The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Coltrane’s sounds of spring

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It happens that it was springtime when I discovered John Coltrane — really discovered the power of his music — more than a few years ago. Although spring has been reluctant to show its face so far, this is what I hear when I think of this time of year. For me, “Central Park West” is a slowed-down, more pensive version of “Giant Steps,” as the artist takes the time to let his chord explorations develop — to blossom into beautiful music. In other words, perfectly seasonal.

Also good to remember that Coltrane broke even more ground with the soprano sax than with the tenor, way before it was corrupted into thank-you-for-calling-customer-service-please-hold music…


Written by cwmote

March 27, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Giant steps for the John Coltrane House

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In some ways, John Coltrane’s house is like any other in Strawberry Mansion. The three-story, Dutch-gabled row home where he lived from 1952 to 1958 was seen as desirable by North Philadelphia’s ascendent black middle class, literally across the street from verdant Fairmount Park and tied in closely to the city’s burgeoning jazz scene.

After decades of decline, there are signs of renewed investment in Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood still beset by poverty and crime. Many classic houses are crumbling; vacant lots abound. Still, the former Coltrane residence at 1511 North 33rd Street, while vulnerable to the risks of age and abandonment, endures as a symbol of the city of Philadelphia’s rich music culture. The house—a National Historic Landmark—is the focus of preservation efforts to commemorate the jazz icon’s legacy and serve as an asset to the community.

The full story — recounting Coltrane’s spiritual awakening and examining the challenges posed by house museums — is now up at Hidden City and is also being published this week by All About Jazz. Exciting times ahead.

Last Waltz for the Netherlands (i.e. an octupus-free World Cup post)

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Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 always seemed like fittingly upbeat music for losers to wallow in, but imagine a stadium full of Holland fans riffing on it like a football chant.

So it is. Here’s one last sendoff for the close-but-no-cigar Dutch national team.

The clip is from halftime at a match at Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium. The leader of the chant? None other than Andre Rieu, the frivolous, self-esteeming, undisputed king of classical music’s lower middlebrow and a ubiquitous presence on public television (especially, in the US, during pledge drives). The waltz, which has sort of become Rieu’s trademark, is definitely not the most obscure piece of music in the repertoire. Even so, it’s a bit astonishing to discover that soccer fans — alleged hooligans — already know it well.

Now, Rieu is Dutch, so he may well be a celebrity in his home country. Maybe the fans needed to rehearse the melody before the cameras rolled. Or maybe AFC Ajax Amsterdam’s supporters simply admire the beauty of Shostakovich.

(Here’s a clearer recording for the admirers and for the uninitiated.)

Score one goal for classical music literacy — for now.

Also, congrats to Spain on the victory.

Written by cwmote

July 17, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Angels, Beats, and a Party for the World: May in Review

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When I arrived in Argentina at the end of February, I knew that the summer weather was nearing its end and the colder months lay ahead of me. I knew it, but at the same time, I distrusted it. The northern hemisphere mindset is hard to shake if you’ve known summers in July all of your life.

Sure enough, by May the temperatures had dropped, the days shortened, the soft and lazy rains set in. Even though it’s not nearly as cold as it was in Philly around my departure, you get used to griping wherever you are.

Yet, far from being one continuous panorama of gloom, Buenos Aires was livelier than ever during the month of May. A lot of that newfound energy came from the anticipation of the biggest event of all, the bicentennial. Here are the highlights from that lead-up:

Circus Acts. Yes, snow is a rarity in this city. Three years ago, a chilly stretch brought a dusting to the streets, but it was a once-in-a-century occurrence. On the evening of May 8, as Buenos Aires wrapped up its week-long International Circus Festival, it was a different sort of white stuff that had people frolicking like children again: Plaza San Martin, a tango hat’s toss from the train station in the city’s Retiro neighborhood, was reinvented as “Place des Anges.”

Courtesy of La Nacion

The French troupe Les Studios de Cirque de Marseille turned the plaza into an acrobatic stage…although, in fact, the “stage” extended over a hundred feet above, as wires suspended across surrounding buildings served as the performers’ way of entrance. This was the stage for the angels, albeit angels of an otherworldly, new-wave aesthetic. The spectacle, accompanied by music with Near Eastern influences and waling vocals, reinforced that feeling. The angel/acrobats came and went here and there up above, scampering across ropes like crank-consuming possums or dangling, spinning and swirling from their harnesses as they gently came to earth.

