Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Firebird Ensemble at The Music Hall

Most every American wants to be a rock star - American Idol repeatedly demonstrates this. And tonight it was evident that the members of Boston's Firebird Ensemble are no exception.

Tonight Rebecca and I ventured out to The Music Hall, braving the freezing temperatures, to have a contemporary music adventure. I was intrigued by a luke warm review of The Firebird Ensemble's performance in Somerville, MA last week - not intrigued so much by the luke warm nature of the review, but by the repertoire discussed in the review. It seemed an eclectic and adventurous mix of new classical works and arrangements of pop tunes for classical instrumentations. Something we don't see enough of in Portsmouth. So I felt a strong urge to be there to witness the evening.

The members of the ensemble are more than competent. Though only one member stuck out in the crowd - the talented flautist Alicia DiDonato (described as a "Firebird Frequent Flyer", not a "Core Member" of the ensemble). Of the more than a dozen works performed, her technically and musically brilliant interpretation of Ian Clarke's Zoom Tube (1999) made one overlook the novelty factor of the composition, and merely witness in awe a powerful and natural performer.

The program was pretty unbalanced. It seemed that there was little of substance as far as the music was concerned. Each half was distinctive. Part one was "classical" contemporary music, with the exception with the opening set of Schoenberg Caberet Songs from 1901. It seems they were chosen because the evening was a celebration of Frank Jones in Portsmouth, and since Frank Jones came to Portsmouth in 1901, it was naturally appropriate to perform a piece from that year. Nevermind that the piece was completely disconnected from the tone of the evening that followed.

Next was a series of new works, the oldest of which was composed in 1988, that culminated with the aforementioned Zoom Tube. Unfortunately, the only other piece of note on the first half of the concert was Roshanne Etezady's Unsafe (at Any Speed) (2001), the title of which refers to a classic book by Ralph Nader, and specifically about his criticism of the Corvair automobile. This piece for piano and percussion, was energetic, inventive, and performed with intensity and vigor by Sarah Bob on Clavinova (though I would have preferred a grand piano) and percussionist Aaron Trant. Trant was additionally featured in the first half as a composer. His composition, Dictit (2001), is a series of three pieces for two instruments that are improvisatory in nature, though I'm not sure I get the first movement, which juxtaposes a twelve-tone theme with improvisation. The problem in my mind is that twelve-tone music is the embodiment of compositional control removed from a tonal environment. Yet improvisation is the embodiment of compositional freedom. And the improvised solos, played against the twelve-tone lines, were jarring in their use of recurring and repeated pitches, which seem so foreign to me in a twelve-tone context. So I found my self in a philosophical dilema, one that the music was not interesting enough for me to thoroughly think through. But vexing just the same.

The second half of the program was essentially rock cover tunes, many of which were arranged by a young (17 years old) guitar virtuoso, who made the trip up from Massachusetts to sit in on a few tunes. While the young Fred Sladkey's arrangements were in many ways the most interesting music of the evening, they didn't have the weight to carry a program.

So, all in all, the evening was a bit of a bust. But I commend The Music Hall for its adventurous programming. I certainly enjoyed getting out on this chilly eve to hear some live music. And their batting average is still the highest of any musical venue in the region.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Amanda was right about The Onion Cellar

Last night Katie, Chris and I attended the final show of The Onion Cellar at the American Repertory Theatre's Zero Arrow Theater in Cambridge. Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, who the show is centered around, has repeatedly expressed anguish and frustration over the show, which was in some ways hijacked from her by the show's director. Now that I've seen the show, I understand her perspective.

Last July, Katie, Adam, Rita, Steve and I attended the ART production of Chopin. It was a compelling show, well produced, very musical and entertaining. We had a great night. It was then that we first saw the posters for The Onion Cellar: Starring the Dresden Dolls. I was intrigued - the idea of a top notch theater company producing a show around a cult punk group - punk cabaret, as the Dolls have defined themselves.

I had read a bit about the Dolls but had yet to hear any of their music. I had the idea of catching The Onion Cellar in the back of my mind, but didn't pursue any of their music at the time. Then, I stumbled across some videos of Dresden Dolls performances on YouTube. I was instantly smitten with the group. I purchased all of their studio CDs (a whopping two) and began to listen to the music. It was an experience not far removed from my discovering David Bowie in my teens. In fact, I'm grateful to be about ten years older than the duo, rather than the reverse - I think I would have followed the group to the ends of the world had I found them as a teenager. I enjoy them that much - and its been a long while since I've been so blown away by a "rock" group. (Smashing Pumpkins'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in the mid '90s came close.)

It became quickly aparent that I must get tickets to The Onion Cellar to see if the group holds up live. And I was fascinated by the concept - a punk cabaret show based on the Onion Cellar chapter of Gunter Grass' novel The Tin Drum. Though I've never read The Tin Drum, it is my understanding that the Onion Cellar was a place Germans would go after World War II to tell stories while cutting onions, forcing them to cry and purge their tears. An amazing concept - and Amanda Palmer, one half of The Dolls imagined a dark play that dealt with weighty issues of the Holocaust. It apparently was deemed too dark for ART and the concept was reworked into the final product by the show's director, Marcus Stern. The result was uneven, and rather timid for "experimental" theater.

The show attempts to weave together several stories, very intimate and personal stories, of challenged, awkward relationships. A father coming to terms with his daughters death, a daughter he had not spoken to for some time. A budding relationship between a bartender and a woman who lives her life in a bear suit, collecting tragic memorabilia that tells real life stories (the set included a wall full of letters and memories mailed in by Dresden fans - what could have been a better source for story material), and unable to express her love for the bartender. An MC who tells the story of his father berating him and abusing him over the fact that he cried as a child, and boys don't cry. And the story of "Onion Boy" and "Mute Girl", which involved a lot of dance and a fair amount of licking each other. And more - so much that none of it seemed meaningful. In fact, it often came off as glorified acting class.

Particularly dissapointing was the ranting of an actor in a suit, wrapped in tape, with a telephone jack and cord taped to his forehead. The gentleman seems an able actor, but he seemed to take the opportunity to trash talk President Bush, who at the moment is an easy target (rightfully so), and the rant seemed cheap and superfluous - though appreciated by much of the audience, reflecting America's general distaste for the current administration. The problem was that it wasn't politcal satire, or reflective, or even educational. Just mean-spirited.

The same actor, however, gave a touching performance of the husband half of a couple from Wisconsin, "randomly chosen from the audience" (read: plants - very corny!) who gave reflection on the performance onstage as they sat at the bar. Eventually, their backstory comes out - and unfortunately, it is as cliche as the rest of the show. Couple unable to have children. And the midwestern couple becomes just another caricature of what educated northeasterners think of their midwestern countrymen. Another blown opportunity.

Now for the good. The Dresden Dolls shined through all of this. Amanda's voice was going, most likely due to the vocal demands of performing 40 shows in a month. But Brian Viglione's playing - both drums and guitar - was in top form. I'm guessing here because I've never seen them before, but my impression was that Amanda was exhausted, but made the most of the situation. She seemed to soak in the final night atmosphere. Connecting with her audience and in constant communication with Brian. They think as one, make music as one, which is the ultimate goal of all ensembles.

The evening's set included (not in this order) Necessary Evil, Good Day, Coin-Operated Boy, Delilah, Half Jack, a beautiful song that was new to me, which I guess was called The Gardener, and Sing which closed the show and is their best known song. Two encores, Mein Herr and Two Headed Boy by a band called Neutral Milk Hotel were highlights of the evening, as the cast was no longer on stage distracting the audience from the music. Another highlight was Brian's drum solo - in fact, he was THE highlight of the whole show.

So I left with mixed feelings. And looking forward to seeing the Dolls at some point in the future, away from the chains of a theater production. But I will have to wait. This was the end of the line for the duo. They have parted for the time being to pursue their own projects - a well deserved and hard earned break after nearly six straight years of touring. So unfortunately, my beginning with the Dolls comes at what could be their ending. Though I hope not. For when they decide to come together again, I'll be there. But until then, I'll have to follow their individul projects closely. They are each wonderful musicians, after all.

The Whatever Four at South Church

Yesterday The Whatever Four, a sax quartet in which I occasionally perform, ventured out into public to play two services at South Church.

I have a blast everytime I get together with my high school buddies Bryan (who is now on the PMAC board of directors) and Mike. Add Ginna to the mix and the Whatever Four Saxophone Quartet is born. Today's performances included Ulla in Africa, a Bach Fugue, two motets, an excerpt from MacDowell's A Deserted Farm, several hymns and more. Never underestimate the joy and power of making music with friends.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Remembering Michael Brecker (1949-2007)

Yesterday the world lost a jazz great. Saxophonist Michael Brecker passed away following an extended illness. I never had the opportunity to hear him live (though I did see his brother, trumpeter Randy Brecker), but his performances were legendary. He made his mark on the jazz world and will be remembered through his recordings.

Jazz News: Sax Great Michael Brecker Dies

DO THE MATH: Michael Brecker

Saturday, January 13, 2007

My Luggage is Finally Home

After nearly three weeks, I saw my suitcase for the first time since checking it as I departed Boston for the Qatar trip. It smells of smoke and gas fumes, but doesn't seem to be permanently damaged. I have my belongings back. And Katie finally got her Christmas gift, on January 12th!

A courier for British Airways called on Thursday night and said my suitcase would be delivered after midnight - is there a safe place it could be left? I had them leave it on the back porch, where I retrieved it the following morning at 6 a.m., wrapped in plastic. I love how they snuck in under the dark of night to leave it outside as I slept. Clever.

London Photos

I've been meaning to write about the London leg of our trip, but this week was a bit crazy. Nothing like jumping back into the fray. But we're all glad to be home and living the life we love. Here are some photos from our London excursion.

Big Ben with the London Eye in the distance.

The kids loved the double-decker buses.

On the day we arrived, one of our first stops was the Museum of Natural History. The boys wanted to go after seeing the movie, "Night in a Museum".

The dinosaur exhibit was a big hit with the kids. The lifesize anamatronic T-Rex was impressive.

Jake insisted on seeing the bug exhibit!

Here I am with a monkey sculpture. Katie makes fun of me because I always wanted a pet monkey as a kid. Don't all boys have that dream?

There were many street musicians in the London Underground. Here's a sax player we happened upon.

Katie was the driving force behind getting us to the Royal College of Music. Unfortunately they were closed for the break. The guard refused to let me in, even after I explained that I'm a famous American musician. (I don't think he thought it was funny.) Maybe next time.

On our second day we went sightseeing to Big Ben and Parliment.

And we checked out Westminster Abbey.

Jake saved his watermelon seeds from the breakfast buffet at the hotel and wanted to plant them in a park.

By next summer there should be watermelons growing behind Parliment!

We also visited the British Museum.

The ceiling design in the museum is stunning.

Here Max points out some hieroglyphics to his grandfather.

He pointed out the electric guitar with two amps carved into this 5,000 year old crypt.

Katie couldn't pass up this photo op.

And my very own hotel. We'll have to stay here next time.

After the museum it was off to Harrods for some shopping.

On our final day we rode the London Eye, a giant, enclosed ferris wheel that towers over the city.

Here the boys look down over the city.

And the whole family reflects on a wonderful trip as we ride the London Eye!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

First Concert of 2007

One of my resolutions for 2007 is to blog about each concert I attend (#2007-16), so, to get things off on the right foot, I will now share my thoughts on my first concert of 2007, Countertenor James Bowman with the London Octave at St. Martin in the Fields, London, on Thurdsday, January 4, 2007, 7:30 p.m.

How could we visit London, even if only for 48 hours, and not seek out a musical event. Katie quickly discovered this concert at the concierge desk of our hotel, and we quickly committed to going to see our first ever concert in London, at St. Martin in the Fields Church, no less.

First, it is difficult to be objective about such an important event in our musical lives - our first London concert. History seeps from the walls of this church, and as an audience member, it is simultaneously glorious and intimidating. I found myself in awe of the situation.

We were at the end of our two week journey, the final night of our vacation, and on a limited budget, so we purchased the cheapest seats, restricted view, at 6 pounds apiece. We were there to hear the music after all, not specifically to watch the musicians.

This put us in the side balcony, in the third row, where you have an excellent view of the ceiling, and can see a quarter of the musicians and the soloist only when standing and leaning forward. It was an amazing experience nontheless.

The acoustics of the church are staggering. You could hear a whisper with wonderful clarity, and the "church effect" of lush sound was in full force. We sat awash in the sounds of Bach and Handel, often with eyes closed, fully experiencing the moment. This is what our travels are about, after all. Having experiences. And this one was a highlight of the London trip.

The concert opened with Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, which epitomized what we were in for - an evening of some of the best known (some might say "overplayed") Baroque music. Yet it seemed appropriate for the evening, and there is nothing quite like hearing this music live.

Other Baroque standards on the program included Bach's Air on a G String (one of the most amusing titles in the history of music), Handel's Overture from Messiah and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The London Octave is an impressive chamber group, and they provided astute performances, though I was not too overwhelmed by the situation to miss the tuning difficulties in the violins. And as a group that works without a conductor, there were rare but noticable disagreements on tempos between the players, though they were quickly resolved.

But the highlight of the evening was the guest soloist, countertenor James Bowman. For those who have not heard a countertenor, he is the highest of the adult male voice ranges in classical music (other than the legendary castrotti, which have been outlawed for a century based on human rights violations of children). It is amazing to hear a man with such a range and the repertoire was remarkable, including the Bach Cantata "Wiederstehe doch der Suende" and several Handel arias (Handel was one of the most prolific opera composers of his time). He was quite phenomenal, very musical, and in complete control of the orchestra (with the exception of one minor difference of opinion on tempo between two violinists). I'm going to have to seek out some of Mr. Bowman's recordings - though I'm not a huge fan of recorded Baroque music. I much prefer to hear it live, as something is lost in the translation to recording. (As is the case with most classical music, in my opinion.)

What a way to start a new year of concert going! We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, and were grateful for the opportunity to hear this beautiful repertoire in such a majestic setting. If this is an omen of the coming year's concerts, it should be a great year.


We've arrived back home from our fab vaca. I have many photos and stories to post about London - and I hope to get to that later today. For now I'm adjusting to the time change...

I've been up since about 2:30 a.m. - it's 4:30 a.m. now - and I've been listening to music. Max got a very cool book for Christmas: "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die." It's amazing how many of these albums I know of, but have never heard. The list comes with its inherent problems - it is only representative of the opinions of the writers. But it has a lot of great music on it.

So I sit here in the early morning listening to several of the albums from the list that I have downloaded from Napster (I love my Napster To Go service!).

Here is what I find myself listening to this morning. I've begun with the first album listed from each decade - as good a place to start as any. The book covers 50 years, 1955-2005:

  • 1955: In the Wee Small Hours - Frank Sinatra
  • 1960: Joan Baez - Joan Baez
  • 1970: Cosmo's Factory - Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • 1980: Kings of the Wild Frontier - Adam and the Ants
  • 1990: Heaven or Las Vegas - Cocteau Twins
  • 2000: Lost Souls - Doves

This will be my playlist this week. I'll write about London a bit later. And hopefully I'll be back on local time soon!

Monday, January 01, 2007

How do you like my ghutrah? From my visit to Doha, Qatar in the Middle East. Picture taken on December 31, 2006.