Friday, October 30, 2009

Blackout's bass player wins Thelonius Monk Award

Stefon Harris and Blackout -- outstanding young jazz artists -- perform selections from their critically-acclaimed CD release, Urbanus, tonight (Friday, October 30th) at Clayton State University's Spivey Hall. Show time is 8:15 PM (one 90-minute set, no intermission), and tickets available at the door. (From Spivey Hall's website homepage, click on the picture of Harris & Blackout to learn more about what's in store.)

Ben Williams, Blackout's bass player, is the 2009 winner of the prestigious Thelonius Monk International Bass Competition. The New York Times ran the following news item about the competition. The award includes a cash award of $20,000. Take a look at the panel of judges (!!) -- major musicians all.

Spivey Hall is proud to welcome these extraordinarily talented jazz artists to Atlanta, who have just finished another successful run at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

October 11, 2009, 11:25 pm — Updated: 1:29 pm
Thelonious Monk Competition Winner Announced

By Ben Ratliff
The winner of the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Bass competition is Ben Williams. Mr. Williams, 24, originally from Washington, D.C. but now a strong and sought-after musician in New York, is a member of Blackout, Stefon Harris’s hip-hop-influenced band. He has also performed recently with groups led by Marcus Strickland (you can hear him on Mr. Strickland’s album “Idiosyncrasies”) and Jacky Terrasson.

He won in Sunday night’s finals, playing Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricrotism,” with a rhythm section including the pianist Geoffrey Keezer and the drummer Carl Allen, and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” with the singer Dee Dee Bridgewater joining the group.

Second and third place went to two other adopted New Yorkers: Joe Sanders, 25, originally from Milwaukee, and Matt Brewer, 26, from Oklahoma City.The annual competition (this was the 22nd edition) focuses on a different instrument each year. This year, 15 contestants on acoustic bass played for 12 minutes each at Baird Auditorium at the Smithsonian, in front of a panel of judges including Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, Bob Hurst, Christian McBride, and John Patitucci. The winner was announced after the concert and finals at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The first prize is $20,000, to go toward college-level music scholarships, and a recording contract with Concord Records.

You can hear Mr. Williams with Stefon Harris and Blackout on the band’s recent album, “Urbanus,” or during its run of shows Oct. 22-25 at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York,

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

As at Spivey Hall, so at Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall's website has two audio clips about Christine Brewer's imminent recital there, which follows her Spivey Hall debut this Saturday with the same program.

Both clips include snippets of Christine's singing. Give a listen to Jeremy Geffen's description of Christine as a leading dramatic soprano not just of strength and power, but also of remarkable subtlety and nuance.

This season and every season, there are several artists performing at Spivey Hall who have just performed or are about to perform at Carnegie Hall. It's a pleasure to be in such good company!

Tickets are still available in both locations...but at Spivey Hall, you can experience her recital in the intimacy of a 392-seat hall with excellent acoustics, you can greet Christine Brewer and Craig Rutenberg afterwards, and we serve free soft drinks and (new this season) coffee and tea at intermission.

Plus, there's free, easy and convenient parking, and you don't have to hop on a plane to La Guardia or JFK! Not bad, eh?

Friday, October 02, 2009

Glorious singing: soprano Christine Brewer

There's no question about it: internationally-celebrated American soprano Christine Brewer has a truly magnificent voice. But a voice, no matter how impressive its sound, is not enough when it comes to the art of the song. In order for a singer to communicate fully to the audience, the singer must demonstrate, moment by moment, an intimate understanding, and a relationship with the meaning, of the words she is singing.

I'm proud to have known Christine Brewer for almost twenty years. When she made her first appearance with the Atlanta Symphony in the early 1990s (performing and recording the Dvorak Stabat Mater under the direction of Robert Shaw), I was the ASO's artistic administrator. Christine amazed and delighted everyone. Soon thereafter, I took a similar position at the Saint Louis Symphony. Sadly, the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus' beloved director, Thomas Peck, passed away in my time there. At his memorial service at Powell Symphony Hall, Christine (who is from the Saint Louis area and enjoyed a special relationship with Tom) sang. One of her selections was a Harold Arlen song. She performed it with tremendous heart, conveying the meaning of the words with profound sincerity, warmth, and beauty, in a very natural, loving way. She moved everyone deeply. I have often remembered the spirit she summoned through the artistry of her singing that day.

Her career has skyrocketed since she first came to Atlanta, where she is rapturously welcomed by enthusiastic Atlanta Symphony audiences in her frequent appearances. She is also a favorite recitalist at one of the world's foremost recital halls, London's Wigmore Hall, which presents so many renowned singers each season.

