Category Archives: Music

Auburn Symphony Brings Mozart to Mountainview High

ASO conductor Stewart Kershaw (Photo: Auburn Symphony Orchestra)
ASO conductor Stewart Kershaw (Photo: Auburn Symphony Orchestra)

When the Auburn Symphony Orchestra was formed by music director Steward Kershaw 17 years ago it was in order, he said, to give the members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra an opportunity to play the general orchestral literature.

Kershaw had been music director at PNB for many years, conducting an orchestra described by many admiring critics as “the finest ballet orchestra in the country.” While there are still many musicians who are members of both ensembles, there are others who belong to one only.

The Auburn Symphony has showed its caliber over the years since in the small city south of Seattle which showed its pleasure in having its own orchestra by giving it support, although finances have often been dicey particularly in the recent recession. (Their annual gala is coming up June 6.)

The ASO normally performs at the Performing Arts Center, which doubles as Auburn High School’s auditorium, but this past season has seen that venue in the throes of extensive renovation, and the ASO has been performing at Auburn’s Mountainview High School instead. Next season it will be back at the PAC.

Meanwhile the final concert of the 2014-15 season had a packed audience Sunday afternoon at Mountainview. The orchestra showed itself at its best in a superb performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29. The orchestra was the right size for this music, about 43 players, and the players in each section played as one, clean and crisp. Kershaw drew expressive details from them, the balance was perfect, and the whole an unalloyed pleasure to hear.

It’s not common to hear the bassoon as a solo instrument, but Vivaldi wrote many concertos for it, and principal bassoonist Mona Butler performed as the soloist in his Concerto in A Minor. The bassoon is the lowest of the wind instruments, but its pitch, timbre, and textures were never overlaid by the orchestral accompaniment. Vivaldi chose in this concerto to intersperse orchestra and bassoon with duets between bassoon and solo cello, ably played by Brian Wharton. It’s a concerto of considerable charm, well played by Butler, but there were many moments where orchestra and soloist were not quite together, which detracted from overall enjoyment.

She returned after intermission for a rarely heard and delightful work by Elgar, a short Romance for bassoon and orchestra. This is unmistakable Elgar from the first notes, with a much larger orchestra and clever orchestration to keep from drowning the soloist. Again however, there were moments when they were not together.

The concert ended with Bizet’s lively “Arlesienne” Suites Nos. 1 and 2, between them eight short pieces, robust, fun, colorful, foot-tapping stuff, most feeling like dances (which they may have been as accompaniments for a play by Alphonse Daudet), and of which the orchestra took full advantage. The whole was a pleasure to hear. Kudos particularly to principal flute Wendy Wilhelmi and piccolo player Laura Werner, for their zestful and musical playing.

Chanticleer’s Sacred Music Concert Soars

It’s hard to provide enough superlatives for San Francisco-based Chanticleer, the men’s vocal ensemble which has been top of the charts for much of its 37 years. While personnel have come and gone, the quality remains extraordinarily high.

Performing to a packed audience on the Early Music Guild Series at Town Hall Saturday night, the twelve singers gave a concert, titled “Mystery”, of sacred songs devoted to the Virgin Mary. These ranged from plainsong from the seventh century—although it may actually be much older than that—to 20th-century Russian music, via many of the great Renaissance and Baroque composers. It’s hard to mention highlights, as every song was more beautiful than the last.

From Spain came music by Alfonso X of Castille and Tomas Luis de Victoria; from Portugal an anonymous and lively dance-style song with tambourine, meant to show music of Portuguese West Africa; from Mexico a European-tinged development of a plainsong melody by Antonio de Salazar; and more from the European greats of the great flowering of choral music from the 15th to 17th centuries: among them Giovanni Gabrielli, Josquin des Prez, Orlando di Lasso, Palestrina, William Byrd. Lastly came three from Russia, by Rachmaninov, Georgy Sviridov, and Nikolai Golovanov. Sviridov, like Byrd, lived in fear, both prohibited from writing the music they felt they must: Byrd a Catholic hounded by Protestants, Sviridov under the heavy hand of Communism. Yet all these composers wrote music of sublime beauty.

Listening to Chanticleer, with three voices in each range—soprano, alto, tenor, bass/baritone—the balance between singers made every line audible whether they were singing in four or up to eight parts. In unison the blend sounded seamless, no voice standing out, as the monks of old must have tried to do.

Their diction was clear. It was always possible to find where they were in a song, as the program gave us both the original language and English, plus phonetic translation of the Russian alphabet as well. At times, one or another would sing solo, as in the beginning phrase of the Salazar, or there would be a small group singing antiphonally with a larger group. No vibrato in the voices and the group’s remarkable pitch sense meant intervals were completely pure, a joy to hear.

