Saturday, May 1, 2010

In review--Who's Afraid of Rachmaninoff?

London Symphony Orchestra Live
Valery Gergiev (Conductor)
Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2

Russian Late-Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff composed music for listeners with strong hearts and the ability to run the gamut of emotions within the course of a single symphony or concerto, as in Piano Concerto No. 3, for example. While the movie, Shine gave the impression that a musician dealing with an emotional imbalance (that includes a lot of musicians), would suffer insanity performing Rachmaninoff’s technically and emotionally-challenging music, I believe the movie’s sentiment gave the wrong impression. While Rachmaninoff couldn’t be called an average man by any stretch, he also did not spend his time in a sanatorium and he composed music that excited plenty of sane people. So why would his compositions drive anyone over the edge?

On the contrary I find the classical works of Russian composers (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, etc), emotionally stimulating and invigorating. The piano concerto mentioned earlier has lifted me out of a funk more times than not and it has bolstered my flagging spirit when needed most. The one thing that the movie Shine did get right, is that faint of heart musicians who can’t commit to taking the turbulent, yet stunning journey that Rachmaninoff offers or who don’t have the mastery to tackle these brutal (from the pianist point of view) musical challenges shouldn’t be playing this work in the first place. And when I do see advertisements for an upcoming concert featuring the works of Rachmaninoff, most often Piano Concerto No. 2 or No. 3, the touring pianists represent the crème of the virtuoso crop. Some of them are musical elders and some up and coming child prodigies.

London Symphony Orchestra led by Russian conductor Valery Gergiev makes the right decision in bringing us a live performance of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony. The dynamic symphony opens with swooping and soaring strings and powerful horn passages takes listeners on an emotional superhighway. Sweet and romantic passages (reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s ballets), alternate with bold statements. Lyrical strings sweep up listeners into an almost sentimental place. Think those old American classic movies where the guy gets the girl and the orchestral strings launch into a sweeping gesture as the screen fades to black.

The second movement Allegro molto reminds me of Prokofiev’s frantic style and I’m thinking of one piano concerto in particular. I’m also reminded of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, first movement. The musical passages move by so quickly that it all seems like a blur. The music feels heavy on the bass and horns, though never ponderous. The flutes and strings lighten the mood with flourishes that almost seem to be butting into the conversation between the horns and a vibraphone. Then we have the wall of strings that perform the central melody. It’s hard to digest and assimilate all of these musical moods and vibrant colors. And even to write a review, I had to research the composer and listen to these movements several times.

The third movement switches to sweet lyrical with a solo clarinet (at the beginning), performing the main melody and strings building tension quietly in the background. The clarinetist Andrew Marriner plays with subdued passion and plenty of pathos that I almost feel like crying. Rachmaninoff pulled out all of the stops on this stunningly beautiful movement and I would attend a symphony concert even to hear this single movement. The instruments perform in perfect balance from the basses to the piccolo and violins. And the movement itself ends where it begins with the main melodic theme taking the listeners in a full circle.

The fourth movement starts off with a bang and reminds me again of American movie music. The Russian composer makes good use of the horns again and the timpani which takes on a character of its own. The main theme sounds slightly Arabic played on woodwinds and engulfed by a wall of frolicking strings. The music feels like pure joy and exhilaration. It’s loud, celebratory and declaratory similar to someone shouting from a mountain top. Certainly anyone listening to this movement must feel uplifted.

The liner notes describe the movement as, “It begins in a proud, boisterous style, and this is how the symphony will eventually end. In the course of the movement, however, there is room for many shades of feeling (Rachmaninoff signature), and also for one of the biggest of Rachmaninoff’s ‘big tunes,’ given at each of its two appearances to massed strings.”

Thanks to this symphony and other works by Russian classical composers, I find myself falling in love with Romantic Russian music. This music has everything, but the kitchen sink, a rainbow of emotions, plenty of colorful orchestration, rich chromatics and heartfelt melodic themes not easily forgotten during the course of a day. Okay so Rachmaninoff isn’t for the faint of heart or someone that detaches from their emotions, but for listeners willing to take the emotional ride, catharsis waits on the other side.

