Category Archives: Music

Seattle Opera’s Full-Throated ‘Nabucco’ Powers Past its Awkward Staging

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Verdi’s Nabucco opened last Saturday night at McCaw Hall, with the run continuing through August 22; it will be broadcast live next Saturday evening, August 15, on KING-FM. A smash hit when it was first presented in 1842, it still has that power, which one experiences most strongly in the music in Seattle Opera’s production. The singing is magnificent from everybody, chorus included.

The opera, Verdi’s first major success at age 29, is dominated by the role of Abigaille, which has in the past been considered a voice killer. It has to be sung with ferocious and acrobatic intensity most of the time, but includes a few tender moments as well. Seattle Opera’s former general director Speight Jenkins heard Mary Elizabeth Williams sing it and determined to bring her here to repeat the role. She has performed it all over Europe and it’s good to report that it has not destroyed her voice. Soprano Williams was a Young Artist here in 2000-01 and has gone from strength to strength. She was superb and terrifying as Abigaille, despite a tendency to be a hair under the note on her top Cs. Her acting was splendid and menacing, and in her gentler moments she sounded exquisite.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, making his debut here as Zaccaria, sang with deep well-cored, authoritative richness, a foil to Nabucco, sung by baritone Gordon Hawkins. To begin with Hawkins sounded a little as though he was losing his core, but the voice tightened up and he gave a memorable performance, particularly as a weakened fuzzy-minded old man. Young mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Fenena, new here, has a truly beautiful voice with depth and nuance. She will surely be back, while tenor Russell Thomas, another Young Artist graduate, singing Ismaele, is another it will be a pleasure to hear again. In short, every voice was a joy to hear.

The story, with a libretto by Temistocle Solera, is a highly imaginative, emotionally extreme version of the biblical story of Jerusalem’s sack by Nebuchadnezzar, and the subsequent exile of the Hebrews to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar (or Nabucco, as he is called here) takes both his daughters to war with him. One, gentle Fenena, is captured by the Hebrews, only to be freed by her Hebrew lover, Ismaele, negating her hostage value. The other, Abigaille, is consumed by ambition, frustration (she wants Ismaele), and rage against anything in her way, including her father. In Babylon, Nabucco pronounces himself a god and demands worship. The Hebrew god smites him with lightning (a startling lighting moment), he goes mad and weak, and Abigaille seizes the moment to grab the crown, ordering the death of all the Hebrews, including Fenena who has embraced the Hebrew god. They are all about to be slaughtered when Nabucco renounces Baal, embraces the Hebrew god, regains his strength, and cancels the slaughter. Abigaille takes poison and dies in remorse.

In an unusual format, the orchestra spans the middle of the McCaw Hall stage, with the proscenium pushed out over the pit, no doubt with the intention of bringing the major protagonists closer to the audience, thus making the experience more intimate. This extra 20 feet or so may have worked for those in the front half of the orchestra stalls, but didn’t make much difference for those further back, and the division of the stage and visibility of the orchestra made for awkward moments and stilted staging. It didn’t, however, affect vocal or orchestral sound.

In all but one chorus, the Hebrews and Babylonian soldiers stay in the back part of the stage, behind the orchestra. There are only two ways for them to move, left and right, so when the soldiers attack and one would expect the Hebrews to scatter every which way, they can’t. When the Hebrew high priest, Zaccaria, exhorts and comforts them, he is facing the audience from the front of the stage and his flock is behind him. There are several moments like this which don’t feel natural in this staging by François Racine.

Perhaps because of the narrowed front stage, movement around tended to be more static than we usually see here, even when the chorus came on in front to sing the famous “Va pensiero.” Trained by John Keene, it outdid itself and received prolonged applause. However it was jolting to see conductor Carlo Montanero applauding them also from his podium. Montanero paced the performance deftly, keeping the orchestra well balanced with the singers, surely not an easy job with the unusual positioning.

The backdrop sets of Jerusalem and Babylon are abstract, changing video projections by principal designer Robert Bonniol. One vaguely suggests the temple and its destruction, but with a dead horse head and neck in the middle, which seemed mystifying until a couple of acts later when Nabucco mentions his horse. The most concrete are the famous hanging gardens of Babylon presented as plants in huge bubbles which descend from the flies. Mostly they are somewhat puzzling. Props are minimal, just one stool in one act, one large modern chair with side table in another.

With sumptuous blue and gold for the Babylonians, and simple red and brown for the Hebrews, Ginette Grenier’s costumes made welcome splashes of color.

