Sounds of the City

lang langWhen describing his jazz-fused masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue, created in 1924, composer George Gershwin once said, “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” Almost 100 years later, the wildly popular pianist Lang Lang, whose latest offering, New York Rhapsody, was released on Sony Classical last month, recently told the Wall Street Journal that “When I hear Rhapsody in Blue, I see the Empire State Building somehow.”

And so one rhapsody begets another. Rhapsody in Blue is the centerpiece of a crossover album that offers homage to the city that never sleeps, with appearances by an array of artists from the fields of pop, jazz, and classical. Whatever one can say of the choice of selections, from an eclectic group of composers ranging from Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland to Danny Elfman, Lou Reed, and Jay-Z, they are not the expectedly clichéd (no “New York, New York” here, thankfully).

Lang had lofty goals as he went about preparing the album. “One of the greatest stories in the history of human creativity was written in this city – and I wanted to tell it,” he says in the liner notes. That story, an eventful sonic progression from jazz and Broadway all the way to punk and hip-hop, is an ambitious one, though the results here are a bit hit or miss.

On the hit side is a creative mashup of “Somewhere” (from Bernstein’s West Side Story) alongside Reed’s “Dirty Blvd,” featuring Lisa Fischer and Jeffrey Wright. Fischer’s vocal is probably the finest of the album, which also serves up a rare miss from Andra Day, who’s no competition for Alicia Keys on what’s become another signature Big Apple anthem, “Empire State of Mind.” Sean Jones struts a terrific trumpet on “Tonight” (also from West Side Story), but Madeleine Peyroux’s rendition of “Moon River” leaves some wistfulness to be desired.

The use of two little-known pieces by Copland – “Story of Our Town” and “In Evening Air”new york rhapsody – to open and close the album was the idea of Larry Klein, the Grammy-winning producer and brainchild behind the New York Rhapsody project. Both are less soaring than contemplative and capture the “pockets of peace and quiet beauty” that exist within the “vortex of New York City,” in Klein’s words.

Rhapsody in Blue is, of course, where Lang gets to show off his chops, along with the 76-year-old Herbie Hancock – still in fine mettle – and a spirited London Symphony Orchestra. A reprise of an abbreviated performance by the two at the 2008 Grammys, it features both a playfulness and grandeur that highlights two consummate pianists doing what they do best.

In a serendipitous bit of timing, the Chinese-born Lang, now 34, was recently chosen to be New York City’s first-ever “Cultural Tourism Ambassador,” the latest in a long list of plaudits since he burst on the classical music scene in 1999 as a prodigious teenager lionized for his brash and bold technique. Settling into superstardom can always become predictably complacent, so it’s nice to see him trying to expand the audience. It’s New York, Lang says, “that turned classical into this wonderful mess of new sounds and styles.” With New York Rhapsody, the experiment continues.

[Lang Lang’s New York Rhapsody will be featured on the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center on November 25.]

First published as Music Review: Lang Lang – ‘New York Rhapsody’ at Blogcritics.org

Max Richter: ‘Sleep Remixes’

max richter sleepMy first thought when I heard about British composer Max Richter’s eight-hour opus, Sleep, was of Andy Warhol’s avant-garde film of the same name, made in 1963, and depicting a man in various phases of slumber over a six-hour period. It was met with boos back then, but its conceptual quirkiness is now seen as yet another aspect of the Warhol genius.

Richter is considered a bit of a genius himself in contemporary classical music circles. I first became familiar with him via his masterful reworking of Vivaldi’s baroque chestnut, The Four Seasons, released on the Deutsche Grammophon label in 2012. In a piece for Blogcritics which appeared that year, this reviewer wrote that “His [Richter’s] magnificent melding of past and present shows again that great works of art are organic things, which, in respectful hands, can be reshaped into something fresh and wondrous and altogether new.”

Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

Rebel Rebel

[A repost of a piece I wrote about David Bowie in 2014. A visionary musical hero and artist who never ceased evolving, a singular and revolutionary influence whose talent impacted so many aspects of the creative arts — what a void he leaves. Good night, Sweet Duke.]

david bowieI don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.
— David Bowie on his 50th birthday, 1997

The amazing creative ride that’s been the half-century career of David Bowie, now celebrated in what promises to be the blockbuster David Bowie Is exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, spectacularly proves – as if further proof were needed – how the cultural icon has always been remarkably true to that promise.

Bowie’s assorted artistic personas, from The Thin White Duke to Ziggy Stardust (outrageously androgynous at a time when the concept was still considered exotic) defined reinvention in a time before Madonna. But what really put him in a league of his own, beyond his ever-nonconformist individuality, was his extraordinary impact on so many fields beyond music – fashion, film, and the graphic arts among them.

Just because, I’ll throw in some fun facts I was unaware of (or didn’t remember) about Bowie that I ran across as I read about the exhibit. He changed his real name, David Jones, in 1965, to distinguish himself from Davy Jones, later of the wildly popular group, The Monkees. (“Bowie” came from the knife of the same name.) “Space Oddity” was actually timed to coincide with the 1969 landing on the moon. (Written, incidentally, when he was only 22.) And he also played The Elephant Man on Broadway in 1980, to much critical praise.

Beyond the trivia, and back to the music, I thought about my own favorite Bowie album, Station to Station, and particularly, its two alliteratively titled arias, “Word on a Wing” and “Wild is the Wind” (the latter originally recorded by the crooner Johnny Mathis in 1957). In truth, relistening to the album in 2014 shows how far ahead of the pack Bowie was in 1976, at a time immediately prior to those lost years of pop music known as disco.

Possibly only Bowie could take the melodramatic lyrics of “Word on a Wing” (“Lord, Lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing”) and send them soaring into art-rock territory. But he goes into full chanteuse mode with the intentionally over-the-top cover of “Wild is the Wind,” his vocal making you forget the mawkishness of such sentiments as “You touch me, I hear the sound of mandolins.” It is strangely unforgettable.

Though perhaps not the most famous tracks on Station, which also includes the chart-topping “Golden Years” and the classic “Stay,” the ballads are emblematic for me of Bowie’s chameleon-like talents – and reminders of what a versatile singer he truly was.

In another lyric from “Word on a Wing,” Bowie wrote: “I’m ready to shape the scheme of things.”

Which pretty much sums up his incredible career.

[David Bowie Is runs through January 4.]

All in “Jest”

adams absolute jestThere’s a rather oversized hint of an elephant in the room in the fanciful cover art for the world premiere recording of Absolute Jest by John Adams. His name is Ludwig van Beethoven.

Recorded live at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall in 2013, Absolute Jest, written in 2012, features the San Francisco Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas, along with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The second piece, Grand Pianola Music, from 1982, was conducted by Adams himself earlier this year. Both are fascinating examples of a contemporary artist’s absorption of classical themes into a modern vernacular that is imaginative, witty – and original.

                                       Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

Timeless Troubadour

james taylorFOR TODAY’S GENERATION  of pop music fans, the initials “JT” may stand for Justin Timberlake. But for those of a certain age, they will always be synonymous with another JT: James Taylor, who – lo and behold – recently scored his first No. 1 album on the Billboard music charts at the age of 67 with Before This World, his first recording of original material since 2002.

Read the full review at Blogcritics.org

Simply Sinatra

sinatra

“Reinvention” as it applies to an artist’s career is a term that’s been thrown around a lot (Madonna and Lady Gaga are obvious examples), but I also couldn’t help but have it foremost in my mind as I watched HBO’s new two-part documentary on Frank Sinatra, who would have turned 100 this year.

Nicknamed “The Voice” many decades before the current talent show of the same name, Sinatra was a proverbial phoenix who rose from the ashes at a critical professional (and personal) juncture in the early 1950s, when, as the broadcast reminds, it looked like the Elvis Presley of his generation would be relegated to the dustbin of pop sensations whose time had come and gone. But with an unlikely Oscar in tow (supporting actor for From Here to Eternity in 1954), he sprung open the doors on a remarkable renaissance and never looked back, all the way to his death in 1998.

