out of curiosity.
S: Because, there is a, I think, with the…musicians and people in the arts community here, loosely speaking, there’s a curiosity about, sort of like, collaboration? [M murmurs assent.] And people willing to take risks that doesn’t…it was not this way in Boston. You know, it was a much, the scenes are much more formalized, they’re much more discreet sort of places. But I think people here will sort of try anything.

L: Fortunately, for those of us who live here. [laughter.] S: Exactly.

[The cast heard rehearsing outside the door for the last 15 minutes sounds restless…]

S: Alright. Any other questions?

L: Not off the top of my head… I’m sure I’ll probably have a follow-up question or two, maybe I can shoot it to you via email.

S: Yeahyeahyeah. Or grab us at the break or something. Is there like a tune that we wanna end with, or something… I don’t like going out like that. At the same time I don’t wanna give away all our.

M: [strumming a minor chord on the guitar] S: Oh that’s a lovely one. I’ll do that one. Yeah. So, interestingly…I’ll let you read this while I do this…so this is an example of my keeping the same verse form as Gay, and keeping even some of the same lyric ideas as Gay, but it’s my lyric. The original tune is like [singing] 'Virgins are like the fair flower in its luster.' Which is now this:

M: [playing arpeggiated chords on the guitar, Stephen singing. Slow, melancholy.] There was a time when life opened just like a perfect flower.

Bloss’ming with riches and nectar sweet as wine.
I was on top and then bowed down before my power.
God blessed my days with a wealth of cash divine
But now this rose is no longer alluring.
Once it’s been picked, it is surely bound to die.
Here I sit, here I grow sick, failing and enduring.
Doomed to rot and surely doomed to die.

S: That’s one of the tunes.

L: That’s beautiful. I noticed the like, thematic relation…

S: Thematic relationships, even, things like that. Cool! So, we’re gonna start rehearsal, and…

L: Yeah... [end of recording]

There it is. I left in all of the 'like, you know' and all of the little conversational absurdities common to our generation because that's the way we speak. So what if we sometimes sound like valley girls, and sometimes we say 'fuck this fuck that and fuck the other thing'--here we are creating operas (well, not me; just writing about the people who create them) so we must be doing something right. Hopefully the Beggar's Opera is as interesting as I think it will be. Stay tuned for the review of the 10/22 show.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thomas Hampson explores the role of the singer as storyteller

On Tuesday night at the Newmark Theater, renowned baritone Thomas Hampson delivered a masterful recitation of American song as part of the acclaimed 'Song of America' program that he has been developing in conjunction with the Library of Congress. This program is an ongoing project that has as one of its goals the launch of a website dedicated to American poets, composers, songwriters, and their songs, and to serve as a jump-off point for research into this topic. After the intermission Hampson spoke at length about his passion for this project, and gave some sense as to the immense scope, and incredible importance, of this undertaking. He spoke of the importance of song as a "dialog of metaphors between one language [words] and another [music]," as well as the unique ability of Americans to portray "American culture in its wide, deep, confusing, entertaining" nature.

The program began with the first song definitely attributed to an American composer, "My Days Have Been so Wondrous Free" by Francis Hopkinson. Stephen C. Foster was next, with a lilting "Open thy Lattice, Love" that gave the feeling as though one was sitting in a log cabin in front of a crackling fire in the youth of our nation, listening to an American troubadour of the highest caliber.

One of the most impressive aspects of the performance, aside from the rich, nuanced and impeccable singing styles Hampson brought, was his ability to tell a story. Whether sending the audience into rip-roaring laughter with Aaron Copland's rendition of "The Dodger," or leaving the audience in humbled solemnity with his repeated impassioned cries of 'Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!' at the end of Michael Daugherty's setting of Abraham Lincoln's famous "Letter to Mrs. Bixby," there was never a moment where Hampson's intent was unclear, when his interpretation of the work left anything to be desired by way of emotional import. His amazing ability to bring every tool of the storyteller's craft to his beautiful, intentioned singing left no doubt that he fully believed in the dialog of metaphors about which he spoke. His ability to inform that dialog to such an expert, heartfelt degree in both languages was the truly amazing feat displayed in this concert.

His range of choices was impressive as well. There were difficult, modern atonal compositions that had been composed specifically for him by Michael Tilson Thomas and John Corigliano, whose novelty and complexity provided some of the most gratifying moments of the evening; there was Copland aplenty, Bernstein, Charles Ives, and a fresh rendition of the normally sentimental 'Shenandoah' that seemed to not take itself too seriously while still displaying the deep pride of place inherent in the timeless American classic. Wolfram Rieger, the accompanist, was superb as well, and the repartee between the two was seamless, intimate and engaging.

In talking during the intermission with some friends who had attended Hampson's master class, they spoke of his kindness, of openness, of a giving nature and an easy sense of humor. All of these things and more were readily apparent throughout the evening. The term 'national treasure' is perhaps sometimes used too glibly, but such praise is not too high to be heaped upon one so skilled and dedicated as Thomas Hampson is to preserving, continuing, and enriching the glorious tradition of American song.

