Tag Archives: music

Schubertiad at Wistariahurst

In the middle of Holyoke’s dingy, post-industrial tenements stands the Wistariahurst Museum. A gem hidden in the middle of the city, the museum is lavish and ornate. The music room is full of marble columns, arched ceilings, and tapestries—it’s an atmosphere that begs for culture and sophistication, and on Sunday, December 6th, the Chamber Music at Wistariahurst ensemble provided it.

The group performed their fifth annual Schubertiad on Sunday. The ensemble is comprised of eight performers—four pianists, a cello player, two sopranos, and a baritone—but also featured several guest performers. They performed 11 songs in total, and included both familiar and rare pieces by Schubert. Schubertiads, named after Franz Schubert, date back to when Schubert and his friends would come together to play his pieces.

The opening piece was “Schicksalslenker,” which featured a vocal quartet accompanied by piano. It gave great insight into what to expect from the group—the four voices blended perfectly. No one voice overpowered another, and each vocalist had a quality of seamlessness and fluidity.

The third piece, “Moment Musical,” was a piano solo played by Edward Rosser. His interpretation was visceral and romantic, and there was a level of deliberation in his playing style that seemed to keep the audience engaged and on the edge of their seats. It was a stark contrast from the “Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in A-minor,” which was played by cellist Astrid Schween and pianist Estela Olevsky. Olevsky’s playing was more free-flowing, though the piece was full of understated tension that was gripping. The two players had a rapport that created a great dynamic. Moments of call and response and variations between staccato and legato playing made the song rife with emotion. Pianist Monica Jakuc Leverett, who opened the second half of the concert, also had her own style of playing—it was authoritative and bold, but also fluttery and reminiscent of snowfall.

My favorite selection of the program was “Auf dem See,” which translates to “On the Lake” in English. It was a duet between Rosser and baritone David Perkins. The song was inspired by Schubert’s frequent nature walks, and the two musicians made that abundantly clear in their rendition of the piece. The staccato, sprightly piano part was met with Perkins’s booming but controlled voice that together sounded like a rolling river over rocks.

The concert ended with a melodrama (a recitation of a poem over music), performed by Perkins and Olevsky. Though the piece, “Abschied von der Erde,” or “Farewell to the Earth”, was certainly relevant, it didn’t showcase the talents of the group like the other pieces did. It wasn’t as hearty or satisfying as the other pieces and left me wanting more.

It was apparent that each musician involved knew the songs they were working with—dynamics were uniform and expressed the different themes and moods of each piece precisely. They performed with a confidence that was professional and refined without being haughty—they made Schubert relatable and fun. This was also due in part to artistic director Perkins, who introduced and explained several of the songs through casual anecdotes and humor. Not only that, but the repertoire as a whole was a balance between serious selections and more fun ones. Making a classical music performance into something that is accessible and without pretension makes it something a person of any age or background could enjoy, and it was disappointing to see so few young people in attendance. The Chamber Music at Wistariahurst’s Schubertiad was evocative and entertaining, and was a great introduction to the winter months that would have made Schubert proud.

(disclaimer:  all of this is honest, I swear to god I’m not sucking up)


Issue Piece: Vinyl Revival

This piece in the New York Times describes the reintroduction of vinyls as a legitimate way of listening to music. Obviously, with the rise in vinyl comes to rise of turntables, and journalist Patrick McGeehan discusses this new interest in a technology that was previously seen as “ancient.”

I found this piece very informative. I thought that it addressed the phenomenon well, and clearly laid out the history of vinyl/turntables as well as the ramifications the revival has.  He engages the reader by mentioning some of the bigger artists that have been issuing records on vinyl and explains why people have been putting out and buying LPS. Interestingly enough, he contributes this interest to games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, which get younger generations interested in older genres of music that were heading the vinyl era decades back.

He also delves into the economic implications–he mentions the decline in CD sales, how much turntables are going for now, and what record labels are doing to handle the new trend.

Perhaps it is my heavy interest in vinyl (which could be called an obsession by some), but I think McGeehan hits the nail on the head in this issue piece. He covers all the bases in a way that is engaging, which makes the length of piece exciting rather than daunting.

Soundscapes of the Pioneer Valley

I’m taking a class at Amherst called PV Soundscapes. Basically, we have been going around the Valley and recording the different keynote sounds of the area, ranging from Puerto Rican jibaro music to church choirs. My partner and I are doing a radio documentary on the Estey pipe organ and their disapperance as they’ve been replaced with electronic organs.

There is some great performance footage in these documentaries and after next week we’ll have a website where you can watch all of them. The link is here. Check it out after next week to watch!

