Monday, March 30, 2009

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra - Live 2009.03.27 Powell Hall, St. Louis, Missouri

So it happened again: the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra offered me a ticket to a concert of great import under the guise of "Blogger's Night 2". Who am I to say no? Last time was so much fun, and it was an engaging new challenge for me to write about classical music. This time, after I checked out an exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum curated by a classmate of mine, I took along my film-reviewer brother along for the ride to the symphony.

Event: Transformations, performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson
Venue: Powell Hall
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 27 March 2009

1. Good Friday Music from Parsifal, composed by Richard Wagner (1882)
2. Canto di speranza, for cello and orchestra, composed by Bernd Alois Zimmerman (1952-53, revised 1957), featuring cellist Anssi Karttunen
3. Luonnotar, op. 70, composed by Jean Sibelius (1910-13), featuring soprano Karita Mattila
4. Mirage, composed by Kaija Saariaho (2007), featuring soprano Karita Mattila and cellist Anssi Karttunen
5. Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, op. 82, composed by Jean Sibelius (1915-19)

As conductor David Robertson took his place on stage, he started by responding to a resounding walkie-talkie message that echoed through the silent building with, "We're the only orchestra with Richard Wagner on the walkie-talkie." It was humorous, but it reminded me of what sort of acoustics we're dealing with at Powell Hall: the microphones dangling from the ceiling are only for recording purposes; there is no sound reinforcement whatsoever (unless I'm totally missing something, that is). Robertson spoke his line with his back halfway turned to the audience and yet he was loud and clear (as was the original walkie-talkie sentence). I'm amazed by the clarity of the unamplified sound in the hall.

The performance opened with Good Friday Music from Parsifal, which began with a standard arrangement of sweet-sounding strings, but the piece built up into a grand crescendo before slow flutes and the string section dominated a mellower section. A sudden change to a minor key heralded a softer section led by the woodwinds. As the piece went on, it continued to vacillate between longer, brighter, fuller segments and short, dark parts, usually accented by some strong but minimalist bass and timpani parts. It finished with a bevy of descending lines slowing down quietly into a final resounding note. My favorite part might have been that the timeline in the concert program that noted that the most important event of 1882 (other than this piece's composition) was Friedrich Nietzsche's proposition that God is dead. I find the relationship between the piece and Nietzsche to be tenuous at best.

Canto di speranza, composed by a German but carrying an Italian title, translates to Song of Hope. Where the hope comes in is beyond me, but this was probably my favorite piece of the evening. The performers rearranged themselves significantly; there were no violins and fewer other strings and brass. The piece began with an abstract, discombobulated arrangement of percussion splashes: a bass drum, bongos, and quad tom-toms laid out a wildly syncopated pseudo-rhythm with piano strikes thrown in at odd moments. Plucked violas and strange brass and harp parts filled in the sound spectrum while solo cellist Karttunen grew more active in his part. A sudden breakout into a briefly recognizable beat with strong horn blasts withdrew into a more disconnected but still dramatic section that only loosely felt in key. (As it turns out, the piece was composed in twelve-tone serialism, meaning that there truly is no key.) The pianist turned and reached over to a conveniently-placed celesta to add in a few small parts of relatively low volume. A mad dash of trills and notes in the highest registers dropped down back into the "normal" weirdness of the opening of the piece before ending in cello slides, squeaks, and a low dragging close.

Luonnater was composed by a famed Finn for a solo soprano, performed here by well-regarded Marita Mattila. The lyrics were in Finnish, so a large projector displayed the translation. The tale is a creation myth sourced from the Finnish epic Kalevala. A faint string bed opened, and Mattila began almost immediately thereafter. As she sung of a lonely woman of the heavens complaining of her empty life and descending into the ethereal sea, the tense but pretty string and harp parts entered a darker segment. The woman remained unhappy until a duck came, heralding a build-up of strings and brass. A loud and dramatic section began as the duck couldn't find a place to nest, until the woman, described now as the mother of waters, granted it a place on her knee. The music quieted and then grew again darker as the woman was bothered by the warmth of the growing eggs. The nest eventually rolled off and broke apart, and although beauty emerged, the music remained dark and uncertain. The piece ended on a slightly upward happier note as the eggs became the sky, moon, stars, and earth.