The musicologists and historians can take care of the details of an unparalleled career, but I like to remember what Sinatra meant to a teenager a bit out of touch with her contemporaries, via a fondness for a vocalist whose ascendance in the public consciousness came in an epoch long before I was born. I recall that my fellow adolescents found it a little odd when I made a cassette with a song set of Sinatra’s on one side, and a selection from David Bowie – more in keeping with my generation – on the other. Far from antiquated, Sinatra’s music was like a silk tonic to me; his interpretations of the timeless standards by the impeccable songwriter Cole Porter were particular favorites, with an elegance and genius of musical phrasing that were indelible. (No, my young friends didn’t get it. Maybe they do now.)

A handful of years earlier, at the just out of tweens age of 13, I had found myself in a London restaurant with the film femme fatale (and Sinatra’s great passion), the actress Ava Gardner, on my first trip to Europe. It’s an experience I wrote about in another post, but suffice to say Ol’ Blue Eyes has been on my radar from quite an early age.

Sinatra: All or Nothing at All is not a perfect documentary (its four-hour running time could have been trimmed considerably) and perhaps more could have been made of Sinatra’s interest in expanding the pop genre (the “concept” albums of the ’50s, for example) or the many composers who influenced him deeply. (His collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim is an album I cherish, as fresh today as the breezy Brazilian wave it rode in on in the ‘60s.) Still, the biography serves well as a primer for new generations to assimilate a talent whose likes, alas, will probably not be seen – or heard – again.

To paraphrase the title of the book by the journalist Pete Hamill… Sinatra will always matter.

Glass Act

PhilipGlass3Among love ‘em or leave ‘em lists of contemporary classical composers, Philip Glass is one of those who usually ranks equally high in both categories. I would describe his work as an acquired taste, and one that I will admit I happily acquired as a teenager, thanks to his crystalline Glassworks, which mesmerized me with its hypnotic repetitions and abstract contours that created a blank slate for the imagination.

Start a discussion amongst classical music aficionados about Glass (whose memoir, Words Without Music, is published next month) and you can be sure it will be nothing if lively. For every one that considers him among the greatest composers of the 20th Century, you can find many others with opinions similar to that of a critic at London’s Telegraph, who once wrote, “Listening to Philip Glass is about as rewarding as chewing gum that’s lost its flavour.”

As is the case with most classical composers, mass consumption usually comes via popular media, and to the general public, Glass is primarily known for his contributions to numerous films, perhaps most notably his score for The Hours, nominated for an Academy Award in 2002, and more recently, the Russian production Leviathan, from last year.

Glass is one of those artists whose work I’ve continued to dip into on and off through the years, long since the classic Glassworks was etched into my creative consciousness. Case in point is a new recording of Glass compositions for solo piano, Mad Rush (nicely performed by Lisa Moore, who’s been called “New York’s Queen of Avant-Garde Piano”). As usual with any great creator who’s marked by the longevity and prolificacy of Glass, you’ll invariably manage to find some gems.

Here, it’s Metamorphosis, a piece in five movements that’s a self-contained primer on all that’s idiosyncratic about Glass’s work. It’s loosely inspired by the Franz Kafka novel of the same name (the literary masterpiece, one will recall, is about a man’s transformation into a cockroach).

Metamorphosis is all about evolvement; yet this interpretation is ultimately more about a journey out of one existence only to metaphorically retreat back to where it began. The playful arpeggios that are sprinkled against a background of the signature Glass repetitions seem to signify wonder at the mutation, but the last movement, almost identical to the first one, implies more stasis than transition. Not surprisingly, as with anything by Glass, it will leave you pondering as to its true meaning.

Speaking of pondering, it’s inexplicable to me that Glass has yet to be recognized with a Presidential Medal of Arts, or at the very least a Kennedy Center Honors award. I’ll assume those will come (though Glass is already 78, so let’s step it up). Surely he ranks up there with past recipients like American composers Elliott Carter and William Bolcom as far as his influence on modern music.

Meanwhile, time to give the evergreen Glassworks yet another listen — for old time’s sake.