Sunday, March 29, 2009

Josh Ritter at Center Stage, 3/24

Last Tuesday Josh Ritter and his band shared the bill with British rockers Gomez at Center Stage in Atlanta's CW Midtown Music Complex. Sort of an odd pairing, to my mind, but they had a few dates together on the road so there must be some crossover between the two fan bases/musics.

Josh and his four bandmates bounded onstage shortly after 8 p.m., all kitted out in suits and ties. Literally, I don't think I've ever seen anyone so excited to just be onstage playing music. Maybe Colin Meloy. At any rate, Josh charmed from the start with his big, sincere smile and Garth Algar-esque exclamations of "Thank you!" at the end of every song. The band kicked off with tunes from the most recent record, 2007's "The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter," and the set ran the gamut from debut-album tracks to brand-new songs. About halfway through, Josh launched into his biggest hit, a little ditty called "Kathleen" -- and that's about when I lost my grip on the evening, because my boyfriend had been hiding an engagement ring in his pocket all evening and chose this opportune moment to bring it out. You'll forgive me if I missed some of the details...

The set wrapped up after about an hour and 15 minutes. Josh and the band left the stage but came back for a couple-song encore, ending with my other favorite tune, "Snow is gone." There was no way it could possibly have gotten better after that, so we bailed before Gomez took the stage. I'm already looking forward to the next time Josh & co. are in town, which the Josh Ritter street team/web site guy assured me wouldn't be too far in the future... here's hoping it's a headlining gig!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pebblebrook High School at Carnegie Hall

Just a quick post, as promised, to report on the National High School Choral Festival at Carnegie Hall on Friday:

The four choirs, selected from a pool of more than 80 groups nationwide, represented New York (Harlem), New Jersey (homeschooled kids!), Washington (state) and, of course, Georgia. With two choruses coming in from nearby areas, the house was packed -- though the Georgia contingent was pretty strong, given the state's proximity to NYC.

First out on the stage for a solo turn, Pebblebrook certainly did Atlanta proud. (This is the sort of impression we need to be making, continuously, on those parts of the country and the world that may erroneously think of Atlanta as a somewhat backwards place.) George Case (my friend) programmed Rene Clausen's "A Jubilant Song," Frank Ticheli's "Earth Song," and Moses Hogan's arrangement of the spiritual "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord." The real standout of this set was the Ticheli, as noted by James Oestreich in the New York Times review of the concert.

I'll admit that I'm biased toward my friend's choir, but as a connoisseur of choral music, I can say that, empirically (to my trained ear), Pebblebrook was the best of the four groups. Lovely blend, rich sound, tenors that sounded like tenors and basses that sounded like basses, which is not always a given in a high school chorus. Pebblebrook was the only chorus of the four that didn't spice up their set with "choralography." (And yes, there is a time and a place -- certainly in a high school chorus -- where choreographed movement to accompany a song is appropriate, but Carnegie Hall is not that place.) That always seems like pandering, to me, at least in formal settings.

The homeschool chorale picked a lovely, simple Eric Whitacre piece ("Lux Aurumque") and an arrangement of "My God is a Rock" that I hadn't heard before. The arrangement was fine, but the cheesy coordinated movements they made were... not. Overall, their sound was sweet, but thin; they lacked the depth of sound all the other choirs demonstrated. The choir from Washington took the choralography one unfortunate step further, incorporating stomps , sharp looks, and 90-degree turns into its pieces. It was surprising, then, that the song selection was the biggest offender in this set. Z. Randall Stroope's "The Conversion of Saul" is, quite simply, an atrocity. There was scant relief in the next song, "John the Revelator." [Juvenile sidenote: all I could think of was Trogdor the Burninator.] The powerful gospel group from Harlem got the loudest and longest ovation, to match their set of loudest and longest songs.

Michael Tippett's "A Child of Our Time" occupied the second half of the concert. The Orchestra of St. Luke's accompanied the combined choirs under Craig Jessop. Oestreich's review deals primarily with this piece (of which I am not particularly fond), so, in the interest of brevity, I'll leave its critique to the paid professionals. Congratulations, Pebblebrook!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Off to NYC

This Friday evening, a high school chorus from Cobb County will take the stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The Pebblebrook High School Performing Arts Chamber Choir was selected in late summer 2008 to be one of four groups to participate in the Weill Institute's sixth annual national high school choral festival, and Friday's concert will be the culmination of months of hard work.

