Category Archives: music

Nikolaus Harnancourt on Beethoven’s “Dona nobis pacem”

From the liner notes to Harnoncourt’s final recording:

In most settings of the Mass, the “Dona nobis pacem” is interpreted in such as a way as to suggest that peace already exists. And yet the words mean that is not peace that reigns but catastrophe. Beethoven does not say “Thank you!” but “Give!” This is particularly thrilling in the Missa solemnis. For me, this begs the question as to whether peace can exist at all. I see this psychologically. Of course, memories of the Napoleonic Wars were still fresh in people’s minds at this time, and you may be even be able to see a burning city in the music. But the battle painting tends, rather, to depict the conflict that goes on inside us. It is a plea—as Beethoven himself said—for “inner and outer peace.” And it strikes me as far more plausible that it is the inner conflict that constitutes the actual drama. The inner aspect is more important than the outer one. But this is true of each and every one of us.

Harnoncourt conducted Missa solemnis with the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor in early July 2015 in Graz, Austria. These were marvelous performances—the last of Harnoncourt’s long and distinguished career. This CD is highly recommended.

Beethoven Missa Solemnis conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt

CD Review: Pièces pour Théorbo Français: Music by Béthune, Visée, Lully et al. by José Miguel Moreno

Pieces pour theorbe

The angélique was a 17th century type of theorbo, probably developed in Paris, featuring sixteen or seventeen strings. Like other theorbos, the angélique divided its strings into two sets. One set was tied to pegs over the neck and could be stopped by the left hand. The other set was tied to an extension away from the neck and could only be open plucked like the strings of a harp. Rather than being tuned in the Renaissance convention of fourths or the Baroque convention of thirds, the strings of the angélique were tuned in diatonic seconds.

This CD features theorbo virtuoso Jose Miguel Moreno playing a set of pieces by 17th century French composer Michel de Béthune for angélique. No 17th century angéliques survive; our knowledge of their design is largely a matter of conjecture. The liner notes of this CD mention transcription but are not explicit about what instrument the angélique music is being transcribed for. Presumably Moreno is playing these pieces on the French theorbo, or théorbe de pièces, for which the other compositions on this CD were written. Those pieces include works by de Visee, Forqueray, Lully, and Marais.

The liner notes tell us that “one of the most outstanding characteristic of French music for plucked-string instruments is a certain noble serene gravity.” I think that phrase nicely captures the feeling of this recording. The mood is pensive, the playing well articulated and soulful.

Recommended.

Pièces pour Théorbo Français: Music by Béthune, Visée, Lully et al.
by José Miguel Moreno

Some Deft Storytelling by Jason Isbell

I hadn’t heard of country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell until I read Dwight Garner’s story about him in the New York Times. Now I’m a fan. His albums Here We Rest and Southeastern are getting a lot of play in my office. I’m also enjoying Catching Lightning, a CD by Jason’s wife, Amanda Shires. She’s a wonderful singer, songwriter, and fiddle-player.

One of the things I like best about Jason’s songs is their concise, colorful story-telling. I’m particularly impressed by the how much ground he covers in just a few lines in his song, “The Songs She Sang in the Shower.”

There are countless country songs in which a singer pines for a former lover. This is one of those songs, but it’s stranger and deeper than any conventional twangy lament. Isbell could begin on a note of rue or yearning. Instead, he begins with some cheap bravado, and in about eight lines tells us more about two people and why they broke up than most song writers could describe in eight or ten verses.

The song begins cryptically; we don’t know what’s going on or who’s speaking to whom. In the first and third lines, the singer pauses between the first three words and the second three words. I’m going to break those lyrics in two here to help convey the effect of the phrasing:

On a lark
On a whim
I said “There’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them”

So far, we’re not in a break-up song at all. One guy is insulting another guy is a rather pedantic way.

And his fist

The pause lets us linger on this. The quip didn’t go well, and the recipient is responding with a punch.

Cut the smoke

Not cut the “air,” but the “smoke,” which tells us where we are: a crowded smokey bar, where one guy is picking a fight with another. (“Smoke” also sets up a rhyme in the next line, but it’s perfect on its own.)

I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke

The singer is so proud of his cleverness, that even as he’s about to be punched, he’s wondering if his jibe has been appreciated.

