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October 2011

CMJ 2011 Recap

DSC03544As usual, this year's CMJ Music Marathon, the 31st annual showcase, had a glut of offerings for the discerning (or not-so) indie rock fan. I never did manage to pick up my festival guide, but between the mobile site and various strands of buzz, I managed to catch at least one or two decent things every night. Following are a few highlights:

Tuesday, 10/18/11

DSC03554Popstrangers (Auckland, New Zealand), New Zealand Showcase at Le Poisson Rouge: Wall of discordant noise and trippy vocals, all with a dancey backbeat.DSC03565Mahogany (NYC), Deli Showcase @ The Delancey: Earnest vocals by Andrew Prinz over trippy guitars and electronics. (And, wow, who was that leggy brunette playing 12-string?)

Wednesday, 10/19/11

DSC03577Miracles of Modern Science (NYC), Piano's: I love these guys: somehow, they manage to rock with nothing other than mandolin, violin, cello, standup bass, and drums, all played acoustic. Give the lion's share of the credit to vocalist/bassist Evan Younger, whose plaintive voice pierces right through your jaded shell. Probably the most sincere set I saw all week: they're like the Barenaked Ladies, without the snarkiness. 
DSC03582Sweet Soubrette (NYC), Deli Showcase at the Living Room: Dark, confessional lyrics delivered by the ukelele-wielding Ellia Bisker, who somehow comes across as sweet and charming while simultaneously laying waste to all your romantic notions of love and urban happiness. I wasn't sure whether to clap or cry, but she definitely got under my skin.

DSC03597Races (L.A., CA), Cake Shop: Dreamy, high-energy 6-piece from Compton, blending 60's psychedelia with timeless folkiness, driven by Wade Ryff's Colin Meloy-like vocals.

Thursday, 10/20/11 
DSC03604Allison Park (Pittsburgh, PA),  Highine Ballroom: This girl obviously has some svengali pushing her to become the next Pop Princess, available to play a shopping mall near you. The high hair and shameless self-promotion (via life-size posters of Park flanking the stage) would have been harmless enough, if her singing weren't so awful.

DSC03644Talk Normal (NYC), Littlefield. About as different from Ms. Park as you can get: experimental NY duo featuring the fierce Sarah Register on guitar and Andrya Ambro on drums and vocals. What sounds like drone and noise is actually a highly orchestrated sonic assault: as if No Age joined forces with PJ Harvey. Thrilling and terrifying.
  
Friday, 10/21/11

CMJ 2011_009Grimes (Montreal, QC), Fader Fort: Claire Boucher looks like she's about 16, but had confidence to spare in a set that had her singing solo over a drum machine and synth pad. It was nominally dance pop, but with a strange, arty edge to it.

CMJ 2011_017Savoir Adore (NYC), Santos Party House
: Fun, dancey set from the Brooklyn four-piece which sounded lifted straight from the 80's, driven by Deidre Muro's dreamy vocals and Paul Hammer's deft guitar work.

CMJ 2011_030French Horn Rebellion (NYC), Santos Party House. The coordinated lights and smoke machines were fun, but really this was just two guys with laptops and some drum machines, so a bit of a misnomer. But, when they did finally haul out a French Horn, people went absolutely Apeshit. Which is no surprise, coming from where I'd just been

CMJ 2011_037Walk the Moon (Cincinnati, OH), Santos Party House Fun, poppy rock on the anthem side of things. Half the crowd seemed to be wearing the same cowboys-and-indians facepaint as they.

CMJ 2011_039Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs (Oxford, UK), Santos Party House: Intelligent dance music from the wiry Orlando Higginbottom, made large in a massive Native American headdress. Fun way to end a long night.

Saturday, 10/22/11

CMJ 2011_004Grace Woodroofe (Perth, AU), Aussie BBQ at The Delancey, An incredible talent: deep dark voice, full of soulful intensity, better suited to jazz than indie. Still, who can blame the 21-year old for wanting to make a go of it in the rock world, esp. when Ben Harper signs you up as his opening act? Watch out for her.

CMJ 2011_013Team Genius (NYC), Lonely Hearts Club showcase at The Living Room: Fun, a bit silly, striving to be Arcade Fire with its trumpet, synths and all-in chorus, but falling just short with its lack of cohesion.

CMJ 2011_015Little Racer (NYC), Piano's: Quirky guitar riffs over lyrics about Norman Rockwell and the Beatles' "Till There Was You"
CMJ 2011_037Jape (Dublin, IE), Piano's: High-energy electropop, threaded with your typical Irish charm and wide-eyed wonder. "It's an amazing thing to be alive and to be in New York," said lead singer/guitarist Richie Jape. Indeed.

CMJ 2011_017Glass Anchors (NYC), Cake Shop: Twangy folk rock, led by the surprisingly overpowering Annie Sicherman. A welcome break from all the electropop.

CMJ 2011_018Emperor X (Jacksonville, FL), Fat Baby: Extemely earnest/awkward singer-songwriter with a bit of too much ego for his own good, but still entertaining.

CMJ 2011_019Filigar (Chicago, IL), Arlene's Grocery: Roots rock for frat boys, not very interesting but I'm sure they'll achieve some sort of popularity.

CMJ 2011_026Hank and Cupcakes (NYC), Mercury Lounge: Wow, Cupcakes is like the new Annie Lenox: huge, outgoing personality, standing up on her bass drum like it was some kind of pulpit. Her husband Hank had about 47 pedals in front of him, generating all kinds of crazy electronic noise through his Fender. Probably the most entertaining set I saw all CMJ.
CMJ 2011_029Hey Marseilles (Seattle, WA), Living Room: These guys are already huge in their hometown, but it was a real treat to see them out on the east coast, playing a tight, energetic set using cello, violin, acoustic and electric guitar, accordion and trumpet. Such gorgeous textures and harmonies, it only made sense to leave things there, even though there was still plenty of CMJ left to go.  

