Sunday, January 18, 2015

A great night of Copland, Gershwin and some other guy

Pianist Peter Donohoe, left, and conductor Valentin Radu
after the concert Friday night. 
The Ama Deus Ensemble, with guest soloist Peter Donohoe, served up an exciting concert Friday evening. It was a long program – more than two and a half hours, with intermission – but it sure didn’t feel like it. Donohoe joined the orchestra in performances of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F, as well as the regional premiere of Aaron Copland’s 1926 Piano Concerto. Any one of those would have made the evening feel complete, but as Peter said afterward, he had traveled a long way for this concert. He might as well try to fit everything in.

Gershwin’s third big concert piece, An American in Paris, was also thrown in for good measure at the end of the first half.

The Piano Concerto is not one of Copland’s more famous works, or even, to be honest, one of his best, though it foreshadows the aggressive symphonic jazz Leonard Bernstein would develop in West Side Story. Donohoe and company gave a convincing, confident-sounding reading that betrayed none of the trepidation they must have felt in the face of such complex and unfamiliar music. For me, it was the highlight of the program, even if the Gershwin melodies that followed stick more tenaciously in the mind. Donohoe, reading from a score, was riveting, and the orchestra snapped to attention behind him, which was a relief after the curtain raiser, a somewhat lackluster reading of some lackluster movie music by John Williams. The ensemble stayed at that higher level for the rest of the night, especially in the Rhapsody, when it achieved some moments of genuine grandeur.

I should also mention clarinetist Arne Running and trumpeter Scott McIntosh, who reveled in the solo passages provided by Gershwin. McIntosh, especially, shone in all the blues, the glissandi and the muted wah-wahs. For a few indelible moments, he transformed the Perelman into Preservation Hall.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A lovely way to spend a cold Sunday afternoon

Johannes Brahms,
before his Santa Claus phase
Yesterday, while the rest of America was glued to the NFL playoffs, I and about 500 other people crammed into the Warden Theater at the Academy of Vocal Arts for a free all-Brahms program. (I like Brahms, and I like free, so I figured it was the perfect excuse to leave the apartments.) Students, faculty and guests of the AVA performed nine vocal quartets and the two songs with viola Op. 91. The concert ended with an instrumental work — the F minor Clarinet Sonata Op. 120, performed with modest grace by 22-year-old Robert Kahn.

Not much to say about this event, except that it’s fun to see the stars of tomorrow today, and it’s always a thrill to hear big voices in an intimate setting. There is a physical jolt, a sense of being enveloped in sound, that doesn’t occur in the balcony at the Met, even when the largest of forces are trotted out. One of the reasons I love Brahms because, unlike Wagner, say, he fits into a small room. And his knowledge of Renaissance counterpoint is on full display in his vocal music.

Interesting footnote about the singers in training at the AVA: Reading the bios in the program, I noticed that not a single one was from the Philadelphia area, or even the East Coast. They were all from the Midwest, the Southwest, California, China and Mexico. Maybe the local talent likes to leave home to study. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

They love me in Norway

I'm not good at interpreting  the stats on my blogger dashboard, but apparently, I am very popular in Norway. In the latest round of page views, by country, this little blog got 281 page views in the l;and of the fjords. The next-county country on the list, the US, had 51 -- only 18 percent of the Norwegian contingent. So either someone is trying to mask their country of origin in a foreign server, or the Scandinavians have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Whoever you are over there, I want to move to your country. Would you give me a reference?

United States
United Kingdom

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Donohoe, Ama Deus Ensemble to perform Copland's Piano Concerto

Photo by Sussie Ahlburg
Peter Donohoe

The pianist Peter Donohoe will appear as soloist in Aaron Copland's Piano Concerto January 16 at the Kimmel Center, accompanied by the Ama Deus Ensemble under the direction of Valentin Radu. The piece is almost 90 year old, but as far as anyone can tell, this upcoming performance will be the Philadelphia premiere. I have mixed feelings: I'm excited, but somewhat scandalized. The century-long delay is typical of this city's attitude toward 20th-century American music. (Ives Fourth, anyone?)

