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Let's Listen Together: Music Reviews & Recommendations from Jeff Karlson

  • Beethoven and the Symphony that Defined Romanticism

    by Jeff Karlson

    At some point in your life, like many of us, I imagine that you may have had that experience where you find yourself in an art museum. You’ve been strolling the galleries, taking in each piece, and found some to be beautiful, others thought-provoking, and yet, there is that one piece that you examine for minutes on end. As you take it in, you step back a bit, then tilt your head sideways, as if the change in perspective is going to help you better understand it.  Then you turn to your companion and say: “I don’t get it.”

    Yeah, I’ve had that experience, too. In fact, the last time I felt that way was almost a year ago while I was in Norway on my honeymoon. My wife and I were visiting an art museum in Trondheim, and I came upon a wall exhibit that featured 12 pieces by the same artist which all appeared nearly indistinguishable. They were black and white ink block prints, and each one looked like the artist had just carved into the block a countless number of straight lines all piled on top of each other, almost like a bunch of pick-up-sticks. I’m sure I didn’t sound very impressed when I told Rebekka that I didn’t get it. She patiently pointed me toward a plaque on the wall to the left of the exhibit, which had a description of the piece. After reading it, the entire work took on a whole new meaning, and suddenly it became one of the most compelling pieces of art I’ve seen.

    Click for Per Kristian Nygård image

    It turns out that the artist, Per Kristian Nygård, had made these prints out of a number of cutting boards that he had collected from an apartment building which was scheduled to be demolished. Each tenant had allowed him to take their cutting board, which some said they had owned for more than three decades. I looked at each piece again with curiosity for how each and every straight line had been carved. Was that one a slice of bread? Or these cuts, that are all close together, might be from that chopping motion one makes while feeding a piece of celery or a carrot toward the knife. All of these prints, which before had seemed frustratingly random and arbitrary, suddenly each had their own distinct patterns. Some people obviously have a very particular way that they cut their food, while others seem to be content lobbing their knife any which way, as long as the job gets done. It really is profound how much a simple understanding of a work transforms the way you see it. All of this is to say that context goes a long way when viewing art, and the same goes for listening to music.   

    I’ve had a number people tell me that they have a curiosity for classical music but that they just don’t know where to start. That’s completely understandable given that there are thousands of composers to choose from, who each wrote hundreds of pieces spanning ten centuries. Looking at a catalog of Western music and trying to pick out a piece that you might love would be like walking into the Library of Congress and randomly selecting a book on the shelf with the hope that you’ll find it compelling. Well, if you think you may have an appreciation for classical music—and I assume that might be the case, given that you’re reading a column about classical music—let me give you a reference point, and a little context to get you started.

    As cliché as it might sound, I guarantee that you cannot go wrong with Beethoven.  After all, he is one of the best-known classical composers for a reason. Now, you could start with something relatively short and easy to listen to like the Moonlight Sonata or Für Elise, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t guide you to something a bit more substantive than that. So let’s explore Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major.

    You’ll often hear this symphony referred to as the Eroica (meaning “heroic”), but that wasn’t the original title of the work. While writing it, Beethoven had Napoleon Bonaparte on the top of his mind. He held the French leader in high esteem for his embodiment of the democratic ideals of the French Revolution, and so he gave the symphony the title of “Bonaparte.” But prior to the publication and premier of the symphony, certain circumstances led Beethoven to have a change of heart regarding the dedication of the piece. Beethoven’s secretary, Ferdinand Ries, gives us an account of the composer’s reaction to the news of Bonaparte’s self-appointed promotion:

    I was the first to tell him the news that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor.  The page had to be recopied, and it was only now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia eroica.

    If you’d like to see in person that torn piece of manuscript, complete with a hole scratched into it where Beethoven furiously attempted to completely erase his dedication, it is on display at the library of Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna.

    See image of dedication erasure          

    Now that you have a bit of historical context to go with the piece, lets discuss its profound effect on the genre of classical music. Everyone from Montiverdi, Vivaldi, and Bach to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and even contemporary music writers like John Williams, are broadly considered to be composers of “classical music.” But the actual Classical period is a quite specific, markedly short era in the timeline of Western music, lasting from approximately 1730 to 1810, and largely dominated by composers like Haydn and Mozart. It represented a departure from the complex and heavily ornamented counterpoint and fugues of the Baroque period, instead marked by stark simplicity and symmetry. Just think of the architectural differences between the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the United States Capitol building and you’ll get a pretty solid picture of the differences between the compositional styles of Bach and Mozart.

