Carolina Chocolate Drops rock the Rialto, Tucson

On a visit to Tucson I tore myself away from the U of Arizona --- USC game to go hear the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Rialto downtown.  Incredibly high-energy show---you can get an idea of the band's sound from Youtube, but it doesn't really convey the impact of a live show.  They are still on tour until October 24th, and the main point of this post is just to say if you have a chance, go.  CCD got their start playing traditional or "old-time" African-American string band music. and that is still a large part of their repertoire.  The lineup has changed over the years, and I'm no expert on the changes since I'm new to the band.  Rhiannon Giddens, the lead singer (who majored in opera as an undergraduate at the Oberlin conservatory), is the only founding member of the band left in the lineup.  (I was amused that she felt she had to explain how her name is pronounced---anyone who doesn't know obviously missed the 70s, but I guess that applies to a good chunk of the audience.) The band is extremely tight, everybody is topnotch, and the numbers featuring the other members are just as strong as those (perhaps a majority) featuring Giddens as primary vocalist, but Giddens is clearly the powerhouse.  Though her manner when singing is not at all stagey or acted, when she starts making music the star power and charisma are immediately apparent.  CCD are currently doing a very wide range of music, much of which will sound familiar but not exactly like anything you've heard before.  This is African-American music that is part of the roots of bluegrass and country, coming out of folk traditions that are perhaps not so well known nowadays, but in CCD's hands it's not at all an exercise in scholarly dusting off of "hmm, interesting" musical curios---it's alive for the performers and audience, sometimes with an impact and energy that reminds me of a solid punk rock show---indeed some of the audience were definitely pogoing.  Much of the music is full of fiddle and banjo, with Malcolm Parson on cello (and sometimes bones), and Rowan Corbett on a variety of instruments, including bones, guitar, banjo, and I think perhaps fiddle on occasion.  Jenkins played guitar, mandolin, and banjo.  Parson's cello playing really added a lot to the ensemble sound, and I liked his rare solos a lot too. If I'm not mistaken, Parson, Jenkins, and Corbett all played bones to great effect, with Corbett especially virtuosic. Jenkins did some excellent vocal work, too, and his solo country blues original was superb.

As I said, online video doesn't really capture the impact, but this video of them doing Cousin Emmy's Ruby Are You Mad At Your Man from their current tour does a pretty good job.  (I am not sure if this is band-sanctioned, so will remove the link if they request it.)  Music starts around 1:34.

They also cover more recent material, like Dallas Austin's hit for Blu Cantrell, "Hit 'em up Style".  Here's a video from this tour, though I thought the Tucson performance of this song was harder-hitting:

Not all their songs are on the same topic---it's just coincidence that these are two of the best videos on the toob of the current tour.

They don't play many originals, but the song Giddens wrote reflecting her reading of accounts of life under slavery in the 19th century was powerful.

There's a lot more on youtube, including more old-time music, though not so much with the current lineup. They can sing country with the best---I wouldn't be surprised if they hit the country charts one of these days (or perhaps it's already happened); they do a great job with Hank Williams' Please Don't Let Me Love You:

Indeed, Country Girl sounds to me like a straight shot at the contemporary country charts, solid stuff though quite reminscent of a dozen or so other celebrations of down-home-by-the-crick livin' to be encountered over the last decade on mainstream country radio, with an acoustic backing just as rocking and funky as the typical electrified setting for the genre nowadays and just as deserving of a place there.

Definitely a band to get to know, and I plan to delve into their recordings now that I've had the live experience.

Paul Groves, Joseph Illick at Santa Fe Festival of Song: Duparc, Britten, Liszt, Rachmaninoff

On August 8th, we were treated to singing of transcendent beauty from tenor Paul Groves, with superb accompaniment by pianist Joseph Illick, in deeply felt and well-conceived interpretations of  songs by Henri Duparc, Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Benjamin Britten's wonderful and imaginative arrangements of British Isles folksongs.  The recital was part of the Santa Fe Festival of Song, a project of Performance Santa Fe (the organization formerly known as the Santa Fe Concert Association) in which singers who are in town to perform at the Opera give art song recitals.  Groves is Florestan in Santa Fe's Fidelio this year, and after hearing him in this recital, I'm eagerly anticipating his performance in that role.

Groves' voice is sweet and clear, but very powerful when he wants it to be, without losing any clarity or getting ragged at volume.  His control over breath, and dynamic range are amazing and deployed to great interpretive effect.  I don't believe that there is a single ideal way of interpreting most songs (though of course some songs may support a more limited range of workable approaches than others)...but I will say that Groves' performances of almost all of these songs were sheer perfection---while one could imagine a different approach being equally successful if equally well-executed, I mostly couldn't imagine anyone singing these songs better than Groves did here. He used the full range of vocal expression available to one with a top-of-the-line trained operatic voice. While a more subdued approach, with climaxes not quite as operatic in their intensity, could work equally well in many of these songs, and indeed provide a perfect opportunity for superb artistry by those who don't quite have the unbelievable volume and projection required for major-stage opera, I am not one who takes the view that operatic intensity should be banished from art-song interpretation. Groves' performance here was an illustration of how perfect and appropriate an approach informed by operatic experience, and empowered by an operatic technique and voice, can be in the art song.

