Symphony in C

I saw Symphony in C again tonight, they were fantastic as always, maybe the best I have seen them yet.  In these times where we are all being more frugal, all you Philly classical music fans should check them out.  Let me count the reasons:
  • first rate musicians, all recent conservatory graduates
  • exiting music director, Rossen Milanov.  He gets the most out of this ensemble
  • very close to center city, just over the BF bridge, and free parking
  • yes, it is in Camden.  the parking lot and campus are well lit and monitored by armed guards.  It is very safe.
  • ticket prices are a real bargain
  • excellent music hall, a small college auditorium with no bad seats
  • Maestro Milanov has good taste in music!  he programs all the Eastern European and Russian music I love.
The real highlight for me was the Dvorak Piano Concerto, played by soloist Allesio Bax.  This sparkling concerto is often neglected because the piano part is considered not brilliant enough.  I think that the piano part is just fine (Bax sight read it from the score), and there is a lot of interaction between the piano, the strings, and the winds.  Here is a short clip of Rudolf Firkusny playing the ending of this concerto.  The first movement is like a mighty mountain, the second movement a pastoral dream, and the third a lively Czech folk dance.

They opened the show with Smetana's "Sarka" from Ma Vlast, which showed off the whole orchestra with some good heavy brass.  Nice to hear a Ma Vlast tone poem that is not The Moldau, for a change.

They closed the concert with Brahms' well known Symphony no. 2.  The strings' warm sound was especially highlighted in this performance.  The precision and energy with which they dished out the finale earned them many ovations.  Well done!

Our tickets were in the last row and everything sounded fine, loud and clear and well balanced.

In the lobby I ran into the principal cello for the orchestra, one Eric Coyne, who I last saw when we played together at Nicki Jaine's big
Art Museum show.  It was nice to see him again, chat about music a bit, and it was good to see he has advanced to the principal chair.

Here is another review from the Philadelphia Inquirer at

RIP, Bea Arthur

With all of the obituaries and kind words being said for Bea Arthur, I
heard no mention of one of her greatest roles ever.  One in which she
got to show off her ability to sing and act, on TV, singing along with
the music of America's most loved living composer, John Williams.

Yes, I am referring to the Star Wars Holiday Special. 

Just one more round, friend!

EP Review: UKZ/Radiation

I just got this EP on i-Tunes for 4 bucks, it is now available for download.

This is a strong new release, the best cut is probably the title track, which you can see, hear, and experience for free on Youtube here:

This is the only one of the four tracks on the EP to feature all of the band members.

Eddie Jobson opens the track with some dark CS-80 sounding pads, after which Trey and Marco pound out the heavy rhythm. Lippert's vocals are a little coarse, but they suit the material. I like how Trey uses two or three heavy bass tones on his Warr Guitar. Alex gives us some heavy grooves and Holdsworth style soloing, but he is an original prodigy nonetheless. I like how his solo blends seamlessly into Eddie Jobson's violin solo.

Track 2 is "Houston", as in "Houston, we have a problem", (Apollo 13) which is a bit of a cliche on lost love. Still, Aaron Lippert shows that he is a strong lyric singer here. Trey contributes a beautiful guitar solo with one of his trademark tones. No drums on this track.

Track 3 is called "Tu-95", and is an instrumental. There are some prog rock cliches here, like a 4/4 riff played against a 7/8, but it is a good listen all the same. It shows what an influence Trey Gunn was on that great late-90's King Crimson band.

The EP finishes up with a guitar solo from Alex, "Legend", showing the Holdsworth influence again.

The Phab 4 Return

In this time of hard luck and bad news, it is nice to report some good news:  after almost five years, Phish has reunited, and they are back in top form.  They played for three nights in Hampton VA, three long concerts.  They made all of the shows available for download, and I got the first one.  It is over three and a half hours long!  In some ways, as they play a lot of these tunes that they first made popular (to their cult following) almost 20 years ago, they sound a little bit like a nostalgia act.  The vocals are a little ragged, reminding me of later Grateful Dead.  HOWEVER, many of these songs have livs of their own, long improvisation sections, and they really do sound different every night.  Hopefully, five years of being away from this music, and in some cases, substance abuse rehab, have given the band a fresh look at their old work.  A new album is also in the works.