Ever So Android: Electronic Rock, Emphasis on the ROCK

Ever So Android (photo: Ben Bobzien)
Ever So Android (photo: Ben Bobzien)

The thin line between abrasion and accessibility is a hard one to straddle for any band utilizing industrial electronic sounds. Seattle duo Ever So Android pull that balance off big-time on their debut full-length Disconnect, an epic rock record whose industrial backbone never comes at the expense of its soul.

The band’s two members, vocalist Hope Simpson and multi-instrumentalist Drew Murray, generate one unholy and ravishing racket. It’s temptingly easy to compare ‘em to early Nine Inch Nails—Murray’s clattering, throbbing, grinding mix of electronic and natural percussion definitely plants some of its roots in Trent Reznor’s rhythmic approach—but once Murray kicks the guitars in and Simpson opens her mouth, Ever So Android becomes an earthier animal.

The synthetic back-masked whooshes that form the intro to Disconnect’s first track, “Moment,” rapidly give way to a concise guitar riff that alternately follows and jabs at the drums, and Simpson’s drama-drenched windstorm of a voice counters the spiky directness with a tribal trill that’s disarming in its primal sexuality.

The rest of Disconnect’s tracks rarely let up, with Murray’s rhythms bashing and burbling while his axe kicks up mutant variations on swaggering hard rock (“Cradle Robbers”), blues stomping (“Leash”), greasy Zeppelin mega-riffage (“Don’t I Have a Say”), and driving pogo-ready new wave (“Learn to Crawl”). Simpson, meantime, fronts the songs with the kind of pipes that send music scribes burrowing through their verbal file cabinets for superlatives. Her voice soars over, growls at, and encircles the tunes with astonishing power and total abandon, without ever losing velocity or veering off-pitch. When most modern rock fuses electronics with organic urgency, the results usually reflect artists struggling to maintain their humanity in the face of the machinery: Disconnect is the exhilarating sound of two human beings (three, if you count veteran producer Bill Rieflin and his punchy, expansive production) resolutely making technology their bitch.

I suppose the relentlessness with which Ever So Android pile-drives their music could be perceived as a liability in some corners: Even “Dirty Fingers,” with its skittering introductory dance shuffle and some of Simpson’s most nuanced vocals, shifts into high tribal-goth gear within twenty seconds. But in a world where electronic music is dominated by ice queens and incalculably arch hipsters, Ever So Android’s in-your-face approach feels refreshingly visceral and immediate. Rage on, guys.

Ever So Android play their CD release party for Disconnect tonight, Friday August 7, at the Crocodile Cafe. Show begins at 9:00 p.m., withTen Miles Wide (formerly The Mothership), The Mama Rags, and the Hollers sharing the bill. Tickets available at thecrocodile.com, or at the door.

A Very Model of a ‘Pirates of Penzance’ from Seattle’s G & S Society

Seattle is fortunate to have one of the best Gilbert & Sullivan troupes around—and has had for the past 61 years. This year’s production of that perennial favorite, The Pirates of Penzance, opened Friday at the Bagley Wright Theatre for eleven performances (weekends through July 25th: tickets here). Although this is the ninth time the company has presented it (first in 1956), each production has new ideas and clever, imaginative touches while never adulterating the tried-and-true base of the original work.

This time it is as fresh as if they had never performed it before, and also shows a changing of the guard. There are new faces everywhere in this production. There is a noticeably younger generation on stage in roles both principal and chorus. Mike Storie has stepped down from producer (for the past 18 years) in favor of Kim Douglass (who worked with him, and whose title is now producing artistic director), Christopher Nardine has succeeded Christine Goff this year as stage director, and many of the singers are new to the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society. This is all as it should be and it is a pleasure to report that the true G & S spirit is unchanged and the production as lively, charming and fun as always, much as devotees may miss performers they’ve expected to see forever.

One unchanged old-timer, Dave Ross as the Major-General, has lost none of his inimitable ability to sing pattersong at warp speed while making most of it audible to the audience. His daughters, all 12 of them, are young, pretty, vivacious and good actors and singers, while the heroine, Shelly Traverse making her Society debut as Mabel, is as pert, cute, and feisty as she is intended to be and an excellent actress as well. To have one of her sisters be a bookworm is a delightful touch.

The Sergeant of Police (Michael Drumheller) goes night stick to cutlass as he attempts to arrest the Pirate King (Brian Pucheu) in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of 'The Pirates of Penzance'. (Photo:  Patrick André)
The Sergeant of Police (Michael Drumheller) goes night stick to cutlass as he attempts to arrest the Pirate King (Brian Pucheu) in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. (Photo: Patrick André)

Derek Sellers as her swain Frederic is the right age and has the requisite agility as well as voice—this is an energetic production and all the males need to be able to leap up, over or around while singing. Many of the pirates are old-timers but have retained their energy while Pirate King Brian Pucheu, another Society newcomer, leaps highest of all and wields a mean sword he doesn’t hesitate to draw.

