Archive for November 2009

Hammer Time: Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, November 20, 2009

November 22, 2009

Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer,” which received its DMV premiere at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Friday night, collects, refracts, and interprets the varying versions of the traditional ballad of John Henry into 75 minutes of occasionally annoying, mostly compelling music.

Even if you did not previously know the music of Julia Wolfe, you may have just concluded that the piece involves some repetition, since most performances of “John Henry” take way less time than that. Indeed, Wolfe wrote “Steel Hammer” in the pop-minimalist style that her home band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, was founded to make awesome, plus the Scandinavian soprano Trio Mediaeval.

Pop and minimalism connect over their desire to get into your skull through the medulla oblongata rather than the cerebral cortex, and Wolfe’s program bio avers that her music “is muscular and kinetic and experienced through the body.” That said, not much else connects “John Henry” to “Steel Hammer.”  Sure, Wolfe calls for dulcimer and bone in addition to the usual BoaC percussion-guitar-piano-cello-bass-clarinet combo, but those instruments provide vernacular color exclusively; otherwise, we’re in the minimalist labyrinth of rhythms that both structure and evolve the music, with ambiguously consonant harmonies rarely distinguishable from your average pop-minimal work (if we grant that such a thing exists).

And, as noted, we get a few things repeated in various guises a lot of times. The work opens with Trio Mediaeval singing the words “Some say he’s from” a cappella, breaking the phrase down and shuffling it until it functions as vowel sounds. This worked in large part because of the performers. In their recordings, the ladies of Trio Mediaeval sing with an almost eerie precision and purity, like some kind of divine rebuke to the use of AutoTune. Live performance proved that they are indeed humans, as some entrances appeared to be unintentionally staggered, and some lines wobbled a bit. Yet they retained that vocal purity, which gave their music the high lonesome sound we associated with Appalachia, and the kept their lyrics crystal-clear, so you never even thought about wanting a text to consult. These virtues did, however, keep them miles away from any kind of twang; at times, I really wanted them to just slur a word or two, to get us into America.

We got to hear a lot of America in the second section of the work, where Wolfe showed that her strategy to deal with the various versions of the John Henry story was to toss in all the details from all of them. Where do they say he’s from? Tennessee! Georgia! Columbus, Ohio! Kentucky! Alabama! The trio had to actually sing the names of these and other states over and over again, as the can-bangers got active with a glacially accelerating locomotive rhythm that turned into cheerful country-crossing music. This section epitomized the things people who like other classical music don’t like about some minimalist music: the repetitions quickly become nonsensical, and after the music’s point is made, it keeps going for unknown reasons. A bunch of people left the Dekelboum during this section, ne’er to return.

They should have stayed, because Wolfe’s music became much more focused as she got into the story. When concentrating on one phrase, like “this hammer’s gonna be the death of me,” her meditations on words and phrases piled up to create swells of feeling that crested with the band dropping out and the Mediaevalists once again a cappelling in haunting harmonies.

In addition, the remaining pools of discordant details made more compelling material for juxtaposition; reciting John Henry’s professions (cotton-picker, steel-driver, etc.) emphasized his nature as the essential working man, and the various names of his lover, murmured and then sung passionately in repetition, made her into just as much an Everywoman, as tough as her man yet trembling with fear for him as well. The section where Wolfe kept increasing the weight of the hammer John Henry used (“Nine-pound hammer…sixteen-pound hammer…twenty-pound hammer”), the trio’s voices rippling with tension and punctuated with big outbursts from the band, was just really cool.

The subject of a contest between machinery and man obviously offers great opportunities for the minimalist composer; to Wolfe’s credit, she didn’t go to a regular mechanical rhythm every time she needed to crank up the tension, instead testing BoaC with irregular rhythms that, etched as precisely as they were on Thursday, achieved a rough-hewn power that remained surprising even on repeat. The band also knows how to carefully ratchet up volume over time, so slowly that you don’t notice how claustrophobic the atmosphere is becoming until your heart is pounding. Wolfe threw in lighter interludes,  one of which found Mark Stewart, normally an electric guitarist, instead doing “Quebec-style seated clogging,” as he informed us in the post-concert Talk Back; another had clarinetist Evan Ziporyn drumming out rhythms all over his body.

