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.

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Kalinnikov: Symphonies 1 & 2

2010/04/22

Kalinnikov: Symphonies 1 & 2Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHAN 9546, DDD
Symphony No. 1  (37:37)
Symphony No. 2  (37:33)


This writer feels that had Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov not died of tuberculosis two days before his thirty-fifth birthday, we would be mentioning him alongside people like Rachmaninov, Lyadov, and the mighty “Russian Five” (Rimsky-Korsakov, Moussorgsky, Borodin, Balakirev and Cui).  His two symphonies can be very favorably compared to those from the aforementioned, especially when you consider that Kalinnikov got his music education on the cheap.

Kalinnikov was born January 13, 1866 in Voina, in Russia’s Oryol District, to a very poor family.  From this village, Kalinnikov received a scholarship to Moscow’s Philharmonic Society School, but his family’s poverty forced him to leave school and make a living playing violin, bassoon and timpani in theatre orchestras.  Semyon Kruglikov is possibly even more obscure than Kalinnikov, but scholars of Russian music rightfully point out the significance of this important music critic and teacher.  Kruglikov took notice of Kalinnikov, taught him harmony, and introduced him to other musicians.  Tchaikovsky found for Kalinnikov the conductor’s job at the Maly Theatre in Moscow and later a similar job at the Moscow Italian Theatre, but it was in 1899 that Kalinnikov contracted tuberculosis and had no choice but to resign and move to the warmer climate in the Crimea.  This is where Kalinnikov wrote most of his music before he died at Yalta in January of 1901.

Kalinnikov’s symphonies — especially his first — are as full of Russian character as the music of his contemporaries, especially The Five, in that they follow very much the same structure and flavor and also suggest Brahms’ and Rachmaninov’s use of dynamics and thematic development, and Tchaikovsky’s use of rhythm.  The distinguishing feature in both works is Kalinnikov’s creative changes and modulation, since they wind up in unexpected – but entirely listenable – keys.  Kalinnikov was especially effective in weaving various themes together without consuming excessive amounts of time.

Kalinnikov’s beautiful sense of melody is evident in the slow movements of both symphonies, particularly the serene Andante commodamente in the first symphony, where the supporting orchestration is sublime and never out-of-character.  A lovely passage occurs toward the end of the andante cantabile in the second symphony when the celli take the melody, then hand off to the violins, winds and harp during a descending pattern, closing the movement in a fashion that echoes the melancholy of Rachmaninov and reeks wonderfully of Russian flavor.  This is as enjoyable for musicians as it is for listeners, and here Järvi and the RSNO treat this beautifully and flawlessly.  The Andante commodamente might be the best part of the disc; the music will probably stay in your head long after you turn off your CD player.

The third movements in both works feature strongly-flavored folk dances, punctuated by several fortissimo bursts from the orchestra and winding up with forceful flourishes, played here to the proper effect by the RSNO.  Dvořák probably would have been very pleased.

The final movement of Kalinnikov’s first symphony is more towering and creative than its counterpart from #2; the oboe melody from the second movement gets new life in the concluding theme, back-loaded not only with strong brass parts but with flavorful use of percussion.  It is as majestic as the Finale of Rachmaninov’s second symphony, but is perhaps more memorable because Kalinnikov weaves his themes and makes his points without consuming nearly as much time and effort as does Mr. “Six-Feet-of-Gloom.”

The RSNO have produced many fine recordings, and this one is no exception.  It’s not totally perfect; the first symphony includes wonderful E-flat and G-Major sequences in the Finale where the violins play 16th-notes underneath powerful chords from the brass, and while they stay together, the entire violin section gets slightly disjointed from the brass.  This may be a result of the acoustics in Glasgow’s Henry Wood Hall, however.  In this writer’s opinion, Neeme Järvi should have taken a slightly slower tempo here.  One of the RSNO cellists also let slip a stray A-string during the third movement of that same work.

