Saturday, May 30, 2015

Wiener Symphoniker - Live 2015.05.22 Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria

Artist: Wiener Symphoniker (Vienna Symphony)
Venue: Konzerthaus
Location: Vienna, Austria
Date: 22 May 2015

1. Overture to The Magic Flute, K. 620, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1791
2. Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon in E flat major, K. 297b, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1778
3. Prague Symphony in D major, K. 504, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1786

Eight years after I studied abroad in Vienna, I finally returned with my spouse. While we were there, we couldn't resist the opportunity to see one of the major orchestras perform in a beautiful venue. I even sprung for tickets slightly more expensive than the cheapest available so we could be in a balcony and get a good view. It was well worth it!

[The fantastic Großer Saal (Great Hall) of the Konzerthaus.]

The performance opened with the overture to Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), a quick, six-minute run-through of the high points of the opera. It was active, vibrant, and strong, but of course, as an overture, that's exactly how it should be. It was an energetic start to the evening.

The stage was then rearranged to highlight the four soloists of the Sinfonia Concertante: Paul Kaiser on oboe, Reinhard Wieser on clarinet, Eric Kushner on French horn, and Patrick de Ritis on bassoon. This work is well known for the dubious authenticity of the commonly available arrangements, but the version performed here was a reconstruction (presumably by Robert Levin) that supposedly approximates the original lost score. I found it to be good and consistent, but rarely remarkable. In several parts, it seemed as if all the strings were all playing a single, unified melody, which is musically rather trite, but it was nonetheless fun to watch the bows all glide and jerk about simultaneously. Close listening to the soloists was well rewarded, as these were performers of the highest caliber, and their careful attention was subtle but delightful. The segments of trade-offs between the soloists and the orchestra were particularly exciting, and the final crescendo was quite a thrill as well.

The final piece featured no specific soloists, but the wind instruments were still very important. The first and third movements were some of the best parts of the night, but the second was a bit of a drag. The first movement started very dark and gloomy before gradually lightening up. Once it got going it became very active and driving. The combination of the timpani and bass was perfect: they worked in lockstep to build a great rhythm. The second movement was conspicuously slower and dreamier. It left me feeling like I was drifting in the clouds, which might be pleasant in some sense, but my focus wandered. The final movement restored the mood with full energy and I was even pleasurably caught off guard by the false endings.

[Conductor Ádám Fischer can be seen departing on stage right.]

This was what I presumed to be conclusion of the night, but the show actually continued on in the central foyer of the venue! This event happened to be one of four in this concert season that were designed to be a little short and without intermission, but which then provided an opportunity to hang out a little longer and meet the orchestra musicians while a smaller ensemble entertained. In this case it was the Quintetto Sinfonico, a wind quintet that provided light, airy background music from a small stage in front of a large Beethoven statue cast in sinister red light. Their performance was pleasant but insubstantial; it was a nice bonus but was no major draw in itself. Due to the lack of documentation, the ambient noise of conversation, and my inability to adequately parse the group's spoken comments in German, I do not know what they performed, but I gathered that it continued the Mozart theme.

[Quintetto Sinfonico on a temporary stage under Beethoven's dark countenance.]

I might have favored a slightly more substantial primary program over the Konzertausklang (finale) provided by Quintetto Sinfonico, but the idea is not without merit. Similarly, the overture to Die Zauberflöte may have been a little brief, but at least it was a high-quality distillation of the larger work. The best parts of the Prague Symphony were likely the high points of the evening, but since the middle passage dragged it down, the Sinfornia Concertante was the more consistently satisfying work. Furthermore, the interplay between the soloists in that piece was a clear highlight. Even if no piece was perfect, they were all of high quality, and I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favorite.

