Sunday, December 11, 2011

Noam Pikelny at Smith's Olde Bar, 12/9

Finally, it could be ignored no longer. Jesse Cobb, eyes toward the ruckus upstairs, strummed an E minor chord, rocked back and forth, and belted a chorus in lock-step with the thunderous sound from above. “Last dance with Mary Jane/One more time to kill the pain.” Gabe Witcher on fiddle, picked up the lazy guitar riff, passing it to banjo player Noam Pikelny. Hilarity ensued.

Performing to a sold-out, multi-generational crowd in the tiny, oddly shaped Atlanta Room of Smith’s Olde Bar, Noam Pikelny’s group had continually tried to laugh off the Tom Petty cover band playing the main room upstairs, even though occasional bursts of sound through the open doorway threatened to sometimes derail Pikelny and co.’s acoustic bluegrass.

"Just in case you're confused, this is not the Tom Petty cover show," Pikelny had explained earlier in the evening, before launching into the first tune, a traditional-sounding original called “Jim Thompson’s Horse.” For the next two hours, the band — rounded out by vocalist Aoife O'Donovan, guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Mark Schatz — performed nearly all of Pikelny’s sophomore release, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, along with a few older originals and a smattering of bluegrass standards. Never once did they seem overly annoyed by what was happening above, but the extra noise had to be distracting.

Last time Pikelny appeared in Atlanta was as a member of the Chris Thile-led Punch Brothers — a thrilling, phenomenal band that plays a blend of modern bluegrass infused with popular music — at a packed Variety Playhouse. Though the Smith’s show had sold out a week before the concert, and fellow Punch members Witcher and Eldridge were in tow, this was a very different Atlanta experience.

Pikelny, the inaugural winner of Steve Martin’s bluegrass award, writes pure bluegrass tunes. But instead of using more traditional banjo rolls and techniques, he has taken a page from Bela Fleck’s playbook, expanding the instrument’s range and making use of the entire fretboard. His chords aren’t the usual fare, and his improvised lines sound jazz-based. Pikelny's version of bluegrass stays more grounded in tradition than his cohort Thile's compositions for the Punch Brothers, but the banjo player loves to push boundaries. It helps that he’s surrounded himself with the some of the bests purveyors of this new music, which is, in a sweeping generality, a young man’s game.

Throughout the night, the group played as a well-balanced, tight ensemble, with short solo breaks that always paid service to the song as a whole and not individual egos. O’Donovan lends her voice to one song on Beat the Devil, but here she shined on multiple occasions, including a duet with Witcher on Buck Owens’ “Before You Go.” Schatz, who performed clawhammer banjo on “Cluck Old Hen” (Steve Martin plays that part on the CD), also broke out his tap shoes for a stirring instrumental duet with Cobb.

In a fake documentary for Beat the Devil on, Pikelny presents himself as diva vocalist who, despite his terrible voice, simply wants to sing a few tracks on his new album. This was obviously a joke, but Pikelny bared his fragile voice during an intimate version of the folk tune "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone" to close the show. The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, yes. But we might not have to wait for long. The Punch Brothers are set to release an album in February; a tour through Atlanta, but perhaps not a repeat Pikelny vocal performance, is sure to follow.

- JR

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Josh Ritter at Variety Playhouse, 11/18; Kaki King at The Loft, 11/19

The weekend before Thanksgiving was full of music for me, as every good weekend should be. Friday night Josh Ritter returned to Atlanta's Variety Playhouse on his "mostly solo, mostly acoustic" tour. Zack Hickman, the bassist in the Royal City Band, with which Josh regularly tours, played upright and provided harmony on about half of the tunes; Sarah Harmer, from Kingston, Ontario, was a solid opener and also joined Josh for a song during the encore. It was a seated show, which is unusual for what I normally see at Variety, but it actually suited the vibe of the evening quite nicely.


Here's the stellar set list with links to some guy's YouTube videos of the new tunes Josh played, the titles of which I'm totally guessing on. They're all pretty awesome.