In any event, I spoke with Mr. Donohoe about the concerto late last month. You may see the article that came out of the interview by clicking here.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

All on the plains of Mexico, and "Sleigh Ride" watch begins

I came across this CD this afternoon quite unexpectedly at the Plymouth Meeting Mall and decided I had to have it. (It was a struggle with my conscience, believe me.) I have the same release on an old pre-recorded cassette (remember those?), but I had not listened to it in a long time, and I thought for the sale price, I was due an upgrade. I'd forgotten just how beautiful it is. "Lowlands," "Shenandoah" and "Santy Anna" still give me chills. I remember years ago, when I bought the cassette, the clerk at the store in Greenbelt, Md., with whom I was friendly, gibed me a bit for what seemed to her like a silly purchase. This was in the mid-1980s, but I swear, this recording holds up much better than any of the big hits released at the time.

In other news, while I was making up my mind about the CD, I heard LeRoy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" for the first time this holiday season, played over the store's audio system. It is now officially Christmastime, This was a version I hadn't heard before -- a straight up rock instrumental. I wish I knew who did it. (A search of YouTube turned up nothing.) Then, after Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls" with some added holiday lyrics, "Sleigh Ride" came on again, this time in a more traditional vocal performance.  I did't recognize the singer, but let's face it: there are too many versions to keep track of them all. A double dose in one afternoon was almost too rich. I'll be fixed for the next few days.    

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A word to the wise

One other anecdote from Tuesday's recital, before I  forget: A cellphone went off in the audience just as Dawn Upshaw was preparing to sing "Ann Street." She handled it with good humor, saying it would work with the song. For my part,  I was suddenly struck by how much the default iPhone ring tone resembles the the rhythmic pattern of "The Se'er."

Then, after intermission, Gilbert Kalish walked onstage carrying a slat of wood that is called for in the score of the Concord Sonata. (It's used to produce a number of high-pitched, delicate-sounding tone clusters in the "Hawthorne" movement.)  Just before he began his remarks about the piece, he held the wood in front of him, at about belt level, and said, "This  is for the people with their cellphones."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Boy, was my face red

An old friend of mine, when I told him I was going to see Dawn Upshaw, emailed to say she sings his    favorite Strauss Four Last Songs. "My heart melts when I hear her," he wrote.

So, when I spoke to Miss Upshaw after last night's performance, I passed along the compliment, figuring it would be a nice way to break the ice. She said she has never, ever sung the Four Last Songs.

Maybe she should, though. I'm told she does a great job with them.

Hear the trombones!

The divine Miss Upshaw
Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish made a persuasive case last night for the off-kilter genius of Charles Ives. Upshaw sang a generous selection of fourteen songs – twice as many as I expected from the program online – and, after an intermission that featured a free ice cream tasting, Kalish returned for a masterful performance of Ives’s labyrinthine Concord Sonata.  

Kalish seems to respond best to Ives’s modernist side, and he was especially effective in the first half of the sonata. The “Emerson” movement was magnificent, and “Hawthorne” was a wild rush of a storm. The last two sections – the homely “Alcotts” and the contemplative “Thoreau” – fared less well. They could have been softer, and the entrance of Edward Schultz’s flute in “Thoreau” could have been more clearly articulated, but these are minor complaints.  

In the first half, Upshaw was a delightfully spunky guide to the Ives universe, which is alternately corny, exuberant, wry, angry and reverent. After the recital, she said she was apprehensive about singing “Like a Sick Eagle” back  to back with “Memories,” as Kalish had insisted, but, she said, in art as in in life, the tragic and the funny get mixed up. “Eagle” was the one spot where she faltered, forgetting a line and ad libbing one of her own. It was distracting, though she still managed to give me chills by the end. At other moments her voice seemed strained, but she was a witty interpreter, using her face and body to turn the lyrics into stories. In “The Circus Band,” the last song in the set, she become an excited little boy, craning her neck and going up on her toes to see over the heads of an imaginary crowd in the street. And her “Housatonic at Stockbridge,” when she simply planted herself on the stage and sang, was perfection.

