The Big Game

Boulez at Severance

It seemed appropriate on this weekend when thousands of fans are making the hajj to the Big Game that I would be in Severance Hall on Saturday night. Was there any concert hall in the world that on that night offered a proposition as compelling as Boulez and Aimard in an all-French program with the Cleveland Orchestra? Hey, London, Berlin, Vienna! Whaddya got? New York? Don’t even ask.

Like most Super Bowls, this failed to live up to the (self-generated) hype, but hell yeah, I’m still glad I was there.

On the plus side, I heard a staggering Ravel D-major Piano Concerto and a very charming G-major Concerto, too. I witnessed Le Maitre, six weeks short of his 85th birthday, bouncing onto the podium with his no-nonsense, lets-make-some-music éclat. He looks like he could go on forever, and let’s pray he does.

But this was not an ideal evening for music-making. The audience seemed fidgety. There was a fair amount of coughing (February on the Great Lakes), and when Boulez gave the downbeat to Messiaen’s L’Ascension, the Cleveland brass broke wobbly from the gate. It was the musical equivalent to a shaky exchange on the snap on the first play of the game. It didn’t help that as the Cleveland brass struggled to find their footing, a cell phone breeped loudly in the balcony. We couldn’t see his face, of course, but Coach could not have been pleased.

Look, L’Ascension isn’t the ideal way to ease into a program, but whether it was Seasonal Affective Disorder or the recent labor troubles, the great orchestra’s playing was insecure all night. Unsteady entrances and less-than-elegant (by Cleveland’s admittedly Olympian standards) ensemble work dotted the evening, and that’s a shame, because L’Ascension is a work I had wanted to hear. Boulez has not recorded it commercially (though this series of concerts is being taped by DG for autumn release).

The ork rallied, led by limpid and eloquent work from the World’s Greatest Viola Section and from the winds (english hornist Robert Walters came up big all night). This was not the big organ sound that some conductors bring to Messiaen’s orchestral works. Boulez was characteristically clear and there was none of the near vulgarity other conductors can find in this composer. There was no ecstatic religious mysticism, either, only echoes of Ravel and Debussy, the composer who would follow on the program.

Clarity was the essence of the Ravel G-major Concerto, which was played with a reduced orchestra and a mercurial lightness of touch. This went as much for Pierre-Laurent Aimard as it did for Boulez and the orchestra. The pianist played the adagio simply with almost no pedal, but with an emotional directness that caught one off guard. The closing Presto had a thumb-in-the-eye insousiance that was impossible to resist.

Still, it seemed just a bit lightweight, and I think that is exactly what Boulez and Aimard had in mind, because intermission was followed by a D-Major concerto that was startlingly consequential. It started early, opening with contrabassoon, low strings and bass drum setting a spooky midnight scene. Boulez got a very dark sound from the by-now fully engaged orchestra; it was almost Holstian at times. Aimard matched it with a ferocious concentration. But he was never monochromatic. Hammered march figures followed dreamy, heavily pedaled fantasy. Boulez is the most objective of musicians, and he would scoff at me saying this, but he turned this showpiece for a pianist who lost his right hand in World War I into most simultaneously martial and militantly anti-war performance imaginable. It was completely unexpected and knee-bucklingly moving. And it was recorded.

Concluding the concert with Debussy’s Iberia could seem like ending a meal with the appetizer when it had begun with the main course, but I think Boulez knew exactly what he was doing. The alto saxophonist Lee Konitz is fond of beginning tunes with the improvisation and not playing the melody until the end. The evening could be read as a mini-seminar on French music in the first half of the 20th century, moving from flower (Messiaen) to root.

So Boulez’s sequence made a certain amount of sense, and for all it’s surface glitter and pictorialism, Iberia is as serious a piece of music as L’Anscension is. But it didn’t sound that way last night. Sure, Boulez played the piece as he would Mozart, with clear, light-filled textures. There was little perfume in Les parfums de la nuit but plenty of fresh air surrounding each line. Still, listening to the 1993 recording of the work with these same forces revealed that something else was lacking — a little tension, maybe. A sense of purpose. Iberia builds to what promises to be a big ending and stops suddenly just a bit short of it. This ending inexplicably took the audience by surprise and a few tentative claps melted back into silence, as though waiting for the real, slam-bam ending to come. Boulez looking graciously perplexed, turned to the audience and opened his arms, as if to say, “That’s it. Please feel free to applaud now.”

