‘Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn….’

Fifteen seasoned jazzmen (save one) exploded with youthful zest and irresistible momentum on stage at Toronto’s Old Mill on September 15 – thankfully all together just the once – at the annual gathering that signified the 13th edition of the Ken Page Memorial Trust Gala.

The trust supports jazz professionals, encourages young musicians in numerous ways, sponsors live and recorded jazz performance and fosters education – and, as always, shows it can host a swinging jazz party.

Before a loudly enthusiastic audience, many of the grey-hair and no-hair persuasion, a group of jazz stars from both side of the border played 10 mix-and-match sets in various configurations, celebrating for the most part the jazz music that used to be called mainstream, a description now claimed by descendants of bebop, and even more bizarrely christened ‘traditional jazz’ by youngsters blithely unaware of accurate jazz tradition.

A program put together by Jim Galloway, former artistic director of the Toronto Jazz Festival and still very handy with his signature curved soprano sax, swiftly took shape as a lengthy highlight reel of all that’s good and great about this music, performed without benefit of rehearsal or playlists.

Numbers were called on stage, rarely with tune titles, but it didn’t matter a whit to fans familiar with songs of the era. And, amazingly, the show started on time.

It’s worth remembering that the ranks of golden oldies are dwindling, but their contribution to jazz is undiminished. The Page bash attracted American trombonist George Masso, 85, and American tenor saxophonist Houston Person, 76, while among the mature gathering of Canadians were trombonist Laurie Bower, 78, Galloway, 74, and flugelhornist Guido Basso, 73. (The youth front was represented by lively violinist Drew Jurecka and guitarist Reg Schwager, who for countless years has masqueraded as a high school senior).

All present belong in the top flight, ready to blow, strum or thrash from the first, relaxed notes of Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful”, piercing clarinet from Allan Vache (with accent ecu on e), spirited comping from breathtakingly versatile pianist John Sherwood, super-solid bassist Neil Swainson and ever-busy drummer Terry Clarke. This sextet with trombonist Al Kay and trumpeter Kevin Turcotte was in full vigour mode, notably on a rabble-rousing version of “Broadway” that stirred an outbreak of foot-tapping, head-nodding and finger-tapping among fans far from comatose despite a substantial supper.

With Toronto’s Ted O’Reilly keeping proceedings in a semblance of order, the band population shifted lightly to a frontline of Galloway, Masso and popular gala returnee Warren Vache on cornet with his succulent, bright sound. The trombonist caressed the melody with delicacy, careening delightfully at solo’s end before the group surged through “Blue Skies” over a pulsating beat.

Basso chose flugelhorn for a masterful take on Duke’s “In A Mellow Tone” in the next set, followed by John MacLeod on cornet for some heroic blowing on “Things Aint What They Used To Be”, which also had a rich, emotional contribution from Person and whiplash work from Sherwood.

And there was much more, too much to detail here, on a magical evening surely unlike any other past or planned for 2011 in these parts.

Standouts included a stylish Basso-Schwager-Swainson trio creating an achingly-lovely “It’s The Good Life”, a brass quintet belting out “Perdido” and Sherwood indulging his keyboard smarts on “Up A Lazy River”, Person plus pulse threesome whirling through a Broadway standard, sweetly breezing through “Stella By Starlight” and then charging flat-out on “C Jam Blues” followed by deliberately chosen vintage material brought to life by Galloway and Allan Vache with a minimum of sonic confusion and concluding with the former’s beautiful version of “Come Sunday”.

There was just time for Warren Vache and Schwager to deliver a poignant “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face” before the gang was all there, blaring an uptempo swinger that peaked into a devout shoutabout that mirrored the classic Mingus “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” for impact and joy.

The night as a whole was indeed classic, leaving audience and players, especially the almost constant beat boys – Swainson and Clarke – exhausted, but more than happy. Here’s to next year.