The combined choruses will perform Sir Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time under the baton of Craig Jessop, best known for his work as director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, accompanied by the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Each choir will also present repertoire under its own conductor. My longtime friend George Case runs the vocal and choral programs at Pebblebrook, so he'll be making his own Carnegie Hall debut as a conductor -- only the first of many successful Carnegie appearances to come, I'm sure. I'll report back on how Atlanta represented at the concert later this weekend.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Location, location, location

If you keep up with Atlanta's print media, you probably saw late last week, either in the AJC or Altanta Business Chronicle, that the board of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has endorsed a new site for the location of a long-anticipated, state-of-the-art home for the orchestra. ASO President and CEO Allison Vulgamore sent an e-mail to the chorus Thursday night so we would know before it we read it in the papers: part of the latest 25-year master plan for the Woodruff Arts Center proposes a new hall at the northwest corner of Peachtree and 15th streets, contiguous with the current campus and utilizing the existing hall's underground infrasturcture and rehearsal spaces.

Original plans had a dramatic Santiago Calatrava-designed hall tucked away on 14th street, behind what is now the King & Spalding skyscraper at 1180 Peachtree. With a price tag of $300 million, the ASO needed nearly a third of that amount in state and city support to realize the hall, but the money never came in. It was suggested in the media that the symphony seek a less flamboyant design and focus on constructing an acoustically superior hall; instead of shelling out for Calatrava's iconic "postcard for Georgia" design, cut costs with an austere exterior. Others defended the design, saying Atlanta had too long languished in architectural mediocrity. After the state's budget was approved in early 2006 sans funding for the ASO, I remember a long period of silence on the matter. (Although the fundraising campaign in support of Calatrava's signature structure was suspended more than two years ago, part of his design is still employed as part of the ASO's logo and branding. I'm guessing that will change once a new design is in place.)

The announcement that there is, at long last, a plan in place is welcome news indeed. This proposal would entail taking over Callaway Plaza, currently used for drop-offs and valet parking, and necessitate the demolition of parts of the existing Woodruff Arts Center in order to accommodate a 2,000-seat hall on that site. Masterplanning is ongoing and has not been tied to any particular timetable, but the announcement is nevertheless encouraging -- especially since the board had considered no less than nine configurations of facilities based on four different locations for the hall.

Vulgamore will meet with ASO chorus briefly before Monday's rehearsal. If there's any further news that I am at leisure to share after that meeting, you can find it here later this week.

[Calatrava rendering from]

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Backstage Pass: Recording with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

This past weekend, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed a program featuring music from two living composers with local ties: Jennifer Higdon, a Philadelphia-based composer who is claimed as one of the "Atlanta School," and Alvin Singleton, who served as ASO composer-in-residence from 1985 to 1988 and resident composer at Spelman college from 1988 to 1991. In addition to three performances, the orchestra and chorus put in extra hours on Saturday and Sunday to record Higdon's The Singing Rooms (2007) and Singleton's PraiseMaker (1998). (The orchestra also recorded Alexander Scriabin’s Le Poeme de l’extase, the final piece on the concert.)

Making a recording with hundreds of people onstage is quite an undertaking, which is to say that it is a long process that requires patience, abundant reading materials, and comfortable, quiet footwear. For the ASO chorus, it also necessitates more junk food than a group of 200 could reasonably consume in a week or more. There's no great magic to it -- aside from the resulting music, ideally -- but I've had enough friends and acquaintances who know I'm in the chorus inquire about the process that I thought writing about it might be a good way to kick off this blog. For those among you curious about what happens in a 4-hour symphonic recording session, this is a glimpse into the glamorous backstage world of the Woodruff Arts Center.

Before any of the musicians arrive, the production team will have attempted to transform the shoebox hall into a somewhat more resonant space, an effect achieved by laying out plywood atop seats in the first several rows and on the side aisles, going all the way to the back of the auditorium. About a dozen plywood panels lean against the back wall. On Sunday, I counted more than 150 sheets of plywood. Essentially an extension of the stage, the surface creates a floor on which to place some of the microphones while also enhancing the acoustics of the hall.

The chorus is usually called an hour before the orchestra so we can warm up and spot-check for 30 minutes before we have to turn the stage over to the instrumentalists. During the subsequent half-hour, the chorus scatters: to the vending machines, the dressing rooms, the lobby gift shop, the hallway outside our basement rehearsal space. Meanwhile, members of the orchestra amble to their places and start playing to themselves, working out difficult passages. Right on the hour, Robert Spano arrives on the podium, accompanied by Russell Williamson, the orchestra's personnel manager, who stands beside him and claps his hands once to get everyone's attention. A reminder to turn off any cell phones or other noise-making devices is issued, Russell departs the stage, and principal oboe Liz Koch sounds an A so the orchestra can tune.

At this point, Elaine Martone, longtime ASO collaborator and producer for Telarc comes over the sound system, introduced by a loud, dull click. Speaking from a control room behind the stage, she chirpily greets the musicians, and then it's down to business, from the top.

At left is the all-important red light. When the light is on, tape is rolling, and you had better not sneeze, shift your weight, or turn a page loudly. Or, you know, biff an entrance.

