Archive for January 2011

Queso Fundido: Great Noise Ensemble f/Paranoid Cheese at the Mansion at Strathmore, January 28, 2011

January 30, 2011

The Great Noise Ensemble‘s music director, Armando Bayolo, introduced their concert Friday night at the Mansion at Strathmore with a quote from Homer — not the blind poet, but the preeminent bard of our modern times. Appearing as part of Strathmore’s aptly named Friday Night Eclectic series meant that folks could imbibe spiritous beverages as they listened to the Great Noise. Bayolo, noting the Great Noisers’ mission to make contemporary music less scary and more fun, saluted said beverages with Homer J.’s toast: “To alcohol — the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!” If the bar itself didn’t give a clue, this confirmed it: This was not going to be your usual super-serious classical concert.

The Great Noise Ensemble was joined for the evening by Paranoid Cheese, the nom de performance of Baltimore’s own Marc Mellits, who played keyboards and led four musicians from the ensemble in eleven pieces he composed. Before each piece, he spoke a few, typically funny words about its background, and generally continued to encourage the audience to have fun by his charming presence. He never announced the names of the other performers, however, a big faux pas and also a roadblock to acknolwedging their contributions. From the GNE website, I am guessing Mark Sylvester was on electric guitar, Chris DeChiara on percussion, and Andrea Vercoe on violin and electric violin. I honestly cannot tell who the cellist was; I’ll update later. (Update: She was Natalee Spehar; my other guesses were correct.) Whoever they were, they all seemed extremely pleased to be playing with Mellits.

His music is minimalist, with tonal harmonies and regular rhythms, albeit with plenty of spice in the formula. Mellits’ faster pieces, like “Dreadlocked” or “The Misadventures of Soup,” typically start with one instrument drilling out a quick running figure with off-beat accents; others quickly add new melodic layers with contrasting rhythmic accents. (Sometimes, in his “Machine” pieces, everything seems to start at once, and the rhythms rarely vary, bracingly imperturbable.) Lots of times the newer melodies are slower, so you get the effect of something soaring over a churning landscape; typically, these melodies were in the violin. Such soaring melodies also drove Mellits’ slower music, like the lovely nocturne “Mara’s Lullaby” or the somber “Lefty’s Elegy,” but the accompaniment left pauses and sighs enough to create tension as the melody soared above, even as the harmonic and rhythmic language remained basically the same.

Broadly, it wasn’t anything a person with a casual interest in contemporary music hasn’t heard before, but Mellits has a sure ear for how to combine melodic and rhythmic elements for complementarity and contrast, and his ear for timbre is even better. Closely miked, the two string players got to project not only their melodic side but also their guttural scrapes on hard attacks (especially when the electric violin was in use), nicely dovetailing with Sylvester’s flashes of well-calculated roughness. It was also cool to be able to feel the pizzicato pluck of a cello in one’s body thanks to the miracle of amplification. DeChiara spent most of his time on a marimba, giving him the ability both to plonk out discombobulating rhythmic accents with aplomb and to shade and trill when quieter moments came. Sylvester began some of the faster pieces, like the straightforwardly titled first number, “Opening,” with synth timbres fat and sticky enough to work in Headhunters songs, but Herbie Hancock never would have tried the rhythmic twists and turns that Mellits does. Trying to shake one’s body to Mellits’ music would have involved a few acts of faith or a rock-solid internal metronome, but my toe kept tapping in interesting ways throughout. I bought Mellits’ “Paranoid Cheese” CD at intermission, which features almost all the music performed at this concert; that should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed listening to it.

Speaking of which: According to the Facebook invite to this concert, Strathmore was originally going to make available only limited seating, but it turned out everyone except one weirdo wanted to sit down for the duration of the concert, and the house staff kept bringing in seating until the demand was satisfied. I was that one weirdo, and I was glad of it: this music would be tough to dance to, but Mellits still seems to mean for you to feel it in your body, and being able to feel my body, tap my toe, shift my weight when a phrase began or ended, etc., made the music feel all that much more impressive.

