Friday, February 15, 2013

In Review--Brahms Blues

Knut Reiersrud Band 
Infinite Gratitude 
Kirkelig Kulturverksted

Last month I ran across a YouTube video of Norwegian bluesman Knut Reiersrud’s band playing along side a chamber orchestra.  The result was so astounding that I paused to compose my thoughts.  Normally, we wouldn’t think of blues and classical chamber music coming together on the same page.  Yes, we have heard pop, jazz, and rock versions of famous classical pieces.  And in reverse, symphonies performed pop or rock classics with mixed results.  On the album Infinite Gratitude, Knut Reiersrud and his blues band pair up with the chamber ensemble Trondheimsolstine where they explore the 2nd movements of Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C major and Johannes Brahms’ String Sextet in B flat major.  The musicians literally wed blues to chamber music.

I much prefer the dreamier slower passages where Reiersrud plays otherworldly steel guitar in which the violins and cellos dance around the guitar.  This, thankfully, isn’t a pop melody with a bank of strings creating a lush background ala the Beatles, though the overall sound here is Baby Boomer generation.  Some times the chamber strings even slide into a blues mode while still keeping the chamber pieces recognizable.  I can’t even imagine the arrangement process of melding American-style blues and chamber music with a drummer playing an apestic beat, such as on Part 2 of the Schubert string piece.  When David Wallumrød’s Hammond organ comes in, I’m reminded of the Moody Blues Night’s in White Satin album (not that I remember organ on that record).  It's just the feeling of the piece and not the actual sound scape that brings up this connection.

I much prefer Part 3 of the Schubert Piece and also Part 3 of the Brahms piece.  The chamber orchestra sets the pace and tone of these two movements while creating a large space for the blues musicians to intermingle.  It’s also fun for me to hear the shift from chamber to blues which happens when the string players pluck their strings and a slow drum beat and elongated notes played on steel guitar give the music an exotic feel (on the Schubert piece).  The third part of the Brahms piece sounds slightly contemplative, even melancholic, until the ethereal guitar arrives with stunning results.

While I give the musicians credit for their artistic achievement, I don’t agree with the liner notes that combining blues with classical music will solve the problem in the US regarding a decline in symphony audiences (assuming that the 30% decline with US classical music audiences has to do with dying demographics of older generations and lack of youngsters attending symphonic concerts).  The decline in US classical music audiences has more to do with a tight economy and budget cuts that eliminate music programs from K-12 schools.  Without music appreciation or music classes, children are not exposed to classical music in a way that demystifies complex art music.  In addition, children spend too much time around pop culture blasted to them through the media on their computers and television.  These children aren’t even familiar with the American blues, which is seen more as a folkloric style of music these days.
The best approach to increasing younger symphonic audiences in any country is to provide classical music training to children of all economic backgrounds in the way that Josè Abreu has done in Venezuela with his El Sistema project (which founded youth orchestras for youth from different economic situations).  The US has also dealt with its share of youth violence in recent years that captured international attention.  Research has proven again and again that classical music provides students with emotional healing as well as, helping children with the learning process.  No other music genre can boasts the same credentials.

However, for those of you only here to read a review of a fine recording, I recommend Infinite Gratitude for entertainment and artistic purposes.  But in all honesty, this recording will appeal to Baby Boomers (plus shadow boomers) and not American youth with little exposure to either American blues or classical music.  Oddly, American blues enjoys more popularity outside of the US.  And American youth gravitate towards the glittering pop stars who probably couldn’t tell the difference between a Bach fugue and a Beethoven sonata. 

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