In a
New York Times article, Trey indicated that he wanted to bring some joy to a depressed world, and i don't think it is too presumptious of him to say so.  They worked hard to come back, and already gave the world three full length live albums for free.  That is a nice way of saying thanks to fans like me who could not be there, but who have trekked long distances to support the band in the past, and will in the future.

Bravo Paavo!

I just got in from the State Theater, New Brunswick, where I saw the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie (DKAM) under the direction of Paavo Jarvi.  What a fine show, this may be the best orchestra concert I see all season.  They played their specialty, Beethoven, specifically the Third and Eighth Symphonies, and the Consecration of the House Overture.

This orchestra, under Jarvi's direction, has an outlook on Beethoven not unlike that of Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (see previous post).  I believe that he is also using the new Barenreiter urtext editions of the symphonies.  Modern instruments, chamber sized orchestra, and a fresh approach to these well tread symphonies.  To give an idea of the size of this band, I counted seven first violins, six seconds, five violas, four cellos, and three basses.  That string section is about half the size of the biggest romantic-era orchestras.  This allows the other instruments in the orchestra to be heard more clearly.

All three works were played with speed, precision and clarity.  In the 19th century style, they used faster tempi, and the smaller orchestra size let the pull it off with crispness.  They were able to turn on a dime, running at high speed, like driving a Subaru WRX instead of a Hummer H1.

The concert seemed a bit undersold (~60% full), but the small audience was very appreciative, and we were rewarded with two encores: Sibelius' 'Valse Triste' and the Finale to Beethoven's First Symphony.  In that last encore, the first and second violin sections switched places, to show that they all could play at a high level of virtuosity, and that nobody is "second fiddle" in this ensemble.

It was a great performance, and all you New Yorkers should get out in the snow tomorrow night to see them at Allice Tully Hall.  This is a fantastic German orchestra under one of the world's great conductors.

The Nine

In classical music, much is often made of the "curse of the nine".  As the curse goes, you write nine symphonies, then you drop dead.  While a number of great composers have written ultimate, "Ninth" symphonies, most of them don't really live up to the curse.  Mahler wrote ten numbered symphonies, Bruckner eleven, and Schubert really only wrote eight, including his famous one that he didn't finish.

But two who meet the math requirement are Beethoven, of course, and Dvořák.  I recently picked up sets of all nine symphonies by both of these composers.

For the Dvořák, I was faced with a choice of a few different sets available.  I ended up getting the same set that I have on vinyl record, those recorded by Istvan Kertesz and the LSO.  I went with this old standby because it was the first  - Kertesz recorded all nine of these in a time when most conductors were only doing 7, 8, and 9.  I respect that a lot.  The recordings are from the early 1960's, but they still sound great and have a lot of exitement. 

And having them on CD gives me the chance to really appreciate all nine.  7-9 ned no introduction, they are widely played and over played.  4-6 are starting to get their due.  5 and 6 I had always loved, and having number 4 on CD gave me the opportunity to listen to it more, and I can see it's strengths.  Likewise, of the first three, I had always been a big fan of 2 & 3, but now the convenience of the CD medium gave me the chance to appreciate the first symphony.  It is a testament to Dvořák's melodic gift that all nine of these contain memorable tunes.  In the earliest of them, he has not yet mastered the technique for developing his ideas, but his inate gifts are still obvious.

There are also some overtures included in the set, but I was disappointed to see that the Hussite Overture and Othello were not included.  Kertesz made fine recordings of these Dvořák masterworks, but I will have to be content with vinyl for now.

Turning now to Beethoven, there are dozens of sets available of his nine, but I had recently heard about a revolutionary new cycle recorded by David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra.  They are performed on modern instruments, but with a new Jonathan Del Mar edition of the score, published by Barenreiter, that unveiled a number of corrections (according to Del Mar) that had gone unnoticed for 200 years.  

Whatever the corrections may be, and some are listed in the booklet, this set is like a breath of fresh air.  It's not just because Zinman takes them all real fast (and he does take them all at a quick pace), but there is a newfound clarity here.  I hear more winds and brass, and I hear even moments of improvisation, for example at the famous oboe cadenza in the first movement of the Fifth (a similar moment occurs in the first movement of the Seventh).  These Zurich musicians - and they are a multinational lot - play in a 19th century style, and they are not afraid to shake it up a little.