The soprano voices were astonishing. We are now used to countertenors, but not many sing this high, and all of these sang with a full-throated ease which sounded close to the feminine soprano sound. Only towards the end of the concert—and the end of a three-week tour—did there begin to sound a little strain at the top end of the range, and a few notes which were not quite on pitch.

For an encore, Chanticleer went for something quite difference, a lively arrangement of the old gospel song, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” sung with the same impeccable attention to detail and style and ending with what seemed an impossibly low note.


Your Live Music Bets for the Weekend of April 24 through April 26

There really is a crap-ton of great live music to choose from over the next three days, so much so that it’s almost a fool’s errand to even single out a small handful of gigs. That said, you can’t go wrong with any of the below options. Hey, I just preview ’em: You’re on your own from there.

Friday, April 24 (tonight!):

Down North (shown here at Bumbershoot 2013) will funk-rock the Tractor tonight. (photo: Tony Kay)
Down North (shown here at Bumbershoot 2013) will funk-rock the Tractor tonight. (photo: Tony Kay)

Down North, Breaks and Swells, Whitney Monge, Purr Gato @ Tractor Tavern. 21+. $12 advance/$14 at the door. Doors at 8:00 p.m., show at 9:00 p.m.

I’ve been a fan of headliners Down North long enough to have nearly run out of adjectives to describe ’em. Suffice it to say they’re one of the most snap-tight, hard-working funk-rock ensembles in town (emphasis on the rock), and that lead singer Anthony Briscoe remains a fireball of a live presence. The get-there-early mantra does apply: Marquetta Miller’s playful and subtly sensual pipes front Breaks and Swells’ ace infusion of velour-tinged old-school soul, Whitney Monge’s sandpaper-soulful merger of folk and R&B translates famously in a live setting, and Purr Gato’s electro-pop should start the evening in sinewy and danceable fashion.

Mr. Gnome, Posse, Wind Burial @ Columbia City Theater 21+. $10 advance/$12 at the door. Show at 9:00 p.m.

Cleveland’s Mr. Gnome float my boat mightily, with a combination of spectral-yet-toothy vocals, clattering layers of sonics, and psychedelia that manages to be cosmic, forward-thinking, and catchy as Hell. Local three-piece Posse do easygoing, ineffably charming stripped-down indie pop a la Yo La Tengo and Luna.

Wind Burial, all dark and swirly. (photo: Tony Kay)
Wind Burial, all dark and swirly. (photo: Tony Kay)

And yes, you’re nuts if you’re not early enough to catch Wind Burial’s opening set. The narcotic spell woven by their newest long-player, We Used to Be Hunters, infuses primal drumming, shoegazer swirl, and strong streaks of fetching darkness with dense, earthy psych-rock. Singer Kat Terran’s mesmerizing voice—a singular instrument that combines a folksinger’s clarion beauty with an undercurrent of gothic eeriness—provides  this particular potion’s most resonant ingredient.

Saturday, April 25:

VibraGun, Dirty Dirty, Dead End Friend @ Barboza. 21+. $6 advance. Show at 7:00 p.m.

VibraGun’s shoegazer sound flips back and forth between Swervedriver-style textural/driving rock and dreamy pop reminiscent of Lush. Dirty Dirty and Dead End Friend, meantime, demonstrate the very divergent hues possible with a stripped-down line-up. The former band bashes out a mutant fusion of garage-punk and groove-infused metal with a sturdy two-dude configuration, highlighted by bassist Ian Forrester’s Freddie Mercury-gone-art-punk vocals and drummer Ian Harper’s forceful backbeat. Fellow Seattle rock duo Dead End Friend plays rock in the Pearl Jam/Soundgarden mold that’s refreshingly shorn of any flavor-of-the-month hipster garnishes. Guitarist/vocalist Jonah Simone knows his way around that patented Seattle arena rock stop/start groove, and Drummer James Squires matches Simone slug for slug. It’s a big sound that’s not super-fashionable in this neck of the woods right now, but they play it like champs.

Prom Queen @ Vito’s Restaurant and Lounge. 21+. Free. Show at 9:00 p.m.