We’re having a presentation of the projects at Amherst College next Thursday, December 10th, at 4h30pm in Pruyne Lecture Hall in Fayerweather Hall. All are welcome!


Classical vs Pop: The Constant Debate

Lady Gaga

Thinking of the debate between classical music and popular music always brings the same person to mind: Theodor Adorno. A musicologist and philosopher of the Frankfurt School, Adorno had a lot to say about which form of music was the serious one and which one wasn’t. To him, classical art was serious, and popular music (which roughly translates to any music you can dance to, including jazz) was not a real form of music. Popular music, according to Adorno, was all standardized and the same, and was mused merely as a way to distract less-intelligent, less-cultured listeners from their work. It’s a means of pacification and it lacks true talent.

Despite the leaps and bounds that music and music studies have made (jazz and/or popular music studies are now respected, scholarly fields), there is definitely still a stigma. Saying you’re a classically trained musician still gets peoples attention and makes them assume you’re more talented than the kid whose lessons entailed playing Beatles songs on his guitar. But the fact is, at least to me, that music is music. It has deep cultural connotations and brings together a community of music-makers and listeners, and as long as those relationships are being expressed, then who cares what the music sounds like?

There are definitely some distinct differences between classical and popular music, though. For one, classical performers simply have more at stake. The classical community has been marginalized and pushed out of the spotlight, and the people that are still playing classical music are not just providing a means to hear it, but are keeping the genre extant. On the other hand, popular musicians are working within a huge system of music and musicians, and their only challenge is to create something we haven’t heard before. I do think there is some truth in Adorno’s belief that pop music is standardized, though I don’t believe it to the extent he would want me to. There is a lot of music on the radio that sounds the same. The structure, the instruments, the voice, etc., are all the same. Popular music is a victim (or perhaps successor) of consumer-centric culture, and the songs that are mass-distributed are more like commodities than art. That’s not to say that all pop music is commodified, though, or that classical music isn’t.

In an over-generalized sense, I think that the classical versus pop debate exists, but it’s not real. We have been told to believe that classically trained means better, or that having to wear a suit to a concert instead of jeans somehow means that the music is more serious. If more classical artists were willing to include popular music themes, and more popular artists were willing to include some classical components, then people wouldn’t be so quick to affirm that there’s a rift. If you’ve ever heard Third Stream jazz, you’d know that this synthesis of genres can work beautifully, but it’s all in vain unless people believe in it. Passion is passion, and as long as that exists, then who cares what the music is called?


Josephine Baker

Ever since I discovered Josephine Baker, I’ve had a really strong interest and attachment to her art and her life. My obsession with old, French music and film made loving Baker inevitable, but the more I studied her, the more interested I became. Baker started out in St. Louis as scrawny little girl, forced to play up stereotypes to make a living. And by the time she was 19 she was in Paris, was the highest paid chorus girl on the planet, and was combating racism, misogyny, heteronormativity through her body and a sense of agency that is unmatched to this day. Corny as this sounds, when I get really anxious and stressed out, I think of Baker. I think of what she was doing at my age and how she did it against all odds, on her own, with her chin up. She’s my biggest source of motivation.

Baker’s dancing was revolutionary. She turned European ballet on its head and surprised the French with her crossed eyes, jelly-bones, and overt sexuality. She had people reconsidering what it meant to be beautiful and sexy–when she was younger, she was criticized for being too dark (or too light, depending on who she was speaking to. Huh.), too thin, too exotic, etc., and later she had men  drooling and women paying money to look like her. And sure, it may seem as though she was exploiting her body or fetishizing her ethnicity, but in a way she was really just mimicking and deconstructing stereotypes and expectations. She did what she wanted. She prayed naked, walked her pet cheetah in the streets of Paris, sang when people told her her voice was bad, danced the way she wanted to, loved who she wanted to, and didn’t let anyone tell her otherwise. Strangely enough, however, she also seems so loving. She’s always smiling in photos, she was eccentric, loved animals and children, and was accepting of all people. Her work in WWII and the Civil Rights Movement show how dedicated she was to equality and giving back. I can only imagine what would have happened to the Civil Rights Movement had Baker accepted Coretta Scott King’s request for Baker to take over after Martin Luther King’s assassination.

A controversial review of “The Ziegfeld Follies” from 1936 from Time Magazine. The critic is harsh and seems a little unaware of just how much of a groundbreaker she really was. Then again, you have to consider the fact that racial attitudes in Europe were more progressive than they were in America, and the authors choice to call her a “bucktoothed negro” as opposed to the French’s “ebony goddess,” could just be a sign of the society they were writing in and for. Josephine Baker was different in an incredibly beautiful way, and I don’t think America really realized that until it was too late. In a few words, I admire Josephine Baker because she never strayed from being herself. She is beautiful, funny, controversial, daring, smart, headstrong, determined, honest, caring,  talented, and one of my biggest sources of inspiration.

