Take Five – Belgium, 1964

2017/02/18

The late, great Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) composed several evergreen jazz standards, but “Take Five” might be the most famous.  Several noteworthy elements of this 1964 performance recorded for Belgian television (below) are worth the look and listen.

Paul Desmond’s vibrato and timbre here are enjoyable for several reasons, not the least of which is because they are not overpowering.  The extra air he inserts into some of his notes give his alto saxophone some “movement.”  While solo saxophone is rare in classical music performance, Desmond’s style in this performance would fit nicely.  And this is precisely what makes his solo here so elegant, but occasionally playful and eminently satisfying.

In his surprisingly melancholy solo in this reading, Mr. Brubeck displayed some of the style elements that have clearly influenced pianists like Lyle Mays.

The big star of this video, however, may be Joe Morello (1928-2011), whose segue from Brubeck’s restrained piano solo ramps up the mood considerably.  Keeping the 5/4 time signature and tempo intact, Morello’s excursion here was both tasteful and tasty.  Morello tensioned his floor tom to an almost timpani-like sound, making clever use of it in several places.  In this musician’s opinion, Morello’s solo here is worth the study by any aspiring drummer or percussionist.

I am thankful to the Belgian broadcasters for having recorded this in 1964, especially to audio engineer Jean Muller, whose microphone placement captured many of the nuances of Morello’s drum kit, right down to the crisp flavor of the wooden drumstick tips riding between the bell and the body of the ride cymbal.  I would not be surprised if Monsieur Muller had experience recording chamber orchestras and not merely jazz ensembles.

It’s going to be a long night… #1

2016/11/24

You know that rehearsal is going to be a long slog when the operative phrase is, “I guess I’m going to have to listen to the original version.”

long-night-1

The “Watchtower Bass”

2016/10/09

If you are a cellist or bassist, the concept of “purgatory” has a real-world example in the eight-note ostinato ground bass of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D.  If you play bass in a rock or blues band, your equivalent is the three-chord bass line for “All Along The Watchtower,” by the folk-rock singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.  In both cases, it is the same, mind-numbingly repeating pattern through the entire song.

If you are a bassist with an IQ of at least 95, you know that “All Along the Watchtower” is five minutes of your day that you will never get back—longer if your lead guitarist is particularly greedy “inspired.”  But if you’re stuck on stage during a performance of “Watchtower,” and you want to make better use of your time, I humbly recommend that you arrive at the gig armed with a “Watchtower Bass.”

Like most of my ideas (well, except the solar-powered night-vision goggles), the concept is both elegant and simple:

If you don’t happen to have a second bass guitar, simply buy any crappy old used 4-string bass guitar; nobody will notice the difference.  Equip your extra bass with three strings.  Since my band (Elephant In The Room) plays the song in A, the bottom string would be an E-string tuned to F (F1).  The second string would be another E-string tuned to G (G1), and then the third string would be an A-string tuned to A (A1).  The fourth string is utterly unnecessary and can be discarded.
fender_p-bass_1000x1000x24b
Before the set begins, arrange with your food server to deliver a cheeseburger and soda pop just before the band plays “All Along the Watchtower.”

Once the song begins, simply begin playing the three notes on your three open strings. Your left hand is now available for holding your cheeseburger and/or glass of soda pop.

burger-004

“Hmmm.. I wonder when Mitch is done with his guitar solo?”  Urrrrrrrp!

The longer the band plays the song, the longer you have to savor your food and beverage without having to worry about annoying little details like fingering notes on your neck.  And since the bass line contains only three notes, playing a wrong note is virtually impossible.

By the time the band has finished playing the song, the lead guitarist, lead vocalist, and drummer will have gotten their jollies. Meanwhile, you have had time to savor some food and a refreshing beverage without having expended an ounce of worry or effort for a bass line nobody cares about, anyway.

Bassists of the world, you are welcome.

Artymiw’s awesome artistry

2013/10/14

This review was originally published in the March 2009 issue of The Metropolitan.

