Thursday, May 28, 2020

Anniversaries

Thanks for the memories, I guess
(jeez Snapchat way to put me in a bad mood)

Believe it or not, today marks exactly one year since I embarked on #1Summer50Concerts. In a way, it's Classical Music Geek's first anniversary, too -- I had a couple posts before that, but May 28, 2019 was the real, no-turning-back launch.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that the much-awaited sequel to #1Summer50Concerts is a summer where in-person live music doesn't exist at all. I miss concert halls. SO much. I've been watching livestreams, of course, and pre-recorded concerts. They're not the same. I don't expect them to be the same. And frankly, I can't find it in me to review them because, as I said in my last post, the fact that they exist supersedes quality. Performers are trying to make us happier, trying to help us cope, and evaluating their performances feels short-sighted and wholly irrelevant in such a crazy time.

I don't really have much to say -- nothing's happened except that I've turned into a grandma who sleeps till noon, cooks a lot, goes on the same daily walk, and still doesn't practice. It was a nice life for the first couple weeks. I'm bored now. Maybe it's time to start practicing.

I'm going to try to keep posting through the summer, but there's only so many times I can write the same "5 Things You Should Listen To This Week" article. For now, a Mozart aria that's been stuck in my head for days, taken from a concert that my best friend and I watched together over zoom a two nights ago (if you're wondering how that works: "3...2....1....go!" *press play together*). Sabine and Raphaël are among the more powerful musical power couples of today.


Anyway, happy anniversary to me. Here's to many more years of blogging, most of them hopefully better than 2020. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Collective Corona Memory | Pandemic Musings

Igor Levit on Twitter: "Heute Abend wieder: Livestream Hauskonzert ...
Igor Levit's recording setup
I've had a lot of time to think lately. Here are some of my thoughts. Disclaimer: they're not so optimistic.

Every night since the world started quarantining, German-Russian pianist Igor Levit has been reliably livestreaming short Twitter concerts from the living room of his tiny Munich apartment. Nothing extravagant, just a piano, an iPhone whose microphone occasionally cuts out, and a musician determined to improve someone’s—anyone’s—day. On one evening, Brahms’s left-hand arrangement of the Bach Chaconne. On another, some short selections of Schubert. To celebrate his 32nd straight day of streaming, Levit played Beethoven’s bizarre 32nd piano sonata for nearly 20,000 viewers.

Some musicians, like Levit, have been alarmingly productive in quarantine; others (myself included) not so much. As COVID-19 wiped my calendar cleaner than I’d seen it since middle school (from 20 hours of orchestra, choir, and opera rehearsal per week to a big, fat zero), I started to panic . But my solace fell in watching others make the music that I couldn’t; Levit and his colleagues came to the rescue, helping me to have the best of all possible quarantines in this best of all possible worlds (as my Grandpa Paul would have said, “How do you like them apples, Leibniz?”).

Concert halls all over the world are shuttered for the foreseeable future. Musical organizations lay on the verge of financial ruin, trying to retain their solvency without crucial revenue from the final three months of their seasons. Musicians are doing their best to make ends meet even though the market for their services has suddenly dried up.

And yet, one could argue that there is no better time to be a consumer of classical music. As physical concert halls close their doors, virtual concert halls have opened their Zoom rooms, scratching audiences’ itch for live music. Scroll through Facebook on any given day and you’ll find musical gems scattered among the fear and apprehension. A violinist friend playing a minute of a Kesha cover to a backing track. A full rebroadcast from a summer festival whose 2020 iteration has already been canceled. A piece of Renaissance polyphony rewritten as a handwashing song.

A favorite of mine from Singapore's Red Dot Baroque

Like everyone, I’m trying my best to live “in the moment” right now. Yet I can’t help but wonder how this crazy time will live on in the collective memories of musicians and musical consumers alike. People are more willing than ever to embrace the Internet as a means of sharing their musical talents with the world. But, despite this zeal, distanced live music now feels less like a serendipitous outpouring of artistic inspiration than a manifestation of crisis.

Take Igor Levit. I’ve been watching his livestreams as often as I can make the time. The idea of someone playing music for me in real time brings me some meaningful amount of solace as I’m quarantined alone in my apartment. But after COVID-19 is gone, I’ll probably never reach for those archived recordings. Why would I choose Levit recorded on an iPhone when I could listen to any of his masterfully engineered, “just one more take” studio albums?

Levit is doing the best he can in the face of crisis. But right now, we’re measuring “quality” on a different scale than usual. The mere existence of live performances supersedes our conventional notions of musical quality — who cares if these performances aren’t studio- or stage-quality as long as I can watch them from my living room? But five, ten, twenty years from now, once COVID is but a section in our history textbooks and we have renewed access to the live music we currently lack, will anyone remember the art that we are now finding so meaningful, or will we see it as compromised and unpolished? Will anyone want to remember that art, let alone anything of this traumatic era?