But after the John Henry travelogue, the whole score seemed (in retrospect) focused on its end: another magnetic solo from the TM, reporting the results of John Henry’s contest with the machine, with only the last line repeated, in deference to ballad form, followed by an instrumental apotheosis and a coda with the ladies singing “Lord, Lord” so quietly and with such resignation that it did almost sound like a Mayfieldian “Lawd, Lawd.” Only after the sound stopped and BoaC and TM took their well-deserved bows did I (a) remember to breathe and (b) realize how much the work had gotten under my skin and into my brain since the Hall of States section. Wolfe took a big swing with “Steel Hammer,” and although the piece follows a longer arc than one might initially think necessary, in the end she hit her target square-on.


Trio Mediaeval needs to pick two of the three vowels in the middle of its name and stick with those. I recommend not picking “Trio Mediaval,” but seriously, trying to type that over and over again is the kind of thing that makes an amateur classical critic turn to T-Pain for solace.

O.P.P.: Joan Reinthaler’s review for the Post.

As Real as it Gets: Malcom Bilson at the Mansion at Strathmore, November 19, 2009

November 21, 2009

Think of a Ferrari rolling down I-95, speed limited by traffic to 85 miles per hour or so, able to express its inner Ferrari-hood only by changing lanes and spurting into gaps wherever it can, mostly sitting implacably at the modest speeds it can attain. That’s what a lot of pianists sound like when playing the Kings of Klassical, Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on a Steinway in a big hall. They have to scale down the howitzer sound of the piano to avoid inflating the music’s rhetoric to Romantic levels, thus muting everything about the performance, especially if the sound is dissipating across hundreds and hundreds of people. Audiences may wonder at the pianist’s skill and the general form of the music, but there’s no thrill.

Now think of an Alfa Romeo roadster winding down a mountain road, the convertible top down, lush vistas popping up around every turn. The car doesn’t boast as much power, but it hugs the road and responds immediately to input from the gas or wheel; particularly with a skilled driver, ’round every corner is a thrill and a sight to see at once. That’s what Malcom Bilson sounded like playing Haydn and Mozart on a fortepiano modeled on an 18th-century Viennese instrument in the Mansion at Strathmore on Thursday.

Rather than just play the notes, Bilson attempts to perform music in the way its composers would have, an approach variously referred to as period performance, historically informed performance, authentic performance, and probably a couple other things I don’t know. On Thursday, not only did he have at his disposal an instrument in the style of those Haydn and Mozart might have played, he also had Strathmore’s English Broadwood piano, of an 1850s vintage, to play Schumann and Chopin. As a bonus, the Music Room of the Mansion seats just over a hundred people, so Bilson didn’t need to worry about whether his sound would reach the far corners of some vast hall; he could just play the instruments and go for broke.

Which he did. The lighter, more immediate action of the Viennese fortepiano, and the quicker decay of sound than on your classic Steinway, both allowed and demanded faster-than-usual tempi, and Bilson obliged with gusto, especially in the outer movements of Haydn’s Sonata in E minor, Hob. 34. (Note to readers: This is where the car analogy above breaks down, since M-Billy sped along faster than most of the Ferrari playas.) The sense of an instrument being pushed to its limit helped Bilson make the swings and jumps in the first movement’s development section as surprising as they must have been in the 18th century. Bilson’s easy flow in the Adagio slow movement brought out Haydn’s playful habit of doing something harmonically outré and immediately veering back to normal — I imagined a cheeky “Did I do that?” smile on his face. The finale simply sparkled, a cheery conclusion.