In the car
Headed home
She asked if I had considered the prospect of living alone

This is a great cinematic cut. He’s doesn’t linger on the bar fight. He doesn’t make some wry, wistful remark about how he got decked. He jumps to the painful, quiet ride home, in which his girlfriend, who we know now has seen too many of these fights, informs him she’s had enough.

With a steak
held to my eye
I had to summon the confidence needed to hear her goodbye,
And another brief chapter without any answers blew by

And there it is. He’s been punched in the eye and dumped in the same evening. He’s still acting: summoning confidence now, instead of turning out clever insults. He listens—and she’s gone.

He’s mystified. Things are not going well. He makes a joke, and he gets punched. He girlfriend dumps him, and he’s looking for answers. All he can do now is rue, reminisce, and wonder. (There’s a certain passivity to his character: he acts out and then watches the results, however painful they might be.)

In just eight lines, we’ve been given a rich and jarring portrait of two people. He’s clever but swaggering and reckless. Eventually she’s had enough of the trouble that swagger and recklessness stirs up. (How many other times has she had to pull him away from a fight? we wonder.) We get a sense of her patience and tact. She doesn’t storm out of the nightclub. She waits until they’re in the car to talk to him.

The rest of song is devoted to the singer’s longing and remorse. He’s alone now, appraising his lonely life and praying for something better. I particularly admire the couplet:

And the church bells are ringing for those who are easy to please
And the frost on the ground probably envies the frost on the trees

That’s fine song-writing.

You can listen to the whole song here:

The Wisdom of Angélique Kidjo

From a profile of Angélique Kidjo in the New York Times:

Her approach to songwriting also follows African tradition: She sings as the conscience of a community. She still abides, she says, by advice that her family gave her. One of the first songs she wrote, as a teenager, was an angry denunciation of apartheid in South Africa; her father insisted that she rewrite it without the hate and anger, telling her: “An artist’s role is not to ignite violence. You ignite peace.”

Remembering the Jazz Scene at the Old Eulipia Cafe

I was pleased to read this week that the Eulipia Cafe in downtown San Jose is being reincarnated as a jazz club, which is how the restaurant began. The name has changed: the new cafe will be called Cafe Stritch. A stritch is an alto saxophone without a curved bell. Jazz horn player Rahsaan Roland Kirk used to play one. He also coined the term Eulipia.

When the Eulipia opened in the late 70’s, there was nothing like it in San Jose. There were certainly no other jazz clubs. Downtown San Jose was the business district of an old farming town that had boomed a bit. It hadn’t yet become anything like the bustling, more cosmopolitan place it is now.

But there on First Street, next to an avantgarde cinema, was Eulipia, a jazz club that booked major acts. What a gift.

We were teenagers. The wait staff welcomed us anyway. We ordered enormous goblets of hot chocolate. They were delicious.

The first time we went there was a Friday or Saturday night. We heard Mel Martin and his band Listen. Susan Muscarella, who would later found the Jazzschool in Berkeley, was on piano. Her performance thrilled me. I wanted to be able to play like that: to swing, to comp, to dash off those dazzling runs.

We bought Mel’s album, Growing, which featured a tune called “King Kong’s Honkey Tonk and Space Tango.” To my young ears, accustomed to classical music, a little pop, and a little country, it was wild. The music blared. It honked. It screeched and thumped. The spirit of this music could roar.

I can date that Mel Martin concert pretty easily, because it was either the next night or the next weekend that I attended my second jazz concert: Sonny Rollins, Donald Byrd, and Tony Williams at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. That performance ended up being recorded and issued as Don’t Stop the Carnival, one of Sonny’s few live albums from the sixties and seventies. The liner notes on “Don’t Stop the Carnival” say it was recorded on April 13-15, 1978, so that first trip to Eulipia must also have been in early April 1978.

Over the years, we heard other great players, including John Handy (with Pharoah Sanders, too, that night, as I recall), Richie Cole, and Phil Woods (I know we saw him at Keystone Korner in SF, but I think we also heard him at Eulipia, as well). I remember enjoying a piano trio led by a woman named Martha Young, who was somehow related to Lester Young (she might have been his niece). Unfortunately, I can’t find anything about her online.

