Saturday, April 30, 2005

A Jazz Tribute by Turtle Island at the Music Hall

This evening's Turtle Island String Quartet concert at the Music Hall was not the eclectic mix of blues, rock, classical and jazz that one might expect, but a tribute to the great jazz masters - a tribute that proved their respect for an artform they so beautifully embrace.

From Dizzy Gillespie to Dave Brubeck, Billie Holliday to John Coltrane, Charles Mingus to Paquito D'Rivera, the Turtle Island String Quartet treated this evening's Music Hall audience to a retrospective of jazz greats. Opening with Dizzy's "A Night in Tunisia" the quartet displayed a remarkable synchronization of groove - the ablility to lock into the pulse with no rhythm section. Correction, TISQ is a rhythm section. Drumming the bodies of their fiddles, scratching syncopations with their bows to the strings on the bridge of their instruments, and creating orchestrations that number far more than their quartet. They are piano, bass, drums, guitar, saxophone, trumpet, auxiliary percussion, and string quartet simultaneously. A remarkable feat that looks effortless in their hands. They play together like a seasoned jazz quartet, smiling at their "inside jokes" and feeding off of each other's solos. You can see the delight in their faces when they are surprised by one another, continually reinventing the forms they play.

The entire evening was a series of highlights. Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" had fire and intensity reminiscent of Brubeck's quartet. Violist Mads Tolling played the role of Paul Desmond with gritty intensity. Charles Mingus' "Fables of Faubus" was performed with the dignity and respect it deserved. And their arrangement of John Coltrane's "Naima" was hauntingly beautiful.

Original works by TISQ performers included a movement from David Balakrishnan's "Garden of False Delights" titled "Snakes and Ladders," and Mark Summers solo cello work "Julie-O," which was beautifully delicate with the New Age leanings you would expect from a former Windham Hill artist (TISQ recorded for Windham Hill in their early years). Summers' virtuosity shined through each piece, but was of particular note in this loving caprice for his sister.

While they are a unified front, playing and blending together as if one magnificent instrument, each soloist is distinctive in his style, voice. The delicate subdued nature of Balakrishnan balances the intense Neo-Bop solos of violinist Evan Price (who often sounded as if posessed by Charlie Parker). The joyful exuberance of Summers balanced by the darker, driving force of Tolling, who was the most adventerous of all, weaving in and out of the changes.

Much of the fun in listening to these players solo is in hearing the creative ways they bring their classical roots into their adopted jazz repertoire. Quotations abound, including references to Prokofiev ("Peter and the Wolf") and Gershwin ("An American in Paris"). But the true connection to classical quartet playing is the repect they give to the music. TISQ has grown up. Once known for kicking over chairs and music stands while growling out Jimi Hendrix, they now aspire to the dignified nature of Duke Ellington. And it works.

The Music Hall rafters were haunted by the souls of jazz tonight. Oliver Nelson, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington - they were all there. And TISQ was yet another homerun in programming for the Music Hall, which in the past two years has included jazz greats Wynton Marsalis, Cedar Walton, James Walker, Regina Carter, Cassandra Wilson, Randy Brecker, James Moody, Howard Alden, Lewis Nash, and Peter Washington. Rumor has it, this trend will continue into next season - and hopefully for many seasons to come.

TISQ gives insight into their music at Music Hall/PMAC Clinic

The Turtle Island String Quartet, known throughout the world for their unconventional repertoire, gave an insightful clinic to a group of PMAC students today. It was a remarkable experience for all who attended.

It is unfortunately a rare event when a group of community music students can sit down with a famous ensemble and discuss music. But the Music Hall and PMAC are working to make such events more common here in Portsmouth. Organized by the Music Hall's Therese Lagamme, the TISQ gave a one-hour clinic to a group of PMAC students on the Music Hall stage today at 11 a.m. (see pictures below) The quartet, led by violinist and founder David Balakrishnan, played several selections from their eclectic repertoire including Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce" and the Tower of Power's "Who do you think we are?" Even a little Beethoven. They shared their insights regarding jazz on string instruments, swing and "classical" rhythms, improvisation, and told some stories from their 20 year history.

