Archive for the ‘classical’ Category

Album Review: Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble — Officium

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

This double-album – originally released in 1994 – is a transcendent, compelling work that combines jazz with choral/classical music. Featuring vocals sung in Latin by The Hilliard Ensemble (countertenor David James, tenor Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor John Potter, and baritone Gordon Jones), Officium is nearly an all-vocal album. But the haunting saxophone work of Jan Garbarek (on soprano and tenor saxes) adds a dimension to these performances that takes them well beyond the realm of devotional choral performances.

The performance was recorded in an Austrian monastery, and the result certainly sounds like it. It’s unlikely that the ambience captured by producer (and ECM head) Manfred Eichler could have been captured in any conventional recording studio, no matter how high quality. The echo-against-stone aural texture gives Garbarek’s tenor a yawning quality that sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish from a cello. In fact, the Norwegian saxophonist’s instrument effectively becomes a fifth voice, blending as he does into the vocal milieu of the Ensemble.

This initial collaboration between Garbarek and the vocal quartet was so successful that they mounted a series of tours, and followed up the release of Officium with further recorded cooperative efforts. Officium may well have been the inspiration for the release of Chant, the album of Gregorian chants featuring the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, also released in 1994. There’s little doubt that Officium – the more modern and sophisticated work of the two – helped renew interest in the musical form of the Middle Ages.

In the expansive booklet that accompanies this 2LP reissue, Eichler comments on the genesis of the session, noting that the idea came to him initially as potential accompaniment to a movie he had planned to make in Iceland. The music of 16th century composer Christóbal de Morales (which figures largely in Officium) so moved Eichler, though, that in the end, as he writes in the booklet, “No longer able to reconcile the intensity of the sounds with the figure of Geiser [the film's central character], I later decided on other music [for the film]. The vision remained. And now this recording.” Potter adds, “What is this music? We don’t have a name for it.”

The libretto includes all of the Latin lyrics to Officium‘s fifteen tracks, but no English translation is provided. That notwithstanding, the power and the majesty of the performances transcends words and, perhaps, meaning.

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Best of 2014: Concerts

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

One of the many pleasures associated with living in the small mountain city of Asheville NC is access to great live music. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Atlanta, where going to a concert often meant traveling to a sports arena, and watching the tiny performers from the nosebleed seats (where you’d get a “contact high” from the pot smoke).

Here in Asheville, I go to shows that have anywhere from a few dozen to just over a thousand people in the audience, and the bands are up close and personal (especially when I have a photo pass). Because my town is such a go-to destination for touring acts, I get the pleasure of seeing high profile performances in small venues. That just wouldn’t happen in other cities.

I go to a lot of shows here in town. That said, I travel to regional festivals fairly often as well. Looking back on 2014 – an especially eventful year for me all ’round – three of my four favorite concert events were festivals.

Big Ears
Designed as a relatively small-scale festival with a decided emphasis on the edgy, this Knoxville TN festival presented a long list of fascinating acts, few of whom do the festival circuit as a rule. The scale of the event meant that it felt almost like a series of house concerts. Highlights included Marc Ribot, David Greenberger, Steve Reich, Television, Dean Wareham, Rachel Grimes, and Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood.

Moogfest
This one’s a sentimental favorite: it takes place in my hometown; it honors the late, great Robert A. Moog (a man whom I was lucky enough to meet a number of times), and it features some great music. Without a doubt the highlight of 2014′s Moogfest for me was meeting and interviewing Keith Emerson, but the three-day event (all within walking distance of my home) was packed with memorable experiences.

Musical Box
For me, Genesis lost their magic not long after the departures of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. This Canadian tribute group recreates said magic in a most authentic fashion, both visually and aurally. It’s a total experience, and from the packed house at The Orange Peel that night, I’d say that classic 70s progressive rock still has a significant following.

Transfigurations
In celebration of ten years of success, Asheville’s Harvest Records staged a festival that leaned toward the delightfully eclectic. For me the highlights were Quilt (modern psych), The Clean (Antipodean janglepop), Reigning Sound (garage rock), and Lee Fields & the Expressions (soul). Transfigurations featured all of the best things about a festival, and none of the negatives.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make note of the Zombies show here in Asheville as well. Four decades on, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (and their bandmates) have still got it.

More 2014 best-ofs to come.

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Album Review: Clearlight — Impressionist Symphony

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

With precious few exceptions, attempting a classical-rock hybrid is at worst a fool’s errand, at best a thankless task. All too often, this most ambitious of goals – bringing together fans of intricate, densely layered orchestral work and searing, heavy rock – ends up pleasing no one. At its most insipid, the result is something not unlike Mannheim Steamroller: lite (as opposed to light) classical music with late-period ELO style backbeat grafted on, a sort of Stars on Classical. At its best and most challenging, it’s the work of someone like Glenn Branca, who combines the sheer monstrous power of electric guitar with the sonic complexity and bombast of 20th century classical composition (Krzysztof Penderecki, Conlon Nancarrow).

