Monday, November 25, 2013

Concert Review: The Djangoners at Little Theatre Cafe

Posted by on Mon, Nov 25, 2013 at 3:51 PM

The Little Theatre Café has always struck me as temporal twilight, a layover in a caffeinated limbo if you will, on your way to or from cinematic bliss. While in this holding pattern and holding a cup of hot joe, you can dig any number of bands on the artistic fringe as they punch out acoustic or lightly amplified sets of electrified eclecticity. It's momentary, fleeting, and beautiful in its brevity.

Folks come from the reaches to dig the tunes. Most are passing through. The café isn't what you'd necessarily call a destination. But last Thursday it was crowded with fans of local gypsy-jazz sensations The Djangoners. Sure, some were there on their way to one the Little's assorted left-of-Hollywood offerings, but the majority of the crowd that packed the house was there start to finish for two sets of the quartet's thrills, trills, and, augmented fills.

The sound centered around the material of gypsy-jazz guitar godfather, Django Reinhardt. When you ponder the fact that Reinhardt did what he did with just two fingers on his fret hand -- the other two digits were rendered useless in a fire -- it's staggering. But honestly very few guitarists, or those in the supporting fiddle and bass roles, have mastered the style's syncopation, jump, and zing as well as the Djangoners.

At the band's core is Bobby Henrie, a six-string-slingin' southpaw wunderkind raised on bluegrass and red-hot rockabilly. Watching this man play on his upside-down guitar is a study in the style's confounding elegance and complicated simplicity. Five-string fiddle player (and maker) Eric Aceto offered up a similar blur of bowed notes that countered the melody when not countering it or harmonizing with it. His brother and rhythm guitarist Harry Aceto was absent, leaving Ithaca guitarist Dave Davies -- no, not that Dave Davies, Kinks fans -- to add the percussive chop, charm, and trombone. You might think that last piece would be a bit out of place, but in reality it just added to the parade. Dog-house bassist Brian Williams kept the bottom end thumping and hips twitching as he served up his trademark locomotive swing.

You can see The Djangoners at The Little Theatre Café every Thursday in December. See a movie too, if you're so inclined.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Concert Review: RPO's Beethoven's Sixth Symphony

Posted by on Fri, Nov 22, 2013 at 9:49 AM

Beethoven might be the headliner, but the attention grabbers from last night's Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert were guest cellist Edward Arron performing Saint-Saëns and living American composer Kevin Puts. Perhaps you have heard of neither? All the more reason to get to Saturday night's concert.

Arron's performance demonstrated what happens when you do everything right going into a concert. The work was the Concerto No. 1 in A Minor for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33 by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). Arron clearly practices consistently and has practiced and performed this work a sufficient number of times over the years for it to be sufficiently ingrained in his muscle memory. There is a huge leap made by a soloist when the music is memorized. There is an even larger leap that is made once the soloist has become one with his instrument and the music.

Arron also avoided one of my pet peeves: every time he returned to the theme, he gave it a different and organically progressed expression. Not once was the theme boring. Watching Arron's face, it was almost as if he was imagining an opera, with an infinite variation of the word "love" passing between himself and some coquettish maiden.

Arron deserves a "best of" for capturing an analysis of the notes, practicing, absorbing, and then letting it all go in a Top 3 soloist performance with the RPO (the other two being Augustin Hadelich, violin, in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 and Juliana Athayde, violin, in Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, Op. 14). Arron is a graduate of The Juilliard School, and now serves on the faculty at New York University. His performance credits include all the top performance halls and festivals, and he has performed with Yo-Yo Ma and as part of the Silk Road Project.

Also on last night's program was "Inspiring Beethoven" by American composer Kevin Puts (b. 1972), an Eastman School of Music alum. It's a really terrific composition. The layers and the mood changes capture what one can only imagine would be the multiplicity of sounds in Beethoven's head. Somber, sad, tortured, delusional, a brewing tempest, the tempest, and then the release of a joyful composition.NirKabaretti, guest conductor, transitioned the moods through single-note pivots.

And then, of course, the mighty Beethoven was the star of the night, and received the lion's share of the time. On the program were his Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a and his Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (the "Pastoral"). These works are on the pleasant and enjoyable end of the Beethoven spectrum, providing the kind of orchestration for strings perhaps only Beethoven could supply, along with a range of dynamics from quiet to loud without all the explosives. Perhaps these works were written in better days for Herr Beethoven? Conductor Kabaretti certainly was afforded an opportunity to smile with much greater frequency than would be typical for Beethoven -- or the RPO programming, for that matter -- and Kabaretti took that opportunity to share his enjoyment with the musicians and the audience.