Crossposted at NW Reverb.

Monday, October 5, 2009

New Article at Primer Magazine; other stuff coming soon!

Well the slow summer months which (for me) involve a slow-down in my blogging are over, and coinciding with that is the publication of the first piece that I've written for Primer Magazine in quite some time; thanks to my editor Andrew Snavely there for his patience. Although I won't lay claim to any of the mp3 samples embedded throughout the work (except for the Gould) it was a pretty good idea to include examples of the pieces about which I was writing. Classical music afficionados, feel free to rake me over the coals (or back me up as the case may be); nothing like a 'top ten' list for controversy.

I've got a lot of other stuff coming up at MO and NW Reverb; an interview with the librettist and the composer/arranger of Opera Theater Oregon's upcoming production of the Beggar's Opera; a review of leading American baritone Thomas Hampson's concert tomorrow night at the Newmark Theater for starters.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

CD Review: Handel's 'Solomon'

The German label Carus Verlag has released a series of recordings in recent years that together describe a sort of triptych of some of Handel’s great vocal works: they were all recorded by the FestSpiel Orchester Göttingen under the direction of Nicholas McGegan. Unlike the masque Acis und Galatea and the oratorio Samson, the chorus in this recording of Solomon is not the festival choir (the NordDeutschen RundfunkChor) but a guest chorus: the Winchester Cathedral Choir, an all male ensemble featuring boy sopranos and altos.

McGegan is a master at interpreting Handel’s work, and as usual he brings all of his formidable skills to this recording. The orchestra is spectacular and intuitive under McGegan’s hand, and is a pleasure to listen to into its own right. Never merely an accompaniment, it speaks with its own distinctive voice, adding as much to the narrative as any of the soloists.

The Winchester Cathedral Choir sings with a bell-like clarity, which is a great strength of boy’s choirs that yields so much pleasure in the listening. Diction is sometimes an issue with the chorus in this recording. Still, a spectacular blend and glorious sound make it easy to overlook this shortcoming. ‘Throughout the Land’ is an exceptional example; this passionate, delicate fugal chorus is just one of the shining moments to be found. The many uplifting choruses in this lengthy work are uniformly exuberant.

Baritone Roderick Williams proves a noteworthy vocalist. With robust, unforced power, he possesses a timbre which doesn’t demand attention—one simply pays it because of the grace and stature of the sound.

Tim Mead, an alto singing the title role is at times restrained, but not without richness. His delivery on the arias feels more sure and satisfying than the recitatives. A duet with soprano Dominique LaBelle as his Queen provides an intimate, languid look into the soul of the great monarch. A trio with Solomon passing judgment on the possession of the boy child yields a, delightful, nattering argument between the two harlots, sung by LaBelle and soprano Claron McFadden, who later sings the role of the Queen of Sheba. McFadden’s articulate ornamentation and full sound fit well the regal role.

Tenor Michael Slattery sings the role of Zadok the Priest. The first big aria for Zadok, ‘Sacred Raptures cheer my breast,’ is a true bear from a technical standpoint. Slattery renders the dizzying melisma with mixed results. Sometimes it is effluent; other times, especially lower in his register, the delivery is forced and lagging almost behind the beat. Still, this is a live recording, so a few moments lack the polish that would be found in studio release.

This recording is magnificent, and is definitely a worthy rendering of Handel at the peak of his brilliance as an oratorio composer. All of the recordings featuring McGegan with his FestspielOrchester have proven a delight to listen to, and one hopes that more will be forthcoming.

Crossposted at NW Reverb

Sunday, July 19, 2009

CD Review: Baadsvik plays 20th century Tuba Concerti

BIS Records recently released a compilation of tuba concerti by various 20th century composers featuring tuba specialist Øystein Baadsvik, soloist, with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Anne Manson. Featuring works by Vaughan Williams, Alexander Arutiunian, John Williams and Torbjörn Iwan Lundquist, this disc is an exposition of the oft-overlooked versatility of this instrument.

The opening piece by Vaughan Williams, Concerto for Bass Tuba (1954) begins the showcase of Baadsvik’s agile mastery of his instrument. The Prelude is a tasty, grumbling discourse from the soloist, while in the gloriously singing Romanza, Baadsvik takes the reins and runs, describing a sonorous ballet like the dance of a whale—ponderous, slow, alien, and yet singular and undeniably beautiful when in its proper element.

Arutiunian’s work, Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra (1992) is very folkish and spritely—an unusual descriptor for tuba music to say the least. The melodies are originals by the composer yet have the distinct flavor of Eastern European/Near Middle Eastern folk tunes. Lundquist’s moody Landscape for Tuba, String Orchestra and Piano was said by the composer himself to be a direct refutation of the notion that the tuba could not play expressively or cantabile, and it certainly succeeded in that respect. Exciting glissandi like the trumpeting of an elephant and rapid, fiery cadenzas break up the somber, rocky landscape of the composer’s imagination.