    In his third symphony, Beethoven seized the great pendulum of musical genre and thrust it back toward complexity, this time adding a marked distaste for the dogmatic rules of composition laid out by Bach and Handel. (He also had an unabashed tendency to require that his audience develop a longer attention span than his classical predecessors. Perhaps that’s something we could all work on these days). And thus, most musical scholars consider the Eroica Symphony to be the marker of the beginning of the Romantic period.

    The first movement of the Eroica, begins with two short, loud chords, and feels like Beethoven is grabbing you by the shirt collar and saying: “Listen up!” Then, we are swept away on a journey through melody, syncopation, dynamics, and orchestration which all immediately live up to the symphony’s title. The first movement alone clocks in at fifteen minutes long, which is approaching the length of many of Haydn’s entire symphonies. But don’t let the length of this piece intimidate you; after all, we’re not here for quick soundbites or incidental background music while we read a book or do homework. This is music to listen to.

    The second movement is somber, macabre. Beethoven titled it “Marcia Funebre” (or “Funeral March”). As the processional dirge begins, Beethoven utilizes a simple and distinct triplet motive to usher in measure after measure, a technique which foreshadows Gustav Mahler’s own “Trauermarche” in his fifth symphony. The melody is transferred from strings to woodwinds and back again as we feel the heavy emotional weight of Beethoven’s writing. (Before I go on, I just have to tell you that, in my opinion, there is no greater music written than what is contained in a two-minute fugue that Beethoven seamlessly stitches into the middle of this movement. These two minutes are wrought with emotion, exemplified by burning dissonance that pulls at the heart like the experience of great loss.)

    To clear our palette and our mind, Beethoven then gifts us the third movement, a cheerful scherzo which starts on the second note of a triplet, giving the listener the feeling that they’ve just leapt onto a moving train. The oboe and flute provide a lighthearted timbre to the first section of the movement, which promises to lift us from the despair of the funeral march. Then the horns take over, invoking what sounds like a hunt, and one can’t help but imagine something like a scene from a Jane Austen movie adaptation, where a pair of gentlemen are on horseback as they follow the hounds to their quarry of fowl.

    Typically, the finale of a symphony is written in either a sonata-allegro form or a rondo, but here Beethoven breaks the rules again. He constructs the final movement from a theme and variation template. The theme itself was written by Beethoven for another lesser-known work he penned a few years prior to his third symphony, but it became the thesis for the entire work we’re discussing today. As the variations unfold, you’ll begin to recognize some of the themes that were introduced earlier in the symphony, which makes for a reminiscent vibe throughout the movement. Beethoven wraps up his genre-defining work in true heroic fashion: horns blaring, strings sizzling, and timpani pounding. When the last notes sound, you may just leap out of your chair in applause. (But if you do, you probably won’t live up to Beethoven’s standard; he is said to have criticized the applause delivered by the audience at the symphony’s premier as “insufficiently outstanding.”)

    Now comes the question of which recording to listen to. In this column, my general intent is to introduce you to newer recordings by artists with whom you are likely unfamiliar.  But this time around, I am going to point you to a classic recording by an outstanding orchestra under the baton of one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. Much like Beethoven, Herbert Von Karajan is widely known for a good reason. His tempos never betray the intent of the composer, his direction breathes life into every piece he presides over, and the orchestra he led for more than 34 years is regarded as being among the best orchestras in the world. You won’t be disappointed listening to the Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra under Karajan’s baton. Happy Listening!

    Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra - Beethoven Symphony No. 3 , Herbert von Karajan conducting

  • Jason Robert Brown's "The Last Five Years", presented by First City Players, performed by Jillian Pollock and Kyle G. Bailey

    by Jeff Karson

    As my wife and I don our masks and enter the Kayhi building, we are greeted with a warm welcome from a familiar veteran of the theater, who cheerfully takes our temperature and confirms that we are clear to enter. We are then provided with our very own private escort to guide us to our seats, which bear a pair of programs waiting for us to thumb through them. Our nearest neighbors are seated well over six feet away. All of this is of course to ensure the safety of the audience and performers, but it really feels like First City Players has gone above and beyond to make these protocols feel less like restrictions, and more like we have been invited to a VIP exclusive viewing of a high-profile performance of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.