The concert began with Duparc.  I thought the first song, Le manoir de Rosemonde, came off as perhaps a tad too intense and vocally operatic an interpretation, though flawlessly sung.  This might have been in part a matter of gauging the room sound; the Santa Fe United Methodist Church sanctuary is of modest size, with a relatively live and reflective acoustic.  What followed ranged from superb to sublime.  Extase was languorous and hypnotic, Soupir serene and heartfelt, Phidylé an entrancing mélange of rapture and whatever the right word is to express a slightly wistful, mildly sensual, very french kind of elegant wallowing in wistful nostalgia.

Following this, a definite change of pace with five Benjamin Britten settings of British folksongs. A substantial musical contribution from Britten here, with sometimes humorous, often very pretty and always very original settings that enhance, rather than working at cross-purposes to, the feeling and folk flavor of these songs. The Brisk Young Widow had verve and humour. In Sally in Our Alley, Groves did a superb job of putting across a broadly humorous, multi-verse narrative, with an unexpectedly poignant turn in the end. As pointed and effective an artistic meditation on class division as you will find anywhere, while avoiding dourness and simultaneously celebrating the joy of life.  Early One Morning was quiet and poignant, beautifully shaped by Groves, while in The Lincolnshire Poacher and Ca' the Yowes Groves used the more robust side of his voice to great effect in an earthier vein. At the reception following the concert, Groves remarked these Britten folksong settings are actually the most difficult to sing of the works on the program, because of their choppier, less legato line if I understood correctly. (Speculating, this may in part be a peculiarity of singing in English, at least compared to the more vowel-centered nature of French and even Russian (and of course Italian and even German, although neither of these two languages were used in this program)). Of course, that comparison may be more likely to apply once one has put in the hours and years of work necessary to do long lines with the rock-solid breath support and control, and imperturbable legato where necessary, required by the French and Russian-language works on the program.

Next up was a group of four Victor Hugo poems set by Franz Liszt, ranging through a wide range of moods and emotions, from the flirtatious humor of Comment, disaient-ils, to the over-the-top protestations of love in Enfant, si j'etais roi, to the long-lined, sensual love poetry of Oh! quand je dors  (another case where the adjective "sublime" applies to Groves' rendering).  Very colorful, sometimes dramatic, settings of these poems.  Excellent music that I did not know before this recital, and that I was very glad to be made aware of, especially in interpretations of this caliber.

The recital concluded with three songs of Sergei Rachmaninoff.  In the Silence of the Night (Fet), How Fair this Spot (Galin), and Oh Never Sing to Me Again (Pushkin). Again perfectly sung, with focused and specific portrayal of emotion, startling in their beauty and impact.

For the encore, Groves brought out baritone Kostas Smoriginas for an unexpected treat---the duet "Au Fond du Temple Saint" from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. They took it perhaps a tad faster than I think optimal, but did a fabulous job---Groves' vocal control, and ability to do high, soft, and sweet as well as powerful and passionate was a key here, as was Smoriginas' incredibly deep, full, and powerful baritone, depth and darkness balanced by plenty of high-in-the-mask, projecting resonance that did not shade at all into brittleness.  Smoriginas is Escamillo in Santa Fe's Carmen this season; I will not hear Carmen until its last performance, but based on this duet, Smoriginas has just the voice this role needs, and should be amazing in it.  In many recordings I have of this aria, the baritone recedes a bit into the mix compared with the tenor (who is a bit more the star of this aria)---so it was great to hear the baritone part so clearly in this classic romance-meets-bromance potboiler. When the tenor and baritone united in singing the melody in sync partway through, the effect was thrilling.

At the reception I overheard Mr. Groves thanking the organizers for the opportunity to give a recital while in Santa Fe, and lamenting that while opera singers love to do recitals, there are not as many opportunities for them as there were even as recently as the 1990s, when he could do lengthy recital tours in Europe and elsewhere. Listen up, agents, impresarios, and program committees because some of us are on the lookout for the kind of intense and transporting experience of aesthetic perfection one gets from hearing a singer of the caliber of Paul Groves up close in recital.

