April 2010

Some Good Music and How To Get It

April 13, 2010 22:00

Deutsche Grammophone (DG) tries hard to market their recordings online, and I'm on a couple of their email lists. A few weeks ago, they sent me an email about DG Webshop, a web radio site that plays classical music from the DG catalog 24/7.  The email said that this site has two channels, one general and one focused on a specific kind of music.  The focus would change weekly.  I know that DG has carried a lot of fine music over the years, and I was eager to listen to some of it for free. 

When I got to the DG site, I tried the general music channel, and it worked like a dream.  You can look at one CD after another and choose what you want to listen to.  After that, you can let it progress stepwise to all the other CDs, choose what you want to listen to, oreven listen to the same CD more than once.  Some of the CDs were so good that I listened to them many times.  The CDs are changed on a rotating basis, so when you go to the website, there is always something new to hear.  The programming on DG Webshop is good.  During the week before Easter, they played a lot of sacred music, including Bach's B minor Mass and Mozart's Great Mass in C, both immense, beautiful works.  I listened to them over and over.  At times, I even picked up my violin and tried to play along when I knew the melody.  I have not had success with their special focus channel.  It has not changed from piano music, at least on my computer, and I've never been able to get past the first album.  Like other web radio stations, you can not pause the music, so if you leave the room, you miss the music.   

Like many web radio sites, DG sells what it plays.  Their prices are very good compared to amazon.com's prices.  For example, DG  sold a 2 CD set (David Oistrakh with others in piano trios) at the price of one CD, while amazon.com charged twice as much.  Also, DG gives 25% off of everything when you buy it from their Webshop.  Some of their CDs are out of print, and DG is trying to get rid of them by selling them really cheaply.  I bought one very good one for $5.24 (USD).  I'm calling them CDs, but they are really music downloads.        

I thought that DG would make it very easy for you to buy whatever you're listening to, but when I tried it, I had trouble.  I am not a sophisticated techie, and the programming was anything but user friendly.  You can choose to download via their download manager or as a zip file.  Their download manger presented everything as a file with the extension .jsp.  I wasn't familiar with that, and I was unsuccessful at downloading these files, so I wrote to Customer Service and asked what application I should use to open a .jsp file.  They told me to use Java.  I'm not a techie, but that did not sound right to me, so I emailed some of my techie friends.  They told me, if I understand them correctly, that .jsp is not a file type like .mp3 or .doc.  Rather, it refers to the kind of script the software was written in.  Someone even gave me directions on downloading the .jsp files as audio files, but I could not get it to work.  I ended up using the zip files, and they worked fine.  I don't understand why they are longer than the .jsp files by several orders of magnitude, but that's fine.  In the end, I got all the music I wanted to downloaded. 

All the music on DG Webshop is good, and it's all cheap.  If you just want to listen, it's free.  In spite of its glitches, I recommend it highly.

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Joshua Bell's 'At Home with Friends'

April 2, 2010 23:49

Here are my personal reactions to Joshua Bell's latest CD Joshua Bell at Home with Friends.

When Joshua Bell makes music at home with friends, it's not the way I make music at home with friends. I clean the house, prepare a meal (usually), and put out some soda and junk food. I also put out some extra chairs, especially chairs without arms to accommodate various instrumentalists, in the living room. The mood is informal and the music is largely improvised. I have friends who play a variety of instruments or sing, and they enjoy a variety of kinds of music. I never know what we'll play, but I always know we'll have fun.

How does Joshua Bell make music in his living room? He discusses the subject in the liner notes to his newest CD, Joshua Bell at Home with Friends, and in Laurie Niles's interview with him on v.com.

Bell doesn't use a real living room. He uses a special room in his house that he designed with an architect to get the very best acoustics. He has entertained up to 200 people there, many of them sitting on pillows on the floor, and they love the "up-close-and-personal" feeling they get. He says that his home performances are not like 18th or 19th century musicales because they have an "anything goes" spirit. He might play a Brahms Sonata and follow it with some bluegrass music. (I never would have thought that Joshua Bell would play bluegrass music.) He invites a diverse group of friends to play music at these events -- singers, rock musicians, jazz musicians, and more. He decided that it would be fun to share his music with friends with a larger audience, so he spoke to people at Sony about it. When he got their go-ahead, he invited some of his musician friends to join him in making this recording. The CD was not exactly spontaneous and informal. Recording and mixing engineers were used, as were recording studios. I think the music is great, but I don't think it's quite like music played at home.