John Williams’ Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra (1985) closes out the disc, and is in some ways the most integral work in terms of the solo instrument being a part of the whole rather than the sole reason for its existence. Baadsvik makes good use of the varied textural template, which ranges from moments reminiscent of Williams familiar, scintillating film scores to starkly percussive, idiomatic segments.

In a release that was perhaps meant to disprove our cultural concept of the tuba as either belonging to the accompaniment or evoking a comical (perhaps occasionally sinister) mood when a solo instrument, one has to ask--did the release achieve its goal? Baadsvik is purportedly the only tubist in the world to have pursued a career expressly as a solo performer, without having played in an orchestra or accepted a teaching post. Chances are, whatever range of expression his instrument has to offer, Baadsvik has found it.

At first it is difficult to stop wishing for the tuba to break forth with a clearer, more piercing tone—a tone that, given its relative absence on a release by the tuba's foremost exponent and meant to highlight its versatility, the instrument probably doesn’t possess. This isn’t, after all, a collection of horn or trumpet concerti. In certain moments of the Lundquist, Baadsvik comes close to achieveing this, playing with a timbral tightness that eliminates much of the muted ‘fuzziness’ around the edges. Still, if one stops wishing for something the instrument can’t easily provide, and instead enjoys the rich palate of sound that it does possess, the release achieves its goal admirably, as well as presents some uncommonly heard and quite beautiful music.

Crossposted at NW Reverb.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Filmusik turns to the Spaghetti Western

Filmusik, an area group that promotes live performance in conjunction with film, turned its attention to the spaghetti western in a performance Wednesday, July 15th at the the Hollywood Theatre. Giulio Petroni's classic 1967 film Death Rides a Horse, stripped of the soundtrack (and starring the iconic Lee Van Cleef) was accompanied by a 40-voice choir provided by Opera Theater Oregon and a chamber orchestra courtesy of ECCE New Music. The score was composed by Eugene composers Gracin Dorsey and Sam L. Richards, and the performance was directed by Tuesday Rupp. (Click here for the trailer.)

The soundtrack began with a big choral overture that saw the introduction of the main theme, a full-throated chanting of da uomo a uomo ('from a man to a man') which is the film's title in Italy. The score was suitably over-the-top and self-importantly melodramatic, in exact keeping with the images being presented onscreen.

Dorsey and Richards soundtrack was imaginative and varied. In addition to very melodic and catchy motives(I find myself still humming the main theme two days later), the composers elicited a range of non-musical effects from the performers, including big, swooping glissandi, windy whistling, percussive, aspirant plosions, shouts and a superbly executed refrain of ghost-like wailing from the choir (occasionally a bit much, but they were able to achieve a truly eerie effect with this). The string players were called upon to stamp feet and clap hands along with the singers, and percussionist Heidi Wait deserves special mention for staying on top of a tricky, insular and important part.

Rupp had her hands full managing to keep all these performers in sync with the onscreen action, and she did this superbly--this was the most well-timed performance of this type that I've yet seen in terms of synchronicity between the film and the live performers. (See here and here for other examples of this.) The interesting effect that live film music has is a heightening of the immediacy of the film itself--the overall project becomes a complex, syncopated, multi-layered 'happening', and the audience understands itself as an integral part of the enterprise, not merely a passive bystander to it.

There will be a repeat performance tonight at 7pm at the Hollywood Theatre; if the crowds at this Friday night performance are similar to those present for Plan 9 From Outer Space, arrive early or buy tickets online if you expect to get a seat.

Crossposted at NW Reverb.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

SideNote: How I almost got to meet my hero at Classical Music Northwest

Rankly amateur mandolin player that I am, I've still got my heroes. Some of my favorite mandolinists in the world are Ricky Skaggs, Mike Marshall, Chris Thile and the late great Bill Monroe, may he rest in peace. So last night I'm at the Catlin Gabel School for the first time, excited to hear Chris Thile, a virtuoso of the highest caliber, really an absolute genius on the instrument.

After sitting down, the delightful elderly woman next to me asks why I'm taking notes. I explain to her that I'm writing for Northwest Reverb, a widely read classical music blog based in Portland.

‘What's that?'

I'm not sure if she means ‘what's NW Reverb?' or ‘what's a blog?,' so I break it down for her. After asking if she has a computer (she does) I write down the web address and tell her to just type it into her browser and go from there.

With the utmost seriousness she asks ‘how do we get more young people like yourself out here to these concerts? What can we do to get young people more interested in this great music?' (Or something very close to that.)

I tell her that that particular topic is of great interest for me as well, and explain a little to her about Classical Revolution Portland. She (as well as the gentleman she is with) seem absolutely fascinated by the concept behind it (playing classical music in bars, pubs, coffee shops, other very accessible (and cheaper) venues) and they ask how to find out more about it.