But on the other hand, considering only those two extremes presents the listener with a false choice: commercial pap versus unlistenable (to most) clatter. In the right hands, it is quite possible to combine the two genres into something that is aesthetically and artistically rewarding while remaining tuneful and accessible. Jeff Lynne did it with the aforementioned Electric Light Orchestra, especially on the group’s second album ELO II: do yourself a favor and listen again to their long version of “Roll Over Beethoven.” And the under-appreciated, backlash-suffering Klaatu created a lovely rock-meets-classical work on Hope, their second album: “Prelude” has the instrumentation of orchestral music plus what Spinal Tap might call the majesty of rock.

Plenty of progressive rockers have made forays at bridging the gap: Yes and the group’s on again off again keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman have both enjoyed some serious success in the genre. And of course The Moody Blues made a career out of the style: their first and best Days of Future Passed is a classic, even if at their worst they may well have inspired Mannheim Steamroller.

Keen readers may note that nearly all of the artists mentioned so far in this essay did their most notable work roughly between 1967 and 1977. For the most part, the goal of hybridizing classical and rock went out of style around the time new wave presented a hybrid of its own (mainstream rock and punk). But the concept’s not dead: the new album Impressionist Symphony breathes some new life into this thought-moribund genre.

Clearlight (no relation to the 60s group on Elektra whose bassist played on The Doors‘ albums) is the nom de musq of Cyrille Verdeaux and the assemblage of musicians who join him in this latest venture. After his music was described to him as “impressionistic,” he decided to create a work that paid homage to the work of visual artists most closely associated with the painting style.

What this means from a programmatic, literal standpoint is that listeners will find eight tracks, each with a bad-pun title referencing one of the masters (sample titles: “Lautrec Too Loose,” “Time is Monet”). My advice, however, is to ignore the silly trappings of the concept and instead enjoy the music and its successful, wordless implementation of its goal. The instrumentation is largely built around Verdeaux’s Kurzweil 2600 keyboard (a real winner at recreating the textures and sonority of classical instruments) plus acoustic violin, joined in strategic places by rock guitar (courtesy of Steve Hillage) and flute (from Hillage’s old Gong bandmate Didier Malherbe), bass, Chapman Stick, Theremin, and assorted percussion in both rock and classical idioms. Oh: and more synthesizers, plus the occasional Bösendorfer piano.

The result is warm and organic, avoiding the large prog/classical pothole of becoming sterile. The music evokes a wide array of emotional tones, and while it’s nice enough as background music, Impressionist Symphony is best enjoyed when given full attention.

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Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 2)

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

After getting (respectively) a headache and a power nap, my sweetheart and I headed back to the Tennessee Theatre, remarking all the while how well-thought-out Big Ears 2014 is as a whole. The four primary venues all lay in a straight line in downtown, the farthest apart being no more than about six blocks. And while the lack of crowds might not have exactly been part of the game plan for the organizers, it sure made things nice for those of us who were attending. No lines, no jostling…just music and good vibes.

Wordless Music Orchestra
I wasn’t altogether sure what to expect from this outfit. The festival guide described it as performances of film music, mostly by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), and mostly from a handful of critically well-received films, There Will Be Blood and Norwegian Wood among them.

Greenwood himself wouldn’t figure into this particular performance (that would come on Sunday), and what concertgoers got instead was a smallish ensemble mostly made up of violinists (with some celli, some basses), seated in rows facing each other. The sight of a projection screen above the musicians led me to anticipate scenes from these films flashing by whilst the players ran through the scores, but that was not to be. Instead, the screen merely indicated the name of each piece, its composer, and the film from which it came (if it was a film piece; some weren’t).

Overall, it was a bit monochromatic. The musicians were all fine; excellent, probably. But the music was less varied than I might have hoped, and a good portion of it was melancholy, sometimes almost dreary. The Greenwood pieces were the best; some of the other pieces bordered on the unpleasant. As a way to spent an hour on a Saturday afternoon, it was worthwhile, but the excitement quotient was largely nonexistent.

Steve Reich’s Drumming
Another case of the putative marquee name not being part of the performance, this one was nonetheless a stunning showcase. Featuring a pair of ensembles called So Percussion and nief-norf Project, this concert was one nonstop piece of percussive music. The work started from nearly nothing – one person hitting some small tuned drums – and built to a climax. Then it ebbed, flowed, swelled and receded. Players were added. Players sat down. The music never stopped, and the audience was held in thrall.

