Sunday, January 24, 2016

John Svoboda Takes Off His Bow Tie

John Svoboda was the very first person I interviewed when I created this blog 2 years ago. He's been a friend for a long time and I love talking to him about music. Not only is he a great guitarist, musician, teacher and arranger....he's just a great guy to hang out with. His latest project is a bold and groundbreaking fusion of classical music and bluegrass. John sent me a couple of tracks early on for me to sample, and I loved them. He is really on to something great here. Here's what he shared with me about the "No Bow Tie" project.

I have followed your career as a classical guitarist and you suddenly throw out this “No Bow Tie” title on your latest album.
What is the intent with a “No Bow Tie” concept? 

I have a desire to kinda mess with either the classical music or the classical instruments to cop an attitude of what I call “Cool”. Breaking rules has always been a motivation that turns out my best ideas; or at least the ideas that make me laugh out loud. The title and the concept align on this one. (Smiles) I plan on taking the bow tie out of some classical music to give it an angle it deserves.

You have shown some extreme enthusiasm about the concept NBT as well as the recordings. The expression on your face changes when you talk about it.

It should change. I’m so excited about this idea! I laugh during practice and can hardly walk and think about the arrangements at the same time! To hear the genius of Mozart come together with a groove of say, Bill Withers, is exhilarating.   

Then do you consider yourself a classical musician?

No. Yes. Well, no, but I have lived that life. I think of it this way. I love to play arrangements of creatively decided, thick music in solo form. Doing it on a guitar is satisfying for me. The classical repertoire has a well-spring of beautiful examples of music that deserves respect. So, classical musician? No. Classical player- Yes.
It’s just great art, that’s all.

What is the purpose, or drive, to put classical pieces with a bluegrass setting?

Bluegrass is fun, man! The licks are incredible. The thinking that creates those sounds is like the lifestyle that invented it; Simple but expressive. I pay attention to anything that makes my soul tickle. Bluegrass makes me laugh outside and cry inside. It’s SO honest.

Did you know the musicians you chose before setting out to collect the pieces?

No. Actually I knew Sky Smeed but hadn’t discussed his involvement in the project until it was in motion. It was truly a blessing to have him on the project.

How did you choose the musicians that would complete help complete your vision? 

I was going to go to Nashville with this; hire the best studio cats I could find and do this in a weekend. And in Nashville that IS possible; amazing talent in that town.
But Sky, who is a friend, told me about Mike and Katie West. They had just finished his recording “Drive All Night” with very impressive results.
On April 4th 2015 I needed to get out of the practice studio and at least interact with the outside world. My wife Myra and I went to hear Sky’s CD release performance which included Mike and Katie as the band; Mike on banjo and mandolin; Katie on bass (they go by Truckstop Honeymoon as a touring career).
I just thought it wise to introduce myself, talk about the project, and see what the response would be. Mike and I immediately cut through the small talk and I was so impressed with his ability to stay focused just in conversation. Sparks didn’t fly but we agreed to meet and discuss it further.
Well, we met and I’ll tell you what, that dude had more creative energy toward my ideas than I did! Sparks flew!
Mike shot the idea to Katie and she seemed intrigued and thank God. She offered a foundation that is hard to find.
It wasn’t much longer before Sky offered his fine skills. He has this amazingly smooth style. When we got together it all just went forward. Before I knew it we were scheduling rehearsals.

So, no auditions?

We did one rehearsal to answer two questions: 1) Can we work well together and be creative, and 2) Do you want to do this?
Pretty simple. The positive response on both questions took off like a wild fire.

What was the chemistry of the group having come from such diverse experiences? 

That could’ve been disastrous; the differences that is. But it was the opposite. Sky, Mike, and Katie are such professionals; they are truly the higher level where an all out effort is all that matters. We all had one thing in mind- great music. Differences in experience didn’t get in the way; differences made it grow.

So, this didn’t just fall together after handing out charts and running through the tunes?

I did write out charts just because of the complicated chord changes and to allow us to work in sections. Everything else was artistic contribution. We all had views to share and to learn from. All comments were respected; every one of them. Creative energy was very high.

Is this a statement to rebel against classical music?

No, no, no. Not at all. It’s not about, “Classical is missing the point”, or especially, “Classical is boring”. No, if it were then I’d just drive around with a “classical music sucks” bumper sticker. It is a statement to remind us that these composers did not write music to become textbook examples. They wrote from the heart. They were not wearing bow ties when they wrote it! These pieces were once for dancing and expressing. No different than rock music today; a bit richer in content than a simple rock tune but just as hot with passion.