  1. Come and Find Me
  2. Rumors
  3. Me & Jiggs
  4. Wolves
  5. Long Shadows
  6. Southern Pacifica
  7. The Temptation of Adam
  8. Rattling Locks
  9. Harrisburg
  10. Girl in the War
  11. [New Lover Now]
  12. You Don't Make it Easy Babe
  13. [Sarah -- a song inspired by Sarah Palin]
  14. Galahad
  15. Lantern
  16. Good Man
  17. Best for the Best
  18. [Untitled new song]
  19. Monster Ballads
  20. Kathleen
  21. To the Dogs or Whoever
  22. Change of Time

  23. Bone of Song
  24. Hard Times Come No More (with Sarah Harmer)
  25. Snow is Gone
Josh Ritter gets better and better every time I see him. He's someone I'd recommend anybody who loves music go see, because he is so good at what he does and always so happy to be doing it. He hinted that he'd be back on the road in the spring, so I've got my fingers crossed for another Atlanta stop.


ON SATURDAY night, Atlanta native, Kaki King, had a show at The Loft at Center Stage, her first hometown gig in quite some time. (Appropriately, the first song we heard over the sound system upon entering the venue was a Josh Ritter tune.) If you don't know of her, she's an innovative, mind-blowing guitarist. Among many other projects, she worked on scoring for the movie Into the Wild, a.k.a. was nominated for a Golden Globe along with Eddie Vedder. Yeah. She has also recorded and toured with the Foo Fighters, was a hand-double in the movie August Rush and has a bunch of awesome records out.


She brought along seven different guitars -- many custom made for her -- and played them all, explaining what distinguished each of them as she went along. It was a super mellow show, but a ton of fun. CNN was there filming for an upcoming music segment; I'll try to remember to post a link when it airs. In the meantime, look Kaki up if she's new to you. She lends Atlanta some serious music cred.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra announced today that Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles has extended his contract, which was to end in the 2010-2011 season, by another year. WAHOO!!! There was a lot of speculation among members of the ASO Chorus during our recent trip to Berlin about how much longer we might have the privilege of singing for Maestro Runnicles, so this is wonderful and welcome news. Here's the symphony's official press release:


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Board Chair Ben Johnson announced today that the contract for Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles will be extended for one year, through the 2011-12 season. Following the end of his contract, Mr. Runnicles will continue to appear as a guest conductor with the Orchestra for two weeks annually — he currently appears four weeks each season.

“The excitement and fulfillment of working with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra deepens for me each year,” said Mr. Runnicles. “I have such confidence in both this Orchestra and Robert’s leadership, and look forward to continuing our musical partnership.”

Music Director Robert Spano and Mr. Runnicles, whose tenures with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra began in the 2001-02 season, are currently in their ninth season with the Orchestra. At the end of Mr. Runnicles’s contract, they will have shared more than a decade of shaping the Orchestra’s musical direction.

“Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles have formed a superb artistic team with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra over nearly ten years,” said Mr. Johnson. “The Orchestra has never sounded better and the team has grown together in stature and reputation. Robert and Donald have created a bond with not only the musicians, but with the people of Atlanta, and it was the shared desire of the entire organization to keep the team in place. We are delighted that Donald will continue on the team, and we look forward to our continued journey together.”

“It is my greatest joy to work with this Orchestra — and I can think of no better artistic partner and friend to share in this journey than Donald,” said Mr. Spano. “I am so happy to have him here, and I look forward to all that lies before us.”

“Robert and Donald have, for nearly a decade, helped shape musical perspective and programming within this Orchestra and throughout the country,” said Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Interim CEO Donald F. Fox. “The ASO has, for years now, been a hub of creativity through performances, presentations, and learning forums, all inspired by the work of our artistic team. We are so honored to have Donald here through the 2011-12 season, and look forward to all he and Robert will continue to create.”

“I am so proud to have led the search that brought Robert and Donald to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2001,” said Woodruff Arts Center President and CEO Joe Bankoff. “To have watched the Creative Partnership grow this Orchestra as a whole has been tremendous. Keeping this artistic team in place for another couple of years thrills all of us here at the Arts Center, and we look forward to continued innovative and exciting music-making from this great Orchestra.”