Fortunately for me, Mattie Kaiser, Executive Director of CRPDX and a talented violist, is sitting one row ahead of me. She perks up on hearing me talk about CRPDX and I hand the ball to her so I can read some program notes. Mattie then gives the woman a card, and since I don't have any cards (note to self: get cards!) I take back the paper I had given her and scribble down the Musical Oozings website as well as the CRPDX site for her friend. I then notice to my chagrin that I've got about a half a sheet of paper left in the notebook I'm using, and will have to start writing on the cardboard backing to finish this review. C'est la vie; way to be prepared.

A little about Mattie: in addition to her musical talent, she's definitely a ‘people person': loquacious, gregarious, self-confident, in short, uniquely suited to being an all-around musical gad-about, one of the many hats she wears. I know that she works behind the scenes for CMNW at the Kaul Auditorium shows. After the opening piece, a spectacular transcription of a Haydn piano sonata (click the link to read the actual concert review), Mattie pops back one row to sit next to Kristin and I. (We're sitting in the balcony and the view is quite a bit better from row two than row one.) And then I'll be damned if Chris Thile himself doesn't show up out of the blue and sit right next to Mattie.

Kristin and I exchange excited glances (we're both big fans) and yet, wanting to be nonchalant, I don't say anything, I just wait for Mattie to introduce me. Mattie had been talking about how she was hanging out with the Punch Brothers one night and they started a spontaneous jam, playing long into the evening, drinking and partying. Just as Mattie gets ready to do introduce us, the woman we had been speaking with before launches into a lengthy conversation which eats up the entire time left before the start of the next piece.

Never fear, I tell myself, I'll have a chance to say ‘Hi' afterward. So we get through the fascinating Adams piece (it was so assaultive at points that I wanted to stand up and yell 'bring it on!) and before I have a chance to say anything, Chris hops up and takes his leave, wanting to prepare for the opening of the second half. Never fear, I tell myself, a little less surely, I'll have a chance to meet him after the show.

So I sit there during the intermission, anxiously awaiting my second live performance of Brandenburg #3 in just a little over a week.

"I think I need some night vision goggles," I say jokingly, squinting at my cardboard notes in the dim light.

"Or some paper..." says Mattie, eyeing my makeshift writing surface dubiously. Such dry wit. Touche.

After a fresh rendition of the third Brandenburg, hoping (in vain) that Chris would come up and sit with us again, I get to looking at the next piece, a Sextet for Piano and Strings by Mendelssohn.

I turn to Mattie. "So exactly how much sex is there in a sextet? I've never been entirely clear on that..."

"Ignore him." That would be Kristin's voice, in my other ear.

Mattie laughs. "Well, you can have two threesomes, or three twosomes."

I think for a minute. "That's a lot of sex!"

"Ignore him." Again, a little more insistently this time.

Since when do I need a minder? I ask myself. Better not answer that.

The sextet was fantastic, very sexy indeed, and after the concert ends I look forward to meeting my mandolin hero. First thing I do is go out to buy the Punch Brothers inaugural release How to Grow a Woman from the Ground so I can get it autographed, hopefully by the whole band. Now that would be something. Mattie graciously says that she'll go backstage and see if Chris would be willing to come out and say ‘hi' for a minute, or if I can go backstage to meet him.

The first sign that things are not to go as planned is that there are no more CDs or ‘merch' of any kind out front; the lady selling them has packed up and gone. So Kristin and I are waiting outside by the backstage entrance for Mattie (and hopefully Chris) and I get to visit for a bit with her parents, who are also waiting for her. I introduce myself and they say ‘Oh...we know who you are. From the Baroque Bash.' My reputation precedes me...I hope that's a good thing.

So Mattie comes out a minute later and says Chris isn't back there, but he might be out front. Paul Kowert, the bass player, and Chris Eldridge, the guitarist, are there by where the merchandise table used to be, and they are apparently as confused as I am that it is no longer there. I get to visit with them for a moment...class acts all the way, very polite and humble despite their formidable musical talents. I wait around for a few minutes, but it becomes apparent that Chris won't be making an appearance.

So I decide to leave before I start to cry like a little girl. My disappointment must be painfully obvious; Mattie makes another crack (she's quick that Mattie; she can zing you before you know you've been zung) and Paul seems a little discomfited by the fact that I'm mostly waiting around for the big star, Chris Thile. I try to explain that it's just because I've been a huge fan for years and yada yada yada but I'm sure he's heard it all before. I hope I made clear that it was a great privilege to talk to them and I was in no way diminishing that.

Long story short I leave sans CD, sans having met my mandolin hero. It's not that I wanted to hang out (though I obviously wouldn't have minded) or become the guy's best friend. Just a simple handshake, and to say ‘thanks for all the great music, and you're really an inspiration to me.' Not too much to want, is it, to say ‘your marvelous playing is one of the things that keeps me going when I want to bash myself in the head with my cheap mandolin instead of play it when I get frustrated at my meagre skills (if such they can be called.)' Not that I ever dream of playing as well as he, but that's not the point: it's the inspiration, not the emulation, that matters.

