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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Ten Songs That Everyone Should Hear

This is the start of a series of posts about some music, books, films and such that have influenced me over the years. They are not in any particular order, but after 25 years in the music and entertainment biz, I think I have collected enough wit and wisdom to publish a list or two with some authority. I hope you enjoy them.

1. Wasted Time
This tune from which appears at the end of side one of the Eagles' Hotel California is perhaps the greatest of all rock ballads. Don Henley's pain seared and sympathetic vocals and a set of lyrics that speaks to everyone who's ever lost something in life are like no others in music. A song of both heartache and hope, it has been a favorite of mine for more than 20 years.

2. The Leader of the Band
Dan Fogelberg's poignant tribute to his father (a respected colleagiate music professor) is one of the most touching ballads I have ever heard, perhaps because I can relate to it on such a personal level. I don't know of any other song that so aptly describes a life in music.

3. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
It's too easy to pan Bono for his overtly religious tendencies and his change the world outlook on life. If, however, this soul-searching and sincere quest for self doesn't relate to at least 60% of the population, then there's something wrong with all of us.

4. A Pig's Foot and a Bottle of Beer
Blues legend Bessie Smith delivers up a rip roaring song about the finer things in life. The first time I heard this tune I backed the cd up and played it over about four times in a row. This song, more than just about any other, extols the virtures of good friends and good fun.

5. Something Cool
Chanteuse June Christy, who never really sang quite perfectly in tune, creates an unforgettable image of the sophisticated life of the 1950's in this evocative ballad. Instrumentals arranged by Pete Ruggolo are flawless.

6. In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning
Title track from Frank Sinatra's string of 1950's vintage masterworks for Capitol Records, this song is heartbreak in a bottle. The Charman of the Board at his finest.

7. Teo toriate (Let Us Cling Together)
In the 1970's Queen released two masterpiece LPs named after Marx Brothers movies. (A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races). This song is the last track of the latter, and is one of the most memorable love songs that I have ever experienced. Its refrain, in English and Japanese is one of the decade's most beautiful melodies, and Freddy Mercury proves why he had one of the greatest voices in Rock and Roll.

8. The Way Old Friends Do
This closing track to Abba's Super Trouper is a nostalgic look (from the vantage point of the present day) at what might have been. A couple of albums later the Swedish foursome would all be divorced, and the dance floor phenomenon of the 1970's would be no more. The harmonies along with the presence of a live audience make this a song to remember.

9. Crossroads
Don McLean is best known for Vincent and American Pie, but this hauntingly simple and beautiful song about a love gone wrong gives strong evidence as to why McLean is one of the finest song writing talents ever.

10. The Air That I Breathe
Ah for the days when songs had a hook, a tune, a melody, a chorus that we could actually sing back at the radio. Sigh. The Hollies were one of the best bands of the late 60s-early 70s and they are woefully under appreciated today. Sigh. Time for a revival. k.d. lang's cover of this song was one of the best remakes in history.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Check out a Special Radio Broadcast

Dear Friends,

Please join me on WRR Classical 101.1 or on at 8 p.m. central daylight time for "Building Castles in the Sky" a tribute to James Caldwell.

The show has turned out really quite well, and I am confident that all of Jim's many friends, colleagues and students will enjoy it.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Some fine Tchaikovsky from the LPO

Piotr Illych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Manfred, Symphony in Four Scenes after Byron’s Dramatic Poem, Op. 58 (1885) [59:02]

The London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski, conductor

Recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 8 December 2004.

LPO 0009 [50:02]

Although he initially turned down the project, Tchaikovsky eventually accepted the challenge of composing a symphony based on Byron’s autobiographical poem Manfred, as put forth by the influential Moscow critic Vladimir Stasov. First Berlioz then Balakirev was offered the project, but it was Tchaikovsky, when encouraged by Balakirev some two years after Stasov’s proposal, that took up the task and saw it through. Perhaps it was the similarity between Byron’s own guilty situation (he fled England after an incestuous affair with his half-sister was revealed) and Tchaikovsky’s deep seated anguish over his own homosexuality that brought the music out of him. Byron’s story is a thinly veiled self portrait, a portrait in which the composer could easily see himself.