Not all the pieces were as successful as the ones named in this review, and some hiccups did occur in the performances, but Friday Night Eclectic, Great Noise Ensemble, and the Paranoid Cheesemonger combined to give me an experience I couldn’t get unless I trucked up on Peter Pan to hit (Le) Poisson Rouge: the experience of being free to appreciate unfamiliar, highly rhythmic music with my body as well as my mind, instead of sitting completely slack and forgoing the former. Also I got to appreciate with a PBR in my hand, which, as noted at the top of the show, goes a long way.


Tell me I’m wrong, but is calling yourself the Great Noise Ensemble kind of like calling yourself the Excellent String Quartet or what? I get what they’re going for, but I feel like the name makes it too easy for reviewers who don’t like them to say “On Saturday they proved to be the Mediocre Noise Ensemble at best” or something. Of course, if we all selected names based on whether it would be easy to make fun of them, our Speaker of the House would not be named “John Boehner,” so what do I know.

From Adams Morgan to Johannes Brahms: The 18th Street Singers at First Trinity Lutheran Church, January 22, 2011

January 25, 2011

It’s a cliché to laud the robust choral-music scene of the DMV, but seriously, if you want to sing in a group and sound awesome, this is the place to be. Case in point: The 18th Street Singers, which, their website informs us, was formed because its members “were eager for a serious musical outlet that would also fulfill the social and time constraints of life as young adults in the District. Hearing none, we proceeded to build our own.” They formed in 2004, and this spring they’ll be singing at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, followed by a Kennedy Center concert in June. Such is the way things go here.

Most of the 18th Streeters’ concerts present a mix of genres: classical, spirituals, world music, contemporary pieces in a choral vein, etc. Their concert Saturday night at First Trinity Lutheran Church, though, emphasized European art music; indeed, artistic director Benjamin Olinsky said this was “a concert that brings together the best works by the best composers for choir of all time.” This was clearly hyperbole, as “Jesu, meine Freude” was not included, but the concert did provide a nice cross-section of a cappella works to display these choristers’ talents.

They sing well. They have a nice tonal blend, they listen to each other, they pronounce texts clearly. Most of all, though, the 18th Street Singers showed on Saturday that they are amateurs in the best sense: they love singing, and want you to love it too. Olinsky and assistant music directors Ron Lee and Sarah Redmond, trading off conducting duties throughout, went for vivid effects: sharp pauses, big fortissimos (sometimes a little too big, and thus rough), pianissimos that made you lean forward in your seat. Yet the subtle harmonic details of (for example) two sacred pieces by Anton Bruckner got plenty of attention as well, and everyone involved seemed to greatly enjoy shaping a melody, an approach that works across many genres.

They’re helped by First Trinity, which has lovely wood-and-glass-aided acoustics and an intimate nave; on Saturday the 44-person choir, in a semicircle in front of the altar, seemed almost to surround the audience in the pews. The dramatic stereo effect pumped up the impact of Robert Schumann’s Four Songs for Double Choir, which opened the program — you could hear clearly each group shaping its own harmonies, responding to the other’s development of the melodic line. That acoustic also helped the choir when it lathered a warm, luxuriant sound on a melody; sometimes I wished for a little more diversity of tone production, but that sound gave a lot of pleasure Saturday evening.

Presenting the classix a little differently than normal seems to come naturally to this group of young professional types. (Note: I am technically a young professional, but in fact I have the crankiness of someone twice my age.) For example, before the last piece on the program, the choristers presented Olinsky with a large bottle of Disaronno Amaretto; the liquor’s ridiculous commercial (which you should really watch at that link) features the smoooooth utterance “Disaronno…on the rocks,” which Olinsky uses as a direction to the choir to achieve that warm, luxuriant sound. This is the type of thing Robert Shafer just isn’t going to tell you.

More substantively, the program contained no notes on the music; instead, members of the group stepped forward before each work and said a few words. The dude who thought that the plural noun describing Franz Schubert’s art songs was “lieders” (even Wikipedia knows how that plural works) threw me off before a performance of “Die Nacht.” But another chorister’s tale of getting her baby to giggle while practicing Jacob Handl’s “Ascendit Deus” made a perfect prelude to a giddily spirited run-through of that piece. However, I must argue that choirs who are performing songs in other languages owe it to the audience to give some idea of what the text is about, rather than providing a quick bio of the composer. And yes, everything on the program was referred to as a “song,” which was a bit weird for the settings of sacred texts.