We’ve been continually looking to the Spanish flu of 1918 as a reference point. But another tragedy of the time offers damning clues as to what might happen to corona art. In 1914, at the start of World War I, the British army sent Harold Triggs to fight in the trenches of Ypres, Belgium. He brought with him a modified cello, little more than a hollow box outfitted with four strings and an endpin. The instrument brought joy to those rendered listless by an otherwise bleak battle theater. But after the war, it sat untouched on a luthier’s shelf for a hundred years before British cellist Stephen Isserlis used it to record part of an album of WWI-era music. Even then, the trench cello was merely a tool to recreate the historical soundscape of a generation that had since passed — no one who was alive during The Great War wanted to revive music that was so inexorably associated with trauma, loss, and suffering.


The trench cello may have been a viable wartime alternative to a Stradivari, but once the guns fell silent this ingenious instrument almost instantaneously became nothing but an artifact. I’m worried the same will happen for hundreds of innovative COVID-era projects, simply because they were realized in a time when resources were thin. Large-scale “corona” commissioning projects. Daily pajama-clad practice sessions from isolation. Multi-tracked videos captioned “Day __ in Quarantine.” All the tidbits that brought the world some semblance of light in a dark time, forgotten and gathering cyber-dust on a Facebook server in Altoona, Iowa.

The massive amounts of musical content that I’ve seen in the last six weeks have made me laugh, cry, ooh, and aah. After this period is over, of course I’m going to remember the suffering, the loss. But I want to remember the silver linings, too. And COVID-music is perhaps the biggest silver lining I’ve seen so far.

Everything from these few months will be labeled “corona,” whether it’s culture, politics, or cooking (who could forget when the world turned to sourdough for comfort?). It’s up to future us whether we probe beyond that label into the content itself.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

A Birthday Zoom | Pandemic Musings

And that was just page 1

My aunt turned 55 a couple days ago, so today she threw a "soirée" (3pm for me, 9pm for some, noon for others) to celebrate. The fine print: "Everyone (kids and adults!) is encouraged (not required) to give a little performance of music, poetry, etc., max 4 minutes."

My brother and I cobbled together a movement of the Byrd Mass for Four Voices -- we were planning on doing it anyway (just for funsies), but we figured that would take some of the performance anxiety out of the equation. Turns out, Zoom thinks the video sounds much different than we wanted it to. Oh well.

Here are a few other things that happened:

A Nobel Prize-winning physicist presented a fascinating experiment in relativity as he attempted to orchestrate a Zoom performance of his favorite Hungarian round. Only about half of the 20-some people in the call knew Hungarian. Maybe a third knew how to operate Zoom. Needless to say, it was not together. But hey, it was fun.

A couple of my cousins played a movement (the first 57 seconds) of John Cage's 4'33'', at which point the chat blew up -- "What happened?" "I think we lost them!" "Oh no!" I tried to assure everyone that this was according to plan. No one believed me.

A few great performances of Suzuki book Bach minuets. Makes me hopeful for the next generation of musicians.

Lots of poetry, some uplifting, some dour. You can really tell who is taking this quarantine in stride and who has had enough already.

A performance by one of these people who "just started learning guitar" but is already quite good -- if you're reading this, I envy you.

So many people talking over each other. SO. Many.

It was fun. Hopefully the next one won't have to be on Zoom.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Completeness | Pandemic Musings

I'm really not sure whether my attention span has increased or decreased since quarantine started.

And with that, Facebook calls. See you in 15 minutes.

Our reward for getting three sentences in: my favorite opera scene EVER,
taken from the production of Les Indes galantes that I briefly discuss below.

What was I saying? Oh yeah, me and my attention span.

But I don't usually have the attention span to sit down and listen to "complete" anything. At concerts, my mind often wanders (yeah, I admit it). My favorite albums usually have a little bit of a lot of things -- just look at what I've reviewed so far.

Lately, though, I've found myself seeking out more "complete" musical experiences. Last week, I listened through all of Britten's Turn of the Screw -- I don't usually listen to operas, it feels like a piece of missing (maybe I like to see staged works?). Just a couple days ago, I made it through the six hours of music that make up Marais's second book of viol pieces. And now, I'm on a recording of Bach's complete keyboard music (volume 3 of many).

I wonder if having more time necessarily translates to more attention. I feel like the answer is no. Then why am I seeking out "completeness" all of a sudden?

Maybe I'm overthinking this. Yeah, I think I'm only seeking out "completeness" because it's new to me and I'm getting bored of only listening to skittish concept albums.

That said, my favorite "complete" experience that everyone should have this break: the Paris National Opera's production of Rameau's Les Indes galantes is available on arte.tv. You need a European VPN, but it's well worth finding one. My friend and I started at 9pm and planned only to watch until the end of act two (the opera is a prologue plus four acts). It was so fantastic we didn't stop until the bitter end. I can't provide the link or else I might be sued, but go. Do it. You have the time.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Free to Be...You and Me | Pandemic Musings

Free to Be... You and Me - Wikipedia
All I really want is for this cast to come read me a bedtime story... 
WHO: Marlo Thomas and Friends (you know a lot of them, trust me)
WHAT: my childhood
RELEASED: 1972
LABEL: Bell Records

Free to Be...You and Me was an elementary school in-the-car CD. Once I hit sixth grade, the CD went back on the shelf. I didn't listen to it again for about ten years.