Why did you center on classical music?

Well, that might be the rebel in me. I kind of enjoy it when I know someone is thinking, “Hey, you aren’t supposed to do that.” Especially when it’s creative and a new way to do it; Mainly in combining things. For example, I used to play classical pieces on electric guitar in my concerts and then use Rubber Ducky as the encore- in a classical concert setting!
People loved it, I think because there is a small risk but also a good energy.

Why did you decide bluegrass was the best style?

The idea tickled my soul. (Smiles) That’s all.
When I work I like to take away the labels. I didn’t care if it were bluegrass- it just was. The fast picking made many of the pieces fun and well, bluegrass has some fast picking- or “pickin’ “ if you will.

How did you choose the pieces? With so much to choose from what is involved in reducing the last 350 years of music to one album?

Whoa. Good question there. I guess hunch combined with a “seek and find” attitude. The pieces had to offer a groove; had to excite all involved; and had to be something I would want to play 40 times a day.
It’s fun and frustrating. But nothing feels so good as to know a piece is perfect for my reconstruction efforts.

Are you presently seeking repertoire for the next album to say “reconstruct”?

Always. Day and night. I can’t hear a commercial jingle without thinking I should do some kind of arrangement that makes it more attractive. 

You have six albums. Did one lead to the other resulting in this No Bow Tie statement? Is this a new view of you?

An awareness of what makes me happy increased with each album. The Classic Rock album helped me to understand my love for arrangements. So, it is a continued view of me. I can feel my truth coming forward. I urge everyone to do the same. 

Is this new then? Is any one else doing it?

It’s not new to play classical on non-classical instruments. But it is new to do it this way; to change it rather than just play it. Mike’s idea of adding junk percussion to Manuel de Falla compositions is new.
Changing the Mozart variations to a bluegrass arrangement is new- and fun!

How’s the response been? I mean from those who know you as classical?

That has been the icing on the cake. Finishing the project was accomplishment enough! Then for listeners of every kind tell me that they love it and that it makes them feel good? A dream come true.

Is there a “best moment” story you can share from the rehearsals?
The recording sessions?

Tim, everyday offered nothing but good experiences and great stories to tell. The memory that sticks with me is the heightened love of music that was a constant through the whole process. I left every rehearsal renewed. We smiled together and worked ‘til we sweat. There are no words to describe the dedication and love that was had. To answer your question “it” was the best moment.

Here is a link to John's website so you can sample and purchase this amazing music.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Kansas City Symphony Review 1.16.16

Kansas City Symphony
Kansas City, MO
Helzberg Hall
January 16, 2016

Bernstein            Fancy Free
Tchaikovsky       Violin Concerto in D Major
                            Midori, Violinist
Stravinsky           Petrouchka (1947 revision)                   