Kabaretti, born in Israel, educated in Vienna, residing in Florence and now Santa Barbara, brought the kind of universal warmth to these works one should expect. I'm not sure I was sold on the opening passage to the Leonore Overture, which started the program, either as to tempo or as to precision of entrances, but credit must be given both to the guest conductor and to the RPO. This is a season of 100 percent guest conductors and if there is anything to be observed, it is that every week the musicians are learning the sign language of a new captain at the helm.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will repeat the program Saturday, November 23, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets cost $15-$82. For more information call 454-1200 or visit the website.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Concert Review: This is Home at Dubland Underground

Posted by on Wed, Nov 20, 2013 at 4:20 PM

Typically anticipation runs pretty low for a Monday early-evening gig. Often, it's a low-dough slot with minimal risk for promoters and minimum return for the band. That is unless, you're in This Is Home and it's your first gig ever. I braved the bluster and wind Monday, November 18, to stand in a modest sea of teenagers so that I could watch this band lose its live-show cherry, live. The anticipation was palpable as the kids danced and grooved around the stage to the diametrically disparate drone of Dr. Dre coming in over the PA. The angst and urgency were all legit and 100 percent grade-A genuine -- this band is made up solely of teenagers and 20-year-olds.

The band, though a little stiff (nerves no doubt) hit heavy and strong, enjoying the ride as much as the crowd. Not sure what they call it these days, but This Is Home played a screamingly aggressive metal-esque set with a full-on drum attack beneath the six-string buzzsaw and chugga-chugga-squeal up front. It was in direct contrast to the sanctuary found in the band's name.

There were the typical feedback and volume issues that arise at every show (newbie or otherwise), but the crowd danced and head-banged in approval as it stood and ushered yet another bunch of rock-music hopefuls into the fold. Welcome to the dark side, boys.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Concert Review: RPO plays Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Hindemith

Posted by on Fri, Nov 15, 2013 at 9:12 AM

If you love Rachmaninoff even half as much as I do, you are going to love the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's delivery of his Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, led by guest conductor Junichi Hirokami. This week's concert offering of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra packs in nearly an hour of Rachmaninoff in its second half, and works by German composers Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith into the first. Hirokami, along with Erik Behr on oboe for the Strauss concerto, demonstrates how to provide a thoroughly enjoyable classical concert at the Eastman Theater.

Let's start with the Rachmaninoff. The performance was of the complete score, unedited to fit some kind of time constraint, and it was placed in its own half. As soon as the RPO began to play, I had such an unhurried feeling that for the next hour - I could simply sit back and be taken away. No smart phone. No work deadlines. Nothing but the live performance, already deep into the bass and with the promise of a fiery, percussion-filled ending to come.

The gold-star moment came as the RPO slid ever so quietly off and faded away at the end of the Adagio movement. The phrasing and execution of that passage was divine. It was a demonstration of a key feature of the music of Rachmaninoff and others of that era from Russia: the performers must have the ability to rake your soul across the hot coals of hell, but, some moments later, offer a glimpse of the promise to come. To accomplish this, the RPO musicians are at once being compelled to deliver physical exertion and then being asked to contract, steady, and then slowly use those same muscles. It's not easy to pull off.

The guest conductor should be told that he received the equivalent of a standing ovation at the end of that Adagio movement: no one moved for what I believe was the longest bubble of silence I have heard at the RPO. No one wanted to break the spell that had been cast. Not a cough or a sneeze was heard in the house, and the Adagio was already the third movement of this lengthy symphony.

RPO first oboe Erik Behr was the soloist for the Strauss Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra, and he did a fine job. Running approximately 30 minutes, the piece was performed with continuous flow, even thought it contains four primary tempo markings. The piece has a rather refreshing quality - all the more so as it was performed after the Hindemith. Behr's technique speaks for itself as he breathes and fingers his way through even the quickest passages with ease.

This was the first time the RPO had performed the Hindemith, and it was interesting. On the one hand, it was a big, heavy, dense, German composition. On the other hand, it was acoustically interesting. How often do you hear a work without a wind section where the brass is full and has a meaningful role? At first, I jotted down "eerie," but that was perhaps incorrect; it may have been more of an agony.

So here's the thing: you are required to attend the RPO either this week or next. This week's concert has the sure thing of a Rachmaninoff symphony that I've heard and give a good performance thumbs up. Next week, we'll have Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony," Nir Kabaretti, guest conductor, who I interviewed for our City newspaper article that profiled each of this season's guest conductors and give a super interview thumbs up. It's live. It's local. And it's just a great way to do something good for yourself before the madness of the holidays pulls us into the undertow.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the program again Saturday, November 16, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets cost $15-$82. For more information visit the website.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

Concert Review: RPO Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony

Posted by on Fri, Nov 8, 2013 at 10:08 AM

Thursday night, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performed under the fourth guest conductor of the season, Christoph Campestrini, in a performance that included orchestral works by Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky and a piano concerto by Mozart that featured pianist Barry Snyder. Russian composers have the ability to take you with them as they rake their souls across the coals of hell. Unfortunately, I found the performance Thursday night only lukewarm. Both the Stravinsky and the Tchaikovsky suffered from a lack of differentiation from each other, and from Mozart.