Friday, April 30, 2010

In review--Brazilian Guitar Retrospective

Ricardo Silveira
‘til Tomorrow
Adventure Music

Brazilian jazz guitarist Ricardo Silveira’s ‘til Tomorrow blasts off with the adventurous Rocket’s Tail. Silveira’s guitar dazzles as it converses with flutes and Brazilian percussion. Overall the career retrospective recording which chronicles several albums dating back to 1984 with Silveira’s debut radiates a warm and generous vibe. I’ve already listened to it several times and visualize sunny beaches and smiling laidback people. This is Brazilian jazz after all.

Silveira provides clever arrangements which he handed over to an array of exceptional players. Lush horns, plenty of flute and beautiful guitar work dominate this recording. The track You Can Get What You Want portrays a snappy conversation between the guitar and horns. Two Brothers Mountain slows down the pace and creates a romantic mood. The samba Woodpecker’s Sound alternates between frantic horns, guitar and kit drum with a slow, dreamy interlude. The musicians aptly titled Good to Play since it features a fun and sprightly guitar punctuated by horn flourishes. Bahia Drive sports a calypso sound with its marimba and might conjure up a beach party in some listeners. In fact, you probably don’t want to listen to this sunny recording if you need to concentrate on your work.

Fans of Stan Getz/Gilberto Gil and Celso Fonseca recordings would find that ‘til tomorrow offers a lovely excursion. The instrumental album might seem forward on the first listen. The magic and surprise twists don’t reveal themselves until subsequent listens. And I recommend that you focus on the music on this disc rather than relegate it to the background. The music would be too distracting for multitasking anyway and musicians of this caliber deserve our undivided attention.

In review--Bring on the Mandolin

Mike Marshall
And Caterina Lichtenberg
Adventure Music

Two parts Bach, one part Brazilian with Venezuelan and French seasonings describes American mandolin player Mike Marshall’s latest recording on Adventure Music. The virtuoso has literally traveled around the world with his mandolin and on this recording he teams up with Early Music mandolin player Caterina Lichtenberg, thus the simple and direct CD title. Opening with a Bach violin sonata in which Marshall plays double-duty on cello, the duo then launches into their musical journey which hop scotches its way through American bluegrass, Brazilian jazz, Early Music, Bulgarian and Venezuelan classical. And yes, this exhilarating recording leaves a listener breathless.

Jean-Marie Leclair’s Sonata VI for Two Violins (French baroque) sounds absolutely gorgeous when played on two mandolins. The movements alternate between gentle and lilting to enchanting. The short Bulgarian folk tune oddly doesn’t feel out of place following a baroque piece and likewise the pieces by Brazilian Jacob Do Bandolim find a home on this disc too. However, in this carnival of musical genres, Suite Venezolana (Jose Antonio Zambrano) quickly became my favorite work on the CD.

Marshall and Lichtenberg provide brave and bold arrangements of work that surprisingly seamlessly fits together. And with only the 2 mandolins and the cello (brought out on occasion), the duo creates a symphony of sounds. Plucking and strumming their way through time and place, these virtuosos prove that any style of music in the right hands can be shaped into a musical adventure of a lifetime.

Bach’s music has already been touted as healing. Add folkloric traditions from South America and Bulgaria which contribute a cross cultural music exchange with the power to thrill discerning listeners. Marshall’s and Lichtenberg’s recording uplifts while introducing bluegrass audiences to European classical and vise verse. And the listening experience feels priceless to me. After listening to this CD several times, I’m now a huge fan of Mike Marshall and his global musical village. Have mandolin; will travel.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In review--Round n' Round We Go

Wayne Silas, Jr.
Round Dance Songs
Canyon Records

As the Rez Turns
Round Dance Songs
Canyon Records

Native American round dance songs hail from the tradition of gatherings of American Indians that take place during the winter months. Relatives, colleagues and friends who might not have seen each other for several months or for an entire year come together to dance, sing, drum, and party into the wee morning hours. The songs often supply humorous lyrics and in the case of Menominee/Oneida singer-song-maker Wayne Silas, Jr. on Unconditional, supply saucy ones(It’s On Tonight and Let’s Do the Math).