Courtesy of La Nacion

And they brought with them a heavenly gift: feathers. Lots of them.

Courtesy of La Nacion

It’s impossible to exaggerate their number. They fell sprinkled from pillow fights, they fell in large chunks as if they were pillows, and in the coup de grace, they were shot through giant tubes into the air. They wove themselves into the hair and coats of all who were present. The whole event lasted around half an hour, but people stayed long after. And seeing the crowds reduced to childish glee, throwing the landed piles of feathers that were everywhere and dancing in the plaza afterward, made at least this northerner smile.

The Best Beatle Band in the World. Yeah, it’s true: a Beatles band in South America.

If you thought the soundtrack to Argentina was exclusively a playlist of tango and Spanish-language rock, you were sadly mistaken. All it took for me was a visit to the Gran Rex, a true giant of a performance venue on Avenida Corrientes in the theater district, to witness The Beats, “La mejor banda Beatle del mundo,” to agree that they well were the best on any continent.

More than a lingering curiosity, imitation rock-and-roll ensembles (also called “mock stars”) are a defining cultural staple of our times. The first generation to witness the phenomenon of mass-produced popular music, passed their envy down to their children, and so we have to sort of make believe what it was like when all was golden on the charts. Beatlemania is the pinnacle of this movement. The Beatles tribute bands are many, but the idea of musicians impersonating the fab four for a living is in a whole other realm. As it turns out, that realm does not exclusively belong to the English-speaking world.

The actors don’t quite have the resemblance to the real guys. Paul doesn’t have the eternal baby face down, but you can still pick him out easily, and Ringo appears less giddily agitated than nonplussed, besides the fact that he’s too scrawny, which is saying something. John and George seem resigned to the fact that they require a bit of imagination at face value, although during the show, John in his later years post-Revolver becomes more believable with glasses and a longer mane.

All that said, if you can withhold counting their looks against them, their sound is pretty commendable:

Once you realize that they’re not pretending to be the real thing — offering, instead, a historical reenactment for generations and nationalities who never got to witness Beatlemania first-hand — the show can be quite enjoyable.

“Irrepetible,” their most recent show, featured a multitude of sets and costumes representative of nearly the entire Beatles run. Interestingly, they began the concert with a medley of standards from the Let it Be era and then jumped around the time line, even strolling in white suits for “Your Mother Should Know.” They finally capped it off with a page from the clean-cut “British invasion” onset: “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” then “Twist ‘n Shout” for the encore.

Individual talents were also (mostly) stressed. John offered a pair of anachronisms, “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance,” the latter from his bed (minus Yoko) while a video montage of current global conflicts cemented his all-too-obvious status as a prophet (to some souls, he is still bigger than Jesus). Paul soloed on “Yesterday” and “Fool on the Hill,” betraying his Argentine accent a little in his enunciation of the, behind the teeth rather than on them. (To his credit, he does play left-handed.) And George, who really sounded like freaking George, brandished a sitar for “Love You To” and tore it up.

Alas, no “Octopus’s Garden” from Ringo. Not a word. It’s like the guy was just happy to be there.

The Beats will never out-Liverpool the Liverpudlians, but their act is impressive. About time more fans of the original group took notice.

However, it was a few steps away from the Gran Rex that the most touted performance venue in the city would soon be celebrated.

The Teatro Colon. Opera houses are a big adjectival deal. They have always been containment areas for the well-heeled to witness the most grandiose statements of human emotion that artistic performance can achieve. Even as they’ve grown more egalitarian, they remain the surest test of a cultivated citizenry, ensuring the highest denominator for all levels of entertainment below. The Teatro Colon is not just the most storied such theater on the continent; it’s on the shortlist of best in the world. For a city whose heritage is indebted to Europe, the Teatro is a link to that Old World tradition–an emblem of cultural continuity and exchange in a country that is barely celebrating 200 years as an independent state.

