Music + Culture
2:00 am
Sun June 30, 2013

Revved-up Vivaldi, Persian Bamboo And Soaring Spirituals: New Classical Albums

Originally published on Wed July 3, 2013 4:41 am

It's a brave new musical world. Between downloads, iPods, music sharing websites and the good old CD, we have more easy access to the songs and symphonies we love than ever before. In this visit to All Things Considered, host Jacki Lyden and I explore an East meets West mashup in a concerto for Persian ney (bamboo flute) and orchestra, a young composer who treats electronic and acoustic instruments as equals, an opera star who goes back to church and a violinist who plays Vivaldi with delicious abandon.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR NEWS. I'm Jackie Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ECSTATIC DANCE")

LYDEN: This is music by Iranian composer Reza Vali, a concerto called "Toward the Endless Plain," and it's just one of a handful of new recordings that's caught the ear of my guest, NPR classical music producer Tom Huizenga.

Tom, welcome back to the program.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Hey, good to see you again, Jacki.

LYDEN: You know, I'm listening to this, and it's taking me back to Iran. This is Persian music. It's so beautiful.

HUIZENGA: It is, and the instrument that we're hearing that's highlighted here is the Persian ney, usually spelled N-E-Y. It's kind of a vertically blown bamboo flute that's common in the Mideast and actually other eastern cultures. A super, super old instrument. One of the oldest instruments we know. And I think it just sounds terrific in this kind of east-meets-west concerto by Reza Vali. He's a Iranian-born composer and music professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

LYDEN: Yes, and the whole way that this is being composed, I mean, it really sort of opens emotion of concerto, doesn't it?

HUIZENGA: It's not exactly a regulation concerto. It opens up two worlds, especially because I think Reza Vali pits these two separate worlds against each other, the Middle East and the west. I think throughout the concerto, it's interesting that you're very aware that this very expressive flute, this ney, which plays notes in a different scale than western music, you're very aware that it's up against the traditional western symphony orchestra.

LYDEN: Yeah. I don't want to use the word battle, but obviously they're juxtaposed.

HUIZENGA: They are. And, I mean, that's kind of what a traditional concerto is. You know, like piano concerto that you think of it traditionally as a piano versus orchestra - soloist versus orchestra. And here's a spot in the second movement, I think, where we get to hear just a little bit of that. Starts out with just the ney and the frame drums that sounds very folksy and then the orchestra intrudes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ECSTATIC DANCE")

LYDEN: And that's music from "Toward the Endless Plain," the concerto for Persian ney, a flute and orchestra by Reza Vali. Yeah, that was really sensational. Tom, where else are you taking us today?

HUIZENGA: Okay. How about a new take on a traditional spiritual?

LYDEN: Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME BY HERE, GOOD LORD")

LAWRENCE BROWNLEE: (Singing) Come by here, Good Lord. Come by here. Come by here, Good Lord. Come by here. Come by here, Good Lord. Come by here. Oh, Lord, come by here.

LYDEN: Mm, wow.

HUIZENGA: That's Lawrence Brownlee. He's one of the top Rossini tenors today.

LYDEN: What does that mean, a Rossini tenor?

HUIZENGA: Well, he's got this light, yet very strong, supple voice that can rise all the way up to the stratosphere, and it's perfect instrument for the early 19th century operas of Rossini and Donizetti. Brownlee sings in all the great opera houses of the world right now. And on this new record called "Spiritual Sketches," he is singing traditional spirituals with new arrangements here by the pianist that we're hearing, Damien Sneed.

LYDEN: So if he's a Rossini tenor, has he tempted to channel his inner opera star on this album?

HUIZENGA: Oh, yeah. You can tell. Let's move on to the song "All Day, All Night," a beautiful song. He starts about fairly straight forwardly, but by halfway through, we get this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL DAY, ALL NIGHT")

BROWNLEE: (Singing) All night, all day.

LYDEN: It almost puts tears in your eyes. You're thinking of someone at the head of a choir, it's Sunday morning in the AME Methodist Church.

HUIZENGA: Except this guy's got the technique of a world-class opera singer, and you can tell that he's an opera singer on this record. But, you know, he started as a gospel singer in his church. And the nice thing about the record is I think he does a great job of blending his awesome opera technique with very, very soulful singing. And I think we should just slide down in this same song "All Day, All Night." And let's hear how he uses his half voice. He scales it down to kind of whine the song down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL DAY, ALL NIGHT")

BROWNLEE: (Singing) Ooh. Ooh.

LYDEN: Tom, that is the most haunting music that we're hearing from Lawrence Brownlee. What's the name of the album again?

HUIZENGA: It's called "Spiritual Sketches."

LYDEN: "Spiritual Sketches" from the tenor Lawrence Brownlee. We're listening to some new records that have come across the desk of our guest, Tom Huizenga, NPR classical producer for NPR Music. What's next?

HUIZENGA: All right, something very different here. A record by a French-born New York-based composer Daniel Wohl. It's called "Corps Exquis" or the English translation is exquisite corps, and Wohl blends electronics and acoustic instruments together, I think, very provocatively.

LYDEN: Okay. I think of that as a literary journal. Let's hear it in music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Eclectic isn't the word. I mean, this does like a Journal Gazette. It seems to have a little of everything.

HUIZENGA: Yeah. I love the squealing violin and the cello there, and they sound almost like electric guitars, and then the piano kind of wanders around, and the bass clarinet waddles in and out of the frame. The whole album kind of began life as a long performance piece that blended avant-garde cinema, experimental classic and rock music, video. And for me, it's a little hard to just extract something from it. It's a good record. I'd like to turn the lights down low at night and just let Daniel Wohl's odd and exquisite sound world just kind of wash right over you.

Let's go to the final track, where the experimental indie singer/songwriter Julia Holter offers some very subtle breathy vocalise amid these wistful strings in piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Hmm. I love how those strings just kind of slide along. It's really mournful. That's the music by Daniel Wohl, his new album "Corps Exquis." We've got time for one more new album. What do you have?

HUIZENGA: Okay. How about some Vivaldi here that really kicks butt?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "VIVALDI CON MOTO")

LYDEN: Wow. I just want to gather my long skirts, all my courtiers. Ascend to the thrown, spread those skirts again and hold court.

HUIZENGA: There you go. This is a record of Vivaldi violin concertos from late in his career, and the performing group is the Accademia Bizantina, and they play with the enthusiasm of a punk band, it seems to me.

LYDEN: Yeah.

HUIZENGA: The violin soloist on these concertos is Giuliano Carmignola, and he's played a lot of Vivaldi. In fact, if you're looking for a recording on "The Four Seasons," this is one of the best because it just screams off the disc. And here again, he plays the slow stuff very beautifully, but he shows off his dynamite technique in the real tricky parts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "VIVALDI CON MOTO")

HUIZENGA: The record, Jacki, is called "Vivaldi con moto," and con moto means with energetic motion, and these guys have energy to burn. This is a good summer record to just crank it up loud.

LYDEN: You have had a con moto performance here with us today.

HUIZENGA: Who needs coffee?

LYDEN: Who needs it? Tom Huizenga, classical producer for NPR Music, and you can hear more of his picks today at the blog, his blog, I love the name, "Deceptive Cadence," and that's at nprmusic.org.

Tom, thank you so much for being here.

HUIZENGA: Jacki, always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "VIVALDI CON MOTO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.