Don’t let any of these quibbles turn you away; this is really a solid compilation that will likely send you searching for recordings of Kalinnikov’s other works.  This disc is a result of Chandos taking the first symphony from their CHAN 8611 release and the second from CHAN 8805.  If you can manage to find these two CDs still available, you’ll also obtain recordings of Kalinnikov’s last-ever composition, the lovely symphonic picture The Cedar and the Palm and his Overture to Tsar Boris, as well as two tone poems by Alexander Glazunov.  The two discs may still be available from Chandos and/or other on-line sources and are well-worth the trouble of looking.  Nevertheless, the RSNO’s performance here is very enjoyable – a CD definitely worth the purchase.

Diana Ross & The Supremes: The No. 1s

2010/04/22

Diana Ross & The Supremes: The No. 1s

UTV/Motown Records
Catalog # B0001368-02
79 min, 38 sec (ADD)
Released: 3 Feburary 2004

This time-capsule (released in February of 2004) makes a nice primer to the music of Diana Ross and the Supremes, including some of Ross’ solo material dating from 1970 forward.  Given the title, this is not a complete Supremes compendium.  Regardless, if you’re not familiar with this material nor with the legendary Funk Brothers, start with this disc of the Supremes’ re-mastered hits, but please, please also get the DVD “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” because the Motown founder Berry Gordy belligerently omits the musician credits the CDs — a common practice at Motown, unfortunately.  The Motown house band musicians (known as the Funk Brothers) are a huge reason why so much of this music was massively popular, and so the “Standing…” DVD is a great piece of music education by itself.  Most of the material on this CD also represents the excellent songwriting of the Brian Holland-Lamont Dozier-Edward Holland Jr. team, although a few duds and one cringe-inducing bomb from 1967 are here to illustrate the rare disasters.

This disc takes you through the Number 1 hits in chronological order beginning with “Where Did Our Love Go,” complete with the footsteps, the incessantly repeated – and occasionally out-of-tune – “baby, baby” backup vocals, and slightly overdriven bass of the legendary James Jamerson.  Interestingly, some timing problems among the musicians are revealed here.

“Baby Love” represents the Supremes’ second No. 1 hit, from 1964, and features the sweet precision of drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen, who died in June of 2002 but whose handiwork thankfully graces a large chunk of the Motown catalog, as well as a plethora of American jazz recordings.  The drums and bass you hear here underscore why Motown had smashing success with groups like the Supremes, who did not become “Diana Ross & The Supremes” until 1967.

1964’s “Come See About Me” is one of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team’s best songs, where the backing vocals of Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard are best integrated with Ross’ lead vocal, although Wilson and Ballard’s intonation is occasionally flat.  As carefully crafted and recorded as was much of the material here, it is interesting that they never went back to fix these problems.  Ross follows the text beautifully, from strong declarations in the beginning of the third verse, back to reflective moods with a breathy vibrato, and this shows her as a thoughtful reader of lyrics, not just a great vocalist. “Pistol” Allen’s drumming and James Jamerson’s bass powerfully drive this song, and the modern-day remastering comes close to bringing Allen’s hi-hats loud enough into the mix, where they really belong.  The song is punctuated by some tasteful (and very tasty) guitar work, but interestingly, the G-minor proximate chord leading to the D-major chorus is misplayed by the unidentified guitarist in the first tag.

1965’s “I Hear A Symphony” is popular almost 40 years on, but leaves me thinking that Holland, Dozier and Holland “mailed it in” — we get more “baby, baby” for this regurgitation of “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Baby Love.” It even begins in the same key: C major.  But hey, it was still a Number 1 hit.  Right?