Read the Time article here.


Le Sacre du Printemps

Still shot from the Joffrey Ballet doing "The Rite of Spring"

First off, let me just say WOW. Igor Stravinsky really knew what he was doing, and it just goes to show that taking risks can turn out great. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is a piece so powerful and distinct, but also completely adaptable and versatile. Written as a ballet about Russian paganism and human sacrifice, the piece is unmistakable for its sense of barbaric intensity. The pounding, polyrhythmic drums and HARSH dissonance combine so perfectly that if one knew the plot of the ballet, they could imagine the story by the music alone without ever seeing a single dancer.

At the same time, the piece can be used in different contexts and still fit the bill. An abridged and altered version of “The Rite of Spring” was used in Disney’s Fantasia (the 1940 version, not the piece of crap released in 2000). In it, the piece was matched up with bright colors and animations that depicted the dawn of time. It begins with flashes of color, washing together and fading away, like the first signs of life swimming in primordial soup. Later the piece shows the rise and fall of the dinosaurs–meteors come crashing down to the earth, killing the giant creatures as the music’s controlled chaos takes off. While Stravinsky himself called Disney’s interpretation execrable, I think it fits.

There have been tons of ballets set to “The Rite of Spring,” and each one has its own distinct flavor. Having watched several snippets of these dances on youtube, I’m taken aback by how many stories the song can tell. Sure, each dance is connected through a thread of primitiveness that often borders on the erotic, but there is definitely something different about each one. In some dances, the human is emphasized. In others, the choreographer took a more animalistic approach. Some chose to use softer movements while others jerk around in a way that almost seems spasmodic. Try using Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to tell more than one story. It just doesn’t really work that way.

What’s also distinctive about “The Rite of Spring” is that the conductors and players of the piece are in charge of making their own connections to convey a particular feeling. When Leonard Bernstein was directing a student orchestra in 1987, he had an incredible way of using anecdote and physical expression to show the students what he wanted. Of course, if anyone can do that, it’s him–Bernstein’s conducting made even a simple, two-octave, C-major scale sound so powerful and masterful. His use of dynamics and tempo turned what is usually the most boring part of music into something ripe with emotion. Through his conducting, Bernstein explains that a level of virtuosity is necessary in playing but it’s not enough. There is a level of raw emotion that each person needs to feel if they want to portray the piece’s story to its fullest.

Articulating the way music can make a person feel is not an easy task. Words aren’t always enough for Bernstein, and his conducting and explanations are full of guttural noises, jerky and smooth arm motions, and a wide range of facial expressions. His face contorts as the music changes–he grimaces, he smiles, and he raises his brows so high they look as if they might pop off of his face. At times he punches and claws at the air like an animal, and one orchestra member commented on his “erotic dancing” (how a man in his 70s can dance erotically is beyond me, but clearly it got the kid thinking, and that was the point). The fact is, music is visceral, and it seems to almost possess and pass through Bernstein as he conducts. Personally, I think that kind of reaction is necessary for all truly successful music-making. If you aren’t really feeling it, then you aren’t really playing it as hard or as well as you can. There’s rarely a time in one’s life where one can experience something that is both absolutely gut-wrenching and completely beautiful, but “The Rite of Spring” seems to evoke these paradoxical feelings, and it happens without mercy.


Profiles I liiike.

1. Seun Kuti. They don’t obsess over the fact that he’s Fela Kuti’s son, which is appreciated–most articles talk about that more than anything else. The Q&A format is a little informal for my taste but I do like that they ask short questions and let him say what he wants to say. The interviewers ask a variety of questions ranging from history to future plans, and they don’t shy away from asking questions about difficulty or criticism. They also give Seun a platform to talk about what his songs are talking about–a chance to defend himself and provide more of a story about his art and about the situation in Nigeria that affects him and his work.

I also like that the lead paragraph is informative, and the first question they ask gives us insight into 1. the vulnerability and linguistic/factual issues journalists incur and 2. the personality and humor of Seun.

2. Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse/Ugly Casanova. Brock goes into the interview saying he doesn’t like them, yet the journalist presses on and manages to get him to open up and give some great, visceral answers. The interviewer asks some of the best questions I’ve ever read–he really picks Brock’s brain (say that 5 times fast) and asks probing questions that get some raw responses. The interviewer asks about Brock getting in fights, getting accused of rape, band break-ups, and varying opinions about performances. Anyone that has listened to Modest Mouse or Ugly Casanova knows that Brock has issues and he’s not ashamed of them– this interview isn’t pretty, and I like that.