 

 

Maria Stuarda, with Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Gianattasio at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden

July 18th: my first time at Covent Garden, for the Royal Opera production (joint with Barcelona, the Theâtre des Champs-Elysées, and the Polish National Opera) of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda.  The fashion for reviving some of the lesser-known bel canto operas seems as strong as ever these days, especially with singers like Joyce DiDonato available to star in them.  This one was very much worth doing.  The opera is not perfect dramatically, but neither is it devoid of drama.  Of course we know how it's going to end, but the first act generates suspense over whether Elizabeth will meet with Mary, how they will interact, and especially what will happen to Roberto, Mary's lover and apparently one of Elizabeth's favorites too.  (I'm no expert on the history, but the libretto was adapted from a Walter Scott novel or play and is, I think, none too accurate historically.)  The final scene goes on perhaps a bit too long, Mary's final forgiveness of Elizabeth and lengthy exhortations, following her final confession to Talbot, to the assembled crowd and to Roberto to forgive her and enable peace and prosperity in the British dominions strains credulity a bit, seeming a bit corny and overpious.  The music is often strong here, but not uniformly so, Mary's prayer with crowd response seemed weak in comparison with similar scenes in other works of the era, e.g. the transcendent prayer scene in Rossini's Maometto Secundo.

A long first scene features Elizabeth, then others, especially Roberto, in colloquy with her.  Mary doesn't appear until well into the act, after a mini-intermission (lights up for a five-minute scene change) in the first act.  Carmen Gianattasio carried this portion strongly---her coloratura technique seemed quite secure to me, her voice pure and unstrained even at  high volume or high pitch.  Pretty good characterization too---her Elizabeth did seem a bit petulant at times, frayed by the stress of her position, but I guess it's tough to be Queen.  Sometimes she seemed slightly detached from the role, possibly because the attention to superb execution of demanding singing kept her from losing herself in the part.  Ismael Jordi as Roberto also came off well vocally, although to my ears, a bit "sung", sometimes phrasing with ever-so-slightly exaggerated flourishes.  But no vocal roughness, a  tone with good body and clarity, good projection, and pretty good characterization and intensity although again perhaps not inhabiting the role as completely as he could have.  But a singer I hope to hear again, whose presence in a cast I'd consider a definite attraction.

The production made some questionable choices, possibly in trying to keep to a budget... full Elizabethan costume for the women, especially Elizabeth, was a good choice, but it seemed weird to combine it with dark waistcoats and suits on the men, possibly of Edwardian vintage like the massive leather-upholstered couches and wood panelling that furnished the supposed Royal palace.  Elizabeth was portrayed as a bit on the vulgar side, especially when she rips off Roberto's shirt and runs her hands all over him in a jealous fit.  This lead to a long bout of shirtless singing by Roberto, well sung but the tableau unfortunately reminiscent of a Chippendales billboard.  A bit tacky, but perhaps effective in putting over a certain take on Elizabeth and inducing queasiness at her harassment of Roberto.

While the first part of the first act was an example of extremely well-sung, if somewhat oddly staged, opera, the appearance of DiDonato as Maria at the midpoint of the first act was the operatic equivalent of engaging warp drive.  Her first aria was a lament at being imprisoned, but suffused---at least in my recollection of it--- more by a mood of reverie and remembrance of lost pleasures and beauty than a mood of grief.  Stunningly beautiful singing, the more so because not especially showy technically and not exploiting the hotter emotions.  There may well have been technically very difficult things here, too---I don't really recall, but certainly soft high passages may have been in play---but if so they were executed so effortlessly that the focus was on the character and the music.

DiDonata was excellent in Rossini's La Donna del Lago (another bel-canto-era Walter Scott-based opera) last summer in Santa Fe, but she sounded even better here, perhaps in part due to the superb acoustics of Covent Garden, which may well be the best of any major opera house I've been in  this regard.  The open sides at Santa Fe may make it hard for the sound to penetrate with full vibrancy to the cheap seats I usually occupy at the back of the main floor, whereas even in the very moderately-priced Upper Amphiteatre center section (next stop is the roof, but having a straight-ahead view of the stage instead of looking sideways out of a box was a blessing) the orchestral and vocal sound was clear and detailed, with perfectly adequate volume, sweet but with no loss of clarity.

Complete technical control and vocal security enabled her to be totally absorbed in the role...the effect was that she had become the character, rather than consciously acting it---whether or not this effect was achieved in part by conscious real-time effort or whether she was "in the zone" by dint of intense past effort mastering the role being immaterial.  This level of performance continued for the rest of the opera, making it for the most part extremely compelling theatrically and musically, despite the usual uneven level of musical inspiration expected from a less-performed bel canto opera, and some dramatic weakness in the second act.  Occasional stretches of stereotyped and routine bel canto writing were often lent interest by the drama involved, and there were plenty of passages with much more musical interest, inextricably entwined, as is so important in opera, with the drama.