I can give two examples of places where Zinman and editor Del Mar give us a new view of Beethoven.  In the trio of the minuet in the Eighth Symphony, there is a counterpoint line played by the cellos. In the new edition, it is played by a solo cello, which makes the part stand out more, than when it was played by the whole section.  In the Ninth, he inserts a general pause right before bar 747 in the finale.  Just to give us an alternate view, the CD contains both alternate endings with and without the pause.  I had to look up the spot in the score, to be sure of what he was talking about, and after all that I don't think it is a big deal.  But David Zinman does, so good for him.  So many Beethoven sets, recorded with large late 19th century romantic orchestras, sound the same.  This one is different.

This is a fine set of the nine symphonies, available on a budget label for about $20, so it is a fine compliment to any other set you may own.  Recommended. 



Symphony in C

I saw Symphony in C last night in Camden performing Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Piazzolla.  It was just the string section last night, and they showed off their chops very nicely.  They have a warm, resonant string sound that shows their talent.  Most of the members of this orchestra are recent graduates of major conservatories like the Curtis institute, on their way to jobs with major symphony orchestras.  This "training orchestra" is akin to baseball's minor leagues, developing young talent.  This puts them a cut above community orchestras.

They opened with Grieg's
Holberg Suite - regular readers of this blog know how much I love Grieg.  The Holberg Suite not only shows Grieg's interest in baroque forms, but it has strong Norwegian folk elements.  The principal violin and viola players got a good workout playing in duet during the finale.  it was like a Norwegian wedding dance!

Next up was a set of four pieces  - a 'four seasons' suite - by Astor Piazzolla played by the orchestra with my teacher and friend
Lidia Kaminska.  This suite has an interesting history, they started out as four separate pieces for tango quintet representing the four seasons.  They were composed at different times over many years.  "Verano Porteno" is probably the best known.  Violinist Gidon Kremer got the idea to put them together as a suite, in the manner of Vivaldi, and he commisioned the Russian composer/arranger Leonid Desyatnikov to create it.  Desyatnikov also threw in a few references to Vivaldi for good measure.  The liner notes for the CD they made probably explain it best.  Now, in 2009, Lidia took the solo violin part and arranged it for bandoneon, which sounds appropriate because these melodies started out on that instrument.  So the piece comes full circle.  And it sounded great.  This was videotaped and will be broadcast on WHYY TV Channel 12 at some time in the future.

The final piece on the program was the well known Tchaikovsky
Serenade for Strings, which is so wonderful to see and hear up close (we were in the front row), to see how masterfully Tchaikovsky uses all of the string instrument groups, divided and subdivided into many parts to achieve a fully orchestrated sound.  The Symphony in C strings shone beautifully here.

After the show I was fortunate enough to be able to hang out with some of the musicians, chatting about Piazzolla over cake and coffee until 1 am.

Box Five

I saw Box Five last night at the Philly Farewell show at L'Etage.  It was really nice, probably the best I have ever seen Box Five.  In case you don't know, Box Five is a band, of varying lineup that backs up singer-songwriter-pianist Mary Bichner.  I rode down with Joe D'Andrea and we enjoyed some crepes with Nicki Jaine at the restaurant downstairs from L'Etage, known as Beau Monde.

Last night, the lineup of Mary, plus Steve Toy (gtr), Joe Gribbons (bs) , and Chris Pires (dr), were backed up by Terri Rambo (b vox) Brian Hopely (perc), plus a string quartet and a woodwind quartet.  Different musicians were on stage at different times, but the evening's finale featured everyone at once - 14 musicians on stage!  I used to sit in with Mary playing accordion (usually when she did not have a string quartet, playing the string parts) but last night I sat comfortably in the audience, and it was a fine show.  They played just about every song Mary has written for Box Five, in a set that was over an hour long.  I joked with Steve Toy that it was almost like a Grateful Dead concert.

The opening act was Jaggery, from Boston, in a stripped down lineup of piano & drums.  Nice set.

Good luck to Mary in Boston, I am sure she will restart her career soon up there!