After a pure-fun, palate-cleansing set of variations on a theme from the Magic Flute by Johann Baptist Kramer, Mozart’s Sonata no. 12 in F, K. 332, sounded positively lush. The first movement showed that Bilson was determined to continue going fast, so that runs and turns that sound delicate on a Steinway felt fueled by adrenaline. Bilson took the long, winding melody of the Adagio at a brisk pace and kept it up even as Mozart added ornaments and accoutrements to it, resulting in hold-your-breath chains of notes held together by the composer and performer’s awareness of the melody. In the keyboard-spanning runs and ever-shifting harmonies of the finale, Bilson explored all of the colors of the fortepiano, built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf of The Plains, Virginia, from delicate papery notes up top to a tangy, guttural sound from the bass notes; the diversity of sound, lacking in the modern Steinway, made the movement feel more expansive than usual.

After intermission, Bilson switched seats to the Broadwood, which was rebuilt by Sam Powell of Piano Craft in Gaithersburg. Powell contributed an entertaining program note about the rebuilding process indicating that its dampers “really did not damp very well.” (The note also included the sentence “It is my firm belief that contrary to some well maintained myths, there was no great secret varnish used on old piano soundboards.” I want to hear a rebuttal from the maintainers of this myth now.) Regardless of its insufficiencies, the piano worked beautifully in the works by Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin that Bilson essayed.

The Waldszenen (Forest Scenes) don’t get the same recital love as some of Schumann’s other themed sets of short pieces (Carnaval, Kinderszenen, et alia), which seemed mystifying after Bilson’s performance. Waldszenen has the same Eusebius-vs.-Florestan action, the same careful balance, the same feeling of a narrative progression in the right hands, with perhaps some surface brilliance traded for contemplativeness. Bilson showed that he enjoys this work, even reciting the thanatophilic poem by Friedrich Hebbel that precedes “Verrufene Stelle” (“Accursed Spot”) in the score; that piece chilled, but Bilson made “Freundliche Landschaft” (Friendly Landscape) just as vivid in its cheerfulness. “Vogel als Prophet” (“The Bird as Prophet”) came off especially well, the poor damping leaving the fragmented melodies reaching in sound for their completion, Bilson working the sound to achieve the maximum possible effect.

Unlike the rest of the program, Bilson’s concert-closing readings of three miscellaneous Chopin pieces did not leave me with renewed amazement at the achievements of the composer, which I hope the reader realizes is praise by faint damnation. They were fine performances that let the pianist be more of a modern-style virtuoso, reminding us all that, while historically informed performance scholarship provides invaluable insights and enlivens concerts, skills are what pay the bills, son.


I’m tired of there being several numbering systems for Haydn’s piano sonatas. Having one numbering system is essential to making Haydn’s piano sonatas as popular as they should properly be, since people need to be able to, you know, talk about the same piece in casual conversation. As it is, I have trouble communicating which one I mean—”You know, that big C major one? I think it’s 60 in the Landon numbering, 50 in the Hoboken?” This is insupportable. If anyone has a good argument for why I shouldn’t use the Hoboken numbering, let me know.


Did you see what I did there in the last line of the review? Did you? Yeah. Also, I would like to note that I do not endorse driving 85 on I-95. I was just going for an illustrative image there.

It took me 1 hour and 10 minutes to get from College Park to Rockville on Thursday. After Bilson started playing Haydn, I didn’t think about that trip again for the rest of the night. That’s how you know a good concert: It makes you forget about the vagaries of the Beltway.

The Strathmore program listed Chopin’s dates as (1810-1049), which makes him -761 years old upon his death. I had not previously heard of the curious case of Frederic Chopin, but I will investigate further.

Edited: Due to ambiguity in the program note, this review originally attributed the rebuilding of Strathmore’s Broadwood to the Wolfs. The actual rebuilder was Sam Powell of Piano Craft in Gaithersburg, as is now reflected above.

Commemorate Good Times, C’mon

November 19, 2009

Commenter “fn” left some stimulating thoughts on the 12 Cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic review, which I commend to your attention. Always a pleasure to be disagreed with in such an intelligent and agreeable manner. I wanted to follow up specifically on one comment:

And, by the way, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a big deal. Especially, when you’re German.