To mention just a few such highlights, beyond Mary's first scene in the prison: the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is of course classic, both Mary's controlled, but intense, pleading for mercy and then her startlingly intense outburst of anger when she has decided that Elizabeth cannot be moved, and reacts to Elizabeth's insult.  I found out later that censors required these words be cut from the original production, though soprano Maria Malibran sang them anyway in the first performance (leading, after a few more performances, to the production being shut down).    One didn't need to know this history for it to be a visceral thrill and shock when Mary let loose with "Figlia impura di Bolena, parli tu di disonore?  Meretrice indegna e oscena, in te cada il mio rossore. Profanato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!"  (Impure daughter of Boleyn, you speak of dishonor?  Worthless, obscene whore, I blush for you.  The English throne is profaned, vile bastard, by your foot!).

The scene in which Mary confesses to Talbot (extremely well sung and characterized by Matthew Rose) was another highlight, especially the swift darkening of mood when Mary gives in to Talbot's insistence that she confront her past crimes (alluding, possibly, to collusion in the murder of her first husband).  It's the darker highlights that seem to have stuck in my memory, but there were plenty of moments of more positive passion that were outstanding as well.

All the singers were at least excellent---I didn't feel like the opera was losing out from weakness in any aspect of the musical presentation.  In the scenes with the counselor---probably Guglielmo Cecil---urging Elizabeth against clemency, both Elizabeth and Guglielmo really made palpable and plausible a feeling of being trapped into denying Mary mercy---these ex-monarchs, granted clemency, are all too likely to come back and menace you.

The contemporary, white-tiled hospital-like setting of the execution chamber, while continuing the theme of random anachronism, was effective in one respect---reminding us that the current practice of capital punishment is not all that different from the stump-and-ax execution block of Elizabethan times.  DiDonato's stamina and superb singing carried the long, long final scene well, although not completely compensating for the length of the scene, which somewhat undermined the drama.  Still, it prompted plenty of meditations on politics, religion, personality, history, and the meaning of this drama in the milieu of early 19th century Italy, in which Catholicism and tradition was presumably  confronting Romanticism and republicanism.

If this show comes to your town---as it I believe it will to Barcelona, beginning in December ---it's not to be missed.  Strong singing all around, a fairly dramatically effective and psychologically interesting work, with attractive and often striking music throughout, and an unbelievably charismatic and inspired dramatic and vocal performance by Joyce DiDonato---a chance to see and hear a true operatic superstar, and to understand why she's in that category, for how profoundly she deepens the dramatic, psychological, and musical impact of the work.

 

 

 

 

Fingering a fragment of Silver

The great jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver died yesterday.  Ethan Iverson has posted, at his blog Do the Math, an excellent transcription of Silver's piano playing in a trio with Percy Heath and Art Blakey, on Silver's composition "Opus de Funk".  I've been working on playing it, and thought I would post the fingerings (see below or click here for pdf) I've worked out for the eight-measure introductory line Horace plays to start the performance, and repeats at the end, and (added on June 24) the first sixteen bars of the main strain. I'll continue to update this as I do more of the piece, but it may be awhile.

Where the fingerings stop in the middle of a continuous line, the implication is to continue with an ascending or descending sequence, or where that doesn't make sense, "do the obvious thing" (usually use whatever finger was most recently used for a given note). I have put some possible alternate fingerings in parentheses, usually above the staff.

As a pianist, I'm self-taught and none too fluent so far, and one main point of posting these fingerings is to get feedback, so if experienced pianists want to give some, that's welcome.  The other point is to provide a little bit of encouragement for people to dive into playing Ethan's transcription of this piece, and otherwise to explore Silver's music.

Morning listening: Tchaikowsky and Piazzola on APM's Performance Today

I take Astor Piazzola's work very much on a composition by composition basis.... some of it leaves me relatively unmoved, other pieces I really enjoy.  I really enjoyed the Tangata for saxophone quartet, played by the Ancia Saxophone Quartet at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  21'30 in this feed from Performance Today (you'll need to click on Hour 2 on the RHS of the page; stream should be available for at least a week).  I thought it might be Poulenc, then changed my mind to Piazzola, which turned out to be right.  It's probably the Poulencian playfulness and part-writing that grabbed me, as well as the superb playing by the quartet.  Following it (at 34:47  in the same feed) Tschaikowsky's dramatic overture-fantasia on Hamlet, Opus 67, is also extraordinarily well-played and recorded from a concert in Hamburg, by the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Christoph Eschenbach.  Excellent, dramatic stuff.

Some ideas on food and entertainment for those attending SQUINT 2014 in Santa Fe

I'm missing SQUINT 2014 (bummer...) to give a talk at a workshop on Quantum Contextuality, Nonlocality, and the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics in Bad Honnef, Germany, followed by collaboration with Markus Mueller at Heidelberg, and a visit to Caslav Brukner's group and the IQOQI at Vienna.  Herewith some ideas for food and entertainment for SQUINTers in Santa Fe.

