Eastern Music Festival invades Greensboro this summer
by Lee Adams
The 44th season of the Eastern Music Festival (EMF) officially got underway this past weekend and is here to stay through the entire month of July, bringing doses of high culture and lowbrow fun to Greensboro this summer.
In the past the festival has primarily been focused on classical music. But under the direction of Tom Philion, president and CEO of the group, the EMF has taken on a decidedly more mainstream turn. This year, modern acts such as BÃ©la Fleck, Los Straightjackets and the Iguanas are sure to shake out any vestiges of stuffiness.
The EMF is also a music school for students between the ages of 14 and 20 years old, who go through a rigid application and audition process. This year, 200 gifted music students culled from over 800 applicants will attend the music school held on the campus of Guilford College.
Those students will spend the summer learning through a hands-on process with a faculty of professional musicians from around the world. The faculty covers every aspect of music, from classical piano to percussion, and this year classes in music business are also included to help students as they make career choices.
The EMF summer school is no small potatoes either. According to Philion, it is comparable to the Interlochin Center for the Arts in Michigan and the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. And some big names have come out of the EMF school, among them Wynton and Jason Marsalis, a slew of musicians from the big-city symphonies and orchestras and teachers from Julliard and FSU.
Over 80 concerts will take place through the month-long festival in fringe, orchestral, philharmonic and student events. Concerts will take place at the Carolina Theatre and at Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium.
For an event schedule and ticket prices visit the EMF online at www.easternmusicfestival.com.
Artist’s re-envisioned Radiohead songs bend musical genres
by Jordan Green
Classical pianist Christopher O’Riley has made something of a name for himself by reworking the avant-rock of Britain’s Radiohead and presenting the songs as complex solo piano performances to audiences on both sides of the divide between classical and popular music.
Aside from the relative novelty of a classically trained pianist paying tribute to the rock genre, the project has pricked ears because of O’Riley’s diligence in transcribing the idiosyncratic noise of five musicians ‘— guitar feedback, vocal squalls and all.
A concert performer of Bach, Mozart and Lizst who has shared concert halls with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony, O’Riley reportedly first unveiled the transposed Radiohead compositions for solo piano on his Public Radio International show, ‘“From the Top.’”
O’Riley’s 2003 collection of some of Radiohead’s most loved songs, True Love Waits, received a generally rapturous response in the rock press, but seemed to underwhelm classical music critics. Rolling Stone served up a typically gushing review, assigning the album four stars. The reviewer wrote: ‘“He is melodically vivid yet also noisily orchestral, in both his writing and playing, revoicing Radiohead’s distortion, threats, loveliness and dismay.’”
No musician could not love that appraisal.
But O’Riley ‘— who holds a reputation for engaging with the press ‘— did not take kindly to a review by BBC classical music critic Lucy Davies that parsed his recording with technical quibbling about such matters as ‘semiquavers,’ ‘rubato’ and ‘sustain pedaling.’
O’Riley shot back in a reader comment to the BBC website that the review amounted to ‘“dismissive and thoroughly superficial journalistic reflux.’”
In a follow-up post with a word count twice that of the review itself, he added: ‘“This record represents, and demands a sensitivity to different musics, an acuity and intuition as to how one might transmute one form of music into another, and that demands more from a critic than otherwise might be required.’”
The row prompted dozens more comments from readers, ranging from praise for O’Riley to accusations that he ‘“slaughtered’” the band to which he was trying to pay tribute.
A second collection of lesser-known Radiohead songs, as performed by O’Riley, called Hold Me To This hit the stores this spring. If two CDs of recorded material were not enough, O’Riley has also produced a book of his Radiohead transcriptions.
Greensboro audiophiles can decide for themselves whether the formula works when O’Riley appears on Triad Stage on July 13.
Here’s a little story ’bout a man named Fleck
by Ogi Overman
Credit ‘“The Beverly Hillbillies’” for bringing the world BÃ©la Fleck. It was the three-finger style of banjo perfected by Earl Scruggs and employed in the ’60s comedy’s theme song that convinced the young guitarist from New York that he needed to switch instruments. Fleck still considers Scruggs his mentor and inspiration, but, truth be known, he gravitated out of bluegrass and its traditional stylings long, long ago.