Score: B+

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Levitation (Austin Psych Fest) 2015 Day 1

Event: Levitation (Austin Psych Fest) Day 1
Venue: Carson Creek Ranch
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 8 May 2015

Introduction: I had such a good time at Austin Psych Fest last year, even with the many minor faults, that I couldn't wait for it to come around again this year. Unfortunately, I have been so busy with other activities that I knew I couldn't go all weekend, so I just picked one day. Sunday features the first reunion of the 13th Floor Elevators since their breakup in 1969, which would be an amazing sight to behold, but I went with Friday, primarily for the opportunity to see Tame Impala, whom I missed my chance to see at Austin City Limits in 2013 due to a rainout. Ironically, this week in Austin has seen record-breaking rainstorms, so I knew going into it that it would be rainy and muddy. This was not at all my first experience with rain-drenched outdoor concerts, so I figured I could deal with it. The worst part was just that the festival grounds had to be reconfigured, as the riverside Elevation Amphitheater was not tenable.

Unlike last year, the grounds didn't open until 3pm, with the first band starting at 3:45. I rode my bike downtown during a downpour around 3pm and waited for the shuttle while seeking shelter in a covered doorway. A group of three Australians joined me, and after they quickly grew impatient, I joined them in an Über ride to the venue. (Thanks again, Steve and Caroline!)

I started with Hundred Visions. I was fairly disappointed by their noisy, thrashy punk sound and quickly departed to Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback. I wasn't entirely sure what to make of them. Thrasher is an old school Inuit folk musician hailing from Aklavik in the Northwest Territories of Canada. I admired his spirit (and he sung and spoke plenty about spirit!), but his performance was not actually very accomplished. Part of his claim to fame at the moment is the appearance of several of his older songs on the recent Native North America, Vol. 1 compilation. He played "Spirit Child", which he claimed to have forgotten until he heard it again on the collection, but most of his songs followed a similar pattern: rapid, heavy strumming on an acoustic guitar; shouted, nearly strained vocals; a not-so-steady pulse on a bass drum; and vocal and tambourine accompaniment from his partner, Linda Saddleback. I dug his message and ageless energy, but he could benefit from a little variety of style.

[Willie Thrasher & Linda Saddleback. Note that this is the weather-afflicted relocation of the Elevation Amphitheater.]

Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel: I was immediately surprised that the centrally-located figure on stage, the bassist, did not have a mic and did not appear to be a frontperson per se. In fact, it was rather ambiguous who, if anyone, led the band. The two keyboardists on either side of the stage both contributed vocals, as did the drummer. Usually, all three sang together. I was pleasantly surprised at my own confusion as to what was happening on stage, and it was all the better in that the music was great. It was groovy and bright with a deep psych vibe.

[Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel.]

Ringo Deathstarr: I had missed them at SXSW, despite that I was rather excited by them. Their studio output sounds straight of 1990, as if they were still right in the middle of the shoegaze phenomenon. Their sound might be a complete ripoff, but the recordings are just so good that I don't care. On stage, they come off like much less of a My Bloody Valentine soundalike, instead leaning in a heavier, harder direction. Unfortunately, in the absence of the thick psychedelia I was expecting, there wasn't much left. They were missing a lot of what I thought made them special, but they still played a fun set.

[Ringo Deathstarr.]

The Holydrug Couple: This late addition to the lineup turned out to be a most welcome bonus. Hailing from Chile, they play a classic psych sound that they have thoroughly mastered. They had great keyboard and guitar sounds and a great groove. The highlight was probably an instrumental featuring the lead vocalist on percussion effects and keyboard. I appreciated their careful integration of various effects into their total sound without letting them overwhelm the instruments and thus come off as gimmicks. They ended with a long, drawn out space jam.

[The Holydrug Couple. This is sadly the last picture I managed to capture!]

Holy Wave: I'd just seen them at SXSW, but enjoyed their droney, stoner groove enough to want to see them again. I like that their vibe is mellow but still full of movement. Their five members really blend in with each other well.

