Monthly Archives: August 2015

Vinyl find: Aaron Copland, Sextet / Piano Variations / Piano Quartet

[Aaron Copland - Sextet / Piano Variations/ Piano Quartet]

Back in the ’90s, an advocacy group ran a series of TV ads promoting the consumption of beef. Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” from the Rodeo ballet suite served as the soundtrack for these commercials.

College music appreciation classes include Copland in a chapter about early American orchestral music. Copland’s use of folk idioms paralleled what composers were doing in other countries — finding a sense of national identity through music.

Copland’s ballet suites in this style pretty much overshadow everything else he’s done. I owned only one album of Copland’s work with the most predictable track listing: Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid and Fanfare for the Common Man.

[Leonard Bernstein conducts Aaron Copland]

In this sense, Copland is not a one-hit wonder. He’s a one-hit style wonder.

So in my pursuit of Nonesuch albums from the late 1980s, I came across an album of Copland’s chamber works performed by members of the Boston Symphony with Gilbert Kalish on piano.

The difference was stark.

On this album, Copland threw out his elbows, banging out chords that could tell Charles Ives to shut the fuck up. (They didn’t really like each other.) It was actually pretty refreshing to hear not a single bit of the prairie in any of these works.

If he’s not using 12-tone techniques in these works, he’s pretty damn close. The slow second movement of the Sextet is lyrical without being comforting. The finale comes close to being melodic if it weren’t for the Stravinsky-style switches in meter.

The towering influence of Copland’s ballets — and their easy appropriation in anything smacking of Americana — do a disservice to these works. In short, I had written Copland off as an unabashed melodicist, good for some comfort listening but little beyond that.

This album, however, shows a side of Copland that balances out the popular perception. Now if only more of these works could be programmed in live performances …

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The classical music bucket list I didn’t know I had

[Seattle Symphony - Raskatov / Stravinsky]

Austin, Texas calls itself “The Live Music Capital of the World,” and it sure attempts to live up to that reputation, often shoehorning live music in situations where silence would be preferred.

I spent 14 years enjoying both the local scene and the touring shows that stopped by the city. Classical music, however, is a big blind spot in an otherwise diverse scene. Yes, Austin has an orchestra, but in terms of national reputation, orchestras in Houston and Dallas have a higher profile. Houston, for example, premiered John Adams’ Nixon in China.

One year, SXSW actually scheduled a classical night that featured works by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The festival never tried anything like that again.

I had gone so long without listening to the classical music which appealed to me — namely, modern works — that I didn’t know what I was missing.

Then I moved to Seattle in 2012.

The Seattle Symphony may not have the cachet of the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra or the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But it sure nips at the heels of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the recorded output of the Seattle Symphony far outstrips Austin, which has … one.

Ludovic Morlot was mid-way through his second year with the symphony when I relocated to Seattle. I hadn’t been in Seattle for more than a month when I learned the orchestra would premiere a work by Nico Muhly. I bought a ticket and pretty much fell in love with Benaroya Hall.

My next symphony concert was a few weeks later, when Renée Fleming included a few songs from her indie rock album among a program of arias. I was so thoroughly impressed by the orchestra’s offerings that I subscribed.

In fall 2012, the orchestra introduced a series of concerts called Untitled. The concerts consisted entirely of modern works performed in the lobby of the hall, not the auditorium. They were held on Fridays at 10 p.m., and it was general admission seating. Alcohol was available throughout the concert.

In short, Benaroya’s lobby became a night club for new music.

I subscribed for the series and got discounts on orchestra concerts throughout the season. In the last three years, I’ve heard the orchestra perform such works as:

  • The Chariman Dances, Harmonielehre, Lollapalooza and the first string quartet by John Adams. (Another quartet is currently in the works.)
  • Black Angels by George Crumb
  • The Firebird, Petroushka, and the Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky
  • War Requiem by Benjamin Britten
  • Symphonies Nos. 5, 6 and 7 by Jean Sibelius
  • Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 by Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Requiem by Wolfgang Mozart
  • Symphony No. 9 by Antonin Dvorak

The Untitled Series itself featured works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Perle, John Zorn and Vladimir Martynov.

Seattle Symphony isn’t the only organization programming new music in the city. Town Hall Seattle’s Hall Music series has brought JACK Quartet, Roomful of Teeth and NOW Ensemble.

Bang on a Can brought its marathon to the Moore Theatre, which included the Seattle premiere of Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich.

The Seattle Chamber Music Festival held twice a year programmed Reich’s Different Trains, and a free recital featured Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet for Strings No. 8.

At a concert for the University of Washington New Music Ensemble, an undergraduate quartet tackled Crumb’s Black Angels. Let me repeat: undergraduates. I wouldn’t have pictured my classmates at the University of Hawai`i doing such a thing.

In my student days of studying classical music, I rarely had an opportunity to hear works I would discover through recordings. In Austin, it wasn’t even a consideration.

It wasn’t until I moved to a city with a vibrant classical community that I realized how starved I was. Honolulu and Austin conditioned me to live without. Seattle showed me that was unacceptable.

The upcoming season includes a new work by Adams, the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré and a premiere of the first symphony by Wayne Horvitz with Bill Frisell as a soloist. I haven’t even mentioned UW World Series, which has the Danish String Quartet performing Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3. Kronos Quartet is also stopping by in 2016.

So, yes, my appetite for new music will continue to be well fed.


The ones that nearly got away: Bill Frisell, Is That You?

[Bill Frisell - Is That You?]

Bill Frisell confused the hell out of me when I first encountered him.