Mirage is a contemporary Finnish piece with English lyrics, just two years old. Featuring solo cellist Karttunen and soprano Mattila now together, I had high hopes. Weird squeaks, squalls, and glissandos made for a really cool dark opening. A percussionist did a weird thing on the cymbals at several points in the work: he had a long (wooden?) shaft that he drew across the edge of the cymbal while using his other hand to perhaps steady the cymbal. It generated an unusual high pitch. Mittali, now clad in a wide yellow gown, began singing about flying, calling herself a "sacred eagle woman", and later, a shooting star and a "sacred clown". The piece is based on the effects of a hallucinogenic mushroom, and the psychedelia thereof was clearly borne out through Mittali's strange vocal stylisms and the strange noises and crashes of the accompanying music. The solo cello played a less important role; Karttunen almost seemed overlooked by the intense vocals until about two-thirds through during the craziest parts before Mittali sang, "I am! I am the shooting star! Because... I can fly!" The music became louder and more dramatic until the end of her pronouncement, where the strings began to make descending wails. Slow glides downward, much like a siren, brought the resolution, perhaps revealing that her drug-induced vision must eventually end; she must come down and return to normalcy.

The final piece, Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, was a more traditional work, again by the Finnish Sibelius. After the stranger middle three pieces, this brought us back to the more familiar ground established in Good Friday Music from Parsifal. This work was a much longer piece than the others, lasting over half an hour. Timpani and brass opened, with woodwinds and strings following, eventually crescendoing into a big swing. The brass and woodwinds began a bold interchange of lines, which led into an intense and dramatic rising string part that resolved into a bigger and lusher segment. This fell into a softer part that quickly became tenser before a bassoon took a pretty lead segment. As the music swelled louder and bolder again, the tempo rose along with the tension. This fell into nicer territory before the strings began to prance all over the place, with different parts appearing to rise out of a different part of the stage at each second. A large build-up into a loud section was dominated by clear brass parts and big chords. The timpani grew stronger before everything halted for just a beat. Light woodwinds, brass, and pizzicato strings picked up again. Eventually, after another brief pause, the strings picked up to an incredible pace, wavering and flying about until settling into what sounded like a section borrowed from a classical movie score. It sounded celebratory or especially epic, but then collapsed into a much quieter part. Speedy violins led into a darker, sadder section. More familiar bold brass lines brought a dark drone from the strings, concluding in big timpani rolls and a final series of quick string jabs.

I found that Good Friday Music from Parsifal was fairly tame and calm. It isn't a bad work, nor was it poorly performed; but it just seemed rather plain, especially in comparison to the other works of the night. Canto di speranza ended up as my favorite – Karttunen is a fantastic cellist and he really held down the piece. The obtuse percussion was cool, but could have been aimless and distracting had it not been for the superb cello work acting as a sort of counterpoint. Luonnator was certainly interesting, but the context of the epic tale was a bit difficult.  Mattila is clearly a talented vocalist; she has complete control over her voice, and she wrought that power well in the work. In Mirage, however, I felt like she was perhaps too intense and overdramatic. It may be that in a classical context that shouldn't even be a concern, but I felt distracted and removed from the piece. The intention of the piece was solid, and the music worked, but Mattila's stylisms were a detraction for me, and Karttunen seemed occasionally underutilized. Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major was fairly good; the work neared the point of being too traditional to be interesting, but it branched out well and had several really cool parts, especially with the brass sections. I liked that it was big and varied, but it was a bit too long and overdrawn, almost too big in scope.

Since this concert was a preview for a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City (on April 4th), I'm sure a lot of work was put into this production. It was a long and varied program, and the best parts were truly excellent. However, there were parts that I felt dragged a bit, or where my interest faded some. Mattila is intensely skilled, but I found her actual performance to be hit-and-miss; Karttunen was similarly excellent but occasionally lost in the forest of sounds. The symphony as a whole performed quite well and I was pleased with the endeavor as a whole.

Score: B+

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Andrew Bird / Heartless Bastards - Live 2009.03.15 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

I must admit that I am something of a neophyte when it comes to Andrew Bird, but when I heard he was coming I figured that it would be a show worth checking out. (It is strange, though, that I am more willing to spend $20+ on a concert instead of $12+ on a CD as my introductory experience… although I suppose the concert is more unique.) Anyway, I convinced one of my friends who has been a longtime fan to come along with me, and it made for a good night.