    The house dims to darkness as the stage lights reveal a minimalist set (designed by Keith Smith). An arrangement of various sized blocks, painted white, provide contrast and dimension to a backdropped silhouette of the New York City skyline. With a subtle breath and a wave of his bow, Musical Director/Bassist Chazz Gist cues in the first notes of the show. A piano begins with a sweet and innocent sounding waltz, like something you’d hear while watching a child wave from a carousel horse, or perhaps like a melody from a music box with a ballerina in it. As a spotlight illuminates a woman on stage, the waltz gives way to sonorous strings playing a series of chords. The notes form a melody that sounds as if it’s overflowing with memory—and regret. The woman is looking down toward the floor as she fidgets with a ring on her left hand. Her voice is soft and burdened with disappointment as she reveals that her partner has moved on, and she is left brokenhearted.

    The Last Five Years has a cast of two: Catherine “Cathy” Hiatt (Jillian Pollock) and Jamie Wellerstein (Kyle G. Bailey). The show gives us a glimpse into the relationship they share over the course of five years, one that feels all too familiar to anyone who has ever loved deeply and suffered from a broken heart. We get to appreciate those gleeful and whimsical first months of infatuation where each can do no wrong in the eyes of their partner; we’re shown the moments of deep love and sympathy when they are challenged to support one another through difficult times; and finally, we witness the unraveling of the relationship when trusts are broken, and the personality quirks that used to be charming or cute become all but intolerable. The twist here is that Cathy’s timeline starts at the end of the relationship and moves backward through time as the play unfolds, while Jamie’s perspective is revealed as time flows forward.

    Now bear with me for a moment, because I’d like to bring you back to my last review on the Goldberg Variations, in which I briefly mentioned that Bach wrote what I referred to as “musical games.” As a party trick, Bach would sketch out a single melody and put it on a table. Then, two musicians would sit at opposite sides of the table and perform the piece, reading the music from their opposing perspectives. But here was the genius of it: for one of the musicians, the melody would be physically upside-down and backwards from what the other musician was playing, but it would also form a perfect harmony or countermelody to what had been originally written. This musical curiosity is known as table music.

    Imagine yourself once again as a member of the audience viewing The Last Five Years. Brown has, in a sense, taken Bach’s concept and created an entire musical with it. The whole thing is, in many ways, one ninety-minute palindrome. This is not to say that, after the first half of the play is over, we begin to see and hear the same events occur in reverse; Brown’s writing is more artful than that. Brown simply inserts a subtle but distinct mirror directly in the middle of the musical. From there, listen for familiar musical themes and motives lacing the remaining composition, as emotions that were once felt by Cathy later grip Jamie, and vice versa. Even Brown’s lyrics begin to reflect upon themselves, bringing with them new meaning as the story progresses.

    One might easily find themselves lost in the persistent undulation of the timeline if not for the imaginative staging provided by Director Elizabeth Nelson. The performance opens with Jamie and Cathy inhabiting opposite hemispheres of the set. From your seat in the audience, imagine the right side of the stage represents the future, while the left side embodies the past. As the palindromic story unfolds, the two timelines intersect for only a few fleeting moments at the center-pin of the story, where Jamie and Cathy find themselves holding each other’s hands as they inhabit the same space in the middle of the stage. This is the only time we’ll see the two of them touch, and the music that Brown scored to accompany the scene feels nebulous, full of rhythmic ambiguity. It leaves the audience with a sense that the passage of time has temporarily halted to allow us, and the two lovers on stage, to savor the small gift of their togetherness. Then, as Cathy and Jamie begin to part ways, time pulls them in opposite directions, and they take each other’s place in the opposite hemisphere of the stage, Jamie now singing into the future, and Cathy now singing into the past.