In 2014 Celene Ramadan, the raven-haired chanteuse who leads (and sort of is) Prom Queen, put together Midnight Veil, a DVD that combined videos for twelve of her songs into an evocative, funny, and wonderfully retro mini-movie. Oh, and she co-directed the damn thing, too. The DVD was so ambitious that the inclusion of the audio CD almost seemed like an afterthought, but the music enclosed was (and is) amazing—a seamless collection of tunes that augment Prom Queen’s noir-girl-pop style with tremolo-soaked surf pop, jazz, and rich production. Ramadan’s solo Prom Queen shows are always terrific (she often accompanies pre-recordings of her pocket symphonies with guitar and voice), but I’m crossing my fingers that her sharp Prom Queen backing band joins her. Either way, this is one hell of a bargain, especially amidst Vito’s gloriously retro-lounge environs.

Sunday, April 26:

Elvis Costello (solo) @ Paramount Theatre. All ages. $41.25 to $71.25 advance. Doors at 6:00 p.m, show at 7:00 p.m.

Do you really need me to tell you that Elvis Costello’s songbook could well be the finest of any songwriter alive today, that he’s the best lyricist on the planet, and that his song selection for this solo show comes from a catalog so deep that every single cut he plays/sings will likely be amazing? Thought not. You can pretty much bet the steepness of the admission price will be more than offset by the quality (and likely the duration—the man routinely plays two-hour and longer sets) of the music on display.

Mastodon, Clutch, Big Business @ Showbox SODO. 21+. $37 advance, $39 day of show. Show at 7:00 p.m.

For the last 15 years Atlanta-based monsters Mastodon have pretty much represented the gold standard for heavy-as-shit thinking person’s metal, evolving and maintaining a sense of adventure without losing their Hammer-of-Thor crunch. Their 2004 sorta-concept album Leviathan stands as their masterpiece to these ears, but their sixth release, last year’s Once More ‘Round the Sun, proves that they’ve maintained their consistency to an astonishing degree. The even longer-lived Maryland metal combo Clutch and LA’s Big Business form a potent opening one-two punch that should make even the Showbox SODO’s barn-like vibe and dodgy acoustics worth enduring.

Seattle Symphony’s Shostakovich and Schnittke is a Don’t-Miss Concert

This week’s Masterworks program at the Seattle Symphony promised to be an exciting one and it delivered in spades Thursday night, an all-Russian concert with Russian composers, a Russian conductor, Andrey Boreyko, and a Russian soloist, concertmaster Alexander Velinzon. (There are several Russian instrumentalists in the orchestra also.) The final concert is Saturday evening.

Shostakovich’s great “Leningrad” symphony, his No. 7, came after intermission; first came the extraordinary Violin Concerto No. 4 by Alfred Schnittke.

Schnittke’s music has somewhat a reputation of being hard to listen to and take in, but this is not so, particularly in this concerto. The music is described as polystylistic, which only means that the composer drew on all sorts of musical styles, from rock, jazz, minimalist and more as well as classical, for his work. But so did popular Gershwin—jazz and classical together.

Like Gershwin, Schnittke brings them into a coherent whole in this concerto, sometimes tonal and upbeat, sometimes dissonant, sometimes both simultaneously with the soloist in one mode, the orchestra in another. While the orchestra is massive for this, the music is not, often even spare. Velinzon’s violin sang throughout: mellifluous, lyrical in many areas, soaring or contemplative in others, fast, wild or arpeggiated in still more, peaceful or powerful, but always with a firm, rich tone, never scratchy, which fit the music like a glove. Schnittke includes some unexpected instrumentation, like a prepared piano which often had a raspy, honky-tonk timbre, and duets for the soloist with other instruments. Twice, Schnittke has the orchestra rise to great sound and fury and has the violin solo continue in the air, not on the strings, as it couldn’t have been heard anyway over the orchestra. Boreyko gave masterly leadership to the orchestra which responded to his every nuanced gesture shaping the music.

Shostakovich’s symphony was a beacon of hope to Russia when it was first performed in March 1942. He composed it near the beginning of the long and terrible siege of Leningrad, which caused massive hardship and death both in the city and among the siege troops. Shostakovich was one of those ordered to evacuate the city, his home, not long after the final encirclement of the city and the siege began (though the city had been under fire for some months before that). By then he had composed the first three movements, and he completed the fourth shortly after. The symphony had its premiere in Kuibyshev, a safe area many miles east of Moscow.

It’s not a battle symphony. Rather, it is a paean to the steadfast people of Leningrad, who never gave in to the German armies; people Shostakovich knew well, living in a situation for which he was present in the early stages. What came through Thursday night under Boreyko was a sense of determination, of courage threaded through the 68-minute work. It’s not sad, not terrible, but immensely colorful.

Halfway through a serene and unhurried first movement the rhythm of marching feet begins softly and grows inexorably, tension building gradually to threatening, with clashes and the feel of scurrying, cacophony below, loud dominating march above. One gets a sense of efforts at normal life in the second and third, and in the last, it’s positive, energetic, elegiac as well, but with this sense of determination dominant.

