Chris Thile Plays Bach

Chris Thile

Bach, Sonatas and Partitas, Vol.1

Nonesuch CD/LP/Digital

Why Chris Thile Playing Bach on the Mandolin is a Good Idea

(A gentle rejoinder to performance practice purists)

 

1- Attack and decay

The Partitas, three of which are played by Thile on his latest Nonesuch disc, were probably originally played on the violin. But harpsichord looms large in Bach’s chamber music. Like the harpsichord, mandolin also has a sharp attack and quick decay. There are a number of correspondences between the timbre and fleetness of the two instruments that one probably wouldn’t capture if they played the Partitas on, say, clarinet.

 

2- Melismas

 

Both baroque chamber works and bluegrass instrumental music share an affinity for melismatic passages (layperson language: lots of fast runs). Anyone who has heard Thile play a solo with Punch Brothers knows how cleanly he can execute fast passage work, sometimes dizzyingly fast passage work. Listening to the Nonesuch disc, it is clear that Thile even upped the ante; he practiced his tuckus off.

 

3- Edgar Meyer

 

One of Thile’s frequent collaborators, the composer and bassist Edgar Meyer produces this recording. He is also one of those who spearheaded the bluegrass/classical crossover phenomenon in the 1990s, writing for and encouraging colleagues ranging from Bela Fleck to Yo-Yo Ma to explore the fertile vein of American roots music in a “classical” context. Meyer has also recorded Bach. He “gets” how Bach and modern folk stringed instruments fit together.

 

4- Bela Fleck

 

Banjo player Fleck has recorded Bach’s music too, focusing on the Inventions. Didn’t this open the door for a mandolinist to try his hand at recording some JSB? Why should Fleck get to have all the fun?

 

5- This Isn’t a Lark … or a Stopgap

 

Unlike some classical crossover projects, which serve as catalogue placeholders or a means to cash in on one the few quasi-lucrative subgenres in the classical recording industry, it is clear that Thile is passionate about this project and humbled by the material he is assaying. In a live video posted on YouTube, after playing a selection by Bach, Thile says that Bach is a tough act to follow with one of his own songs. It’s a joke he often shares in interviews; the jocular self-deprecation contains a great deal of humility.

 

6- Vol. 1

 

This also isn’t just a one off. Thile plans to record all of the Sonatas and Partitas on Nonesuch.

7- Tempo and Lightness

 

Bach is often transcribed for instruments that weren’t prevalent in interpreting his music during his lifetime. Many of us first encountered Bach in translation – played on the piano instead of the harpsichord. Pianos existed during Bach’s lifetime, but he was “old school” in his choice of keyboards: he preferred harpsichord and, above all, clavichord. There is a famous story that illustrates this. Late in his life, Bach travelled to visit his son at Frederick the Great’s court. After having Bach play on his extensive collection of pianos, Frederick offered to give him a piano-forte to take with him. Bach declined, indicating that he preferred his harpsichord at home. (I think this may have had as much to do with carting it home on unpaved roads through a war zone, but that’s just my own suspicion).

 

While there have been a great many influential interpretations of Bach’s music by pianists – and I don’t seek to assail them here – there is a presto tempo that some movements of the Partitas seem to require, with a lightness of texture and touch, that is quite difficult to obtain. It isn’t so much about the metronome marking at which one can play all of those sixteenths and thirty-seconds, but the limpid fluidity of their utterance, that makes these sections of the Partitas succeed. Thile on the mandolin can achieve this delicate fleetness where many pianists have not.

 

8- Lute

 

While we on are the subject of transcription, Bach himself transcribed his own music (and others) for a variety of forces. We hear his violin Partitas played on the lute: why not his partitas on another plucked stringed instrument?

 

9 – Mandolin isn’t just a Folk/Bluegrass Instrument

 

We most often associate mandolin with vernacular styles of music: folk, country, rock, and bluegrass. But it has appeared in a number of pieces of Twentieth Century and contemporary classical music. Witness Gabriel Faure’s Verlaine setting Mandoline. Even Schoenberg used it, in his Opus 24 Serenade. Dare we hope for Chris Thile to record some Schoenberg? (I’m half kidding, but I bet he could make it work!)

