Saturday, May 15, 2010

In review--The Long and Silky Road

Archival Reviews (Cranky Crow Whole Music)

Orchid Ensemble
Heartland (2003)
Independent Release

Orchid Ensemble
Road to Kashgar (2004)
Independent Release

Orchid Ensemble's 2000 recording, Heartland possesses an appropriate title since this CD oozes heart and soul with its delicate collection of traditional and contemporary Chinese music along with music from other cultures. The ensemble is led by Lan Tung on erhu (a two-string stick fiddle that is played on the lap) and she is joined by zheng virtuoso scholar Mei Han and multi-cultural percussionist Jonathan Bernard (marimba and percussion). The 12 compositions on the CD, also feature dumbek, tar, djembe, tambourine, wood blocks, temple blocks, vibraphone, glockenspiel, Chinese opera gongs & drums, tuned bells, mark tree, and other exotic percussion.

However, some listeners will be exposed to the 2,500 year old zheng with its pentatonic scale playing along side a Latin American marimba while the erhu weeps over a delicately plucked melody. And the music here would be equally at home in a meditative practice as well as, a concert hall. The compositions range from the flowing Lantern Riddles to the frantic, Lonely Crows Playing in the Winter Stream to the energetic The Gallop. Harvest Season marks a chaotic frolic and Shepherd Girl resembles a gypsy lament from Eastern Europe. The titular track acts as a meditation on a gentle wind with the zheng holding down an ornamental melody line. And Meeting in the Yurt comes from Mongolia and describes a rendezvous between two lovers in a yurt.
I get pretty excited when I hear of another Canadian world music group releasing a CD. The Canadian border is not far from Seattle and Vancouver has its own world music community worthy of attention and yet, it is British Columbia's music scene that grabs my attention time and time again. I find that the musicians of British Columbia wield an uncompromising stance when it comes to experimenting with their varying traditions. The Canadian government's cultural program certainly allows for these musicians to explore their diverse cultures while also experimenting with other cultures found within their community. One of the musical highlights of British Columbia is the Vancouver World Music Collective which in itself brings together Asian, African, European and other musicians together. VWMC acts as a hub for a diverse traditional music groups that make British Columbia their home.

The Chinese fusion group, Orchid Ensemble has certainly benefited from the above arrangement and this can be heard on their latest recording, Road to Kashgar. Some of the same delicate arrangements found on their CD, Heartland are also found on the new CD which are embellished by ensemble leader Lan Tung's erhu, percussion and vocals, Mei Han (zheng, percussion) and Jonathan Bernard's marimba and array of traditional percussion. Some of the highlights on the CD are the shimmering Buddhist folk melody Three Treasures, the Ashkenazi sacred song, Yaribon (of Persian Jews traveling the Silk Road), which also features the vocal talents of D'Arcy Zi Han and Jing Jing Zhang and Maqam: Prelude to Dance with its fusion of Chinese strings and Persian percussion. Lan Tung embellishes Hujia with her vocal talents and Persian vocalist, Amir Haghighi comes on board on the closing song, Bengalila.

I find both of Orchid Ensemble's recordings to be of exceptional quality. The compositions are innovative and a rich delight for all of the senses. The trio of musicians bring vast experience and wisdom to their performance often weaving the Chinese zither and Chinese violin with percussion from varying traditions. The compositions here might be called a musical oriental carpet that tells stories found along the famed Silk Road. Reflecting on Chinese, Persian, Jewish, Buddhist and other traditions, this is a magic carpet ride you would be willing to take. Allow this group to leave you intoxicated.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In review--Death, the Old Man and The Sea

Mayte Martin
Alcantara Manuel
World Village

Mixing jazz, Latin American new song and flamenco Spanish guitarist/vocalist Mayte Martin celebrates the poetry of Manuel Alcàntar. The flamenco that appears on Alcantara Manuel could be described as passionate, but more melancholic than fiery. The emphasis appears to be on the text and vocals which are framed by 2 guitars (right and left channels), double-bass, percussion and violins with Martin’s voice caressing each word with soulful emotions. I’m reminded of the late Argentine new song performer Mercedes Sosa who also has the gift of igniting text with her emotive voice. Martin also possesses a powerful and sensitive alto voice. And both performers extract the soulfulness of the Spanish language while employing it as a powerful tool that travels into the hearts of their listeners.

I actually had to research the Spanish prize-winning poet Manuel Alcàntar whose poems featured on this album focus on death, the sea, heartache, war, and childhood innocence. There’s often a boy in a park or a man staring out at the sea. He includes requiems for strangers with sad stories as in the case with Manuel and For Miguel Hernàndez. He also features lonely people that find sustenance in simple things such as the view of the sea as mentioned earlier or jasmines, dolphins and mermaids in Child of the 1940s. His poems remind me of Lorca’s and Neruda’s work which also focused on injustice, cruelty, death, and the beauty of the natural world.

On The Sea Does Not Know it is Sunday, Martin sings, “The sea does not know it is a shipwreck without watch and without friends…” Martin and her fellow-guitarist Josè Luìs Montòn emphasize the emptiness of the text with bell-like strums and a listener can almost hear the waves of ocean lapping against the shoreline on a forlorn Spanish afternoon.

Excuses to Lola features vocals slowly slipping to an edge of a good sob and Martin adapted the poem Manuel to the tune of a tango, which fits perfectly on this album. The Dove of Picasso provides strong visuals for the musicians to wrap around their talents. South Where the Lemons Grow provides space for violinist Olvido Lanza to express melancholy through his instrument of wood and strings. The most beautiful images appear in the song Child of the 1940s which reflects on a war, most likely the Spanish Civil War which would have been in full-swing at that time. The most powerful vocals appear on Identity Card which also reflects on the war.  Biel Graells takes over violin duty on this song.

I had not heard of either the poet Manuel Alcàntar or the musician Mayte Martin, but having listened to this recording several times I’m impressed with the poet and the musician. Martin’s tribute to Alcàntar has the power to reach the hearts of listeners and take them to that place called “duende” in the flamenco idiom. Catharsis never hurt anyone.

Monday, May 10, 2010

In review--Amor-ica Musica!

Liliana Barrios
Èpica (El Viaje de Homero y Virgilio Expòsito)
World Village

Sierra Maestra
Sonando Ya
World Village

My mother claims that she played all types of music to my siblings and me when we were babies. She mentions that she even played “highbrow music” and most likely she was referring to European classical, but she might have meant Argentine tangos and Cuban son, after all, my mother grew up in Panama and her first language is Spanish.

However, my first language is not Spanish and it certainly isn’t the language of tango or son, but this music is probably floating in my DNA somewhere among those Spanish peasant genes. Certainly when I hear a bandoneon conversing with weeping strings passion and pathos bubble over in my bloodstream; my heartbeat quickens.

It’s not fair to Argentine tango musicians, but when someone mentions tango my mind automatically thinks of Astor Piazzolla. Tango has its lineage of vocalists, bandoneon players and composers. Some of the younger ones draw upon other Argentine and South American musical influences in their work. Vocalists Sandra Luna and Liliana Barrios interpret older work and both of those women delve into macho territory in which they give a feminine makeover.

On Èpica, Liliana Barrios maps her way through tango, bolero, milonga, and candombe with text by the Expòsito Brothers. But with the strains of the bandoneon and violins this sounds like a collection of pan-American tangos with the exception of the candombe piece Azabache which sports Afro-Latin rhythms played on traditional percussion. That particular song would feel at home on an album by Argentine Chango Spasiuk.

While I don’t have English translations of the lyrics, the Barrios’ vocals convey regret, despair and deep longing. Her smoky alto voice slides around the piano, violins and bandoneon as she takes command. She delivers the melancholic sentiments like the letter she holds on the album cover. She enters a macho tradition and proves she’s not a pushover. Listen to her heartfelt delivery on Fangal or her lively vocals on the opener El Entrerriano, where they frolic with spritely violin, woodwinds and piano.

From the darker tones of Buenos Aries to the sun-dripping soñes of Cuba, we’re still dealing with machismo, but at least the music provides a few enjoyable moments. Formed in the mid-1970s by university students, Sierra Maestro keeps the Cuban son tradition alive on their acoustic album Sonando Ya. Most of the songs reflect romantic love, though the musicians pay homage to Yoruba gods on Un Toque de Bembè and on the opening track, Pal ‘Monte, the singer reminds himself of his rustic roots.

With so many Cuban musical genres to confuse listeners Sierra Maestro brings us the rustic son, a musical style said to have been born in the mountains of Eastern Cuba. Anyone who has heard the Buena Vista Social Club or Cubanismo knows the son well. Featuring the characteristic three double-stringed guitar très, acoustic guitars, horns and percussive cross rhythms that gravitate around the clavè beat (1-2-3-1,2). Rapid call and response vocals top it off infectious melodies. Also in this musical tradition, vocalists improvise vocal phrases on the spot about love, romance or politics. Remember the Carnegie Hall concert footage in the documentary Buena Vista Social Club when the lead singer goes to town singing rapid text?

Sierra Maestro pays homage to Cuban classics from the Golden Age (1940s and 50s), but the songs sport more contemporary lyrics without any sexist references. The song A una mujer celebrates the singer’s mother. “From you I received love immeasurable. From your tree I am your flower…” croons Luìs Barzàga. And on the song, Estado de ànimo the text describes the protagonist as blank paper that his lover writes their fate. Cuban son and trova songs offer both lively music arrangements and poetic text. Sierra Maestro’s recording provides the right Cuban flavors, sizzling arrangements and sensual vocals.

Depending on your mood and the occasion, you can explore Latin Amor-ica music through Cuban son or Argentine tango. (That’s just the tip of a large iceberg). And in the process learn geography, history, culture and brush up your Spanish language skills. Soon you’ll be speaking tango and son too.

I dedicate this highbrow music to my mother.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

In review--Oh, Romeo, how art thou Romeo...

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev
Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet

I discovered Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s music for Romeo and Juliet while I was researching one of the composer’s piano concertos for an article. I was immediately captivated by the composer’s musical themes, his edgy orchestration and accessibility. London Symphony Orchestra’s (led by Valery Gergiev) live recording of Romeo and Juliet marks also my second listen to this phenomenal work. The live performance does the incidental music justice, though I would still love to see dancers performing the ballet to this score.

When I listen to classical works I have this tendency to search for influences or for possible disciples (informal or formal) of the composer. The question in my mind while I listened to this version of the ballet score revolved around Leonard Bernstein’s score to Westside Story. As you know, Westside Story based itself on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as well, though only one of the lovers dies at the end of the tragedy. While Bernstein was dealing more with theatrical entertainment that employed jazz and Latin music elements combined with classical, Prokofiev incorporated 20th century classical elements in his ballet score, which is most likely why it sounds modern even today. And yet, Bernstein must have been influenced by Prokofiev’s jagged edges (during fight scenes) or dissonance and use of percussion during death scenes. And in fact, I found a few mentions on the internet that connected to the two composers.

Prokofiev’s ballet also influenced Aaron Copland (I assume by listening to both composers' music), an American composer (see blog review under Aaron Copland) who combined folkloric elements with modern classical. And Grieg’s Peer Gynt also comes to my mind when I listen to Prokofiev’s ballet. I draw this comparison from the varying rhythms and textures both composers apply to move a musical story forward and to convey an array of emotions from joy to trepidation.

London Symphony Orchestra’s Romeo and Juliet appears on 2 discs. While the symphony and conductor provided liner notes, the notes mainly focus on the history of the ballet and how it fit into a succession of Russian ballets. I would have liked to have learned about Prokofiev’s mindset when he composed the score. What was his state of mind? He included a lot of humor in the score and detached pathos during the death scenes, at least in comparison to Tchaikovsky’s emotional and sweeping version of the same ballet. Prokofiev took an edgy and less romantic approach (except for the scene where Romeo encounters Juliet), with some sarcasm thrown in with Mercutio’s theme. And come to think of it, this is probably what Shakespeare had in mind too since he was not beyond wit and sarcasm himself. So in that respect Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet feels refreshing.

Listen to Morning Dance (track 4 on CD 1) and you can hear Prokofiev’s sense of humor among the pompous brass in conversation with staccato strings and woodwinds. The tuba answers with sarcastic blasts while the flutes rush past on the following track, The Quarrel which then leads to a fight between the young Capulets and Montagues. The music not only emphasizes the current scenes, but foreshadows events to come. Musical themes such as ones attached to Juliet and Mercutio appear again later, transfigured to reveal the changed circumstances of the characters. As you would expect Juliet’s theme is played on flutes, strings with a soft and dreamy tone. Mercutio’s theme features circus type brass in conversation with rollicking strings and easily conveys the liveliest music in the ballet.

I wish that I had better speakers to listen to this score. The electrical hum on my computer and player distract and I just end up feeling frustrated. Though this recording does provide sense around sound and must sound fantastic on a high-quality player. And like any ballet, theatrical or opera score, this incidental music works best when a listener follows along with the text of the scenes. The score which runs on the long side can be listened to in 1 or 2 sittings. And this magnificent recording deserves listeners’ undivided attention. Think of it as intellectual-stimulating entertainment.  Prokofiev's score provides a workout for the brain and it provides heartfelt moments too.