It was an appropriately equivocal ending to a concert that was less monolithically overwhelming than other Boulez visits to Severance have been. Still, there was no place else on earth where I would rather have been.

Jazz Is Dead . . . Again

Funeral

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout issued yet another obituary for jazz, citing findings from the most recent Survey of ­Public Participation in the Arts conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts.

On first reading the numbers seem alarming. I’ve been in marketing for 30 years (what, you thought I make a living writing about music?) and I believe in research. But I don’t always believe research, and I believe that most problems have more than one right answer. Let’s look closer at the statistics Teachout cited:

• In 2002, the year of the last survey, 10.8% of adult Americans attended at least one jazz performance. In 2008, that figure fell to 7.8%.

This I believe, but during a year in which the economy slid into . . . well, whatever we’re calling the downturn, might attendance at all sorts of live entertainment events have seen a decline? I’d like to see some context for this metric.

• Not only is the audience for jazz shrinking, but it’s growing older—fast. The median age of adults in America who attended a live jazz performance in 2008 was 46. In 1982 it was 29.

So that 29 year old in 1982 is now 57, proving, I suppose, that much of that age cohort who came to the music in the 1970s (I’m one of them), is still following it, though perhaps to a lesser extent than they used to do so. This is not a terrible thing, though this measurement certainly shows that this audience is not being replaced by younger people who came to the music in, say in the late 1980s — coincidentally a time where much of the action in recorded jazz was in reissues. It’s tough to build audiences when marketing muscle is being directed to music by dead artists, however worthy they may have been. But more about that later.

• Older people are also much less likely to attend jazz performances today than they were a few years ago. The percentage of Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 who attended a live jazz performance in 2008 was 9.8%. In 2002, it was 13.9%. That’s a 30% drop in attendance.

And that’s worrisome. I wonder, though, if the audience disappeared because many of the venues that presented jazz — an urban art form — also disappeared due to economic factors associated with the urban real estate boom of the early part of the century. This is certainly the case in New York where Manhattan jazz clubs are all but a memory, and the music has shifted to spaces in the outer boroughs.

Finally, I wonder what the survey means by “jazz.” Did a Medeski Martin and Wood performance qualify? A Norah Jones show? The music that younger listeners label as jazz may not be the same music that the NEA, John Chacona or Wynton Marsalis might consider to be in the canon. Were survey respondents free to self-identify jazz as they saw fit? This is the biggest question I have with the data.

Look, I’m not about to suggest that jazz is as healthy as it was in 1999, to say nothing of 1959. But I have observed that large jazz festivals still seem to attract crowds, that younger, adventurous listeners are showing up in the least likely places, like concerts by Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone or the hardcore kids who, I’m told, have adopted the Vision Festival as their own. These aren’t big crowds, but they are loyal. More importantly, they point to a future audience that is committed if not mass-market massive. These days, is there any genre of music that has the near-universal appeal that rock’n’roll had in the 60s or jazz had in the 30s and 40s?

Face it, it’s a world of micro-market niches, cultivated and developed online, which is where young people — the audiences of the future — live. On Thursday, I took my daughter to a show by Mayday Parade, a pop-punk band with a teen following. If I had a buck for every time the band mentioned MySpace, I could have paid for both of our tickets. Like it or not, that is the future.

How else might that future look? A lot more like America would be my guess, with more contributions from people that had not been invited to the jazz tent: hyphenated Americans from Asia (think Rudresh Mahanthappa and Hiromi) and Latin America. If drummers drive jazz, the most exciting music is coming from the Caribbean basin, a place where rhythmic subtlety and horns (to cite just two elements of what purists identify as jazz) have always been part of the musical culture.

Jazz will look a lot less American, and what’s wrong with that? Show of hands here for those who think that rock’n’roll died when the Brits took it, changed it up a bit and brought it back to us.

Jazz will get bigger — big festivals should thrive because they are fun, full of life and attractive to sponsors — and it will also get smaller, too. Jazz artists will get in vans and work small rooms, just like punk bands now tour, building grassroots support online. It’s less comfortable than star soloists making run-out gigs with local rhythm sections might be, but if I’m not mistaken, it’s how the music began.