Out of the blue, I found Free to Be stuck in my head a few months ago. It was one of those mornings where I had sacrificed half my night's sleep to wake up and churn out an entire paper that was due that day at noon....not a great day. But once I'd sent the paper off (for better or for worse), I put the album on just to get it out of my head.

It's crazy how much content we miss in our childhood favorites. I mean, I remember my mother very clearly telling me I was not allowed to sing the soundtrack from Hair anywhere near my elementary school -- I didn't understand why until I listened back in high school. Sodomyyyyy....fellatioooooo...

Anyway, I never internalized the message of Free to Be...You and Me, even though it's right there in the title. Upon relistening, it was kind of right there -- all genders are equal, a concept we still struggle with today for some odd reason. God, I must have been one oblivious child.

I have to say, the experience of listening to Free to Be as 21-year-old gay guy instead of a 8-year-old kook, now that the lyrics form full sentences in my head instead of just sort of isolated words to memorize...I quickly realized what I'd missed. I cried a little bit. Or maybe a lot. I was running on four hours of sleep, the details are a little blurry. Probably a lot.

Again today, I was humming through the soundtrack. I just have to say: it hits every time. That indescribable feeling of wanting to smile, cry, laugh....and then it just overflows as you throw your head back and sing along at the top of your lungs. Sorry, neighbors.

It's all still oddly relatable. Just like Aesop's judgments of morality still ring true today, so will Marlo Thomas's for my children, and their children. Do good. Be nice. Treat others right. Though I will admit, the thought of a 22-year-old Dudley Pippin (who, according to Thomas, is "just about your age, or maybe just a little bit older") contesting that he didn't knock over the school sand-table made me chuckle. Especially considering that my former residence hall does, in fact, have a sandbox for some reason.

Mel Brooks as a Brooklynite baby trying (and failing) to figure out his gender. Diana Ross speculating on adulthood. Harry Belafonte singing about the joys of parenting. Former Penn State defensive tackle Rosey Grier reassuring us that it is, in fact, alright to cry. Carol Channing reminding us that NO ONE likes housework -- I was ironically hanging my pans up to dry as that one came on. And Marlo Thomas doing all of the above and more. A mastermind, a workhorse, a true talent.

It reminds us that all these untouchable celebrities are people too. People who care. People who love.

Oh, and I still know all the words, even ten years later. Some things are just etched in your soul forever.

I know it hasn't aged perfectly -- there are many more genders than the two that they mention, of course. But we can't fault them for not mentioning that in 1972. This album (and the TV special that aired with it) is historically important, full of fantastic music and storytelling, and will make me want to sing along until the day I die. You're never too old for Free to Be...You and Me. I wish I'd discovered that sooner.

And let me tell you, it's aged better than 95% of the classical canon, including Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland, quoted and parodied extensively by Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones in the second-to-last song of Free to Be. Maybe that's the next step with problematic classical music -- parody it so much that the message loses all its gravity. A crazy and impractical solution, but in theory it would probably work!

 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Donizetti and Desperation: Some Tracks From This Week | Pandemic Musings

Remember that time I whined about being in "day umpteen" of quarantine on, like, day 10? Ha. Haha. HAHAHAHA.

Apparently I've been busy, because I haven't written for almost a month. But of course I've still been listening to lots of music -- what else am I going to do while I cook meals for five and then eat the entire pot in one night?

Side note: any of you ever make a whole loaf of bread and then finish it in 24 hours? I'm down to a heel of the focaccia I made yesterday. Note to self: solo quarantine is terrible for the waistline.

Anyway, here are a few memorable bits of music from the past couple weeks.


David Lang: "penance and remorse" from the little match girl passion
Theatre of Voices; Paul Hillier, conductor

A few nights ago, in some sort of tired, cranky, stir-crazy fever dream, I seriously considered mounting this piece as the capstone to my music degree. The next morning, I woke up and decided that maybe post-midnight quarantine Emery shouldn't be calling the shots.



Dieterich Buxtehude: O clemens, o mitis, o coelestis pater
Julie Roset, soprano; Ensemble Clematis

According to Julie Roset's Facebook fanpage, she got her bachelor's in 2019 -- and in Europe, bachelor's degrees are three years. So basically, she's a year older than I am. Her first solo album dropped, like, a week ago. What have I done with my life? (I should mention that the first phrase of this Buxtehude was so perfect that I forgot about the dish I was washing and spent the next fifteen minutes sweeping ceramic shards from my kitchen floor...maybe that says more about me than about Julie Roset though?)



Meredith Monk: "Wa-Lie-Oh" from Songs from the Hill
Marc Mauillon, baritone

An album to be experienced, not to be talked about.



Richard Strauss: the last five minutes of Ein Heldenleben
Gothenburg Symphony; Kent Nagano, conductor

I'm never in the mood to listen to Strauss. Except yesterday, I was. Brought me right back to Disney Hall, watching an aging, but ever lively Zubin Mehta conduct Heldenleben with the LA Phil on the weekend of my 18th birthday. I've said it once and I'll say it again: thank god for the $10 student ticket.