Artist: Andrew Bird
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 15 March 2009
Opening Act: Heartless Bastards

01. Improvisation (Solo)
02. The Water Jet Cilice (Solo)
03. Masterswarm
04. Natural Disaster
05. Effigy
06. Oh No
07. A Nervous Tic Motion of the Hand to the Left
08. Fitz and the Dizzyspells
09. Not a Robot, but a Ghost
10. Lull
11. Anonanimal
12. Imitosis
13. Souverian
14. Doctor Strings
15. Fake Palindromes

16. Improvisation (Solo)
17. Why? (Solo)
18. Tables and Chairs

Right on time at 8pm the Heartless Bastards took the stage. The band is a singer/guitarist (who also did some keyboard), a lead guitarist (who occasionally did bass), a bassist (who also did some pedal steel and acoustic guitar), and a drummer. They played nine songs in just about 45 minutes, most of which were bluesy rock numbers. Their songs were pretty heavy, but the song structures and arrangements were excessively basic. There were no alarms and no surprises whatsoever. Even the one acoustic number was just three chords accompanied by a simple picking pattern on a second guitar. The one song with pedal steel was a welcome change, but they left the instrument otherwise unused. The singer did a few loops, but they were really basic and she only made them so she could solo over them. However, this was rather unnecessary considering that the other musicians kept the music held down fine as it was. Her keyboard, too, was just used for the verses of one song. Why cart around so much stuff if you are barely even going to use it? I was pretty disappointed, especially in the last number, which was an extended jam where the musicians just played the same simple riff for several minutes. I was expecting a solo or something, but no, they just kept playing the same chord over and over. Boring.

At 9:15pm, Andrew Bird came out and immediately started plucking his violin and creating loops. This was apparently an improvisation, and even if that hadn’t been the case, he created quite a soundscape just by himself. At his disposal was his trusty plucked and bowed violin, a hollow-bodied electric guitar, a glockenspiel, a modest set of effects and looping pedals, his amazing capacity to whistle, and his regular voice.

After another loop-laden solo piece, he brought out his band, which is currently Martin Dosh on drums, Jeremy Ylvisaker on guitar, and Mike Lewis on bass. Dosh usually played slightly intricate but restrained rhythms; only on a few songs did he let himself go to rock out more (but obviously, this isn't your normal rock band). He had a whole bunch of extra equipment in the form of some sort of combination of effects processors, samplers, loop pedals, and auxiliary percussion (and maybe some sort of keyboard instrument?). I was never too sure what all he was doing, but I know it sounded great. Ylvisaker mostly did modestly complex fingerpicking riffs that really helped fill in some of the parts of the sound base that Bird wasn't doing himself. He sometimes also played with loops and other effects, and once or twice he picked up Lewis's bass when he switched to saxophone or bassoon. Lewis kept up solid basslines through the entire set and he was able to occasionally pick up other instruments and do pristine lead parts.

I won't be able to describe things in too great of detail or talk too specifically about which songs were the coolest, but I do remember some particularly interesting things. The stage had four massive gramophone-style speakers, and the two largest ones were usually lit in some stark color. Sometimes this was the same as the rest of the stage but sometimes they were strikingly different. The other two speakers were connected and hooked up to one of Bird's pedals so that he could control how fast they would spin around. His amplifier must have output to those speakers, because a microphone stood right beyond them so that when they spun fast, it created a rotary effect.

I was very impressed by the total sound output of the musicians. My first thought of the complete band (during "Masterswarm") was a very chamber pop thing, but songs like "Fitz and the Dizzyspells" got pretty rocking. "Not a Robot, but a Ghost" was introduced as a collaboration with Dosh (who originally wrote the music under the title "First Impossible"), and the song did sound a bit different than the rest. It was a pretty good jam with a cool outro; Dosh threw down some weird percussion samples, Lewis was looping his bassoon, and Ylvisaker had a little box with a long antenna that he held over his strings to create weird sounds.

"Lull" was preceded by two false starts, apparently because Dosh was controlling some of Bird's loops and he wasn't satisfied with the timing or something. As Bird said, "This is tricky stuff, you know." Ylvisaker had some sort of pen-thing or a weird slide, and between that and Bird's glockenspiel, they created a beautiful soundscape once they got going. After a false start of "Imitosis", Bird said their errors were just inexperience: this was the first show of their tour. Again, once things got going, the song had a great groove. Ylvisaker did a little guitar solo, which led into a violin solo by Bird, and later he did a solo in which he alternated between whistling, glockenspiel, and guitar. Way cool.

Many songs opened with solo instrumentals by Bird that suddenly transitioned into the "actual" songs after a minute or two; the one before "Effigy" was particularly notable due to the sudden but cool change in atmosphere. The "Doctor Strings" bit seemed to confuse some people (or at least me), but it appears to be a short humorous piece about fixing stringed instruments. It sort of segued into "Fake Palindromes", which the audience totally loved. They cheered and moved more to that song than any other by far. As it is a rocking song, I supposed this was deserved.

At 10:45, the Bird and the band left the stage, but within a minute, Bird came back out by himself for an encore. He started into a piece with a really weird syncopated rhythm, and he screwed it up twice and had to restart, but it was cool once he got it. The audience didn't seem to mind, but he said, "You're awfully patient," and apologized. That moved into "Why?", which was a quite abstract and unusual song. The band returned for one last song, and they left their loops going as they left the stage, just a minute or two after 11:00pm.

