Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Late entry

A little info on the most recent item to land on my Top 10 for 2009, Kyle Bartlett's "The Lost Child." I wasn't familiar with "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser," the Werner Herzog film that was a point of inspiration for Bartlett's opera; it's now on my Netflix queue, hopefully to arrive soon.

It's an unconventional opera, to say the least, featuring a flute-playing actor (or acting flutist) with electronic enhancements, an actor playing multiple roles who also sings, a percussionist, and a bevy of pre-recorded and altered sounds.

Bartlett set the tale in a futuristic surveillance society and portrayed the Hauser figure, Ana, herself. Ben Pierce played the Shadow Man, who brings Ana to Nuremberg; the Sector Manager; the Big Brother-ish figure of The Authority; and Doctor Nassar, who teaches Ana language and attempts to integrate her into society.

As Ana, Barlett convincingly expressed fear, doubt, anger, confusion, curiosity and rapture. After the show, she claimed to have just been making it up as she went along. She was similarly casual about her flute-playing, which drew heavily on extended techniques, including vocalizations, keyslaps, and pitch-bends.

The electronic elements mimicked firing synapses, disconnected thoughts and, during scenes of Ana's introduction to language, the acquisition of vocabulary. I could even detect stray German amid the fractured phrases and processed natural sounds, though I'm not sure if the phrase "Verstehen sie" is original to the Herzog film.

In short, the opera was compelling both musically and dramatically. The primordial elements - of exploring one's origins, or of acquiring language for the first time - echoed other, non-vocal works on the concert, particularly the violin-and-cello duet "Night Vision." Even simple elements, like changes in wardrobe or shifts in Bartlett's approach to her instrument (from unadorned notes to hissed and spat effects back to notes again), conveyed an unforced sense of significance. I don't have much else on my slate for the rest of the year, so "The Lost Child" will probably be the last concert I see in 2009 - and one of the best.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Top 10

The Crossing, David Shapiro's "It is time," Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, January 4.

Bang on a Can All-Stars, Michael Gordon's "For Madeline," Perelman Theater, February 28.

Curtis Opera Theatre and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Alban Berg'sWozzeck, Perelman Theater, March 13.

Symphony in C with harpist Bridget Kibbey, Sebastian Currier's "Broken Minuets," Perelman Theater, April 16.

Greater South Jersey Chorus, Aaron Copland's "At the River," National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, April 18.

The Crossing (again), works by Kile Smith and Joby Talbot, St. Peter's Church, June 10.

John Vanderslice and band, "Exodus Damage," Johnny Brenda's, June 11.

Sonic Liberation Front, "Jetway Confidential No. 3," Institute for Contemporary Art @ UPenn, July 29.

Asphalt Orchestra, works by Mingus, Bjork, Bregovic, et al., 30th Street Station, August 7.

Kyle Bartlett, Benjamin Pierce and Kristopher Rudzinski, "The Lost Child," Settlement Music School, Mary Louise Curtis Branch, December 13.

Honorable mention: Academy of Vocal Arts, "Lucia di Lammermoor," May 5, Helen Ward Corning Theater.

Conflict-of-interest mention: All solo arias and recitatives, as well as the Baroque horn solo, during Choral Arts Society's performance of Bach's B minor Mass, First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, May 9.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Before year's end

I'm holding off on posting my Top 10 list of the best performances I saw this year. I pondered the timing of year-end lists last year, and even though the usual critical heavy-hitters have already weighed in several weeks before the end of the year, I'm seeing two concerts this weekend that I hope might crack the Top 10.

First, on Saturday, a concert of Baroque music by Symphony in C with soprano Julianne Baird, which I previewed for the Courier-Post on Sunday. I'm interested to hear how a pared-down Symphony takes to Baroque style, while vocal fireworks from Baird are a given. 8 p.m. Saturday at Rutgers-Camden; I'll be reviewing for the C-P.

Second, on Sunday, a showcase of works by composer Kyle Bartlett. Kyle's a friend and an invaluable resource and sounding board on new music, both in general and in Philly. Before we met last summer, she described herself, via e-mail, as an "absolute hard-ass when it comes to aesthetics." This hard-assery has undoubtedly served her well as she's worked on "The Lost Child," an opera for solo flute with electronics, actor and percussion funded by the Independence Foundation Fellowship in the Arts program.

Another endorsement has already come in from the West Coast. Anyone near Philly should make it to this one. 8 p.m. on Friday at Settlement Music School's Germantown location (6128 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia), and 7 p.m. on Sunday at the Queen Village location (416 Queen Street). Both are free.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Four by four, one on one

Two belated posts from a brief flurry of activity for, one of the Internet's largest and snarkiest repositories of my writing.

Q&A with David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet, for Phawker, Nov. 6, 2009.

Before setting up this interview, I wondered if the Kronos' publicity manager would put forward a member other than David Harrington; it had always been my impression that Harrington dominated the group's media presence. In the end, though, Harrington was a wonderful interview -- very thoughtful and generous, and digressive in the best possible way. We were both on the road as well -- he to San Francisco International Airport, I from Bucknell University back to Philadelphia -- and managed to avoid any dropped calls or poor connections.

The collected works and quirks of A.J. Jacobs, for Phawker, Nov. 6, 2009.