    We’ve seen Pollock on the Kayhi stage before, but never like this. In her First City Player’s debut, we watched her make the lives of the Banks children decidedly less sweet as the evil nanny, Ms. Andrews, in Mary Poppins. Then we witnessed her attempt to thwart love, and seize power, as the vile sea-witch Ursula in The Little Mermaid. In both roles she definitively carved her name into the wall of Ketchikan theater fame, with her commanding stage presence and a vocal timbre of a quality I have seldom heard since my time in New York City. But in the role of Cathy, Pollock demonstrates that she is capable of adding subtlety and complexity to her characters. She brilliantly embodies the sweet and gentle nature of a young woman in love, while convincingly portraying the nuanced feeling of pride in her partner’s success as a novelist juxtaposed against her own failing aspirations of becoming a Broadway star. Here, Pollock takes full advantage of the opportunity to show us an emotional side that is often absent when playing a role of a classic villain: she breaks down the walls around her and shows vulnerability. Vocally, this part is more demanding than anything I’ve heard her do in the past, but at no point did I think to myself: That sounds hard. Pollock’s voice resonates from her toes to the ceiling like a pure column of sound, and she makes it seem effortless.

    Meanwhile, Bailey exercises his extraordinary theatrical versatility yet again. You may remember the time he made us all smile with wondrous delight as he ascended the walls of the Kayhi stage to belt out the climax of “Step in Time” as Bert in Mary Poppins. Or the time he teased a tear or two from our eyes while playing Marius, lamenting the sacrifice of his friends to a failing revolution in “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” in Les Misérables. Most recently, he tugged at our heartstrings as Archibald Craven, the grieving widower in The Secret Garden. But as Jamie Wellerstein, Bailey’s professional training and Broadway experience is on full display from start to finish. In one humorous, yet touching, scene, Jamie is about to give a Christmas gift to Cathy, but first he tells her a story that he has written about an old Jewish tailor named Schmuel. As Bailey plays a character from within a character, he masterfully oscillates back and forth between Jamie’s subtle Brooklyn Jewish inflection and Schmuel’s thick Yiddish accent. Even more impressive, though, is Bailey’s display of vocal acrobatics throughout the show. In one moment, he fills the auditorium with a full and resonant chest voice and, in the next, he seamlessly transitions to a pure and remarkably stable falsetto.

    Bailey and Pollock are supported by a small, but exceedingly talented, pit orchestra. This production requires each musician to pull double duty, and often more. Gist is tasked with not only directing the ensemble, but also playing stand-up bass, electric bass, and mandolin—a juggling act that he executes masterfully. Austin Hays tackles the keyboard and percussion with his usual rhythmic perfection, and when she isn’t doubling on the keyboard, Rachel Schoenfeld fits the sound of her cello so well into the warmth of Gist’s string bass that they quite often sound like one instrument. While Jamie Karlson is the sole musician saddled with only one instrument, her task is to make that sweet sounding flute of hers sound like a violin. (In a small town, fiddlers can sometimes be hard to come by. The score doesn’t include a flute at all, but rather a violin, and Karlson lives up to the task of bringing it to life). Throughout most of the show, I often forgot that a live pit orchestra was there, which I mean as an utmost compliment to the musicians. Their performance sounds like a seamless soundtrack to the drama that is unfolding on stage.

    Now, if I’ve sufficiently piqued your interest, I have good news for you: you can still see the show! The Last Five Years final performances will be this upcoming weekend at Kayhi, on January 22nd and 23rd at 7:30 p.m.* That said, tickets are limited due to COVID-19 precautions, so if you want to see it live, I suggest making your purchase as soon as possible. You can get your tickets by either calling First City Players at (907) 225-4792 or sending them a message via Facebook or Instagram.

    *Please note if you are unable to see the live show this weekend for any reason, First City Players will also be providing a virtual viewing later in February. Keep your eye out on their social media for more information!

    January 19, 2021

  • Jeff reviews Beatrice Rana's Golberg Variations

    by Jeff karson

    Johann Sebastian Bach is among the most celebrated composers to have ever lived, and for good reason. His prolific contribution of over a thousand compositions to the catalog of Western music is staggering to comprehend, especially considering that between the countless hours of composing, rehearsing, and performing, he somehow found time to proliferate in other avenues of life; he and his wife had 20 children. Not only did Bach glorify the church with his countless hymns, five masses, and a Christmas Oratorio that rivals Handel’s Messiah, but he also provided secular audiences with marvels of musical games, partitas, concerti, and even a cantata that is entirely about the delight of sipping a hot cup of coffee. Bach’s music is so highly revered that he was given the honor of having not just one, but three of his works imprinted on the Golden Record aboard the Voyager satellite, which is currently speeding its way into the depths of interstellar space waiting for some unsuspecting intelligent alien lifeform to stumble upon it and experience the wonder of Bach as we know him.