Occasionally vocalists were added to the mix; while the piece was totally scored, it had an organic, seemingly improvised feel to it. The vocalists, for example, seemed to seek out the patterns and melodies as opposed to merely react to them. A recognizable pattern would emerge, and then as soon as a listener such as myself started to groove on it, it would disappear into the percussive maelstrom. I’d never seen nor heard anything like Drumming before (and no, the drum circles here in Asheville don’t compare), and felt honored and awed to be in the presence of such an amazing performance.

Television
It was quite a temporal shift, then, to remain in our seats when the next act came out. New wave / no wave/ punk heroes Television took the stage at the Tennessee Theatre. With three-fourths of the classic lineup – guitarist/vocalist Tom Verlaine, drummer Billy Ficca and bassist Fred Smith – the band was joined by longtime Verlaine associate Jimmy Rip (guitarist Richard Lloyd left the band amicably in 2007).

Television have long held an odd place in rock history; they’re often (rightly or wrongly) lumped in with the late 70s NYC scene that included The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and the like. But with two stellar lead guitarists (there’s rarely any “rhythm guitar” in Television songs) the group came on more like the era’s answer to Thin Lizzy. Or something.

Guitar heroics without all the histrionics and posing: that was a big part of what made Television great then, and it’s what brought the house down this night. Rip is an ace player, and did a great job of both satisfying those who wanted to hear the songs done the way Lloyd woulda done ‘em and making sure that people knew he’s his own man with plenty to say in his own playing.

The songs were long, but never meandering; the guitar dialogue between Verlaine and Rip was electric, and Ficca and Smith provided a thrilling yet rock-solid foundation for the guitarists. The group even pulled out a new song that will hopefully show up on a new Television album…some day.

Stay tuned for more Big Ears 2014 coverage.

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Album Review: The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays the Music of Rush

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Normally, I don’t write negative reviews. Yes, I will point out those qualities that make a work less than it could be, but if a release is mostly or wholly without merit (in my estimation) I don’t bother to cover it. This is especially true if it’s by an artist who is not well-known.

But sometimes an album comes along, and just seems to beg for me to comment. This is such a situation, and the album in question is The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays the Music of Rush. Now, I’m on record as not liking Rush. And my reasons are twofold. One, I think Geddy Lee has one of the most annoying voices in all of rock music. Two, I think Neil Peart‘s lyrics rank among the most pretentious, empty twaddle ever, and when you’re talking about progressive rock, that’s saying something.

But I do appreciate their instrumental, compositional and arranging abilities. All three band members are amazing, expressive players. In fact, not long ago I had Pandora piping through my house (as I often do), set to my Porcupine Tree “station.” A really cool and unfamiliar piece came on, and I was really digging it. After about five minutes or so, however, the singing started. It was Geddy Lee. It was all downhill for me from there. I remember thinking, ‘If Rush ever issues instrumental remixes of their albums, I’d buy those.”

I also have a grudging admiration for their covers album (2004′s Feedback). While it still features Geddy’s pipes, it does show that the trio has good taste in influences. It’s more effective than The Ramones‘ very similar outing Acid Eaters, too.

I mention all of this to provide the background for why I would even bother to listen to a Rush tribute-of-sorts album. My thinking was, this won’t have Geddy’s warble, and it won’t have Peart’s clunky (and occasionally Randian) lyrics. The part of the band that I like – their arrangements – would likely be highlighted. Now, it wouldn’t have Alex Lifeson‘s guitar work – it’s an orchestral album after all – but that would be replaced with some interesting classical motifs.

Or so I thought. The truth is a bit more gruesome. First off, there are vocals. If you’re actually a fan of Paul McCartney‘s Liverpool Oratorio or Roger WatersÇa Ira, you might actually dig the parts in which choral/operatic-style vocalists intone “In the shopping malls…” and whatnot. Me, I find that the classical trappings only add to the vapidly pretentious (yes!) feel of Peart’s lyrics.

And then there’s the matter of guitar. While Iron Maiden‘s Adrian Smith and Marillion‘s Steve Rothery are both fine guitarists in their own right, they are not Alex Lifeson. The decision to feature electric guitar solos on an orchestral record leads the listener to compare them to the originals. Suffice to say neither Rothery nor Smith wins these battles.

On The RPO Plays the Music of Rush we do get the typical orchestra lineup: cor anglais, flutes, piccolos, lots of strings and so forth. And having been recorded in the venerable Abbey Road Studios – a place originally designed for such things – the sound is peerless. But the arrangements aren’t especially inventive. The album really lacks anything to make it all that special, and suffers fatally from the deficiencies I’ve pointed out. I view it as an opportunity missed: had the arrangements been a bit more gutsy, the guitars left at home, and the chorus told to go have tea, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays the Music of Rush would have been a far better album. Instead it’s just more Rush-related material that I’ll be passing by from here on out.

P.S. The album’s Roger-Dean-meets-Jurassic-Park cover artwork is just plain silly.

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