I really wanted to attend Jacobs' event at the First Person Arts festival, and it seemed the best way to do that was to put together a retrospective look at his two books and the genre (the First Person Arts director called it "shtick-lit," a surprisingly harsh dig) he's birthed, or at least revivified. Jacobs' presentation ended up being almost stand-up-comedy-like, and though people familiar with his works could have seen many of the punchlines coming, he was funny and endearing off-stage as well, and, fortunately for me, willing to give autographs and to inquire about the work of young, ambitious writers.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


The Bay-Atlantic Symphony, reviewed, for the Courier-Post, November 9, 2009.

The Mendelssohn = so good. In addition to the elements of Bach I heard in the Andante "Pilgrim's March," I also felt the kind of relentless, forward-pressing quality that I love about the famed Allegretto in Beethoven's 7th. I hope Rowan and the Symphony can muster a larger crowd for the next concert in January.

Symphony in C's Music du Jour series, for the Courier-Post, November 16, 2009.

The "alt-classical" angle is partly my invention -- Cork isn't (Le) Poisson Rouge -- but I'd love to see more of this kind of activity crop up in Philly and the surrounding area.

I missed the first dinner, the Bulgarian one that Rossen and Rosie prepared, but I won't be missing the Cork event. The strength of their beer list alone (peep it here; it's mostly up to date) demands that I attend.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Two cheers

Brewpubs in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area, for the Courier-Post, Oct. 30, 2009.

Bay-Atlantic Symphony's "Night at the Opera," previewed for the Courier-Post, Nov. 1, 2009.

I don't know how I got so lucky to provide coverage of such disparate but enjoyable topics. A second assignment to write about beer... I never thought there'd be a first!

I'll also be reviewing the Bay-Atlantic's performance on Friday at Rowan. I'm interested in seeing what kind of audience their initial foray into Gloucester County will bring, and also in finally hearing an orchestra that I've been writing solely previews about for more than a year.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The other side of summer

It's pointless to ask "can four months really have gone by?"; they have. But with other news in the classical-blog world (Noise is dead, long live Noise) and an honest-to-God link to this blog from the honest-to-David-Remnick New Yorker, I realized it was time to start back up.

I'll cop to a recent Twitter distraction/infatuation, and musings will continue there. But this is where it all started, and I still don't feel that addenda to reviews and features should be restricted to 140 characters.

A quick summary of my end-of-summer/beginning-of-fall activities: working at a new German restaurant in Philly. Lots of beer and food knowledge gained. But my German, es geht eigentlich nicht. But now the fall arts season has started up, and I've offered a season preview for groups in New Jersey and Philadelphia.

My first review of Camden's Symphony in C has also appeared. I hope to add New Jersey's Bay Atlantic Symphony, newly installed at Rowan University (closer to the Courier-Post circulation area), to my stable of reviews as well.

Other C-P pieces, on a production of Glengarry Glen Ross and an art exhibit at Rutgers-Camden, have also surfaced recently, as has my story for Symphony on Symphony in C, though there's no online version.

Final development: I'm considering purchasing the domain Any thoughts on the best/easiest/most cost-effective way of doing this?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fantasia on a new-music collective's name

This has been running through my head for several weeks now.

A commissioning fund for new sacred music: Bang on a Canticle

A concert series pairing new pieces with classical favorites: Bang on a Canon

A Marathon concert held on a battleship or a Civil War site: Bang on a Cannon

A Marathon concert held at a famous outdoor site in Arizona: Bang on a Canyon

I could go on all day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pipes and drums

Two recent pieces:

"The Rock Tenor," a theatrical classical/rock mishmash, previewed for the Courier-Post. It opens tomorrow night at Phiadelphia's Wilma Theater.

Plus, an interview with legendary Nigerian musician King Sunny Ade for Phawker. The King plays tonight at Wiggins Park on the Camden waterfront. Definitely worth the trip across the Delaware.

Monday, July 06, 2009


In the July 5, 2009 issue of the Courier-Post:

Two new exhibits at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
, my first venture into art criticism that features the work of Haddonfield native John Vick.

Also, Globe-trotting with Opera New Jersey, a preview of ONJ's summer season.

Image: William Klein (American, born 1928), The Pope Appears, Saint Peter's Square, 1956 (negative), 1979 (print), Gelatin silver print, courtesy of PMA.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Constructive summer

At long last, my treatment of David Foster Wallace and "Infinite Jest" has arrived on Phawker. It reflects on Infinite Summer, the summer-long group-read of "Jest" that began last week, and on Wallace's legacy in the wake of his death in September. My reading of the book spanned that sad event, and though the 75-page-a-week pace makes it sound reasonable, I'm not feeling up to making another attempt just yet.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Can do

On Friday, I had the good fortune to attend a panel featuring the composers of Bang on a Can -- Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang -- in conversation with Anne Midgette of the Washington Post.

The talk dug fairly deep into the group's origins and its progression from the fringe to something resembling the establishment, especially with Lang winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008.

What excited me most: the upcoming formation of something called the Asphalt Orchestra, a new-music marching band. The idea of it, especially knowing Gordon's affinity for site-specific music and shifting the audience-performer orientation, makes me giddy. My years of propping up a sousaphone with my left shoulder seem somehow vindicated.

One perception-altering observation: I thought that BoaC operated entirely outside of the academic world, that all three made their livings from writing music without holding down positions at universities. "I was unemployable the day before I won the Pulitzer," David Lang remarked on Friday. That changed, though; he now teaches at Yale and Oberlin.