    A person could literally spend days listening to all of Bach’s music without repeating a selection, but the one piece that I keep finding myself listening to over and over is the Goldberg Variations. When I first heard them, I had no idea they were by Bach. (And no, that’s not because I wasn’t paying attention during my undergraduate music history class.) Actually, I imagine my introduction to the work might be similar to many cinema lovers. Do you remember the scene in the film The Silence of the Lambs, when Dr. Lecter had a cassette player going while he was getting ready to enlist the help of Sgt. Pembry in his escape from his temporary cell? Yes, it was actually Bach who provided the calm and calculated soundtrack to that horrifying scene, but don’t let its association with a notorious fictional cannibal spoil your appetite for tasteful music. In fact, I would suggest that as you prepare to listen, that you take a seat in your favorite chair and pour yourself a glass of fine wine, perhaps a nice Chianti.

    No performer has etched their name onto a piece of music quite as definitively as Glenn Gould has on the Goldberg Variations, but his recordings are not the ones I’ll be reviewing today; I think that well has been thoroughly tapped. However, before you read on, you must give a quick listen to the “Aria” on his 1981 recording. Turn the volume up and listen carefully. It would have been a profound experience to have been in that recording booth listening to one of the greatest artists alive performing one of the most beautiful works from history, and then to hear him hum his own countermelody under the one that Bach wrote. Sublime.

    Listen to "Aria" - Glenn Gould

    A few years ago, I was specifically looking for a new recording of the Goldberg Variations. I scrolled through the Apple Music library, selecting the “Aria” by any given artist. If it didn’t grip me after the first few bars, I’d scroll on to the next. When it comes to Goldberg, I am terribly picky. The tempo can’t be too fast, the ornaments can’t be too frantic, the stroke of the piano key requires finesse. No, no, no, none of these recordings will do! As I moved on from album to album, I was just waiting to hear how the next one would disappoint me – that is, until I landed on Beatrice Rana. Three seconds of silence begins the track, which makes my ear salivate over the first taste of the thirty-two course delicacy I am about to savor. The recording is so clean that I can’t even hear the sound of the air in the room, which makes the first notes appear to arise from nothingness. It’s as if I am listening from inside the soundboard of the piano itself. Rana’s tempo is perfect: unhurried, reflective. Her delicate touch of the keys flawlessly meets the demand that the “Aria” be a piece to which one could drift into blissful sleep while listening. Ah yes, this will do.

    Rana’s choice of rubato comes at stark contrast to that of Glenn Gould. His interpretation is decidedly more accurate to the Baroque period, as he keeps his tempos strict enough to set a clock to.  However, the way Rana executes her rubato feels as natural as rainfall. She’ll extend certain notes just ever so slightly as they roll into the next bar, never breaking the momentum of the piece. It’s as if each note really is like rain, but perhaps more aptly in a forest: here and there a dewy droplet is about to roll off the point of a leaf, yet its viscous attraction keeps it suspended in defiance of gravity for the tiniest fragment of time before the earth pulls it to the ground. Carry this analogy with you as you listen to each variation and you’ll find that Beatrice Rana is extraordinarily consistent with her execution of it.

    "Aria" - Beatrice Rana

    If the “Aria” is music to fall asleep to, Variation 5 is the point at which we hit our REM cycle.  The tempo is dizzyingly virtuosic with sixteenth note flurries in the right hand while the left hand tackles a slower melody, which continuously leaps from bass to treble, requiring it to cross back and forth over the right hand throughout the variation. I am completely struck by the level of independence Rana is able to give to each line. One would think that the sheer consumption of brain power from the right hand would leave the other hand with merely the responsibility of keeping up, but Rana requires her left hand to devote precisely as much intention to its performance as she does her right. The left-hand melody is very simple: quarter notes establish the chord for each bar, punctuated by a pair of eighth notes to give it a little pivot to the next chord. Rana gives this simple mechanism real life by holding each quarter note for as long as it can possibly be held, as if the note is a glass being filled with water to the point at which the surface tension is the only thing keeping it from brimming over. Then she treats each eighth note with a sharp staccato, like an exclamation point. This provides for the effect of a crescendo through each quarter note, which on a piano is otherwise an impossibility.