I've always said, any time you go to a concert that includes a grand piano, a snare drum played with brushes, and a wood block, you are in for a good time. The Kansas City Symphony had these, and more, in their concert at Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts Saturday night. Fresh off watching the KC Chiefs lose to New England in the NFL Playoffs, and seeing no cars ahead of us as we arrived at the valet drop-off in front of the KCPA when we arrived, (trust me, it's worth the extra money) I wondered if attendance would be low for this many people have been on the Chiefs bandwagon as they won 11 games in a row and seemed destined to make the Super Bowl. The Patriots squashed that, and even I was feeling a bit bummed as we pulled up. A cold class of Chardonnay and people watching before the concert started helped bring me back to a happier place. By the time we were seated, the Hall looked much fuller than I expected. The people of KC were determined to get their classical music nourishment on this evening.
Frank Byrne, the Symphony's Executive Director, was his usual dapper self as he greeted the audience...I expected he would offer some sort of condolences for Chiefs fans...but he did not. Instead he thanked the audience for their support and reminded us not to take pictures or record the performance and to silence our devices...which I did. I did take a picture before the performance, which I assume is allowed.
After Concertmaster Noah Geller led the tuning, Maestro Stern came to the podium and we were off!
The house lights dimmed...and dimmed...and the stage lights got very dark, more like a jazz lounge or blues bar. I wondered if the lighting guy had made a mistake??? And then the unmistakable voice of Billie Holiday filled the Hall. Was this the KC Symphony's way of easing the pain of a Chiefs' loss?...using her soulful medicine to comfort us? turns out it was part of the score for Leonard Bernstein's ballet, Fancy Free. (I had no idea it began like this....another great example of how much I still have to learn about classical music.) The song is Big Stuff, words and music both by Bernstein. Interesting factoid; LB wrote the song with Billie Holiday in mind to record it, but at the time of Fancy Free's premiere on April 18, 1944, his sister, Shirley Bernstein, was the singer who first recorded it. Bernstein was still fairly unknown at this time, and according to Carol J Oja, he "lacked the cultural and fiscal capital to hire anyone as famous as Holiday." Luckily for LB, this quickly changed and 7 months later, on November 8, 1944, Billie recorded it with the Toots Camarata Orchestra. (what a great name!).
So we have 20 bars of Billie singing and then BAM, Stern moves the baton, the stage lights brighten, and the KC Symphony springs to life, and we are transported to 1940's NYC...bustling with energy and life. If you have seen the movie On the Town, you know exactly how this looks and feels. Bernstein as a composer has fun....rhythm, syncopation, percussion, wood blocks, brushes, rapid interplay between orchestral voices, constant tempo variations, romance, soul, homages to the past, excitement about this moment, and anticipation about what lay ahead....these are all words/things/ideas that I think about while listening to his music. Do you hear some Copland...or Gershwin in his music? Me thinks well as Ellington, Basie, Stravinsky, Joplin, and yes...even Mahler...but that's just me.
Maestro Stern certainly seemed to be having fun. He danced, swayed, and shuffled like Gene Kelly. Very impressive. I know this is not an easy piece to play, but the musicians sure made it look like it was. They played so well....every desk of every section. But as perfect as it was technically on this evening, it was not stuffy or cautious. There was energy and life here. I hate it when an orchestra plays perfectly and gets all the notes right, but fails to create music. Not the case here. The KCS uses its prowess to take the audience to a place where you feel like things might come unglued at any moment...this is where music comes alive. (If you were lucky enough to be at the performance of Ravel's Bolero last Fall, you know exactly what I mean.) Which brings me to the next piece of the evening.
Midori is a violinist who has been taking the stage of the world's major orchestras for the past 34 years. Tonight she was here to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major. This is my favorite violin concerto of all. I stated the other day to a friend that I recognize that the Beethoven Violin Concerto, also in D major, is probably the greatest of all the violin concertos....but while that is true in my opinion, I think PIT's is my favorite. Side note...I love how the program gives suggestions of recordings of each piece on the program for the audience to listen to. For the Tchaikovsky, they suggest Jascha Heifitz's recording from 1957 with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. No doubt, this is the standard, but it's not my favorite. Check out the 1969 recording of Pinchas Zukerman with the NY Philharmonic conducted by....yep, Leonard Bernstein. The performance is brilliant because it seems like it is on the brink of coming off the rails...but it doesn't. It's pretty damn electrifying.
Midori is electrifying too. She takes center stage like she owns it and cradles her violin like Gollum clutching his becomes a part of her and she sways, dances, leans, extends and squeezes it into submission. If she missed a note, I didn't hear it. At one point she stepped forward on her right leg with her shoulders back and her violin raised up in a pose very reminiscent of Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) offering up a power chord to the gods. Midori leans in towards the audience, almost handing us each note with care so we will be sure to love every one of them. Then she would pull it back so we would not be burned by the next phrase of her super-human shredding that followed.
Maestro Stern seemed to be loving every note of it as well. As he is constantly monitoring tempos, cues, balance, phrasing and coordination between soloist and ensemble, he seemed to be willing to let the performance creep to that edge where energy and emotion almost catch the point where the whole thing comes completely off the rails. But of course he knew just when to assert his control of these forces so we all knew it would not explode and the excitement we were feeling was going to last until the very last note. Breathtaking I should say. Side-note, many in the audience applauded after the first movement concluded. For those of you that are put off by this, I say suck it. Get a grip. Back in the day, it was common for applause to break out throughout a performance. And the first movement of the Tchaikovsky is pretty much a concerto unto itself!
After many ovations, Midori played the Sarabande from J.S. Bach's Partita no. 2. It was a big departure from the Tchaikovsky but showed more of her tasteful and textured virtuosity. She knows how to make music.
After coffee and a cookie at the intermission, we were treated to Stravinsky's Petrouchka, first performed in 1911. Stravinsky revised the score in 1947, which was the version performed tonight. (It's interesting that both Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky wrote music that was hated at first, but later grew to be appreciated and revered. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto was panned and dismissed as brutal and ugly. And while Petrouchka was well received, only 2 years later, in 1913, his ballet Rite of Spring caused riots!)
Petrouchka gave the orchestra a wonderful opportunity to display it's technical skill...which it did, absolutely. The principal players all had the chance to "step up to the mic" in this work. And all demonstrated powerful and graceful playing. The balance was spot on...and I know we have this wonderful Hall that is world class, sounds even better with the kind of musicians we have in in class. Seriously, I've seen Chicago, LA, Boston, NY, London, Philadelphia, Vienna, Berlin, and Concertgebouw. Please make no mistake people, the musicians we have here in the KCS are that good if not better! And even more importantly, they make MUSIC. Maestro Stern can move like Jagger and he has the ability to find the sweet spot between control and precision and chaos. That's the place where music is made and we saw it tonight.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Anton Bruckner on the Road

Saturday, July 29, 1871.