Attendees were treated to a few ear-jangling clips of the trio's compositions: Gordon's "Dystopia," performed by the LA Philharmonic under David Robertson; Lang's "Little Match Girl Passion," written for Paul Hillier and Theatre of Voices and for which he won the Pulitzer; Wolfe's string quartet "Early That Summer" and "Lad" for nine bagpipes. "Dystopia" thrilled me most -- brassy, busy and colored by the Walt Disney Concert Hall pipe organ, but with a deftly multi-layered structure -- but all were highly enjoyable.

I believe it was Julia Wolfe who stated the group was formed "to make the field better, more widely played... [to build] a bigger and more enthusiastic audience." That really resonated with me, because that's what I want to do as a writer and critic. Maybe that's not what a critic's job is or ought to be, but I believe in this music, in new music, and in the music that paved the way for its creation. A 12-hour concert, or a 24-hour one, might be a news-making spectacle, but the individual pieces that comprise it, and the composers behind them, should be known, too.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Philly Orchestra season closer: An earthly delight

In the face of economic woes and minor crises in leadership, the Philadelphia Orchestra has soldiered on to produce an admirable, intermittently dazzling subscription season. Charles Dutoit and the Orchestra brought it to a close with performances of Berlioz's Requiem, a piece whose ambition and tumult seemed a perfect finale to a season that exhibited plenty of both.

With themes of the afterlife and light shining on the souls of the departed, the words "celestial" or "heavenly" are applied to this Requiem and others. I came away with the impression of a more earthly delight, more rooted in human frailty and failings than in the firmament.

Dutoit initially took a big-picture approach, guiding the orchestra lightly through the winding scalar figures that churn through the first several movements. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, at 160 voices rather than the 400 or so that Berlioz recommended, seemed a little underpowered in the "Introitus" but found its footing in the "Dies irae." That chaotic movement threatened to come totally unglued, with four brass choruses spread throughout the hall's second tier and their sound's dissipation into space distorted entrances and rhythms. I'm not sure if there would have been an ideal spot in the hall to hear all four, but they eventually fell into line and joined with four (though it might have been more) sets of timpani to produce a very satisfying roar.

After the stormy "Dies irae," the moments of hush in the ensuing movements were even more pleasing. The Chorale showed immaculate blend, especially in the unaccompanied "Quarens me," and responded strongly to Dutoit's cues, matching the contour he brought to the strings' playing.

What established this Requiem as earthly, in the best sense, rather than heavenly was the sixth movement, the pleading "Lacrymosa." Stabs from the violins gradually transformed into savage blows from brass and percussion that answered pitiful cries of "Save me" from the singers. Dutoit dropped his usual cool detachment and dug in earnestly, gesturing broadly but without putting a stranglehold on the music. The gritty, fevered element of the music resonated strongly; salvation seemed imperiled.

The rest of the concert strove more actively for a feeling of distant, radiant beams. The chorus was hushed but penetrating in the "Offertorium," and the men of the chorus exhibit fine tuning and blended in the "Hostias." In one instance of a forced hand attempting to impart a heavenly sensation, tenor Paul Groves sang his solo in the "Sanctus" from the highest reaches of Verizon Hall. Rather than sounding celestial, it was alienating. Being able to see facial expressions, body language and the mouth's shaping of vowels is vital to appreciating and attempting to understand any singer's performances, and it was dissatisfying to be denied that connection. Groves' sound, though disembodied, was impressive, with a clear, tremulous tone and a loving, lingering approach to his syllables.

The closing "Agnus Dei," with its revisiting of earlier movements, was alternately impassioned and detached, piling up many of the preceding themes and emotions. This pileup in the form of a prayer leads, of course, to the final "Amen." To reach that final exhalation, that sense of final consolation, I get the sense that both listener and performer have to go through hell, and Berlioz's Requiem, diffuse and difficult by its nature, does give you hell. The composer demanded an over-sized orchestra and chorus and wrote, for those forces, a roughly 90-minute work. The ambition of the piece, to me, embodies the desire to create something titanic immortal through art.

Why, then, try to give so much gloss to this very earthly striving? At times, the orchestra's performance aimed for the rafters instead of the heart. It might have benefited from more of the spirit of the "Lacrymosa," where the pleasures of heaven seem threatened, infusing the surrounding movements. A Requiem isn't all angels and harps and lux perpetua. Give us the sweat, the grit, the feeling we just might not be worthy.

For another take: DPS in the Inquirer.

Commended to your attention

An article by Tim Page, professor at USC's Annenberg School of Journalism and Thornton School of Music, former music critic for the Washington Post, and an author whose writing on any number of subjects I would be delighted to read. As it happens, here he writes on a subject about which I have rather strong feelings: the future of arts journalism and the importance of educating people in practicing it. The personal touches at the beginning are particularly gripping -- having recently looked back at my own early writings, amen to his "Oh dear" -- and the exhortations near the end seem both a plea for well-reasoned writing and a representation of it. As a whole, it's pointed without being overly proscriptive.

I can also say that I, too, dislike "histrionic excess" in performances of Tchaikovsky, and I'm happy that jacket and tie are no longer required wearing for either critics or regular concertgoers.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Fermentation nation

The Garden State Craft Brewers Guild Festival, previewed for the Courier-Post, June 14, 2009.