* * *

PRINCIPAL GUEST CONDUCTOR DONALD RUNNICLES is now in his ninth year with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This season Mr. Runnicles took up two new top artistic posts in Europe — General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. For 17 years, he was the Music Director and Principal Conductor of the San Francisco Opera, where he conducted more than 60 productions in over 350 performances. Mr. Runnicles is also Music Director of the Grand Teton Summer Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Last month Mr. Runnicles brought the ASO Chorus back to the Berlin Philharmonic, for their third visit with him, this time for lavishly-praised performances of Brahms’s A German Requiem. He has also brought the ASO Chamber Chorus to Carnegie Hall for a performance of Mozart’s Requiem with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

Mr. Runnicles’s recordings with the Atlanta Symphony include a critically acclaimed concert disc with soprano Christine Brewer singing Strauss and Wagner; Mozart’s Requiem; Orff’s Carmina Burana; and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, among others, all on Telarc (with whom the Atlanta Symphony has had a 30-year recording relationship). During that time, the Orchestra has recorded more than 100 albums, and its recordings have won 26 Grammy Awards. Also in Mr. Runnicles’s discography are a highly praised live recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde released in 2007 by Warner Classics, with Christine Brewer and John Treleaven; Britten Billy Budd with Bo Skovhus, Neil Shicoff and the Vienna State Opera; a Grammy-nominated recital of German Romantic opera arias with tenor Ben Heppner; “Ring” excerpts with the Dresden Staatskapelle; Humperdinck Hänsel und Gretel; Bellini I Capuleti e i Montecchi; and a disc with soprano Jane Eaglen of works by Strauss, Wagner and Berg.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

ASOC in Berlin: Der Tagesspiegel review

Well, Jeff Baxter, choral administrator to the ASOC, beat me to the punch on translating the review from the Tagesspiegel. You can read the original German here, or Jeff's translation below:

Large & Refined
A monumental experience: Donald Runnicles conducts the "German Requiem” in the Philharmonie.

Can that go well? Is it not an eternity ago that 200 singers filed onto the stage for an oratorio? A monumental practice that is long obsolete for Romantic era works, especially for Brahms' "German Requiem" which in reduction and concentration almost resists the overwhelming potential of large form?

One dares question his own ears when, in the Philharmonie, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus commences: There a word like “selig” is in such a way articulated that there is hardly a noticeable break between the syllables, as if the ensemble had became large with Baroque tonal inflection. There one finds colors of piano which are actually physically impossible with such large forces, for instance the infinitely tender interjection "Ich will euch trösten,” which allowed the soprano Helena Juntunen to sing more intimately still. This choir, prepared by Norman Mackenzie, also displays a stylistic sensitivity which in angular compressions can foreshadow Mahler's Eighth and later in gentle confidence sound like a piece by Mendelssohn.

The Berlin Philharmonic deals appreciably with this intelligent, extremely text-oriented attitude that also describes bass-baritone Gerald Finley: never roaring, unrestrained in the tenor range, but pleading. Conductor Donald Runnicles satisfies there the role of a reliable guide. The gestural vocabulary of the Deutsche Oper Music Director is quite small, securing a dignified recognition but also the novelty of the evening. Sebastian Currier’s Harp Concerto (with the Philharmonic’s Marie-Pierre Langlamet as soloist) is a suite of well constructed tableaux which fit into each vacation home: noncommittal arts and crafts with tonal centers through which a harp glissando gladly flows into a triangle ping.

After this Philharmonic-commissioned premiere work by the 50 year old American, Johannes Brahms is only to be discovered anew as quite progressive. By the last words of the choir, one sees a universe as much unredeemed as free. Shouts of praise for the exceptional singers from Atlanta.

(Translation, J.W. Baxter)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

ASOC in Berlin 2009: Berliner Morgenpost

This short review was a little bit easier for me :) For the original German, click here. For my English translation, read on!
200 singers ennoble the "Deutsche Requiem"

The greatest surprise of the evening with the Philharmoniker under Donald Runnicles, the henceforth music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, was the guest appearance of the almost 200-head chorus that is otherwise a part of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

The choir revealed itself in Brahms’ “Deutsches Requiem” as an authoritative, intensity-creating massive instrument that rose completely to the powerful rendition that Runnicles consistently demanded of it.