Marin Marais: "La Polonoise" from Suite in d minor (Second Book of Pieces for Viol)
François Joubert-Caillet; L'Achéron

I watched this one video ~20 times the other day. My findings: harp is just so totally the best continuo instrument. Plus, how cool is that 10th century church they're recording in?



Gaetano Donizetti: "Chacun le sait" from La fille du régiment
Erin Morley, soprano and piano; from the Metropolitan Opera's livestreamed gala

I go on a lot of walks in the only New Haven neighborhood with living rooms that big, I wonder if I've walked by Erin Morley's house? (also, what a performance holy crap) (also also, bel canto usually gives me hives but for some reason yesterday I only wanted to listen to music I don't usually like? I think quarantine broke me)



Anaïs Mitchell: Way Down Hadestown
From the original 2010 concept album

There's something so comforting about this original version -- no pomp, no circumstance, no huge swing-band dance number. With the call-and-response, it's almost campfire-y in a way. Intimate, muted, warm, fuzzy.

My first day at Kinhaven, circa 2010

Thomas Ford: Since First I Saw Your Face

Virtual madrigals were exactly what my aching heart needed this week. Look hard, you might see some familiar faces. (video here)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Album Reviews: My Liederabend | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

You may notice I haven't posted in a few days. This week, I learned that online school is still a full-time job when you procrastinate as much as I do. Oh well.

But that doesn't mean I haven't been listening -- in fact, as assignments pile up, I've been listening more than ever!

A few nights ago, I had a particularly difficult and long-winded problem set. Long enough that I feel like I can put "reconstructing sounds of proto-Quechuan" on my resumé now. I found myself hankering for lieder, so I put on one album after another and next thing I knew, I had gone through four full albums.

I figured it prudent for my time (and yours) to do a mini-reviews post rather than four full-length posts. So here you go: a summary of my liederabend.


1. The Contrast: English Poetry in Song
Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano. Works by Walton, Vaughan Williams, Bridge, Quilter, and Huw Watkins. Released on BIS in February 2020.

I don't believe in God. But I do believe in Carolyn Sampson. And that's kind of the same thing.

I think there might have been a time when Carolyn Sampson was a strict early music specialist, but thankfully she's branched out. Of course, her Bach solo cantatas are still my favorite out there, but her musical sensibility applies so well to everything and anything, from heavily stylized French baroque to quirkier selections like these. I'm not going to try to find words to describe her voice, but let's just say this: I sent this album to a good friend and her reaction was (verbatim): "Who is this angel, and when can I see her live?" Joseph Middleton has that perfect touch of a pianist who specializes in lieder, never overshadowing the voice and always magnifying its drama. They are the unstoppable duo.



2. A Lesson in Love
Kate Royal, soprano; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Works by pretty much anyone you can think of. Released on Warner Classics in February 2011.

The program of this album is all over the place in the best possible way. Cabaret songs, Schumann and Brahms, folk music of America, Britain, Ireland, France, all in some of the best versions I've heard. Case in point: almost every soprano has recorded "Gretchen am Spinnrade" at some point, and Royal's rendition is easily in my top three (right up there with Carolyn Sampson). Her American music is better than most American singers -- two different takes of William Bolcom's jazz-twinged "Waitin'" give the varied program a distinct contour and a resounding cadence, and a short pastorale of Copland left me halfway to tears. Malcolm Martineau accompanies the simple British airs -- think "Danny Boy" and "O Waly, Waly" -- with just as much tender attention as the more conventionally difficult music on the program.



3. Art Songs
Fiora, soprano; Paul Hankinson, piano. Works by a lot of people, look for yourself you lazy bum. Self-released in 2002.

I'm pretty sure Fiora hasn't thought about this album in awhile. She's now a successful singer-songwriter with 600,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. But before she hit her fame in that field, she released a single album of art songs -- she's a classically trained vocalist and composer. Honestly, I was really impressed. She's got this lovely syrup to her voice, fluid and unencumbered by excessive vibrato. Her program has a couple standouts, including the opening movement from Hindemith's "Das Marienleben" (a piece that makes me regret not being a soprano) and a beautiful original setting of "The Watcher" (couldn't figure out who the poet was).



4. The Divine Muse
Mary Bevan, soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano. Works by Haydn, Schubert, and Wolf. Released on Signum Classics in January 2020.

Haydn's vocal works never get the love they deserve. Recently, I've fallen in love with Arianna a Naxos, a virtuosic monodrama depicting the scene where Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Fiery, passionate, and vocally demanding, the music suits Mary Bevan's full voice perfectly, Ariadne's agony clear from her frenzied inflections. She cools significantly for selections from Wolf's vast vocal opus, the crunchy harmonies providing latticework for her calming melodic overlay. And of course, you can never go wrong with Schubert. Overall, a fabulous album -- though maybe not as fabulous as her recording of Holst's set of four songs for soprano and violin, one of my favorite pieces ever (I have a lot of favorite pieces ever).

