Saturday, February 09, 2008

SPCO Quartet performs Different Trains

Last week I attended the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's "engine408" series for new music. First was the Quartet No. 2 by Philip Glass for 2 violins, viola and cello, a four-movement piece featuring the trademark repetitive arpeggios of that composer, woven into a 7-minute sound collage that is typical of minimalist music.

Then a John Adams piece, Road Movies, for violin and piano, that evoked the experience of three car journeys with different feels: Relaxed Groove, Meditative Swing, and 40% Swing. In the first movement, you saw the poles flashing by and felt the seams in the road, while the middle movement was evocative of a long, desert drive. Scott Yoo did a great job with the timing and phrasing on the violin, which is probably the key to playing this piece.

Finally, Steve Reich's masterpiece, Different Trains, which has three movements: America - Before the War, Europe - During the War, and After the War. This piece apparently grew from Reich's experience as a boy of riding the railways between New York and Los Angeles, following his parents' separation. A relative would travel with him, and tell him stories of how trains were used in Europe during the war to ship Jews to the camps. The contrast between these two train stories is the basis of the composition, and is obviously reflected in the music, which features three string quartets, train sounds, and spoken narration.

I have been a fan since I bought the Kronos Quartet's recording fifteen years ago. The SPCO players did a good job of executing this difficult piece; a quartet of players are accompanied by two (I think) recorded quartets and recorded narration. The experience isn't quite as seamless as on the Kronos CD, but you do get to enjoy the energy of the lead quartet, which consisted of Dale Barltrop and Nina Fan (violins), Evalina Chao (viola), and Joshua Koestenbaum (cello). This daring piece is really quite accessible to first time listeners, and well worth trying out on record if you haven't heard it.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Les Paul at the Iridium Club

Last night, some friends and I went to the Iridium Club in NYC to hear Les Paul, father of the electric guitar, play with his trio, Lou Pallo (guitar, vocals), Nicki Parrott (upright bass) and John Colianni (piano). This was a fun show, with the master in fine form, despite some abiding problems with his left hand, and his irascible sense of humor much in evidence.

The band played many great standards, including 'Summertime', 'Sweet Georgia Brown', and 'Sunny', aided and abetted by a number of fine guests. Lou Pallo's playing was exemplary; it's always refreshing to watch a real pro in action on the electric guitar. Nicki Parrott did a great job of holding down the bottom end, and I'm sure Les could turn that into dirty joke faster than I!

Andrew Nemr, who is apparently something of a regular, tap danced with great panache through a couple of numbers, including the ballad 'Round Midnight'. Rebecca Buxton on baritone sax gave a fabulous performance on 'Lester Leaps In', demonstrating terrific agility and tone on this amazing instrument. There was also a great electric violin player and a great guitar player, neither of whose names registered in my bourbon-assisted brain.

Three of my 30 guitars are Les Pauls (one Elegant, one Class 5, and one Robot), and they are my very favorite instruments. These are the axes I use most for playing out, and their tunefulness and versatility is pretty much unmatched. At 92, Les Paul's spirit is undimmed, and if I'm still alive and playing at that age, I'll consider myself to be pretty fortunate, as well as eternally in his debt.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Tierney Sutton and Shelly Berg

I just got back from an awesome cabaret performance by Tierney Sutton and Shelly Berg at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel in New York. It was an enchanting experience, even in the somewhat cramped confines of the venue (see below for more on this). I didn't take notes, but I think I have the complete set list in my head.

Tierney began with 'Skylark', really the most beautiful and compelling rendition of this Mercer-Carmichael collaboration I have ever heard. Then came Rodgers and Hart's 'Where or When', and another Carmichael tune, 'The Nearness of You', which was absolutely stunning in its gentleness. On Nearness, Shelly passed on a solo, not wanting to mar the perfect mood created by the vocals. Then followed the Sinatra favorite, 'How About You', in which Tierney did some fine scatting and Shelly went to town in the solo section.

Then followed three more ballads, each of them haunting in its own way: 'Laura', 'Love is Here to Stay' and 'Emily'. Tierney sang the verse of the Gershwin a capella before they both launched into the better-known chorus and totally aced it. Shelly's playing on these numbers was simply out of this world, crafting for each one a sensitive but striking arrangement. Then another Rodgers and Hart, 'It Never Entered My Mind', which Tierney rendered with a calm serenity that made the sadness of the lyric even more intense. Other great songs included 'Cheek to Cheek', 'You're Nearer', and 'You're too Marvellous for Words'.

The venue is a famous one, said to have launched the careers of such notables as Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall. I found the density of the dinner tables to be way overdone in the eagerness of the establishment to pack people in, and both my colleague and I and the couple sitting next to us had to strong-arm the captain into changing our seating arrangements. But nothing could spoil the astonishing spell cast by these two musicians as they casually made their way through the pages of the Great American Songbook with breath-taking style.