Music Review

ANNIVERSARIES: Alfred Schnittke Born 80 Years Ago

Controversial composer Alfred Schnittke was born November 24, 1934 in the Soviet Union's Volga Republic, an ethnic German enclave. In his mid-thirties he pioneered a broadly eclectic style of composing that drew on many classical styles (even sometimes quoting familiar Beethoven or Bach works, among others) as well as the occasional foray into jazz and pop. By 1972 his experimentalism had earned the disapproval of the Soviet Composers Union (the Soviets also weren't enamored of his occasional expressions of religion, for that matter), but a number of esteemed musicians who had left Russia to live in the West supported his work and brought him an international reputation. His work was basically pessimistic in outlook, but its emotional impact, and the accessibility of some of the styles he drew on, nonetheless seduced many listeners.

The contradictions in Schnittke's style are laid out in his liner notes to the BIS recording of his Symphony No. 3: "I do not know whether or not the symphony will survive as a musical form. I very much hope that it will and I attempt to compose symphonies, although it is clear to me that logically it is pointless. The tensions of this form, which are based upon a tonal perception of space and on dynamic contrast, are paralyzed by the present material-technical point of view. Nevertheless there is hope: in art, the impossible has a chance of success whilst the certain is always deceptive and hopeless." That said, he could easily be considered the last great symphonist. Read more »

Jazz Review Roundup

The Cookers: Time and Time Again (Motema)

There's a personnel change for this jazz supergroup's fourth album: Donald Harrison replaces Craig Handy in the alto sax chair. Nothing against Handy, whose work I have always enjoyed, but that's an upgrade. I look forward to Harrison -- an excellent composer -- having a hand in the writing for the next Cookers album (though, who knows, he may not -- for some reason, this group has never featured even one of trumpet fixture Eddie Henderson's tunes). For the first time, here there are no tunes from non-members; the emphasis on modal post-bop is stronger than ever.  Read more »

A Comparative Listening Survey of Dvořák's Ninth Symphony, Part I

Dvořák (1841-1904), from Bohemia (at the time, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and later in Czechoslovakia) peppered his colorful, amiable music with folk rhythms. The Ninth, subtitled "From the New World" and inspired by and written during his time in the United States, is Dvořák’s most beloved symphony and contains both Bohemian and American influences. Prompted by the current exhibit of the work's original manuscript in New York City at the Bohemian National Hall, I have followed up my review of Jiří Bĕlohlávek's new Dvořák symphony cycle box set on Decca and his concert with the Czech Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall with a trawl through my collection of "New World" recordings, selectively augmented by streaming recordings available on

There is much debate concerning the materials of the Ninth. The composer himself said that its middle movements were intended to depict scenes from Longfellow's narrative poem The Song of Hiawatha, of which Dvořák was a fan long before he came here to be director of the National Conservatory of Music in 1892-95. It was in New York City, though, that he was introduced to the sound of African-American music, particularly spirituals, which his assistant and protégé, Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), sang for him (songs Burleigh had learned from his grandfather, an ex-slave). Dvořák also spent the summer of 1893 living in Iowa, where he got to hear Native American music. The overlap between these two styles is the pentatonic scale, which figures in the "New World," though he stressed that he had not quoted any of this material, just embodied its feeling. It has also been said, though not by him, that part of the work's inspiration was probably homesickness for Bohemia. There is no reason why it can't be both, just as the American-inspired aspects of the symphony sit alongside obviously Bohemian elements. Read more »

Song of the Week: First Aid Kit - "America"

One of my favorite Simon & Garfunkel songs -- "America" -- gets a loving homage by one of my favorite Americana acts, the Swedish duo First Aid Kit. This is the title track from their exclusive Record Store Day 10" vinyl EP. This also collects an unreleased tune called "Brother," and acoustic versions of Stay Gold album tracks "My Silver Lining" and "Stay Gold". America will be available on Black Friday, November 28th at participating indie record all over this country.

Czech Philharmonic and Jirí Bělohlávek Shine at Carnegie

Czech Philharmonic/Jirí Bělohlávek with Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Janáček: Taras Bulba
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2
Dvořák:Symphony No. 9, "From the New World"
Carnegie Hall
Nov. 16, 2014

Since I previewed this Sunday afternoon concert, I'll skip repeating the background information -- except to note that I've since learned this was the group's first NYC appearance in ten years -- and get right to considering the performance itself. To give away the conclusion up front, in my notes, I used the words "perfect" and "wonderful" a lot. Read more »

Dvořák, the Velvet Revolution, and the Czech Philharmonic to be Celebrated

Czech conductor Jirí Bělohlávek recently won the Antonín Dvořák Prize for his promotion of Czech classical music in general and Dvořák's in particular. At Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 16, he will actually receive the award after a concert in which he will lead the Czech Philharmonic and in a program of Janáček's tone poem Taras Bulba, Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World." Read more »

ANNIVERSARIES: Charles Munch Records Symphonie fantastique on November 14-15, 1954

Charles Munch was born in Strasbourg in 1891, the son of organist/choral conductor Ernst Münch. It was a musical family; Charles's brothers Fritz and Hans also became conductors. Charles studied violin with Lucien Capet and Carl Flesch and conducting with Wilhelm Furtwängler and Alfred Sendrey. World War I interrupted his musical progress; a sergeant of artillery in the German army, he was gassed at Peronne and wounded at Verdun. After the war ended, he became a French citizen.