One of the great moments of the clinic was when violinist Evan Price demonstrated many of his extended playing techniques, such as playing the violin like "bongos", or a "banjo," or even getting the sound of "brushes on a snare drum" by bowing the wooden side of his violin. Cellist Mark Summer shared stories from his 20 years in the group and showed the students how a cello can be played like a jazz bass. And violist Mads Tolling discussed pizzacato technique with a New Horizons String Ensemble violinist. All four made the experience a powerful one for PMAC's students.

If you were unable to attend, you can come to future PMAC events, such as our May 22nd clinic with Boston composer and saxophonist Joe Maneri. These clinics are wonderful experiences for all and remind us of the communicative power of music.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Jellyfish at the New England Aquarium

I am regularly told that I do not take enough time off to relax with my family. Here is photographic proof that I did get away (however breifly) during the April break. I took these photos during a visit to the New England Aquarium this week. My two sons were most excited to see the sharks, penguins, and sea turtles, but I enjoyed the special jellyfish exhibit. If you can get down to Boston for the exhibit, it's "fun for the whole family." We also went to see "Aliens of the Deep" at the Aquarium's IMAX Theater. It's James Camerons amazing film on creatures of the deep ocean. It's rated G, educational, and it's in 3-D!

Monday, April 25, 2005

Memories in Movement

My vacation has brought me to Connecticut where my family and I went to see the Stop/Time Dance Theater's production "Remember When..." We all had a great time and I came to the realization that I rarely get out to local dance productions - something I can easily remedy.

I've not been one to actively seek out dance performances to attend, yet every time I'm out to see a dance production, I leave thinking the same thing: I need to do this more often. In Portsmouth there is Drika Overton and her wonderful production company. I'm a fan of "Clara's Dream", which will unfortunately be on hiatus this coming holiday season. Another tap giant of the seacoast, Dean Diggins, will be receiving the prestigeous Tapestry lifetime acheivement award next month. But beyond these two local legends and the local ballet schools, I'm not quite sure what get out and see. There are always the traveling shows that come through the Music Hall, but who should I seek out in the local scene?

First, know that there is a background story to why I attended yesterday's Stop/Time Dance Theater production. A close friend going back to high school, who now lives in Connecticut, was the lighting designer for this production. We're currently visiting him and his family (our kids are on school vacation). We took the whole family to the show and the kids loved it. It is best described as a collection of "memories" set to dance. Memories of Catholic school predominated, along with a fixation on shoes and hair (a dancer thing?) and not fitting in with the "cool" or "rough" crowd. The dancers were excellent, the choreography varied and creative, and the production values top notch (although I admit to personal bias). Things I found strange: the insistance of the director to have the dancers lip synch to the music, and the presence of two numbers that were actually sung by dancers (while their voices are well trained, I don't envision any of them heading for Broadway on their singing talent). The dancers seemed slightly distracted by having to remember and synchronize each word. I would have much rather seen them go deeper into the dance without such worries. BUT THIS IS A MINOR COMPLAINT, REALLY. The show was fun and the kids danced their way back to the car.

The 19 music numbers they set were an eclectic mix of such pop favorites as "Goody Two Shoes," "Only the Good Die Young," "It's Raining on Prom Night," and "Bye bye Life" (Ben Vareen and Roy Scheider's rendition of the Everly Brother's "Bye bye Love" as it appeared in Bob Fosse's film "All That Jazz."). The program was the usual mix of ensemble numbers and solo or featured dancer pieces. Four talented young dancers stood out from the crowd: Tiana Mancuso (notably in "All Through the Night"), Tricia Raymond ("Bad Girls" was as bad - in the good way - as it needed to be!), Shari Lynn Boyaji (who kept her composure even though one of her shoe straps broke in the first 30 seconds of "In These Shoes" and effortlessly conveyed the seductivity of the song), and Tyler Knowlin (a talented young tap artist whose a capella performance was reminiscent of the work of Savion Glover). All four proved that community dance productions can be every bit as compelling, enthralling and entertaining as their professional cousins.

So now I wonder where my next dance adventure should be. The Portsmouth Percussive Dance Festival is coming up. That's a given. But what else is out there?

Check out their website:

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Turtle Island String Quartet is coming to the Music Hall

San Francisco's Turtle Island String Quartet will perform in Portsmouth on Saturday, April 30th and the Music Hall is offering PMAC students and their families tickets for only $10 each.

This is a great opportunity for music lovers to hear a unique ensemble that melds the worlds of classical, jazz, blues and pop. Additionally, PMAC students (and their families) who purchase tickets are eligible to attend a free clinic with the quartet on the Music Hall stage at 11 a.m. on the day of the concert. This is a great opportunity, so be sure to contact the PMAC office to reserve a spot in advance - seating is limited.

The TISQ has recorded on such prestigeous labels as Windham Hill and Koch. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma described them as “a unified voice that truly breaks new ground – authentic and passionate – a reflection of some of the most creative music-making today.” Be sure to catch this group as they make a rare New England appearance.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Portsmouth Men's Chorus at the Music Hall

Last night I attended the Portsmouth Men's Chorus' fifth anniversary concert at the Music Hall. It was a joyous occasion for the group, and they deserve credit for reaching the five-year mark, an important milestone for any organization.

Founder Terrie Harman, who is also the chorus’ accompanist, welcomed the audience and introduced us to Karl Compton, the man who inspired her to form the chorus. Melinda Kimball, the chorus’ first conductor, was on hand as well, performing on clarinet with the chorus for the opening piece, “How Can I Keep From Singing.” She was one of many instrumentalists enlisted to perform with the chorus by director Daryl Robertson. Others included bassist Sharon Demeritt (who I’ve performed with on occasion for more than twenty years and was the bassist on my first studio recording in 1985!), drummer Ken Clark (who played percussion along with Daryl Robertson for the premiere of my choral work “Celebrations and Remembrance” in 2000), oboist Laura Lammi, and a few young instrumentalists most likely recruited from the talented ranks at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, where Daryl Robertson is the music teacher.

The program was an eclectic mix of favorites from the Chorus’ first five seasons, with two new works added to the mix. The first of the new works was composed by PMAC faculty member Catherine York Knowlton, a setting of former Portsmouth Poet Laureate John Perrault’s “Ripples First.” Commissioned by Terrie Harman and Tom McCarron, the chorus approached the piece with the serious air every premiere deserves. I applaud the group for commissioning a local composer, all too rare an occurrence with community music ensembles. I believe all community music groups should try to commission a new work by a local composer each and every season. This premiere was a success and I would like to hear others in the future.

In addition to Catherine’s piece, my other favorite on the program was excerpts from Randall Thompson’s “The Testament of Freedom”. My wife, Katie, preferred “The Beatles Review” commenting that we do not own enough Beatles albums in our CD collection. I also had fun trying to sing along to selections from “The Sound of Music,” though I found the range to be too high for my limited bass. And there was much laughter from the audience (which was encouraged) during the second premiere of the evening, an arrangement by Daryl Robertson titled "Five Years in About Five Minutes" that chronicled many favorites of the group's first five years in a jam-packed medley.

I came away from the evening with an appreciation for mission of the Portsmouth Men’s Chorus (“to foster community spirit through singing.”) The chorus numbered approximately 35 for this performance, though there were a few regulars regrettably unable to perform at this event. It is the perfect opportunity for men in the community who find joy in singing. I can think of at least three singers I’ll see this week that I’m going to encourage to join. And maybe that is the best message I can convey with this posting. Men of the seacoast, if you sing, join the Portsmouth Men’s Chorus. (No audition is required!) It is an opportunity well worth your time and I can tell you that they have fun with their repertoire. And it is one of the few opportunities you may have to sing from the bottom of your heart to an audience of hundreds at the historic Music Hall. Bravo!