Politics and Its Discontents: Sirius Quartet’s New World


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ZOHO ZM 201908

This is a marvelous disc which functions well on several levels.  First it is a fine disc of new string quartet music played by wonderful musicians (who wrote most of the music here as well).  Second it is a disc of music which is designed to put forth sociopolitical reactions/opinions.  This Zoho label production succeeds quite well in these areas.

Starting with the lovely cover art by Aodán Collins, this Sirius Quartet album is their first full album since 2016.  It is, above all, a political statement, or rather, a series of political statements in the form of inventive compositions by these wonderfully talented musicians.  Each track is incredibly entertaining and each has a closely associated subtext of sorts reflecting a variety of sociopolitical issues.  The Sirius Quartet consists of Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; and Jeremy Harman, cello.

This disc contains ten works on ten tracks, each with an underlying political component.  All appear to have been written from 2016 to the present though the composition dates are not given explicitly.

The first work, Beside the Point, is by first violinist Fung Chern Hwei and it is a friendly scherzo-like piece which sets the tone for what is to come.  The composer describes this piece as his statement against discrimination and it is a plea for equality.  It is a relatively brief but very compelling work.

Next up is a track written by cellist Jeremy Harman called Currents.  It is another scherzo-like affair, slightly longer than the first piece and its political subtext is described by the composer as evoking currents of elements both dark and light whose powers affect us daily.  Another well-written and very exciting piece.

The eponymous New World, November 9, 2016 is essentially an angry lament in response to the election of Donald Trump as president on that date.  The work quotes judiciously and effectively from Dvorak and Shostakovich in the longest work here coming in at 10:16.  It relies on some extended techniques at times but is an essentially tonal work as are its companions on this disc.  This piece is also distinguished as having won the 2017 New York Philharmonic’s “New World Initiative” competition’s grand prize and it is acknowledged as the seed work which eventually spawned this entire album.

#Still by second violinist Gregor Huebner is perhaps the most gut wrenching piece here.  It’s based on the Abel Meeropol song, Strange Fruit (whose title refers to lynched bodies hanging from trees) iconically recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.  Sadly its themes remain painfully relevant today and this heartfelt plea for peace and equality is a strikingly powerful work with an adagio section which rivals the Barber Adagio in its beauty.

Huebner’s cover of the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby occupies the next track.  It is very much in keeping with the political theme of the album with the song’s words about a sad individual “buried along with her name”.  As such it is also one of the finest transcriptions/covers for string quartet that this reviewer has heard.  This is some seriously interesting writing which elevates this to a well crafted piece in it’s own right and not merely a “this string quartet plays…” generic piece.  Jazz inflections seem to invoke Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt at times and a few extended techniques remind us that we are listening in the 21st century.

More Than We Are by cellist Jeremy Harman is described as an “aspirational” composition which was written after the birth of the composer’s son, Silas.  It is an emotional piece, perhaps a paean to hope.

To a New Day by Fung Chern Hwei is, of all things, a celebration of hope for healing politics in the composer’s native country of Malaysia (politics outside of the US and Europe are important too after all).  May 9, 2018 was the date of an election whose result will hopefully heal political wounds and put that country on a more humane and progressive agenda.  There may be more specific references embedded in the music here but that must be left for listeners and musicologists to debate in the future.  It is another gorgeous example of good string quartet writing.

Hwei describes this next piece, “30th Night, Worshiping Heaven and Earth” as a “repurposed prayer”.  It is, he says, an “unapologetically Chinese/Malaysian piece” which uses a combination of Chinese folk melody and specific attention to language to suggest a subversive theme which seeks to encourage a humane approach from a traditionally oppressive government.  It is the only track with vocals.

The penultimate track is another brilliant arrangement (by Huebner) of a rock/pop song, Radio Head’s “Knives Out”.  The political content is expressed by reference to the song’s lyrics and also by musical references which are inserted throughout.  Again an experience of the cover genre that rises above the ordinary.

The album ends with an arrangement by Fung Chern Hwei of the late Stanley Myers’ lovely Cavatina from his score to “The Deer Hunter”.  Like the previous covers this one stands head and shoulders above the usual level of musical discourse for this genre.

All in all an immensely satisfying album.  Kudos to Grammy winning producer and writer (he wrote the wonderful liner notes here) Kabir Seghal and, of course, to the musicianship of this fine ensemble of composer/musicians.  Art continues to struggle in these uncertain times but its struggle can bring forth some amazing creativity and this one sounds like a winner.