The Blackcreek Festival ended on Saturday night in grand style, with the London Symphony Orchestra performing in Toronto for the first time in thirty years. It was a splendid evening for sitting outside under an open sky enjoying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Perfect weather was no small matter here, since that very evening the whole of the east coast was battening down for Hurricane Irene, and the festival had already had to postpone or cut short concerts because of persistent rain and lightening. The Rexall Centre was well-filled. Parking on the  campus of York University went smoothly, without the gridlock that had marred the opening concert with Domingo and Radvanovsky.

The  amplification system succeeded, by and large, in turning a tennis stadium into a concert hall. The sound was surprisingly natural, with the winds especially rich in tone. The strings offered some beautiful ensemble playing, especially with the cellos singing out in the third movement. But they suffered most from a general lack of resonance in the sound, and were particularly thin at the top.

The transparent textures conductor Lorin Maazel achieved were delightful, and the lovely details he brought out were a treat. But they were at times overwhelmed by his stately tempos and drawn-out pauses. In fact, at one point in the final movement Maazel lingered so long that members of the audience started clapping, presumably because they thought the piece was over.  This was the slowest Beethoven’s Ninth I’ve ever heard.

BlackCreek’s controversial artistic director Garth Drabinsky once again enlisted Stephen Cera, who had put together the series of concerts at the Ford Centre (now the Toronto Centre for the Arts) for him back in the 1990’s, as programmer. Here they assembled four elite soloists for the final movement of the Beethoven. The big catch was German bass René Pape, making his Canadian debut, who opened the concert in style with the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, an opera he sang last season at the Met. Pape was so good that I was sorry that a concert of opera arias featuring him with Maazel and the LSO had been cancelled by BlackCreek due to poor sales.

Toronto’s own soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and tenor Richard Margison both soared thrillingly, as did Russian mezzo Ekaterina Metlova, though Margison and Maazel didn’t appear to see eye to eye on the tempo for Margison’s dramatic entrance.  The  splendid chorus assembled  by local choral wizard Robert Cooper sang with gusto in both works.

A giant video screen mounted above the stage offered close-ups of the performers from various angles. Maazel’s precise, clear beat was especially interesting to watch. But why not use at least one screen for English translations of Mussorgsky’s own text for Boris, and Schiller’s famous Ode to Joy in the Beethoven -  especially since the texts weren’t included in the program.

Will this troubled but remarkable festival be able to get its act together and continue next year? I’m left hoping it does – especially if it can keep up the high standards in classical programming.

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/10/13/arts/music/13boris-slide-show-2.html

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/10/13/arts/music/13boris-slide-show.html

2010_detroit_jazz_festivalJazz fans in the Toronto region shouldn’t despair because the big local jazz festivals are over. There’s still plenty of music within easy reach, especially if you enjoy a little drive or train ride.

The main festival that has caught my eye is the Detroit Jazz Festival on the Labour Day weekend. Although it’s only three-and-a-half days long, the festival packs a huge and varied amount of music and events into that time, with performances on five stages in a relatively compact area

Being vocal- and world-musically inclined, a few of the acts that jumped off the schedule for me are:
- Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright perform “Sing the Truth” a tribute to a range of pioneering singer-songwriters – Friday, September 2 @ 8:45 p.m.
- Brazilian-American singer Luciana Souza with guitarist Romero Lubambo (who also performs with Kidjo and company) – Saturday, September 3 @ 1:45
- New York-based neo-soul singer Rahsaan Patterson – Sunday, September 4 @ 3:45 p.m.
- The lilting African folk of Regina Carter’s “Reverse Thread” should have a few people on their feet – Sunday, September 4 @ 4:00 p.m.

Other big jazz names include the Dave Holland Octet, Vijay Iyer Trio and Joe Lovano “Us Five.”

All the performances are FREE, but there’s a great VIP pass/hotel package on offer for those who want guaranteed access. The package provides special reserved seating, food and drink, and a good rate at the nearby host hotel, Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Centre. The hotel package rate is time-limited and must be booked before August 25. Check the jazz festival website for details or the hotel website to book.