One of the delights is Erin Wise as the rough-and-ready nursemaid Ruth. For this, Wise cultivates a voice which could cut through metal and a dialect accent to match. Last but not least of the principals, Police Sergeant Michael Drumheller, also a debut here, leads the bumbling constables as they caper through ruins and get thoroughly beaten by the pirates in a thrilling fight choreographed by Ken Michels. And all of them—pirates, police, girls, principals—can act as well as they sing and they all do, all the time. Nardine has done a stellar job of stage direction.

New sets are by Nathan Rodda, colorful costumes by Candace Frank and the whole is tied together by music director Bernard Kwiram with his orchestra of 28, well-paced and supportive of the singers.

The Northwest Boychoir Takes Their Perfect Pitch on the Road

The Northwest Boychoir has just embarked on its latest concert tour, but before leaving Seattle it gave a preview concert Tuesday night for a packed audience at Plymouth Church. The written program included everything the choir would sing while away, each concert having just a selection of these as it did here, one half being sacred music, the other secular.

The Boychoir is a great ambassador for music in Seattle. The quality of the singing is up to the standards of the best English cathedral choirs, not a random observation as the tone is very similar: clear and pure. For the first half, the boys sang, unaccompanied, Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum” and Durufle’s very tricky “Tota pulchra es” with absolute perfect pitch sense. It isn’t easy to be that perfect, particularly when singing with no vibrato. The slightest waver in pitch is instantly noticeable and it did not happen here. Piano accompanist Christina Siemens joined them for Randall Thompson’s “The Place of the Blest,” and in Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater,” of which they sang eight sections.

Northwest Boychoir (Photo: Ben Van Houten)
Northwest Boychoir (Photo: Ben Van Houten)

This was all a delight to the ears musically and the resonant acoustics of Plymouth Church enhanced the boys’ voices. However the acoustics there are death to diction. It was impossible to hear words at any time from two-thirds back in the church, even when conductor and choir director Joseph Crnko announced selections. Since works were not sung in the order given in the program it was sometimes quite a scramble to figure out what was being sung if the music was not familiar.

The same continued in the second half, which ranged from arrangements of folk songs and gospel songs to songs from musicals and even the Beatles. All of the arrangements seemed done with boys’ voices in mind, so that there was a sameness in style no matter what the original was. Thus “When you Wish Upon a Star” had the same feel as “Deep River” or “Home on the Range.” However, all had energy, nuance and dynamics, and the final “America the Beautiful” ended the concert on an uplifted note.

The boys’ demeanor also deserves mention. They stood without fidgeting, their hands by their sides or holding their music books, all the same way, so that nothing distracted from what they were singing. This kind of professional discipline is remarkable in children aged 10 to 14. Crnko deserves great credit for their training in every aspect of performance, as he has done for two generations of boys in the choir.

Out to Lunch Series Brings the Lunchtime Summer Jams for Free

Eldridge Gravy and the Court Supreme play the Out to Lunch series August 28 (photo: Tony Kay)
Eldridge Gravy and the Court Supreme play the Out to Lunch series August 28 (photo: Tony Kay)

What’s better than a great live music show? A great, free live music show. And what’s better than a great, free live music show? An entire series of ‘em.

Downtown Seattle’s providing just that with its Out to Lunch Concert Series, a sizable handful of free live gigs going on for the remainder of the summer. The lunch party begins this afternoon with a set by the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra, playing at noon today at City Hall Plaza.

Out to Lunch shows are taking place from noon to 1:30 p.m. throughout Seattle on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays until September 4, at a variety of locations including Westlake Park, the aforementioned City Hall Plaza, the IBM Building, and Westlake Park, among others. The series has been going for a few years now, but this year’s lineup looks to be its best yet, making ample use of the surplus of local music talent and touching on an impressive variety of styles.

You can find the full schedule here (and yeah, there’s not a bum act in the bunch), but enclosed please find our list of the ten acts we’re most excited to see during the Out to Lunch series, in chronological order.

The Maldives (Friday July 10, Westlake Park): Seattle’s most durable roots-rock act also happens to be a rock of consistency live. I’ve seen at least ten Maldives gigs over the last five years, and every set’s been nothing less than full-on.

Craft Spells (Friday, July 24, Westlake Park): Their name says much, if not all. This band’s dreamy, British-inflected guitar pop should be a great, shuffling lilt of a soundtrack to an extra-heady summer afternoon.