Indian Jewelry: I'm still not sure what to make of this band or their name, but I was encouraged enough by their recordings. Live, they were less ethereal and gauzy than I was expecting, and perhaps a little more dancey and effect-oriented. Instead of coming off like some kind of cousin to Cocteau Twins, they were something of a mess, lost somewhere between electronic dance music, trance, and spacey psychedelia. There was lots of fuzz bass and a dense web of effects. It was bizarre and hard to make sense of.

DIIV: I think I thought this was some sort of dreampop band, and while most of their songs were dreamy or hazy, only occasionally did a pop sensibility emerge. It was more some sort of spaced out rock, but their three guitarists didn't exactly make the most of their instruments and I was left waiting for the music to take me somewhere. After every song, they repeated some variant of the words, "Hello, we're DIIV from New York. This is a new song."

White Fence: Their basic sound might be somewhat derivatively based in 60s garage rock and classic psych, but I loved it all the same. They were a tight band and the music came together well. Several times, they broke free of their chains and let loose into a long space jams.

Spiritualized: I've always admired the Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, even if I've never followed them closely. My legs were strained and my eyes couldn't take the light show, so I had to sit down, but I could still hear them well. In additional to a full backing band, bandleader Jason Pierce also employed two backing vocalists to add harmonies. The set was very mellow, but very precise. Musically, it was warm and pleasant; it felt like a dream that I was being slowly guided through. It was never jarring or grating or ugly. It also seemed like every single song was about drugs, including the twisted turnaround of "She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)". "Electricity" and the Spacemen 3 sendup "Walkin' with Jesus" were standouts. The setlist has been posted online:

01. Here It Comes (The Road) Let's Go
02. Lord Let It Rain on Me
03. Electricity
04. Shine a Light
05. Electric Mainline
06. She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)
07. Soul on Fire
08. Oh Baby
09. Rated X
10. Walkin' with Jesus [Spacemen 3 song]

Tame Impala: I finally got to see them and I was not disappointed! They played most of their amazing Lonerism, a few tracks from Innerspeaker, two new songs to be released on Currents, and a few instrumental jams that have only been played live (and in some but not all cases, released on last year's Live Versions). The grooves were solid, the musicianship was tight and impressive, and they delivered everything I could've wanted. They switched things up on several songs, adding jam sections and extended instrumentals throughout, making it a constant pleasure to try to figure out where they were going next. This was also the live debut of "Eventually". They played for about 80 minutes, and while I would've loved an encore, they wrapped up around 1:45am and I think the festival was supposed to be winding down by then. Here's the setlist (with some help on the details from here and here):

01. Intro Jam
02. Let It Happen
03. Mind Mischief
04. Sestri Levante
05. It's Not Meant to Be
06. Why Won't They Talk to Me?
07. Elephant → Mind Melt → Jazz Prog Odyssey 3070
08. Be Above It
09. Alter Ego
10. Eventually
11. Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind?
12. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
13. Apocalypse Dreams

Final Thoughts: Sadly, the story does not end here. Last year, I had some trouble getting on the shuttle back downtown, but this time around was far worse. I'm still not clear on what really happened, but after I got in the line, two buses filled up, departed, and never returned. We were told they were stuck due to mud and traffic, but after the traffic cleared (along with the entire parking lot), they were still nowhere to be found. As taxis and Über rides started diminishing the remaining crowd, we became increasingly anxious as nothing really happened. At one point, a couple hired security staff members even openly mocked us for asking where the buses were. Around 4:30am I finally caught a ride in a taxi with a few other stranded attendees. This issue has been somewhat addressed on the festival website, the Facebook page for the shuttle, and personal email interchange, but it was rather upsetting. I finally got home around 5:30am. (Last year it was about 3:30am, which was bad enough.) Apparently, next year they will be using a different service, and in the meantime they've added extra shuttles.

Hundred Visions: D
Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback: C+
Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel: A
Ringo Deathstarr: B-
The Holydrug Couple: A-
Holy Wave: B+
Indian Jewelry: C
White Fence: B+
Spiritualized: A-
Tame Impala: A+

P.S. Here's where the Elevation Amphitheater was originally supposed to be: