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CONCERT REVIEW: James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong Dazzle in Ft. Worth

Rare is the time when a live performance is note perfect and breathtakingly expressive at the same time, but such was the case when violinist James Ehnes and his jovial collaborator  Andrew Armstrong delighted a rapt audience in the recital hall of the Lorenzo Piano Pavillion at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth this past Thursday evening. Having heard Mr. Ehnes play live five times now, and having reviewed many of his recordings, I am quite convinced that the boy could play Gregorian Chant in whole notes and it would still be a riveting musical experience. With technique so perfect that you don’t even notice it, he even compensated for a slightly out of tune string in Bach’s C Major solo sonata by adjusting on the fly and keeping the intonation perfect in the beastly virtuoso show piece.

The program opened with the Tartini cum Fritz Kreisler “devil’s trill” sonata, which is a double stop monster for the violin, but Kreisler’s attempt at continuo realization left little for Mr. Armstrong to do. Don’t worry, he got his turn in the second half. After intermission, we heard a delightful orphan, the Reverie et Caprice that Hector Berlioz rescued from the cutting room floor when editing down his unwieldy opera Benvenuto Cellini. It’s a lovely, tuneful little work that made for nice filler between the heavy hitting Bach and the sweeping Franck Sonata that rounded out the program. Mr. Armstrong proved himself to be fleet of finger and deeply expressive as he tossed off the fiendish piano part with a youthful glee.

Mr. Ehnes played this repertoire staple with a freshness that made the work seem brand new. Shifting from the wistful melancholy of the opening theme to the stormy turbulence of the development section, Ehnes and Armstrong let loose with some dazzling pyrotechnics while never losing emotional or technical control.

Mr. Ehnes’ boyish charm came to the fore in his winsome comments between pieces and the playful banter between him and Mr. Armstrong when it came time for the encore,  a fetching little Hungarian Dance by Bela Bartok. Why people don’t turn out in droves for experiences like this recital is beyond me, but the hundred or so people that got to hear this performance can consider themselves a part of an elite society. It isn’t every day that one gets to partake of the divine, and on Thursday evening, we were treated to high mass.

Hail Josey Records! Dallas Makes a Musical Comeback with a Real Record Store

The opening of Josey Records in North Dallas is definitely cause for rejoicing. This 15,000 square foot music emporium is everything that a record store should be. With literally hundreds of thousands of new and used albums (vinyls as the kids call them), cds, cassettes and 45s there is no place else in the Metroplex that can top Josey for price, selection and atmosphere. (Yeah, yeah, there’s Forever Young but their prices are so insane it’s not even worth considering them).

My brief visit on Josey’s first day of business yesterday left me ecstatic in my enthusiasm for this music lover’s fantasy outlet. In addition to the amazing selection, the staff is friendly and knowledgeable and the owners have truly created not just a place to shop, but a place to hang out and share one’s love of music with fellow like-minds. Josey Records features a huge open and airy space with room to spare. I am told that live music will soon be a part of the Josey experience and in the the mean time, the space features a delightful art gallery, a huge DJ booth and a fantastic little lounge where one can sit and gab with friends. I am also told that a coffee and juice bar is in the plans.

Josey also offers a no risk buying environment with about a dozen turntables set up in the front of the store where you can audition records before you buy them. I am not sure if you can listen to sealed new records or not, but I would bet that the staff have play copies available of most major new releases for customers to audition.

What I loved most  was that customers and staff alike were hanging out talking, sharing their favorite records with friends, and everyone seemed to be having a great time just being around so much music and energy. Josey Records is the most positive thing to happen to the Dallas music scene in a decade and I for one am happy to have found a new home away from home.

Viva Josey Records! Long may she prosper!

Spinster Records: High on Fashion, Low on Content

The Dallas music scene has cause to rejoice with the advent of several new independent record stores catering primarily to the ever growing vinyl crowd. I had a chance to sample Spinster Records in the trendy Bishop Arts district this afternoon and found a store with a friendly staff and a very fashionable look that was sadly weak in content and organization.

