Tanglewood Festival Chorus: 40th Anniversary

TFC 40th Anniversary

This year’s CD release of Tanglewood Festival Chorus: 40th Anniversary marks a number of interesting milestones. First, it is the first time the TFC has headlined a recording (rather than participating alongside the BSO or Pops, or on a soundtrack) since 1983’s Nonesuch recording Kurt Weill: Recordare/Dallapiccola: Canti di Prigionia (surely a collector’s item now). Second, of course, it celebrates the 40th anniversary of the chorus in a significant, tangible way.

Third, and best of all, it collects examples of the superb Prelude concerts that the TFC has put on at Tanglewood over the last ten years in the evocative space of Seiji Ozawa Hall. (Disclaimer for all superlatives: I don’t sing on any of the performances on this disc, so my conflict of interest as a reviewer is minimal.)

The repertoire is a mix of old friends (the Lotti “Crucifixus”, Bruckner motets, Bach’s “Singet dem Herrn Ein Neues Lied”) and slightly less familiar works (the Martin Mass is performed in its entirety here). Reception to the disc has been good; Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe singles out the Bruckner “Virga Jesse Floruit” for “robust and hearty singing,” and calls the Bach a “wonderfully vibrant performance” and “the highlight of the disc.”

For me, the highlight is the closing work, Copland’s “In the Beginning.” I’ve sung the work twice in performance with various groups and the TFC performance recorded here is simply superb, beginning with the performance of soprano Stephanie Blythe and carrying through all the chromatic chord changes, tricky rhythms, and shifts of mood as the Genesis story unfolds.

And that’s no small trick: the Copland is a work with many layers. The piece is in no specific key or meter, but visits about twelve different tonalities throughout, all with hummable melodies and each yielding to the next in a slow chromatic rise of pitch throughout the piece until the final lines are sung in an ecstatic seventh above where the music started. And the work embodies multiple shifts in musical voice, neatly signalling the (presumed) change in authorial voice from the P author (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3) to the Redactor (Genesis 2:4a, “These are the generations”, which Copland’s performance direction indicates should be sung “rather hurriedly,” as if to get it out of the way), and then the conclusion, the story of the creation of Man as told by the J author, the oldest part of the story, which seems to rise out of the mist like the clay that is fashioned into man and breathed full of the divine breath. (Wikipedia has a good summary of the theory of differing authorial voices in Genesis.)

The TFC performance neatly captures all the layers of the work–the differing sections are full of the excitement and exultation of creation and then, in the end, its mystery and a more solemn gladness. Until now, I don’t think I had a good reference recording for the work; this certainly qualifies. The overall effect of the recording is captured in the summation of the brief Globe review: “Oliver conducts eloquently in this well-deserved recognition of the chorus’s anniversary year.”

Originally written for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus newsletter.

Review: Virginia Glee Club, Songs of Virginia

Virginia Glee Club recording first Songs of the University of Virginia, Old Cabell Hall, 1947
The Virginia Glee Club recording first Songs of the University of Virginia, Old Cabell Hall, 1947.

This is a review of a new CD from the Virginia Glee Club that is available for purchase on the group’s website.

This is the season of Virginia Glee Club CDs. After a long drought, Frank Albinder’s years as director are finally documented with not one, but three new recordings available now: Virginia Glee Club Live!, Christmas with the Virginia Glee Club, and Songs of Virginia. The latter disc is the most ambitious of the three, and is unique among recent Glee Club recordings for being a thematic recording rather than simply capturing the group’s repertoire at a point in time. The theme: songs of the University of Virginia, as documented through old recordings, sheet music, and books, and running the gamut of the group’s existence.

The recording project won a Jefferson Grant in April 2008, and the group has been at work since researching and recording the songs. The provenance of the songs is extensive, with some performances echoing the 1947-1951 recording Songs of the University of Virginia, some later songs (such as “Vir-ir-gin-i-a”) that were documented in 1972 on A Shadow’s on the Sundial, and some that are only known in published form, for instance from the 1906 Songs of the University of Virginia songbook. The earlier Songs recording is the most prominent touchpoint, with “The Cavalier Song,” “Rugby Road,” “Hike, Virginia”, “Yell Song,” “The Good Old Song,” and “Virginia, Hail, All Hail” all reprised, five with accompaniment from the Cavalier Marching Band as in 1951. The remaining tracks on the original recording, including the Eli Banana and T.I.L.K.A. songs and “Mr. Jefferson’s favorite psalm,” were wisely discarded in favor of more interesting repertoire.