Looking back at the “Politics as Usual” section of that review, I can see what prompted that comment. I know it was a big deal, and I regret that I did not make that clear. The concert came the day after the 20th anniversary of the first big crack in the Iron Curtain, an event that unified a great city that happened to be the home of the 12 cellos, who in turn had chosen the day after said anniversary to perform a concert in (the metropolitan area of) the capital of a country that played an integral role in keeping freedom a going concern in said city. I’m not German, but I do have that heritage (cf: Lindemann), and I visited Berlin a couple times as a teenager and wandered around the ruins of the Wall and contemplated what it all meant in an emotionally charged teenage way. As fn noted, for those who are German, it’s even more of a big deal. So obviously the mere fact of the concert had emotional power for many attendees, in addition to whatever went on musically, given the circumstances.

What remains an open question for me is whether having 20 minutes of speechifying before the 12 cellists even played a note is the best possible way to commemorate the anniversary of this highly momentous event. (Much less 20 minutes of these particular speeches, but we’re going to assume for the rest of this blog entry that the quality of speechifying is exogenous to the concert.) For me, it would have been much more powerful if one of the cellists had spoken a few words before one of the pieces, on behalf of the group, about what it meant to them to be from where they’re from and to play in the DMV on that day. The 12 Cellos could then have dedicated the next piece to trying to refract or reflect on the emotions of the evening. What a heightened sensation that would have produced in, say, “Für mich soll’s rote Rosen regnen” (It Shall Rain Red Roses for Me), which according to the program notes is Berliner Hildegard Knef’s “secret hymn to her city.”

Still, the German Embassy helped to host the evening, so it was inevitable that there would be exogenous speech-making. From my perspective, the problem with doing it before the concert begins is that it both further separates the audience from the musical experience and seems fundamentally unconnected to it. The speech (well, a shorter speech) could easily have come right after the solemn Bach Contrapunctus with which the cellos began the evening—glowingly transparent minor-key playing with that Picardy third of hope at the end. Then the speech is part of the fabric of the concert.

We all love music so much that we are going to continue to use it commemorate mighty events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. So let’s think about how best to do that, so that both the music and the commemoration are as powerful as they should be. Readers—any thoughts?

Playing the Dozen: The 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore, November 10, 2009

November 12, 2009

The Berlin Philharmonic is the best orchestra I’ve ever heard, and the ten men and two women who made up the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic on Tuesday night at the Music Center at Strathmore played as well as one would imagine. Three cellists playing a quiet melody sounded like one, producing a noise loud enough to reach the back rows but with the sonic hallmarks of an intimate whisper. When playing loud and in unison, the sound became a torrent flooding the hall, louder than any 12 string instruments would seem to have the right to be. Complex interplay between the musicians, arranged in a semicircle, mostly came off effortlessly, and they never made anything but gorgeous sounds, except when the dozen meant to get a little dirty.

The music they were playing did not succeed as consistently. The program was of the type I refer to as the Royal Sampler, a term that comes from an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer is revealed to have a birthmark that makes him the Chosen One of an ancient, secret society. Said society holds events at which members eat ribs, drink beer, go bowling, etc. At one point, the society chums are playing poker, and Homer folds a hand with a couple unrelated face cards mixed with dross. Carl flies to the rescue of the Chosen One, saying, “No, no no, Homer, you have the Royal, um…Sampler.” Ever since, I have used that term to refer to programs made up of essentially unrelated material intended to be united by the performers — the Chosen Ones of the evening.

Just like Homer’s hand, the program the 12 cellists presented on Tuesday didn’t have a unifying principle. The only work on the program with multiple movements, Francis Poulenc’s cantata “Figure humaine,” allowed the group to actually pursue a musical argument over a longish stretch of time, which they did with great sensitivity and attention to detail. Poulenc juxtaposes plangent, impassioned songs with neoclassical dances and other strong tonal shifts, and with a transcription by David Riniker (a member of the group), the 12 BPers balanced the shifts in mood and ably evoked the voices of the a cappella choir in Poulenc’s original.