Cris Moore will of course provide good advice too.  For a high-endish foodie place, I like Ristra.  You can also eat in the bar there, more casual (woodtop tables instead of white tablecloths), a moderate amount of space (but won't fit an enormous group), some smaller plates.  Pretty reasonable prices (for the excellent quality).  Poblano relleno is one of the best vegetarian entrees I've had in a high-end restaurant---I think it is vegan.  Flash-fried calamari were also excellent... I've eaten here a lot with very few misses.  One of the maitres d' sings in a group I'm in, and we're working on tenor-baritone duets, so if Ed is there you can tell him Howard sent you but then you have to behave ;-).  The food should be good regardless.  If Jonathan is tending bar you can ask him for a flaming chartreuse after dinner... fun stuff and tasty too.  (I assume you're not driving.)  Wines by the glass are good, you should get good advice on pairing with food.

Next door to Ristra is Raaga... some of the best Indian food I've had in a restaurant, and reasonably priced for the quality.

I enjoyed a couple of lunches (fish tacos, grilled portobello sandwich, weird dessert creations...) at Restaurant Martin, was less thrilled by my one foray into dinner there.  Expensive for dinner, less so for lunch, a bit of a foodie vibe.

Fish and chips are excellent at Zia Café (best in town I think), so is the green chile pie--massive slice of a deep-dish quiche-like entity, sweet and hot at the same time.

I like the tapas at El Mesón, especially the fried eggplant, any fried seafood like oysters with salmorejo, roasted red peppers with goat cheese (more interesting than it sounds).  I've had better luck with their sherries (especially finos) better than their wines by the glass.  (I'd skip the Manchego with guava or whatever, as it's not that many slices and you can get cheese at a market.)  Tonight they will have a pretty solid jazz rhythm section, the Three Faces of Jazz, and there are often guests on various horn.  Straight-ahead standards and classic jazz, mostly bop to hard bop to cool jazz or whatever you want to call it.  "Funky Caribbean-infused jazz" with Ryan Finn on trombone on Sat. might be worth checking out too... I haven't heard him with this group but I've heard a few pretty solid solos from him with a big band.  Sounds fun.  The jazz is popular so you might want to make reservations (to eat in the bar/music space, there is also a restaurant area I've never eaten in) especially if you're more than a few people.

La Boca and Taverna La Boca are also fun for tapas, maybe less classically Spanish.  La Boca used to have half-price on a limited selection of tapas and $1 off on sherry from 3-5 PM.  Not sure if they still do.

Il Piatto is relatively inexpensive Italian, pretty hearty, and they usually have some pretty good deals in fixed-price 3 course meals where you choose from the menu, or early bird specials and such.

Despite a kind of pretentious name Tanti Luci 221, at 221 Shelby, was really excellent the one time I tried it.  There's a bar menu served only in the bar area, where you can also order off the main menu.  They have a happy hour daily, where drinks are half price.  That makes them kinda reasonable.  The Manhattan I had was excellent, though maybe not all that traditional.

If you've got a car and want some down-home Salvadoran food, the Pupuseria y Restaurante Salvadoreño, in front of a motel on Cerillos, is excellent and cheap.

As far as entertainment, get a copy of the free Reporter (or look up their online calendar).  John Rangel and Chris Ishee are two of the best jazz pianists in town;  if either is playing, go.  Chris is also in Pollo Frito, a New Orleans funk outfit that's a lot of fun.  If they're playing at the original 2nd street brewery, it should be a fun time... decent pubby food and brews to eat while you listen.  Saxophonist Arlen Asher is one of the deans of the NM jazz scene, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Bobby Shew is also excellent, both quite straight-ahead.  Dave Anderson also recommended.  The one time I heard JQ Whitcomb on trumpet he was solid, but it's only been once.  I especially liked his compositions.  Faith Amour is a nice singer, last time I heard her was at Pranzo where the acoustics were pretty bad.  (Tiny's was better in that respect.)

For trad New Mexican (food that is) I especially like Tia Sophia's on Washington (I think), and The Shed for red chile enchiladas (and margaritas).

Gotta go.  It's Friday night, when all good grad students, faculty, and postdocs anywhere in the worlkd head for the nearest "Irish pub".

 

 

¡Que viva el once agudo! Sonora Sanjuanera brings the clave at the Marriott Courtyard