Located on Davis Street just to the west of the main Bishop Arts drag, Spinster is a beautiful store with an old school feel of lots of bricks and wood. Sadly, the selection of music is at best weak and is a disorganized mess. I was met with random titles that were displayed with no rhyme or reason. When I asked how things were organized I was told “by price”. No one shops for music based on price point.

The store displayed a modest selection of new records, most of which were devoid of price stickers. The used selection was nondescript and populated with mostly run of the mill titles. I can’t imagine people flooding to what is supposed to be the hippest new spot in one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods desperately seeking an old Carpenters or Barry Manilow title. Let’s just say that I went in with the intention of spending money and had a very hard time finding something to buy.

On a positive note, Spinster does have an excellent selection of turntables both new and vintage and accessories to go with them. This is a good thing as it’s high time that Audio Concepts got some competition,

Conversations with the staff revealed the existence of lots more stock as yet undisplayed, but if one wants to make a big impressions, one would think that the store would have a grand opening with all of its merchandise on display, well organized and properly priced. While I will continue to support Spinster with future visits, I will need to see some fast and vast improvements in the inventory to make me a regular customer. Right now this handsome little record store looks like the owner’s expensive hobby instead of a serious music outlet.

 

The Permanent Cost of Needless War

On two occasions this week I have heard stories and interviews about soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with post traumatic stress disorder. This is not a new malady and documented cases of it, although called by myriad names, date back to the Civil War. Yet in recent years, we have sent our fine young men and women to god-forsaken places to fight needless wars; wars built on lies and greed that served no purpose but to stoke the egos of idiots like George W. Bush and the pockets of Dick Cheney and his corporate ilk.

In our nation’s more respectable past, we have gone to war with the consent of the congress and when the interests of the freedom of the world were at stake. No literate American can deplore our efforts in getting rid of Hitler, Mussolini or Tojo. Not only were these wars just, but they were won with the participation not just of our military, but of our citizenry as a whole. During WWII our entire country observed the blackouts to protect our coasts, gave up creature comforts and dealt with the rationing of goods in order to keep our country and the free world free.

This isn’t the case today. We have allowed our leaders to start conflicts, predominantly in the middle east for one reason and one reason only. Oil. And oil means production and production means profit and profit means greed.

The conversation that has struck me most came from a young college football player who had served in our most recent conflicts on multiple tours. He spoke of his feelings when at half time there were ceremonies to honor our veterans. But what does it mean to say “thank you for your service”?

When any person tells a soldier thank you for protecting his freedom, it begs the question: “Was your freedom ever at risk?” The answer is clearly no. Despite the horrendous aftermath of the September 11 attacks, not once since the Second World War has the freedom of any American been in jeopardy. Not because of Korea, nor Viet Nam and certainly not Iraq or Afghanistan. The only thing at risk was the wealth of a privileged few. A few whose own sons and daughters were never at risk of harm.

Over half a million young men and women have returned home from our greed wars permanently scarred from the horrors that they witnessed and in which they participated. They did their duty and they knew that a military life was dangerous, of course. But is the life of one young man or woman worth the low cost of a gallon of gas? Is your “freedom” any more secure because we have allowed our government to wage wars of their own invention? No it is not. It is not, because your freedom was never once at risk.

It is high time that we call into account the real criminals in these conflicts. Saddam Hussein never harmed an American. And Osama bin Laden got his wealth from the oil that we buy from Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan. As five hundred thousand soldiers come home to permanent and irreparable emotional damage, let us consider who the real threats are to our freedom. They are secondly the politicians who start a new profit war every decade. But the most egregiously guilty people in this whole affair are those voters who continually put these fools into office, and worse yet, let them stay there.

Mirrors my friend. Mirrors. Look into yours and accept the blame. Then look ahead and make the change at the ballot box. The power lies in the people.  Let’s take it back!

New Music Discovery- For King and Country

For King and Country

Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.

As one who generally dismisses Christian pop music out of hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the Australian brother act For King and Country. Oft compared to Coldplay,  Joel and Luke Smallbone eschew the typical “contemporary Christian” cliches of cheesy “I want Jesus to be my boyfriend” lyics, predictable harmonies and key changes ad nauseum. Instead, the boys from down under give us sincere expressions of their faith set in dreamy, sophisticated orchestrations.

