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. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In Review--Schubert's Lament

Matthias Goerne (Baritone)
Andreas Haefliger (Piano)
Schubert Erlkönig
Harmonia Mundi

Celebrated baritone Matthias Goerne brings us number 7 of a Schubert series, Erlkönig (title comes from a Goethe poem), a collection of songs set to Romantic Era poetry.  If I had only read the liner notes, I would have assumed that the recording only contains darker material.  The titular song indeed tells a dark supernatural tale but at least on this recording it only has one voice, instead of the original three from Schubert’s time (a man, his son, and a phantom).  However, diverse sentiments from a Scottish warrior bidding farewell to his distant love while on the battlefield (Norman Love), and spiritual musings (By the Lake) and familial love described in nature-based metaphors (Sunset) also appear in the 19 tracks.

Goerne’s operatic talent comes through on the seductive Fisherman’s Song (which also resembles Mozart’s mirthful arias).  The weight of the duo rests on Goerne’s shoulders since the purpose of the songs is to convey emotions and poetic interpretations, which the German baritone does well.  However, this isn’t to say that Andreas Haefliger’s piano merely acts as a backdrop.  Haefliger’s piano gallops along on the love song At the Bruck, portrays chilling dynamics on the titular song, performs flowing arpeggios on By the Lake (which feels hymn-like), and it skips playfully on The Trout.  Still, I wouldn’t mind hearing the pianist in a concerto or sonata setting.

When I listen to Schubert’s songs, it’s hard not to think about the composer’s life. His contemporaries under appreciated his music during this time, and he died at a young age unrecognized for his music.  A story in the liner notes reflects on the song Erlkön, which Schubert sent to the German poet Goethe, who ignored Schubert’s song setting until a friend played the song for him, two years before the poet’s death. And even then he didn’t praise the song.  Schubert represents a musician who composed and performed music because it flowed out of him and he did so with great earnest and hope.  Even more tragic than the death of a young musician, is the death of a musician whose work is discovered posthumously.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

In review--Pan Piper

Joël Francisco Perri
The Andean Flutes
Arc Music

Bombo, charango, and Andean pan flutes--these instruments hail from the indigenous people of the Andean regions of South America.  In the 1970s many musicians, writers, and musicians fled Chile and Argentina to avoid persecution by ruthless dictatorships.  Many fled to Paris and formed a community where they brought the Andean instruments and songs from the nuevo canción (poetic and political songs) movement.  In 1971, Joël Francisco Perri, a percussionist of Sicilian and French descent encountered the South American musicians in Paris and eventually, this led the musician to dedicate himself to Andean flutes.  His son, Cedric Perri followed in his father's footsteps and appears on this CD.

On his 2012 recording The Andean Flutes, we hear the jaunty side of several types of pan flutes including Bastos, Siku, Zampoña, Rondador and the bamboo recorder Kena played with the Andean drum, bombo, the Andean lute charango and acoustic guitar.  And don’t worry about not knowing the shapes and sizes of each type of flute.  Most likely you have seen all of these instruments played by Andean indigenous musicians on street corners around the world.  And if you have heard songs from the new song movement sung by Mercedes Sosa or Mariana Montalvo, you already know these instruments well.  In fact, this Andean music has become ubiquitous with South America along with Brazilian samba, Argentine tango, and Colombian cumbia.

I wonder if Perri’s CDs ever aired on an Andean music community radio show that I listened to when I lived in Seattle--listening to Andean flutes at 4 a.m. on night’s when insomnia visited me. While you won’t find Flight of the Condor on The Andean Flutes, you will be treated to uplifting music that sounds more danceable than relaxing.  The exception is the slower pace, Song of the Ocarina for Andean Pan Flute.  The other songs gallop along keeping a steady bombo beat and flowing into each other.  I can’t imagine anyone on this planet not enjoying these flute songs.

In review--Global Masks & Myth-makers

Will Clipman
Myths & Masks (DVD/Educational)
Will Clipman/Independent

Will Clipman, master drummer/myth-maker/educator is the busiest musician I know.  If he’s not touring with R. Carlos Nakai’s band in Russia, appearing in concert in Phoenix, or recording with any of the Canyon Records musicians, he’s educating children about global cultures.  His educational DVD Myths & Masks features homemade percussion instruments, homemade masks and poetic myths about tribal people in Africa, Australia, and the American Southwest.  The purpose of Clipman’s delightful DVD revolves around representing humanity through stories that unite us and define this great blue planet where we reside.

Clipman opens his concert with a djembe solo which sets the mystical space where Clipman shares his global myths.  With each masks representing Burkina Faso, the Australian Aborigines, the Kalihari Bushmen and the Pima Indians Clipman transforms into tribal different tribal storytellers.  He accompanies his stories with percussion instruments related to each region, such as a balafon representing Burkina Faso and the didgeridoo for Australia’s outback.  Oddly, Clipman’s chooses tribes who live in deserts also known as “the bush”.  Is this because Clipman lives in the Sonoran Desert?

Extra features include a television news show interview with the Grammy-nominee Clipman and a segment on mask making which shows Clipman in action with an artist’s residency program for grade school children.  If you’re a teacher reading this review, the DVD and Clipman are available for cultural enrichment programs in the schools.  That’s if he’s not on a world tour with R. Carlos, or if he’s not in the recording studio offering his drumming expertise...