With my first foray into beer journalism, months of poring over blogs and Joe Sixpack's "Philly Beer Guide", not to mention making contacts in the Philly beer scene, have finally paid off. New Jersey looks to have a pretty robust scene of its own, and I'm excited to check it out. I might provide some coverage of the Festival for my buddies over at Hopheads, including maybe even *gasp* some Twittering.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Rock-crit returns

John Vanderslice and The Tallest Man on Earth at Johnny Brenda's, reviewed for Phawker, June 12, 2009.

JV = one of my all-time favorites. Saw him March 2004 in St. Louis and April 2007 in NYC. Erik Friedlander showed up at the NYC gig and played back-up on a few tunes. No new-music cameos here in Philly, but the set was still brash and boldly experimental. Several songs I thought I knew by heart appeared in vastly different form. The reports from St. Paul were right; this new band can tear it up.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Skin, deeply

"Race: Are We So Different?", a new exhibit at the Franklin, previewed for the Courier-Post, June 7, 2009.

Forthcoming: more non-musical matters, including a preview of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild Festival. Hoping to land some press tickets to that one, which subsequently might lead to some cross-posting with my friends at Hopheads. Cheers.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Some thoughts on Friday's concert by The Crossing:

- thrilling and exhausting gestures in John McCabe's Scenes from America Deserta: wordless glissandos, dense layering, lots of sibilance and chattering syllables. Busy rather than stark. Much more tumultuous than expected for something intended to evoke a desert.

- two calmer pieces to cool things down. Paul Fowler's Potter's Clay, for women's voices, is smooth and chant-like, working and reworking "Om mani padme hum" into a dissonant pile-up, then repeating the initial portion of the English text. Gives the sense of resolve and insight forged in contemplation. Men rejoin the women for Phillip Moore's I saw him standing there and the blend seems off; the men might still be drained from the McCabe. The middle section of the motet has the most interest; a vital, rhythmic dance that recalls the madrigals that many promising singers first take on during high school as an introduction to high-level, unaccompanied singing.

- Kile Smith's Where flames a word, the final world premiere in the Celan Project, and the first to incorporate a prose work by Celan. Gives a sense of immanence and of tremendous, overwhelming size and the struggle to comprehend it. Middle section, the prose setting, has text that reflects a struggle for language, a conflict between "green" and "white" language, and the build-up of clusters suggests language at war, green and white each fighting for their own space.

-Exact quote from conductor Donald Nally, not long into first movement: "Every so often, and because the composer is in the room, we're going to go back and do it again. There's a wonderful moment... that we just screwed up."

-Despite that, the Smith piece was really impressive: a strong sense of lapping waves, of drawing closer to that nagging, inscrutable secret that seems to haunt Celan. One odd thing: ending on the word "delusion" with a sweet, major chord. Are we to come away thinking of peace and harmony as a delusion? Is this resignation in the face of the struggles Celan evokes? Not sure.

-First half: totally killer. How did they get through it? How do they have the energy for the second half? Anyway, here they go again: "Rain and Rush and Rosebush" by Bo Holten (also in attendance!) A flitting, dramatic work, with a very hard-working soprano soloist and trio of narrators/commenters with an immaculately blended sound. The piece has a kind of fairytale-ish back story but it's much deeper and stranger than most fairytales. Kind of cold at points, but with lots of fluid, intertwining lines that maintain momentum.

-Arvo Pärt's I am the true vine: holy moly. The blend, the focus, the consistency, the adherence to text, it's all there. There's a gravity to the words but a lightness in phrasing, static but radiant. In short: it was simple, beautiful, ethereal, and right.

-Concert closed with Voices of Autumn by my one-time college professor Jackson Hill (sadly, not in attendance). Apparently not taxed by the Pärt or all that came before: the same blend and focus are there, and the ornamentations, inspired by Buddhist chant and Japanese court music, are tossed off with poise. As with the Pärt, I'm reminded of a massed organ sound, with stops being pulled to generate minute changes in color and texture.

All this was motivated by the fact that I'll be seeing The Crossing again tonight at the opening concert of the Chorus America conference, which is being held in Philadelphia. The Crossing will be joined by the Princeton Singers, and I believe they will reprise the Smith piece, as well as the David Shapiro piece from earlier this year, and a work by British composer Joby Talbot that I missed out on seeing last month. More reports to come.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Big band vs. small choir

Another week, another new-music scheduling conflict. Tonight, Ars Nova Workshop presents Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, a group I first discovered in mid-2006 through an interview on NewMusicBox, shortly before I started interning there. I'd kept tags on Argue and the band; I even floated the possibility of interviewing him for the magazine I worked for after grad school (it didn't work out, sadly). I knew about tonight's gig weeks in advance (thanks Mark!) and thought I'd be able to make it before heading out of town for a wedding.

Then another much-delayed opportunity arose: seeing the Crossing in concert after missing the first two weeks in their "Month of Moderns." I'd arranged for tickets to previous shows, and I even lined up a copy of the choir's recording of Kile Smith's "Vespers." I couldn't possibly skip out for a third straight time. So tonight, I'll journey up to Chestnut Hill for the first time since January. I'll take notes as if to write a review, though no formal assignment has yet materialized. I'll seek out a friend from high school who sings with the choir, and I might even bump into one of my college professors might even be there -- Jackson Hill's "Voices of Autumn" opens the concert. I'm sorry to miss out on Secret Society (8 pm at International House, $12), but I know the show I'm seeing will be similarly modern and forward-thinking, and even though it's not a band, I trust it will be big.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Sands, sounds

The Bay-Atlantic Symphony at the Jersey Shore, The Courier-Post, May 31, 2009.