Greta Matassa and Friends (Thursday July 30, City Hall Plaza): Nimble, playful traditional jazz and big-band sounds from 2014’s Earshot Jazz Vocalist of the Year, backed by an impressive instrumental ensemble? Yes, please.

The Staxx Brothers (Friday July 31, Lake Union Park): The Staxx Brothers are what that poseur Kid Rock desperately aches to be—namely, a double-barreled shotgun of steamy velour soul grooves and deep-fried southern rock that fires on all eight cylinders, with a charismatic court jester of a frontman who counters his spirited pipes with showmanship to burn.

Naomi Wachira (Thursday August 6, City Hall Plaza): This African ex-pat’s earthy variety of folk embraces her heritage while still connecting on a universal level. And she’s a riveting presence live.

Radiation City (Friday August 7, Westlake Park): In case you haven’t gathered here, and here, and maybe here, we at the SunBreak loves us some Radiation City. As amazing as this Portland quintet’s merger of chamber pop, new wave, lush vocal harmonies, and shoegazer atmospherics sounds on their recordings, though, they’re also able to deliver that mix to stunning perfection on a concert stage.

Action Jackson and Adra Boo of Fly Moon Royalty, being (you guessed it) royally fly at Doe Bay Fest 2013. (photo: Tony Kay)
Action Jackson and Adra Boo of Fly Moon Royalty, being (you guessed it) royally fly at Doe Bay Fest 2013. (photo: Tony Kay)

Fly Moon Royalty (Tuesday August 11, IBM Building): The alchemistic combo of DJ Action Jackson’s beats and melodies with singer Adra Boo’s siren vocals is as close to a two-person summer jam factory as you’ll get. If you ain’t moved to shake your ass, check your pulse.

The Dusty 45’s (Friday August 14, Harbor Steps): ‘Rip-snorting’ is the one adjective that most readily applies to this veteran Seattle rockabilly act. It’s likely way too dry and hot for band leader Billy Joe Huels to set his trumpet on fire onstage (as he’s done live numerous times in the past), but I wouldn’t put it past him.

Shelby Earl (Wednesday August 19, Two Union Square): Earl’s pipes–think Patsy Cline, channeled through roots-rock earthiness–makes magic from heartache and thwarted romance, so it’s a given that her dusky jewel of a voice will make even the most sweltering summer day a little more bearable.

Eldridge Gravy and the Court Supreme (Friday August 28, Lake Union Park): Again, we’ve sung the praises of Gravy and his gang of funketeers repeatedly over the years. It’s a side effect of them being sharp as hell live. Like Fly Moon Royalty, ass-shaking should be gloriously unavoidable.

Your Live Music Bets for the Weekend of June 19 through June 21

Lena Simon fronts her touring band version of Kairos tonight at Chop Suey. (Photo: Tony Kay)
Lena Simon fronts her touring band version of Kairos tonight at Chop Suey. (Photo: Tony Kay)

After nearly a month of doing nothin’ but eating, breathing, and dreaming movies, it’s high damned time for me to take care of a serious live music itch. To belabor the metaphor, this weekend’s a Supermall-sized drugstore, and below you’ll find just a few of the dozens of brands of sonic itch-reliever at your disposal. Yeah, I’m reaching for metaphors, but I (and you) won’t have to reach far for a great music show. Or two. Or more.

Friday, June 19 (tonight!):

Kairos, Maiah Manser, Blush Cut @ Chop Suey. 21+. $10 at the door. Doors at 9:00 p.m.

You can hardly throw an empty coffee cup over your shoulder in Seattle without hitting multi-instrumentalist/singer Lena Simon, who plays with garage-surf goddess collective La Luz, groove-rock dynamos Thunderpussy, and dance band Pollens. In Kairos, her solo project, Simon wraps her coolly alluring croon in gauzy synths, textured guitars, and a percolating bed of electronic and live percussion. Some of it’s insidiously danceable, some of it’s as dreamily pretty as anything you’ll hear, and all of it’s, well, amazing (see Chris Burlingame’s great, in-depth interview with Simon on this here website for more).

Tomten, Rare Diagram, Boat Race Weekend, Hellbat @ The Blue Moon Tavern. 21+. $5 at the door. Doors at 8:00 p.m., show at 9:00 p.m.