Royal Albert Hall, London, England.
Office of the Manager

" 'scuse me sir...there's two blokes at the front of 'em sayin' they're 'ere to play the organ."

"The organ? 'oo the hell are they?"

"The gentleman doin' the talking is from the Austrian Embassy....says his name is Count Apponyi. He says he has the authority for his associate to practice on the Willis He has a German accent."

"We've shut off the steam.....there's barely any up. They'll have to come back another time."

"Right...I'll tell 'em."

(He returns in a couple of minutes)

"I'm sorry sir, but they insist that the organ be made available at once...they will take whatever steam is available."

"Bloody hell....... See them in then. We don't want an international incident on our hands. This hall has only been open a couple of months. But I want to be out of here soon."

"Right sir, I will let them in."

The two men enter the hall and make their way to the grand organ manufactured by Henry Willis & Sons. The shorter of the two men, round and somewhat odd looking, takes a seat on the bench and begins to play. Bach.

The manager of the hall hears the organ spring to life.

"You did tell him we don't have much steam up didn't you?"

"Indeed sir...I made that quite clear."

Music begins to fill the hall. It is glorious. Every stop is used...every pedal is touched. The few other people in the hall stop what they are doing and move closer to the organ to see who is playing it. Familiar melodies turn into improvisational journeys.

"Good god lad......'oo did you say this man was?"

"I believe he said his name was Bruckner....Anton Bruckner...from Austria."

"Never heard of him...."

"Do you want me to ask him to leave? The steam is all but gone now."

"Are you daft? On the contrary...start the fires back up. I have not heard anyone play like this since Msr. Saint-Saens was here a couple of weeks ago. Good god...this is incredible."

As a part of my initial foray into "rock" music as a teenager, I was a fan of the band Cream, a power trio consisting of Jack Bruce on bass, Ginger Baker on drums and Eric Clapton on guitar. They started in 1966 but by the end of 1968, they were at the end of their road together. They gave their farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall on November 26, 1968. The following year, Pink Floyd performed at the RAH. Keyboardist  Rick Wright played the Willis Organ on one of their songs. The Who played RAH in 1969, and Led Zeppelin in 1970. I like all of these bands, but none can match my love of Anton Bruckner. (I shared with you in a recent post that my wife and I almost named our oldest son Timothy Bruckner Hazlett. At the last minute we decided to go with Timothy Jackson.)
Anyway, I found a great article called "Anton Bruckner's Organ Recitals in France and England" by Mosco Carner, published in the February 1937 edition of The Musical Times. It tells the story of AB's only two trips he ever made out of his native Austria. First to Paris in 1969 where he performed at Notre Dame "before a distinguished audience of Franck, Saint-Saens, Auber and Gounod." WOW! Oh to have been there to see that. And then two years later in 1871, AB traveled to London where he gave six performances at RAH and four at the Crystal Palace. His program for the first recital on August 2, 1871 at Noon:
Bach: Toccata in F Major
Improvisation upon the foregoing
Handel: Fugue in D minor
Improvisation (original)
Bach: Improvisation on Fugue in E major
Improvisation on English melodies

As Carner points out, "these two concert-giving expeditions belong to a period of Bruckner's artistic development when he was still young as a symphonist. He was over forty when he wrote his first Symphony-an extraordinary case of delayed maturity. Bruckner as a composer was still practically a blank page to most of his contemporaries."
Bruckner had hoped to return to London, In 1886, Hans Richter was scheduled to conduct the Bruckner 7th Symphony there, but took ill and AB himself "thought of coming to London to conduct in his place." But that did not work out. "A few trips to Germany to hear performances of his works were the only occasions on which Bruckner went abroad in later years. Moreover, organ-playing gradually drifted into the background as Bruckner began to concentrate more and more on symphonic composition. As he once put it himself: 'What my fingers play is forgotten, but what they have written will not be forgotten."