 

 

Janoska Ensemble: Revolution


 

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Deutsche Grammaphon 60257 725 9326

Not your typical Deutsche Grammaphon release, this disc is of a genre in which classical musicians toy with pop music arrangements (in this case two violins, piano, and bass) as well as a few showpieces.  Such novelties when done carelessly (evidence the plethora of string quartet arrangements of rock music) it can be tedious but with clever arrangements and energetic musicians they can be marvelously entertaining.  This disc is in the latter category.

This traverses some of the territory of the late great Yehudi Menuhin and his collaborations with the likes of Stephane Grappelli among others.  This spirit of exploring the fun side of classical music (so to say) is very much present here.  The virtuosity of the selections by Fritz Kreisler and Henryk Wieniawski  are contrasted with virtuosity of variations written and arranged by the Janoskas.  Add a cello and I’d love to hear these guys do the Schubert Trout Quintet.  They rock in their way.

Here are the track names:

The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)

Yesterday (Lennon and McCartney)

Praeludium and Allegro in the style of G. Pugnani (Kreisler)

Hello Prince! (Roman Janoska)

Air (Bach)

Len’s Dance (Frantisek Janowska)

Melodie (Tchaikovsky)

Night and Day (Porter)

Penny Lane (Lennon and McCartney)

Variations on an Original Theme (Wieniawski)

Let it Be (Lennon and McCartney)

The ensemble consists of Ondrej Janoska, violin; Roman Janoska, violin; Frantisek Janoska, piano; and Julius Darvas, double bass.  Nothing truly “revolutionary” here except for the title but fun and entertainment certainly are.

 

Both Homage and Nostalgia for Sergeant Pepper at the UC Theater


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Creative, practical staging and lighting was a unifying factor in this triumph from Undercover Presents.

There was a full house at the UC Theater on this Saturday, June 3rd in Berkeley.  It was the only performance of this homage to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album which was released 50 years ago (actually June 2, 1967).  Most of the performers were not even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes when this landmark of music came on the scene.  The “Summer of Love” was happening in the Bay Area and this album was unquestionably an influence then.  Tonight’s show demonstrated how that influence continues.

The audience was a mix of aging hippies (and non-hippies) and younger hipsters (is it OK to use that term and have no negative connotation?).  Some, no doubt, came for a bit of nostalgia remembering where they were when they first heard the original.  Some came to hear the creativity of local artists meeting such a challenge.

It would have been easy to simply do average covers of the songs and cater only to the nostalgia but Lyz Luke’s Undercover Presents, as usual, aimed higher than that (and hit their mark).  They, under the direction of guest producer Joe Bagale, curated a show of creative interpretations of each of the 13 tracks utilizing some of the finest of the massive talents that call the Bay Area home.  The end result was a true homage from another generation of marvelously diverse artists who put their stamp on the iconic songs without losing any respect for the power of the originals.

Simple but effective stage design by Bridget Stagnitto was reminiscent of the iconic album cover with creative lighting and functional information integrated into the tableau.  Ryan John and Brendan Dreaper were lead sound engineers.

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As is customary for these shows the bands played the tracks in their original order beginning with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra’s instrumental cover of the opening track.  Principal trombone Rob Ewing’s arrangement captured the essence of that opening and effectively set the stage for what was to follow.

(Correction:  Per Joe Bagale the opening number was arranged by soprano saxophone player Michael Zilber.)

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Vocalist Dublin sang a bluesy solo version of “With a Little Help From My Friends”, those friends being the Jazz Mafia Accomplices

Guitarist Jon Monahan takes responsibility for this arrangement which veered just a bit off of nostalgia to deliver a very effective solo vocal version (the original you may recall had that call and answer thing going on) of this, one of the best known tracks on the album.  Though it was not obvious, perhaps there was some homage intended to the late Joe Cocker who first saw the bluesy potential here when he presented his justly famed version at Woodstock in 1969.

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Raz Kennedy made effective use of backup singers in his soulful take on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  He shared arranging credit with Nick Milo.  The spirit of the Supremes, Gladys Knight (and of course the Pips), and maybe a touch of James Brown seemed to be present in the house and this arrangement got a great review from the audience.  What a voice!

