LIVE CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: Feb. 27-March 2

by Maggie Molloy

This week’s colorful music calendar has birds, hors d’oeuvres, and science fiction flicks!

Coo, Chirp, Flap, Flutter: Birds in Song

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Sometimes the most beautiful music is found in nature—the gentle pitter-patter of the rain, the soothing sway of the sea, the birds chirping in the trees. We could learn a thing or two from the birds. That’s why this weekend, soprano Sarah Davis and friends are performing an evening of art song and chamber music inspired by nature’s most charming song makers: the birds.

Of course, no two birds are the same, and so the concert features a wide spectrum of musical styles ranging from the blended brushstrokes of Debussy’s Impressionism to the romantic musings of Mahler and the inimitable, avant-garde musical experiments of John Cage. Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Aaron Copland, and Jake Heggie are also on the program, naturally.

The performance is this Friday, Feb. 27 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.

Seattle Modern Orchestra Benefit Concert

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The earliest orchestras date all the way back to the 16th century—which is precisely why Seattle Modern Orchestra is committed to keeping orchestral music exciting and relevant by catering to contemporary audiences. The group is committed to presenting innovative new music from the 20th and 21st centuries in both traditional concert settings and in nontraditional venues.

This weekend, you can support Seattle Modern Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season by attending a special benefit concert filled with delightful new music, delicious wine and hors d’oeuvres, and a silent auction full of exciting prizes. The program features surround-sound performances of solo and chamber music by Robert Platz, Marcin Pączkowski, Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter and more!

The performance is this Saturday, Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.

Degenerate Art Ensemble Performing “Metropolis”

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The Oscars may be over, but that doesn’t mean the magical movie music has to end. This upcoming Monday you can watch Degenerate Art Ensemble perform their original orchestral score for “Metropolis,” a 1927 expressionist science-fiction silent film directed by Fritz Lang.

The two and a half hour classic is highly regarded as the first feature-length film of the science-fiction genre, influencing the likes of George Lucas and Ridley Scott. Degenerate Art Ensemble first premiered their score for the film in 1997 to an audience of 10,000 people in Seattle’s Gasworks Park Outdoor Cinema. Now, they are bringing the score back to life and adding an additional 40 minutes to the influential work.

The movie screening with live orchestra is this Monday, March 2 at the Paramount Theatre. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the show begins at 7 p.m.

NEW VIDEOS: Ashley Bathgate from Bang on a Can All-Stars

What a treat!  Ashley Bathgate from the Bang on a Can All-Stars stopped by our studios before the epic Bang on a Can Marathon at The Moore.

Michael Gordon’s “Light is Calling” was originally written for violinist Todd Reynolds. It juxtaposes an acoustic sound against an electronic track with pulses that are actually being warped backwards. This piece is a response to what happened on September 11, 2001.

Of Jacob Cooper’s “Arches,” Ashley says this is almost like a modern-day prelude to a Bach suite. It’s very pure and simple in its form – a lot of arpeggios and oscillations between the strings. It could be played as an acoustic work, but Jacob designed a max patch that Ashley’s sound goes through, so it’s actually going through an interface into her computer. There’s a gradient delay effect that happens and the piece itself is many small arches within one large arch.  It’s a beautiful work and one of her favorite pieces to play.

ALBUM REVIEW: Yolanda Kondonassis and Jason Vieaux’s “Together”

by Maggie Molloy

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Photo Credit: Laura Watilo Blake

The harp may be among the oldest musical instruments—dating back to at least as early as 3500 BCE in Ancient Mesopotamia—but that doesn’t mean an old instrument can’t learn new tricks.

Renowned classical harpist Yolanda Kondonassis recently joined forces with Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist Jason Vieaux to record an album of new music which pushes beyond the limits of simply classical. The album, titled “Together,” explores the vivid colors and rich textures of contemporary repertoire for harp and guitar by showcasing works by five composers from diverse musical backgrounds.

(Purchase on Amazon or iTunes)

The result is a vibrant program of music which travels seamlessly from lush melodies to simple folk dances to Argentine tango and even the modal tonalities of traditional Asian music. Some of the pieces even use unique harp effects such as pedal glisses, whistles, harmonics, “washboard” strumming, and percussive knocking on the soundboard.

“Contemporary effects are becoming far more common in today’s harp writing as composers try, I think, to search for new ways of expressing the harp idiom,” Kondonassis said. “In my opinion, the best harp writing occurs when the effects enhance the musical ideas and seem natural. It’s also up to me to make the effects sound seamless in the context of the music.”

The duo’s distinctive instrumentation allows their sound to blend and contrast, creating a wide variety of musical textures and timbres.

“I think a well-written piece by a composer who understands the two instruments will create great blend, contrast, dialogue, color—everything that makes chamber music work,” Vieaux said. “It’s really there in the compositions—we just have to bring it out.”

The pieces also provided a unique opportunity for each musician to explore new colors within their own instrument. Kondonassis even got the chance to add some pizzazz to an otherwise angelic pizzicato instrument.

“As a harpist, I’ve always been obsessed with trying to make my sound as warm as possible. It’s so refreshing for me to play off Jason’s warmth sometimes and be the spice, the acidic texture in the mix for a change,” Kondonassis said. “Sound-wise, I really opened up on this recording in ways I’m not sure I have before.”

The album begins with a performance of Argentine composer Máximo Diego Pujol’s four-movement “Suite Mágica,” a charming and romantic piece which takes much of its style, rhythms, and musical forms from the Argentine dance tradition. A guitarist himself, Pujol’s piece fuses elements of the classical idiom with vibrant Latin influences, transitioning flawlessly from gentle, lyrical melodic lines to vivacious rhythmic patterns.