Composed between the fourth and fifth symphonies, this work is even more overtly programmatic than its numbered counterparts. The music is dripping with romantic angst, passion, pathos and drama. Tchaikovsky, who was never afraid of expressing his emotions forcefully, all but gets carried away in this substantial and colorful score. Although I may well be taken to task by a reader or two for admitting it, this recording was to my knowledge, my first experience with this music. I was aware of a number of well-received recordings such as Pletnev’s with the Russian National Orchestra and Jansons’ with the Oslo Philharmonic. It was, however, quite refreshing to sit down with this music with unbiased ears.

What I heard was most astonishing. Being familiar with Tchaikovsky’s numbered symphonies, there were certain things I was expecting, for example, a prominent use of the oboe, lush and technically challenging string writing, forceful use of timpani and cymbals. All this I got! In addition there are some splendid moments for the harp and as one might expect, all the high drama is carried out by a prominent and even forceful brass section. And yet, for all the histrionics, there is much elegant and tuneful writing too.

Each year we hear more hue and cry about the precarious fate of the classical music industry and we read report after report about the demise of recordings and of great orchestras. If this is the case, I am at a loss to explain the dozens of new discs that come my way each month. What is happening though is a seemingly new business model, such as the one on display here, with a major orchestra aggressively marketing its concerts as turned into recordings. The London Symphony is following suit and the results have been consistently fine discs coming out in fairly plentiful quantity.

There is a bit of crowd noise with which to contend here, but it is minimal, and the quality of the playing is first rate. One might even believe that the performances are fresher and more vibrant as they are the documents of a single event, without much aid from retakes and studio trickery. I do wish however that the kind producers would bag the applause at the end. It simply isn’t necessary and kind of destroys the mood, particularly in a work like this one that ends on a quiet note of forgiveness.

That gripe aside, Maestro Jurowski has given us an exciting and engaging reading of a work that I will now make an effort to get to know better. What more can one ask of a recording that to entice the listener to additional hearings? The production values here are of the highest order, with clear and luminous sound and consistently superb playing in the orchestra. The harpist gets special recognition for some spectacular effects. Program notes are concise and above all interesting; devoid of the blow by blow analytical drivel that plagues so many other such endeavors.

If this is the kind of music making we are going to get from this label, then long may it live. Heaven knows there is a wealth of fine concert material from this orchestra that is worth repeated hearings. High praise indeed for a superior product.

Kevin Sutton

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Great New CD for you to Check Out!

Paul MORAVEC (b. 1957)

The Time Gallery (2000) [42:15]
Protean Fantasy (1993) [9:33]
Ariel Fantasy (2002) [4:17]

eighth blackbird
Peter Sheppard-Skærved, violin
Aaron Shorr, piano

Recorded at the Chicago Recording Company (Time Gallery), November 2002, and at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK December 2004 (Protean Fantasy and Ariel Fantasy).

NAXOS 8.559267 [56:06]

Paul Moravec is a prolific American composer with more than eighty works to his credit. He was the winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in music for his five-movement TempestFantasy for violin and piano. His music is a combination of the earnest and the entertaining, never taking itself too terribly seriously, but at the same time reflecting the thoughts of a thoroughly skilled and technically virtuosic composer.

The Time Gallery is a work for chamber ensemble that takes four aspects of the concept of time into view. Its opening movement, Bells, Devotional Hours, recalls the eight portions of the monastic day. Opening with random percussion sounds meant to represent a water alarm clock, it moves into the ringing of the bells that called the monks to prayer at the appropriate times of the day in the medieval age. The music is at times contemplative, at others quite energetic, and at all times inventive, tuneful, rhythmically vital and attractive.