(baby, baby…)

The Holland-Dozier-Holland team’s 1966 smash “You Can’t Hurry Love” is a genuine classic and one of the best-sounding recordings from this era; it translates well on this CD with the remastering.  The genius of Jamerson is evident here in that he often changes chords one beat before the rest of the band takes the same change.  This might sound like a bad idea until you realize that Jamerson is following Ross’ vocal relatively closely — a fine example of James Jamerson’s creativity and imagination.  Likewise, his fast, angular, impressive (and spotless!) playing powers another beloved Supremes classic, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

The track that truly represents wasted space on this CD is the horrid, cornball-upbeat swing disaster called “The Happening,” which was featured in a 1967 hippie film of the same name that starred Anthony Quinn, Faye Dunaway, and Milton Berle — supposedly it is as wretchedly bad a film as this is bad music.  The lyrics here are completely out-of-character with the too-happy arrangement, which goes over the top with particularly dreadful flute and piccolo parts.  Sadly, this was actually a Number 1 pop hit in 1967, which leads to the inevitable “what were they thinking!” question.  You can listen to it, but it will be three minutes of your life you will never get back.

Holland-Dozier-Holland’s excellent “Reflections” then redeems the CD with Jack Ashford’s tambourine and a muted Rhodes piano setting a pensive, yet soulfully pulsing mood.  The slightly unexpected chord changes are accentuated by the fact that Ross’ vocal begins not with a verse or chorus, but with the tag that leads into the first chorus.  Likewise, the song ends not with a chorus, but with more verse material, which goes far in complimenting the “unbalanced” mood.  The irony in the music here is that the D-flat major chorus helps Ross convey a resigned feeling while the bridge — which is in a minor key — stylistically offers a sub-conscious “glimmer of hope” before the third verse plunges us back into reality in B-flat major with the blues seventh-note coloring the mood.  This is one of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s best-ever songs, sung in character to a “T” by Ross.

1968’s “Love Child” contains some polish in the form of a string part in the right channel, but the bass, drums, syncopated single-note rhythm guitar, tambourine, and xylophone help adequately convey the driving, urban grittiness represented by the lyrics and the excellent instrumental opening of this song.  One of the other impressive elements here is that the snare drum is held from the first chorus before returning to accent the beginning of the second verse, and then to power the remaining choruses on each quarter note.

The Gamble and Huff-penned (with Jerry Ross) “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” – recorded with The Temptations – is an interesting piece in that it possesses the older, early-1960’s Motown style, but with the updated (ca. 1968) recording technology, we get a cleaner result.  Eddie Kendricks’ wonderfully expressive falsetto in the first verse meshes nicely with Ross’ voice in the following verse, and the background vocals are sung excellently and in-character.  The mostly schmaltzy string and horn parts mar this track (again, the piccolo rears its ugly head); a spare horn section not only would have been more in keeping with the endearing early Motown catalog, it would have allowed us to hear more of the backup vocals from the Temptations and the Supremes.  But then, we are talking about a song recorded in 1968.

The excellent Ashford and Simpson composed-and-produced “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (from 1970) begins the final third of the disc, which consists of Ross’ solo material.  This piece that often sticks in the minds of listeners as being the best from this era.

“Touch Me In the Morning” (written by Ron Miller and Michael Masser) would have been best left as it started, simply with piano and Ross’s voice.  Had this been done, we might have been left with a stunning, evocative piece of music.  Unfortunately, we get the pre-disco, Las Vegas lounge-flavored drums, harp, strings, and horns.  OTOH, the theme from the film Mahogany, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” contains much the same instrumentation, but for the most part it fits better and is slightly better music.

Four disco tracks follow, none of which represent Ross well, but certainly sold lots of records between 1976 and 1981.  “Love Hangover” and “Upside Down” hit Number 1 on the pop, dance, and R&B charts.  From a musical perspective, the best of these four is the four-minute version of 1980’s “I’m Coming Out,” which kicks off with an extended overture of Nile Rodgers’ tasty guitar (unfortunately played on a Fender Telecaster, rather than a sweeter-sounding Fender Stratocaster), the late Tony Thompson’s excellent, booming drums, and the gritty-yet-wonderfully slippery bass of the late Bernard Edwards.  These three guys, who were the core of the 70’s group Chic, set such a funky, urban mood that Ross’ smooth vocal seems as much out of place here as the trombone (!) solo; Ross doesn’t let loose stylistically until there are a mere 14 seconds left in the track.  Even then, she should have gone back and sung something different than what she actually commited to tape.