Four more concerts remain: two in Cape May, and two in Avalon. The Cape May concerts are on Thursday nights, while will unfortunately keep me from attending, but I'm hoping to make it to one or both of the free programs in Avalon.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What the glut?

There are entirely too many new music happenings in Philadelphia tonight, and it's my involvement as a performer in one of them that will keep me from attending the others.

Starting tonight, the Philadelphia Orchestra welcomes David Robertson as guest conductor, and he will lead Thomas Adès' Violin Concerto, "Concentric Paths," with Leila Josefowicz as soloist. I heard Ms. J give a riveting performance of John Adams' Violin Concerto several years ago, and would love to hear Adès' music live. The rest of the concert (Vaughan Williams, Sibelius and Scriabin) doesn't sound half-bad either.

Also tonight, The Crossing, a new music-centric chamber choir about whom I've written before, gives the second concert in their "Month of Moderns" series, featuring a world premiere by Kirsten Broberg and works by Stucky, Holten, and several European composers unknown to me.

And now for why I won't be able to attend either of these shows: I'm singing with the Choral Arts Society at a benefit concert honoring David Ludwig with the 2009 Leadership in Choral Music Award. Ludwig is a very talented composer, a good interview, and a regular attendee of other Choral Arts concerts. We're performing a handful of his works, including some very fun Hebrew settings.

I'll be able to redeem myself in the coming weeks: concerts by Relâche and Darcy James Argue's Secret Society (presented by Ars Nova) have been penciled into my agenda for some time now.

Monday, May 11, 2009

From the weekend

Camden's Opera Seabrook, The Courier-Post, May 10, 2009. It's a fledgling company that just finished its first season yesterday, and its director's ambitions for next season and skill at finding young operatic talent are rather impressive.

My performance on Saturday of Bach's B minor mass with Choral Arts Society and the Philadelphia Bach Festival Collegium came off rather well, I think. No reviews up yet today, but they're sure to follow in the coming days.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Scot free

The Academy of Vocal Arts' "Lucia di Lammermoor," reviewed for the Courier-Post, May 8, 2009.

This "Lucia" is readily transportable, and the very fine cast and crew will take their show across the river to the Gordon Theater at Rutgers-Camden tomorrow night. Performances at Haverford College and at Central Bucks South High School will follow.

Another review, of Symphony in C's final concert of the year, ran earlier in the week but never made it to the Courier-Post's website. Allow me to summarize: two well-executed rarities by Smetana and Dvorak, a piano soloist (in the Dvorak) who produced a large sound without histrionics and was dutifully attentive to conductor and ensemble, a slightly underpowered woodwind section that finally found its footing in the third movement of Brahms' Second Symphony, a nice sendoff for Symphony players headed to positions elsewhere.

Friday, May 01, 2009

May daze

The Greater South Jersey Chorus performs Carmina Burana, previewed for the Courier-Post, May 1, 2009.

Also, from earlier this week: an article on PlasmaDanceTheater, a dance troupe based in Cherry Hill that performs with a live rock band.

Both PDT and GSJC present concerts tomorrow night. Unfortunately, owing to the busy schedule near the end of the arts season, I will not be able to attend either of them. I'll be reviewing Symphony in C's final performance of the year in Camden -- a program with Smetana, Dvorak and Brahms.

The following days promise to be even busier -- a matinee on Sunday by an opera company I've only just discovered, and a Tuesday night performance by the Academy of Vocal Arts. After that, I'll be deep into preparation for one of my own concerts with Choral Arts Society. Brief and shameless plug: Bach B minor mass, May 9 at 3 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Philadelphia (123 S. 17th Street). We're performing with a full Baroque orchestra, because if it ain't Baroque... well, you know.

Monday, April 20, 2009

South Jersey's cultural exports

To the west: Symphony in C with Astral Artists at the Kimmel Center, reviewed for the Courier-Post, April 20, 2009.

I had to chuckle when I was asked if I'd "made it through" the program's opening piece, a contemporary work by Sebastian Currier. It might have provoked some squirming, but I found it very colorful, witty and exciting, with soloist and orchestra pulling it off ably. Using the minuet form as a point of departure, Currier plays with cadences and expectations, making the phrases fall in unanticipated spots. Oddly, I heard some of that same playfulness in the delayed final cadence at the end of Strauss' "Four Last Songs."

To the south and west: This past weekend, I accompanied the Greater South Jersey Chorus to Washington, DC for a performance at the National Gallery of Art. I'm currently at work on a preview of the Chorus' performances of Carmina Burana on May 2 and 17, and the invitation to perform as part of a weekend choral festival came at just the right time to include the honor in my article.

Their program of 18th and 19th century American hymns and folk tunes was a very thoughtful, well-balanced assemblage, and the resonance of the National Gallery's Garden Court gave just the right boost to the chorus' sound, particularly the sopranos and basses. The 45-minute set could have used one or two more up-tempo numbers, but the concert's peak -- a stunning rendition of Aaron Copland's setting of "At the River" -- and its conclusion -- Rishel's own arrangement of the spiritual "All Night, All Day" -- were all the more effective for their deliberate pacing and slow build in dynamics and intensity. This indicates good things to come in May's Carmina performances.