 

10 – Historical Accuracy vs. Historically Informed Performance

 

Truth be told, none of us are hearing Bach’s solo instrumental works as he heard them performed. Most often, they were heard in an intimate setting, a small room, not in a recital hall, not in a formal concert with the etiquette (and ticket prices) of today, and certainly not on a recording. We are both fortunate to live in a time where we are able to turn on a Bach recording anywhere, and impoverished that Bach’s music has become cultural shorthand – for a formality and canonical type of thinking he likely wouldn’t have recognized. And perhaps this is why Chris Thile’s Bach performances get some of the purist crowd up in arms.

 

Thile does no violence to the aesthetic in which Bach’s music was conceived; indeed he is quite dutiful in executing the material. Perhaps some of the purists aren’t reacting to Thile’s performances, but the milieu in which he performs Bach. Thile presents sonatas and partitas alongside bluegrass tunes, solo originals, and covers of alt-rock songs by Radiohead. He plays Bach for crowds that hoot and holler when they are delighted. While he is playing, there may even be alcohol with hops (from a can!)  imbibed by the audience. No one, least of all Thile, wears formal attire, no one in a tuxedo is present. It goes to show, you can win a MacArthur Fellowship and there still will be naysayers.

 

11 – Brubeck, Carlos, Swingle, and others

 

Haven’t we been through this phenomenon before? Bach played by Dave Brubeck in front of college kids, Walter/Wendy Carlos playing Bach on a Moog synthesizer, Ward Swingle arranging Bach excerpts for the Swingle Singers and a jazz combo; at one time or another, all of these approaches to J.S.B.’s music have been viewed as heretical violations of the canon. It is due to the resiliency of Bach’s oeuvre that new types of arrangements are of his works are made and that they work. Notice that other great composers’ works wouldn’t hold up to this type of treatment. Bruckner hasn’t had many synthesizer albums made of his Te Deum. Grieg’s Piano Concerto would be an unlikely candidate for a jazz meditation. Partly due to the evolving instrumentation of the baroque scoring giving artists a sense of permission, and partly due to a performance practice that, as we’ve pointed out, has included transcription for decades, Bach will continue to be reinvented and reinterpreted in a host of ways. Relax, sit down, and enjoy. Or, if mandolin doesn’t float your boat, reach for one of the many easily available harpsichord renditions of the Partitas.

 

12- Outreach

 

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the news media and at arts organizations about “outreach.” Who will be the audiences of tomorrow? Is classical music dying? How will we get the young people to love music when all that they seem to listen to involves twerking? You want to hear great music, played authentically, that works as artistic outreach to new audiences? It’s on this recording.

 

 

Julia Holter – Loud City Song

Julia Holter
Loud City Song
Domino Records

Loud City Song, Julia Holter’s latest full length recording, is her first foray into a professional recording studio. Eschewing the bedroom/laptop pop aesthetic supplies Holter’s music with greater ambience and roomier textures. However, in her case, polished product does not equate to losing creative abandon. Her approach to songwriting and arranging remain restlessly inquisitive and innovative. She even includes two different versions of the same song, “Maxim’s I” and “Maxim’s II.” These demonstrate the reach of her conceptualizing and arranging chops, moving from layered and gauzily atmospheric to pert and focused, delineating discrete vocal/instrumental textures.

Much of Loud City Song certainly is based on pop song paradigms; in that sense it may be some of Holter’s most straightforwardly structured work to date. That said, the comparison is relative. Holter’s credentials as a CalArts trained electronic musician are often cited by those discussing her work, and with good reason. There are still experimental bits peeking out from around corners: a blatting trombone intro, hissed underpinnings, breathy and percussive vocalizing, and tantalizingly elusive synth sounds. Moreover, Holter retains a “composerly” instinct that favors detailed structures and large-scale structural thinking in terms of song order and pacing. Thus far, each of Holter’s records has had a central conceit. As she mentioned in a recent interview (via our friends at Ad Hoc), Loud City Song references Gigi, both the 1944 novel by Collette and the eponymous 1958 musical film.