Joel and Luke are capable of spinning a good tune and there are a number of standouts on this their sophomore outing. I was particularly moved by Shoulders ,Long Live and Already Home.  I think the grand appeal of these songs is their avoidance of preachiness in lieu of an appeal to a universal good. Joel and Luke tastefully avoid the “I was a down and out horrible sinner with nothing to live for before Jesus” trap and offer up lyrics that are positive and uplifting . Even if one weren’t of a Christian bent, one could be inspired by these upbeat anthems.

For King and Country came as a very pleasant surprise and is a band that I will certainly continue to follow. Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong. is available on Rhapsody, Spotify, Itunes, Amazon, Google Play and other digital outlets. If you still love hard media, the CD is available through Amazon. Well worth a listen!

Side note:  I did a web search for a synonym for inspirational. The first site that I clicked on had a banner ad at the top for this release. Interesting coincidence, or God moment? You decide.

 

Dollar Delights – Arnold Bax, Chamber Music for Harp

Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

Valse (1931) , In Memoriam (1917), Fantasy Sonata for Viola and Harp (1927), Quintet for String Quartet and Harp (1919), Sonata for Flute and Harp (1928)

Marcia Dickstein, harp; Timothy Landauer, cello; Natalie Leggett, violin; Rene Mandel, violin; Simon Oswell, viola; Leslie Reed, english horn; Angela Wiegand, flute; Evan Wilson, viola

RCM Records 19081 TT=66:21

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Welcome to the first in an occasional series of reviews of recordings that I have found for one dollar. Of course, you may not be as lucky as i was to find these gems in a thrift store or an estate sale, but I would encourage you to seek them out nonetheless, because they will all be recordings of special merit, and therefore you will not read any negative reviews in this column. Rather, the purpose of these entries is to turn you on to some fine recordings that you might have missed due to their limited distribution or their unusual repertoire.

Sir Arnold Bax was a master composer who is sadly left to the fringes of music history. He was adamant about composing works that were original, but also and more importantly beautiful and well crafted. Bax spoke in a finely honed musical language and with a supreme economy of gesture. There are never any wasted notes nor does his music smack of the grandiose pomposity of and Elgar or a Berlioz. Rather, he wrote with fluidity and simplicity that even Vaughan Williams or Benjamin Britten sometimes missed.

This delightful disc of works features the harp, an instrument of which he was most fond and for which he left a significant body of work. We owe it to the diligence of Marcia Dickstein for rooting out some of these heretofore neglected works. For her efforts in producing clean, contemporary editions of works that had been available only in manuscripts, she deserves a certificate of honor.

Performed here by a fine group of orchestral and studio musicians from the Los Angeles area, these superb performances transport the listener into a somewhat other-worldly realm. A place where emotions, although present are kept in check in favor of a more atmospheric and sensuous dreamscape.

Of particular merit is the gorgeous Fantasy Sonata for viola and harp, a work that is clearly modeled on Claude Debussy’s late excursions (sadly left unfinished) into a realm of ensemble in which there is no accompanist, but rather a equal matching of voices that express more of a musical conversation than a didactic lecture punctuated by chordal harmonies. Evan Wilson plays with a sonorous but understated tone which is well matched with Ms. Dickstein’s fleet and colorful playing.

The other standout is the Sonatina for flute and harp. The diminutive title will fool no one, at almost eighteen minutes this is a substantial work performed here to perfection by Ms. Dickstein and Angela Wiegand. The Debussy influence is again palpable. One need only give a repeat listen to his Sonata for flute, viola and harp to glean Bax’s inspiration.

With so much music at hand, it is rather rare that I play a disc multiple times in one sitting, but this garden of delights is the notable and gladsome exception. With the onset of Autumn weather, these dreamy and nocturnal works add incense to the darker hues of the changing season. This is a beautiful hour of music and well worth seeking out.