After the FQXI's excellent conference on the Physics of Information in Vieques, Puerto Rico, and a wonderful day in San Juan and the El Yunque rainforest, being shown around by my wife's incredibly hospitable second cousin, we set off from the Howard Johnson's to check out the live music reputed to exist at the Isla Verde resorts.  It was early---just past 8 PM---and the music hadn't started in the huge, over-the-top (oval central bar overhung by enormous gilt-and-glass chandelier, dark wood panelling all round, several more bars on the sides) lobby of the El San Juan.  Something called, as best I can recall, "cuentas retrovistas" was to be on at 9... so we continued to the Ritz-Carlton.  There a perfectly nice-sounding but rather demure female vocalist held forth accompanied by an electronic keyboardist using both his own fingers and some latin-ish presets, and a rather sedate crowd listened sipping drinks in cushiony chairs.  We asked one of the doormen where we could find live music, and after clarifying that we didn't mean what was happening in the lobby bar, but rather a conjunto mas grande playing something like salsa, he directed us to the next hotel down the way, the Marriott Courtyard Isla Verde (actually in Carolina, the next municipality over from San Juan).  After we passed a few restaurants with a promisingly funky appearance (and promising music wafting from a private party above one of them), things seemed to peter out into a darkish road paralleling the freeway, but as it wasn't completely deserted we kept on and eventually arrived at the Marriott. The doorman at the Ritz had not steered us wrong... this turned out to be the place.

The Picante lobby lounge features a square bar with plenty of seating, in the middle of quite a large space with plenty of tables, many empty when we arrived but completely filling up over the next hour or so, open on three sides to a lobby (featuring a mini-casino) and the walkway to the beach, with a happening dance floor between the bar and the stage in one corner, where a no-nonsense, very solid band, La Sonora Sanjuanera, was pumping out straight-ahead salsa, merengue, rumbas, son and such:

Mixed-age crowd, casually well-dressed or better, lots of good dancers keeping the floor full, some of them executing some elegant moves.  Seemingly mostly local, friendly vibe.  Nice big bar, with good mojitos.  Easy to walk out on the beach and contemplate the floodlit surf.  The Sanjuanera is led by pianist and vocalist Victor Garcia Ruiz, and he does a great job in both areas.  To my ears their music skews towards the elemental and folkoric side of Afro-Caribbean Latin musics, especially toward the beginning of a piece when often only congas, or some other subset of the percussion, upright bass, a little piano, are backing the vocal.  As a piece goes on, more drumming comes in with more rhythm, locking in the clave, then the trumpet section riffs are laid on, and things just keep getting more and more complex, the polyrhythmic call-and-response more and more compelling.  Then the latin-jazz side of things hits hard as the pianist solos---he likes to play around with all kinds of dramatic set pieces in his solos---chromatic stuff, playing lines in octaves, interjecting a well-known latin riff or two for a while---inbetween dispensing classic bop-influenced lines, and he likes to hit the dominant seventh sharp elevenths and such hard---fun stuff.  Always in touch with the latin rhythms though. There's nothing quite like getting to listen to some pungent bebop harmonies and licks while dancing to an implacable Latin beat.  Trumpet solos, while shorter, also bring in the bebop sensibiity but fused with a brassier, more Spanish-tinged sound than usual in jazz.  There's enough variation in tempos, rhythms, styles too keep from getting bored in a couple or more hours of dancing.  And the band takes enough time from numbers to give people a little rest... probably strategically timed to last just long enough to get some people off the floor and up to the bar. Some of the tunes were presumably covers of well-known hits---the ones that had a fair number of people at the bar and on the floor singing along.

We left as the second band, La Mulenze, was arriving---probably a mistake on our part but we did not want to get too exhausted.   We walked past a long line of cars filling the left-turn lane coming into the Marriott., suggesting the Mulenze might be the main draw.  (From the schedule at the Marriott's website, the Sanjuanera seems to play there quite a lot, the Mulenze probably being a rarer attraction.)

We stopped by the El San Juan on the way back, where the band was finally on.  The vast lobby with its multiple bars and armchairs was now full, with a crowd that seemed a little drunker, more international and probably noticeably more touristy, the band was playing something funk/soul/pop-ish, then something classic-rockish.  An interlude of salsa was done pretty well, motivating some dancing, but then it was back to classic rock.  Even Springsteen's "Hold On (To What You Got)" seemed somehow heavy and downbeat and the dance moves it inspired crude compared to the ebullience of the Sanjuanera and the elegance of the good salsa dancing there, so we moved on down the beach and after a short while under the portal of another beachfront hotel sheltering from a brief rain squall (excellent salsa from a private function sounding from the top floor club), back to our hotel to snooze.

As far as I know, the Sanjuanera has made two CDs, the newest of which is from 2011, P'al bailador que guapea!.  A few cuts from Youtube to whet your appetite:

Yembe Iaroco a Cuban rumba written by Rafael Blanco Suazo best known, I guess, in a 1951 recording by Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera) has a strong Afro-Caribbean feel, possibly Iaroco refers to the Mexican coastal area of Veracruz:

Oye el consejo is another hard-hitting rumba:

For some variety, Quiéreme is basically salsified doo-wop:

John Rangel and Michael Anthony play El Mesón tonight

If you like jazz at all and are looking for something to do tonight (Jan. 2, 2014) and in range of Santa Fe New Mexico, don't think twice, go hear John Rangel (piano) and Michael Anthony (guitar) play jazz at El Mesón, from 7-9 PM.  (Call 505 983 6756 for reservations... these guys have a following.)  You can get good to great tapas there, and maybe a nice glass of fino sherry, while listening.  The fried eggplant is not to be missed.