Later in September, and a little less urban, is the All Canadian Jazz Festival in historic Port Hope, Ontario. From September 23-25, up-and-coming Canadian jazzers share the stage with more experienced players in what’s been called one of the prettiest jazz festivals around.

mcferrin1On Saturday August 13 at 11am, Brampton’s Rose Theatre filled with an enthusiastic crowd, many of them educators and vocalists of various musical backgrounds, to attend a workshop by 10-time Grammy winning artist, Bobby McFerrin. Marty Starkman, the event's executive producer, was thrilled with turnout. "The workshop was supposed to hold 96 people in the studio, but demand moved it to the main stage as 150 people had signed up and paid entrance."

It’s extremely difficult to describe McFerrin’s priceless musical abilities, particularly his facility with vocal improvisation, without extreme hyperbole. Simply put, there is no one alive who compares to this 61-year-old master, who sings everything from Bach to bebop in the blink of an eye, effortlessly gliding through a miraculous four-octave range (“I started out with 3½ octaves and had to really work hard to get to four.”) McFerrin’s musical insights and demonstrations aside, what made this workshop particularly endearing was the man’s humility.

Read more: ART OF JAZZ PRESENTS BOBBY MCFERRIN IN PERSON

Today is the launch of our new (and we hope ongoing) video blog series, The WholeNote Summer Studio. To launch the Summer Studio WholeNote publisher David Perlman interviewed Douglas McNabney, the artistic director of the Toronto Summer Music Academy and Festival.  Here are the videos (Hit Read More for more videos):

1. Opening Night Gerstein Gilmore

Read more: Summer Studio - Series #1 - Toronto Summer Music Festival

More ink has been spilled and more words set down on the circumstances of Mozart’s justly famed Requiem in D Minor than the work itself, which is unsurprising but detracts from experiencing the musical magic..

It’s indisputable that the dying Mozart in 1791 finished only two (Introitus, Kyrie) of its dozen sections, leaving the next eight (through the Hostias ) in the form of sketches, fragments and marginal notes, among them just eight bars of the gorgeous Lacrima. The final three movements didn’t exist. Concurrently he had been working on operas La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflote.

The composer had been commissioned by a mysterious patron to write a requiem mass for the dead and was keen to try his hand at this elevated church music form, as well as the vast sum he was promised. As he became weaker through illness it was suggested that he felt he was writing a requiem for himself.

Mozart’s wife Constanze asked her husband’s pupil, Franz Sussmayr, to complete the instrumentation and create the missing final trio. That’s where many arguments began that have lasted to the present day, with alternative completions vying for authority.

See what I mean? I was almost swayed from my enterprise, which was to review the actual music live, in a delightful pastoral setting (albeit the modern custom-built Gambrel Barn, with rear doors open, at the southern edge of Elora town).

The Elora Festival chose the back-in-favour Sussmayr version for its 32nd anniversary opening night concert July 8  – and it was a triumph, with Elora Festival Singers number swelled to around 60 voices, a biggish orchestra and with indefatigable conductor Noel Edison in full command, displaying an intimate knowledge of the sacred texts and demonstrating with vigorous, jabbing hand movements precise directions to all on stage, in particular urging the string sections to achieve new heights of meticulousness and passion.

Of course, up front and personal in this oratorio are four soloists – and who in Canada is better in this role (and in the many others she essays) than soprano Karina Gauvin? Though Requiem aria opportunities are virtually absent, her ever-exquisite rendering of the text, her high notes delicately shimmering and middle notes plumply adorable, she was simply mesmerizing.

In such company mezzo Jennifer Enns Modolo, and young colleagues tenor Christopher Mayell and baritone Matthew Cassils were clearly less of a force than Gauvin. Yet Modolo was always smooth and secure vocally with clear understanding of her role, while Mayell’s clean and spirited tones appealed as did the manner in which Cassils handled the very low ranges favoured here that few baritones can sustain. When singing together, the quartet was powerfully effective.