Will jazz ever be a mass-market phenomenon again? Probably not, just as rockabilly, doo-wop, four-hands piano and barbershop quartets — all genres that once had wide popularity — will never again take center stage. We can lament that situation (and that of the hundreds of highly trained players that university jazz programs crank out annually), or we can listen to what’s out there. Maybe even take in a show. The music being made to day is as interesting as that of any period of jazz in my memory. You just have to work a little harder to find it.

The Erie Philharmonic play Mendelssohn and Orff

On the surface, an Erie Philharmonic program pairing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Orff’s scenic cantata “Carmina Burana” looks daft. One is an almost chamber-scale 19th Century masterwork of great delicacy (albeit with big tunes) and the other is a 20th Century piece of bombast (albeit with delicate moments). The Orff was beloved by the Nazis while Mendelssohn, though nominally a Lutheran, was a descendent of the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

But there was method to Phil music director Daniel Meyer’s apparent madness. As he told me in an interview for my Erie Times preview of the concert, the idea was to invoke spring.

And who could blame him? Last year’s penultimate Phil subscription concert arrived during the harrowing March 9 blizzard. There were more bodies on stage last evening, Philharmonic executive director Erie Borenstein observed, than there were in the audience for last year’s concert.

If the Mendelssohn was to be a harbinger, spring will be a patchy, stop-and-start affair this year. Violinist Chad Hoopes played the piece as well as you can expect a 14-year-old not named Yehudi Menuhin to play it. He got most of the notes, but missed the verdant lyricism of the thing. His reading also was curiously devoid of the piece’s youthful impetuosity, as well, though he did catch fire in the finale (leaving the orchestra to play catch-up while he surges ahead). Look the kid is 14, after all, and my guess is that most of the rehearsal time was given over to the Orff, which despite its relatively simple rhythms and triadic harmony, is still a very big work.

Big describes the onstage forces. Extra percussion, Kris Denton’s piano and an army of choristers crowded the Warner stage, but to good effect. What a great and rare pleasure to actually hear the chorus! Part of this effect was due to the 50-odd members of the Mendelssohn (him again!) Choir of Pittsburgh who augmented the Erie Philharmonic Chorus. But I didn’t hear the Erieites pulling the Pittsburghers down with them. Clearly, new chorus master Jason Bishop is having the same transformative effect on the formerly tired-sounding Phil Chorus as he has on his Young People’s Chorus of Erie, which also made an appearance).

So the ubiquitous “O Fortuna” that opens “Carmina” made it’s customary big effect. But it was in the smaller moments that this performance shone. The “Im taberna” sequence, with its tales of drinking and debauchery, was nicely shaped, and tenor Dean Kokanos nearly stole the show when he skulked on stage, schlubby and round-shouldered, and mugged his way through the song of the unfortunate roasted swan (for the record, he got almost all of the notes in this punitively high-lying aria).

Jonathan Beyer showed a firm baritone with some ring at the top, and was unexpectedly tender in the lovelorn “Circa mea pectora” song. His reading of the line “Vellet deus, vellent dii/quod mente proposul/ut eius virginea reserassem vincula” (“May the gods look with favor on my desire to undo the bonds of her virginity.”) evoked a 13th Century precursor of Steve Carrell’s 40-year-old virgin.

Along with soprano Deborah Selig (fresh-voiced and charming, even in a gown that seemed to come from a live staging of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty”) the soloists — and the choruses, for that matter — paid careful attention to enunciating the texts.

And, about those texts. Supertitles were provided via PowerPoint slides. The translations seemed quite literal with little of the scansion and rhyme schemes of the 13th Century texts. The effect was to highlight the earthiness — all right, the bawdiness — of the satirical tales of the Beuern Goliards. And it worked, with the audience tittering and sometimes laughing out loud.

Loud: that’s an adjective frequently applied to “Carmina,” and this performance had its moments of blunt-force volume (the bass drum thwacks in “O Fortuna” had a wonderfully dire and fateful quality). But Meyer shaped the piece with great attention to detail, perhaps too much.

Granted, “Carmina” is not Beethoven. Effect is what matters here, not structure. Still, Meyer’s “Carmina” struck me as a collection of moments, rather than a coherent statement. Perhaps that’s as much a characteristic of the work as it was of the interpretation.

And though Meyer couldn’t bring spring to a winter-weary Erie, the temperature in a very full Warner house was too darn hot, even if the performances were not.

