Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Best of 2009: Music

Less organized, but here are some of the better new albums, new songs, and rediscoveries.

Grizzly Bear: album, Veckatimest; song, Two Weeks
Marvelous blend of warmth and cold across their songs, vocal harmonies are lush but the backgrounds can be marvelously spare. Two Weeks has enough of a pop edge to keep it immediately catchy but its subtle in how it unfolds.

Avett Brothers: album, I and Love and You; song Heart Like a Kickdrum
Pure adrenaline in that song, but there's a wonderful immediacy to the music, being half bluegrass folk roots and simplicity, half screaming punky energy. Their album is full of its share of perfect, heartbreaking tender moments too.

Animal Collective: song, My Girls.
Catchy in a way that seems so weird to work, but it does.

Bon Iver: album, Blood Bank.
4 songs, rich and focused. I need to listen more to get under them, but it's been rewarding so far.

Various artists: song, Mashup from Glee: It's My Life/Confessions.
Pure power pop hooks, immaculately assembled.

Various Artists: album, Dark Was the Night
It doesn't quite hang together as an album for me, but the parts themselves are some of the best offerings from a variety of sources- Grizzly Bear, The Books covering Nick Drake, Beirut, Sufjan Stevens, a marvelous small gem of a song from Iron and Wine, and a long but meticulous song from the Decemberists. And more.

And the best song of the year, Phoenix: album, Woldgang Amadeus Phoenix; song, 1901.
The video for this song is hypnotic, a light show, and what's more it is fit so musically with the song itself. The song grows out of a sparse, electronic texture into a fairly masterful dance hit. Vocals, guitar riffs add in. Then around a minute in, it bursts into a high-octane version, sunnier in its orchestration and with adrenaline-filled sense of slow build. Then at 1:15 or so, it manages to build even higher with a siren, until the chorus erupts: a few fleeting moments of full gratification. But here's the kicker- that moment is backed by that initial soundscape, setting up a second cycle perfectly, never dropping you for a second.

And since rediscoveries are so great, here are five recommendations of CDs that languished too long until this year:

Gil Shaham, Barber and Korngold violin concertos
Neeme Jarvi, Nielsen Symphonies
Europa Galanta, Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione
Dawn Upshaw, I Wish It So
Radiohead, The Bends

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Best of 2009: Performances

Time for a late catch-up of favorites, in several parts. No time like the sick-on-the-couch present.

Best live performances of 2009.

10. Next to Normal. A tuneful rock musical, anchored by marvelous performances and a gut-wrenching story.

9. International Contemporary Ensemble's production of John Adams. Vibrant reminder of just how good Adams's music is and how many ways it's good, from the shimmering textures of Shaker Loops to the quirky humor and sweet nostalgia of his Gnarly Buttons, played with precision.

8. Finian's Rainbow. Marvelous score, one of the best, in a no-frills, consummate performance.

7. Andras Schiff, The last Beethoven sonatas. One of the more compelling renditions of Beethoven, unmatched in the intensity of the quietest moments. The silence that hung in the audience after the last sonata's gentle conclusion was perfect.

6. West Side Story, Broadway. This revival not only gives a powerful reminder of just how good that score is, but also manages to nail the awkward pain of young love perfectly.

5. Grizzly Bear. Thrilling new indie band in a low-key, high-quality, intimate stage performance. Being something of an ignorant fan, it was like confirmation of their promise, even if the format of a classical-style concert was odd.

4. Stile Antico. One of the most stunningly clear, intimate vocal ensembles, in a marvelous program of simple Tallis and extravagant Byrd.

3. St. Louis Symphony. A marvelous program (luminous Wagner, Adams's dark, compelling Guide to Strange Places, Zimmerman's hypnotically spare Canto di Speranza, soaring rendition of Sibelius 5), conducted with vitality by Robertson.

2. Newport Music Festival. Marvelous performances, from the intimate music of The Low Anthem and Iron and Wine to the sheer joy and tunefulness of The Decemberists to the unmissable singalong with Pete Seeger. Next time, bring sunblock.

1. Our Town, Off-Broadway. Rarely is theater this compelling, this emotional. David Cromer's minimalist reworking of Wilder's classic feels fresh, its nostalgic aspects retain all their power, particularly in the stage manager's simple, direct delivery makes it feel honest rather than applied, but the intimacy of the characters is so engrossing and human. Marvelous.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pierre, Part II & Conversations

Pierre Boulez gave a brilliant concert a couple weeks ago. The Ravel Tombeau de Couperin was marvelously clear, graceful, and warm. The Dalbavie flute concerto, an example of "spectralism," followed. This piece is generative, the flute will elaborate from little cells from the orchestra, and the melodic lines sort of ripple back and forth. This makes a fascinating pairing- two texturally active, technically precise works, but one sharp and cool, the other atmospheric and warm. The second half was the Bartok opera Bluebeard's Castle, the sort of work that makes you wish Bartok wrote for films (other than Kubrick). Musically, the work is an astonishing array of orchestral colors, coupled with knockout vocal performances, Dramatically, though, I personally feel that Judith had little business complaining that the first room, which revealed a torture chamber, was "horrible" with its blood. I mean, it's a torture chamber. They're not supposed to be spotless or bright. And, by the way, just wait until you see the kitchen. This guy's been a bachelor for quite some time.

The next day, he gave a charming conversation with Glenn Watkins. There was a lot of little musicological stuff, some poetically evasive answers about the future of music ("music is a series of accidents that become important"), some wry personal comments (his disgust at the thought of retiring was a high point), and best of all just wonderfully evocative comments about other composers- Stravinsky's instrumentation, Bartok's inventiveness with form, and his programming choices ("Why not?" was all he said about the Schumann Rhenish symphony).

Then various things happened in the mean time. They're probably not that exciting to you all, but they sure took up my week.

This past weekend, we held our graduate student conference. The papers came from a variety of places, and it was again nice to see a broad variety of quality work from several disciplines.

Ramon Satyendra led a wonderfully provocative workshop discussion about how we evaluate different types of musical/analytical arguments. What do you do with important things that don't fit your model? How helpful is being invested in your model? How do the historical contexts of the theories themselves shape our understandings? I still have real big problems with the Lehrdall scientific mathematical modeling approach (the idea that so much of the work is just shelved to focus on melodic and harmonic pull is ridiculous), but that's part of the fun. David Lewin's work on Schubert's Ihr Bild, on the other hand, is a marvel of insight.

Kofi Agawu gave one of the most direct, clear, and thoughtful keynote addresses I've seen. He talked about how tonality served as a colonizing force in Africa, how it accompanied certain acts of oppression, and how Africans have in various ways sought to reinvent, subvert, or move beyond its colonial work.

Cupcakes. Oh my god, they were so good.

Finally, one of the greatest compliments was given to us this year. One of the participants noted how the Michigan campus was one of the friendliest and most collegial environments. That's a large part of why I chose this program, something I love about SAM too, and nice to see that it extends to our colleagues. So, next year apply and come! I promise you these cupcakes are worth it.