One thing about the performance space at the American Philosophical Society. Or two: The acoustics were better than I had hoped for, and it was fitting – inspiring, really  that the music of an American giant should be performed beneath portraits of Jefferson, Franklin and Washington. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Happy Ives Day

Gilbert Kalish will play the Concord Sonata Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Today is the 140th birthday of Charles Ives. In just world, it would be a national holiday. I've done nothing yet to mark the occasion. My observance will come  tomorrow, at I attend an all-Ives recital at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Dawn Upshaw will sing a handful of songs accompanied by Gilbert Kalish, who will then play the Concord Sonata. I wangled and interview with Mr. Kalish back in September, and the article went online on the tenth. You can read it here. Not that it matters. The concert has been sold for at least two weeks. Philadelphia is not a big Ives town, and I assume the sellout was due to Upshaw's name recognition  power -- which is kind a pity, because the program incoudes only about seven songs. She'll be onstage for all of twenty minutes.

She apparently doesn't do interviews, by the way. I tried several times to get in touch with her for  the article, and her management's publicist was sweet about trying to track her down, but she never returned any of their calls. The publicist told me she even passed on talking to Gramophone. Gramophone, people. So what chance does a dinky entertainment insert in suburban Philadelphia have? The publicist also said Miss Upshaw is a lovely person,  just press-shy. It was just as well. Mr. Kalish gave me so much material and such great quotes, that even if I had spoken with her, I doubt I could have given her more than a paragraph. Space is tight in the weekend tabs.

On another topic, today I received my CD of Klaus Stock's original-instrument performance of Schubert's wonderful Arpeggione Sonata. I don't  need to tell my followers the arpeggione was a sort of bowed guitar, and Schubert wrote his sonata for the inventor. The instrument never caught on, and it's not hard  to understand why. It's  a  thin, reedy sound compared with the modern cello, the instrument  on which the sonata is usually performed today. (It's also done on the viola, which gives a better idea of the original timbre.)  Still, it's a   fine performance of a delightful work. I love Schubert in his Biedermeier moments. Puts me in the mood for potato soup and beer.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

And parking is free on Sundays

Angela and Aubrey Webber, aka the
 Doubleclicks, tonight at Melodies Cafe, Ardmore.
A few minutes ago, I arrived by home from Ardmore, where I saw Angela and Aubrey Webber, aka the Doubleclicks, perform a set at Melodies CafĂ©, and I want to get my impressions down while the glow is still warm. Suffice it to say I haven’t been this happy in months. I was prepared for clever lyrics and a high cuteness quotient. What I was not prepared for was the strength and professionalism of the vocals. YouTube and iPhones don’t do these young women justice.

The surprise of the evening was Aubrey, who doesn’t do interviews and, during most of tonight’s show, sat out of the spotlight while her sister schmoozed the crowd. She has a big, Broadway-style voice that would sound at home in Chicago, but isn’t quite right for the most of the light, folk-inspired comedy numbers her sister writes. She sang only two songs on her own (backed by instrumental recordings), plus the four-word word refrain to “The Final Countdown,” a tango about the last day on a dead-end job. The rest of the time, she was relegated to vocal harmonies and playing the cello.

“I know what you’re going to say,” Angela said from the stage. “You’re going to tell me I should let her song more. And I know what I’m going to say: No. It’s just the rules. It’s a legal thing."

And maybe it’s better she doesn’t. It makes her few solos all the more memorable.

Angela’s lyrics are for the most part topical ― not inspired by politics or the news, but full of references to TV shows, movies, role-playing games and comic book heroes. I wonder how well they’ll age, but then, I wonder that about myself. And I felt my age during the first song, when I fully understood only two of the references: the one about Romeo and Juliet, and the one about Scully and Mulder. The rest of them flew over my head. It was like listening to a native speaker of German. I caught the sense, but the nuances escaped me.

Whatever their future might be, however, I can affirm that, at the present time, the songs are very funny. Come back soon, girls. You’ve left for the next stop on your tour, and I can already feel the air going out of the room.