The piece is followed by a beautifully contrasting work: Spanish composer Xavier Montsalvatge’s “Fantasia.” Amazingly diverse in its rhythmic and melodic content, the piece creates a dynamic and strikingly poetic conversation between the two instruments. The three contrasting movements illustrate an eclectic exploration of whimsicality and drama, occasionally even venturing outside of traditional tonal harmony to keep the listener hanging on every note.

The duo switches gears for Alan Hovhaness’ Sonata for Harp and Guitar (“Spirit of Trees”), an ethereal five-movement work which explores themes of nature, mysticism, and meditation. The piece’s frequent use of modal tonalities reflects the composer’s interest in traditional Asian music and philosophy, an influence which gives his music a tranquil, calming quality.

The album also includes two world premiere recordings of works commissioned by Kondonassis and Vieaux: Gary Schocker’s “Hypnotized” and Keith Fitch’s “Knock on Wood.” Schocker, a harpist himself, was inspired by the diverse musical textures made possible by pairing a string instrument capable of using vibrato with one that is not. His five-movement suite explores the vast possibilities of this unique instrumentation, ranging from lively, enchanting motifs to long, lush, and lyrical melodies.

Fitch’s “Knock on Wood” is probably the least traditional composition on the album. As the title suggests, the piece incorporates a wide range of percussive and rhythmic effects, making it a fascinating and fully captivating exploration of the sonic diversity of guitar and harp.

The composition is the perfect ending to a truly innovative album, offering a dazzling glimpse into the vast musical possibilities of this instrumental combination as Kondonassis and Vieaux continue their collaboration.

NEW VIDEOS: Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley at the Tractor Tavern

In case you missed these on Facebook and Twitter, be sure to check out these videos with Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley from the iconic Tractor Tavern in the heart of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.

(Yes, that is a styrofoam cup in Matt’s cello)

(Beethoven in a Bar… why not?!)

ALBUM REVIEW: The Knights: the ground beneath our feet

by Jill Kimball

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For centuries, the concerto grosso form has served to play up the strengths of a chamber group by highlighting its best virtuosi and calling for a conversation between soloists and orchestra. The Knights, a Brooklyn-based collaborative ensemble, believe that composition form still has room to grow.

They’ve dedicated their latest album, the ground beneath our feet, to the concerto grosso. The album features both classic and new examples of the form, from Bach to Stravinsky to some of the group’s very own composers. The result is a collection of music that’s grounded in a common cause but weightless in execution.

Steve Reich’s Duet for Two Violins and Strings is a lovely way to start off any album. Accessible and dreamy, it’s pleasing to the ear of everyone from classical aficionados to newcomers. Though it’s puzzling to me that an album called the ground beneath our feet would begin with something so gravity-defying, this interpretation soared effortlessly and beautifully enough to make me forget my confusion.

“Effortless” is also the primary word I’d use to describe the performance of Bach’s Concerto for Violin & Oboe. Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge the quality of musicianship in a new-music ensemble whose oeuvre consists mostly of world premieres. But when the Knights pull off a live recording whose quality rivals classic recordings with Hilary Hahn and Yehudi Menuhin, they really prove their mettle. The strings sound a bit less dark, rich and precise than in a classic recording, but that may have more to do with the concert’s setting than with the musicians themselves.

Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto is like a mashup of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and The Rite of Spring, a really fascinating listen. Stravinsky once said of the piece, “Whether or not the first theme of my first movement is a conscious borrowing from the…Brandenburg set, I do not know. What I can say is that Bach most certainly would have been delighted to loan it to me; to borrow in this way was exactly the sort of thing he liked to do.” It’s true: to borrow an idea from a predecessor and turn it into something that’s unmistakably yours is so like both Bach and Stravinsky. The Knights’ rendition is a little slower than usual–all the better to revel in the complex but very listenable themes interwoven throughout the piece.

If you love recordings from the Silk Road Ensemble, headed by the world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, you’ll probably love the next piece: a joint effort between two composers who met while they played in Silk Road together. One of them, Siamak Aghaei,  spent a lot of time in his native Iran gathering field recordings of folk musicians, and played them back to an excited Colin Jacobsen. Over the years, those field recordings have inspired three co-compositions; this latest effort features violin and santur, a kind of hammered dulcimer dating back to ancient Babylonia.

The title track is a very different sort of concerto, one whose composition was a group effort that drew on The Knights’ individual strengths and musical interests. The whole thing is tied together with a bass line taken from Tarquino Merula’s Ciaccona, and with that common thread is able to morph organically from Baroque symphonic music to creatively syncopated Irish folk music, from melodies influenced by Romani and Indian culture to improvisational drumming and jazzy, Spanish-inspired dance music, complete with claves. It all works for me until the very end, when there’s a silence before Christina Courtin sings “Fade Away,” her own original song. The bass line connection is seemingly lost, and the cartoonish fanfare backing Courtin was odd paired with her lyrics (“I’m not saying I’m afraid of dying, baby / I count my blessings with you every day / But you know I can’t go on this way”). Despite the fact that “Fade Away” would be more at home on a Sufjan Stevens album, I liked its sound.

I reached the end of the CD puzzling, once again, over the title of the disc. What, in this instance, is “the ground beneath our feet?” Common thought is that Bach laid the ground on which all musicians stand today. But the fact is, many contemporary composers choose to leave the ground and explore new frontiers in space.

Take a look at the album art and you’ll see a portrait of Stravinsky cut open and peeled back to reveal a dark, starry abyss. I’ll take this as a sign that The Knights acknowledge the great forces of the past but will sometimes refuse the pull of their gravity.

If the ground beneath our feet has indeed disappeared in parts of this album, that’s okay: outer space sure sounds pretty good to me.