Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Aeolus Quartet

Something a little different on the blog tonight. Not an album review, but a concert review.

I just got home from the Aeolus Quartet's da Capo performance in Reinberger Hall at Severance Hall in Cleveland. (I call it da Capo because as the quartet was formed right here in Cleveland at the Cleveland Institute of Music, it was a return to their roots a little bit.) Here is what you need to know: these kids are fantastic. I say "kids" with great love. I might be biased because they are also good, treasured friends of mine. But do not let that change your opinion, I'm hard on my friends.

Aeolus has been officially together as an ensemble for three years now. All four members have just finished post-graduate degrees at the University of Texas at Austin where they were the first Graduate Quartet-in-Residence at the school. As individuals, they are young; as an ensemble, they are young; as artists, they are way beyond their years.

The quartet put together a big program - a Bartok quartet, a Mendelssohn quartet plus two new works by living composers. Each piece presenting its own difficulties in mastering well, but mastered these artists certainly did. The Mendelssohn may have been the weakest on the program, the middle movements perhaps needing a little extra care than what they'd received, or suffering from fatigue as it was the last piece on the aggressive program. The Bartok was stand-out incredible. Such a mentally, musically and physically demanding piece and Aeolus certainly rose to the challenge and won. Alan Richardson's cello playing in the third movement was absolutely stunning. And the new works were intriguing and palatable. First on the program was Steven Snowden's "Appalachian Polaroids" which makes use of taped recording that interweaves through the beginning of the piece until the quartet takes over the sound. It's recognition of Americana sonorities and techniques make it resonate in the hearts of the audience - difficult to do with modern music these days. The Snowden has a companion piece in Alexandra Bryant's "Lady Isabelle Was That Kind of a Woman." Talking with the quartet members afterward, violinist (and husband of the composer) Nick Tavani let me in on some of the inside difficulties of the piece. It requires the players to both speak and play in rhythm - which can be done, but is a little like patting your head and rubbing your belly at once. He told me they were afraid of it at first, but they certainly didn't sound it at all. What I appreciated most about the Bryant was its use of rhythm and speech pattern in musical form.

The Aeolus Quartet possesses the rare combination of passion and discipline. I know they practice 8 hours a day, 6 days a week together. And their discipline shows. Each member is so familiar with not only their own part, not only each other's parts, but even how every note works in the whole of the piece - the purpose and direction of each phrase. They live inside this music. But it is that living that sets them apart. They really LIVE in the music. It has not lost meaning or just become rote, each player is present in each moment. They are communicating across the ensemble, they are communicating with the audience, they are communicating with themselves. Nick Tavani is a brilliant soloist, whose moments in the Mendelssohn elicited a literal mid-performance exclamation from his teacher, legendary William Preucil, of "That's my boy!" Rachel Shapiro's ensemble playing was on fire, supporting each line as necessary and then finally getting her own real moment to shine during their encore piece. Greg Luce's sweet sweet viola sound is so good for the soul - it really makes me feel bad for perpetrating so many viola jokes. And my superstar of the night cellist Alan Richardson was absolutely solid and his interpretation gorgeous. It is so inspiring to be in close proximity to these fantastic players. But even beyond what they bring to the stage, each one is so personable off stage as well. They can talk your ear off about what they just played, but they can also tell you about other bands, other composers, video games or food.

I'm not kidding you - watch out for these kids ... and just plain watch them. If you can make it to any of their performances, even if it requires a little bit of a drive for you, do it. It is completely worth your while; especially if you stay and chat with them afterward.

They are living proof that truly great sound is no respecter of time - you are never too young and it is never too old.

This video is from their website. Enjoy!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Laura Jansen - Bells

I’m a sucker for a good female singer-songwriter, I’ll admit. It probably has something to do with being yet another year older and in my seemingly permanent state of singleness. So I was ready to give Laura Jansen a shot when she’s suggested with the likes of Ingrid Michaelson and Regina Spektor. But then I considered “perhaps there just isn’t anymore room in my heart for another feminine voice singing heartwrenchingly accurate songs of longing and heartache.” Laura Jansen gave me hope that perhaps there really is room left in my heart, but also made me think, perhaps she is not meant to occupy that remaining space.
When I think about picking this album up again and giving it a listen, I grow weary. It feels like work. But when I do finally give it a chance, I’m always pleasantly surprised. It’s like those family reunions you dread going to because you have to talk to your older slightly pretentious cousin. And then you show up, because you have to and if you don’t your grandmother will tell you “when the family falls apart, it’s your fault.” And when you get there, you remember how surprisingly not pretentious your older cousin is; that actually he (or she) tells great stories and is great to drink with.

In a nod to something metaphysical, or perhaps just to let you in on what the tone of the album is going to be, the album starts off with a song called “The End” about the end of a relationship. The very first few piano chords, especially when the vocal comes in, sounds very much like a Keane cover – or like perhaps the band had some sort of operation since we’ve last heard from them.
In general the album is mostly piano heavy with some not-completely-offensive background tracks (drum machine, pseudo-Postal-Service synth effects, strings). The vocal harmonies are quite pleasant and the tunes are fine. The title track “Bells” seems to only recall bells with the piano notes, but doesn’t actually employ any real bells – I’m mixed about this choice.
The standout track is probably track 3 (as I’ve come to learn seems to be a trend), “Single Girls.” It’s an honest, vulnerable look at a girl’s life post-break-up. Simple, sweet and almost naïve; it’s really quite beautiful. And the album even includes a live performance sans background instruments/vocals. And gentle as that version is, I might like the studio better; the honesty seems almost forced in the live performance.
There’s a quirky tune in “Wicked World.” “Soljah” almost offends me with it’s semi-Reggae/semi-R&B sound. Jansen also does a risky thing and covers Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody.” I don’t think the risk pays off.

It sounds like I really hate this album, which I don’t. It’s a little all over the place, stylistically and I just don’t see it as something original. There have been plenty of other female singer-songwriters before who have done it better. I’m not saying there’s no place for this album, but it’s not in my regularly circulating library. It just does nothing for me. Maybe a few more coffee shop shows and a few more character-building heartbreaks and she’ll really put out something stellar. Keep with it kid, if your heart’s in it; but maybe keep it to your intimate circle of people until you can bring someone else’s heart into it, too.