    "Variation 5" - Beatrice Rana

    Bach gives Variation 10 the title of “Fughetta” which simply means “Little Fugue.” I could go on and on about Bach’s sheer genius when it comes to fugues, but I think I’ll save that for another review at a later time. For now, all you need to know is that Bach is really, really good at writing them. Not to be outdone by Bach’s genius, Rana gives her own thoughtful input on what this fugue should sound like. The theme is a delightfully bouncy one, with frilly ornamentation supported by simple walking countermelody. The first time through the A section she chooses a soft dynamic and a marcato articulation for the quarter notes, but the second time around she flips both choices on their heads, this time opting for a more robust dynamic and a tenuto articulation, threading each note seamlessly to the next.  Rana is telling us that these aren’t just notes on the page – this is music.

    "Variation 10" Beatrice Rana

    We’re now at the exact middle of the work, Variation 15, and Bach has prepared something truly delicious for us to savor. This variation is called “Canone a la Quinta (in moto contrario).” It is a canon, but the second voice is not in unison with the first. Instead, Bach writes it up a fifth from the original; its motion is contrary to its predecessor, meaning that after the first voice goes down, the second voice heads upward. The beauty of this piece is that it ends with the equivalent of a musical question mark. In fact, the first half of the variation leaves us on the seventh scale degree, which serves to make our craving for the second half all the more potent. Rana performs the final notes of the variation with all of the delicacy she can muster as they ascend to a pianissimo high D, which sounds like we’re staring curiously up toward the top of a staircase that disappears into the clouds. A full ten seconds of silence on the end of the track allows the last note to sit on our pallet as we digest the beauty of what we’ve just heard.

    "Variation 15" - Beatrice Rana

    Variation 25 is the last one to be written in a minor key (Variations 15 and 21 were the only other variations in G minor). Here, Bach demonstrates his mastery of the Aeolian mode as he bends it to his will to create a work so full of chromaticism that one could mistake it for one of Chopin’s Nocturnes (except Chopin wouldn’t touch a piano for roughly another 80 years after the Goldberg Variations were published). Here is where I would offer my first bit of criticism to Beatrice Rana. (Yes, I know I tend to be a hopeless optimist, but if I’m going to be writing reviews, I have to be willing to dole out a critique every once in a while!) Perhaps Rana was musically swept away to the romantic period along with all of us by Bach’s compositional genius, but I think she takes her rhythmic liberties too far in this variation. There… I said it.

    "Variation 25" - Beatrice Rana

    The final variation is a “Quadlibet” which is a Latin term meaning “Whatever you wish.” Compositionally it is a lighthearted combination of multiple themes, which Bach makes sound like a musical celebration of his completion of such a monumental work, and all wrapped up in a nice, tidy, perfect little package. However, at the very end, written underneath the final bar, you’ll read “Aria da Capo e Fine.” At Bach’s direction, Beatrice Rana takes us back to where it all began, and just when you thought she couldn’t possibly play with a lighter touch, she manages to redefine pianissimo. To hear the “Aria” once again, after all of the twists and turns that Bach has made to its skeleton throughout the entire work, is a true gift. We hear it now with a new understanding of how it was put together. Bach has given us a glimpse into how his mind works, and perhaps he also figured out how to help us hear his music as he heard it.

    Final variation - Beatrice Rana

    "Aria da Capo e Fine" - Beatrice Rana

    Find more information about Beatrice Rana's recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations HERE

    Bon appetit!
    January 5, 2021

  • Jeff reviews his new favorite holiday album

    by Jeff Karlson

    As the holidays quickly approach us during a year rife with anxiety, fear, and uncertainty it is perhaps more important than ever that we take a moment to stop and enjoy something beautiful. Might I suggest a bit of music? I am thrilled to have an opportunity to open a little window into my world of music, which for me has always been a soothing balm during difficult times. 