Boreyko, who stands rock solid on the podium, sometimes conducted with minimal gestures at others described exactly what he wanted with poesy and clarity in his arm movements. He brought out all the nuances and made vivid Shostakovich’s intent. There were many fine orchestra solos, including all the wind principals and the cello. The whole was moving, even breathtaking in its sweep, color and emotional intensity. One could have heard a pin drop in the audience.

Mostly Nordic Chamber Music Series Visits Sweden

Lena Moén, soprano
Lena Moén, soprano

I had no idea Swedish art song existed, but of course it does. At the Nordic Heritage Museum Sunday afternoon, Mostly Nordic treated the audience to a concert of such songs, largely from the 20th century but dipping back to the 19th, in the third of its annual performances highlighting the music of a specific Nordic country. (There are two more concerts in the Mostly Nordic series this spring, featuring music from Norway, May 2, and Iceland, May 31.)

Swedish soprano Lena Moén  with her frequent collaborator, pianist Lena Johnson, gave us songs by composers Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Bo Linde, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Mogens Schrader, and Gustaf Nordqvist, and included a few from out of the country by Schubert, Grieg, and Richard Strauss. The audience was provided with all the words, a thoughtful gesture which made the songs even more enjoyable.

Moén began with a startling cow call, such as was given by girls calling their family’s cows home. Sounding like a cross between a Swiss yodel and an American cowboy’s “Eee-yoww!”, she explained after that every girl had her own individual call and the cows knew which call to come to.

It was guaranteed to gather everyone’s immediate attention, and Moén continued with a charming selection of songs, mostly about love or spring or both, in a voice unlike anything we usually hear here.

Robust and sturdy, pure but not silvery, with vibrato used artfully or not at all, her voice was ideal for these songs. She reached the highest notes effortlessly, no strain and hitting them squarely except in one song where she had a slight problem with them.

The beautiful songs themselves belong fully in the art song category, not folk, and have accompaniments which are a full component of each piece, performed by Johnson and Moén as a seamless pair.

Lena Johnson, pianist
Lena Johnson, pianist

Johnson also played a few solos, one group by Peterson-Berger, one a Fantasy in B minor by Stenhammar. We are so used to hearing the cream of the cream of world pianists here, that it can be hard to judge others fairly, but while Johnson easily had the technique for all the notes, she tended to be a bit slapdash with nuance and approach.

The more familiar Grieg song “I Love You” came off well, though the Strauss songs, “All Souls Day” and “Devotion” were a little less suited to Moén’s voice. The surprise came with Schubert’s “The Shepherd on the Rock,’ which emphatically did not suit Moen, or perhaps she didn’t suit it. With Seattle’s Sean Osborn providing a clarinet role to die for in its beauty, Moen’s strong voice did not provide the classical sound required. It needed more refinement, to be less “out” there, gentler, more nuanced for this song. On the other hand, the song is difficult in that the notes go fast all over the range with wide jumps and Moén encompassed all of them with rippling ease. Only her topmost notes in the last part of the song failed quite to reach their goal.

Moén and Johnson gave one encore: an arrangement of “Over the Rainbow,” which she sang softly, and well.

The Sonics Played the Year’s Best Live Rock Show Last Thursday

The Sonics.
The Intelligence.
The Intelligence.
Steve Turner of Mudhoney.
The Sonics.
The Sonics.
Jerry Roslie of The Sonics.
Larry Parypa of The Sonics.
Freddie Dennis of The Sonics.
Dusty, Rob, Chris.
The Sonics.

(photo: Tony Kay)

The Intelligence played a solid opening set. (photo: Tony Kay)

Openers The Intelligence started things off well. (photo: Tony Kay)

It's a helluva night when a mind-blowing set by these guys isn't even the evening's highlight: Mudhoney's Mark Arm. (photo: Tony Kay)

Again, Mudhoney were great. But, you know, The Sonics: Steve Turner of Mudhoney. (photo: Tony Kay)

Rob Lind of The Sonics toots one mean horn. (photo: Tony Kay)

The Sonics' Rob Lind toots one mean horn. (photo: Tony Kay)

Still peeling paint with that voice: Jerry Roslie of The Sonics. (photo: Tony Kay)

Larry Parypa of The Sonics. (photo: Tony Kay)

Dude can scream: Freddie Dennis of The Sonics. (photo: Tony Kay)

Dusty Watson, Rob Lind, and Chris Ballew all have their heads on backwards, baby. (photo: Tony Kay)

(photo: Tony Kay)