The full house, ensconced on seats much improved from early days and with feet on a floor leveled to avoid the flooding that erupted one year, was clearly enthusiastic about the contribution of the choir, in full, charged voice from the start and very responsive to Edison’s leadership, which as always was concerned to find the right balance in volatile music that careers quickly from fury to anguish.

That earthy balance was noticeable alongside the clarion calls of the Kyrie before all became energized in the ascent through Dies Irae. The Tuba mirum featured elegant trombone playing by Rachel Thomas behind Cassils, the Rex tremendae majestatis lovely choral harmonies, the Recordare appropriate expressions of high drama, the Confutatis a model passage of dynamic contrast.

The heartache that is the Lacrimosa was conveyed in every note, appealing rolling choral passages and sheets of sound distinguished both the Domine Jesu Christe and the

Hostias, which were followed by heavyweight offerings of the Sanctus and Benedictus. Emotional commitment on the part of performers and audience peaked with a most moving Agnus Dei and Lux Aetana..

Outside, senses newly stimulated by munchies and fireworks, it was a joy to recapitulate that joyous experience as well as the earlier renditions of unfamiliar verses of “God Save The Queen” and “O Canada”.

However, that pleasure could not possibly have been signaled by the utterly lifeless pre-intermission presentation of Mozart’s over-familiar Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. Best forgotten.

The festival continues through July 31, including a presentation of the Handel oratorio Israel in Egypt July 29. Also performing: pianist David Jalbert, Matt Dusk. the Cecilia and Madawaska String Quartets, singer-songwriter Sarah Slean, the Talisker Players with tenor Lawrence Wiliford, soprano Leslie Ann Bradley, the Swingle Singers, cellist David Eggert, entertainers Michael Burgess and Rebecca Caine and many more, with special nights for the music of Telemann and Arvo Part. Info: www.elorafestival.com.

 

The TD Toronto Jazz Festival is about to wrap up another successful 10-day run and I managed to catch only a few of the 350 acts, and, as usual, not nearly as many as I'd have liked.

img_1743Without doubt, the highlight for me was the Aretha Franklin concert that opened the fest on Friday June 24. Given the Queen of Soul's recent health issues and her reputation for cancelling concerts, I wasn't holding my breath. Earlier in the evening I'd had dinner with some of the local horn players who were performing with her that night, and they weren't able to provide any clues as to how she was doing. It seems the rehearsals aren't attended by Ms. Franklin, but rather recorded for her to rehearse to later in the privacy of her hotel suite. So when she hit the stage looking great and sounding even better, it was a relief and joy to watch the 90-minute plus show.

img_1766Next night I was psyched to hear my favourites from the disco era, Average White Band. The group still boasts two of its original members from the 70s--Alan Gorrie and Onnie McIntyre--so the risk that this would be a tired rehashing of old hits was there. But the band was tight and energetic and uber funky. Since they opened the two-band bill, they had the tough job of warming up the audience, who, though appreciative, stayed seated for most of the show. So it wasn't the off-the-hook dance party I had expected it to be.

img_1789It wasn't until much later in the night that the party broke out. The veteran Stax! outfit started their show by appearing on stage with literally no introduction, then eased their way through a solid Southern, low-key handful of tunes. Guitar player and founder of the band, Steve Cropper, was gracious and warm commenting "What the hell took us so long to get here?" It wasn't until the clock struck 11 and front man Eddie Floyd came on that the energy shot up and the crowd was on its feet dancing and singing along to hits like "Knock on Wood."

img_1798The next night I'd heard a rumour that a funky jazz trio was holding sway at The Rex hotel for two nights. I got to the packed bar to find a mostly young crowd lapping up the Bobby Sparks Trio. Sparks' has a modern yet throwback sound--more analog than digital--as Leslie, Hammond and Moog were the main sources for the lead man's extended grooves. Drummer Jason Thomas and bass player Michael League's considerable skills featured equally in the band's trippy, funky 70s-style show.