Lydia Artymiw gets a standing ovation

If you haven’t yet attended a Minnesota Sinfonia concert at Metropolitan State’s Founders Hall Auditorium, you should, but I have some helpful advice: Get there early.

On Friday evening, Feb. 13, 2009, hundreds of people—including kids—did, resulting in an overflow crowd for a thoughtfully programmed concert (especially for Valentine’s Day) by the Sinfonia, conducted by their Artistic Director, Jay Fishman.

An appetizer from Aaron
True to the orchestra’s mission of making classical and orchestral music accessible to kids (and adults who otherwise cannot afford tickets to Orchestra Hall or the Ordway), Fishman and the Sinfonia opened their Feb. 13 concert with a bit of Americana—the famous “Hoedown” from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo.  While the slower tempo seemed a little unusual, the benefit to the audience was obvious: they could better hear the intricate rhythms and interplay between the strings. (This was especially nice for the Founders Hall audience, as they are closer to the stage than in other venues.)

And while the strings, winds and brass players were plenty competent with their parts, percussionist Kory Andry was the real star. Doing the work of several percussionists, Andry played the necessary parts on five instruments: bass drum, snare, wood block, concert marimba and cymbals ingeniously configured on a hi-hat stand.

Moved by Mozart
Sandwiched between the audience and the stage was the grand piano on which Lydia Artymiw fairly dazzled the gathered music lovers with a sublime reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 (K.467). A  distinguished professor of piano at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Artymiw was firm and noble where the first movement demanded, and then gave a thoroughly graceful and penetrating account of the famous second movement. Lest anyone think this was a relaxed ‘Muzak’ tour of Mozart, her technical command of the piano was manifest in her handling of cascades of pianissimo notes.

And here is where Artymiw stands apart from other concert musicians—a talented and masterful pianist, she was also a “sympathetic” soloist for the Sinfonia; not once did she overwhelm the orchestra accompanying her almost otherworldly grasp of Mozart.

In addition to her critically acclaimed recordings, Artymiw lately has been a juror for several international piano and chamber music competitions, a logical outgrowth of her appearances with major orchestras and in important venues all over the world. Surely the audience and the musicians of the Minnesota Sinfonia hope this is not the last time Lydia Artymiw performs for (and with) them.

And while the Sinfonia musicians did a creditable job containing their glee at their good fortune, the audience could not—they burst into a lengthy standing ovation, one Artymiw, Fishman and the Sinfonia musicians richly deserved.

Icing on the cake
Amazingly, some audience members left at the intermission, consequently missing two stunningly romantic and evocative pieces of music quite appropriate for Valentine’s Day. And, as well as the Sinfonia played the Mozart, they were just getting warmed up.

The non-choral version of Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, Op. 50, is one of his most famous pieces of music, where the melody is woven back-and-forth between the winds and strings. Here, Sinfonia flautist JoAnne Bartlett shined by carrying the melody with a clear-yet-breathy timbre later echoed by the violins. The supporting musicians in the Pavane, the violists, cellists and bassist Susan Allard were the rhythmic glue holding this performance together, delivering the under footing very precisely under Fishman’s conducting.

However, the most emotional and evocative piece of the evening was Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47. This composition is something of a well-kept secret and not widely known or played, so it was new to virtually the entire Founders Hall audience, who saw the Sinfonia semi-circle the string section principals in a visually unconventional manner. Elgar’s scoring for a quartet with string orchestra reminds of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, but on a smaller scale. The difference is that Elgar demands much more emotional playing from the strings, not just in dynamics but also in style, and the Sinfonia strings held true on all of the contemplative, plaintive and declarative passages.

Fishman and the Minnesota Sinfonia proved to any skeptics present that romantic and evocative classical music is often anything but milquetoast.

Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity

2011/12/17

Gerald Finley, baritone
Ruth Holton, soprano
Nicholas Sears, baritone
The Cambridge Singers, City of London Sinfonia / John Rutter CBE

Collegium COLCD 106
63 min 35 sec, DDD  (Full libretto provided)

Five stars

This is what Christmas music really is:  Beautifully worshipful compositions reflecting upon the birth of Christ, and nothing less.  And because some of John Rutter’s own music is here, it also serves as a unique, tangible profession of his faith.  If you don’t have any of John Rutter’s other CDs, buy thiChristmas Night: Carols of the Nativitys one and let it be your springboard to purchasing his other recordings.