I think my dissapointment was all the more poignant because of the fact that he was right there next to us and I could've spoken to him then, but didn't want to be rude and interrupt the lovely woman next to us who was chatting with him. Don't get me wrong; I blame no one but myself. I had my shot, and I blew it. I guess it's one of those things you just have to do when the opportunity arises: speak now or forever hold your peace, so the saying goes.

And so life goes on. Maybe I'll get a chance to meet Chris someday. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Concert Review: A night of Americana at Chamber Music Northwest

Chamber Music Northwest presented a satisfying, varied program of Americana on Thursday, July 2 in the Kaul Auditorium at Reed College. A number of artists were featured on this night that celebrated American music in honor of our Independence Day weekend.

Opening the program was John Williams' new work Air and Simple Gifts (2009), composed and arranged for (and famously pantomimed during) President Obama's historic inauguration ceremony earlier this year. Featuring David Shifrin on the clarinet, Jennifer Frautschi on violin, Fred Sherry on cello and Anna Polonsky at the piano, this moody yet joyful work aptly set the tone for the program to follow. After a brief introductory air the familiar tune came to the fore. Frautschi and Sherry played wonderfully; with a scaled-back yet spacious timbre that showed respect for this hallowed tune, they deftly handled Williams' tricky fracturing of the main motive between the two instruments.

Next came Leonard Bernstein's Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, (1942), Bernstein's first published work as a professional. Bernstein himself characterized it in part as a 'student work,' and its sometimes unlovely yet never uninteresting structure was a sharp break from the opening. David Shifrin, clarinettist and artistic director of the festival, displayed the smooth, buttery elegance for which he is known, and yet infused his playing with a smarmy wit, very fitting for the non-sequitur interjections which spewed from the clarinet into the grumbling, harmonically complex base laid down by Polonsky the piano.

The half closed with a composition by Aaron Jay Kernis entitled Two Awakenings and a Double Lullaby (2006). With the composer Kernis at the piano, Frautschi on the violin, Bryan Johanson playing guitar and Hyunah Yu singing soprano, this dense and complex work was a bit mystifying and suffered from some balance issues. Yu had a lovely voice but it seemed small, and she was frequently drowned out by the violin and piano, which did nothing to help with her diction issues. This piece might have been better served by a soprano with a bigger set of pipes, one willing and able to stake her place amongst the bullying strings, or failing that the violin and piano should have scaled back to fit the needs of the singer, who was really the centerpiece of this composition.

Given that, however, Frautschi was impressive all night long. The range of tonal colors she was able to elicit was exciting to hear, from high-pitched mewlings to a broad, viola-like singing. The guitar sounded nice when one was able to hear it, which was really only when nothing was coming from the violin and piano. Though Yu was drowned out far too often, there were moments of great beauty and emotionally intense import, and her murmuring glissandi and delicate, almost fragile ornamentation were important in bringing out the overall meaning of the piece. This work, especially the final lullaby, seemed ultimately overly-complicated and far too long to expound on the themes presented in the text.

The second half reverted to more traditional fare: a song cycle by Gershwin, and the same composer's Rhapsody in Blue arranged for piano, four hands. Yu and Polonsky teamed up for three of Gershwin's best-loved tunes: The Man I Love, I Got Rhythm, and Summertime. The first was a huge hit with the crowd, but it seemed as though her singing was covered, or muted unnecessarily. In the second tune Yu gave an extremely personable delivery, and it seemed that by the time she got to Summertime, everything fell into place. The last tune worked; her sultry tone and languishing, unhurried manner embodied all that this song is about. It was by far her best delivery of the night.

The Rhapsody in Blue was fun and a sure crowd-pleaser. Polonsky, playing with a sincere and entertaining physicality, was joined by Elizabeth Harcombe, and despite a bit too-heavy sustain pedal at first, they managed to find many of the right orchestral colors and were given a standing ovation.

The final piece of the night was a world premier by Rob Moose entitled New Old River Music: Traditional Melodies in Four Movements. This was performed by the Punch Brothers, a group that is hard to describe as just a bluegrass band (nothing wrong with that), though it seems that bluegrass is where they start...

Featuring young (though incredibly experienced) mandolin phenom Chris Thile, fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge, Paul Kowert on double bass and Noam Pikelny on banjo (joined by guest clarinettist Shifrin), the Punch Brothers served up a very different offering than the rest of the night's fare.

The first movement, based on Done Gone, began cautiously, with the main theme taken up alternately by fiddle, mandolin and banjo before exploding in glorious ensemble, with a free-flowing, improvisational feel. In the second movement (Midnight on the Water), the clarinet struck up a plaintive theme accompanied by a few ingeniously hesitant plunks from the banjo, and then the rest of the group came in for a surprisingly delicate arrangement. The song turned into a slow country waltz that began right where it started.