In terms of technique, innovativeness and popularity, Fleck is generally considered the premier banjoist in the world today. There is literally no musical barrier he won’t cross, no genre he won’t master, no score he won’t enhance by his brilliance. As a measure of his range and appeal, he has been nominated in more Grammy categories than anyone in Grammy history, winning eight times and being nominated an additional 20.
Fleck’s whole career has been one of exploration, of taking his chosen instrument to uncharted territory, of going where no banjoist has gone before. With every group, every collaboration and every solo project he seems to reinvent the banjo yet again. Going back to his early days with Jack Tottle’s Tasty Licks, through his nine years with New Grass Revival, on up to his current group, the Flecktones, experimentation, creativity and courage have been his bywords. He has fused bluegrass, jazz, rock, techno, world beat, neo-acoustic, bebop and classical to form hybrids that defy description and categorization. In fact, it could be argued that the word ‘“Americana’” was coined in the mid-’90s to describe the broad amalgamation of music embodied by Fleck and his many virtuoso-level collaborators.
As one example of his willingness to explore unknown territory and break down unfathomable boundaries, in 2001 Fleck, (named after BÃ©la Bartok, incidentally) took the banjo into the classical realm with the release of Perpetual Motion. It went on to win not one but two Grammys.
Nadja, ‘bad girl of the violin’
by Ogi Overman
If there is one darling of the classical music world today it would have to be Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Which may sound a bit contradictory, since she has been referred to as ‘“the bad girl of the violin,’” for her reputed abrasiveness and on-stage gyrations atypical of classical performers. Personality quirks aside, she is clearly one of the preeminent concert violinists on the planet.
One of the traits for which she is both revered and reviled is that her interpretations often depart from the composer’s written score. While purists tend to frown on such things, most knowledgeable aficionados applaud her risk-taking, expressiveness and passion. She is indeed one of a kind, which those same fans would argue, is precisely what classical music needs.
Born in Rome, Salerno-Sonnenberg emigrated to the US at the tender age of 8 to study at The Curtis Institute of Music. She later studied at Juilliard, before bursting upon the scene in 1981 after becoming the youngest recipient ever to capture the Walter M. Naumberg International Violin Competition. Several appearances on ‘“The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’” introduced her to a much wider audience and solidified her mass appeal.
The dynamic and daring violinist is one of the most sought-after recitalists and guest artists performing today. She has played with most of the world’s renowned orchestras and conductors and at major international festivals too numerous to count. Yet, she is equally prolific in the recording studio, having released 15 albums to date.
While most of her work is straightforward classical (Shostakovich, Brahms, Vivaldi, Sibelius, Chausson, etc.), she is certainly no stranger to other genres, having collaborated with gypsy guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad, Americana fiddler Mark O’Connor, and pop heavyweights Mandy Patinkin and Joe Jackson.
Her countless awards and accolades are perhaps highlighted by her inclusion in ‘“Who’s Who of American Women.’”
Branford Marsalis is a North Carolina guy now
Branford Marsalis, scion of New Orleans’ first family of jazz, has more licks than a lollipop and more chops than a butcher shop. He achieved national prominence during a short-lived gig as Jay Leno’s sidekick on ‘“The Tonight Show,’” but Branford, son of pianist Ellis and oldest brother to Jason (drums), Wynton (trumpet) and Delfeayo (trombone) has been acknowledged as a masterful woodwind player since he was a very young man.
He grew up in New Orleans and honed his groove at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He celebrated his 20th birthday on the road in Europe with the Art Blakey Big Band, blowing the baritone sax. By the time he was 23 he entered into a record deal with Columbia and put out his first effort, Scenes in the City, channeling Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Two years later he played on The Dream of the Blue Turtles with Sting. He’s also collaborated with Herbie Hancock, Spike Lee, BB King, the Grateful Dead, Harry Connick Jr. and virtually every musical member of his illustrious family in his 25-year career.