The Poulenc served as the center of a first-half program that can otherwise be summarized as “slow and sad.” We had a super-square rendition of the first Contrapunctus from Bach’s Art of Fugue, a good-natured but blankish transcription of a trio from Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” and soggily romantic renditions of Verdi’s “Ave Maria” and Astor Piazzolla’s tango “The Resurrection of the Angel.” (Though even here, the 12 BPers found ways to ravish the ear — the shimmering pianissimo for the “Amen” from the “Ave Maria,” the subtle but telling imitation of an accordion’s wheeze in the tango.) Pablo Casals actually wrote his “Song of the Birds” for 12 cellos, but after a hypnotic opening birdsong gesture it meandered aimlessly. And all the slow, sad music had a reinforcing effect; with no contrast, it muted and deadened the mood in the room.

Having established that they could sound serious, the BP cellists went pop on the audience in the second half. True, Boris Blacher’s “Blues, Espagna, and Rhumba Philharmonica” did more to answer the question “What’s the most difficult piece one could write for 12 cellists?” than to explore the named genres. But some playful transcriptions by fellow Berliner Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann redeemed this misstep. King Will and the cellists, particularly leader Ludwig Quandt, did an amazing job of conjuring the exact timbre of the harmonica music Ennio Morricone composed for Charles Bronson to play before he gunned people down in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” and found the thrilling full frontier sweep in the succeeding soundtrackery.

Kaiser-Lindemann also contributed a transcription of “Love Me Tender” — yes, the Elvis song — full of puns and tricks, and his recasting of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” had the rough rhythmic bump of the original and some sizzling figurations atop. The cellists sounded right at home in both, perfectly poised, swaggering when called for, never missing a beat. Elsewhere they swung as hard as musicians in white ties and tails (and black dresses for the ladies) ever should in a transcription of Gershwin’s “Clap Yo’ Hands” and in their two encores, a “Berlin bossa nova” and (wow) the “Pink Panther” theme. Fun stuff.

And yet I wondered afterward: What if the program had made some sense beyond simply showing off the various impressive abilities of the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic? Wouldn’t that have been an even better evening of music-making? Yes. But with musicians like these, and high points like those afforded by the transcriptions of Poulenc and by Kaiser-Lindemann (I could type that name all day), I’ll happily take what I can get.


The concert occurred one day after the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, so obviously we had to make a big deal about it. The first big deal was made by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, whose remarks were nearly inaudible and, when audible, sagged under the weight of their accumulated platitudes. German Ambassador Klaus Schanloth followed with a much more understandable but bizarrely long (in this context) exegis of how the wall came tumbling down, concluding by expressing the belief that when the United States and Europe work together on something, it gets solved. I guess we really don’t need China and India at the table in discussions on controlling carbon emissions! The performance was scheduled to start at 8 pm and actually started at 8:20.

Some attempts were made in the program notes to characterize this program as marking the occasion, although if you read it, it turned out that only two works (the Poulenc and Casals) had any kind of political import. I am not sure what purpose was served by any of these activities, particularly when there were so many actual substantive commemorations of the day (like on Anne’s blog).

Updated to add O.P.P.: Sophia Vastek at Ionarts.

Rock Out With Your Bach Out

November 7, 2009

Besides putting these posts up for the general Internet to see, I also call attention to them on Facebook, because us youngish people don’t surf the regular Web anymore and need to have stuff pointed out to us. In response to the BSO review below, Maura Lafferty, who blogs engagingly at La ci darem la mano about the concert experience and other stuff, wrote the following on Facebook:

i love that you want to just rock the hell out to scheherazade, because that’s how i feel every time i go to a concert. down side is that live shows are better than recordings for rocking out purposes. solution? make orchestra concerts more like rock concerts.

A goal shared by many, and one whose spirit I commend. And yet, in execution, I think some problems would arise. Specifically with regard to me and Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, I just played the last movement of Scheherazade here in my apartment, and I’m pretty sure no one wants to see me jump around and punch the air like that for ten minutes. I’m actually sweating, and my pants began to fall down several times due to the sheer force of my gyrations and exertions. Canny classical presenters would encourage me to do that and then get everyone else in the hall to pay to have me ejected. What’s fun for me would not be fun for everyone, is what I’m saying.