Yet these performances showed a group that takes what they’re singing plenty seriously. For me, the highlight of the concert was Brahms’ “Warum is das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen,” which sets passages from the story of Job and commentaries thereon. Here the opening cries of “Warum?” (“Why?”) resounded through First Trinity, the pauses after opening up space to wonder, and the 18th Street Singers ably navigated Brahms’ intricate settings, breathing musical life into questions that have no satisfying answers. Near the end of the program, they sang “Shenandoah,” apparently a 18th Street standard, and less complex music rang with the same wonder and feeling. Both indicated that the 18th Street Singers are ready to become another star in the DMV’s choral firmament.

All Talk, All Action: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, January 21, 2011

January 24, 2011

For the second of its “Off the Cuff” programs this season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented its music director, Marin Alsop, talking about and leading the orchestra in illustrative examples from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony for twenty-five minutes before an attentive Friday-night audience at the Music Center at Strathmore, followed immediately by a full performance of the work. This programming idea worked well. Shostakovich’s Fifth creates a musical world that does not need to be augmented with an overture and concerto in order to feel like a full evening’s worth of music, and there’s certainly plenty to say about the symphony, especially when you’ve got the personable Alsop doing the talking.

A few quibbles to get out of the way: Her discussion came a little top-heavy with biographical details and history that would have been familiar to anyone who read the note in the program for Friday’s concert. Presumably the “Off the Cuff” series is designed to educate people who know less than carping-prone music critics, but it would have made the talk more special if Alsop had dropped some semi-novel knowledge on us, other than the good-to-know fact that Shostakovich’s first composition, at age 11, was titled “Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.” (Also, the microphone into which Alsop spoke should have been placed below her face, not in front of it, and Alsop could have cut back on the “um”s a bit during this exposition-y section.)

Alsop’s discussion of the work itself, however, and her selection of choice moments for the orchestra to play foreshadowed the reading that was to come: muscular but essentially lyrical, sensitive to color, rhythmically vigorous. For example, Alsop named a different bit of the opening of the first movement as its melodic seed than did the program notes, selecting not the severe opening canon but a melodic fragment coming after it. Showing a personal enthusiasm, Alsop led the BSO in the opening of the Scherzo from Mahler’s First Symphony and then the opening of the Scherzo from the Fifth, which she called “Mahler with more attitude”; it was easy to see the likeness.

In other places, the excerpts Alsop chose proved a pretty accurate guide to where she and the BSO would find climaxes in the actual performance: an impassioned melodic outburst in unison strings in the first movement, another anguished passage for strings in the Largo slow movement with punctuating chords from the double basses that Alsop likened to stabs, a descent from rah-rah marches into bleakness in the finale. Hearing those moments isolated before the performance itself likely helped newcomers to the work locate themselves as Shostakovich’s vast canvas spread itself out before them. On my part, I noticed that Alsop’s extract of the first-movement unison strings passage omitted the cacophonous two-chord outbursts that immediately follows, and the omission showed where Alsop wanted to take the symphony.

Not that the cacophony, when it eventually came, lacked impact. Just before turning from the mic to drop the downbeat, Alsop gave one last word of praise for the BSO’s playing, and every desk of the orchestra put every ounce of effort and emotion into this performance. During the performance, my thoughts occasionally turned to just how much the BSO now seems to like playing under Alsop; they shape melodies in her style with no apparent effort, they follow her pacing closely, they balance the sections so well that you only realize how good the balance was after the performance. In the live acoustic of the Music Center, every string-driven lament sang out clearly, every brassy march seethed with menace, the celesta twinkled with magnetically quiet notes, every flute solo floated tangible and poignant into the hall. (There seemed to be a lot of memorable flute solos in this performance.)

In her introductory remarks, Alsop referred to the Fifth’s finale as a “march of suffocation,” in keeping with the belief that Shostakovich’s Fifth secretly ridicules the desires of the Soviet authorities for lotsa patriotic rousing stuff. Being a contrarian, I have always pointed out in such discussions that the finale of the Fifth is, in fact, rousing, and if you don’t respond at some purely physical level to its dynamic energy you pretty much don’t have a pulse. Still, hearing Alsop explain and illustrate her view made it come over even more forcefully in this performance, and though my pulse quickened with pure excitement, the sheer wall of sound from the massed brass clenching its martial fist stopped me short as well. It was a fitting conclusion to an evening that showed just how illuminating musicians like Alsop can be when they let the audience get a peek at their craft.