Finally, Christine's many fans in Atlanta may experience the magic she can conjure up in recital. She is (at last) making her Spivey Hall recital debut, on Saturday evening, October 10th. Her pianist is the excellent Craig Rutenberg, who in addition to his work at the Metropolitan Opera is a frequent collaborator in performances, recordings and broadcasts with major singers worldwide.

She has created a program of works with texts -- and music -- of extraordinary richness. Proofreading our program book for her recital, I was struck by the headiness of the Romantic texts, and the musical sumptuousness, of so many the songs Christine will sing, especially in the Wagner, Strauss and Marx works on her program.

Richard Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder foreshadow, in various aspects, the passion of Tristan und Isolde. In the second, "Stehe still!" (Be Quiet!), mortal man contemplates eternity through love:

When one eye another drinks in bliss,
And one soul into another sinks;
One nature in another finds itself again,
And when each hope's fulfillment is finished,
When the lips are mute in astounded silence,
And no wish more does the heart invent:
Then man recognizes the sign of Eternity,
And solves your riddle, holy Nature!

Since Christine first announced the details of her program, I have been waiting for the moment when she will sing Richard Strauss' "Befreit" (Relieved, Op. 39 No. 4), a song in which sound and sense are forged into a powerful beauty of spirit, inspired by love, life and death:

You will not cry. You will smile very gently;
and as if you were departing I return your glance and kiss.
Our dear four walls!
You furnished them and decorated them,
I turned them into your world --
O, happiness!

Then you will ardently grasp my hands
and will leave me your soul,
leaving me behind with our children.
You gave me all your life,
I want to give it back to them --
O, happiness!

It will happen very soon, we both know.
We have relieved each other from the pain,
so I'll give you back to the world.
Then you will appear to me only in my dreams
and bless me and weep with me --
O, happiness!

Joseph Marx's "Selige Nacht" (Blissful night) is similarly evocative:

In the arms of love we slumbered blissfully,
at the open window the summer wind listened,
and carried away the peacefulness of our breathing
into the moonlight.

And from the garden the fragrance of roses cautiously
swept over our bed of love
and gave us wondeful dreams.
Dreams of desire, so full of longing.

Such rich words. Such opulent music by which to extend them and add dimensions of meaning to their sound. Such wonderful opportunties for expression! I'm so eager to hear what Christine will make of them in Spivey Hall's excellent acoustics, which singers truly relish.

In the program's second half, words continue to hold pride of place with music, in the pungently witty Cabaret Songs that Benjamin Britten set to texts by poet W.H. Auden. These, too, provide ample occasions for the singer to create character through sound, especially with the inflection of words, careful nuance of dynamics, and finely calibrated timing and delivery. (Be sure to watch Christine's facial expressions during these.) There are some passing moments of humor, but generally they carry a bitter aftertaste...truth conveyed with world-weariness and sardonic wisdom. The Cabaret Songs assume a sombre mood to close, with "Funeral Blues" -- a poem that film audiences know from the funeral scene in the Hugh Grant/Andie MacDowell hit Three Weddings and a Funeral. Britten's music give the words vivid coloring. The final quatrains:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song:
I thought that love could last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can come to any good.

Definitely not jolly...but undeniably affecting. Words and music masterfully combined. If you've not heard these songs before, I imagine they'll stay with you long after the recital's over.

Following the Cantata by American composer John Carter, which draws artfully on the traditions of the African-American spirtual (revealing yet another dimension of Christine Brewer's amazing artistry -- be prepared for a mighty finale), the formal program closes with a selection of songs in English entitled Echoes of Nightingales -- songs that describe not only birds, hills, landscapes, and other manifestations of the natural world, but also the wealth of human emotion they inspire. The texts to some are artful and picturesque, others simpler and more direct, such as "If I Could Tell You" (music by Idabelle Firestone (1874-1954), text by Madeleine Marshall (1899-1993)):

If I could tell you
The thoughts I cherish
And all the ways you are dear to me.

A tender feeling
Of love revealing
When e're your smiling face I see.

I could capture
The blue of heaven
That wondrous rapture
Within your eyes.

If I could tell you
Of my devotion
If I could pledge all my love so true.

Then my confession
Would find expression
In all the music my heart sings to you!

Words and music. Heart and soul.

A great experience awaits us in the presence of Christine Brewer and Craig Rutenberg, who open Spivey Hall's nineteenth season of concerts by distinguished international musicians. I look forward to welcoming them, and the fortunate music-lovers who get to hear them, on October 10th. As always, fine music, superbly performed by outstanding artists, is the ultimate reward at Spivey Hall.