I have to admit, I was really impressed. I'd heard some of Andrew Bird's recorded material before, and even though I liked it, I never thought too much about it. Seeing him live was an experience. He is an incredibly talented and creative musician, and he truly has figured out how to capitalize on looping. He can switch instruments and alternate whistling and singing so quickly that you are left amazed that just one man can produce so much sound.

Andrew Bird: A
The Heartless Bastards: D

P.S. Thanks to Josh Potter for the setlist!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Charlie King - Live 2009.03.03 Webster University, Webster Groves, Missouri

I've been too busy to write about a couple of the shows I've attended over the past couple months, but I saw one in particular that I'd like to at least briefly document. Charlie King came to Webster University, and I happened to be quite involved in one of the groups that sponsored his appearance. King is a folksinger activist who has been active since the late 70s, and although folk's popular peak may have been years before he started performing, King has been working hard to keep it alive.

Artist: Charlie King
Venue: Winifred-Moore Auditorium, Webster University
Location: Webster Groves, Missouri
Date: 3 March 2009

I'm not familiar enough with Charlie's back catalog or the modern folk tradition to be able to provide a setlist, but I will at least try to discuss some of the themes that Charlie addressed during the evening. The most important part of folk songs are the words, since these are the actual media through which messages are shared, so I'm going to focus on the lyrical content instead of the actual tunes. Most of them weren't extremely complicated anyway, but that's fine. The words are more important. Just about every song King played covered a topical political theme; he went from the privilege of the rich to anti-war protests to environmentalism and beyond.

These themes aren't particularly surprising, but it is nonetheless a delight to hear someone sing their heart out quick candidly about their opinions on these subjects. Many were quite creative; for example, one of the songs early in the set focused on a baboon colony in which all the adult males had somehow died. As the next generation grew up, instead of using typical aggression and giving into standard hierarchical power structures, the baboons worked together and minimized their in-fighting to great success. King asked us why we can't do the same.

Charlie seemed mostly pleased with our newly elected president, but strongly encouraged us to keep him accountable for his campaign promises. King remembered when he had initially supported Bill Clinton, only to be disappointed by the "great compromise" of his "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which led into a storytelling song about the issue. King also lamented the urban renewal and class warfare occurring on Laramie Street in Denver, where the former businesses friendly to the homeless and lower-class were bulldozed in favor of an expensive shopping district.

King discussed his attempts to improve his fuel efficiency by refusing to drive over 60 miles per hour; he claimed that each 5 miles per hour that one drives is matched by a 10% increase in fuel efficiency, but his slow driving also earned him countless evil glares. He had a great line to the effect of, "Don't you know, we all have Prius envy," that sent the auditorium laughing. This led into a song about wanting a gentler car, but realizing that it's better to take the train, or better yet, a bike, or still better, to walk.

I felt a bit more mixed about the latter half of King's concert. I appreciated the songs about supporting unions and showing actual support for American troops through peaceful means. However, I do not agree with King's rant against video games. I prefer moderation over censorship, although I did find King's abstraction to his concerns about preparing children for the military to be valid. Worse, though, was a deeply anti-progressive song against technology and mechanization. I understand King's concern that this can lead to a loss of certain jobs (such as his father's), but I feel like King left out a large part of the story of modernization.

The last songs were a return to form; his closer was "Our Life Is More Than Our Work", a classic of his own that opened his first (commercially available) album, and for an encore he covered an antiwar song by Bobby Darin, much to the surprise of the audience.

King is in many ways a typical folkster, which is mostly a good thing even if he is imperfect. It is regrettable that there are not many other people with any degree of popularity carrying on the folk tradition. There is a younger generation of singer-songwriters with a strong folk bent that are a bit more modern and progressive, but King is one of the last old-style folksingers. He is legitimately concerned about the everyman and about peace and the environment. I'm glad that there are still people out there singing about these things. Even if I think King could take a few steps towards the future in some of his opinions, he mostly does a solid job bringing together the past and present.

In addition to performing about eighteen songs, King told plenty of stories and provided introductions for many of his pieces (and he always gave credit for the songs he didn't write). He kept the audience interested and involved, especially by inviting us to sing along with many of his songs. His choruses are usually well-suited for audience participation, and he successfully got us to take part. Regrettably, however, the audience was frightfully thin. There were only about thirty or forty people in attendance. For a fairly open-minded liberal arts college with a significant enough musical community in a city of a few million, where was everyone?

Score: B+

P.S. The only other review of this show that I'm aware of was written by a friend of mine for the school paper, and it can be found here. Coincidentally, I'm quoted in it.