Each recording session begins with a complete run-through of the piece, or at least the first movement. In a longer work with no breaks between movements, like the Higdon, Robert and Elaine agree on a good stopping point. Unless something really egregious happens early on, we press on toward the end in spite of any cracking horns, creaking risers, and misplaced final consonants, just to get the whole thing down. When reach the final cutoff, everyone onstage freezes in silence for a few seconds. Robert quietly folds his hands in front of him and waits for Elaine's voice over the speaker: "Twenty minute break."

Robert grabs his score and walks briskly offstage, back to the booth with Elaine, the composer(s), and Norman Mackenzie, director of choruses, to review the playback and see what needs to be patched (or re-recorded entirely). While they're busy listening, the musicians are enjoying a break. Of the chorus, some hang out on stage and read, but most people head downstairs to check by the self-furnished snack table. There are usually a few healthy items in the spread, but more often than not the table is covered in cookies, chips, and leftover holiday candies. The few homemade items disappear quickly. In the lounge area that we share with the Alliance Theatre, a group of tenors and basses plays cards around a table while other chorus members settle into the available chairs with paper plates piled high.

Back onstage, Russell claps and everyone comes to attention. Robert, just off a brief smoke break outside, calls out a measure number and once again, the red light switches on. We work, long stretches at a time, from the beginning of the piece, or movement, to the end. During a pause between sections, Elaine or one of her offstage cohort may give direction as to what they are looking for: better intonation, more dramatic dynamics, a clean release. After about another half-hour, we break again so Robert can go over the recording.

Twenty-minute break. The composer has sent dozens of cookies down to the snack-hall for the chorus... wouldn't want them to go to waste. Choral administrator Jeff Baxter rings a bell (not unlike the recess bell from elementary school), signaling that we are to get back in position on stage for more. This time, it's the second half of the piece, all the way through. Twenty-five-minute break. More cookies.

After a few cycles like this, we have captured satisfactory performances of most measures of the piece. The final half-hour or so of a session is often a back-and-forth between Robert and Elaine: "Do you have measure 485?" "Yes, but I do need the three bars before that." Compared to the earlier pace of recording, this is the lightening round. We put down bursts of music, which Elaine will later carefully stitch into the longer tracks. Robert and Elaine ask each other and the orchestra if there are any more spots to be picked up -- as soon as the answer is no they thank all the musicians, and the chorus clambers offstage and spills out onto Peachtree Street. In the space of two four-hour sessions, we created definitive recordings for both pieces with chorus. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention the exquisite violin soloist, Jennifer Koh, who premiered the Higdon last year in Philadelphia as well.)

That's the long version. In short, the recording process involves plenty of waiting and often a lot of repetition of music that can wear on one's voice. It can be tedious, for sure, but the end result is ultimately worth the sacrifice of a weekend.

Sasha Frere-Jones answers your questions

Last month, New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones's number was up for Ask the Author, a regular blog feature on the magazine's website. He answered readers' questions about specific artists, copyright issues, and his writerly process, and kindly dispensed some wisdom for aspiring music journalists. (He even gave Kaki King a shout-out. Holler.) If you haven't read it yet, it's definitely worth your time. Here's a snippet:

Isn't music criticism just a veiled attempt to create an exclusive canon of what's cool?
David Kootnikoff
Hong Kong, China

I thought it was an overt attempt to get a seat in the balcony.

Ding! You can find the whole Q-and-A here.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Welcome to Atlanta Arts Review

As a native Atlantan, a musician, a journalist, and an avid consumer of culture high and low, I have long been utterly frustrated by the way arts and the media interact (or don't) in my hometown. While I am grateful that the ever-dwindling Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff still fields two full-time arts critics/reporters, the fact that the powers that be discontinued the ATLarts blog, which had focused on fine art and classical music reviews, makes quite a statement about the paper's commitment to cultural coverage. Even pop music slots in Atlanta's reigning alt-weekly, Creative Loafing, have been reduced to blink-and-you'll-miss-them size. (Other weekly rags seem to have dispensed with music and the arts altogether. *cough* Sunday Paper.)

In response to this sad state of affairs, I've started this blog. I plan to post thoughts on or full-fledged reviews of concerts, shows, and events I attend, which will be anything from improv at Dad's Garage, to Mahler at the ASO, to Neko Case at Variety Playhouse (I hope... does anyone have two extra tickets? E-mail me!). By no means will it be comprehensive -- I'm only one person, after all, and I can't drop all my money on tickets, as much as I might like to. I do try to keep myself open to new things though, so if you have a recommendation of something I should check out, feel free to drop me a line. Beyond reviews, I may on occasion ponder Atlanta's media, business, and political news as it relates to the arts. (There should be plenty of the latter as the mayoral race heats up.) I'll also include a few posts from an insider's perspective, since I'm a singer and a member of the ASO Chorus.

It's my hope that this address will become a regular stop for culture-loving Atlantans and a starting point for lots of conversations in and around the arts community. Thanks for reading!