Rather than merely covering a song from Gigi, Holter instead decides to cover “Hello Stranger,” Barbara Lewis’s biggest hit from 1963. Reverb-soaked vocals and slowly undulating chordal pads give this a very different vibe from the original; sultry and evocative with nary a buoyant “she bop” to be found. This song choice, and its rendering, tease out myriad connections instead of favoring the obvious. On Loud City Song, Holter’s work has retained elusivity, while becoming further refined and even more becoming. Recommended.

-Christian Carey

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9/28: Composition Recital in Princeton

CBC July 28 2013

Emerged: A Recital of Compositions by Christian Carey

Saturday, September 28th at 2 PM

Prince of Peace Church, Princeton Junction, NJ

Free event (Directions here)

 

Performed by:

 

Righteous Girls

(Gina Izzo, flute; Erika Dohi, piano)

loadbang

(Jeffrey Gavett, baritone, Carlos Cordeiro, bass clarinet,

Andy Kozar, trumpet, Will Lang, trombone)

Peter Jarvis, drum set

Sara Noble, soprano

Megan Ihnen, mezzo soprano

Carl Patrick Bolleia, piano

Zheng Yuan, viola

Natalie Spehar, cello

 

Program

 

Prayer (2011)      loadbang

 

3 Bagatelles (2006)      Righteous Girls

 

“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (2009)      Megan Ihnen and Zheng Yuan

 

3 Flourishes (2008)      Gina Izzo

 

Solo for piano (2013)      Erika Dohi

 

________________ Intermission ______________________

 

“Fuller Brush Music” Peter Jarvis

 

“Blue Symphony” (2013) Sara Noble & Carl Patrick Bolleia

 

Two Miniatures (2012)      Carl Patrick Bolleia

“Gloss on Guston”

“Fiery Sunset”

 

3 Kenyon Settings (2009)      Megan Ihnen and Natalie Spehar

 

For Milton (2011)      Righteous Girls

David Felder’s Inner Sky (Review)

TROY1418

David Felder

Inner Sky

Albany Records Blu-ray Audio/CD Troy1418

 

When I wrote about Felder’s flute concerto Inner Sky (1994, rev. 1999)) in a concert review of Tanglewood’s 2011 Festival of Contemporary Music, I mentioned how much I looked forward to hearing the piece again on its (then in preparation) recording. What I didn’t mention at the time: my concern that it would be difficult to capture the many details of the piece on record. Enter blu-ray audio.

 

Indeed, David Felder’s music is perfect to demonstrate the capacities of blu-ray audio. Musical climaxes feature piercingly fierce highs and rumbling lows. Elsewhere, shimmering diaphanous textures, frequently blending electronic and acoustic instruments, surround one immersively in this multi-channel environment. By the way, if one doesn’t have access to blu-ray, the recording package also includes an audio CD.

 

One of the magical things about Inner Sky, not just as a demonstration of an audio platform but as an expertly crafted composition, is the use of register to delineate the structuring of the three main facets of the piece: its solo part, the orchestra, and the electronics. Over the course of Inner Sky, flutist Mario Caroli is called upon to play four different flutes: piccolo, concert flute, alto flute, and bass flute. Moving from high to low, he negotiates these changes of instrument, and the challenging parts written for each of them, with mercurial speed and incisive brilliance. Even though all of the orchestra members are seated onstage, we are also treated to a spatialization of sorts through the frequent appearance of antiphonal passages. This ricochet effect is more than matched by the lithe quadraphonic electronic component. Featuring both morphed flute sounds and synthetic timbres that often respond to the orchestration, it is an equal partner in the proceedings.

 

Tweener (2010) a piece for solo percussion, electronics, and ensemble, features Thomas Kolor as soloist. Kolor is called upon to do multiple instrument duty too, using “analog” percussion beaters as well as a KAT mallet controller. An astounding range of sounds are evoked: crystalline bells, bowed metallophones, electronically extended passages for vibraphone and marimba. The percussionist’s exertions are responded to in kind by vigorous orchestra playing from University of Buffalo’s Slee Sinfonietta Chamber Orchestra, conducted by James Baker. The Slee group flourishes here in powerful brass passages, avian wind writing, and soaring strings. The brass pieces Canzonne and Incendio are also played by UB musicians in equally impressive renditions. These works combine antiphonal writing with a persuasive post-tonal pitch language that also encompasses a plethora of glissandos.