 

 

 

 

Classical Music in the Digital World, or, Why I Still Love Hard Media

 

I have never been one to eschew new technologies and I certainly appreciate the wealth of music, books, blogs and other digital feasts that are now available to the world for free or for a very small fee. However, with the availability of mass quantities of anything, comes the down side of having to wade through a ton of junk, and of having less that competent people doing the cataloging.

This shoddy bookkeeping is a major problem with the digital world and classical music. Although there is a wealth of titles available on subscription services such as Rhapsody, Spotify, Songza and Pandora, there is only one site, The Naxos Music Library, that even comes close to adequate and accurate labeling of these recordings. Additionally, NML is the only such site that has an adequate search engine enabling the listener to quickly find and stream recordings.

The problems are myriad. Missing composer and performer data, the lumping of multi-movement works under one generic title (often the wrong one), labeling music by the artist and not the composer, the labeling of composer’s works without identifying the artist,  and the listing of tempo markings for movements without identifying the entire work are just a few of the irritating problems lovers of western art music face when trying to find their favorite works in the digital sphere. Unless you are very well versed in serious music and its canon of recordings, it would be easier to translate Sanskrit with a German dictionary than to browse the classical music selection on Rhapsody or Spotify.

Playlist type services such as Pandora and Songza usually only offer single movements of larger works (although Pandora finally came out with a complete works station a few months ago) and they offer only the most cursory information about the music and performers that they stream.

Add to that the total absence of program notes and performer biographies (again, the notable exception is the Naxos Music Library which is like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way) and the frustrations for serious connoisseurs of serious music mount into a pile of obstacles that isn’t really worth the effort to overcome.

Thus, as much as I appreciate the ability to play thousands of pieces of music on my iphone as I take my daily exercise, I could never discard my collection of hard media, predominantly housed on the ever faithful vinyl record. My vinyl collection grows every day and I am amazed at how much I enjoy the old format. Some years ago I rid myself of my large cd collection and ripped the whole thing to a hard drive. That’s a decision that I regret more each day.

Enter the bargain bin!! Luckily for those of us who still love things made of plastic and having huge collections of media as a symbol of our intellectual and cultural prowess, thousands of compact discs are now languishing in bargain bins and thrift stores. If one is into serious music, ’tis very likely that one is also meticulous about the care of one’s treasures, thus, dollar bin classical cds are oft in pristine condition. This is a great thing for those of us on tight budgets!

Between the thrift store up the street from me that sells vinyl for fifty cents a pop, and cds for a buck fifty, and my local branch of the public library that sells used books and cds for a dollar each, I’ve been having a field day finding cheap treasures. And so gentle readers, I embark on an occasional new series that will be called Dollar Delights, treasures found for a buck. My first review will appear here anon, so Read on, MacDuff!

Tuesday Discovery – Sorry, It’s a Day Late.

This week’s Tuesday Music Discovery features an immaculate artist who was little known outside of France and sadly left behind but a few recordings.

Germaine Thyssens-Valentin was born Maastricht in the Netherlands in 1902. She studied at the Royal Academy at Liege under Isodor Phillip and Marguerite Long, then under Gabriel Faure at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1924 she married Paul Valentin and hyphenated the two last names. Her marriage brought about a lengthy hiatus to her career as she stayed at home to raise her five children.  She resumed her career in 1951 after twent-five years of absence from the concert stage.

She was the first pianist to perform all of the piano works of he teacher Faure in a series of concerts.  And today’s recommendation is a disc of Faure’s thirteen Nocturnes reissued on the Testament Label. These recordings were made in 1956 and were re-issued in 2002. It is my ceaseless delving into the music bins of thrift stores that brought me this delightful hour and twenty minutes of music for the astronomical sum of $1.50 American.

Ms. Thyssens-Valentin plays with a gorgeous and sonorous tone that is well captured in these mono recordings. The folk at Testament always have been very spiffy with their re-masterings and this is certainly no exception. I have always adored Faure’s music for its understated emotions and calm serenity.  It has been written that Faure lived a charmed life and that his music reflected his happy existence. This elegant, reflective and sometimes elegaic music proves that theory.  If you can find a copy of this lovely disc, you’re in for over an hour of delightful quietude.