The Turtle of Laurel Lake opened with Thile's incomparable gossamer picking on the mandolin, the composition making use of the marvelous facility with which fiddle tunes transcribe to the mandolin. The movement delighted in its clever, untroubled ambience. Big Sciota sounded like slowly gathering drops of rain tinkling alternately from the different instruments in a very tricky pattern, rapidly gathering steam and making use of some surprising, satisfying harmonies and an incredible, judicious use of space. By the end, this ethereal framework had mutated into a good old-fashioned hoe-down like a bolt of thunder out of the blue.

The audience went wild for the Punch Brothers, who returned for an encore sans Shifrin to give a taste of the program being presented tonight, Saturday July 4th, at the same location. Fans of authentic, deeply-felt and impeccably performed American folk music with a twist would be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining concert.

Crossposted at NW Reverb.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Concert Review: PBO presents masterful Brandenburg concert

Oregon Bach Festival audiences were treated to a very rare treat on Monday, June 29th at the First United Methodist Church in Portland. The Portland Baroque Orchestra, one of the nation's premier early music orchestras and a guest ensemble at this year's festival, presented all six of Bach's famous Brandenburg Concertos under the sterling direction of Monica Huggett (who did triple duty as violinist and violist as well.)

These works were composed over a ten-year span while Bach was still a young man, and presented to a music-loving (though ultimately ungrateful) prince, the Margrave of Brandenburg. They represent Bach's foray into the Italian concerto style, and like so many of his efforts they are uniquely his own and yet stand as one of the crowning achievements of the genre. This review shall present them in the order in which they were performed at this concert.

Concerto No. 1 in F Major, BWV 1046

Carla Moore, violino piccolo, Debra Nagy, oboe, R.J. Kelley, Paul Avril, natural horns

Right from the start, and continuing throughout the night, Huggett set positively brisk tempos, and these lent the works an air of excitement and forward momentum. The opening Allegro felt like it was played by a German festival band, what with this work being in some ways the most 'un-concerto-like' of them all in that there is very little in the way of clearly defined separation between the concertante (soloists) and ripieno (supporting orchestra.) The horns, as Bach no doubt intended, set up a somewhat awkward honking that stood at odds with the smooth texture of the tutti. Kelley and Avril played well, with a minimum of the warbling and quavering which seem to be a natural part of the old valveless brass instruments. The second movement (Adagio) was delectable, with Moore and Nagy engaging in a skillful badinage between the oboe and the feisty violino piccolo, tuned a third higher than the regular violin. In the third movement this small instrument was unfortunately too-often drowned out (as were the brass and winds by the fearsome choir of strings in the first.)

This first concerto stands alone in having four movements, and the fourth presented the most delightful moments of this first concerto: a main menuet theme repeated three times, separated by three sections in which the horns and oboes played alone their own menuets and a Polacca while the ripieno stood silent. The brass and winds were superb in their presentation of these savory, dancing vignettes, while the ripieno varied the da capo menuet dynamically upon each of its returns.

Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050

Monica Huggett, violin, Janet See, flute (transverse), Boris Kleiner, harpsichord

The most virtuosic display in a long evening of such displays undoubtedly belonged to Kleiner, who in the first movement executed the extremely difficult harpsichord solo with crystalline clarity. (Huggett's performance in the Fourth Concerto rivaled Kleiner in this respect.) He segued seamlessly in and out of the dual roles of continuo and soloist, and when he reached the long cadenza all in the room, orchestra and audience alike, remained in awed, respectful silence while Kleiner absolutely tore up the keyboard, a wistful smile of amusement on his face as he played the triplet passages with fierce rapidity and yet cautious delicacy, mindful of the delicate filigree that Bach had provided.

The second movement, marked Affetuoso, was splendid, structurally simple and yet full of the sighing, weeping baroque pathos that is a hallmark of so many of the slow movements of Bach's works. Huggett, See and Kleiner played this trio with marked clarity, infusing it with tender, sombre sentiments without becoming maudlin or overly slow.

Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048

The opening movement of this concerto, again with no real concertante and ripieno sections, rather featuring three trios of strings and continuo, was perhaps the most perfectly executed movement of the entire evening. It was thrilling to hear live a performance that was on par with any of the best recordings that I have ever heard of this work. To use a sports analogy, everyone in this group was 'in the zone,' and the relatively straightforward melodic structure that Bach employs was tossed off from one trio group to the next, constantly moving, always perfectly deployed. The ritornello, or refrain, to which Bach keeps returning over and over never became tiresome--in part because of the breathless tempo that Huggett employed. Each group pushed it forward, and everyone played fearlessly--individually, as a trio, and in aggregate.

In the second movement Huggett engaged a Corelli-esque singing tone in her playing, and the third movement saw a return to the lightning-quick prestissimo of the first. It is hard to imagine this work played any faster than the PBO took it this night, and yet due to their countless combined years of skill and dedication there was no sacrifice of accuracy or interpretation. Concerto No. 3 was perfect.

Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major, BWV 1051

Monica Huggett, Vicki Gun Pich, viola, Tonya Tomkins, violoncello

The only real intonation problems of the evening occured as this work opened the second half. It took a dozen bars or so for the group to settle in, both in terms of synchronicity and pitch center. When it did however, the rich, low sonority, aided by the violone and pair of violas da gamba in the continuo, lent this work its uniquely lush character: gallant and philosophically almost post-baroque, especially in the third movement despite the archaic strings for which it was scored. Huggett and Gun Pich really communicated with one another admirably after the slow start, and by and large this concerto was presented with exceptional unity by the small string band.

Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047

Monica Huggett, violin, Kathryn Montoya, recorder, Stephen Bard, oboe, Guy Few, trumpet

In this concerto, arguably the most popular of the group, Bach most closely adheres to the concerto grosso style--that is, a clearly defined concertante that is distinctly separate from a supporting orchestral cast. And what a concertante it is: four disparate instruments forming a group that could rightly stand alone without the backing of the ripieno--in fact it is thought that the music for the concertante was originally written as a stand-alone chamber sonata for those instruments.

The nobility, complexity and virtuosity of this concerto can hardly be overstated. That great nineteenth-century Bach scholar Philipp Spitta rhapsodized thusly about the opening movement: "...How it goes past like a troop of youthful knights with gleaming eyes and waving crests! One [concertante instrument] begins a joyful song which echoes through the tree-tops in the forest; a second and a third take it up, and their comrades chime in in chorus...anon it is heard for an instant, and then wafted away by the wind and drowned by the fluttering of the leaves."

The blend in the concertante was warm and mellifluous, and unlike portions of the first concerto where the horns and winds were sometimes drowned by the strings, the soloists stood apart and there was no problem distinguishing them from the group. Even the recorder, so easily subsumed, was by and large lucid and easily heard. However, at least at the start this movement was the only part of the evening where the tempo seemed to pose somewhat of a problem, as occasionally the soloists seemed to be in a hurry to catch up.

The second movement, a dirge-like sonata a tre for the concertante (minus trumpet) left naked the soloists, demanding of them a scaled down sensibility, a focus drastically narrowed from that required by the rollicking introductory movement, and they responded with the artistry one would expect of this group. The third movement again returned to a blistering tempo, and Few managed a fiendishly difficult part for a fiendishly difficult instrument with admirable grace.

Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049

Monica Huggett, violin, Kathryn Montoya, Debra Nagy, recorders

This concerto was very fitting as the grand finale, and it allowed Huggett to shine in a demanding violin solo that approaches any of the ferociously difficult concertante written by the great concertoist (himself a masterfully adept violinst) Antonio Vivaldi. Huggett displayed the expertly channeled ferocity and daring showmanship that is her trademark style, fitting for one who considers great rock 'n roll guitarists among her foremost musical idols. The recorders played beautifully; a finespun, pastel duo, but they were unfortunately too-often swallowed by the ripieno. I don't know how much of this might be attributed to the vastness of the sanctuary at FUMC; I noticed no such problem with these same works in the very different acoustic space in the PBO's two-concert presentation at First Baptist last year.

During the finale Hugget left everything on the floor. In the spirit of Spitta's fantasy, I might say that like Euterpe Huggett impelled her instrument to call out heroically each time the ritornello appeared--sallying forth as though a daughter of Boudicca, leading the throng back into the fray for rally after rally after rally with unflagging leadership and razor-sharp determination.

The thorough professionalism and informed artistry demonstrated by the soloists and ripieno in all their various combinations throughout the evening were very impressive. The daring, the brashness that came to the fore all throughout this presentation of some of the most difficult works in the orchestral baroque repertoire left in this reviewer nothing but the greatest respect for these rarest of performers, an admiration and a local boy's pride for the beauty and wonder that the Oregon Bach Festival and the Portland Baroque Orchestra bring to the world.


Philipp Spitta--Johann Sebastian Bach--His Work and Influence on the Music of Germany, 1685-1750. (First published in German 1873; first English translation 1884.)

Martin Geck--Johann Sebastian Bach--Life and Work. (First published in German, 2000; English translation 2006 by John Hargraves.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Guarnieri Quartet Mesmerizes at CMNW Festival

Thursday evening, June 25, saw the renowned Guarnieri Quartet play the Chamber Music Northwest Festival as part of their farewell tour. After 45 years together, 2009 will be their last season.

Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium was full to capacity to hear them play two late Beethoven quartets, No. 12 in E-flat Major and No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 127 and 132 respectively. These deeply pensive works seemed somehow fitting for a farewell concert.

From the exclamatory opening chords of the No. 12 onward, the Guarnieri Quartet (violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violist Michael Tree and cellist Peter Wiley) displayed the masterful ensemble playing for which they are known. Their ability to generate a rich and complex depth of sound often gave the impression that there were more than four instruments on stage.

