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Favorites of 2018 - Live Music

These posts will never happen if I don’t make it fuss free. So here is it! With little introduction or fanfare, the ‘stuff’ that made up my year. My favorite albums, live shows, apps, and ‘things’ of 2018.

Next up, live music!

Live Shows

The Telluride Bluegrass Festival

Hard to write about this one in few words but I promised myself this would be fuss free. My wife all but dragged me to this festival, affirming all year long that it would be worth the journey. My camping chops are a long way from my Eagle Scout years. Anyway, the memories outlast any annoyance I felt camping at a music festival.

Some of the highlights include:

  • Seeing Live From Here with Chris Thile recorded...well, live

  • Bela Fleck featuring Brooklyn Rider String Quartet (think Bartok meets late 20th century strings for string quarter and banjo)

  • Edgar Meyer and Christian McBride bass duet set

  • St. Paul and the Broken Bones

  • Sturgil Simpson (always killer)

  • Edgar Meyer and his son, George Meyer on the small stage

  • Hawktail on the small stage

  • I'm With Her, Nightgrass set (You can enter a lottery to get tickets to see certain artists perform at the local opera house in town. I'm With Her sounds stunning around a single mic.)

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Punch Brothers at The Telluride Bluegrass Festival

We saw them four times this year if you include three times at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. One of the most memorable of these performances was on the main stage where they debuted their new album, All Ashore, in its entirety. It is a beautiful record and my family will share really special memories of hearing it live with the crisp mountain breeze washing over us.

But perhaps one of the most memorable shows I have ever seen was later that night when Punch Brothers performed a Nightgrass set in town. The band member’s musicianship was on full display. And due to this intimate audience, (and a long weekend of performing tightly organized sets), they let loose a little. They were kicking back Manhattans, lengthening solo sections, and engaging in banter. Things that made their earlier performances memorable for me but that have since become less a part of their live show due to a lengthier song repertoire and wider audience to please.

Let me give you an example. During the solo section of a bluegrass standard, each member completely deconstructed the I-V progression. During the banjo player Noam Pikelne’s solo, he hinted at motif from a song on the new record (in an entirely different key and time signature), and Chris made a gesture to the band. Then somehow they morphed this small suggestion into the entire introduction of the other song, while the bass still wavered between I-V, ultimately transforming completely into a performance of of the entire song, back into a I-V progression, and into more solo’s. Chris Thile’s solo (equally ridiculous) somehow managed to transform into one of the Bach Violin Sonotas, which he performed in its entirety, followed by the band transforming that back into the head of the bluegrass tune they had originally started off with.

As an encore, Chris came out into the center of the audience with Sarah Jarosz, and they sang a few old folk songs together. Chris’s parents were in the balcony, seeing him perform at the festival for the first time together since he was a kid. At one point Chris called out to his father to sing one of the verses with him in harmony. I’m not crying, you’re crying. This was an easy top five-er for me, and a reminder of all the reasons I love Punch Brothers.

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The Bad Plus at The Hamilton

I am cheating by including this show. It happened right around the new year, but technically in 2017. The Bad Plus is another artist that has been with me for a while. I learned about them in a formative time of musical discovery, and while their sound has not really evolved in recent records, it was nice to see them on their last tour with Ethan Iverson playing piano. The show was bittersweet. On the one hand, they played a lot of old favorites I had not heard in a while. On the other hand, they seemed kind of done with one another.

Gabriel Kahane at Jammin’ Java

See my tidbit on Gabriel Kahane’s record, ‘Book of Travelers,’ from my recent Favorite Albums of 2018 post. He played most of the album at this show. The venue, Jammin’ Java, was small and quiet. The upright piano was inconsistent and out of tune. I thought the beauty of Kahane’s songs might be disrupted, but this quirky and intimate situation made a perfect frame for the message of Kahane’s songs.

The Centennial High School Wind Ensemble - The Peabody Institute, Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall

The Centennial High School Wind Ensemble was invited to perform at The Midwest Clinic this year. This is a point of pride for my teaching community because it takes place in the Howard County Public School System, the district in which I teach. More directly, my school, Ellicott Mills Middle School, is a direct feeder of students into Centennial. Having had the opportunity to work with a small few past EMMS students, and by having a private student of mine in the group, I take serious pride in the accomplishments of Centennial High School’s band program and their director, David Matchim. It was unreal to hear a high school ensemble play an hour of music at the level they did, and in December of the school year! Check out their wind octet below...

Ethan Hein - Teaching Myself the Bach Chaconne with Ableton Live

Ethan Hein - Teaching Myself the Bach Chaconne with Ableton Live:

Gorgeous though the chaconne is, my enjoyment has been hampered by my inability to figure out the rhythm. All classical performers insist on doing extremely expressive (that is, loose) timekeeping. I don’t have the sarabande rhythm internalized well enough to be able to track it through everybody’s gooey rubato. Bach’s rhythms are complicated enough to begin with. He loves to start and end phrases in weird spots in the bar–the very first note of the piece is on beat two. So I needed some help finding the beat. A chaconne is supposed to be a dance, right? Bach wrote those note values the way he wrote them for a reason. Did he really want performers to assign any length they felt like assigning them? My gut tells me that he didn’t. I suspect that he probably played his own music in tempo, maybe with some phrasing and ornamentation but still with a clearly recognizable beat. I imagine him gritting his teeth at the rubato that modern performers use. Maybe that’s just me projecting my own preferences, but this sense comes from listening to a lot of Bach and performing some too.

So, I wanted to hear someone play the chaconne in tempo, just to hear how it works. And since no one seems to play it that way, I finally went and got the MIDI from Dave’s JS Bach MIDI page and put it into Ableton Live. I added a bunch of triple meter Afro-Cuban drum patterns to help me feel the beat, and had them enter and exit wherever I heard a natural section boundary in the music.

My personal favorite way to enjoy this piece is by performing it on vibraphone, but this is cool too. :)

Glenn Gould’s Every Detail. But Why? - The New York Times

Glenn Gould’s Every Detail. But Why? - The New York Times:

The first Beethoven sonata I learned as a young pianist was the dramatic “Pathétique.” When I started working on it, I tried to copy the way the great Rudolf Serkin played it on a recording I loved. There is a place for learning by emulating masters, but it can easily become inhibiting. Fairly early on, aspiring musicians must develop their own voices.

So when a score that meticulously transcribes every detail of Glenn Gould’s famed 1981 recording of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations was published recently, while I was impressed with the painstaking effort involved, I questioned what it was for.

What’s its purpose? For whom is it intended? From what we know of Gould, he would have been baffled, even horrified, at the idea that a student learning the “Goldberg” Variations would precisely mimic his performance. He was too restless a thinker to consider any recording of his at all definitive. And imitating a pianist as idiosyncratic as Gould may not be a good idea for impressionable young musicians.