Monday, March 23, 2020

Album Review: "Songs of Olden Times" by Heinavanker | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Image result for heinavanker songs of olden times

WHO: Heinavanker; Margo Kõlar, director
WHAT: Estonian runic songs
RELEASED: September 2013
LABEL: Harmonia Mundi

I've mentioned this album more than once before. I know that.

But this morning, I woke up to day umpteen of isolation and it was slushy and gray and blah outside. It put me in a bad mood. This album was all I could think to listen to. So I listened as I was cooking, and it hit the spot.

Frankly, now that I'm through the album, I still can't think of listening to anything else. I may start from the beginning and listen through again.

Happy first day back to "school," guys. Stay strong.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Album Review: "Serious Business" by Spektral Quartet | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Image result for spektral serious business
And I oop--

WHO:
 Spektral Quartet
WHAT: New works by Sky Macklay, David Reminick, and Chris Fisher-Lochhead, plus a Haydn quartet
RELEASED: January 2016
LABEL: Sono Luminus

Challenge: I'm going to write this post before my oxtails come out of the pressure cooker in half an hour. For those of you who care: onions, garlic, stock, and red wine (a little bit for the oxtails, a little bit for me 😉). That's it.

Classical music is too damn serious. Have you ever dropped your program during a piece? People will literally look at you as if they want to throw you off a bridge.

Classical music hasn't always been so serious -- you can thank Richard Wagner for that -- but rarely is it overtly funny (barring opera buffa, of course). Haydn had his moments, even Mozart and Beethoven stepped into parody-land once in awhile.

For this album, The Spektral Quartet asked three composers to try their hands at "funny music" with wildly different results. Sky Macklay composed a piece that consists entirely of cadences -- Many Many Cadences as the title so creatively describes. The cadence, of course, functions as a tonal stabilizer. Macklay forces the quartet to hop between cadences with such speed that any sense of stability is lost, even though there is theoretically a "stabilization" every few seconds.

David Reminick chose absurdist poetry as his starting point; The Ancestral Mousetrap requires the quartet to sing a libretto by poet Russell Edson. They sing very well, proving my theory that instrumentalists are sometimes better singers than singers. One of the members sounds like Elvis Costello -- whoever does the bulk of the singing on the 4th movement.

The final premiere on the album, Chris Fisher-Lochhead's Hack, uses the instruments of the quartet to model the sounds produced by standup comedians during their routines. My linguist brain was intrigued. On the album, it doesn't evoke human speech so much, but it's so cool when they map the composition over the comedian's bit. Either way, cool piece.

And then in the middle of all this fun new music came the Haydn "Joke" quartet. I've played it. It's funny. But also, I kind of wish they had commissioned another new piece? I'm not exactly complaining, I'm always in favor of a good performance of a good Haydn quartet. But it also seemed a touch out of place.

Anyway, great album. Go listen. My oxtails are calling.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Album Review: "Songs in the Key of Life" by Stevie Wonder | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Image result for songs in the key of life

WHO: Stevie Wonder
WHAT: Stevie Wonder (need I say more?)
RELEASED: September 1976
LABEL: Tamla Records

I felt like listening to Stevie Wonder today.

It would be criminal of me to review this album. Coincidentally, I need a day off from writing.

If you haven't listened to this album, look at yourself really closely in the mirror and evaluate your life choices. Then go listen. Now.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Album Review: "Discussions" by Roscoe Mitchell | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Image may contain: Human, Person, Musical Instrument, Leisure Activities, Horn, and Brass Section

WHO: Roscoe Mitchell, composer and saxophone; Roscoe Mitchell Orchestra
WHAT: New compositions and improvisations by Roscoe Mitchell
RELEASED: September 2017
LABEL: Wide Hive

When I crave free jazz, I'm usually in one of two situations. More often than not, I listen to free jazz when I'm walking around NYC -- the aural chaos of the music befits the visual chaos of the city. However, I also find that I love to listen to free jazz when I'm cooking or washing dishes. Cooking isn't so cerebral for me; it leaves my brain free to ponder anything and everything. Raise your hand if you've ever had a mid-meatloaf existential crisis. Or is that just me?

So, I try to put on some music that requires me to pay attention. Today, it was this phenomenal free jazz-classical-fusion (kind of?) album.

Roscoe Mitchell founded the Art Ensemble of Chicago a little more than 50 years ago. AEC was among the pioneering ensembles of this high-entropy kind of free jazz, a little less predictable than their predecessors and a little more similar to avant-garde classicists of the day like Stockhausen (💗) and Berio.

Mitchell is mainly known for his small-ensemble improvised compostions, but in this album he extends a few of his earlier compositions to a full orchestra. The way he uses the orchestral timbre is interesting -- the proud opening of "Home Screen" reminds me vaguely of a totally unrelated piece, Silvestre Revueltas's Ocho por Radio.

I find that the full orchestra gives me more to consider, more to pay attention to. Infinitely many different sounds can come out of any one instrument; infinity times a twenty-person orchestra, now that's living. Mitchell's use of the orchestra keeps your focus darting from one instrument to the next. He almost treats every instrument as a melody and an accompaniment at once. Of course, Mitchell also programs some of his signature small-ensemble improvisations, providing some contrast adding that disorder that free-jazz aficionados crave.