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Eyes on the Shore shared arranging credits in their digital synth inflected take on Getting Better.  They went further afield with the material than some and may have briefly lost the pure nostalgia seekers but the arrangement clearly succeeded in pleasing the crowd. One would expect that psychedelia be transformed by the digital world, right?  And so it was.

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The Avant Jazz Funk duo of Scott Amendola on percussion and Will Blades on Hammond Organ (how’s that for nostalgia?) and Clavinet turned in a very intense and rich improvisational battle in their purely instrumental version of “Fixing a Hole”.  Sometimes the melody was there and sometimes it was transformed in a musically psychedelic way that went quite a distance from the original.  But the use of the Hammond Organ and Clavinet themselves provided reassurance that they wouldn’t go too far.  The performances were blazingly intense and the whole house felt it.

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We again were treated to soul with backup singers as Nino Moschella transformed the innocent ballad of adolescent alienation, “She’s Leaving Home”, into a more darkly hued version that seemed to reflect an understanding of the loss of that innocence that we all must face eventually.  Nothing somber here but clearly a different understanding consistent with the overall mission of having another generation’s way of remembering this material.

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South Asian music and philosophy are inextricably linked to the psychedelic sounds of the mid to late 1960s and nowhere is this more obvious than with the Beatles whose study of Transcendental Meditation with their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (born Mahesh Prasad Varma 1918-2008) while George Harrison studied sitar with Pandit Ravi Shankar (1920-2012).

Rohan Krishnamurthy (Mridangam, Hadjira frame drum), Prasant Radakrishnan (saxophone), and Colin Hogan (keyboard) share credits for their creative instrumental arrangement of “For Mr. Kite”.  Eschewing lyrics (which are etched in most of the audience’s minds anyway) they performed a stunningly unique rendition of this familiar song. Interestingly these musicians trace their influences to the southern Indian Carnatic tradition (somewhat different from the Hindustani traditions which influenced the Beatles) adding yet another layer of richness to the evening’s goings on.

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Colin Hogan indicts himself yet again in his arrangement of “Within You Without You”, that spacey Hindustani inflected song.  The Hogan Brothers (Steve Hogan, bass; Colin Hogan, accordion; Julian Hogan, drums; Moorea Dickason, vocals; Charlie Gurke, baritone sax) turned in a marvelous world fusion rendition of the tune (lyrics and all) to a hugely appreciative response.

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Iranian born Sahba Minikia, steeped in both Iranian and western classical traditions provided a touching arrangement of the classic, “When I’m Sixty Four”.  Featuring Mina Momeni on guitar and vocals (on video) accompanied by the Awesöme Orchestra in a song whose premise looks to the future as far as this evening looked into the past to ponder the endurance of romance.

In retrospect it is almost surprising that the marvelous diversity didn’t generate a presidential tweet of dissatisfaction.  Indeed a woman singing would produce more than a tweet of dissatisfaction in Tehran, birthplace of photographer and singer Momemi who also teaches visual arts in Canada.

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Vocalist Kendra McKinley practically turned “Lovely Rita” into a feminist anthem with some retro pop group choreography and background vocals to boot.  The visuals and the energy of the performance practically had the whole house dancing.

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Soltrón added Latin percussion and energetic dance to the already electrified atmosphere with their arrangement of the raucous “Good Morning”.  Kendra McKinley could be seen and heard tying in her energy from the previous performance as backup singer here.

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Lyz Luke stepped in to introduce the penultimate Sgt Pepper Reprise.

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The dancing energy was carried on by the colorful and energetic dancers of Non-Stop Bhangra.  They accompanied Rohan Krishnamurthy and Otis McDonald in Joe Bagale’s rocking arrangement (replete with lyrics) of the reprise of the opening.  It was like a live action version of the studio executed original performance with a stage filled with ecstatic musicians and dancers.

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Joe Bagale in his Sgt Pepper duds sings the lyrics hoping we’d enjoyed the show.

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The apocalyptic, “A Day in the Life” concluded the mission of homage and nostalgia in a bigger than life tableau of talent and diversity that connected the “there and then” to the “here and now”.  The famous extended last chord crashed in a peak of energetic music making to bring the performances to a close.

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The visuals were strongly reminiscent of the iconic album cover.

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There was no need to encourage the audience to sing along to the encore of “All You Need is Love”.  Fifty years hence we still need it and if we still don’t have it everywhere at least we had it here this night.