Roughly two-thirds of the 90-member chorus made the trek, and I was very privileged to speak with director Dean Rishel, Chorus president Bill Kinsey, tour manager Bonnie Meilner and several other members of the chorus during the bus trip.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Over the river

Symphony in C and Astral Artists at the Kimmel Center, The Courier-Post, April 12, 2009.

I'll be attending this one, too, and my review should run on Saturday.

I was surprised to learn that Astral was not promoting the performance of Sebastian Currier's "Broken Minuets" as the work's U.S. premiere. Anything that forces me to explain microtones to a general audience is noteworthy indeed.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Part of this balanced breakfast

The Philadelphia Orchestra's "Green Eggs and Ham" Family Concert, reviewed for the Courier-Post, April 7, 2009.

I'd never before reviewed a concert geared toward children, but the Courier-Post has recently shaded toward family-centered coverage in its features, so I might be doing more of these reviews. In addition to a very fine performance by the Orchestra and many positive and enthusiastic comments I heard from children in attendance, there's one more excellent sign for the future of these family concerts: the ripple of excitement that went through the audience when Michael Boudewyns announced there would be a concert next season of Harry Potter music.

I've only seen two movies in the HP franchise and, regrettably, have read none of the books, but I know the power they have over readers of all ages, and I'll never forget the gasps of joy I heard in the fall of 2006 when the opening celesta notes of "Hedwig's Theme" were played at a Halloween concert. I was on stage, playing third trombone with the Syracuse University Symphony Orchestra, and the hall was filled with costumed children -- without question, the most rapt and attentive audience I've ever performed for.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Singing places surge in me

Jeff Hamburg and "Home for Passover," a profile for The Courier-Post, March 29, 2009.

The online version of the article includes several samples of Jeff's music. I didn't see any labels on them, but the excerpts are from "Zey...," "Hebraische-Melodien," "Hear O Heavens, Give Ear O Earth," and the Second String Quartet Hashkivenu. Also, the documentary "Home for Passover" will be shown on the Dutch television channel IDTV. Many thanks to Jeff, his family, and the staff of Muziek Centrum Nederland for their kind assistance in writing the article.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Greatness with brushes

Network for New Music's "Visions of America," previewed for the Bulletin, March 27, 2009. The concert is April 3 and will be performed in the rotunda at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, with the musicians flanked by the works that inspired Richard Brodhead and David Laganella's works.

Mr. Laganella is also director for Chamber Music Now!, a group I've heard about but haven't yet had a chance to hear in person. I hope to write about CMN!'s next project, a series of concerts held in the city's Eastern State Penitentiary, in some fashion.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A crushing triumph, a glorious defeat

Curtis Opera Theatre's Wozzeck, reviewed for The Bulletin, March 17, 2009.

A stirring, stunning production - highly recommended. It runs about 90 minutes, and the time just flies by. There's one last performance tomorrow evening at 7:30.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Er ist der Mann

Today on Phawker, an interview with tenor Jason Collins, who plays the Drum Major in Curtis Opera Theater's presentation of Wozzeck. He appears, along with fellow Curtis alum Shuler Hensley, in performances tonight, Sunday and Wednesday.

Yesterday's Paperboy is also attracting some attention. One important thing to address: yes, PW did cover a similar topic on its cover last year, and I made it pretty clear that I feel CP did a better job of it this year. There's an important difference between approaching a subject head-on and sideswiping it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

iPhones of the rich and famous

It's currently Beer Week in Philadelphia, and though I've been trying to restrain myself for the sake of my health and finances, I couldn't hold myself back from an event at Tria (highly recommended) featuring Dogfish Head brewery and its founder, Sam Calagione. With my long-held interests in both beer and journalism, and the brewery's prominent feature in the New Yorker last November, I knew I had to meet Sam and ask him what the writer of that feature, Burkhard Bilger, was like.

With a friend in tow, I did end up meeting Sam, who regaled me with stories of Mr. Bilger's preparation and in-depth research. They've become good friends since the profile was published. When discussion turned to my own writing, I mentioned my interest in classical and new music, to which Sam replied, "Oh, man, you've gotta hear this guy I've been listening to." He pulled out his iPhone, flipped through it, and showed me an album labeled "nico muhly," a composer who has himself been the subject of a New Yorker profile.

He asked me if I'd heard of him, and I said I had; in fact, I interviewed him last year for Phawker, attended (and enjoyed) his concert at First Unitarian, and had previously transcribed an interview with him for another site. Could it be there's some strange affinity between people who have been featured in the New Yorker? Does Nico Muhly drink Dogfish Head beer? Was Sam serious when he told me he'd trade "good beer for some good music"? Stay tuned.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Critic-in-residence, part 2

In following up my last review, I find I have less to say about Mariza's performance at Verizon Hall last night; this is partly because the concert was so universally stunning, and also because it was sung almost entirely in Portuguese. Though the latter fact makes it somewhat difficult for me to differentiate much of last night's program, I nevertheless found her singing - finely-grained, limber, and heartbreakingly expressive throughout - truly rapturous. From her first number, it seemed she had a smoky, sub-mezzo, almost-contralto voice, making the power and clarity at the top of her range all the more surprising. She exhibited a fond, intimate chemistry with her backing band and had a stage presence that occupied a curious spot between languorous lounge singer and supremely poised flamenco dancer.