With Naked City, he was thrashing out, whiplashing from country twang to headbanging metal at the flick of the wrist. My cohorts in high school worshiped at the altar of Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. I thought Frisell could mop the floor with them.

But he had a subtle touch as well, if his work on the self-titled album by Robin Holcomb was any indication.

Surely with all these bona fides, I could really dig Frisell’s own music, right?

Well, not quite.

The lightning picking and aggressive dissonance were nowhere to be found on Is That You?, Frisell’s second album for Nonesuch released around the time of Naked City and Robin Holcomb. As it turned out, Frisell’s writing occupied a strange intersection of avant-garde classical, jazz improvisation and American folk.

And it was quiet.

A cover of “Chain of Fools” is the closest Frisell would get to being raucous. Instead, he favored sparse, introspective textures. Although the album featured 3/5 of Naked City — Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz (who also produced) and drummer Joey Baron — it had none of Naked City’s fire but certainly all of its intensity.

For an 18-year-old listener hyped up by Naked City, I felt let-down by Is That You?, an impression that would unjustly persist for 25 years.

In fact, Is That You? fell into the category of albums I was too young to understand at the time. I’ve been on the hunt for Frisell’s preceding album, Before We Were Born, when I spotted Is That You? Having discovered how wrong I was about other albums in the past, I gave this one another chance.

For a noisy band, Naked City was pretty tuneful, and while I loved its rowdy parts, the hooks allowed me to latch onto the band’s weirder diversions. Is That You? provided few such latches.

“Rag” is a lovely solo piece on acoustic guitar, and another cover of “The Days of Wine and Roses” provides some melodicism, but for the rest of the album, Frisell demands attention as he ties two or more disparate styles of music and sets them in opposing directions.

The title track starts off quietly with some pretty woodwinds, but as it progresses, Baron’s tribal rhythms give way to a hesitant backbeat while Frisell strangles his fretboard. Horvitz throws in his arsenal of weird effects to complicate matters. Many of the album’s tracks proceed in this manner.

I didn’t have the patience or the exposure to Frisell’s influences to understand what he was doing. Two decades and a lot of country music listening later, I get it now. More importantly, I enjoy it.


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Vinyl find: Ani & Ida Kavafian, Mozart: Duo / Moszkowski: Suite / Sarasate: Navarra

[Ani and Ida Kavafian: Mozart / Moszkowski / Sarasate]

Sometimes, I’ll justify an impulse purchase in terms of how much I spend on a breakfast at Starbucks. A cup of tea and a bagel usually sets me back $4. A Nonesuch record I’ve never heard of selling for $1 is a steal by comparison.

From what I can tell, this album is the only one where Ani and Ida Kavafian are billed as a duo. The sisters have successful careers separately, and the Amazon search algorithms turn up other recordings where they both appear. But from appearances alone, Ani and Ida aren’t the string players’ answer to Katia and Marielle Labèque.

Nonesuch hasn’t reissued this recording on the digital services, and neither sister is listed on the label’s site. The album was released in 1986, two years into Robert Hurwitz’s tenure, and the very mainstream choice of repertoire — Mozart, Moritz Moszkowski, Pablo de Sarasate — doesn’t align with the post-modern direction Nonesuch would eventually take.

It’s too bad, because the album is quietly charming. Mozart, of course, his overly bright self. The final movement of the Moszkowski Suite in G has a distinct swing, and the sisters sound particularly singular on the various runs in the Sarasate piece.

Nonesuch had the presence of mind to issue this album on CD, so you’re not shut out if you don’t own a turntable. The cover pictured, in fact, is from the CD.


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Looking Ahead: August-October 2015

[The Replacements - The Twin/Tone Years]

During the summer, everyone is touring, or gearing up for the fall release schedule. So there’s not much to seek out over the next few months. I do find it surprising that news about fall releases has been pretty scant.

Shiina Ringo, “Nagaku Mijikai Matsuri / Kamisama, Hotokesama”, Aug. 5

Is another album on the way? This single would be the third Ringo-chan has released since her last studio album, Hi Izuru Tokoro.

The Replacements, The Twin/Tone Years, Aug. 11

The Rhino-era albums have already undergone the vinyl reissue treatment, and the exorbitant prices for the Twin/Tone albums on the collector’s market certainly demonstrate a demand. So this set has been a long time coming.

Georg Holm, Orri Páll Dýrason, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Kjartan Holm, Circe, Aug. 28 (digital), Sept. 11 (physical)

Two members of Sigur Rós, plus the band’s touring guitarist team up with composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson for a soundtrack to a BBC documentary.

Everything But the Girl, Walking Wounded (Deluxe Edition), Sept. 11

The Salvo label in the UK finishes a reissue campaign of Everything But the Girl’s studio albums with Walking Wounded and Temperamental. I’m sticking with just Walking Wounded because Temperamental doesn’t age very well.

Duran Duran, Paper Gods, Sept. 11

All You Need Is Now restored my faith in the band after a long time meandering in the wild during the W. Bush era. The lead-off single from Paper Gods has enough Nile Rodgers to cue some Notorious nostalgia. The artwork, though, is the laziest I’ve seen on a Duran Duran album. Even Red Carpet Massacre showed more effort.

Janet Jackson, Unbreakable, Oct. 2

I didn’t realize how much I missed Janet till she announced her return. I have no idea what seven years has done for her music, and I kind of don’t care.

Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 4, Oct. 16

Górecki passed away before he could complete his fourth symphony, but a piano score with detailed annotations allowed his son Mikolaj to orchestrate it. Nonesuch is going ballers with this release by also reissuing the Symphony No. 3 on vinyl and compiling a box set of Górecki’s works recorded by the label. Let’s just call Oct. 16 Górecki Day.

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