I'm going to keep it short today because I'm quite tired and I'm not done cleaning out my refrigerator, but I'm just going to say that this was a great album for washing dishes and chopping onions. Give it a listen and tell me what else it's good for!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Album Review: "Where Only Stars Can Hear Us" by Karim Sulayman and Yi-heng Yang | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Image result for where only stars can hear us schubert

WHO: Karim Sulayman, tenor; Yi-heng Yang, fortepiano
WHAT: Songs by Schubert
RELEASED: March 2020
LABEL: Avie Records

A few months ago, I had the fortune to see the Kaleidoscope Vocal Ensemble give a workshop here in New Haven as part of their inaugural performance weekend (my thoughts here). I was milling about afterwards and ended up briefly chatting with one of their tenors, Karim Sulayman.

Rewind for one second: Sulayman's first solo album (I think? Karim, feel free to correct me on this post's Twitter thread) won last year's Grammy for Best Classical Vocal Solo. That album, an Orpheus-themed program he recorded with Cleveland baroque ensemble Apollo's Fire, deserved every bit of that gold statue.

Anyway, I told him I was a sometimes-critic and that I loved his first album, and he said, "Oh, you should review my second album which comes out in March!" I'm sure he's talked to a lot of people since that September night, and I have no reason to believe he would remember this exchange six months later. But hey, I was planning to listen to the album anyway, might as well write a thing or two.

This Schubert has its priorities straight. Text comes first in Sulayman's interpretations. The small inflections in his timbre convey textual themes equally well to audiences of all German-speaking levels -- take that from me (three semesters of college German) and my best friend (a lifetime of Mahler scores and nothing else). From the seemingly bratty child in Erlkönig (RIP), to the poignantly longing fisherman of Des fischers Liebesglück, he is an actor first.

If you do nothing else, watch this video. Like, I'd rather
you watch this video than read my review. Completely serious.

But, of course, that's not to detract from his voice, clear and transparent. He barely covers his sound, allowing every ounce of that underlying emotion to shine through -- have you ever heard what a smile sounds like? Now I have.

Both performers treat these lieder as chamber music. It's unclear who leads the stretches that come so often throughout the album, but whenever one part pushes, the other follows. Yang's slightly delayed cadences gain weight with a quick breath from Sulayman. Sulayman stretches a phrase climax, Yang rolls a chord to help accent. The two work symbiotically, melding the intense drama from each of their parts into a composite, deeply affecting pathos.

I want to hear Yi-heng Yang play more Schubert on this amazing 1830 fortepiano. What are the odds someone can fund her to do a sonatas album? (Plus, her Erlkönig was....just wow. Especially considering the slow action on most fortepianos....wow. Wow wow wow.)

Schubert is parlor music. I really don't need to hear a Wagnerian heldentenor shake the walls with Winterreise. A good Schubert duo goes overboard in their story-telling, but not in their sound production -- the walls don't need to shake as long as my heart is full. Sulayman and Yang are a good Schubert duo. Perhaps even a great Schubert duo. Or maybe an unstoppable Schubert duo.

Old people, a word from the next generation: stop crying about how we'll "never have another Pavarotti" and instead listen to the immensely talented tenors that we do have. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Besides which, can you imagine Pavarotti singing Schubert? Ew.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Album Review: "Prologue" by Francesca Aspromonte and Il Pomo d'Oro | An Album a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

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WHO: Francesca Aspromonte, soprano; Il Pomo d'Oro; Enrico Onofri, director
WHAT: Prologues to operas by Monteverdi, Caccini, Cavalli, Landi, Rossi, Cesti, Stradella, and A. Scarlatti
RELEASED: May 2018
LABEL: Pentatone

Guys, I'm really fucking bored. My brain is kinda turning to mush. I've turned to practicing cello to give myself something to do. Do you know how much I hate practicing? A lot. I hate practicing a lot.

Anyway, one thing I think we could all use during this weird, crazy time is music to listen to -- according to an email that one of my professors sent a couple hours ago, "music can be at its most powerful in times of crisis and uncertainty." Musicians always know how to cheer up a crowd, huh?

So I'm going to try to review an album every day that I'm stuck inside. No particular theme, just what I happen to be listening to at the moment. They're not going to be long, but hopefully they'll keep me busy and give you some new music to try out.

One thing that you should know about me is that I organize all the music I have yet to listen to into 60 or so playlists according to instrumentation and time period. "Romantic Keyboard"; "20th-Century Choral"; you get the idea. My "Baroque Solo Vocal" list is on the long side -- up around 170 hours (but I'm also terrible about clearing out what I've already listened to).

Today, I wanted Italian baroque opera, probably because I'm mourning the cancellation of Yale's annual baroque opera project (Cavalli's Doriclea, for anyone who cares -- good luck finding a recording). Luckily, this was near the top of my list.