The highly-respected John Rutter (b. 1945, London) is primarily a composer and conductor, known for writing choral music on both small and grand scales.  In the mid-1970s, he was Director of Music at Clare College, where he had been a student and whose choir he directed in broadcasts and recordings.  He gave up his post there to compose his own music and to form the Cambridge Singers as a professional chamber choir primarily dedicated to recording.  Likewise, he started Collegium Records to present his recordings.  This one, like his others, contains the text, composition and arrangement credits for and excellent historical notes about each track.

The Cambridge Singers’ performance here is somewhere between flawless and outstanding, faithfully captured by engineer Campbell Hughes and producer Jillian White.  The reduced number of musicians here is entirely appropriate; there is no loud fanfare or bombast, and therein lies one of the endearing qualities of this disc, because Rutter programmed so thoughtfully and carefully.  Fifteen a capella pieces are punctuated by seven with orchestral accompaniment, more than ably provided here by Rutter’s frequent collaborators, the City of London Sinfonia.

Among the a capella highlights on this disc are the two opening tracks, beginning with the familiar German carol in dulci jubilo, arranged here by Robert Lucas Pearsall.  The 15th century Adam lay ybounden has been set to music several times; Rutter chose the one by legendary English choirmaster and organist Boris Ord.  Herbert Howells’ setting of A spotless rose is a fine example of the wonderful British flavor on this disc, echoed by the two Charles Wood arrangements, Once as I remember and A virgin most pure.  There is also a particularly beautiful J.S. Bach arrangement of Samuel Scheidt’s carol O little one sweet.  Rutter’s setting of There is a flower features soprano soloist Ruth Holton, who delivers a very enjoyable balance between the boy-chorister characteristic and her own feminine voice.

There are four particularly beautiful collaborations between choir and strings here:  Dr. Harold Darke’s In the bleak mid-winter has remained very popular in Great Britain over the last few decades in part because of the gentle arrangement and because Christina Rossetti’s text considers Christ’s birth with a child-like simplicity.  Sir Richard R. Terry’s lovely and dignified Myn lyking is a Tudor-flavored setting of a 15th century text.  The segue from the violins to the women choristers entering the first verse evidences Terry’s thoughtful string scoring, duplicated later by the celli and the men.  John Rutter adapted a melody from Thoinot Arbeau’s late-16th century Orchésographie and wrote lyrics and a new score, nicely resulting in this disc’s title track.

Especially deserving of your attention is Patrick Hadley’s quietly sparkling I sing of a maiden; Hadley’s brilliant vocal scoring and gorgeous supporting orchestration remind of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, flowing beautifully and seamlessly between phrases.  Given a superlative performance here by the Singers and Sinfonia, this might be the best track on the disc.

Two other notable Rutter works are here too, reminiscent of both a “contemporary” style and that which sounds at least a hundred years older – testimony to Rutter’s compositional abilities.  Among the former is his 1984 Candlelight carol, and representing the latter is the final track on the CD, his 1963 Nativity carol, both accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia.  As with the Patrick Hadley, Nativity carol epitomizes the celebration of Christmas:  Quiet, worshipful and eloquently simple reflection upon the birth of Christ, beautifully enough to bring tears to your eyes.

My recommendation here is awfully simple:  Buy this CD.  Five stars, and “desert island” status for this recording.

Contents:

  1. In dulci Jubilo  (3:12)
    14th century German carol
    transl. and arr. R.L. Pearsall (1795-1856)
  2. Adam lay ybounden  (1:07)
    text, 15th century
    Boris Ord (1897-1961)
  3. Christmas Night  (4:00)
    Thoinot Arbeau (16th cent)
    text and arr, John Rutter (1945-)
  4. Once, as I remember  (2:28)
    text, G.R. Woodward (1848-1934)
    music, Italian 17th cent
    arr. Charles Wood (1866-1926)
  5. A spotless Rose  (2:45)
    text, 14th century
    music, Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
  6. In the bleak mid-winter  (4:32)
    text, Christina Rosetti (1830-1894)
    music, Dr. Harold Darke (1888-1976)
  7. There is a flower
    text, John Audelay (15th cent)
    music, John Rutter (1945-)
  8. The cherry tree carol  (4:04)
    English traditional carol
    arr. Sir David Willcocks
  9. I wonder as I wander  (2:52)
    Appalachian carol
    coll. John Jacob Niles
    arr. John Rutter (1945-)
  10. Candlelight carol  (4:06)
    John Rutter (1945-)
  11. O Tannenbaum  (1:58)
    text, Ernst Anschutz (1824)
    German traditional melody
    arr. John Rutter (1945-)
  12. Tomorrow shall be my dancing day  (1:55)
    English traditional carol
    arr. Sir David Willcocks
  13. A virgin most pure  (2:38)
    English traditional carol
    arr. Charles Wood (1866-1926)
  14. I sing of a maiden  (2:54)
    text, 15th century
    music, Patrick Hadley (1899-1973)
  15. Lute-book lullaby  (2:05)
    William Ballet (17th cent)
    arr. Geoffrey Shaw
  16. The three kings  (2:16)
    Peter Cornelius (1824-1874)
    arr. Ivor Atkins (1869-1953)
  17. Myn lyking  (2:35)
    text, 15th century
    music, Sir Richard R. Terry (1865-1938)
  18. O little one sweet  (3:15)
    Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
    arr. J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
  19. All my heart this night rejoices  (2:12)
    text, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)
    transl, Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)
    music, Johann Georg Ebeling (1637-1676)
  20. I saw a maiden  (2:52)
    text, 15th century
    Basque Noël
    arr. Edgar Pettman (1865-1943)
  21. Away in a manger  (2:12)
    text, published 1865
    music, W.I. Kirkpatrick (1832-1921)
    arr. John Rutter (1945-)
  22. Nativity carol  (4:20)
    John Rutter (1945-)

Bringing down the house

2011/12/03

Minnesota Sinfonia / Jay Fishman
Brandon Duffy, violin
Evelyn Nelson, soprano

December 2, 2011
Founders Hall Auditorium
Metropolitan State University
Saint Paul, Minnesota
_______________

It seems amazing to this writer that despite the holiday-flavored selections and the short (one hour, twenty minutes) duration, there was enough time on Friday evening for the real attractions, delivered by two soloists, one young composer, and by the Sinfonia themselves.

After whetting the audience’s appetite with a Johann Strauss Jr. waltz, the orchestra and Fishman got down to serious business.  Fishman first explained to his audience how Johannes Brahms had spoken unkindly about Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 26.  The delicious irony is that without question, this is now among the most popular concerti in the violin repertoire — arguably more popular than Brahms’s own.

The soloist here was 13-year-old violinist Brandon Duffy, who won the junior division of the Sinfonia’s concerto competition earlier this year.  Duffy handled the Bruch with finesse and taut playing, especially with solid intonation on the more difficult double- and triple-stops.  Young Mr. Duffy clearly possesses the technique necessary to tackle much of this repertoire, as well as a strong hint of the bowing technique and dynamics required to really deliver the Bruch.  It will be interesting to hear Duffy in the coming years, as he develops the maturity and “emotional knowledge” necessary to deliver the angst and passion this violin concerto demands, as well as the rich flavor of things like Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46.  But Duffy showed us Friday evening that he has it within himself to deliver the goods — this was a fine performance with no qualifications.

A composition by 18-year-old Max Shin was next on the menu.  Chicago! is a jazzy number containing a throwback swing style with some enjoyably lush orchestration, delivered with rather full effect by the Sinfonia despite their relatively small size (25).  The slight dissonances Shin worked into the music also work very charmingly into the bustling but swiftly moving rhythms, which echo George Gershwin’s An American In Paris in places.

And in an intelligent piece of programming, Fishman followed with another genuinely fun and interesting excursion, a Divertimento by the late Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick.  While a great deal of Jewish-flavored classical and orchestral music can be serious and solemn, Fishman knows the most joyful and accessible gems as well — The Glick Divertimento brings forth some rather tricky rhythmic passages that make tough rhythmic and musical demands on the celli and double bass in particular.  But Fishman and the Sinfonia consistently shine with Judaic chamber music; the Divertimento is one of the two best that I have heard in concert.  The other is Fishman’s own Jewish Sketches, which he and the Sinfonia debuted earlier this year on February 11.  In this musician-writer’s opinion, Fishman and the Sinfonia are so good and so comfortable with this music that the time seems right for them to commit these works to compact disc; hopefully the funding and logistics for such a recording project will happen sooner rather than later.

Fishman then followed this gem with another, two movements from the Symphony in E-flat, Op.14 No. 2 by Carl Abel (1723-1787).  This gorgeous music elegantly straddles the lines between late Baroque, early classical, and even the early Romantic era.  In terms of symphonic chamber music, one could say that Carl Abel was Franz Schubert (1797-1828) before Franz Schubert was Franz Schubert.  If Fishman and the Sinfonia manage to get that recording date, they would be foolish to not include this somewhat obscure treasure on the resulting CD.

Since this was advertised as a “holiday favorites” concerto, the Sinfonia then inserted a nice reading of Adeste Fideles (the music for the hymn O Come, All Ye Faithful), which was composed by John Francis Wade (1711-1786).

After that interjection followed the Abel symphony, the orchestra scored again with Johannes Brahms’ lovely Intermezzo, Op. 118 no. 2.  It is one thing that Fishman has a deep understanding of the graceful movement of this composition; it is another that he pulls this out of his talented musicians with such panache, particularly from the violins and horns in this case.

To this point, the Sinfonia would have already garnered a nice review from this musician-writer, but the pièce de résistance was yet to come.  Minnesota-born soprano Evelyn Nelson delivered a bright, clear, and refreshingly non-weighty reading of “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi.  Nelson gave us a lovely and touching performance with spot-on intonation.  She has rather amazing control of her voice; her mezzo-piano to forte high A-flat was flat-out impressive and lovely, without being excessively showy.  At this point, we knew that she is an excellent soprano.

But it was Nelson’s second selection that brought down the house; her voice and stage presence radiated during her enthusiastic reading of the “Je veux vivre” from Roméo et Juliette, the Charles Gounod opera.  Nelson’s dynamics in the closing section were *extremely* impressive and reached the audience with a palpable kinetic energy.  I am still shaking my head over Nelson’s magnificent performance, which was even better those of other sopranos I have heard perform with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Nelson delivered again with Adele’s Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, and here is where the Sinfonia again demonstrated one of their niches:  This orchestra and conductor really are complementary to their soloists; the violins in particular matched Nelson stride-for-stride with nearly perfect pacing, while hanging back just enough that they did not sonically overwhelm her.  Nelson probably should have performed the Strauss before blowing us away with the Gounod, but at least she received her well-deserved standing ovation at this point.

A number of works were listed as possible selections this night, I would have loved to hear Nelson sing Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165, but alas, this was a holiday concert, so Nelson and the Sinfonia gave us a nice but otherwise unremarkable O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël) by Adolphe Adam instead.  (At least they lived up to the advertising!)  Fishman and the Sinfonia finished the concert with two more Christmastime selections,Victor Herbert’s “March of the Toys” from Babes in Toyland and the “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

Violinist Brandon Duffy and composer Max Shin (through Chicago!) gave fine accounts of themselves this evening.  But Evelyn Nelson is another one of those far-above-average and truly excellent soloists that I want to see and hear again soon.  If/when she next performs with the Sinfonia, they at least owe us what I am sure will be a lovely Mozart Exsultate, jubilate.  Evelyn Nelson is a star.  And in this writer’s opinion, far too few Minnesotans are aware of this chamber orchestra and *especially* how thoughtfully and intelligently Jay Fishman programs a concert.  Also head-shaking is the level of talented guest performers Fishman brings in for these concerts; we have had truly memorable recent concerts from pianist Lydia Artymiw, cellist Dmitry Kouzov, and now Evelyn Nelson.  The Minnesota Sinfonia are, unquestionably, a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization worth serious financial support.

A dreadful way to start the morning

2011/11/23

Even before the sun arose this morning, I found myself on a Saint Cloud MetroBus after only 95 minutes of sleep and forced to sit next to someone reeking of cigarette smoke.  At the same time, the bus driver was blasting “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by the 1980s glam-metal group “Poison” from his boom-box.

  1. Minus 50,000 points to the bus driver for torturing us passengers.  Next time, buddy, tune your radio to FM 90.1 and leave it there.  #%$&!
  2. Minus 100,000 points to the cigarette smoker.  No further explanation is necessary.
  3. Minus 500,000 points to the group “Poison” for poisoning our the world with the music equivalent of the television show Jersey Shore.

After finally arriving home and getting a hot shower, five hours of sleep, and half-a-quart of Gatorade, these still were not quite enough  to scrub my brain.  This is one of those occasions that required “swatting a fly with a Patriot missile,” so to speak:  Deutsche Grammophon’s’s Mad About Baroque CD (DG, 439 147-2, 1993, NLA).  Specifically, Georg Friedrich Händel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from Solomon, HWV 67.

Beware the dangers of incredibly stupid music spewed forth on somebody else’s boom-box; it happened to me this morning and I lost about 65 brain cells.

Hip hop has jumped the shark

2011/03/18

Part of me wishes not to post a link to the dreadful hip hop video “Friday” by the so-called Internet sensation Rebecca Black, because as an actual musician who actually has good taste in music, I do not wish to subject you to this utter dreck.  It would be four minutes of your life that you will never get back.

Just understand that hip hop has finally “jumped the shark” and become a caricature of itself.  In the monumentally idiotic music video “Friday,” it is more than just the brain-dead lyrics, the narcissistic and cringe-inducing “look-at-me-I’m-such-a-rock-star” on-screen behavior, the really creepy cameo by an adult rapper, and the mind-numbing repeat four-chord hip-hop sequence that make this a repulsive song and video.

Little Miss Rebecca has an especially annoying touch of Carol Channing in her singing timbre.

She should be grounded for an entire month just for subjecting humanity to this waste of time, bandwidth, and valuable electricity.  Given that her parents helped finance this debacle, I would add that they should undergo a psychiatric evaluation, or at least receive a visit from Child Protective Services.

Minus 10,000 points and half a bottle of Excedrin.

High-level Haydn

2011/02/18

Minnesota Sinfonia / Jay Fishman
Dmitry Kouzov, cello soloist

February 11, 2011
Founders Hall Auditorium
Metropolitan State University
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Some people may think the words “free concert” equals “cut-rate” or lesser-quality entertainment, but the Minnesota Sinfonia and guest cellist Dmitry Kouzov (b. Saint Petersburg, Russia) firmly disproved this on February 11 at Founders Hall on Metropolitan State’s main campus.  In fact, I suspect that some members of the audience that night still don’t grasp Kouzov’s sheer virtuosity, but as a cellist myself, I absolutely will remember this performance for a long time to come.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dance in A-flat Major, Opus 46, no. 3 (1878)
arr. Jay Fishman (1947- )

The Sinfonia’s music director, Jay Fishman had a direct hand in two of the compositions in Friday’s program. Antonín Dvořák composed his Slavonic Dances for large orchestra, but Fishman’s rather deft-but-demanding arrangement of the third dance in A-flat Major for his 26-piece group turned out quite well without losing much of the sonic power.  Part of the success of this arrangement was due to talented percussionist Kory Andry successfully doing the work of two or three of his large-orchestra counterparts — something Andry has done in the past for the Sinfonia.