Lost and found Lester Young at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, transcribed by Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson's Do the Math (DTM) is the one mainly-music blog that I read every word of.  His work as composer and pianist with The Bad Plus, with Billy Hart in the Billy Hart Quartet, and elsewhere, should not be missed. At DTM, he's given us a  transcription (in concert key) of a fabulous Lester Young solo on Tea for Two, from the Savory Collection, a set of over 1000 recordings, privately made by Bill Savory on 78 rpm discs, of radio performances by great jazz musicians during the years 1935-1940.  The collection was acquired in 2010 by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. The museum is looking into possibilities for publicly releasing the recordings...for now, note that you can listen to them if you visit the museum.

I've transposed to B flat (and slightly edited, based on the sound file linked below) Iverson's transcription, for the benefit of those tenor players who, like myself, don't yet routinely read stuff like this in concert key; you can get the transposed version here, and it's also displayed at the end of this post.

Iverson calls the solo "utterly brilliant"; and I concur.  For those not heavily into jazz, I'll just say that to me the aesthetic and cultural significance of this is comparable to finding the manuscript of a previously unknown Mozart piano concerto...of the caliber of K488 in A, K491 in Cm, or K503 in C.  

You can hear the second chorus of the two-chorus solo, and other excerpts from the collection, at the New York Times website.  The performance is from November 1938, and the group featured "members of the Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw bands", along with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. 

About the performance the Times writers say "Top honors go to Young’s long, free-flowing solo, which is capped by a second chorus that Mr. Schoenberg calls “a wild, spontaneous moment of abandon.” "  (Mr. Schoenberg is Lauren Schoenberg, director of the Museum.)  To me, at least, it seems that the "wild, spontaneous moment of abandon" gives a primary emotional impression of relaxed, unselfconscious joy, a feeling perhaps somewhat rare in later jazz, though characteristic, if perhaps to a less intense degree, of much of Young's greatest work, especially of this period (the late 30s).  Intense striving or yearning, intense sensuality especially of a kind remniscent of eroticism, while they are valuable aspects of many great jazz performances, are mostly absent here;  this is not wild abandon in the sense of holy rollin', freejazz freakout or R&B barwalking, but rather in the sense of a spontaneous breaking out into a dance of joy.  This in part reflects Lester's style of the time, which emphasized grace and poise, relaxation and a degree of restraint even in episodes of blues honking.  (It's not an accident that I chose Mozart in the classical comparison above.)  But I think it also reflects the emotional tenor of Tea for Two itself, which despite being a popular hit at the height of the so-called Jazz Age seems almost nineteenth century in its description of a parlor romance over tea and its joyfully anticipated consummation in marriage and children. Louis Armstrong might be the closest parallel for this kind of uncomplicated joy in early jazz, although Armstrong's joy was often tinged with a bit more explicit triumphalism, his blues with just a tad more raunchiness. But there are definite reminders of Armstrong, or perhaps other trumpet influences (Lester, like Armstrong, loved the playing of Bix Beiderbecke), especially in the ripping measure 41-42 reference to the main Tea for Two theme, the measure 35-36 eighth notes jumping up and down a fourth, before peeling off into a classic Lesterian extended line dropping via turns into descending arpeggios that bounce right back up again, and in the measure 49-51 quarter notes, which come off as an inspiration of the moment (this must be part of what Schoenberg meant by "wild abandon"), and which are a striking contrast to the running-eighth note lines abundant in Young's playing.

Speaking of dancing, the rhythm section, in which guitar rather than piano is the primary audible chorded instrument, lays down a rather implacable but solidly swinging chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk of a 4/4 beat, and Lester dances fleetly in and around it, sometimes, especially when referencing the melody of Tea for Two or emphasizing the somewhat heavy-handed half-measure harmonic rhythm of the main strain, almost implying a feeling of 2/4 but always remaining lightfooted. Besides working on playing this solo, I've been analyzing its harmonic implications a bit, but won't discuss that until I've investigated the harmony being played behind Lester beyond merely comparing it with some charts found around the web.

Here's my B flat transposition of Iverson's transcription, done with Iverson's permission but not with his supervision or imprimatur.  I have also edited the second chorus a bit based on what I hear in the sound file from Savory linked at the New York Times site above. Iverson noted that his transcription contains "a couple of tiny wrong notes"; I found almost none in going over the second chorus. The main differences I've noted with Iverson's version are the shake in measure 38, and the fact that I've written out the gliss or rip in measure 41...although the exact notes I've written there should be taken with a grain of salt. (I thought that the parallel with the similar upward jump on the first beat of measure 42, but with a slightly different rhythmic feel compared to the triplet of measure 42 was worth making explicit.) The few places I've put in slurs are more to indicate that those passages are executed almost like a rip or glissando, not that nothing else is slurred.