This compilation closes with the syrupy “Endless Love,” sung with Lionel Richie and still an incessant staple on soft rock radio stations.  Ross delivers a better vocal on this track than on the four tracks preceding it, but unfortunately her vocal was not placed as prominently in the mix as it should have been.  The “bonus track” (such as it is), a remix of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” is as much a throwaway as the remake of this song that hit the charts in the mid-1980’s.

This disc goes a long way toward illustrating the durability and strength of Ross’ voice, as well as the popularity of a good cross-section of the Motown sound as it changed with the times – many times.  If you are familiar with only one or two of the songs contained herein, buy this CD and get up-to-speed on this important part of American musical history.

(baby, baby…)

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, February 26, 2010

2010/03/04

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra / Paul Goodwin
Ordway Center, Saint Paul MN, February 26, 2010

HENRY PURCELL: Suite from King Arthur or The British Worthy, Z.628
BENJAMIN BRITTEN:  Suite on English Folk tunes, A Time There Was…, op.90
WILLIAM BOYCE:  Symphony No. 5 in D, op. 2d
ARCANGELO CORELLI:  Concerto Grosso in F, op 6. no. 2

SIR MICHAEL TIPPETT: Fantasia concertante on the Theme of Corelli for Strings
SIR EDWARD ELGAR:  Nursery Suite

The British conductor Paul Goodwin was in town to lead the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in a nicely-programmed set of English music spanning three centuries that was thoroughly enjoyable, except one coughing spell and one nebulous, murky, post-modern bender.

The Purcell started off a bit jaunty and occasionally disconnected, but emerged with the musical and rhythmic charm we’ve become used to hearing from his music, and was a fine way–stylistically and musically–to open this concert.

It’s hard to say whether Benjamin Britten’s A Time There Was… or William Boyce’s fifth symphony was the highlight of the evening; both were beautifully played by the SPCO.  Britten’s ‘Bitter Withy’ movement is a lovely mix of old-world themes and modern orchestration, and the “Hunt The Squirrel” rings true with some vivid color and pacing.  ‘Lord Melbourne’ represents Britten in an elegaic and gorgeous British setting, although the later sections gather a more austere mood.  Sadly, just as Goodwin was gently threading the orchestra to the breathtaking conclusion, one concert-goer ruined it not only with a coughing spell, but noisily climbed out of her chair, saying “sorry, sorry…”  It’s tough attending concerts in Minnesota in January because too many people don’t know when they are so sick that they should just stay home.  Having said that, I’ll buy this work on CD, not only to avoid hearing coughing spells but also because the Britten was so flat-out enjoyable that it made me want to drop everything, go home and pick up my own cello for a couple of hours.

The William Boyce symphony was also a gem; the scoring reflects the influence of the more-dominant George Friedrich Handel, who lived in England at the same time, but in Boyce’s own voice a more authentic British flavor underpins the orchestration.  Goodwin coaxed some excellent dynamics from the orchestra, particularly at the end of the first movement.

The opening movement of the short, F major Corelli concerto grosso was nothing short of lovely, and the second movement was quite sublime.  The final movement was missing a little bit of the magic but was nonetheless nicely led by Goodwin and helpfully served as a preview of the Tippett fantasia that followed.

