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Live Review: OC Times at Napa Union High

Posted by: on Mar 1, 2009 | Comments (0)

Plenty of acapella groups these days, especially college acapella groups, revel in the cheekiness of performing unlikely songs in an acapella style. So many, in fact, that the “offbeat” performances are the majority, and the unlikely becomes likely, and the old-timers in the audience long to hear “Heart of My Heart” or “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball” instead of “Carry On My Wayward Son.” This doesn’t make hearing fantastic versions of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” or John Legend’s “It Don’t Have to Change” any less enjoyable, but it does mean that sometimes, acapella groups act more like a DJ whose sets are all about selection instead of technique. Mika’s “Grace Kelly” is not necessarily made good simply because it has been chosen, nor is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” going to further bless an overly “Hallelujah”-ized world due solely to being performed without instruments.

Many of these interesting experiments reside on YouTube, but last night, they arrived live and in-person at Napa Valley Union High School’s theater. The 4th Annual Acapella Extravaganza contained plenty of vocal-only jams by Toto, the Beatles, Eric Carmen and the like, though the real reason I made the one-hour drive was the addition of OC Times, who are currently the world’s greatest barbershop quartet. That’s not just superlatives falling out of my mouth, either; they truly are the world champions according to the foremost authorities: S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A.

Why the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, after existing 76 years with the beautiful acronym S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., changed its name to “Barbershop Harmony Society” is beyond anyone’s imagination. Refreshingly, a sizable backlash contingent still calls the organization S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., while the main thing is that there’s even an organization at all that promotes a dying part of our heritage. The core ideals remain the same—sing the hell out of that tag!—and the annual contest is a fine determiner of the barbershop quartet with the most talent and style. So when it was announced that current S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. champions would be performing in Napa, how could I stay away? (Lots of my friends and family have already discovered quite a few reasons, thank you.)

OC Times opened their set with “Oh! Look at Me Now,” from 1941, which paved the way for a concert more Brill Building and less MTV Music Awards. Contemporary hits were limited to “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident)” by John Michael Montgomery, from 1995, and then going back to “What a Wonderful World,” which entered the barbershop repertoire long ago. Plenty of 1950s doo-wop songs peppered the set—“So In Love,” “Teddy Bear,” “Sixteen Candles”—but it was classic barbershop arrangements of “Come Fly With Me” and “Blue Skies” that highlighted most a sharp performance.

Part Elvis, part Sinatra; part Nashville and part Los Angeles, OC Times has such a pitch-perfect blending of voices and timbre that it’s no wonder they’re the country’s best. Words can’t really convey how absolutely in step each phrase sounds. A little too-corny patter helps, too, and they keep one of the great S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. traditions alive by holding afterglows (casual receptions with singing and mingling) after their performances. By the time they sang their final number, “A Fool Such As I,” I was glad I made the drive, and ventured back to Santa Rosa with a heart, as they say, full of song.

P.S. One of my favorite acapella renditions right now is Of Montreal’s “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games),” memorized and medleyized by The Stereotypes, from Washington University:

Live Review: Philip Glass at the Napa Valley Opera House

Posted by: on Feb 21, 2009 | Comments (0)

I said everything I needed to say regarding the experience of seeing Philip Glass play live in this concert review from the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, in 2007. That said, seeing Philip Glass play the piano is not an opportunity to be missed, because his music is more about how one reacts to it than what it sounds like, which is, pointedly: the same as it always does.

Philip Glass had performed his 3 1/2-hour opus Music In Twelve Parts at Davies Symphony Hall a few nights earlier, so playing a solo piano show for 90 minutes in Napa might not have seemed like a big deal to him. It was a huge deal, however, to the full house on Thursday night, who in the wonderfully intimate theater were treated to Mad Rush, Metamorphoses No. 4, 3 and 2, some Etudes for Piano (even Glass humorously forgot which ones), and Closing, from his Columbia album Glassworks. Some people leaned forward, enraptured. Others either sat politely, or swayed back and forth to the repetitive patterns, or fell asleep. I closed my eyes and got lost in it all, thinking about love, family, and the future.