Though prologues have fallen out of fashion in opera today, they were among the most important parts of early operatic structure. An allegorical character -- usually just named "Prologue" -- would come onstage and address the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall and foreshadowing the overarching themes of the plot to come. Usually, this takes the form of a recitative (imagine you're speaking, but while singing one note over and over again) with instrumental interludes (usually ornamented versions of a single theme).

Owning a recitative is hard. I've tried (and failed) myself -- it takes a lot of energy to make a repeated note interesting. You wouldn't know that from Francesca Aspromonte's performance. Recitative is clearly second-nature to her; her text stresses land with gravity, but don't halt forward momentum. Her voice is clear and sweet, blooming beautifully in the brief arias where she has less text to worry about.

Il Pomo d'Oro somehow put out six albums in 2018 alone, and all of the ones I've listened to are fantastic. This pared-down ensemble of a couple violins and a continuo section hits the mark; the violinists clearly play together rather than following one another, and the harpsichordist's improvisations combine pinpoint precision with wild, unhinged improvisation.

Great album, would recommend.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Review: Ensemble Graindelavoix at The Met Cloisters


WHO: Ensemble Graindelavoix; Björn Schmelzer, director
WHAT: JOSQUIN Stabat mater; BROWNE Salve regina; OBRECHT Salve regina à 6; ASHWELL "Sanctus" and "Agnus Dei" from Missa Ave Maria
WHERE: Fuentidueña Chapel at The Met Cloisters
WHEN: March 7, 2020 at 3pm

What a week it's been.

I try to be an optimist when I can. So, when the Yale Glee Club's tour got canceled two hours before we were supposed to leave, I decided I'd hop down into NYC and see a couple weeks of concerts instead. Foolproof, right?

Well, I only got to three concerts before all my other tickets started getting canceled. So now I'm back in my apartment in New Haven, leaving only to make apocalyptica runs to Trader Joe's or to take long, brooding walks with friends (maintaining a distance of six feet, of course). Sigh.

But hey, more time for writing, I guess? Optimism!

Whoever curates The Cloisters' live arts series deserves a medal. I've now seen four concerts this year in the Fuentidueña Chapel, and each one has left me significantly happier than when I sat down. This one was no different. Despite the surgical-mask-clad couple next to me and the stenches of hand sanitizer and hysteria in the air, Graindelavoix provided a perfect, hour-long vacation.

And it was after-hours on a Friday too. Meryl, if you're reading this, you're a saint.
I consume a lot of Renaissance polyphony -- it's my go-to stress relief music. Each ensemble has their signature sound. Tenebrae has wobbly basses. Voces8 has no vibrato at all (AT ALL). Vox Luminis has a distinctive ensemble crescendo (it's freaky how together they are).

Grandelavoix's hallmark seems to be a heftier take on polyphony. Tempos are majestically slow (not to be confused with boring), and the singers have this sinewy, almost buzzy tone that highlights harmonic clashes. Everything is prone to ebb and flow; the tempo stretches like taffy, then slowly regains its shape. The singers each add their own ornaments into the music, almost reminiscent of traditional folk polyphonies of Corsica or Sardinia.

Conductor Björn Schmelzer's degrees are not in conducting, but rather in musicology and anthropology. His interpretations stem from interdisciplinary approaches to music, clearly well-informed by early modern history as well as medieval vocal traditions. Merely a catalyst for an ensemble that clearly trusts each other, his large gesture pulls musicality from the ensemble like a stubborn cork from a wine bottle.

God, I'm in a metaphorical mood today. Gotta let the imagination run wild when you're inside all day, I suppose.

Anyway, I get the sense that Graindelavoix doesn't make it stateside so often, but if they're near you I'd recommend you go. In the meanwhile, they have many fabulous albums -- the one that I listened to on the way back downtown was Byzantine chant and 13th-century antiphons from the Codex Cyprus, one of few medieval manuscripts surviving the French court in Nicosia, Cyprus. And, according to one of their countertenors (s/o Andrew for chatting with me for like 20min), there's a new Josquin album dropping next year to celebrate 600 years since his death. Take that, #Beethoven250!

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Five Albums to Get You Through the First Week of Classes

"Who had this crazy idea to invent school all of a sudden? Charlemagne!"

I forgot how rough it is to go from doing absolutely nothing to absolutely everything. One day, I'm sitting on the recliner in my room at home watching Netflix, the next day I'm sprawled on my apartment couch after having carried twenty pounds of groceries back from my four classes and three rehearsals. But hey, such is the story of academic vacations.

Anyway, considering that many of you will be dealing with the same thing in the coming weeks, here are five albums that will help you through your first week back on the job (or any rough week, for that matter), whether you're a student or not.


If you ever wanted your classical music with a side of indie (or vice versa):
Love I Obey (Rosemary Standley & Helstroffer's Band)

To give you some context, this is the album I listened for comfort when I was stuck on the D train for almost two hours this summer. Rosemary Standley makes her career with indie band Moriarty. Bruno Helstroffer is a blues guitarist who plays early music as a day job. Together, they dreamed up this album of bluesy takes on British Renaissance airs. Standley's voice is (truly, in a non-cliché way) unlike any other singer I've ever heard, throaty and warm with a distinctive twang to the diction. And Helstroffer is just an incredible musician in all respects -- his solo debut is also among my favorite albums ever.

