Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fine Arts Quartet at the AGH

I went to hear the Fine Arts Quartet last Sunday afternoon in the Tannenbaum Pavillion at the Art Gallery of Hamilton with some trepidation.

Fine Arts Quartet
Ralph Evans, Efim Boico: violins
Juan Miguel Hernandez: viola, Robert Cohen: cello

It interested me that they were going to play some relatively new music (by Corigliano and Glass). I had read the impressive ensemble's history so I knew they'd be really good players. It was in an attractive venue. I could be there in 15 minutes (even with Beckett Drive still closed) and I wouldn't have to pay for parking.

On the other hand, I'm no aficionado of solo string music in spite of having written considerable orchestral music. My experience as a beginning violinist at Teacher's College left me with the utmost respect for those who can coax beautiful sounds from bowed string instruments. For me, beginning to learn to play violin as an adult was an exercise in contortionism and few sounds (dare I say noises) are more unpleasant than those that come from the instrument of a beginning violinist.

The players were seated on a raised platform on the long wall opposite the floor to ceiling windows. The room was about two-thirds filled but I was told that they usually sell out. In this configuration there are, I estimate, 150 chairs. The sound is good, for string quartet at least, and even sitting in the back row I had a good view of all the players who were about 30 feet away.

They opened with the Beethoven Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2. This is Beethoven in mid-career when he was 29 years old. It's a cheerful piece with lots of contrast and reminded me of Piano Sonatas of the same period. So far as I could tell, the playing was really wonderful. I wasn't prepared for the range of articulations and dynamics, nor for the incredibly tight ensemble playing which continued throughout the recital.

They followed with John Corigliano's Snapshot: Circa 1909. It's a one movement piece inspired, Corigliano writes, by a photo of two children: his uncle with a guitar and his father holding a violin (he would grow up to be, for 25 years, the Concert Master of the New York Philharmonic). It's a thoroughly tonal piece in which the violist often plays pizzicato in imitation of a guitar. It provided an interesting counterpoint to the Beethoven which had opened the concert.

They closed the first half with the Philip Glass String Quartet #2 . I really like Glass's music and have heard lots of it including a dazzling performance of Akhnaten at the English National Opera. In this case there are four movements, adapted from incidental music for a stage work, Company, based on a short novel by Samuel Beckett. The music is typical Glass Minimalism, generated out of short arpeggiated figures that are presented at the opening of each movement, the "themes" being closely related. Each movement ended suddenly as if the players had run out of music to play.

After a break the performers played Franz Schubert's D Minor Quartet. It's called Death and the Maiden because the second movement is made of variations on the first section of the Schubert Lied Der Tod und das Mädchen.

The Fine Arts Quartet gave a tour de force performance of this piece which must be a pillar of the string quartet repertoire. It allows the performers the opportunity to display virtuosity both individually and collectively as Schubert the Romantic requires many tempi, dynamics and, most importantly, moods of them. I came away very impressed.

I'll certainly be back to hear more from this series. There are four more recitals in Chamber Music Hamilton's series this season.  They're $30 at the door and are all at the AGH, all but one on a Sunday afternoon.

I should mention that at the next concert on Sun. Nov 17,  the Cecilia Quartet will play the première performance of a new piece by Abigail Richardson-Schulte, the Composer-in-Residence of the Hamilton Philharmonic.

Incidentally, subscribers (and Hamilton Spectator readers) learned that the February 15th HPO concert will be the last for their conductor Jaime Sommerville. The Orchestra has already struck a search committee to find a new conductor.

It's too bad he's leaving. The orchestra has flourished under his leadership. He also established the What Next? new music festival and is an advocate for New Music. We attended their final concert in the spring and decided on that basis to become HPO subscribers!


Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Little About Cover Songs

Everyone knows what a "cover" is. Some singer or band has a hit and sometime later another artist records the same song in a different version. Sometimes the new version is a copy of the original. Sometimes, not. One of my faves is the David Bowie's version of the Beach Boys God Only Knows. It's very different from the original. A lot edgier.

In the case of the song which is the subject of this blog, I heard the cover version first, really liked it and only then did I become familiar with the original. I wish it'd been the other way around.

I had listened, many times, to Leslie Feist's cover of the Bee Gees disco hit, Love You, Inside and Out.

I didn't know the original until I looked it up on YouTube, but Feist's version is pretty neat.


I've a special place for the Bee Gees because the first professional band in which I played performed a medley of their 60s hits. I quit the band to go away to university and I didn't listen to the Bee Gees (or much other popular music) for years after that. I've never seen Saturday Night Fever and was only vaguely aware of the Bee Gees disco recordings.

Bee Gees in the Sixties

I should mention that the Brother's Gibb had a string of pop song hits in the late sixties, kind of disappeared, then returned with a vengeance some ten years later with a parade of disco hits from their Platinum selling album Spirits Having Flown, some of which are played in Saturday Night Fever, a dance-drama in which John Travolta played his breakout film role.

John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

The original recording of this great song, has a mix of 1979 synthesizer sounds and acoustic instruments including strings, horns and percussion, accompanying Robin Gibbs' high solo vocals and two of his brothers singing the harmony lines (all in falsetto) all produced by Robert Stigwood.

It's just a pop song, but a helluva pop song. The lyrics are hardly great poetry but the same has been said of some of the standards in the Great American Songbook.

Pay particular attention to the rising string scale that usually follows words "inside and out" (beginning of the chorus) in sixteens (doh, re, mi, fah, sol---). I've linked to this version with the lyrics on purpose.

Twenty-five years on, Leslie Feist covered this song. This time it's mostly her voice and electronics. It's produced (and some of the instruments played) by Gonzalez who was Feist's collaborator and producer at the time. With today's technology, it's hard to know what acoustic instruments are there, but every sound, whatever its source, is clearly placed in the mix. Especially with headphones, the listener can pick out all the individual instruments.

What a difference in the sound! The clean and detailed 2004 version is very different from the "over the top" full Disco orchestration of the original, replete with doublings and reverb. There are so many different sounds mixed together in the original that it's sometimes difficult to figure out who's playing what.

The tempo is a little faster. The form of the song (including the shortened verse after the first chorus) and all the main features of the original arrangement are still there. You'll notice the ascending scale passage that follows the lyrics "inside and out" is played on a synth instead of violins.

The meaning of the lyrics is transformed when a woman sings the song. I'll bet that's what attracted Feist to the song in the first place (and that's why I suggested you read the lyrics, first time through).

Really good songs can be altered and re-arranged. Many pop songs lose their centre when they're pulled apart and reassembled. It was the arrangement and the total effect of all the components that was interesting, not the song itself.

Black Eyed Peas songs are like that. They're sectional, depending on changes of instrumentation and the band's two vocalists to hold the audience's attention. Songs like I Gotta Feeling wouldn't survive having their elaborate arrangements removed and being performed by one or two fully clothed performers.

Inside and Out, transformed into a ballad, might even stand up to a solo performance by one singer with a guitar. Someone like Feist. I'd like to hear that.