The Stravinsky work was Divertimento from "Le Baiser de la fée" ("The Fairy's Kiss"), a suite in four parts (1949 version). "The Fairy's Kiss" is based on the "The Ice Maiden" by Hans Christian Andersen. It is a story with a terrifically dark underside. The kiss in question is bestowed by a fairy, impersonating the true love of a young man (while his true love is off putting on her wedding dress, no less), which locks him into the Land of Eternal Dwelling. This is not a fairy bringing glittery good wishes, but rather one harboring a wicked selfishness.

Stravinsky's score is at once brilliant and tricky; there are all sorts of pop-up solos throughout the wind and the brass instruments. The solo lines and phrases serve as a variety of characters in this work -- it was originally conceived as a ballet -- and give an opportunity to keep the audience on its toes, almost if wondering, "Who did that?"

The performance Thursday, unfortunately, was missing both the dark undertone and the quirky bits and bobs that not only make this a unique score, but also make it a work by Stravinsky. When I had interviewed Campestrini back in August for our article profiling all of the guest conductors for the RPO's 2013-14 season, he said, "This program asks what is necessary for any performance: the stylistic variety of each requires a totally different approach." Perhaps that can bear into the baton for Saturday night's performance.

Likewise, the Tchaikovsky simply didn't take me into the heartland of Mother Russia. There is an essential emotional component to the Russian masters that, if not captured, can almost leave a work a bit flat. Perhaps the best way I can articulate it is this: the musicians' backs rarely left their chairs. By contrast, when guest conductor Jun Märkl lead the RPO in Mahler's Titan Symphony on September 28, the musicians practically left their seats and took off -- metaphorically speaking -- with the music. The RPO is an incredibly talented group of musicians and can be pushed much further and harder to elicit a stirring interpretation of this work.

So what then of Herr Mozart? Dankeschön, Herr Snyder und Herr Campestrini. Snyder's touch was clean on a piano and the sound was clear. The tempos were nicely selected. And the variation of tone among dynamic markings felt true to the particular performance. While it is true that my heart lies in the deep bass rumblings of what one might refer to as "the war horse competition concertos," I hope that the RPO will continue to bring us the less-frequently performed piano concertos. Mozart, in particular, does have this knack for a surprisingly satisfying impact upon the audience, while fooling us into thinking his compositions are oh-so-simple.

The RPO will repeat the program Saturday, November 9, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Ticket cost $15-$82. For more information call 454-2100 or visit rpo.org.

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Monday, November 4, 2013

Concert Review: The LSD Enigma, The Nightstalkers

Posted by on Mon, Nov 4, 2013 at 2:36 PM

It's funny; a lot of psychedelic era or music influenced by the psychedelic era doesn't sound that psychedelic to me. I think in many cases these were in essence garage bands on psychedelic drugs. Minds are still getting explored and bent, but the sounds frequently aren't all that mind-bending.

Exception: Rochester's psychedelic sonic sensation The LSD Enigma, a duo the works in intensity, swirling color, and depth, and is just a couple of clicks away from being weird. The band played Friday for the art-crawling set for First Friday festivities at the Record Archive. The band adheres to the genre's folk-story roots but splashes in tons of slap-back and reverb over an infectious go-go beat. It was the delay and dimension created by the reverb that gave the show a truly psychedelic twist and shout over the otherwise organic strain of the choppy acoustic guitar, snappy, treble-tight drums, and harmonies reminiscent of Phil and Don in outer space.

I've preached and pontificated and pleaded the case for classic bar bands. I'm talking about artists that play hard, performing music for scooting around the joint with your hands around something cold and your arms around something warm. Bands like The Nightstalkers. Honestly, there are few better. I've been going to see this band since when the late Marshall James roamed the earth and fronted the band with his soulful pipes and dry wit.

I made my way to Sticky Lips Juke Joint Saturday night as the band was laying down its badass blend of bluesy boogie, rock 'n' roll, and jazz. There is something so cool about a blue-collar, working-man's band that relies on zero frills while delivering the thrills for the working-off-their-dinner crowd. It was a moment in time of varying significances -- first date, last date, beers with buddies -- depending on who you ask. When you have a bar band as tight and rockin' as the Nightstalkers, regardless the outcome, it sounds alright.

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