I am becoming increasingly convinced that a lot of concerts would be better if they just featured about an hour of music and concentrated on playing it really, really intensely, which (whatever the intention) was what happened on Friday. You don’t have to spend intermission deciding whether to get a drink or some Junior Mints and forgetting whatever happened beforehand and immersing yourself in another emotional world. You have a memorable experience and then get to wander around committing it to memory. Of course, immediately after this concert I went to the Mansion at Strathmore for Friday Night Eclectic (X.O., baby!), so I may not be the one to talk.

A Twelfth Night Bonbon: Armonia Nova at Christ Church, January 9, 2011

January 11, 2011

Local period-performance group Armonia Nova dropped in just after evening services at Christ Church in Alexandria on Sunday to perform a short concert of medieval and Renaissance French music devoted to merry Christmases and happy New Years.  The concert was part of an Armonia Nova tradition of extending the holiday season at the other end— both liturgically correct, given that Sunday was the first of the Epiphany season, and a welcome reminder that one of the blessings of the holiday season is some terrific tunes that have survived the centuries well.

Readers of DMV Classical may be familiar with Armonia Nova from this awesome concert in the DC Early Music Festival last June, and Sunday’s concert evidenced many of the same virtues heard last summer: repertoire to tickle the modern ear, an easy fluency in ancient scales and styles, spontaneous phrasing that makes old music feel modern, and just some beautiful singing and playing.

Soprano Allison Mondel, alto Marjorie Bunday, multi-instrumentalist Jean N. Cioffi, and harpist/music director Constance Whiteside started off a little shaky, with tentative ensemble on “Les anges dans nos campagnes” (better-known to modern English speakers as “Angels we have heard on high”). But they soon found their groove: Mondel and Bunday intricately blending their voices, Whiteside finding the exact spots on the beat that needed harmonic or melodic embellishment, and Cioffi adding different timbres to the mix.

Familiar tunes, like “Veni, veni Emmanuel” and “Noel nouvelet!”, sounded fresh with strong rhythms, strange medieval intervals, and the novelty of ye aulde French strongly pronounced, in all its pungency. Novel tunes evoked the spirit of wonder that animates so much Christmas music, like the harmonies of “Flos un rosa floruit,” a twelfth-century work in which the soprano and alto lines seemed fitted to the words like two vines climbing a wall, or “Guillo pran ton tambourin!”, which cannily closed the program with a rousing dance rhythm and the titular percussion in addition to Mondel and Bunday’s joyful noise.

Bunday sang a clutch of solo numbers in which she demonstrated a keen feel for the rhythm of phrases both textual and musical; it was easy to follow the printed English translations when she was singing her French. Whiteside, in her solos, made melodic lines hang shimmering in the air and spoke volumes with single quavering notes; “Lai D’Aelis,” a fourteenth-century stanzaic piece, seemed to grow like a flower with each elaboration of the main melody. Yet Mondel had the most memorable performance of the evening, a pious song by thirteenth-century composer Blance de Castille called “Amours, u trop tart me sui pris,” where her hushed concentration and clear tones (supported eloquenty by Whiteside) made the composer’s devotion palpable.

Historic Christ Church, where George Washington used to worship when he was in town, has retained its colonial look and feel, which unfortunately does not include robust heating and comfortable pews. Armonia Nova’s decision to present a short, sweet concert was thus welcome indeed. As an encore, they reprised “Les anges dans nos campagnes,” and we all got to sing along in whatever language we could muster. There was definitely some audience uncertainty on the verses, but the “Gloria in excelsis deo” refrain rang out loud and clear, the last time most of us will hear it until at least when the red-and-green M&Ms are in stores once again.


In the encore, either I was way off key, or everyone behind me was way off key. That’s all I’m saying.

Updated the post title to indicate that this concert took place in 2011. It’s been a slow start to the year.