Branford has lived in New Orleans, LA and New York, but these days he calls Durham home.
‘“My son had turned 15 and I just felt at the time that he needed to be in an environment where there’s less of an overt embrace of materialism … and that tremendous sense of entitlement,’” Marsalis has said. ‘“In New York, the second or third question when you meet someone is ‘What do you do?’… Most people in Durham don’t know what I do or who I am, and that’s great.’”
Branford Marsalis will be playing with the philharmonic on July 9 at 8 p.m. at the Dana Auditorium.
Musicial luchadores invade Greensboro
by Jordan Green
So what’s with the Mexican wrestling masks? And what are a group of Nashville cats doing playing instrumental surf music when the largest body of water in their back yard is the Cumberland River?
Answers to these and other questions are likely to be answered when Los Straitjackets hurtle into town for the EMF Fringe Festival next month, with the Jersey-based burlesque dancers, the world-famous Pontani Sisters, and the self-described ‘“world’s leading twist aficionado’” and Scottish choreographer Kaiser George in tow. Or if these mysteries are not revealed, at least they’ll be deepened.
First, a word from the premier Mexican-American Elvis impersonator, El Vez, who bestows his vocal talents on the band’s 2001 release, Sing Along With Los Straitjackets.
‘“They worked so fast!’” he says. ‘“Fast, prompt and scientific! And they still had their masks on! I wonder if it was really them’… it could have been supreme session men of the highest caliber.’”
Other celebrity guests add testament to the deep abiding mystery that is Los Straitjackets.
‘“They never took off the masks,’” says Exene Cervenka, formerly of the pathbreaking punk band X. ‘“I still don’t know who they are.’”
‘“Scary,’” is the comment made by Elvis Costello collaborator Nick Lowe.
The masks, which make the four members of Los Straitjackets resemble corny ’60s comic book superheroes, come from the Mexican wrestling tradition of lucha libre, which roughly translates as ‘free-for-all.’ Imagine the masked Zorro (a Latin Robin Hood), whose presence suggests valor, mystery and perhaps vengeance, and you get the idea.
Forget about Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage.
‘“Masks, character identities, and related honor aside, Mexican fighters are traditionally more agile, throw exotic moves that would challenge any circus acrobat, and play the crowds better than anyone,’” reports From Parts Unknown wrestling magazine. ‘“With so many weight classes, Mexico has by far the largest wrestling population, with more championship matches and rivalries than Japan and North America combined.’”
The Sing Along album also features Mavericks singer Raul Malo crooning on ‘“Black Is Black,’” a song first recorded by the Spanish rock group Los Bravos in 1966 ‘— possibly one of the strangest, most feverish garage-rock forerunners to the punk genre.
Since 2001, the band has released three other records: ‘Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets, Supersonic Guitars in 3-D, and Los Straitjackets Play Favorites. The latest two records find the mysterious masked men on the Chapel Hill label known as Yep Roc.
Word is that Los Straitjackets’ show with the Pontani Sisters and Kaiser George on July 16 at Triad Stage is supposed to conjure a beach music party ‘— promotional materials also reference ’60s TV shows like ‘“Hullabaloo’” and ‘“Laugh-In’” ‘— but we somehow don’t imagine it will be much like an Embers or Chairmen of the Board concert.
Do you remember the days?
by Brian Clarey
On Sunday nights in fin de siecle New Orleans scenesters like me had but a few choices when we blew off studying and hit the town. There was always a live set at Madigan’s by the riverbend, but most likely my fellow shirkers and I would take the streetcar down Carrollton to Oak and walk the block through Pigeontown to the Maple Leaf, where we would catch the Iguanas at their standing weekly set. This was back around 1990, before their self-titled debut album and before they hit the road with Jimmy Buffet, when they first performed their infusion of New Orleans funk and R&B to syncopated Latin beats, rounded out with saxophone and accordion ‘— accordion! ‘— in the sweaty Maple Leaf music hall.