The rest of the repertoire includes some of the more interesting selections from the 1906 songbook, including “The Orange and the Blue,” “In College Days,” “Here’s to Old Virginia,” and “Oh, Carolina!” (in an updated arrangement), as well as other fight songs and alma maters (“Virginia Chapel Bell” and the “Rotunda Song” are especially touching). Lyrical authenticity is kept–football songs that refer to the University’s ancient and quiescent rivalries with Princeton and Yale keep their original references, rather than being updated to reference more modern opponents. (It was regular practice when I sang in the group to substitute Maryland for Carolina in the lyrics of “Just Another Touchdown for UVA.”) The liner notes are thorough and well illustrated, featuring a few photos that have appeared on this blog, albeit without explanation–see my earlier notes on why the Glee Club wore dresses in 1916, and how the old Cabell House was tied to the Club’s birth. My hat’s off to the students and director of the group for their research–though I am credited on the liner notes, the only direct contact I had during the process was providing some scans of the cover of the Songs of the University of Virginia record that weren’t used.

So enough about the repertoire–how’s the recording? In a word, wonderful. Dusty old songs like “Oh, Carolina” are given sharp new readings that ought to stir up the UNC rivalry (imagine singing “See the Tar Heels, how they’re running/Turpentine from every pore/They can manufacture rosin/but they’ll never, ever score” in Scott Stadium today!), while more familiar standards like the “Good Old Song” and “Virginia Hail All Hail” are made more potent by being put in the historical context of the song. Perhaps one minor quibble is the balance–melody lines in the second tenor and baritone are sometimes overshadowed by more prominent high harmonies–but this is a small point in the scope of things.

Bottom line: if you are an alum of the University, you ought to own this recording. And Alumni Hall ought to be giving copies out at Reunion.

Charlottesville dinner: L’etoile

Ah, Charlottesville. You continue to surprise me, even after I thought I had experienced it all. Superbly professional at the C&O? Check. Deep beer list and occasionally funny, regularly reliable bistro fare at Michael’s? Check. Surprisingly regionally wonderful at the late lamented Southern Culture (ah, the sweet potato fries!)? Check. Late night emergency room visit after the mushroom soup at the late unlamented Northern Exposure the night of my graduation? Uh, check.

But nothing prepared us for dinner at L’etoile tonight. Well, appetizers at Michael’s helped. But seriously: duck confit amuse-bouche was a tiny morsel of duck perfection. Sweetbreads: large yet delicate and just browned, with bacon and mushroom demi-glace lending depth beneath. Trout, superbly prepared with a turnip puree holding together just enough Virginia ham and peas still toothsome…. and that’s just what I had. Turns out they’ve been around for more than ten years and we never had found them—until tonight, when sitting over beers at Michael’s, Lisa gave my iPhone a shake, and Urbanspoon came up with the name.

Alas, Charlottesville! As various cleverer people than I have said, I would go back there tomorrow, but for the work I’ve taken on.

Friday listen: In My Tribe, 10,000 Maniacs

I wrote a long time ago about getting my Denon DP-45F turntable fixed up, and shortly thereafter hinted that I was about to start ripping my records en masse. Then… well, life intruded. I ripped some Beowulf, early and not-so-early Virginia Glee Club records, and not a whole lot else.

Why? A few reasons. First, time. Where ripping a CD can be done in much less than the time to listen to it, and in the comfort of an armchair, an LP requires at least as much time to rip as to listen to it. Then there’s taking the file, leveling it, splitting the tracks, importing them to iTunes, and then (because of a bug in Amadeus Pro’s lossless AAC files) reimporting them as AAC. So for one record, it takes the evening. And one unsuccessful rip–there was a lot of surface noise on my copy of Peter Gabriel II–put me off the project for a good long while.

And now? I finally got around to ripping my vinyl of 10,000 Maniacs’ early hit In My Tribe, and it was a revelation. The sound from the ripped vinyl was superb, and the music was superb…er. The opening chords of “What’s the Matter Here” were as gripping as the lyrics are depressing; “Hey Jack Kerouac” and “Like the Weather” were similarly moving and dynamic. Listening to the record took me back to when R.E.M. played a lot of 12 string and when indie meant Guadalcanal Diary and the Connells. The second half of the record lags a bit, but the final song, the unpromisingly named “Verdi Cries,” was moving and insightful.

In these recessionary times, there’s something to be said for rediscovering music through vinyl instead of paying to download it again. Even if it takes an evening to get the music on one’s iPod.