In his Fantasia concertante, the late Sir Michael Tippett not only blurred the supporting orchestration with the obstreperous post-modern material we’ve become used to enduring, but also placed a tall order on the separate sections of celli and bassist Christopher Brown with some rather demanding passages.  These jarring sections contain skewed harmonics and poly-rhythmic structure that must be played cleanly — and the SPCO did, particularly the violins, who were called upon to keep the rhythm that helped keep the audience from otherwise being totally lost.  Some distinctly English-flavored passages emerged, harmonically modern but rhythmically discernible.  Unfortunately, Corelli’s motif is mostly lost here as Tippett essentially used it as a convenient platform on which he fabricated the fantasia.  There are a few precious moments in which the Baroque flavor emerges, with some 20th century English romanticism clearly embedded, but Tippett consumes most of the time leading us into some sort of musically drug-addled haze, bringing listeners back to Corelli’s flavor only in the very end.

In the Elgar the SPCO, under Goodwin’s excellent conducting, did quite a skillful job taking us from one mood to another in the opening ‘Aubade.’  And unlike Tippett, Elgar charms us with palpable waves and ripples of dynamic changes, even giving us some con sordini (playing with muted strings) in places.  In the Aubede’s closing chord, Goodwin thankfully let the SPCO’s closing pizzicato G major chord ring and decay purely and naturally.  The next movement is a busy one, colored by some extra percussion and flavorful horns, giving a short-but-pleasant musical outburst.  The ‘Sad Doll’ and ‘Merry Doll’ movements are pretty much as advertised, with the final movement punctuated with some demanding (but not overwhelming) bass drum, concert cymbals, snare drum, and xylophone — not exactly staples of chamber music, but well-written by Elgar and well-played on this evening by the SPCO.

It is possible that the Elgar Nursery Suite would have been good material for the children’s concert the SPCO performed back on Saturday morning, February 13.  And in the program notes, the orchestra admits that the program necessarily had to bypass a few other composers (Vaughan Williams especially) due to time constraints, but they clearly made their point on this evening that, Tippett’s crepuscular composition notwithstanding, a tremendous amount of British music more than 300 years across is wonderfully accessible and full of thickly-tinged, but not stuffy, essence.

Super Bowl 44 halftime show

2010/02/08

A review (in haiku) of The Who’s halftime performance at Super Bowl 44 (CBS-TV) on Sunday, February 7, 2010:

Marketing research?
halftime stuck in classic rock
What is hip, Goodell?

Uneven playing
drummer missed the closing chord
find two marching bands

Stravinsky festival, January 23, 2010

2010/02/02

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra(1), Minnesota Orchestra(2) / Roberto Abbado
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella(1), Firebird(2)

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concluded their month-long series of concerts featuring the work of Igor Stravinsky with a rare double-bill by the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra, both conducted by Roberto Abbado.

Stravinsky: Pulcinella (ballet music, 1920 edition)
The Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev wanted to stage a ballet based on eighteenth-century Italian “Commedia dell’arte” music, which was originally attributed to the composer Giovanni Pergolesi but has since proved spurious.  Stravinsky is said to have disliked the idea until after he saw the music in question.  What followed—and what was charmingly and capably delivered by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra—are melodies and themes liberally spiced with rhythms and orchestration that echo the original Italian flavor but mirror a sort of early 20th century neo-Classical style of composition.  Tenor Joseph Kaiser may have been the most impressive of the three excellent soloists, having to deliver Stravinsky’s difficult text with aplomb.

But the big draw on this evening was one of Stravinsky’s greatest orchestral showpieces.

Stravinsky: The Firebird (ballet music, complete 1910 edition)
A stage change pushed the Minnesota Orchestra back to the front edge of the orchestra shell, leaving a good 30 feet between Abbado and the front row of the center section seating, which was unavoidable given the sheer number of musicians on-stage.  (The Ordway’s new, narrow ‘thrust’ stage puts the much smaller SPCO closer to the audience.)