Certain moments stood out as particularly exceptional. In the Adagio, cellist Peter Wiley was able to bring a delectable, murmuring melodic motive up from the depths, retreat until it threatened to fall back into the dense harmonic texture and then suddenly bring it forward to make its presence felt once more. There were times his singing timbre made it sound as though a second viola had entered. During the Scherzando, the entire group played a galloping mezzo-staccato couplet theme in perfect unision, drawing the full melodic meaning from this difficult texture. The old joke that Beethoven was the greatest composer who couldn’t write a melody was put to lie; the challenge is to find and draw out that melody, and this group certainly did that whenever it was called for.

Opening the second half with the A Minor, the playing in parts of the first movement seemed a bit restrained, almost rote. This was soon remedied by the extreme, intentionally jarring dynamic contrasts of the Allegro ma non tanto. The middle of this five-movement work, the Molto adagio, was sublime and absolutely magnificent. The GQ interpreted the many different shades of this long, meandering segment with the utmost skill and dexterity. At times it felt forward looking, an almost Dvorăkian hymn to the splendorous, wide spaces of America. At other times it seemed as though Beethoven was quoting the main theme from Pachelbel’s Canon, and the GQ captured this sensitively, rendering a warm, woody intimacy that called to mind a chest of viols from a far earlier era. Their superb interpretation, their ability to intuit the spirit of the many different musics Beethoven seemed to be invoking was rapturous, and the auditorium felt breathless and transformed as the movement died away to a whisper. The Guarnieri Quartet plays at Reed College again tonight, featuring a concert of late Brahms, including the famous B-Minor Clarinet Quintet featuring Festival A.D. David Shifrin on clarinet.

Crossposted at NW Reverb.

Monday, June 22, 2009

CD Review: bitter sober EP

I first heard bitter sober at the Portland Pride fest two weeks ago. I had gone into the party to take a break from the parade when I heard this all-girl band up on stage with a lead singer whose expressive, beautiful, warbling voice immediately captivated me and would not let go. I watched them play until they were done, even waiting through an interruption from a hideously loud marching band (I'm not sure but I think it was probably March 4th) making its exit from the parade under the Morrison Bridge. Her voice immediately called to mind Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, one of my very favorite new bands that I've heard in the last five years (I gush about them whenever I get the chance.) While her voice did remind me of Karen's soulful honesty, the music was not similar at all, so I bought the cd and look forward to reviewing it.

I'm not familiar with Sarah and Tegan, the group they seem to get compared to in some of the other articles I've read about them. Just as well I guess; I didn't become hypnotically addicted to this music almost instantly just because they reminded me of someone else; it was lead singer Sherry Soto's fucking phenomenal vocals that hooked me in and wouldn't let go. The CD is short and over far too soon, but I guess this isn't much of a CD review anyway. I love every song on it simply because Sherry Soto is singing it. Check out the MySpace page linked above if you've any interest in hearing her amazing pipes.

CD Review: Handel's 'Samson'

Carus Verlag recently released a new three-disc set of Handel’s titanic oratorio Samson, featuring Nicholas McGegan again teamed up with collaborators the FestspielOrchester Göttingen and the NDR Chor, as well as a bevy of world-class soloists. Although only three years old, one can expect many great things from the FestspielOrchester in the future; under McGegan they have released three Handel works on the Carus Verlag label: Acis und Galatea, Solomon, and now Samson.

The story of the biblical hero Samson proved fertile ground for Handel’s boundless imagination, and there are few as well-equipped to realize Handel’s vision in our day as Nicholas McGegan.

Thomas Cooley, singing the title role, delivers a mixed performance in this release. While technically never less than precise, some of the arias, especially on the first disc, come off as just that—technical. While such precision is admirable, if it is not accompanied by sympathetic emotional interpretation, it may come off as dry, a risk that runs particularly high when singing works from the Baroque. Alto Franziska Gottwald, in the important role of Micah, has a voice that is heavy and oft overbearing.

The great advantage to a work of this length is that even if some portions occasionally suffer for want of interpretation, there is so much to hear that it is worth listening to that the less satisfying segments do not detract from the overall enjoyability of the presentation. One Cooley aria in particular, ‘Thus when the sun,’ is truly exceptional, a breathless moment of reverie as Samson contemplates the fate he must now know awaits him, the punishment for his treachery coupled with the bittersweet redemption for failing his God. Cooley here displays a true emotional verité, encapsulated within yet never confined by the stylistic strictures of the baroque. Soprano Sophie Daneman as Dalila provides a welcome respite from the largely lower-range and dark-timbre voices featured in this oratorio; of particular delight is the rich, argumentative duet she sings with Samson, 'Traitor to Love!'

McGegan and the FOG are absolutely spectacular—in addition to the the flawless accompagnato skills they bring to the table, the sinfoniae that are scattered throughout exhibit crystalline perfection and could stand alone. The NDR Chor is as able and exact a baroque choir as one could want, and their English diction (for a non-native speaking choir) is superb. Early music lovers will find everything delightful about the baroque era in this three-hour epic masterpiece.

Cross-posted at NW Reverb.