Hungry for more Hungry Mother

I’m back in the office for a day after a few days off. What a wonderful Christmas–time well spent with family. I even enjoyed the last Holiday Pops concert we did last Saturday, as well as reading about the audience reacti0n. (Aside: that’s possibly the creepiest concert review I’ve ever seen.)

Last night Lisa and I took a rare night off and went to Hungry Mother in Kendall Square. I’ve been thinking about this place since the first reviews came up last summer, and we finally got to visit. Delightfully, it’s just around the corner from the apartments in which we used to live in Cambridge (formerly known as Worthington Place, now apparently Archstone). The location used to house a neighborhood bar, and now it’s home to this little foodie jewel. Gentrification? Maybe, but the food was so worth it.

First: I don’t know who’s responsible for the cocktail list, but they ride a fine line between insanity and genius. I had a #43 (rye whiskey, tawny port, maple syrup(!) and bitters) and Lisa had a #47 (applejack, aperol, and bourbon). Both were outstanding though a little bit on the deceivingly strong side. Then the meal: a starter of tiny little ham biscuits, fried oysters, shrimp & grits, and fried catfish over hoppin’ john.

Lisa sniffed at the biscuits (she said “I’ve been spoiled by your uncle,” a reference to our breakfasts out at the Moose in Asheville), but said the ham was quite good, though she wouldn’t touch the pepper jelly. I thought the individual components were outstanding–the biscuits crusty to soft, the ham smoky sweet, the pepper jelly perfect–but the balance was off when they were together, as the ham disappeared in the mix.

The fried oysters arrived at the same time. These were all for me–though I offered them to Lisa, she shied away. And I’m selfishly glad she did. They were perfect. If you look up perfect in the OED, there’s a picture of these oysters next to the definition. Breaded in cornmeal and fried till the breading reached a dark brown, they were crunchy outside, soft and sweet inside, and the kohlrabi cole slaw was a cool crunch alongside it. The cornmeal breading reminded me of catfish dinners at Warwick Memorial United Methodist Church off Denbigh Boulevard in Newport News, a summer staple growing up, and it wasn’t until early this morning that I realized that the net effect of the breading was to provide a supplemental “hush puppy” flavor right alongside the oyster. At dinner I mentioned how much I liked the breading to our waitress, and she said, “Ask your wife for some of her catfish.”

Right on cue the entrees arrived. My shrimp and grits were good; Lisa’s catfish was divine. Meatier, with fewer bones and less grease than the church fish fry version I remembered from childhood, it was evocative of my childhood but its own distinct fish. It was superb.

I’d like to go back and try everything else on their menu. I’d also love to sit down and chat with the chef sometime to see if he could squeeze a little more Tidewater into the menu–there’s no such thing as a Virginia cuisine, but what’s there at Hungry Mother is evocative enough of what I recall that I’d love to see what he could do with fried chicken, soft shell crabs, Brunswick stew, Bull Island clam chowder…

I’m also left wondering about how the Surrey House is these days. Before the I-664 bridge, we used to ride the ferry to the South Side to have lunch here after church, and it was a little surreal trip into the past. The menu looks the same as it did then, right down to the she crab soup (but did they also have turtle soup then?).

Shannon Worrell’s The Honey Guide is released

Looks like The Honey Guide dropped a little early. I happened to search for Shannon Worrell on iTunes last night and the album was already there; her MySpace page said it wouldn’t be available until this morning.

I’m listening now and it’s pretty wonderful. I’d listen to her sing the phone book, I think–her voice is that mesmerizing–and it’s nice to hear the voice again. The rest of it is deceptive. There’s more open space in the arrangements–quite a few of her old tunes were all vocal, all the time, and the very first track features an extended instrumental break–but there are more musicians in her band, I think, than ever before. It sounds like country, but that’s mostly the pedal steel–there are the same tight sinews underneath that powered her September 67 songs. And then there are the songs that are out of a different tradition: the echo, shuffling drums, and organ of “If I Can Make You Cry” feel like they came from somewhere unstuck in time near Louisiana. “Sweet Like You” is intimate and dreamlike.

But the lyrics. As always, Shannon’s songs are drenched in images, but where on Three Wishes she was tapping Greek myth and children’s TV, here the songs are swaddled in something simultaneously more personal and a little closer to Greil Marcus’s “old weird America.” The narrator of “Sweet Like You” wants to set her love floating down the James River. Kitchen tables rise and fly. Giant stars are removed from mountaintops. And lovers call from countryside bars because the bartender took their keys.

The Honey Guide is better than a note from an old friend: it’s a letter from a strange place. In its deepest waters it feels like a warmer version of Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood; in other places it feels like afternoon by a fire. Highly recommended.