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For a really, really good version of a piece you might know:
Bach: Motets (Collegium Vocale Gent, cond. Philippe Herreweghe)

This recording is just squeaky clean. Most of the motets are only one singer to a part on this album; the intimate accuracy gives me chills every time. The cast includes Vox Luminis soprano Zsuzsi Tóth; superstar French countertenor Damien Guillon; Bach specialist bass Peter Kooij; and a smattering of other big names in the European early music scene. When I want Bach, this album is my first stop (this version of Jesu, meine Freude is also my go-to tipsy soundtrack, something I can safely say now that I'm 21 😉).

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For an album that will replace your dinner party jazz playlist:
Jazz på svenska (Jan Johansson, piano; Georg Riedel, bass)

I usually spring for new jazz over old jazz, but this album is a classic (just ask the quarter of a million people who have bought copies). Sparse and smooth, Jan Johansson takes Swedish folk tunes and adapts them for a low-key duo of piano and bass. He treats the original folk tunes with such respect -- from his adaptations, I know exactly how the original was meant to sound. There's a good reason why it's the best-selling Swedish jazz album of all time, and still maintains a degree of relevance more than 55 years after its release.

*swoon*

If you want to hear the best music written for the best instrument you've never heard of:
Marais: Pièces favorites (François Joubert-Caillet, viol; L'Achéron)

Marin Marais wrote hours and hours of music for the viol (an earlier predecessor of the modern double bass that looks kind of like a cello -- if you're curious, watch Tous les Matins du Monde starring Gérard Dépardieu). It's all great, but some movements are simply transcendent. François Joubert-Caillet is the single viol player who has most consistently impressed me; here, he's selected a representative sample of Marais's most outstanding works and compiled them onto one phenomenal album. His continuo team is outstanding (continuo is a group of instruments that together comprise accompaniment for baroque music -- usually a melodic instrument and an instrument that plays chords e.g. a second viol and a harpsichord) and help to cement this album among the most satisfying Marais albums on the market today. And if you really like it, you can listen to his most recent album, a six-hour recording of one of Marais's complete books for viol.

Image result for heinavanker songs of olden times

If you really just want to get lost in the sauce:
Songs of Olden Times: Estonian Folk Hymns and Runic Songs (Heinavanker, dir. Margo Kõlar)

I've sung Heinavanker's praises before, but I'm truly hooked on their album. It's the perfect album for a low-key, relaxing evening -- tonight, I put it on while waiting for my focaccia dough to rise. I'd say I listen at least twice a month, if not more. Cannot recommend highly enough. Cook to it. Meditate to it. Sleep to it. Work to it. Seriously.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

New Year's Resolutions


Happy new year everyone!

I rang in 2020 the same way I always do -- that is, by playing the Mendelssohn octet straight through midnight. Sure, I got invited to a few more conventional New Year's Eve parties. But there are a few things on which I don't compromise when I come home to LA. One of them is that I play chamber music on New Year's Eve. Full stop. End of story.

I set the same new year's resolution for myself every year: practice more. Totally attainable, and yet I usually just flat out ignore it. Might be time to change that, although blogging is kind of like practicing my writing, right?

That's exactly the type of rationalization that comes with rusty vocal chords and dusty cello strings. At least I admit to it.

Speaking of blogging, it's been a little over seven months since I started this site, and I'm now realizing that there are things that I wish I had done differently, and things I'd like to start doing. So here are my Classical Music Geek new year's resolutions, in no particular order.

1. Post more regularly. I think my average number of posts was about right, even when classes were in session -- I probably netted three to four posts per month. But three posts in one week followed by a month of radio silence...that's not sustainable. Even if I post less frequently, I want to try to hold myself to a schedule.

2. More short posts. I love writing thousand-word posts as much as the next guy, but I don't always have the luxury of time. Maybe I'll hop on the #WordlessWednesday bandwagon -- anything is better than nothing.

3. More recommendations for you. I love telling you about the concerts I go to, but that only does you so much good. I think it's high time I started making real recommendations. Lists of the albums that keep me coming back for more. Concerts that are on my radar in various locales. Up-and-coming artists to keep your eye on.

4. Better social media presence. If I had really made a social media push this summer, I could have gotten out to a larger audience that just my mom's friends. I'm finally on Twitter (@emerykerekes follow me please), but it's about time I learned how to use Instagram.

5. More artist engagement. Yeah, I'm shy. But it's time for me to grow a pair and actually ask artists for f***ing interviews. How else am I going to move up in the world?

6. More memes. See this post's header photo.

7. More food. My life is full of dinner-and-a-show, why isn't my blog's feed? Besides which, then I can fall back on food criticism if music criticism doesn't work out.

8. Keep doing this. It sometimes feels like this blog isn't a priority in my life. School has to come first, of course. But rest assured, I'm not going anywhere. I love this too much -- whatever "this" is.

Thanks again to everyone that has made this possible, and here's to another year of great music!