This bill at the U district’s venerable Blue Moon runs roughshod all over the map. Hellbat‘s unusual configuration (bass, keyboard, drums, and wonderfully alien-chirp vocals) and joyously trashy art-punk sound never neglects the fun factor, while Boat Race Weekend plays chunky and careening indie rock that borders on nu-metal. Portland’s Rare Diagram and local boys Tomten both round out the evening on a lush pop note: The former updates Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and Harry Nilsson with 21st century oddness, and the latter put out one of my favorite local releases last yearThe Farewell Party, an unerringly gorgeous and lilting collection of baroque pop tunes that translate faultlessly in a live setting.

Cockney Rejects, Angry Samoans, 13 Scars, guests @ El Corazon. 21+. $15 at the door. Show at 8:30 p.m.

Looking for a fix of old-school punk from both sides of the pond? Look no further than El Corazon this evening. Cockney Rejects sprouted from English punk’s restless late1970s loins, bashing out a blue-collar variety of punk that owed as much to traditional pub-rock as it did to the spiky-haired three-chord bursts of their peers. California’s Angry Samoans, meanwhile, represented the funnier, less-angry flipside: Their two-minute epics sport a snarky sense of humor and a streak of garage-rock seasoning to go with the ripsaw energy–it’s genetically impossible for me not to appreciate a band sporting song titles like “They Saved Hitler’s Cock” and “You Stupid Asshole.”

Saturday, June 20:

De La Soul, Brothers from Another @ EMP Museum. 21+. $25 members/$30 non-members advance. Show at 9:00 p.m.

For a couple of months last winter, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising maintained virtually exclusive residence on my iPhone. Its psychedelic playfulness, densely intricate samples, and wonderfully out-there sense of humor informed an entire New York contingent of outside-the-box hip hop (A Tribe Called Qwest, Queen Latifah, The Jungle Brothers), Outkast,  local acts like THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces, and  current hip-hop It Boy Joey Bada$$ (who, coincidentally, plays across town at the Showbox tomorrow night). 3 Feet showed hip hop to be as infinitely expansive as any other sub-genre of popular music, and damned if the record doesn’t still sound daisy-fresh today (their two Prince Paul-produced follow-ups, De La Soul is Dead and Buhloone Mindstate, kinda rule, too). Show up to pay some respects, and congratulate ’em for successfully funding their first new record in over a decade.  Make sure you get there early, too: Seattle three-man crew Brothers from Another share De La’s propensity for bluster-free, fun rhymes–albeit with a less-trippy backdrop of minimal funk beats–and a reputedly-jumping onstage presence.

The Draft Punk Festival with Girl Trouble, The Fucking Eagles, The DT’s, The Tom Price Desert Classic, and loads more @ The Swiss Restaurant and Pub (Tacoma). All ages. Free until 8:00 p.m/$10 after 8:00 p.m.  Show begins at noon.

Great, no-bull garage rock crawls from the soil of Tacoma like some undying monster, so it’s worth considering a trip to T-Town for this free-for-most-of-the-day music festival. You’ll get local craft brews, a lovable 1913-vintage venue for the paid evening portion of the fest, and a dozen local rock outfits. There doesn’t appear to be a weak act in the batch, but make it a point to catch two of The City of Destiny’s most durable bands. Girl Trouble are Tacoma’s Garage Rock of Gibraltar (they’ve been carrying the torch  for over thirty years now), and The Fucking Eagles thrust some roadhouse soul muscle into their muscular garage rock. Both acts belong on anyone’s local-rock bucket list of live bands.

Eldridge Gravy and the Court Supreme, Trolls Cottage, guests @ Nectar Lounge. 21+. Free. Show begins at 10:00 a.m.

Eldridge Gravy and his band of funky misfits the Court Supreme remain one of this ‘burg’s most reliable purveyors of deeply booty-shaking soul, so they’ll fit right in amidst the parades and naked hippie cyclists that’ll be overtaking Fremont during the Solstice Festival this weekend. Expect the likely-warm temperatures to increase by at least ten degrees once these guys get down to business. For reals, cousin.

Sunday, June 21:

Charms, Eight Bells, X Suns, Panther Attack @ Narwhal. 21+. Free (I think). Show at 9:00 p.m.

I haven’t been to Narwhal (AKA the basement of Capitol Hill’s Unicorn bar) for live music yet, but this bill could change that, largely on the strength of Seattle band Charms‘ reputation as a potent onstage act. Their frantic music throws rapidly-strummed guitars and perpetually rolling drums into indie rock tunes that sound sort of like a super-caffeinated Modest Mouse gone new wave. It’s quite the contrast to the other three bands on the bill (Eight Bells from Portland and Seattle ensembles X Suns and Panther Attack), all of whom proffer largely/fully instrumental, complex-yet-heavy space-rock sonics in the spirit of Earth and early Kinski.