Until next year...(More pics on the photo page.)


White Light Festival: War Requiem

LSO 2011_001As I made my way back up to Avery Fisher Hall for the 2nd time in less than 48 hours yesterday afternoon to hear the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, I struggled with the Why of this concert. As in: why now perform Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, a stirring-yet-solemn piece of 20th century music filled with imagery of the horrors of war? What, if anything, did this challenging masterpiece have to do with current events, or the White Light Festival's overarching promise of asylum from the harsh reality of everyday life?

For those unfamiliar with it, the War Requiem was written just shy of 50 years ago for the rededication of England's Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed by German pilots in World War II. Britten's conceit was to alternate the traditional text of the Requiem mass - already immortalized in music by Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi, among many others - with the searing, visionary poetry of Wilfred Owen: a British soldier killed in World War I at the age of 25 and considered to be one of the greatest war poets of all time. Owen's imagery is haunting, disturbing, and completely unforgettable:

    "None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
     To miss the march of this retreating world
     Into vain citadels that are not walled.
     Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
     I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,                                     Even from wells we sunk too deep for war..." 

(See this video for more background.)

LSO 2011_006
Whatever reservations I had going into this performance were washed away the moment it began: the dark, haunting strains of the Reqiuem aeternam, the thunderous clamor of the Dies irae, the triumphant fanfare at the center of the Sanctus, and finally, the uncertain solace of the In Paradisum. As remarkable as the LSO and Chorus were on Friday night, here they were simply miraculous, investing every phrase with absolute clarity and conviction. No surprise, really, given that these were the same forces that performed the War Reqiuem under Britten's own baton for the landmark Decca recording made less than six months after the premiere. The LSO owns this music, no less than Vienna can lay rightful claim to Bruckner, or Berlin to Brahms. Britten is in their blood.

That same English pride was conspicuously present in two of yesterday's soloists: the remarkable Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Simon Keenlyside (baritone), both of whom sang with the crisp energy and unfettered emotion of great actors. Joining them was the Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak: a relative newcomer who delivered her lines from the rear of the orchestra with an almost feline fury. Rounding out the monumental forces onstage was the terrific American Boychoir, singing from just beyond the stage left door.

LSO 2011_004Holding everything together was the Italian conductor Giananedra Noseda, replacing Sir Colin Davis who, at 84, was advised by his doctors to step down from this difficult, demanding work. (Sir Colin did manage to conduct both of the other concerts on this NY visit, including Friday's historic Missa Solemnis.) No mean pinch hitter, Noseda - best known as an opera conductor at places like the Met and the Teatro Regio di Torino - lit things up with a tightly-controlled performance that ranged from hushed sonority to deafening roar. 

For my money, this was hands down the greatest performance of the War Requiem I've ever heard, which includes performances by everyone from the Boston Symphony to the NY Phil. It was bold, sincere, a triumph in every sense of the word. For 90 minutes, I lost all track of space and time, completely in thrall with the artistry of these 300+ musicians who had fully invested themselves in this overpowering music. Which, at least in part, is precisely what the White Light Festival hopes to achieve.

I can't wait to hear what's next. (More pics below and on the photo page.)

LSO 2011_002

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White Light Festival: Missa Solemnis

LSO 2011_001In addition to all the other musical events happening around town, the 2nd annual White Light Festival at Lincoln Center opened last night with an epic peformance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, all conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

The house was completely full, many no doubt realizing that this was in all likelihood Sir Colin's final New York performance. Davis, who turned 84 last month, first conducted the LSO in 1959, eventually becoming their principal conductor in 1995. Over the past 50 years, he has made many recordings with the LSO, including a Philips recording of the Missa Solemnis in 1977 which literally knocked me out of my seat the first time I heard it. (It is still the only recording I own.) 

Julian Hancock's liner notes from that Philips recording convey the magnitude of Beethoven's achievement:

"The work carried Beethoven into spiritual dimensions never before encapsulated in music. The canvas is broader and richer than any mass yet written, even to the extent of expecting the choir to demonstrate a flexibility and sheer stamina normally associated only with instrumental composition."

(See my post on the NY Phil's June 2010 performance for more background on the Missa Solemnis.)

LSO 2011_004Sir Colin did appear somewhat frail last night, using a stool for most of the performance. (When I last saw him here in 2007 to conduct Haydn's The Creation, he stood throughout.) Perhaps not coincidentally, his tempi was a good bit slower than on that recording from 34 years ago: at times, it felt grandiose, at others plodding.

But, there were still plenty of astonishing moments, largely driven by the 150-strong London Symphony Chorus, which sang with the roar and brilliance one would expect of a choir made up of British singers. The soloists - soprano Helena Juntunen, mezzo Sarah Connolly, tenor Paul Groves and bass Matthew Rose - were all solid. And, of course, the LSO played brilliantly - particularly concertmaster Gordan Nikolitch, who stood to play the long, lyrical violin solo in the Benedictus and delivered it with heartfelt tenderness. 

The London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are back at Avery Fisher tomorrow afternoon for Britten's War Reqiuem - another White Light Festival event - with a whole new set of soloists, conduted by Gianandrea Noseda. Looks like there are tickets still available; check with the box office. 

If this was, in fact, Davis' final appearance on these shores, it was a most noble and worthy exit. Godspeed, Sir Colin. You'll be missed.

LSO 2011_005More pics on the photo page.