Dmitry KouzovFranz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Cello Concerto No. 2
in D Major, Hob. VIIb, no. 2
(1783)

I have heard quite a few recordings of Franz Joseph Haydn’s D Major cello concerto, but the most memorable point of reference is the late, great Jacqueline du Pré’s December 1967 EMI recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir John Barbirolli.

Not since that du Pré CD have I heard Haydn played with as much engaging enthusiasm, sensitivity, or authority as Dmitry Kouzov did on Friday evening.  Kouzov’s ability to intellectually and emotionally ‘get inside’ the music, plus his ability to convey this to the audience, genuinely outshines performances from some famous cellists we see described as ‘virtuoso.’  Part of Kouzov’s thoughtful approach is to think of his solo part as being one of the characters in an opera, using Haydn’s melodic lines to tell a story — and varying his use of vibrato to emphasize the moods.

This reflected in Kouzov’s opening solo; he played with authority, particularly in the A Major section — he complemented the violins with seamless dynamics, rather than competing with them.  His intonation was almost criminally proficient in Haydn’s technically challenging double-stops both in the lower registers and the F#7 chord high on the fingerboard, while making them seem so effortless.  His left hand is so strong that in one instance it was actually a little too strong; the percussive effect of some of his fingering on the A-string was hard to miss.

Kouzov’s cadenza in the first movement was a lovely little detour into D minor, as charming as was his second-movement cadenza in which he started from low E on his C-string and escalated it to serene heights.  Setting aside an interruption by one impatient little kid in the audience, it was a moment to hold your breath — tantalizingly drawn out slightly when coming out of the cadenza.

The third movement was fast and firm, pleasant to hear but still challenging for the soloist, which of course is tremendously fun for us cellists to watch being played well.  Credit where credit is due: Fishman’s pacing nicely reflected the elegance of Kouzov’s phrasing and the Sinfonia were noticeably above average and spot-on in their accompaniment.

Kouzov modestly claims that the cadenzas are “95% Haydn” with some re-working on his part; viewed in one way we could assume he is being truthful, but Kouzov so thoughtfully composed and presented that I can only assume that he has closely studied much of Haydn’s other compositions, perhaps also channeling a bit of the lyricism of Haydn’s close friend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Hearing Kouzov’s reading of Haydn was pure joy; I eagerly await his return to Minnesota — hopefully sooner than later.  I also envy the cellists who are Kouzov’s students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, those monumentally lucky so-and-so’s…

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)
Concerto Grosso in D minor
orch. Charles Avison (1709-1770)

When attending a recording session by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in the 1970s, Jay Fishman got his hands on the scores of two of the Scarlatti keyboard concerti grossi that Charles Avison arranged for chamber orchestra.  We were the happy recipients of that work on Friday as the Sinfonia played conductor-less (and quite well), much as orchestras of the 17th and early 18th centuries would, although they played with vibrato and in modern tuning for the Sinfonia’s convenience.

Jay Fishman (1947- )
Jewish Sketches

Composing is quite personal to Fishman; Jewish Sketches is a suite dedicated to Fishman’s mother and given its premiere by the Sinfonia on Friday evening. Trumpeter Chris Volpe was fittingly forceful (but not overbearing) while emulating the ram’s horn in the opening “Song of the Shofar” — a reference to the famous story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis, chapter 22.

In the deeply evocative “Kaddish” movement (perhaps the best in the suite), Fishman wove  the music between the strings and winds so seamlessly that the strings’ pizzacato section sneaks up on the listener, concluding with several dramatic, deftly-scored and ear-catching chords.  As a ‘quiet Lutheran’ who has never actually heard a Kaddish prayed in synagogue, Fishman has given me some idea of how solemn and moving it must be — perhaps making up for the feeling some claim is missing from Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei.

The final movement, “L’Chaim,” is something Fishman describes as a ‘Jewish rondo’ in which he made considerable and satisfying demands equally among his string and wind players, peppered with colorful auxiliary percussion ably delivered (as usual) by Andry.  Fishman’s composition is so enjoyable and memorable that I feel it deserves to be committed to CD; we’ll have to see if Fishman and the Sinfonia get that chance someday.