When it originally opened in 1908, the Colon proudly stood as an emblem of the immense wealth of the country. It then withstood every tumult and collapse of the long century, and finally emerged into the next one in serious debt and need of repair. There was no option but to close the opera house in 2006 for long-needed renovations. After several delays, the theater foundation and the city government at last arranged to christen its reopening on May 24, 2010–the eve of Argentina’s bicentennial.

The Colon overlooks the wide expanse of Avenida 9 de Julio, just a few blocks north of the obelisk in the heart of the city center. The bicentenario, it was clear from the throngs of the masses packing that boulevard, would be a gargantuan celebration unlike any other. (At least, unlike any not football-related.) I arrived at the center before 7pm to find crowds nearly impenetrable on the way to the Colon. When the ceremony started, a half-hour late (as lateness is fashionable in this part of the world), the weary crowds were desperate for a good show. They got it.

The theater’s facade became a screen onto which a montage of images were projected, narrating the history and legacy of the opera house. The images, however, were painstakingly designed to fit into the nuances of every window and column on the facade. (The Argentines call this un mapping, which is in the spirit of their tradition of taking gerunds from English and misunderstanding them slightly in the original. For the record, the Italians and French do this too.) And as the montage covered the great moments from the opera, the symphony orchestra, ballet, and performances of folkloric and popular music, all under the Colon’s roof, it was the task of the audio to accompany the visual and allow glorious music to pour all over 9 de Julio. Well, too bad the audio kept malfunctioning — even ruining the climax of “Nessun dorma,” which elicited a lot of groans and whistles of disapproval.

In spite of the imperfections, the “mapping” of the theater was a feast for the eyes and carried the night:

So while the theater didn’t literally open up for the ceremony, the new season has since gotten underway. A city that has withstood so many tribulations has reason to be proud again.

[Next: More on the Bicentenario. Stay tuned.]

Jennifer Montone and the Penderecki Horn Concerto

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Courtesy of the Curtis Institute of Music

On Sunday afternoon before the Super Bowl, I made it down to the Kimmel Center to catch the Curtis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Robert Spano. The main attraction was the new Concerto for Horn, which premiered two years ago, by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Once an avant-gardist whose dissonances reflected — and in other cases, subverted — the chaos and political brutality of the middle of the 20th Century, Penderecki, now 76, has generally mellowed and returned to more tonal fancies with the arrival of the 21st. The mood of the horn concerto is dark, sometimes tauntingly so, but it reaches for the heroic and even the humorous to keep it from overwhelming the audience. The trajectory of this twenty-minute piece suggests the act of finding one’s way out of a disquieting wood.

The aesthetics of the Penderecki are ultimately less impressive than the demands of the horn part itself. The showmanship of the French horn doesn’t come from swift fingers, but from versatile lips. The art of extracting notes of radically different pitch and shape from the same instrument cannot be appreciated in the visual sense as much as mastery of the piano or the violin. But with Jennifer Montone on hand, it was difficult not to be bowled over by the sheer force and subtle range of the part. Montone, the very talented (and photogenic) Principal Horn for the Philadelphia Orchestra, stands among the superlatives. Her interpretation of the Penderecki brought out the full range of the instrument, and demonstrated its formidable, brassy power while also capturing its lighter and more gracious side. Through her performance, and the student orchestra’s reliable accompaniment, one can readily appreciate the influence of the great horn composers (especially R. Strauss and Mahler) on this otherwise contemporary composition. The optimist can take it as a sign that, despite the obituaries for classical music that regularly pop up, there can still be a dialogue with the past to produce something alive and fresh for newer audiences.

There may not be many concertos in the horn repertoire, but as long as there are virtuosos like Jennifer Montone there will be composers to keep writing them.

Written by cwmote

February 12, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Teddy Pendergrass 1950-2010

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Walk of Fame plaque, South Broad Street

The Sound of Philadelphia that flourished in the 1970s was projected through many voices, but none more distinct than that of Teddy Pendergrass. The man epitomized soul. The power of his raw baritone voice lay in the very sense of vulnerability that it conveyed — a quality that took on shocking real-life dimensions when an automobile accident paralyzed him in 1982. He lost his onstage flair after that, but he never lost his honesty in his singing.

Read Dan DeLuca’s appreciation in the Inquirer.

As a token of remembrance, this clip seems appropriate:

The Sound of Philly lives on.

Written by cwmote

January 15, 2010 at 12:29 pm