Personal recollections and phone calls to my confederates in those days reveal that we don’t remember much from those days on Oak Street, mostly a vibe that we can’t put into words and a group of shady dudes that hung around the shows with names like Carlos and Dani.
The Iguanas moved on to prominence in the New Orleans music scene, showcasing joints like CafÃ© Brasil and the Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl. And they have since been discovered by the rest of the world.
When they take the stage at Triad Stage they’ll bring all of their Crescent City barroom cred honed now with years of studio and on-the-road experience, and they’ll surely be playing tunes from their newest album, Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart, for all the nice people. But I hope they’ll delve deep into their catalog for the nasty folks like me and pull out ‘“Para Donde Vas’” or ‘“This Night of Sin,’” and maybe restore some of my memory from those Sunday nights so long ago.
The sounds of South Africa
by Ogi Overman
Could it have been twenty full years since Paul Simon met Joseph Shabalala in a recording studio in Johannesburg, South Africa, and introduced the U.S. to an esoteric form of music called Isicathamiya that literally changed the face of World Music? Indeed, that meeting (that came about because a DJ in Los Angeles had sent Simon a tape of Shabalala’s group) not only resulted in Simon’s Grammy-winning album, Graceland, but also made the unknown (outside of South Africa) vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo a household name the world over.
To say that a lot has changed for the 10-man a cappella group since then would be a gross understatement. Yes, they had already become rather legendary in South Africa, but in the ensuing decades their fame has crossed every international border and cultural barrier. They have performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall for the Queen of England, in Rome for Pope John Paul II, at two Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies, and at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Their first album released in the U.S., Shaka Zulu, earned them a Grammy in 1987 as did their most recent release, Raise Your Spirit Higher. In between they were nominated eight additional times.
In addition to Simon, Mambazo has recorded with such luminaries as Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Ben Harper, George Clinton, and The Wynans. They’ve appeared in videos by Michael Jackson and Spike Lee and recorded commercials for 7 Up and Life Savers.
The ensemble has an impressive rÃ©sumÃ© of theatre credits as well. ‘“The Song of Jacob Zulu’” opened on Broadway in 1993 and was nominated for six Tony Awards, while ‘“Nomathemba,’” staged in Chicago and based on the first song Joseph Shabalala wrote, was awarded Best Original Musical Score.
Moreover, a 2001 documentary on the group was nominated for both an Emmy and an Academy Award.
EMF grad offers percussion class, performance
by Lee Adams
EMF alumni Rolando Morales-Matos will be in town the week of July 4 through 8, teaching percussion students at the EMF camp and performing for the public at Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium on July 6. Morales-Matos will be teaching three clinics for campers and his public concert lineup will consist of four musicians ‘— a pianist, bassist and drummer in addition to himself ‘— and will combine classical, jazz and contemporary music.
Morales-Matos grew up in a musical family. His father composed songs for them and they would all play together. But in 1981, when he attended the EMF summer school, he says his perspective on music changed entirely.
‘“That was my turnaround,’” he said in a recent phone conversation. It was the point in his life, he says, where he began to see music as a career, and the next year he left his home of San Juan, Puerto Rico to attend Carnegie Mellon University. From there he went on to earn his Master’s at Duquesne University and certificate of professional studies at Temple University.
In a quote from his bio found on the EMF Web site Morales-Matos stated:
‘“The festival opened my eyes to the fact of how much I did not know. At the same time, it showed me the importance of discipline, not just from the teachers, but also through the other students who applied it in order to accomplish a given task, including the task of becoming a musician. The competition was very strong, but very healthy among fellow students. I had many people to look up to as they shared their knowledge. It wasn’t until that summer of 1981 that my appreciation of classical music was awakened. Since then, I have been focused on my music career, always knowing that it was during that summer that I discovered what would have to be done to become an artist.’”
Since then he had gone on to play with the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He performed and conducted the percussion in Disney’s ‘“The Lion King’” and, in addition to regularly performing and recording with musicians in New York City, he also gives clinics and performances at universities across the country.
Morales-Matos currently makes his home in Bloomfield, New Jersey.