The Sonics. thumbnail
The Intelligence. thumbnail
The Intelligence. thumbnail
Mudhoney. thumbnail
Steve Turner of Mudhoney. thumbnail
The Sonics. thumbnail
The Sonics. thumbnail
Jerry Roslie of The Sonics. thumbnail
Larry Parypa of The Sonics. thumbnail
Freddie Dennis of The Sonics. thumbnail
Dusty, Rob, Chris. thumbnail
The Sonics. thumbnail

Alongside The Kingsmen and The Wailers, The Sonics were basically responsible for the howling breach-birth of the monster that is Northwest rock and roll. Barely out of their teens when they began playing together in the early 1960s, the five snappily-dressed young badasses who comprised The Sonics mixed the soot of their industrial Tacoma hometown with the sweaty abandon of old-school rock and blues heroes like Little Richard and Howlin’ Wolf to create an unhinged new animal.

The resulting records were as primal and stripped-down as you could get—compact blasts of battering drums, growling bass, ragged fuzztone guitar, grunting animal saxophone, dirty blues keyboards, and hell-with-the-lid-blown-off singing. It was a sound that did its small but crucial part to liberate American rock and roll from years of neutered teen idols, and it made British contemporaries like the Rolling Stones sound like candy-assed dilettantes.

The Sonics never became mega-stars, but they helped write the textbook on garage rock, and when leather-jacketed wastrels in the mid-1970s got fed up with arena rock’s empty pretense, The Sonics became one of the key nutrients in the soil that spawned the entire first wave of punk. The band’s pulverizing DNA winds through Iggy Pop and The Stooges, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Mudhoney, Nirvana, Jack White, and the Black Keys (to name only a few).

All of the above is a long and windy way of saying that The Sonics, despite their unpretentious demeanor, are pretty much Northwest rock royalty. The simple fact that they’re even playing live at this point is cause for celebration: The fact that their gig last Thursday at The Moore Theatre was one of the best live rock shows I’ve seen in my life is nothing short of inspiring.

Sharply attired in basic black, The Sonics took to the stage just shy of 10:00 p.m., opening up with a concise and ripping version of “Psycho.” From there, the pedal didn’t leave the metal for the next hour and 45 minutes as they tore through old and new cuts alike with the no-bull forcefulness of an outfit one-third their age. Pretty much every track a Sonics fan could’ve hoped for got a workout, from originals like “Shot Down” and “Boss Hoss” to  the most menacing cover of  “Louie Louie” that  you’ll ever hear. Best of all, the band fired through nine cuts from their first all-new full-length in 48 years, This is The Sonics (a record whose flat-out brilliance could merit a couple hundred words on its own).

A lot of the evening’s considerable momentum came courtesy of the band’s founding members. Rob Lind’s saxophone and harp provided as much brute force as the bass and drums, and he served as the band’s informal mouthpiece with aplomb, working the charged-up crowd like the host of an extra-packed house party. Guitarist Larry Parypa’s low-key demeanor stood in sharp contrast to the mutant blues licks and power chords he tossed off with lethal efficacy. And let it be stated for the record that lead singer Jerry Roslie’s aggressive, soulful snarl can still cauterize any and all eardrums within earshot.

Original bassist Andy Parypa and founding drummer Rob Bennett were MIA (both, alas, are unable to travel), but thankfully the two new-ish guys forming The Sonics’ current rhythm section were little short of godsends. Drummer Dusty Watson (who’s logged in time behind the kit with everyone from Lita Ford to The Supersuckers) drove the songs with a potent combination of swing and muscle, and bass player Freddie Dennis proved to be the night’s secret weapon. Almost sweetly unassuming before he began playing, Dennis laid down a near-volcanic bottom end on the four-string, and he let fly on nearly half of the lead vocals with a bobcat wail that matched Roslie’s world-class growl slug for slug.

Ferocious as the band’s attack was, though, The Sonics never lost sight of the fact that they’ve always been (and always will be) a rock and roll party band of epic proportions. Lind led the crowd through plenty of call-and-response shouts, and the house-party atmosphere was reinforced by the numerous guest stars who periodically shared the stage. Presidents of the United States of America frontman Chris Ballew gave a spirited guest vocal on “You’ve Got Your Head on Backwards,” Mudhoney’s Mark Arm joined The Sonics for a roaring take on “Shot Down,” and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic filled in on bass for a fierce rendition of “Cinderella.” By the time the encores rocketed to a close with a turbo-charged cover of Little Richard’s “Lucille,” even the usually-taciturn Roslie could be seen cracking a smile. True rock and roll badasses, it seems, still know how to have a good time.