Near the end of several songs, the accompaniment stopped, and Mariza delivered an almost-whispered soliloquy - a lean-in moment for me and the rest of the audience - before letting loose with a ringing declamation near the top of her range. This capacity for dynamic contrast and flexibility, and the reactions it elicited in the audience, characterized the evening.

Her tremendously able band featured a fantastic Portuguese guitarist (that is to say, a player of the Portuguese guitar, rather than a guitarist from Portugal; her entire band hails from there) who, I was amazed to learn, is not yet of drinking age in the US, as well as very fine contributors on acoustic guitar, bass, drums and a pianist who occasionally chimed in on trumpet. Their blend and unity of attack, especially in up-tempo numbers, was impressive, as were solo turns by the aforementioned youngster Angelo Braz Freire and acoustic guitarist Diogo Clemente. The drummer, identified as Hugo Antonia E Silva Carreira Marques in the program but called "Mister Vicky," took a few overly technical solos that were more appropriate for a Rush or Metallica show, but his timekeeping and shorter fills were solid without being flashy.

The only tune sung in English came during the encore, as Mariza took on Arthur Hamilton's "Cry Me A River." She brought a resolute air to a dolorous number, with playful phrasing and unimpeachable English. After an evening of heart-on-sleeve songs, though, the stripped-down closer was even more honest, with Mariza and two of her guitarists dispensing with amplification and the guitarists singing a few bars each. Obrigado a todos.


I knew I'd be attending concerts on back-to-back nights this weekend and briefly considered holing up in the coat-check area. In truth, though, I wasn't assigned to review either of this weekend's performances; I attended Bang on a Can All-Stars on Saturday after interviewing guest artist and composer Glenn Kotche, and my tickets to Portuguese fado artist Mariza came from a friend who won them and was unable to attend. Both were a treat, though I felt the All-Stars were poorly served by the Perelman Theater's audio setup.

In the program's first half, which featured works by Bang on a Can's three founding composers (David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon), the sound mix favored guitar and drums to the detriment of the other instruments. One had to strain to hear cellist Caroline Stinson and bassist Robert Black during loud, raucous numbers and quiet, ruminative ones alike. Of the three first-half pieces, I liked Gordon's "For Madeline" (I'm guessing on the spelling; the piece's title was announced from the stage) best. Keening slides from clarinet, cello and guitar glided over a tense, oscillating pulse in the piano and marimba, eventually giving way to a radiant but frantic "B" section. Wolfe's "Lick" was a fun, disjointed romp with a tidy, thoughtful finish akin to turning down the volume knob on a stereo. Lang's "Sunray" had a promising start with chiming, delicate patterns tinged with dissonance, but the close was a tad bombastic.

The second half featured Kotche in a few takeoffs on Steve Reich's music and in two of Kotche's own compositions. His "Clapping Music Variations" was hard to parse; a backing electronic track seemed to play Reich's original "Clapping Music" along with other sounds as Kotche and All-Stars drummer David Cossin played new spin on the source material on their kits and, later, on Indonesian percussion. The altered riffs disappointingly lacked the tension and pared-down focus of Reich's original, but Cossin's transcription of "Music for Pieces of Wood" compensated -- a booming, visceral ride through mutating polyrhythms. I was enthralled.

Kotche's charts were more subtle but still captivating. "Snap" attained the soul-inspired groove that Kotche sought, with parts of it sounding like a playful, amped-up tango and others filled with nudging, insistent pulses. His transcription of "Mobile," the title composition from his 2006 album, was more Reichian than Staxian, with shifting, swapping patterns criss-crossing the ensembles and a fine-grained sense of voicing and orchestration. Some of the kalimba-based riffs were stuck firmly in my head for the remainder of the evening -- a good sign of a catchy piece and, in this case, a successful one.

A write-up of Mariza will come later this afternoon.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Deep skins

Today on Phawker, an interview with Glenn Kotche, drummer for undeniably-great rock band Wilco and a creative, broad-minded percussionist and composer. He's coming to Philly for a performance with Bang on a Can All-Stars.

I didn't push him for details on the new Wilco album; I tried to keep our discussion centered on his work as a composer and his collaborations with BoaC and other new-music groups. I'm happy just knowing it's on its way. The big New Zealand-based project he described sounds intriguing as well and appears to be on its way even sooner.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Do you want more?!

The Vienna Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta and Lang Lang. Feb. 26, 2009, The Bulletin.

DPS didn't like this one as much as I did, but at least I left Lang Lang's hairstyle out of it.

Also, the latest Paperboy A couple nice cover stories undermined by a couple fact errors and dumb typos. Among the misspelled or misidentified: Washington, DC-based record label Dischord, aioli, and drummer John Hollenbeck. Also, I'm pretty sure Police Chief Charles Ramsey came to Philly from DC, but it's possible he went home to Chicago in the roughly year-long interim between positions.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The hits keep coming

Steve Lippia and the Philly Pops' Celebration of Ol' Blue Eyes, The Bulletin, Feb. 20, 2009.

Another week, another Paperboy for Phawker. In light of this, I join others in sounding the death knell for PW's commitment to journalism.

Plus, a preview of Benjy Ferree, who plays tomorrow night at the M Room.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

From Rittenhouse to your house

A preview of Curtis on Tour, The Bulletin, Feb. 17, 2009.