The second movement, Time Machine, is much more lyrical and seeks to portray the advent and development of time-keeping devices through music. Opening with a montage of ticking clocks, there are some splendid melodies here and the lovely duet between the violin and clarinet is quite captivating indeed. Of significant interest too is Moravec’s extremely skillful use of percussion instruments, not only as rhythmic devices, but as creative means to melody and color as well.

The third movement, Pulse, is the shortest of the four, depicting the ultimate time machine, the human heart. The contrasts between a steady even pulse and an arrhythmic nervous heartbeat are striking and at times even a bit unsettling.

The final movement, Overtime: Memory Sings, is a poetic and atmospheric reflection on what the composer calls the paradox of time, that is, that time is the creator and destroyer of all things. It is by far the most beautiful of all four sections of this captivating score. Atmospheric to the core, it is at times rich in tonal harmony, and at others dreamy and non-committal in its rhythmic and harmonic structure.
eighth blackbird (intentionally lower case) is one of the finest chamber groups that I have ever encountered. Their dedication and passion for this music is wholly evident in this performance. A group with virtuoso skills to burn, they make the intricacies of this music seem like child’s play. They show no effort at all as they make their way through some very difficult passage work with complete panache. In moments lyrical, they play with passion, yea even some real romanticism. Poetic is perhaps the way I could best describe their interpretations. Completely at one, this is a group that seems on this my first hearing to be the perfect blend of skill and commitment, with an obvious ideal mix of temperament and personality to add luster to an already shining collaboration.

The disc is rounded out with two brief but equally fine works for violin and piano, very skillfully played by Peter Sheppard-Skærved and Aaron Shorr. The writing style here is reminiscent of Prokofiev to these ears, with somewhat disjunct melodies for the violin accompanied by percussive piano writing. Both instrument parts indulge in some extremities of range and dynamics making for interesting listening.

I have not heard new chamber music this fine since my first encounter with Peter Schickele’s wonderful quartet for clarinet, violin, piano and cello, now about 20 years old. Original and masterfully constructed, this music did what all good music should: enticed me to seek out more of this composer’s work.

Recommended without a moment’s hesitation. A real find!

Kevin Sutton

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Don't Let the Bastards...

There comes a time when one has to release the mantle of being the child or the student and embrace the authority and responsibility of adulthood. For some, that time comes fairly early on. For others, it can take quite awhile. For me, it just came today, on this July morning in my forty-second year.

After a particularly nasty experience this morning (I'll spare you the details), I have finally come to a comfort zone with the word "no."

Now some people will immediately chime in and say that I am being selfish, arrogant, that it's all about me, etc. Well, except for the arrogant part, they'd be right, and it's ok, and I don't care.

Three years ago, thanks to the prodding of my good friend Dr. Stapp, I got off my tenorish ass and set out to make my life in music. It was a long time coming, and there is still a longer stretch of road ahead of me than behind. But I am on the path, and thanks to BPI and people like Max, Penny and of course, the inimitable MME Z, there's a chance of a career ahead.

The nasty episode mentioned above came, serendipitously, just an hour before my therapy session with Dr. Betty. Seemed like a good topic to discuss and so we spent the hour on the subject of being in control of one's own destiny, and that it is perfectly ok to decline a task, job, situation etc. that interferes with that destiny.

So what is all this about? Well, to put it simply, I am saying the same thing that my father used to say to me: Never do anything that you don't enjoy, never agree to something that makes you uncomfortable, and if it comes to it, tell the other guy to go screw himself if he gets in the way of your dreams.

Ole Dad was right. Times rushes forward very quickly, and it waits for no one. Thirty years goes by very fast. If you wait around for someone to give it to you, you won't get it, and if something or someone is blocking the way, cut it down.

That's my discovery for today, and hopefully, I will continue to have the balls to stick up for it.