 

La Donna del Lago, Santa Fe Opera 2013

This year's Santa Fe Opera production of Rossini's La Donna del Lago (based on Sir Walter Scott's 1810 novel The Lady of the Lake) was a treat.  Musically, quite a nice piece.  I don't feel like giving a very definite appraisal of the opera itself without hearing it more, but it has plenty of excellent arias along with some that were less striking, some really nice orchestral parts (the opening scene, for instance), and good choral sections, along with what feels, at times, like more pedestrian sections (hardly unheard-of in Rossini).  Unquestionably worth seeing in a good production like this one.

Joyce DiDonato is a fascinating singer and convincingly characterized the main female role of Elena.  She has a very flexible mezzo with an extended high end, perhaps somewhere between a soprano and mezzo in tone, and great agility in coloratura.  Ornamentation and fancy passagework is all there, not approximated, although very occasionally I felt like this was getting in the way of natural phrasing.  Moreover she can usually do this while remaining relaxed, which probably contributes to her effectiveness as a vocal actress.  There was a lot for her to do in this opera, besides the last-act showstopper Tanti affetti, and she did it all (including Tanti affetti) masterfully.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, as King James of Scotland (disguised as one "Uberto" during the first act), gave a solid performance but his voice, while clear and reliable, seemed a bit overmatched, in volume and projection, by Ms. DiDonato's at times; indeed, I occasionally  wondered if she was holding back a bit so as not to overpower him.  (On the other hand, she had a lot of singing to do over the course of the evening, so could have been pacing herself.)  His singing came across as slightly reserved, perhaps a little stiff, although this was perhaps not completely out of character for a king.  His voice seemed smooth, refined, his tone a bit burnished.  I will definitely be interested in checking out his work in other settings.  I thought he came into his own a bit more in the final scene, where he is king in his court, rather than disguised to investigate the situation in his realm (and court Elena).

Tenor René Barbera was superb as Rodrigo di Dhu, the leader of another clan, whom Elena's father Duglas (Douglas) intends for Elena to marry.  His voice had a lot of color and texture to it, and projected well into the house.  And he sang with plenty of power and passion.  His voice showed no stress in climactic moments, and he did a good job of musically shaping phrases and whole arias, and of portraying Rodrigo as a vigorous, passionate young leader, not used to being thwarted.  I'd keep on the lookout for opera's he's in---his participation is a reason to go.

Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges was also superb as Elena's father Duglas.  He managed to convey real fatherly affection along with dictatorial control over his daughter's life, including the attempt to impose a marriage on her for reasons in part political and military.  Both his appearance (tall, with tousled dirty-blond hair) and his singing, in a clear, flexible but not soft, somewhat commanding but not bellowing voice, contributed to the picture of a fairly rough-hewn Scottish clan-leader, whose character mixes some nobility with some crudeness and violence.

As Malcolm Groeme, Elena's own choice for a main squeeze, mezzo Marianna Pizzolato sang beautifully, and her somewhat darker mezzo worked well with DiDonato.  She too was very solid in complex passagework.  Their duet cavatina Vivere io non potro was a highlight of the evening, and one of the high points of Rossini's opera.  She perhaps did not match DiDonato in acting skill; her long Act 2, scene 2 aria came off as a bit static.  But she is an excellent singer.

Seeing Maometto II last year, and now La Donna, makes me think that Rossini had a particular interest in the theme of romantic love reaching across the divide of military conflict.  In this opera, it ultimately succeeds in bringing peace.  The quick peacemaking in the court scene at the end is perhaps a little bit unconvincing, but maybe further experience with the opera will clarify that aspect of the plot.

Last season, I began to wonder if Santa Fe plans each season to have a theme running through several operas.  Last season, it would have been the damage caused to people seeking to live lives of love, art, peaceful spirituality, by the alliance of religion with state power.  This year, I'd say it was romantic love and powerful women against patriarchy.  This was the obvious theme of Rossini's opera, and I think the director underlined it by having some of the men behave extra-badly: some pretty aggressive come-ons by King James to Elena in the first act, violent treatment of women by clansmen in some of the choral scenes.

Some of the staging was perhaps a bit static, but the production did well to keep the original setting, and the sets were excellent, emphasizing rusticity and desolation over romantic lochs.  (In fact, the lake seemed to have gone missing.)  The chorus and orchestra were both very strong.

Overall, a good opera with moments of magic, extremely well produced and cast, and with a thought-provoking theme.  Lots of excellent music, though sometimes padded out with lesser music, and with a story providing food for thought, and mostly effective drama, though probably not up with the best operas in the dramatic department.  An opera I'd definitely see again, and hope to see done this well.