    For my first of many recommendations to come, I thought I’d start with an ensemble that has been near and dear to me since just about the first time I picked up a trumpet. No group has been more instrumental (pun definitely intended) in making chamber music just plain fun. Since their founding in 1970, they’ve produced more than 130 albums and have toured the world over and over. They have managed to stay relevant for more than four decades through their perfect balance of standing-ovation-inducing virtuosity mixed with the fact that they apparently will never be accused of taking themselves too seriously. If you’re still wondering who they are, here comes the biggest hint…while they always show up to a performance dressed to impress with their well-fitted suits, they also sport all-matching white, comfy sneakers. Yup, you guessed it: I’m talking about the Canadian Brass!

    Though you can’t go wrong with any of their recordings, their all-time number one seller is Christmas Time is Here. It’s the Canadian Brass take on the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which turned out to be exactly the thing I needed to hear this winter. The pace of the holidays seem to quicken with every passing year, but the characters of Peanuts remind us that it’s ok to slow down and admire the tree. So, I encourage you to take a moment, turn on the stereo and give a listen to Christmas Time is Here. I promise the first track will immediately have you tapping your foot while you stir your eggnog with a cinnamon stick and begin to feel 2020 melt off of your shoulders.

    The real beauty of the Canadian Brass is their breadth of stylistic mastery, which is on full display throughout the album. One minute they’ll be smoothly improvising arpeggios over the seductive chord changes of “Greensleeves” in a manner reminiscent of a “A Night in Tunisia,” while in the next they’ll be invoking the counterpoint of Bach in a variation of “Carol of the Bells” that would be fit to be performed in The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. 

    Caleb Hudson and Chris Coletti are the group’s trumpet players, and they make listening to the second track on the album, called “Skating,” as easy as watching the flurries of snow fall outside your living room window while you lick the whipped cream off your lips after that first sip of hot cocoa. These guys have such a knack for fitting into each other’s sounds that it’s almost impossible to differentiate the two. The only tip I can give you is that Caleb is usually the one playing the piccolo. (That’s the little one that looks like a toy trumpet for all you non-brass players who may be reading this).

    Now, when you open up a new Christmas album, if you’re like me, you skip straight to “The Little Drummer Boy,” to find out if the album was worth the money. I hate to disappoint, but you’re not going to find that track on this recording. Since this is a take on the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, it features a tune called “My Little Drum.” Yes, it does sound quite a bit like our favorite classic Christmas carol, but they play with the rhythm a bit, and also break into a samba in the middle of the song which features some soft velvety improvisation from the group’s trombone player, Achilles Liarmakopoulos. If you’re a purist, you might be left wanting; however, I think this track has a meditative quality that begs for you to close your eyes, take another bite of that gingerbread cookie, and keep on listening.

    There is one track on this album that quite literally stopped me in my tracks. In fact, I interrupted my wife while she was wrapping white twinkly lights around our tree, so that I could hear every note without distraction. “The Angel Choir and the Trumpeter” features Caleb Hudson on the piccolo trumpet. He somehow manages to make his horn sound with all of the warmth of a clarinet, but with the purity of tone that, until Caleb, had only been produced by a flute. His articulation is so light that his sound seems to emerge out of thin air. For this recording, Hudson should be immediately inducted into the All-Time Trumpet Hall of Fame, although admittedly I may have a bias. The first time I heard Caleb Hudson play the trumpet was in 2005, while he and I were both members of the trumpet studio at the Interlochen Arts Academy. For his senior recital he performed a piece called “Cascades,” written by another well-known trumpet virtuoso named Allen Vizzutti. This piece requires the performer to execute technical acrobatics that would have tied my lips in a knot. Suffice to say, none of us who knew him were the least bit surprised when 8 years later he was introduced as the newest member of the Canadian Brass.

    For a boost of Christmas spirit, this album also contains a handful of additions that you didn’t hear in A Charlie Brown Christmas, including “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and an exceedingly fun and creative arrangement of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The latter features the only remaining founding member of the Canadian Brass, tubist Chuck Daellenbach, who has managed to keep the musical integrity, as well as the funny bone, of the Canadian Brass alive through his brass quintet’s ever-revolving door of extraordinary talent.

    Sometime between now and Christmas day, have a listen to the Canadian Brass’s Christmas Time is Here. It will leave you with the kind of warm fuzzies that I think we could all use this winter. You can listen on Apple Music, YouTube, or - better yet - download the album straight from the Canadian Brass website by following this link:

    Happy holidays and happy listening!

    December, 2020