The staff at Eulipia were always welcoming. I’m grateful to them for booking these acts and not minding that some teenagers are taking up some of the tables. I’ve lost track of some of our friends from those days, but Hafez is now a Professor of World Cultures in Music at San Francisco State. His new album Post-Chromodal Out! is soulful and spritely in an Ornette Coleman kind of way.

My twin brother went on to play tenor and soprano saxophone. He’s studied under Bruce Ackley of the Rova Quartet and Steve Lacy, and is studying composition now in Brooklyn.

I don’t play music any more, but I listen to jazz every day. And oddly enough, I never feel more at home than I do in a small club with a good band on stage that’s really cooking.

So thank you, Eulipia of old, and welcome Stritch. Let the music play on.

Here’s a track from Mel Martin’s album, Growing:

In Praise of a Sensitive Language

Music, in this case.

The climate, social, financial, political — it’s dispiriting because you don’t see eye to eye. But the world can be safe if each of us is concerned. This starts with our own life, with our family, with our friends, with our village. If everybody was ready to help others, to do something, the world would be different. We are too ready to say, ‘Well, this is not my problem,’ and I think when you see the reaction from fanatical people, you see that the first enemy of humans is ignorance. Ignorance makes fanatics. The second enemy is hatred. And the third is egoism. And all these things can be saved with the development of a sensitive language, like music.

Jordi Savall, from an interview in Listen Magazine.

Five Great Concerts on YouTube

If you find yourself with some free time this holiday weekend and would like to enjoy some great music, you could do worse than watch some of the concert-length performances now available on YouTube. (I’m assuming that these have all been legally posted, since I know YouTube/Google polices content from organizations like Viacom.)

Here are a few performances I’ve particularly enjoyed.

Classical: Monteverdi’s Orfeo – Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations, La Capella Reial y solistas

I’ve posted a clip of Savall’s entrance to this performance earlier. The full performance is wonderful.

Classical: Vivaldi Cello Concertos performed by Christophe Coin, cello, and Il Giardino Armonico

The French record label naive is working on a multi-decade labor-of-love recording the complete works of Vivaldi. Here’s a spirited performance of cello concerti played in a beautiful Renaissance setting.

Jazz: Archie Shepp and Chucho Valdes

Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp is 75 years old and still going strong. Here is his with the virtuoso pianist Chucho Valdes and a very strong Afro-cuban band. The band and the audience both clearly revere Shepp, and he delivers.

Jazz: Paquito D’Rivera & Chano Dominguez

Alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera always looks like he’s having the time of his life onstage. Here he teams up with pianist Chano Dominguez and his band for a concert in Madrid. I hadn’t heard of Dominguez before coming across this video, but he and his band put in a fine performance.

Jazz: Miles Davis Live at Montreux at 1973

You might want to save this one for late at night. It’s spare, a matter of whispers and hints rather than full statements and lush arrangements. But it works.

Happy New Year.

Remembering Charles Rosen

There aren’t many great classical pianists who can also write great essays on topics as various as the form of classical music, the paintings of David Caspar Friedrich, the philosophy of Walter Benjamin, and the cookbooks of Elizabeth David.

Correction: there’s just one, Charles Rosen, and we lost him yesterday. He died of cancer at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He was 85. (New York Times obituary here.)

I still haven’t read his National Book Award-winning book on classical style, but I’ve read his book on Schoenberg, which was insightful about so much more than Schoenberg, and I was awed his book of essays (and here’s a great title) Romantic Poets, Critics, and Other Madmen.

Twice I’ve found myself needing to teach writing to teenagers who had been overexposed to the five-paragraph essay, that odd literary form found only in the laboratory and never in the wild. In both cases, I reached for Rosen’s essay on the cookbooks of Elizabeth David. It’s unlike anything most teenagers have encountered (he quotes her instructions for pulling the skin off an octopus), while demonstrating clearly how to hook the reader, introduce a startling thesis (that her cookbooks are pastorals), and defend that thesis with evidence.

And he was a marvelous pianist, as well. About twenty years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing him perform Beethoven’s Diabelli variations. I’ve cherished his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Elliott Carter’s piano music.

Here he is performing Schumann, whom he also writes about with great insight.