Friday, July 26, 2013


Gil Shaham awaits Maestro Tovey's Downbeat
The orchestral series presented by the Bravo Vail music festival concluded tonight on a high note, with an absolutely fantastic concert by the NY Phil and Bramwell Tovey conducting.

The concert opened with John Adams' piece A Short Ride in a Fast Machine,  a piece we have heard several times performed live. It's more than 25 years old now, but I remember when it was a new, fresh and exciting piece for orchestra. Tovey gave a nice reading tonight, and props to the percussionist who quickly recovered when the top of his mallet fell off while playing the incessant, metronome-like wood block part in the piece.

This was followed up with the incredible Gil Shaham, whom we heard two years ago at Vail, and whom we saw perform the Tchaikovsky Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl only two weeks before we moved to Colorado (review here). He must be one of the happiest people on the planet, he is ALWAYS smiling, and who can blame him, the venue and crowd were perfect tonight! He played beautifully as always, with a rich and luscious tone, particularly in the low register.

But the real highlight of the evening was the near-centenary performance of Holst's The Planets, one of the truly great orchestral showpieces, and one of the pieces that made me want to be a composer. No matter how many times I hear it, I hear new things in it, and tonight was no exception. Seeing it live really made me notice how brilliant the writing for harp and timpani are. And although "Mars, the Bringer of War" gets most of the attention, all of the movements are brilliant in their own way.

This was a great way to finish our season in Vail before returning home for my step-mother's funeral. Bram Tovey even re-tweeted my photo from the concert. I just hope he doesn't read all of my reviews, including last night's!

Barber in the Chapel

Barber in the Chapel
Yesterday when I woke up, I learned that my step-mother had died a few hours earlier. Coincidentally, the Jasper String Quartet had planned on playing the Barber Adagio for Strings (known to the unrefined as "The Theme from Platoon.") The free concert was in the Vail Interfaith Chapel, only a few steps away from the hotel we are staying at. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to reflect on Pat's passing. The quartet played it extremely well. (We had heard them play it last year in a similar concert, reviewed here.) It must be difficult to play a piece like that frequently yet keep the emotional level so high. Thank you for your professionalism.

The concert appears to have programmed alphabetically, following Barber with Bartok, which was an interesting choice given their playing of Webern just a few nights earlier (and reviewed here). To me, Bartok's challenges to tonality are far more interesting than the mathematical approach taken by Webern, and it was a pleasure to hear the String Quartet #5 played so well. There were even a few welcome moments of musical humor in the piece, including the ending. It was a smart compositional move, to reward the audience with a light-hearted moment after a piece that can be challenging to the audience.

It was a nice way to remember Pat.

Bramwell Tovey and the NY Phil in Vail

Rain cannot dampen the enthusiasm for the NY Phil
The penultimate orchestral concert of the Bravo Vail music festival was last night, featuring a group of works conducted by Bram Tovey, who is consistently one of the best conductors we see (having reviewed him several times before at Vail and the Hollywood Bowl; you can read those reviews here). The concert was delayed about 15 minutes due to a sudden heavy rain, but picked up well.

Tovey began with four dances from Copland's Rodeo, which was quite a nice way to start his part of the program. As expected, the orchestra played extremely well, although I think the acoustics of the Ford Amphitheater could still use a little more help from sound reinforcement; there is always a lack of low end, and some reverb would help as well. With no back wall on the stage, there is almost no reflected sound.

Tovey had thankfully remained silent until this point but when he lets loose, it is with full diarrhea of the mouth. The next piece was his own composition, so I will excuse him for talking about it. The Lincoln Tunnel Cabaret was a highlight of the evening, both in terms of its jazz-inflected composition, and its featuring of the Joseph Alessi as trombone soloist for the piece, which was essentially a trombone concerto.

The piece was an interesting composition yet also managed to play like a set of technical highlights for trombone. Alessi showed incredible control on a long series of lip trills, as well as perfect sound and intonation at both extremes of the register. He even threw in a few multiphonics at the end.

After intermission, Tovey spent what felt like half an hour discussing the Dvořák Symphony #8. It is indeed a great piece but I doubt anyone in the audience learned anything from his rambling analysis of it.

Another unexpected highlight of the evening came in the encore, the Hungarian Dance #5 of Brahms. This is really a conductor's showpiece, with a zillion pauses and tempo changes, and Tovey milked it for all it was worth, but in a good way. It was a great way to end the evening.

Tonight, the orchestral closer, The Planets, along with Gil Shaham playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

MANHUNT: The Search for Bin Laden

MANHUNT: The Search for Bin Laden is an HBO documentary covering (basically) the same story that ZERO DARK THIRTY did, except in this case it is a well made and believable film. ZERO DARK THIRTY was a terrible film (you can read my review here), but MANHUNT is quite good. It's nice to hear the story of the women CIA analysts directly from them rather than a fictional and completely unrealistic hollywood portrayal. These women are real heroes, and they had to put up with a lot of crap from their male counterparts at the CIA.

MANHUNT is not without flaws. It's a bit long, and the opening half hour or so would probably be very confusing if I did not already know much of the story from other sources. But it is definitely worth viewing, and a good addition to the documentaries about 9/11 and its aftermath.

Broadway in Vail

Last night we attended the Broadway concert as part of our subscription the Bravo Vail music festival. This was the concert that I was least interested in, even though it was performed by the NY Philharmonic. However, I was pleasantly surprised by it. The theme was love songs on Broadway, and there was a nice mix of Gershwin, Bernstein, Berlin and others.