The article includes some insights from composer David Ludwig on his "From the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," which will be premiered Wednesday evening. I knew a little bit about the original Persian poetry going into writing the article, but I confess that the first thing that came to mind was an episode of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Wednesday's recital features wind and string students from Curtis, as well as mezzo-soprano Allison Sanders but, sadly, no flying squirrels.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Your revue of reviews

The Cleveland Orchestra at Verizon Hall, The Bulletin, Feb. 10, 2009.

Curtis Opera Theatre's Impressions of Pelleas, The Bulletin, Feb. 12, 2009.

Today's title is a shoddy reference to Sid Caesar. I'll try to make it up to him.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday follies

Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, "Visions of America," reviewed for the Bulletin. Jan. 30, 2009.

Tonight, I'm seeing The Inverse at Doc Watson's. I've never been to this club before, but a friend of mine from high school plays bass in this band. Funk has been much neglected in my music coverage of late; tonight should more than fulfill my RDA.

On Sunday, I make my triumphant return to church singing in the choir at St. Mark's Church (16th and Locust). This is my first venture into high-church music, complete with chanted psalm settings, and I'm filling in for both the 11 am High Choral Mass and the 4 pm Evensong. Leighton, Howells, Elgar and a variety of 16th century composers will be featured.

Oh, and I'll probably watch a little football after the 4 pm service. Teams from western Pennsylvania and the Phoenix suburbs will be featured.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


With rough weather the last couple days, I've only left the apartment to pick up the papers, all so I could bring you today's Paperboy. For the rest of the last week, I've just been huddled up, covers over my head.

Just kidding. I've been to a couple concerts (one review coming tomorrow), landed a prospective assignment from a widely-read and respected periodical, and interviewed soprano Ana Maria Martinez about performing with Plácido Domingo, whose Feb. 16 concert will be the subject of my next big feature. Not even snowy, icy nastiness will halt my ambitions.

Also, any experts on Dutch music (or Dutch music experts) out there? I'm looking for some insights for my next next big feature.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Valhalla, I am coming

Today on Phawker, the latest Paperboy. I linked to a video of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," and fortunately I didn't have to resort to measures like those seen below.

My non-Paperboy output has dipped a bit, but I'm working on landing a few interviews for upcoming shows at the Kimmel Center. Stay tuned for some of this, and maybe even a little bit of this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural follow-up

Some other thoughts on John Williams' piece for the inauguration here. Pretty much right on - shameless populism strikes again - but there were a few moments (some low rumbles in the piano, some criss-crossing lines that took the cello up high and the violin rather low) that were very nice. It could have been more, and it certainly wasn't Messiaen (I can wish), but the lineup of performers reflected the best of America.

What might have been

They got a cellist, a violinist, a pianist and a clarinetist together to play a John Williams piece for the inauguration. Top-flight musicians all: two legends, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, and two young performers poised for greatness, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill. How could they assemble this specific instrumentation and not do Quartet for the End of Time?

Oh, right, the apocalyptic overtones. Don't want to herald a new era with the sounding of the seventh trumpet. It's still awesome, though. The above recording by a chamber group from New Mexico is mislabeled (it's actually the sixth movement, the "dance of fury, for the seven trumpets") but pretty good. Dig this, from Messiaen's preface to the score:

"Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness."

Stone and steel for the nation's new resolve; purple for a country that is neither blue nor red; icy drunkenness for all the revelers waiting in the cold today. It would have been perfect.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pre-inaugural post

Singers and symphonies, preview of concerts by the Bay-Atlantic Symphony and Symphony in C. The Courier-Post, Jan. 18, 2009.

Eschenbach returns, a review of the Philadelphia Orchestra with their former conductor on the podium. The Bulletin, Jan. 19, 2009.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

In brief

From today, Paperboy. From Monday, orchestra review. Doing another one tonight.

I was in a room with someone very famous today. Hint: his last name rhymes with "Flamingo."

Coming up: a preview of two orchestra concerts on the other side of the river, plus an article on that Flamingo guy.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Back to slinging mud

First issue of Paperboy in the New Year after a two-week break for Christmas and New Year's. During the interim, I was baffled to find myself on the Letters page of CP (third one down), bringing a typo to the their attention. I figured they'd run a "regret the error"-type notice, but they probably needed one more short letter to fill out the column.

On the horizon: several Orchestra reviews (Philly the next two weeks at least, plus a Cleveland appearance in early February), another orchestra preview for the Courier-Post, and a visit from my parents.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

It is time

A review of the Crossing, an excellent, forward-thinking chamber choir based in Philly. The wait for their first concert of the year was worth it, and I believe that a second wait for their "Month of Moderns" in May and June will be similarly rewarded.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Wrapping up

Various year-end lists featuring my writing surfaced in the last few days. For Phawker's The Music We Loved in 2008, I wrote up TV on the Radio's "Dear Science" and Man Man's "Rabbit Habbits," as well as the "Punk Rock Moment of the Year," Amy Poehler's Sarah Palin rap on SNL.

For the Bulletin, I contributed notes on Charles Dutoit's arrival as chief conductor in Philly and on Jason Moran's stellar Art Museum concert. The Dutoit entry is more forward-looking than retrospective; his work with the Orchestra will likely only grow stronger in the New Year and for several more to come.

Once again, I have chosen new music over football. Better to support local arts than a non-local team. Look for the concert review on Monday. Go Vikes.