Margrit Mondavi, whom the Napa Valley Opera House theater is named for, was sitting way up in the balcony, and afterwards, when Glass came out to the lobby to meet his fans, she presented him with a few bottles of wine. Watching Mondavi, who has done so much in support of the arts, share a warm conversation with Glass, who essentially personifies “the arts,” was pretty intense. Glass then took a good half-hour or so to sign autographs, answer questions, and take photos with his fans. Again, this mightn’t have been a big deal to Glass, but everyone was happily surprised that he’d be so accommodating, and it transformed a great concert into a special night.

Festival del Sole: Joshua Bell at Castello di Amorosa

Posted by: on Jul 17, 2008 | Comments (4)

It wasn’t the castle. Nor was it the exquisite views, or the wonderful weather, or the feeling of being in a pastoral renaissance drama. It wasn’t even the awe-inspiring performances, though they ran a tight second.

No, what made Joshua Bell’s appearance at Castello di Amarosa tonight so infinitely remarkable is that during the intermission, while still bathed with perspiration from a dominating run-through of Grieg’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3, Joshua Bell hopped off the stage, strolled down the aisle, and hung out.

Classical musicians do not “hang out.” Classical musicians of Bell’s caliber, especially, do not “hang out.” But there he was, doing just that, hanging out—chatting with fans, charming old ladies, signing programs for young violinists, and taking photos with visibly bowled-over members of the audience.

You don’t get this kind of close camaraderie at Avery Fisher Hall or the Kennedy Center. But in the Napa Valley, Bell thinks to himself: What the hell. I’m at a castle, it’s kinda weird, and these people seem cool. I think I’ll stand over near that cast-iron dragon head under the coat of arms unfurled on the wall and, you know, hang out.

Bell’s casual presence didn’t diminish the absolute seriousness and command he demonstrated on stage just moments before, in an utterly stunning display of precision, taste, and verve alongside the excellent pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Jogging onto the stage in an untucked white shirt, magazine-current haircut and winning smile, Bell raised his bow and dove hungrily into Grieg’s sonata. Containing numerous passages which in the hands of others might be choppy or scratchy, the piece proved a demonstrable showcase for Bell’s glassy smoothness. Flawlessly quick changes from low growls to feathery high notes abounded, and Bell’s final note of Grieg’s second movement—reaching as high as the violin can play—had the gossamer quality of untouched water at dawn.

It may be a cliché to imagine an instrument as an outgrowth of the body, but if so, the cliché begins and ends with Bell. His 1713 Stradivarius protruded from beneath his chin as an extra appendage, a thing incomplete when it is not next to him and—in ways—vice-versa; he played it as if brushing back hair, natural and thorough. His connection was just as strong with Thibaudet, who joined Bell in a telepathic understanding of the piece and of each other, handling his end with a marvelous touch at the piano.

Bell has been performing the Grieg sonata for some time now, and it’s high time he recorded it. No doubt the crowd tonight would nominate Thibaudet as his studio mate. At the end, after the intricate plucking and ferocious dance passages of the third movement, the audience was on their feet, bringing the pair back to the stage for three separate sets of bows—all of them more than deserved.

Opening the concert was soprano Lisa Delan, in a light purple dress with thin straps, singing the world premiere of Gordon Getty’s Four Dickinson Songs. A moving and often daring musical adaptation of four Emily Dickinson poems, the work nonetheless received a lukewarm reception, despite Delan’s dramatic interpretive ability. After the intermission, Thibaudet returned to the stage with the Rossetti String Quartet for a perfectly thrilling Piano Quintet in F Minor by Brahms. Like Bell’s performance, it was joined somewhat charmingly by the near-constant sound of birds chirping in the sky above the castle’s great outdoor room.

Festival del Sole co-founder Barrett Wissman was in a cream-colored suit jacket and black slacks, nursing a plastic cup of red wine; his wife, the cellist Nina Kotova, wore a chic black dress, diamond earrings and a gigantic amethyst necklace that attracted comments every ten feet or so. The Castello di Amarosa, too, was done up nicely; even the posts holding up the stage tent were covered in a faux stone to match the castle walls, as film crews from PBS were on hand, recording for a special.

But it was the close atmosphere and the proximity to greatness that defined the evening. In fact, at one point, while poking around upstairs, who should I see through a small stone window but Joshua Bell himself, in the castle’s dressing room, blowdrying his hair. It was a strange and beautiful moment, and one that I was glad I had my camera for.

All in all, it was a truly memorable night. More photos below.