dsc_0847Monday was a tough choice with master singer Kurt Elling in town, but I instead opted for master guitarist Paco de Lucia at the newly refurbished Sony Centre. De Lucia's awe-inspiring guitar technique proved to be undiminished as he opened his show with a solo classical piece before gradually bringing his 7-piece band to the stage for a set of traditional and nuevo flamenco. Although all the elements were there - passionate singing, fierce dancing from Farruco and phenomenal performances from all the players - the show felt bloodless and impersonal. Then when the band finished its 90-minute show and refused to do an encore despite repeated exhortations from the devoted crowd, the show was ultimately a disappointment.

dsc_0867In sharp contrast was de Lucia's opening act - jazz harpist Edmar Castaneda. "Jazz harp?" I thought, "This will be weird." And although at first it was a little odd, Castaneda's skill and enthusiasm won us over, using elbows, fingers and arms to coax multilayered, percussive sounds out of the traditional Colombian instrument. More importantly, Castaneda was, despite a slight language barrier, funny, engaging and grateful to be able to be doing something he clearly loves to do.

The 2011 TD Toronto Jazz Festival continues until Sunday July 3 with lots of diverse acts including Bootsy Collins, Jayme Stone and culminating in a show by Canada's young jazz sweetheart, Nikky Yanofsky.

img_1739The great Aretha Franklin opened theTD Toronto Jazz Festival last night with a free concert in downtown Toronto. This was one of the first concerts she’s given since recovering from a serious (undisclosed) illness for which she was hospitalized last year, so there were doubts about how she’d perform. But she showed the thousands of people who packed into the marquee and spilled into David Pecaut Square that she’s not called the Queen of Soul for nothing.

In fact she could be the Queen of Blues, Gospel and Jazz too, as she appropriately opened the first set with the be bop classic “Cherokee” and later paid tribute to saxophonist James Moody, who had passed away late last year, with an impeccable version of “Moody’s Mood for Love,” a vocalese written by Eddie Jefferson set to Moody’s solo over “I’m in the Mood for Love.”

She treated us to a string of her classic hits like Carole King’s “Natural Woman,” “Think,” and “Day Dreaming,” as pretty much everyone in the audience filled in all the background parts along with her five singers.

Franklin took us to church as she sat at the piano for a meditative “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” that evolved into a double-time, down home testimony, before moving into a sweet and simple version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.”

img_1753The 69-year-old Franklin was relaxed, gracious and in great voice, only showing some strain at the end of the over hour-and-a-half concert as she sent us off into the night with a heartfelt version of “Believe.” We believed.

The Kronos Quartet’s second Koerner Hall concert on June 11 followed the same two-part format as the first: five works for string quartet alone, and then a set featuring the guest group led by the Afghan rubab (plucked lute) virtuoso Homayun Sakhi.

Sakhi proved to be at the top of his game rendering all the salient parts of an exhilarating Afghani version of Purya Kalyan, a raga introduced to Afghanistan by Hindustani musicians. The featured work this evening was however Sakhi’s very effective multi-sectional work Rangin Kama (2008) scored for Sakhi’s trio and Kronos. Backstage after the show I overheard Sakhi lightheartedly admonishing his fine tabla player, “I’m going to have to give you a speeding ticket!” Suffice it to say that there was more than one speedy soloist on the stage that night.

I found Kronos Quartet the next day at the Luminato festival stage in a cool and breezy David Pecaut Square. This time they alternated possession of the stage with Toronto’s Annex Quartet who recently joined the Kronos in a residency at Carnegie Hall.

