Monday, June 3, 2013

You want variety? It's festival musical whiplash

From Vivaldi to Rosanne Cash

Posted by Jeffrey Day on Mon, Jun 3, 2013 at 9:35 AM

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For some people Sunday is a day of rest. For me it was another musical whiplash day.

It started with Vivaldi’s beautiful and familiar Spring from the Four Seasons written in 1723, then moved on to a world premiere of a quartet finished just a couple of weeks ago. Next, we headed to Eastern Europe for Yiddish and Hassidic songs, then a whole concert of music written in the past decade including a piece created by holding a stethoscope microphone to a MacBook, and we ended with well-known country and folk songs and originals by Rosanne Cash.

With that much music and that much range, there was much to like and not like. The Vivaldi was part of an expansive chamber music concert that spanned many centuries and configurations from that Spring, always good to hear when performed so well. There was also an Arnold Bax sonata for the misunderstood and underrated viola, the premiere of an adventuresome quartet by young composer Sam Adams (see earlier posting for more details), and a truly “grand duo” with clarinet player Todd Palmer and pianist Pavel Kolesnikov by Carl Maria Von Weber. In this case, there was nothing to not like except the concert ran too long (as least for those of us who had places to be and things to write.)

The Strauss/Warschauer Duo, a husband and wife singing, playing guitar and violin, were in town as part of Piccolo’s World of Jewish Culture. Performing at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, founded in 1749 and the fourth oldest Jewish congregation in the country, the duo presented a causal concert with stories, a bit of history, and singalongs. The group never really built up much steam and audience participation was minimal, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Composer and performer Nathan Davis was what the second Music in Time Concert was all about. Working with about 20 members of the festival orchestra, he presented five works from the past decade showing his enormous range including the aforementioned rather random amplification of a computer’s churning innards, a solo bassoon (with processing and looping) that really explored what can go on with that old wooden tube, and a piece that used violin, cello, and unusual percussion to capture and redefine weather patterns.

The opener Bells had been in the air for a few days because it required that audience members keep their cells phones on and make a call during the performance. The phone sounds pretty much got lost amid the percussion. Maybe there was bad reception in the Recital Hall. For a piece that involves the use of technology, it was ironic that audience members were told how to take part by way of paper printed with ink they were handed at the door. I just discovered that Davis is co-composer of the mono-opera The Other Mozart about Wolfgang’s talented and forgotten sister being performed at Threshold Rep June 5, 7 and 9 by New York’s Little Matchstick Factory. (None of the Spoleto or Piccolo press materials have even mentioned his involvement.)

I missed Rosanne Cash when she came to the festival 20 years ago, and even though I’ve been listening to her music for longer than that, I’ve never seen her. She’s been at this for nearly 40 years and her voice is still strong and pure. She had several pop country hits, got edgy, then introspective, and for the past decade has been exploring country and folk roots music. She pulled heavily from the latter with many selections from The List, a 2009 recording of songs that were on a list of 100 great country songs given to her by her father Johnny Cash.

Along with writing insightful tunes, Cash has been a creative interpreter of others’ work. She showed how good on a dark version of "Sea of Heartbreak," but with "Long Black Veil" and "Motherless Child," she and the band presented them as middle-of-the-road rock tunes. “Is it wrong to have so much fun with such a sad song?” she asked after "Motherless Child." Yes, actually it is. Other covers the band performed served as slightly paler note-for-note versions of the originals. And someone tell the band the song title is "Tennessee Flat Top," not "Tennessee Fender Stratocaster."

Cash pulled out her first hit, the self-penned “Seven Year Ache” which I think is one of the best pop songs of the 1980s, and they got that one right. But there wasn’t a single song from her incredible early 1990s and arguable best recordings, The Wheel and Interiors. There was barely a hint of imagination or creativity until she unveiled two unreleased songs, "Etta’s Tune" and "Modern Blue," which showed Cash's great talent as a songwriter, singer, and band leader. Never heard them before; best things of the night. (For those keeping the Spoleto death theme watch, there was one hanging and one suicide in Cash’s concert.)

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