For another thing, orchestral concerts, and classical concerts in general, have some decided advantages over rock concerts, even granting that problems associated with people talking over the Adagio could be smoothed somewhat by discreet amplification. Two of the more memorable concerts I have attended this year were the Mosaiques Quartet at the Library of Congress and the Wu-Tang Clan at the 9:30 Club. (It’s just a special bonus that the Wu-Tang Clan seems to be an emerging meme on this blog.) As an imaginative exercise, let us see what the Mosaiques concert would have been like had it been almost exactly like the Wu-Tang concert:

  1. The concert would have been listed as beginning at 8, but the actual playing of music would not have started until 9. In the meantime, the sound system would play recordings by various other string quartets, and I would drink Yuengling.
  2. At 9, a quartet would begin playing, but it would not be the Mosaiques; rather, it would be composed of their less talented homies from Vienna. They would play in a style similar but distinctly inferior to that of the Mosaiques.
  3. Then more waiting. The audience would be getting tired of standing. I would check my watch repeatedly and make nervous comments about how many hours of string quartet recordings the Library of Congress had on hand. Also, more Yuengling.
  4. Occasionally, Christophe Coin would emerge from the wings and look stonily at the crowd, which would applaud in an effort to gain his or her acknowledgment. None would be forthcoming.
  5. A hush would come over the crowd as someone began setting up the music stands and laying out the sheet music.
  6. That process would take about a half-hour, somehow. Additional Yuengling.
  7. Finally, the Mosaiques Quartet would come out and begin playing Haydn. Well, sort of. It turns out Anita Mitterer would have decided not to come on the tour. One of the less talented homies from earlier would play her part. Eventually, the Mosaiques would get tired of the substitution, and Andrea Bischof would simply play both Mitterer’s part and her own, with occasionally bizarre results. (Yes, I was there when the Wu, without Method Man, performed the song “Method Man,” which as you might guess prominently features Method Man in normal circumstances.)
  8. The quartet would frequently ask the crowd whether it enjoyed that [redacted 13-letter gerund] real Classical music, capital C, straight uncut raw dope. They would also give much love to D.C., generally, while asserting the primacy of Vienna as the spot where the real grimy period-instrument performers go to work. (The Mosaiques, to my knowledge, do not have a dead former member, so I cannot work in all the Ol’ Dirty Bastard discussion, but trust me: there was a bunch of that too.)
  9. Despite all that, the Mosaiques would deliver some pretty awesome performances. Then someone would announce that there would be an after-party at the 18th Amendment, and a freestyle session would begin. (Note: I would pay a great deal of money to hear the Mosaiques Quartet in an actual freestyle session.) But eventually, the Mosaiques would retreat towards the wings of the stage, leaving the spotlight for the less talented homies from earlier. These less talented homies would really stink up the joint, so much so that Erich Höbarth would start laughing at them in full view of the audience. Then the lights would come up.
  10. The performance having lasted well after the Metro stopped running, I would have to walk over to 7th Street to catch the 70 bus home, a journey that would take 5 million years in subjective time.

So clearly we don’t want classical concerts to be too much like pop concerts, although the dearth of Yuengling at classical concerts should be a concern to presenters everywhere. (I don’t like wine, dammit!) What we want is for classical concerts to have some of the fire of pop concerts, for Robert Spano and the BSO to be able to whirl up the climax of Scheherazade’s shipwreck and feed off the energy of the audience at the same time as they stoke it, the same way Raekwon got fired up by our ecstatic screams and blasted through “C.R.E.A.M.” And for me to be able to move a little bit in my seat, at least, and for others to move their bodies too. I have some inchoate thoughts on why classical concerts, by and large, don’t do that; I’ll try to whip them into coherence in the next post in this series.

(Note: You, too, can totally be my friend on Facebook, but I have to warn you that I don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about classical music on there, other than to promote this blog.)