 

The Slee Sinfonietta again, this time conducted by James Avery, gets to go their own way on Dionysiacs. Featuring a flute sextet, the piece contains ominously sultry low register playing, offset by some tremendous soprano register pileups that more than once remind one of the more rambunctious moments in Ives’s The Unanswered Question. What’s more, the flutists get to employ auxiliary instruments such as nose whistles and ocarinas, adding to the chaotic ebullience of the work (entirely appropriate given its subject matter).

 

Clarinetist Jean Kopperud and pianist Stephen Gosling are featured on Rare Airs, a set of miniatures interspersed between the larger pieces. These works highlight both musicians’ specialization in extended techniques and Kopperud’s abundant theatricality as a performer. Pianist Ian Pace contributes the solo Rocket Summer. Filled with scores of colorful clusters set against rangy angular lines and punctuated by repeated notes and widely spaced sonorous harmonies, it is a taut and energetic piece worthy of inclusion on many pianists’ programs.

 

Requiescat (2010), performed by guitarist Magnus Andersson and the Slee Sinfonietta, again conducted by Baker, is another standout work. Harmonic series and held altissimo notes ring out from various parts of the ensemble, juxtaposed against delicate guitar arpeggiations and beautifully complex corruscating harmonies from other corners. Once again, Felder uses register and space wisely, keeping the orchestra out of the guitar’s way while still giving them a great deal of interesting music to play. Written relatively recently, Requiescat’s sense of pacing, filled with suspense and dramatic tension but less inexorable than the aforementioned concerti, demonstrates a different side of Felder’s creativity, and suggests more efficacious surprises in store from him in the future.

 

 

Puppet Opera does well at Box Office

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Composer David Smooke’s “nonopera” Criminal Element will be performed in Brooklyn on Thursday and Saturday at JACK (ticket info here).

Apparently, the Thursday performance is already sold out (there’s a waiting list for tickets). Smooke is a wonderful composer and Rhymes with Opera has a devoted following – Add the presence of puppets, and you’ve got the recipe for an avant opera sellout!

Monday – League of Composers at Miller Theatre

 

Leon Kirchner

Leon Kirchner

 

Last week, I learned that I have been elected to the Board of Directors of the League of Composers – ISCM. I am honored and excited to be working with this organization. Thus, what follows is some cheering for the “home team.”

 

On Monday, June 17, the League’s finishes its 90th season with an orchestra concert at Miller Theatre. The program includes premieres of two works commissioned by the organization. Keith Fitch’s In Memory is written in memory of Frederick Fox, with whom Fitch studied at Indiana University. Wang Jie’s Oboe Concerto for the Genuine Heats of Sadness, which is co-commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation and Aspen Festival, is written for the extraordinary oboist Liang Wang. This past year, I’ve heard Wang assay the stratospheric tessitura of Poul Ruders’ concerto and the beautiful Oboe Quartet by Sean Shepherd; I’m eager to hear what he does with Wang Jie’s work.  Recent pieces by Eve Beglarian and Bruce Adolphe will also be performed.

 

Commemorating longtime League member Elliott Carter, who passed away last year, the concert includes his brief fanfare Call. Highlighting the work of another recently deceased elder statesman, the concert will conclude with Leon Kirchner’s Suite from Lily. There will be an onstage discussion of Kirchner’s life and work.

Having just recently finished editing the entry on Kirchner for the forthcoming new edition of Grove’s Dictionary of American Music, I am particularly keen to hear this work live!

 

Event Details

League of Composers Season Finale

Monday, June 17 at 8 PM

Miller Theatre

 

Hosted by John Schaefer, WNYC
Orchestra of the League of Composers

James Baker, Louis Karchin, conductors; Liang Wang, oboe;

Sharon Harms, soprano

 

Program

Bruce Adolphe                Crossing Broadway (2007)
Eve Beglarian                   Waiting for Billy Floyd (2010)
Wang Jie *                       Oboe Concerto for the Genuine Hearts of Sadness (2013)
Elliott Carter                     Call (2003)
Keith Fitch*                      In Memory (2013)
Leon Kirchner                  Lily, version for Soprano and Chamber Ensemble (1978)

* World premiere, League-ISCM commission