The release is accompanied by an excellent program booklet in English, German and French.

Testament MONO SBT 1262 79:50

 

Germaine Thyssens-Valentin

Tuesday Discovery – Ben Howard

My utter weakness for sultry British boys with James Blunt-like angst in their voices aside,  Ben Howard, whose 2011 debut album Every Kingdom I just very belatedly discovered, is a welcome addition to my growing list of favorite Indie songsters.  Singable tunes, clever lyrics and atmospheric orchestrations are the selling points of a young artist with an outstanding sense of formal structure and well, some damn catchy tunes.

I have to interject here that as much as I am enamored with his music, his website drove me nuts. I have never seen anything so difficult to navigate and so full of well, nothing. The home page has no navigation tabs and I had to find the other pages by way of the Google search engine entry. There’s no bio and no real information about the artist or the music. The merchandise offered is only available from England and in British pounds. It’s not a very world friendly place. Fortunately, I found the vinyl on Amazon!

That aside, I have found myself listening to Every Kingdom over and over again and getting lost in the dreaminess of Ben’s voice. Since this is an older release and I am sure it’s been well reviewed, I shan’t give you a blow by blow description. I will just say that Ben Howard is a musician with immense talent and something to say. If you haven’t availed yourself of his music, check it out. It’s available in every imaginable format!

Ben Howard

Some Stops Along My Spiritual Journey

One of the by-products of my recovery from alcoholism has been a renewed desire to explore my faith and re-evaluate my spirituality.  In Alcoholics Anonymous, we are committed to turn our lives and will over to the care of God as we understand him. Some people like to refer to this god as their higher power, some people profess the faith of their upbringing, others change from one tradition to another, others still create a higher power of their own out of whole cloth.

My personal journey has led me to where such journeys often lead, to books. And after reading quite a lot about Buddhism, about the history of the Christian Church and about what several branches of this church actually teach, I have had to call my whole concept of religion into serious question.

If we come from a church going family, we are taught a list of dogmas early in life that we are simply expected to believe. For example, we are taught the Nicene Creed and that we should accept its words without question. But we are never taught about who wrote that creed and why, and that there were decades long controversies over its content and that dozens of other creeds were written and proclaimed and dismissed and fought over.

We aren’t taught that the divine God-head status of Jesus wasn’t officially conferred upon him until well more than three hundred years after the crucifixion nor that the Catholic church split between the east and the west over the very question of the nature of Jesus in relation to God.

We never consider that there were far more documents written about the works of Jesus and the apostles other than those that made it into the book that we call the Bible. Why do we know nothing of the relationship between Jesus and his earthly father Joseph? Surely someone had some memories of those years between Jesus’ appearance in the temple and when he began his ministry some twenty years later. Then there are the fairy tales about Mary’s immaculate conception, limbo, purgatory, venial and mortal sins and the infallibility of a man in a white dress and ruby slippers.

It’s not that I mean to simply take cheap shots at people’s faith. I thoroughly understand the need to believe in something more powerful and more creative than ourselves. But I must call into question the blind faith that so many have put in a belief system that has been made up as it went along for the sole purpose of keeping a few powerful men in control of the the minds and behavior of the masses.

For now, I have taken to exploring just how I understand God and trying to divine through personal experience how he works in the world and in my own life. I can’t not believe that I am protected by a benevolent creator who guides me into not only good things but into a pure and meaningful relationship with himself. But I also have come to understand that this relationship is of the most personal and private nature imaginable. It is not guided by fears of punishment nor a set of rules and regulations that were set up by some ancient council to guide my behavior toward some punitive and political agenda.

My guiding principle is this: that I must be good and honest and kind to my fellow beings and never cause them any kind of harm or suffering.

That is my new starting point, and I have set about to discover again just who this God being is and how his representative on earth in the person of Jesus, whose teachings I can gladly accept plays a part in my faith. But I want to take the time to try and learn  just who this Jesus really is and how he might speak to me in his own voice, not in the tired diatribes of a manipulative and power hungry institution called a church.