Munch first pursued violin professionally; he didn't begin his conducting career until 1932, at age 41. He founded the Orchestra de la Société Philharmonique in 1935 in Paris, was named conductor of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris in 1938, and stayed in France during the German occupation of World War II. His conduct during this difficult period included French Resistance activities; he was awarded the French Légoon d'Honneur in 1945. Read more »

Song of the Week: Captain Beefheart - "Little Scratch"

"He had a beautiful dish on each arm!" Yeah, Don Van Vliet, bellows like it is! The aggro-avant blues poetry of Captain Beefheart with his signature harmonica wails is an out take from the new Rhino Records box set Sun Zoom Spark: 1970-1972. It collects three of his Warner Brothers albums -- Lick My Decals Off, Baby, The Spotlight Kid, and Clear Spot plus a disc of previously unreleased tracks. Out on Tuesday, November 17th. Order it today!

Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life Tour Kicks Off, Mostly Triumphantly

Stevie WonderSongs in the Key of Life
Madison Square Garden
November 6, 2014
I wasn't going to miss this one! Fortunately the cheap seats were "only" $49.50 (plus fees, of course), which for a big-ticket concert these days is actually reasonable.

ANNIVERSARIES: John Philip Sousa Born November 6, 1854

John Philip Sousa (1854–1932) was dubbed the March King. In the days when every town had its brass band and parades were major social occasions, marches were much more a part of American culture, and Sousa's music was wildly popular. He penned many instantly recognizable marches: "The Stars and Stripes Forever," "The Liberty Bell," "The Thunderer," "Semper Fidelis," "The Washington Post," "El Capitan," and "U.S. Field Artillery" are just a few of the 136 he composed. Far from being merely utilitarian or primitive, his marches are often small masterpieces, with indelible tunes, adept harmonies, and nicely contrasted trios. There is never any superfluous musical material in them -- Sousa wrote in his autobiography that a march "must be as free from padding as a marble statue."

Sousa's father was a trombonist in the U.S. Marine Band, and enlisted his son as an apprentice at age 13. Discharged at 21 in 1875, young JPS found work in the theater as a violinist and conductor (he played for Jacques Offenbach in the orchestra at Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition and conducted Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta H.M.S. Pinafore on Broadway). In 1880, he rejoined the Marine Band as its conductor. Not a marching band per se, its main duty as "The President's Own" was to perform at the White House for parties and other events (including the wedding of President Arthur), and it played much more than marches. During Sousa's tenure as its conductor, he raised the Marine Band's standards and broadened its repertoire, including many arrangements of classical music. Read more »

Ten Must-Hear Songs for Your Fall Harvest

A rash of some cool new music to share with y'all. First up is the NOLA-based Luke Winslow-King's live take on his bluesy train chugger "Travelin' Myself" from his album Everlasting Arms. Roots-rockin' Americana that is authentic, passionate, poignant, infectious snapshots of life in this big ol' country. One of my favorite albums of the year. Out now on Bloodshot Records. Read more »

Halloween-Appropriate Compositions

I used to work at a store where some of us employees liked to dress up for Halloween. One year the young woman I worked with that day dressed in her full Goth regalia (this is someone with a spiderweb tattoo), and when one customer said to her, "I love your costume," she replied, coldly and seriously, "It's not a costume." Ever since then I have thought of Halloween as the one day each year when Goths "fit in."

From whence does "Goth" come as a description of this subculture? Not from the original Goths, Germanic barbarians who sacked Rome and later founded the kingdom that eventually became Spain and Portugal. Rather, it comes from "Gothic fiction," an English literary movement (so called in reference to the architecture of castles) that dates from Horace Walpole's 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto.

Such famed literature as Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and many stories by Edgar Allan Poe further defined the genre, which could broadly be considered a combination of Romanticism and horror, sometimes dark and brooding, sometimes darkly humorous in a parody of the genre's excesses. Read more »

Video of the Week: Ok Go - "I Won't Let You Down"

OK Go have been producing thought-provoking and exceptionally clever videos to accompany their quirky pop-rock for nearly a decade now. Not sure they even have any competition when it comes to how creative they integrate their music into a video narrative, too. This latest video for their latest video single "I Won't Let You Down" from their latest long player Hungry Ghosts puts Busby Berkeley's choreography to shame. Watch it all the way through to truly appreciate the aerial perspective. Well played, lads!

Iconoclast at Michiko Studios

Iconoclast at Michiko Studios, 10/17/14

Iconoclast -- neither the hardcore punk band nor the metal band of that name, rather the New York-based duo of Julie Joslyn (alto saxophone, violin, vocals) and Leo Chiesa (drums, keyboard, vocals) – formed in 1987 and ever since has combined avant-garde conceptualist with post-punk attitude ever since, playing at CBGB but also the European festival circuit, and making nine albums. The most recent, this year's Naked Rapture, was heavily featured when they played at Michiko Studios on Friday, October 17. Hometown shows having become more of a rarity than they used to be, I made sure to catch it. Read more »

Jack Bruce, RIP!

Bassist Jack Bruce has passed on at the age of 71 of liver disease. No one lives forever, but he will always be best known for his power trio Cream with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. I was fortunate enough to catch their reunion tour in 2005 at Madison Square Garden. I was blown away by Jack's bass playing and his strong vocals throughout. And this was a man who had survived liver cancer and a liver transplant just a few short years earlier. Certainly his legendary power trio was a tough act to follow, but Bruce has many albums in his discography both before and after his classic rock trio; not only with British blues bands such as Alexis Korner’s Blues Inc., the Graham Bond Organisation, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Manfred Mann, but a robust solo career, too. And in 1994, in an effort to recreate the energy and excitement of Cream, he, Ginger Baker, and Gary Moore toured and released the excellent BBM album. The world has lost yet another rock icon.

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