Jackson Browne: “Fountain of Sorrow”

When Jackson Browne was at his most successful as a songwriter, he was not necessarily at his best. After all, he co-wrote “Take It Easy” with the Eagles’ Glenn Frey. Browne was a remarkable early bloomer as a songwriter; he was hired as a staff writer for Elektra Records’ publishing company before his 18th birthday, and worked with Tim Buckley and with Nico, formerly of The Velvet Underground.

Browne and Nico were romantically linked (it seems that happened a lot), and Browne made major contributions to her debut album as a musician and writer, including the song “These Days.” Browne’s early songwriting work was recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tom Rush, Nico, Steve Noonan, Gregg Allman, Joan Baez, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, the Byrds, and others.

The flip side of the coin is that when Browne was at his best as a songwriter, he was usually not his most successful. In that category, I place “Fountain of Sorrow” and the title track from the album it is on, Late for the Sky. Lyric excerpts, the backstory, and more on the continuation page. Continue Reading →

(La) Scala & Kolacny Brothers: “California Dreamin'”

The Kolacny brothers Stijn (conductor) and Steven (arranger and accompanist) founded a girls’ choir in Aarschot, in Flemish Belgium, in 1996. I believe that the choir’s name originally was “La Scala,” which kind of makes sense; but at some point, the “La” was dropped. Within four years Scala, under the guidance of the Kolacny brothers, had won the Belgian “Choir of the Year” competition. They excel at executing the fundamentals of choral singing: pitch, timbre, dynamics, ensemble blend, phrasing, and breathing. Lots of obsessive attention to detail is in evidence when they sing.

Scala & Kolacny Brothers’ “Unique Selling Proposition,” as stated on their website, is to “take classic rock and indie songs and reinvent them as elegiac hymns—to breathtaking effect—with the piano often the sole accompaniment to the voices.” Their breakthrough came in 2010 when a trailer for the film The Social Network included their cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” That song, by the way, was in part unconsciously borrowed from The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe,” and so members of The Hollies are jointly credited.

Being lucky is important in music; but, it’s hard to sustain success unless you are even better at your art than you are at being lucky. For proof of the pudding, here’s Scala’s cover of “California Dreamin’ ” from their DVD Live in Bruges. One friend, upon seeing this clip, asked in horror, “Who dresses them?” I deadpanned that they are a non-profit group, and they lucked into a really good price on the leftover costumes from the post-Apocalyptic movie The Road. He gave me a look to make sure I was joking.

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David Nadien: “Swan Lake” Concertmaster Solo, Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic

David Nadien (1926-2014) was the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic from 1966 to 1970. “Concertmaster” is the term for the leader of the first-section violins. In addition to other duties, the concertmaster plays the important violin solos in orchestral pieces; here Nadien plays the famous solo from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. This solo (apparently from an afternoon television broadcast) is legendary among string players for Nadien’s remarkably pristine execution in general, and especially for his smoothly flowing bow changes and beautifully musical phrasing.

Perhaps some eyebrows raised when Leonard Bernstein chose, as successor to John Corigliano Sr., David Nadien, who was a studio musician with little orchestral experience. But there can be no question that this is playing on the highest level. Indeed, Nadien’s playing often elicited comparisons with Jascha Heifetz, who was still active then.

Nadien recorded little, but one of his LP recordings (as far as I know, never reissued on CD) was recorded in 1958 by David Hancock, who made all the early John Marks Records recordings (such as Arturo Delmoni’s Songs My Mother Taught Me). David Hancock learned recording via on-the-job training with Peter Bartók, Béla Bartók’s second son. David Hancock began making recordings as a fallback, in view of the rather congested job market for freshly-minted Juilliard piano graduates. (Hyperion Knight has at least one joke about that.)

So, David Hancock not only recorded the music, he also played the piano in the Franck Sonata, Debussy’s sonata in G, and short pieces by Fauré and Ravel. One for the record books, to be sure. That recording has been put up on YouTube here, audio only. The sound is a bit closely-miked; but, both players are in top form–it’s an interpretation that can withstand comparison with the “greats.”

As of this writing, there is an LP copy up on eBay (Buy It Now) for about 12 coins of the realm–WNTL?

(The Nadien/Hancock LP shows up on eBay regularly–save a search for it, if you were not in time to snatch this one up.)

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The Rosenberg Trio: “For Sephora.”

The Rosenberg Trio is made up of its lead guitarist, the charmingly named Stochelo Rosenberg (which for some reason always makes me think of high-school chemistry class) and his cousins the rhythm guitarist Nous’che Rosenberg and upright bassist Nonnie Rosenberg.

Seeing as all three are members of the Dutch Gypsy (or Roma) community, of course they have been hugely influenced by Django Reinhardt. [Note: I am aware that use of the term “Gypsy” is controversial in some quarters. However, the Rosenbergs themselves use that word on their own website; so, they most likely are not offended by it.] If I might brag—just a bit—I am only one handshake away from Django, through Stéphane Grappelli (the violinist who, with Reinhardt, co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club of France in 1934).

More, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Pentatonix: “ ‘Can’t Sleep’ Love”

I used to be a choral singer—I started as a Boy Soprano, no less (the Brits call them “trebles”).

There was something so satisfying about those (admittedly rare) moments when the pitches and the blend were really perfect. It even happened once, totally by accident, with my two older brothers and me. I think we were singing a Harry Belafonte song. (Yes, I knew about Harry Belafonte before he became something of an audiophile vinyl icon.)

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Eric Whitacre Singers: “Enjoy the Silence,” Martin Gore (Depeche Mode), arr. Whitacre

Eric Whitacre Singers: “Enjoy the Silence,” Martin Gore (Depeche Mode), arr. Whitacre

Well, here I go violating my self-imposed (and only general; not absolute) rule that the music videos I post here show real performances. But, this is not a mashup; it is a serendipitous iPhone recording made when an audience member thought she was sneaking a snapshot, but in reality was starting to make a video. The screen is black because she put her phone or tablet back in her handbag.

I heard the Boston stop of the Eric Whitacre Singers‘ 2013 USA tour (this video is from the days-earlier Washington, DC-area stop), in the luminous acoustic of Boston’s Symphony Hall. If five years previously someone had told me that a Depeche Mode song would have moved me to tears, I would have scoffed. But, it was not Depeche Mode (their official music video is–dopey). It was Depeche Mode being re-written by Palestrina, as channeled by Eric Whitacre.

Time stood still–the dissonances just hung in the air. That so much of the music comes through on an iPhone recording with the iPhone in a purse or bag is food for thought, is it not? There is a studio recording that I find a bit too close and hi-def. I prefer the tonal balance of this not bootleg, but handbag recording. But perhaps that’s just familiarity.

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Royal Northern College of Music: “Moscow, Cheryomushki” (Shostakovich)

One of my favorite Eastern European witticisms comes from Soviet-Era Poland:

Under Capitalism, Man exploits Man. Whereas under Socialism, the reverse is true.

Shostakovich’s 1959 operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki (yes, I know—I’ve been stuck on Shostakovich; one more after this, and I will move on) is about bureaucratic corruption and housing shortages in Moscow. “Cheryomushki” means a certain kind of cherry tree, and it refers to both a district of Moscow and to a specific 1950s housing project.

One might think that writing an operetta (one of Shostakovich’s longest works, in fact) ridiculing state officials as lecherous buffoons while decrying substandard housing might have meant that Shostakovich was taking his life in his hands.

However, people forget that between Stalin’s death and the shooting down of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 CIA spy plane, there was a significant thaw in the Soviet Union. In the new climate of loosened restrictions, Shostakovich’s lyricists went to town with parody and sarcasm, while Shostakovich fashioned his own love letter to the Broadway musical comedy.

More, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Árstíðir: “Heyr himna smiður”

Árstíðir singing “Heyr himna smiður” in the train station of Wuppertal, Germany; September 15, 2013.

I find most “flashmob” music videos annoyingly contrived and manipulative, often bordering on the transparently insincere. The above impromptu handheld YouTube is a major exception to that rule—no fake perma-smiles, and no forced artificial interactions with passers-by.

Even better, the music is not “opera bits” being forced through a meat grinder; it’s a haunting 20th-century a-cappella tune and harmonization for a 13th-century Icelandic hymn text, “Hear, Smith of Heavens.”

While the audio quality is not the best (and the camera work would have benefited from a monopod); here, there is an organic authenticity that most flashmob music videos lack. The train station is a rather good stand-in for a cathedral. Proof again that state-of-the-art sound is sometimes the slave of jejune music, and that the slenderest knowledge of greater things means more.

The band Árstíðir’s name, in English, means “Seasons.” They deserve their five million YouTube views for this unforgettable moment. Well done, chaps!

Text, in translation, after the jump. Continue Reading →

Hila Plitmann: The Acrostic Song from “Final Alice” — Steampunk Classical

Plitmann II

Soprano Hila Plitmann singing the final movement of David Del Tredici’s Final Alice with the Detroit Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting. (Note, “Del” is a given name, and not part of an Italian surname.)

Steampunk Classical.

What a concept!

In 1975-76, David Del Tredici wrote the first-ever (and perhaps only) “Steampunk” piece of classical orchestral music. (It is based upon Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, after all.) The music is very accessible, and in general tonal and melodic, though there are episodes of dissonance and finally, chaos.

The final movement of Final Alice is the Acrostic Poem epilogue to one of the “Alice” books. The first letters of each line of the poem together spell out Alice Pleasance Liddell, the name of the girl Carroll based Alice on. Tredici instructs all the orchestral players who can, to hiss out like a steam engine the name of each of the first letters. That’s what the strange sounds you are hearing are. There’s also a rather obvious Elgar quote or homage, I think, too.

Video after the jump!

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