Conductor Ted Sperling may not have gotten the most emotional readings out of the orchestra, but they did improve as the evening went on, and he performed a number of pieces himself on piano. He sang quite well on two of them, most notably on "The Begat," from Finnian's Rainbow, with brilliant lyrics by Yip Harburg, best known for the lyrics to The Wizard of Oz songs.

The evening featured two singers, playing "the boy and the girl" throughout the evening. Betsy Wolfe stole the show repeatedly with a fantastic voice, most notably on "Getting Married" from Sondheim's Company, which I was surprised to learn that she had never sung before. It's a real tongue-twister, and not only did she sing it flawlessly, she acted it brilliantly.

Andrew Samonsky was the weakest part of the show. His voice never seemed quite right for the part, right out of the gate when he opened the show with "Something's Coming." His voice is thin and too much or a head voice for a romantic lead. He did get better as the night went along, I'm not sure if the keys were too high for him, or if sound reinforcement helped him with a little EQ. But his reads were never very emotional, especially on "It Never Entered My Mind," which Frank Sinatra introduced on film in Higher and Higher. If you are going to tackle a song like that, you had better put your heart into it and show some vulnerability.

There was a nice balance of old standards and lesser-known material, including a nice sing by Pasek & Paul from the off-Broadway musical adaptation of Dogfight. A real nice find. Several highlights were at the end of the show, including "Come Rain or Come Shine" by Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer, and the encore medley. It was quite an enjoyable evening.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

All the President's Men Revisited

Catching up on some documentaries, I started with All the President's Men Revisited, which aired earlier this year on Discovery. (My DVRs are full of stuff I never get around to watching.)

Perhaps because I grew up in this era, I did not feel as though I learned much new about this subject. One problem is that Robert Redford produced and narrated, which I think forced them to talk way too much about the movie and not as much about the actual events. The first half hour or so included virtually no interesting information about the events, although I'm sure it was necessary since the younger generation probable knows very little about Watergate. I do feel the presence of Redford and Dustin Hoffman made it feel like they were giving themselves credit instead of the real-life Woodward and Bernstein (who can also be annoying in their own way).

Perhaps the most interesting section is at the end, when they speculate on whether this story could break the same way today, and whether journalists could have the same effect, essentially toppling an entire administation. With the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and increased presidential powers, it seems unlikely that we will ever see something like this again. Which is a sad reflection on both journalism and our society.

Webern and Beethoven

The View at Brush Creek Pavilion
We have officially started our week of summer vacation with our annual trek to Vail for the Bravo Vail music festival. This week began with two free concerts by the Jasper String Quartet, both featuring the works of Beethoven and Webern, an incredibly peculiar pairing.

On Monday night at the Brush Creek Pavilion in Eagle, they played two pieces by Webern and a quartet by Beethoven. The Webern pairings were a nice contrast to each other, with the "Langsamer Satz," written as a student in the typical late 19th century Romantic mold, contrasting the dodecaphonic "Five Movements," written only four years later in 1909. Unfortunately, the quartet played these in the worst possible programming. Instead of playing them in chronological order to show the composer's development, they started with the twelve-tone piece.

OK, I thought, take the medicine now and get the spoonful of sugar with the Beethoven later. As a composer, I understand the importance of this compositional style as an intellectual exercise. I also understand that as a performer, you get a unique knowledge of the music with practice that makes it much more enjoyable to perform than it would ever be to listen to as an average audience member.

Here's where they made their bad programming mistake; they started with the twelve-tone piece, then after playing the Romanic piece, the announced they were going to play the twelve-tone piece AGAIN. Needless to say, this did not go over well. Rather than creating a familiarity with the music (that they thought would make it more listenable to the audience), it backfired, and the familiarity bred contempt. I felt like a child being punished for saying I did not like my vegetables, and was forced to have eat second serving of brussels sprouts. (For the record, I like sprouts. A lot more than Webern.)

And by the way, I have written twelve-tone pieces. I would never force an audience to sit through them. And certainly not TWICE IN A ROW.

They redeemed themselves by playing Beethoven's Quartet in C-minor, #4, Opus 18, which was a lovely way to end the concert, and had a lot more in common with the earlier Webern piece. Perhaps the best part about this performance was the way it contrasted with the concert the next day.

On Tuesday, the Jasper Quartet performed a second free concert at the Vail Interfaith Chapel, only a few steps away from the center of Vail Village. Their choice was the Beethoven String Quartet in C#-minor, Opus 131. It could not possibly be more different that Opus 18 we heard the night before. The C-minor was written when he was fairly young in 1800, and the C#-minor was written when he was mostly deaf in 1826. The C-minor follows the Classical mold for a string quartet very closely. Perhaps the only real oddity is that it has no slow movement, instead it has both a scherzo and a minuet.

The fact that the entire concert on Tuesday consisted of a single quartet should tell you how different the C#-minor is. Beethoven threw out the Classical model almost completely, and used seven movements instead of four. In addition, they are played without pause, so it does not feel like seven movements, it feels like one, large, 40-minute piece of music.

Even describing it as seven movements feels odd to me, one movement has five or six tempo changes in it, so that movement alone makes it feel even more episodic. But regardless of structure, this piece really pushes the boundaries as Beethoven shows how important it is to be able to develop your themes at great length.

This piece showed the incredible mastery of the string players' performance skills (so did the Webern the previous night). Perhaps the only problems I heard were intonation from the first violin in a couple of spots, but the amazing thing is how they rode all the tempo changes, many of them feeling rubato, as though they were four instruments all being played by one mind. This was the second year in a row we were lucky enough to see the Jasper Quartet. I hope they become regulars here.