While pow-wows are generally open to the general public to watch American Indians sing, drum and dance in competition, round dances, as far as I know are by invitation only for friends and family to share and celebrate. Pow-wow drummers gather around a group drum whereas, round dance drummers play individual frame drums while participants join in a circle dance. Round dance lyrics are sung in English, Native American languages and vocables. Sometimes the singers tell stories and other times, they tell musical tongue and cheek jokes.

Northern Cree singer and song-maker Randy Wood is probably the champion of round dance songs, but some younger singers such as Wayne Silas, Jr. with his clear baritone vocals and attention-getting lyrics gives Wood some competition. Silas’ musical friends, Joe Syrette, Edmond Tate Nevaquaya, Jeremy Dearly, Nitanis “Kit” Landry and Arianne Sheka chip in hearty vocals. I imagine that their intended audience marvels at the vocal talent in the room and chuckles over some of the lyrical content--Wiley Coyote on the loose.

Pipestone must sport over a dozen singers and drummers and their live recording, As the Rez Turns (satire of the soap opera As The World Turns?) starts off with a big whooping sound. These Ojibwe and intertribal singers engage in power-drumming and send their wailing vocals up into the rafters. In fact, these rousing call & response vocals must have shaken the rafters and kept people dancing through the night. Judging from the round dance song titles, saucy humor plays a role on this round dance CD too.

I imagine that this rockin’ rez sound and cheeky lyrics appeals to the younger crowd. The songs feature lyrics about heartache, pickup lines and sex. While I respect other traditions and cultures, I can’t see myself listening to this recording outside of reviewing it. But if it keeps young people writing songs, performing, and finding meaning in their lives, then all power to Pipestone. Think of these singers and drummers as the Native American equivalent of the West African griot or African-American rappers. These types of round dance songs even draw comparisons with Mexican rancheros.   The singers tell tales of heartache, hanging out in the romantic trenches, and reservation life.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In review--Nubian Celebration (Bring on the Hot Sax-ophone)

Egypt Noir
Nubian Soul Treasures
Piranha (Germany)

Anyone who has been listening to world music in the last 2 or 3 decades will be familiar with both Egyptian and Nubian music. The serpentine melodies, pentatonic scales, call & response vocals, and marriage between Oriental and western music certainly has the ability to attract a wide following, especially the younger crowd hungry for exotic dance grooves.

The music on Egypt Noir (performed by an array of younger and classic musicians) entices with its musical mix. You’ll hear the lush Egyptian-style orchestra arrangements with call & response vocals skimming over the lush surface, plenty of raspy sounding shawms (an oboe-like instrument), heart-thumping polyrhythms and you might think a celebration is taking place. It is. Take a listen to the rousing beats, Cuban-style horns and saxophone and you’re in for a cosmopolitan musical treat.

I’m listening to Egypt Noir for the third time as I write this review and with each listen, the experience grows richer. I discover a new bridge between the west and the Orient. There’s Ali Hassan Kuban’s hot sax gliding over the top of delicious beats on Bettitogor Agil (the first song I ever heard by Kuban and practically a Nubian anthem), and the luscious vocals of Salwa Abou Greisha as she sings a cappella passages and later in a duet on her song Galbi El Atouf and I can’t forget the James Brown funk oriental style that appears on Alnubia Band’s Kobana. Cuban salsa even finds a place on this Nubian mix compilation, though the musicians gave it a North African makeover.

I was feeling exhausted before I slipped the CD into the player, but now after hearing these Nubian sounds, I’m wide awake. I don’t need that nap after all. I think the last Egyptian or Nubian disc I reviewed was over a year ago, by Natacha Atlas. So it has been a long time in coming. Certainly this recording provides an earful of exotic sounds by musicians bent on celebrating everything they’re worth. Listening to it will definitely bring a smile to your lips and you might also feel incredibly glad to be alive on an earth with such spectacular music.

News---Purrfect Cat Vibes Promote Bone Growth

Wikipedia, Bangle Tiger Tabby
This article that reveals research regarding the vibration of a cat's purr promoting bone growth was brought to my attention.  Who would have thought?  What power lies in a cat's meow?

Here is a link to the research page:

News--And the Governor's Award Goes to...

American composer James DeMars

Here's the article
Governor's Arts Awards honor Tempe composer

Congratulations James!