The Erie Philharmonic Orchestra “In the Spotlight”

In his podium remarks, Erie Philharmonic music director Daniel Meyer said Mahler composed the way we think – not in orderly, sonata-allegro form, but with ideas popping into his head in their own time, and one after another. In Meyer’s hands, they came in a headlong rush. In an interview for my Erie Times-News preview of Saturday’s Erie Philharmonic concert, Meyer called the Mahler First, “one of the most miraculous first symphonies ever written. Only Brahms comes close.” But Brahms was a seasoned composer of 43 when his First Symphony was published. Mahler was only 28, and Meyer played his debut symphony as young man’s music – impetuous, dramatic and hot-blooded.

Meyer also told me that hearing the Mahler First is “like stepping into an enchanted forest.” If so, the eerie string harmonics that open the work made it a fog-bound forest at twilight, and more than a little creepy. The light came out with the arrival of the big, “Ging heut Morgen über feld” theme, and when it bloomed, it was as though nature had awakened (the rustic, slightly rough tone of the winds in the birdcalls was just right – did Meyer have Jascha Horenstein’s classic London recording of this work in his ears?). Some think of Mahler as haunted and death-obsessed. In Meyer’s hands he sang and danced.

But not in the second movement, with a landler that was a bit under-inflected. The trio, though, was lovingly shaped with sensitive phrasing from the augmented strings, which were outstanding all night.

The third movement, with its minor-key casting of the “Frère Jacques” tune and eruptions of klezmer music, is one of the strangest in the literature to that point, but it got off to a bad start with unsteady intonation and missed entrances, and never quite recovered. Mahler is a composer of grand gestures, all right, but often it’s the small moments that linger, and too many of them were clumsily handled.

All that was swept away in the cataclysm that begins the finale, appropriately eruptive in Meyer’s hands. Dynamics were nicely handled, and the sections, were, for the most part, well-blended (the brass, of course, were too loud, but you expect that in Mahler, right?) right up to the final bars. I wondered whether Meyer would have the horns stand at their big moment; they were stationed on the highest riser upstage, and I thought they might topple off the back. They didn’t, and the clarinets played bells-up as well (is that also in the score?)

The Mozart Serenade, K.388 that was the first half of the program was tidily handled, but the Mahler was the reason for the season. It was a walk in the forest that wasn’t enchanting from beginning to end (someone put a curse on the trumpets), but the first movement is something I won’t soon forget.

IAJE Day 1

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

With the best of intentions, I had mapped out my IAJE schedule in advance, leaving oases of dead time with which to write this stuff.

Dead time. That’s what you call the days after IAJE. Panel to press room to performance to lobby and back. It’s impossible not to run into someone you know. Or want to meet.

So, hey, Jane Bunnett. How’ve you been, eh? Oliver Lake, when are you coming back to play our festival? Alyce? You’re Alyce Claerbault from the Internet Ellington list. So wonderful to meet you.

Living in flyover country, I don’t get the advantage of the chance encounters that must be second nature to New Yorkers. So, this is what it’s like to be on this scene every day?

And this is before we even get to the music during IAJE week, which, to be fair, must be more concentrated and rich than it is during an average New York week.

So, I understand that the NYC Winter Jazzfest at the Knitting Factory, where I headed after a quick registration on Wednesday night, is a once-a-year thing, and scheduling it for IAJE week was no coincidence. I recall that in the days before family and day job obligations kept me from quarterly pilgrimages to New York, every week at the Knitting Factory was a jazzfest. Still, this was the IAJE experience in microcosm: a concentrated immersion in music, schmoozing and stair climbing.

At the Knit, you can do all three simultaneously. In the downstairs ear: Liberty Ellman. Upstairs ear: Rudresh Mahanthappa. In front of me is Aldo from Montreal who wants to talk to Mino Cinelu. Behind me is a guy telling me to move it.

I choose upstairs, and it’s a good choice. Craig Taborn pulls Mahanthappa’s algebraic music in a very different direction than does his usual pianist, Vijay Iyer (he also, as I learned, plays piano cross-legged). Francois Moutin, forelock snapping and fresh from a trio gig with his brother, Louis and pianist Antoine Hervé, was a clockwork whirlwind. And Tyshawn Sorey’s punch-and-roll drumming sends the music in every direction at once. Ferociously single-minded stuff.

Lionel Loueke’s trio shared Mahanthappa’s fondness for complex rhythmic cycles, handled impressively by bassist Massimo Biolcatti and drummer (Lower Broadway Frank) Ferenc Nemeth. But his gently rippling guitar blew little ribbons of his humming and vocalizing over a transfixed audience. The set had the gentility and generosity of a lullaby.