The Orchestra did magnificent justice to Stravinsky’s musical genius on Saturday evening and proved that an excellently-recorded CD is still no match for attending live concerts, especially with as much air as the Minnesota’s double basses, percussion, and brass were moving.  In particular, the orchestra handled beautifully Stravinsky’s difficult rhythms and colorfully orchestrated segments, elements that later became more evident in The Rite of Spring in 1913.

The Firebird offers a gorgeous and deeply colorful mixture of Russian and French impressionism that was not often equaled by other early 20th-century composers; Maurice Ravel’s 1922 orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is probably the closest comparison, especially considering how Stravinsky and Ravel flavored their respective pieces not just with extra percussion but also with multiple harps and celesta.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Stravinsky had declared Ravel’s 1909 Daphnis et Chloe suite “one of the most beautiful products of all French music.”  Not at all coincidentally, both The Firebird and Daphnis were composed for productions by the impresario Diaghilev.

As can happen with live performances, a few minor glitches occurred on Saturday; twice principal cellist Anthony Ross played his solo in the “Princesses’ khorovod” (a round) with excessive glissando and rubbery phrasing that clashed with the mood and with the bassoon part that follows.  The only other unexpected event was an accidental extra blast from the bass drum during the “Infernal Dance.”

Otherwise, the orchestra “told” the entire Firebird story with rapturous effect in part because Abbado programmed the complete 1910 ballet music instead of Stravinsky’s abridged and stripped-down Firebird Suite from 1919; the incidental and passing music between the major sections is essential to conveying the color and mood of the story.

Three trumpets (including Chuck Lazarus) played through open doors from just off-stage during the “Magic carillon,” giving it a deliciously spooky effect.  And just as the Minnesota played the “Infernal Dance” to wonderfully vicious and spasmodic effect, they were positively sublime in the “Berceuse”—the violins, playing con sordini (with muted strings), absolutely shimmered during the final portion of the “Cradle song.” Abbado ably coaxed the necessary galloping from the winds and brass in “Kaschei’s Awakening” and, perhaps to help us savor the moment, slowed down the “deep shadows” leading to principal horn Michael Gast’s gorgeously gentle solo that touched off the majestic conclusion. The final seven chords were spine-tingling.

The Ordway audience knew exactly what they got on this Saturday evening—an exhilarating, swirling-and-diving flight through one of the very best 20th century orchestral works—and called Abbado back to the stage for four rounds of applause during their standing ovation.  This was a magnificent delivery of musicianship, one we might possibly remember as fondly as Osmo Vänskä’s special Orchestra Hall concert with Finland’s Lahti Symphony Orchestra on January 25, 2005.

KISS on Late Show with David Letterman (CBS)

2010/02/02

A review, presented in Haiku, of KISS’ appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, October 7, 2010 (CBS-TV).

Thirty-five years on
still can’t play decent music
freaking loud paint job

Minnesota Orchestra – June 7, 2009

2009/06/10

Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis MN
Sunday, June 7, 2009

Michael GatonskaIn autumn woods a traveler
Pyotr Ilyich TchaikovskyPiano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75
Felix MendelssohnPiano Concerto No. 1, Op. 25
Modest MussorgskyPictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel, 1922)

Stephen Hough (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vӓnskӓ

On this unseasonably cool, gray, drizzly, fluorescent Sunday afternoon, the Minnesota Orchestra and music director Osmo Vӓnskӓ made their home venue bright and inviting with two romantic-era piano concerti, book-ended by two tone poems.

The concert (the last of four on the weekend) opened with In autumn woods a traveler by the American composer Michael Gatonska, and while there is no real music here, it does contain some lush orchestration and colorful use of percussion to vividly convey what the composer calls a “ramble through the woods.”  Gatonska even calls on the percussion section for radio static, which very nicely provides the sound of a nearby stream.

Nothing here is really out-of-place; the orchestration occasionally reminds of Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland, and demands precise timing, which the Minnesota Orchestra very ably delivered.  Unlike quite a bit of modern orchestral ‘music,’ this is an enjoyable curiosity of impressionism. However, like many other modern compositions, this contains precious little discernable music, save for two or three lovely melodies from the woodwinds, but music really isn’t part of Gatonska’s premise here.  A friend of mine (who graciously scored the concert tickets) suggested that In autumn woods… could make for a really good film soundtrack.  While this is true, it stands very nicely by itself as an accessible piece of modern impressionism.  Believe it or not, it actually makes me want to look for recordings of some of his other work, to see what other sounds and atmospheres Gatonska can draw out of an orchestra.

—–

British-Australian pianist Stephen Hough then came onstage for a live recording of Tchaikovsky’s single-movement Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Minnesota Orchestra. (Hough is recording the cycle of all three Tchaikovsky piano concerti with the Minnesota for Britain’s Hyperion label.)  As with some of Tchaikovsky’s other orchestral works, his signature rhythms and style aren’t quite apparent and distinct until after the first few bars, after which he hands off his themes and melodies from the piano to the orchestra. The composer was fond of rapid, busy, demanding lines on the basses and lower brass, which the Minnesota Orchestra handled with aplomb, although the closing was slightly disjointed. Since the orchestra had four chances to get it right over the course of the weekend, this performance is probably not the one that will make it to CD.  Tchaikovsky’s third piano concerto certainly isn’t his finest, but was well-played by Stephen Hough on this afternoon.

—–

It’s a shame that Hough and the Minnesota were recording the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, because after the intermission they delivered a thoroughly enjoyable reading of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one that I would choose to hear over the Tchaikovsky.  Hough was brilliant with Mendelssohn’s dramatic opening lines, playing adroitly rather than manhandling them with too much fortissimo. Likewise, the celli and basses handled Mendelssohn’s rolling movement with precision, and it is also here that a few echoes of Mozart are evident in Mendelssohn’s composition.  Orchestra Hall’s outstanding acoustics spotlighted Hough’s very artistic and precise cadenza, particularly the quiet, breathtaking passage in which he was delicately joined by the woodwinds.

(Minus 10,000 points to the audience members who had a simultaneous coughing spell just then!  Argh!  Haven’t you people heard of cough drops??!!)

The lovely E-Major section gave the Orchestra’s basses a chance to demonstrate some remarkably fine intonation, while Hough was wonderfully colorful in the conclusion, particularly in the D7 passages with delicate string underpinning.  I hope that since the microphones were already set up that they recorded this performance, because Hough and the orchestra were excellent here.

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The Orchestra closed the concert with a famous tone poem, the 1922 Maurice Ravel orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. Ravel’s scoring demands that the Minnesota Orchestra were augmented by additional musicians, including an extra harpist and percussionists. Principal trumpeter Manny Laureano was an excellent soloist (as usual) in the opening “Promenade” and especially later in the “Catacombae” section.  Osmo Vӓnskӓ took an unusually slow pace through Pictures, but the trade-off is that the audience got extra time to appreciate Ravel’s colorful orchestration and challenging rhythms, particularly in the “Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells” and “Limoges (the Marketplace).”  The brass were particularly excellent in “Catacombae,” with a strong, powerful, stark delivery, followed by an excellent (and almost frightening!) reading of “Baba-Yaga – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs.”  Aside from my quibbles with Vӓnskӓ‘s slower pacing, he and the orchestra were wonderful in the concluding movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” and the percussionists, led by Brian Mount and Jason Arkis, were especially magnificent.

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Most American audiences tend to begin their applause immediately after the final note of a performance has finished, but they would do well to emulate audiences at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

When concert-goers there know that a concert in the Concertgebouw is being recorded, they graciously wait four or five seconds for the last echoes of music to dissipate, so that recording engineers can have a clean cut-off. Once that happens, Concertgebouw audiences spend plenty of time and energy showering the musicians with applause.  I wish people here in the United States would do the same, out of consideration for people who buy recordings of these performances later on.