Among the open-air concert’s delightful surprises was the premiere of Montreal composer Nicole Lizee's new work for Kronos “Death to Kosmische.” To those familiar with Lizee's compositions it will come as no shock that she made very effective use of a hand-held portable vinyl record player manipulated by one of the Kronos musician, turntablist style. Her retro-electronica sounding score even used a vintage looking synthesizer to amusing effect. Thanks to the multiple video cameras trained on the performers and projected on the large screen all in the two thousand or so audience could clearly see the boys with their electronic toys, having fun – as were we.

I can’t but reflect in retrospect on the peaceful music-filled outdoor atmosphere I was part of in downtown Toronto. The same night in Vancouver thousands were rioting in the streets, burning, looting and harming fellow citizens.

The inclusiveness of the Kronos Quartet’s repertoire has inspired many. It prompted The New Yorker to opine that Kronos is taking the “self-conscious “classical” string quartet,” retooling it to “become a kind of all-terrain vehicle in contemporary culture.”

We had a lesson in contemporary culture several ways on June 15, in the last of the Kronos concerts at the Jane Mallet Theatre. This time their guest was pipa (Chinese lute) master Wu Man. Kronos began with Canadian premieres of string quartets by American minimalist masters Terry Riley and Philip Glass and the well-known Chinese avant guard composer Tan Dun. The three movements of “The Cusp of Magic” by Riley proved to the most substantial work of the set, replete with ritual rattling, and a scene from the nursery complete with amusing toys and recorded baby sounds.

The second half of the concert showcased the final and grandest premiere of Kronos’ Toronto residency. The four-part A Chinese Home was conceived by Wu Man, David Harrington and opera director Chen Shi-Zheng. Verging on mini-opera in scope A Chinese Home is part string quartet arrangement of Chinese songs, part travelogue, part history and part social commentary. The entire work was accompanied by a well-conceived and executed video illustrating the themes in each part. The versatile Wu Man played expressive pipa throughout, with flashes of virtuosity when called for. She also sang a knock-dead version of an early 1940s Shanghai torch song in a smoky alto, dressed in a cheongsam (Part 2, “Shanghai”).

The opening section “Return” showcased nine arrangements of Chinese regional and Buddhist liturgical melodies deftly demonstrating that the pipa can coexist harmoniously with the string quartet.

“The East is Red” part 3, in contrast, featured a series of arrangements of music popular during the time of Chairman Mao’s rule, the musicians dressed in requisite Mao jackets. There was a moving moment at the end of Wang Xiren’s song “The Sun Is Reddest, Chairman Mao is Closest.” The song was composed to mourn the absence of the formerly omnipresent Mao, giving voice to the grief and bewilderment of millions, yet when Kronos musicians stood up air-bowing their imaginary instruments with the strains of the laudatory song continuing on the PA, an air of irony also descended.

The closing section “Made in China” was the most surreal and performance oriented of them all. The programme notes state, “At the moment, China’s most widely diffused cultural products are toys.” Leaving their string instruments and Mao jackets behind, the four Kronos musicians systematically disgorging the contents of four large suitcases: moving, flashing and buzzing electronic toys. They literally filled the stage with them.

All the while on stage right Wu Man played screeching power chords on a plugged-in purpose-built electric pipa suggesting the inescapable noise of construction and urban life.

The seen-it-all Toronto audience loved it. They called the artists back for three “curtain calls” (the Jane Mallet has no curtain).

As David Harrington put it, "I've always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be."

In a world of declining audiences for classical music and faltering orchestras, clearly he’s onto something - right.

For the better part of last week the Kronos Quartet were collectively resident artists at Toronto's Luminato Festival. They seemed to be gigging all over town - twice at the RCM’s Koerner Hall, at the Janet Mallet Theatre, at the festival stage in David Pecaut Square, and even at a branch of the Toronto Pubic Library and an elementary school.

The globetrotting San Francisco-based string quartet was working hard and living up to the high artistic bar it has set itself over its 37-year career. Your intrepid musical explorer attended four of their Luminato concerts. I listened closely, spoke to some of the performers, took notes and came away mighty impressed.

[Photos of its T.O. residency: http://www.luminato.com/2011/kronos]

Kronos’ raw stats certainly are impressive. Commissioning over 700 works, it has enriched the string quartet repertoire with works by leading composers such as Tan Dun, Arvo Pärt, George Crumb, Henryk Górecki, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley. It has released over 45 albums and performed all over the world.

The music industry and international arts organisations have been paying attention too. Recipient of a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance (2004) for Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, earlier this year Kronos was the recipient of both the prestigious Polar Music Prize (Sweden), and the Avery Fisher Prize (USA).

Perhaps Kronos’ most singular achievement has been its dedication to in-depth collaborations, both with the world's foremost composers as well as with musicians from outside the Western classical music mainstream. In its long and productive career Kronos has embraced the most orthodox of the avant guard, the classical and folk music of other cultures as well as jazz and popular music of many stripes.

A short list of the global musicians Kronos has worked with is instructive as it is mind-boggling. It includes the Bollywood playback singer Asha Bhosle; Ástor Piazzolla; Mexican rockers Café Tacuba; Azerbaijani mugam singer Alim Qasimov; the Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks; Afgani rubab master Homayun Sakhi; Björk; Canadian Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq; Modern Jazz Quartet, and the Chinese American pipa virtuoso Wu Man. I find it impossible to name another quartet with a more richly accomplished inter-cultural track record.

Where did the hunger for cultivating creative relationships with such a vast range of artists originate? Kronos founder David Harrington provided an insight June 11th on the Koerner Hall stage. He told us that as a teen he scoured a map of the world looking for the geographical sources of the string quartet music he was playing. To his surprise it all appeared to come from one city - Vienna - moreover it was composed long ago by men with Germanic names. Harrington began to wonder what music composed in other places and at other times sounded like.

This long-ago realisation still seems to have a resonance for Kronos, serving as a catalyst for its genre-bending creative projects.

Of course Kronos is not the only established “classical” ensemble to have performed with world music stars. All too often however such projects focus on the immediate rewards offered by the lowest common musical denominators and the composite results fall flat, the rewards offering meager musical pickings. Kronos on the other hand has managed to avoid the numerous pitfalls of fusion (which some purist wags have dubbed confusion) and to present collaborative musical results of a very high quality.

How do they do it? Each of the four Kronos concerts I attended was a veritable master class on the state of the art of this collaborative genre.  So let’s see what we can learn.

Kronos’ opening show at the Koerner Hall on June 10 set the pace with a series of works for string quartet followed by a collaborative work.  Their first set began with Aheym (2009) a motoric and monochromatic composition by rock group The National’s guitarist Bryce Dessner. Pleasing arrangements of Greek, Egyptian and Iraqi songs followed. The highlight of the set for me was the arrangement for viola solo of the alap (introductory movement) from raga Mishra Bhairavi, originally performed and recorded by the Indian sarangi master Ram Narayan. Stylistically speaking Kronos violist Hank Dutt’s elegant and elegiac solo wafted far from Narayan’s brilliant original Hindustani khyal-inflected performance. But when Dutt finally landed on the high tonic, a satisfying serenity descended on the hall.

In the second half of the concert, Alim Qasimov and his ensemble moved to the stage with Kronos. Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana are leading exponents of the Azerbaijani art music tradition, which includes sung poetry, known as mugam.

Their resulting work entitled “Rainbow” illustrated Kronos’ collaborative methodology. The quartet parts were scored by arranger Jacob Garchik referencing the harmonic and melodic language of Rimsky-Korsakov, Bartók and Glass, while Alim Qasimov arranged five works from the Azerbaijani repertoire. Kronos’ first violinist David Harrington mentioned to the audience that the concert was the result of 9 months of interactive work. It showed.

For me the outstanding aspect of this work was hearing the searing emotionally charged solo vocal flights of Alim and Fargana which brought not a few in the audience to tears.

 

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