Including brief check-ins with Joel Harrison’s End Time (two guitars, rhythm and Dave Binney), Gutbucket (No Wave shades of 1979!) and Slavic Soul Party, I didn’t hear a single bar of 4/4 swing or walking bass all night, and that was fine with me.

So was the last set led by trumpeter Maurice Brown. It had the easy charm of his adopted New Orleans and the muscle of his native Chicago. It hadn’t the mathematical precision of Mahanthappa’s or Herve’s sets, or the liquidity of Loueke’s. But harkening back to jazz origin as entertainment music, it was supremely enjoyable.

I’d tell you more but Rachel Z is asking me about her March gig in my hometown and, wow! That’s Randy Weston standing there. I was warned about this, but I gotta go.

Some things I noticed on the first day at IAJE:

    1. No electric basses. I wouldn’t see one until Peter Apfelbaum’s New York Heiroglyphics performance on Friday.

    2. No 4/4 ching-ching-a-ching swing. It took until late Friday evening to hear even one bar of it. Had I stayed closer to the convention programming instead of heading downtown every night, I probably couldn’t have made this statement. Still, those who chart the history of jazz by changes in rhythm take note: There is no prevailing rhythmic feel these days. Straight eight comes close, but anything goes. Good.

    3. Young people are going to events. All right, you expect to see them at the Knit, but I saw younger people (by my definition, people under 35) crowding clubs in the Village all week. It couldn’t be just for the scene. Some of them had to like the music, and a lot of them were visibly moved. Again, good.

    4. Older people dominate the convention (by my definition, people 50 and over). I suppose that’s to be expected, as is the impression that most (but by no means all) are Caucasian. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s hard to deny.

    5. The face of jazz in New York is increasingly European. Playing the upright bass is one of the jobs that apparently has been outsourced to non-native born players. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with it. Bass lines in most of the music I’ve heard here are amazingly athletic; these guys don’t walk. They leap, jump and run. European players have long been sought for their accuracy. Perhaps it’s in greater demand now than ever.

I guess it’s a sign no matter that some may try to claim jazz as a local, regional or American patrimony, it belongs to the world now. And the world is at IAJE.

I’m walkin . . .

It’s been some time since I was able to attend JazzErie’s annual Jazz Walk. This year, the blues has been added to the title, probably as a nod to the commercial realities of the Erie market. But I brook no quarrel with that.

It’s always a treat to hear Charles Ventrello in any context, and at the opening ceremonies at the Erie Art Museum Annex, he seemed to be indulging his looser, more crowd-pleasing instincts. Old friend Derf Hopsecger was having a fine time on piano and Charles himself seemed to be dipping into his R&B bag. It’s really fun to hear him play like that — when you can hear him. The room was simply too convivial and crowded to fully appreciate what was happening onstage.

So, it was south to whatever the Holiday Inn Downtown is called these days for Potato Battery, one of my favorite local bands. It’s remarkable how much more assertive Matt Ferguson is behind the kit than he was when I returned from Florida in 1979, and he really puts a charge into the Battery. Unfortunately, the hotel’s air conditioning system lost its charge and the room, while beautiful (the view north on State Street from the bandstand in the east window was the Erie equivalent to the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s vista on Central Park), was uncomfortably warm.

To bring my core temperature down, I headed to papermoon, a reliably air-conditioned venue. The room was cool, but the music was hot. It was a tight little band led by Basil Ronzitti, Erie’s answer to Lennie Tristano. New Yorker Ed Russell
(née Pooton), a high school classmate of mine, was on guitar and Dick Thompson on bass. But it was Brad Amidon, normally the most deferential and musical of drummers, who really kicked this band along. It was so good, that I delayed my plan to go to Scotty’s to hear Jim Madden’s trio.

I arrived in time for the last set, and though I was deep in conversation with another high school classmate (back to the future!) for much of the time, I managed to get the flavor of Jim’s music. It’s been a while since I had heard Jim (or anybody else, for that matter), and to my new ears, his music has loosened up, embraced the groove and become more extrovert. All good, as far as I’m concerned. The Brad Mehldau thing was nice, but even Mehldau has mellowed these days. The next time this band plays out, I’ll be there, and I’ll bring friends. Club owners, are you listening?