More still: the choir articulated the German text with extraordinary care and empathy. The excellent Berliner Rundfunkchor could definitely learn from their American colleagues in this respect. Johannes Brahms’ “Deutsches Requiem” is no musical stick-in-the-mud. It clearly sings forth the call for good deeds where faith is concerned without centering on liturgical directives. It is a work of freedom of faith, based on the great apparatus which the Liedertafel (part-song singing groups) all over 19th-century Germany had prepared. That cemented the success of the work until the present day.

ASOC in Berlin 2009: Berliner Zeitung review

I spent the last nine days with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus in Berlin, where we performed Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem" with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Our Sunday performance was broadcast live online via the Philharmonic's digital concert hall, where it lives on in the archive as well, so I plan to check that out myself soon -- people I know who watched gave the experience and the concert good reviews.

In the meantime, I thought I would exercise my usually dormant German skills, which were awakened over the past week, and have a go at translating some of the reviews (with the help of LEO, of course). There were a few thorny parts, but I gave it my best shot. Here's the most recent one, from Tuesday's Berliner Zeitung:
Brahms "Deutsches Requiem" at the Philharmonic
Martin Wilkening

At the Philharmonic, Donald Runnicles is the man for musical mass-spectacle. After Britten’s “War Requiem” and the Grand Death-Mass from Berlioz followed Brahms' "Deutsches Requiem" this weekend. And as with the previous musical requiems, the chorus of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was again guest performer, with nearly 200 members a mammoth organism of nevertheless astonishing flexibility.

The singers are non-professional, which brought this performance its own direct and somewhat uneven tone-color from the outset – just as the sheer number of participants did. The declamation of the text was not only perfectly understandable and as good as accent-free, but furthermore possessed a moving simplicity and naturalness, without overly sharp consonants and without exaggerated accented individual words – in and of itself a clear two-dimensionality, as fits the expression of such a large mass of voices. This concept found its strongest moments in the quiet singing, whereas the choir’s sound sometimes lost its compactness when it got good and loud.

Runnicles moved the massive sound-apparatus with unagitated aplomb. His direction, as economical as it was insistent, consistently held the singers and instrumentalists effortlessly back in an inwardly animated piano. Both soloists sang hauntingly: effortless and flexible, Gerald Finley sang nobly, the soprano Helena Juntunen with a somewhat stereotypical tremolo. The connection between Brahms’ Requiem and the first half of the concert remained incomprehensible. “Traces,” from New York composer Sebastian Currier, here receiving its world premiere, came into being as a co-commission of the Philharmonic foundation and the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, of which Runnicles is the music director. One doesn’t have to use Brahms as a standard for all things musical – but a somewhat more substantial piece would have been more appropriate than Currier’s mellifluous five-movement concerto for harps and a rather small orchestra, which on the one hand indulged in sketchy, fragmented tune-painting, on the other articulated his thoughts with penetrating diffuseness that so predictably followed one after the other: the triad to the microtonal chord and vice versa, the appealingly mysterious expanse of tones to the contemplative melody, and the other way around. That Marie-Pierre Langlamet, the orchestra’s solo harpist, is an exceptionally gifted musician was only superficially apparent.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chatham County Line at Eddie's Attic, 10/2

Hello, whoever is out there! Sorry for the prolonged hiatus over the summer and into the fall. I had a pretty significant family emergency to deal with, and I also didn't go to a whole lot of concerts. I did see Eddie Vedder at the Cobb Energy Centre and Sir Paul McCartney in Piedmont Park, but those were both pretty much too awesome for words.

This past Friday night I went to Eddie's Attic to see Chatham County Line, a bluegrass quartet out of Raleigh, N.C. They'll be knocking around the South for the next couple months, so if they're passing through your town you should definitely get out to see them.

All four of the guys are strong musicians, and they sing around one mic in tight, clean harmonies. The picture above is blurry because they almost never stopped moving -- it was a really high energy show, even during the ballads. I'd heard one or two cuts off of CCL albums before I saw the show, and although those sounded great, nothing compares to seeing these guys live. Put them on your shortlist!