I believe that what makes this recording great is the new and unexpected pairing of instruments and, sometimes, voices, and the new ways of expressing emotions in old pieces of music. Musical compositions are not static. They take new life every time they are played, even in the recording studio.

I think my favorite track on the recording is Come Again Sweet Love, a Renaissance love song which Joshua Bell plays with Sting, but not live.  He plays with a commercially released recording by Sting. Sting has a very broad range of musical interests, and he excels in performing and reinventing all of them. The first time I listened "Come Again" on Joshua Bell's recording, I recognized it immediately from Sting's recording Songs from the Labyrinth, a compilation of Renaissance songs which Sting sings while accompanying himself on a lute. His melodic and harmonic achievements with his voice and this instrument are sweet, engaging, and exciting. In Sting's recording, the lute is featured as an equal to Sting's voice. However, in the magic of the recording studio used in Bell's recording, the sound of the lute disappears almost completely, leaving lots of space for the violin. (Try doing that in your own home.) In Bell's recording, the song is introduced by the violin playing an exquisite paraphrase of the main theme. Through the rest of the piece, the violin and vocal lines are intertwined in a way so balanced that one never seems to upstage the other. Bell plays some beautiful ornaments (he likes double stops and a wide range of pitch) and helps move the song as it swells, floats, and softens. His playing is sweet, lyrical, and clean. When I listen to it as a humble violinist, I hear Bell's technical virtuosity, and when I just listen to the song, I hear seemingly effortless beauty.

Another one of my favorites on this recording is Variant Moods:  Duet for Sitar and Violin (abridged version), written especially for Joshua Bell and Anoushka Shankar by Ravi Shankar, Anoushka's father, who coached them as they learned to play it.  Ravi Shankar, now in his eighties and in frail health, brought sitar music and Indian traditional music in general to the attention of the Western world in the 1960s with the help of such diverse musicians as George Harrison, of the Beatles, and Yehudi Menuhin.  I still have my old vinyl recording East Meets West by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin.  Anoushka Shankar is a great musician and the heir apparent to her father's musical life. In this CD, the sounds of the violin and the sitar are intertwined so beautifully that one would think that these two instruments were designed to be played together.  True to its title, the piece conveys moods very strongly and with a distinctly personal feeling.

Artistry and technology combine once again to create beautiful music on this recording in Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 3, second movement, played by Joshua Bell and Sergei Rachmaninoff.  It would be awfully scary to perform that piece in your living room with Sergei Rachmaninoff, who is dead.  In the recording studio, Bell played along with a recording by Rachmaninoff.  I love the Grieg sonata, which I rarely hear, and this performance was great.

Eleanor Rigby, a Beatles song, is played on this CD by Joshua Bell and Frankie Moreno.  I am a devoted Beatles fan, and I'm always very skeptical about anyone else playing any of their songs.  I was surprised to find that I liked the Bell / Moreno version even better than I liked the original.  Bell and Moreno play this song with tremendous pathos and dignity, reminding me of the spirit of the classical Greek tragedies.  It endows everyday events with sympathy, respect, and universality.

The only song on this CD that I don't like is My Funny Valentine, featuring singer Kristin Chenoweth with Joshua Bell.  I've always heard this song as a gently teasing and deeply loving song about someone with human strengths and imperfections.  It is an endearing song for me.  This version is so different.  It makes me feel very sad.  In fact, if I listen to this CD when I'm feeling sad or depressed, I just skip this track.

I'm familiar with Joshua Bell's solo or concerto playing, where he makes the most of his considerable talent for showing off.  In this CD, Bell plays very much as a partner with each musician or singer.  His virtuosity is not "in your face," but if you listen closely, it is there and it is quite impressive.

I know that I'll never be invited to sit on a pillow on the floor with 199 of Joshua Bell's friends in his home.  Nor will I ever be in a recording studio where Bell is making another kind of music with his friends.  I'm very glad that I have this CD so that I can hear Bell playing with so many other people, in so many different styles, so beautifully.

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