Dissonant Creatures with The Swallows, May 27, 1010

2010/06/04

Cellist Aaron Kerr is like some musicians in that he has several projects going these days.  His own group, Dissonant Creatures, was paired with collaborator Jeff Crandall’s band, The Swallows at a slightly unusual venue — Station 4 (previously known as Ryan’s) in downtown Saint Paul on Thursday evening, May 27, 2010.

Make no mistake, Kerr’s musical background is solidly classical, but his music with Dissonant Creatures’ could be described as ‘atmospheric’ jazz and features some interesting work from his five-stringed electric cello, equipped with a low F string — and Kerr really knows how to make his instrument sing here.  The first of four songs the group performed was “Head Down Slowly Onward,” in which Kerr made his cello really sing and guitarist Jeff Crandall channelled The Edge (guitarist Dave Evans of U2) with his rhythm playing.  “Born Bad” is a 6/8 piece with bassist Matt Kanive pulsing underneath, subliminally urging on Aaron’s pizzicato melody, which was colored one octave above by Tyson Allison on synth.  “Scorpio Rising” is a C minor tune in 7/8 time featuring an ostinato bassline from Kanive; after Crandall’s guitar solo Kerr used his cello to signal some distant ‘lightning strikes’ while drummer Justin Deleon echoed him with a few blasts of thunder on his toms using mallets instead of standard drumsticks.

While the group’s music could have served well as the audio soundtrack to some of NASA’s Apollo documentary films, the sound definitely feels more rootsy than jazzy.  That said, Kerr and his group provided a few pleasant echoes of the seminal jazz-fusion group Weather Report, spiced with some tasty rhythm guitar from Crandall.
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Kerr and Crandall’s group, The Swallows, took the stage for the evening’s final set and immediately showed how much of the group’s music is eminently airworthy.  They opened with “Clear Sky Relapse,” a C major tune in which Kerr straddled the line between being playing the bass line and providing some of the melody on electric cello.  In “Hardball,” Kerr really muscled the low end while drummer Ben Steen went with him stride-for-stride, getting people moving on the dance floor with his drums and open hi-hat.  Crandall provided nice vocals and Allison, by now playing guitar, provided solid backup vocals in “Bottom Feeder,” which featured a nice cello solo by Kerr.  The fact that there was no bass line underneath his solo helped the song, rather than hurt it.  Likewise, Mike Nordby provided nice texture behind Kerr with his mandolin.

After “The Devil’s Hole,” which featured some excellent Hammond B3-flavored keyboards from Allison, Kerr’s nicely pensive bass line provided the structure for “I Won’t Let You Down,” which featured some excellent drumming from Steen, who delivered some thoughtfully-placed snare drum flams to spice up the rhythm and enhance the organic, rootsy flavor.

Four of the group’s best songs closed the evening: “Witchin ‘n’ Divinnin” has a subtle flavor of a lullaby and featured Crandall on steel-string acoustic guitar, which works beautifully over Kerr’s electric cello.  (Extra points to Nordby for his mandolin part that underpins Allison’s xylophone lines.)  “Long Long Shadow” found Allison on melodica, Nordby punctuating the song with some high Ds from his mandolin, and Ben Steen powerfully driving the song with an almost tribal feel, courtesy of his intelligent use of mallets.

In “Home,” Crandall delivered a Springsteen-esque vocal riding on top of Kerr’s double-stop cello, while Allison provided dollops and dashes of harmonica in-between B3-style keyboards and solid backup vocals, with Nordby accenting the overall sound, this time on percussion.  The Swallows closed with two other strong compositions, “Rattle Them Bones” and “Roam”, both of which could easily fly on radio.

The Swallows’ appeal is more than just that Kerr replaces the traditional bass guitar; his electric 5-string cello vaults back-and-forth from a cello lead to bass underneath.  With more than just well-written and eminently listenable music, The Swallows also deliver solid musicianship, which makes this group more enjoyable than quite a few others in the Twin Cities area.