A joyful Thanksgiving hello, to everyone.
In my life, I’m thankful first for Anne and Rafa, my wife and five year-old son. I’d start with them, and end with them. My loving warm, smart family. Our big kid, who figures things out “in my brain” (as he says). Climbs anything, jumps from unexpected heights, and with happy abandon throws himself through the air, from ottoman to couch and back again. And who loves us with all his heart, as we love him.
And then music
I’ll just make a list, things that wowed me in concert or on recordings. Won’t do links, so I can get the post out quickly. I’ll return to many of these things in any case. There’s a lot to be said.
What’s emerged is an alternative classical music world, one that thrives artistically without drawing much on standard classical repertoire. More on that later. So much to be said! But I’ve never been, as a listener, in a happier musical place.
In no special order:
Roomful of Teeth, heard twice in concert. Made me glad to be alive.
Brooklyn Rider, with Anne Sophie von Otter. Classical pieces, pop songs. Hard to tell which was which, because the string arrangements of the songs were so fine.
Anderson and Roe, the duopianists, who gave a concert in DC perfectly balanced between entertainment and the finest art. And such playing! Impetuous excitement, soft music close to silence, melodic phrases so lovingly caressed.
Decoda, at Gettysburg College. High point was the “Angus Dei” from Bach’s B Minor Mass, reimagined as a jazz tune. Worked both as good Bach, and good jazz.
Philip Glass’s Appomattox, at the Washington National Opera. A great expansion of the original version, heard earlier in San Francisco. A masterpiece. Nothing short of that. And not what we think of as a Philip Glass opera, in which characters slowly move across the stage, almost timelessly. This opera sets drama to music in real time, as most opera composers do. And what characters! Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther Kind, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover. A lineup that would challenge Mozart, Verdi, or Wagner. Philip brings each character to vivid musical life, as he tells the story first of the hopes African-Americans had when the Civil War ended, and they were freed from slavery. And then how racism denied them real freedom. And then how the Civil Rights Act of 1965, passed under Johnson’s leadership, gave them (and all of us) new hope. One vivid moment: When Lee comes onstage to surrender to Grant, torn inside because he’s lost a war he never wanted to fight. The music in the orchestra so keenly conveys his nobility, pain, and disgrace.
Glass’s Fifth Symphony, which Anne raved about when she heard it live. I’m just starting to know it from the recording. I agree with Anne. Another masterpiece.
Of course the Ring
At the Washington National Opera. Not just a terrific performance. A great life experience.
Theodor Currentzis’s recordings of Don Giovanni and Cosí. Impetuous, wild, incredibly detailed. As if I’d never heard the music before. Imagine the Giovanni serenade as a duet for mandoline and improvising fortepiano. To give just one example (Not sure yet I like the Figaro as much.)
Patricia Kopatchinskaja playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with Currentzsis conducting. A total reconception of the piece, almost as if — well, parts of it — it were some kind of folklore. Impetuous. Crazy, some would say. But played with both wild verve and finesse.
Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century, newly released on ECM. I’ve long loved his work. But this piece — for chorus and saxophone quartet — seems like a supreme achievement. I thought, as it began (and this is no exaggeration) that I was in the sphere of the opening and closing choruses of the St. Matthew Passion. And, I could add, that among much else, this is an example of the kind of late-in-life style that Beethoven shows in the late quartets, and Wagner in Parsifal.
Meredith Monk, On Behalf of Nature, also new on ECM. And also an example of a late style. So profound. And not like the music everyone associates with Meredith, which was tonal, and rhythmically alive. Quite tricky, rhythmically, too. This new piece is deep and dark, as if put together from wood and earth. I’ve only begun to understand it.
Neil Rolnick, Ex Machina, a new album. I’ve always gotten a kick from Neil’s music, whether I’ve encountered it by chance on the radio, heard it live, or heard it on recordings. Transformations of sound with electronics, in the case of this album, with star live musicians providing the material. Such invention. And such a sense of fun. I heard the music on this album live when Neil did a show at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in DC. The album gives, to me, more of a closeup view. Which only makes me appreciate it more.
Lara Downes, America Again. Short American pieces, one surprise after another. I had the good fortune to listen without having the track list in view. So with wonder I kept asking, “What’s that? What’s that?” Amy Beach, Samuel Taylor-Coleridge, Howard Hanson. Plus maybe more recognizable pieces by Bernstein and Ellington, and a sweet arrangement, to send us off at the end, of “Over the Rainbow.”
Kathleen Supové, The Debussy Effect. I’ve listened to this double CD with wonder. Intense new piano pieces by a variety of composers, all inspired by Debussy, all going different places with him. But…intense! An experience of sound, not just of music. And powerfully played. What amazes me, through two listening, is how the pieces, despite their different composers, seem to come from the same place. Making the album seamless, its own complete world.
And finally, another late style…
Bob Dylan’s albums, since 1992.
I noticed, when he won the Nobel Prize and there was so much writing about him, that everyone cited his early work. Quoted it, put it on lists of the Dylan one should hear. Well, nothing against it. Revelatory, even now. But since 1992, with Good as I Been to You, he’s come out with album after album, seven in all, that go back to his folk/roots/Americana origins, while doing completely new things. The first two of these records are acoustic. Dylan and his guitar. Then he started recording with a band, and things really took off.
The deep fusion of American styles is beyond my ability to identify with any precision, or to describe. But this is music with deep roots. What I do get is that he now sounds like one of the great old folk and blues singers who inspired him when he was coming up. Not like any particular one of them. But like someone as weathered and deep as they were. Don’t know that I’ve ever before seen anyone become his roots.
But the music is wholly original. A friend who sings American roots music says he won’t touch it. “It’s all bone.” The wild visions of the early stuff have refined themselves into concise phrases that sound down to earth. Except they’re not.
The light in this place is so bad
Makin’ me sick in the head
All the laughter is just makin’ me sad
The stars have turned cherry red.
All in a voice that’s seen it all, and still can’t get used to it. Who Which lives each word, each line. The play of vocal and emotional tone is as nuanced as anything in art.
(For the moment I’ll leave out his two most recent albums, Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, the second of which I haven’t yet heard). These take him into the Great American Songbook, a place we might never have expected he’d go, and which he inhabits as an amazingly perceptive and attuned visitor. A stunning achievement, but for now I’m talking about something else.)
The theme in these albums is that someone doesn’t belong where he is. And where he is, is right here and now.
I don’t want nothing from anyone
Ain’t that much to take
Wouldn’t know the difference
Between a real blonde and a fake.
Feel like I’m prisoner
In a world of mystery
I wish someone would come and
Push back the clock for me
So wry, painful, and profound. So profoundly, wryly, painfully expressed: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” T(o quote another Nobel winner.) I’m so thankful for this.
(Lyrics are from Dylan’s 1997 album on Time Out of Mind:, from “Standing in the Doorway” and the 16-minute song that ends the record, “Highlands.”)
A happy thanksgiving to all. I’d love to know what music you’re grateful for.