New Was (Not Was) Compilation: Pick of the Litter 1980-2010

Was (Not Was) Pick of the Litter 1980-2010 album coverThe amazing, beyond-category band Was (Not Was) has a terrific new compilation out that covers their entire 30-year recording career: from the first single “Wheel Me Out” to their latest album Boo!

How can one CD cover a 30 year career? Well, 18 of those 30 years were on hiatus while Don and David Was went their separate ways, with Don Was becoming a very successful record producer. Another 5 years were lost to record company disputes between their second and third albums. This still leaves us with 5 albums and several singles. Pick of the Litter covers this repertoire very nicely. The selected songs are very close to the sets that I’ve heard the band play the past few years in San Francisco and Anaheim. There are some nice crossfades between songs that make things flow together even better.

Part of what speaks to me about the band’s music is its inspired eclecticism. It’s not just that they are hometown heroes, though that’s part of it. Don and David Was were two white kids from the Detroit suburb of Oak Park who got two outstanding black singers, Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens, to sing their out-there lyrics and music. They liked jazz so they hired Detroit jazz trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave, who played on their first album and the earlier singles. They would add all sorts of influences – jazz, rock, spoken word, noise, a State of the Union address by President Ronald Reagan – into their basic dance orientation. Detroit had so much going on in popular music in the 60s and 70s, from the Motown hits to the rock music of Bob Seger, the MC5, and many others. Mixing it all together seems like a natural thing to do.

Sometimes the eclecticism veered a little “out of control” for their own good, as in the wild series of guest vocalists that started with the Born to Laugh at Tornadoes album. Pick of the Litter does a very sensible thing by saving the highlights of these guest vocal appearances for the end of the CD, after doing the 15 songs sung by the band in chronological order. A great TV rehearsal take of “Hello Operator” from 1989 comes next, then the 3 collaborations. Doing it this way, there’s only one choice to close the album: “Zaz Turned Blue,” sung by Mel Torme and backed by the New York group String Fever, founded by violinist Marin Alsop. This was before the Maestra became music director of the Cabrillo Festival and the Baltimore Symphony!

Another familiar name on the credits is Debra Dobkin, who played percussionist in the band during its 1989-1990 peak of popularity. Lately she’s been performing with Richard Thompson in his 1000 Years of Popular Music band. Maybe Richard will include a Was (Not Was) song in a future version of the show?

If all you’ve heard from the band is their hit “Walk the Dinosaur”, check out some of the other musical riches on offer. Pick of the Litter makes a great introduction to the world of Was (Not Was). The band plays great live, so catch them if they come to a town near you for one of their rare gigs!

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From Freischütz to Resurrection

West Bay Opera tenor section for Der FreischützOur run of Der Freischütz at West Bay Opera concluded on Sunday. The innovative direction by Yuval Sharon had its fans and its detractors, but the singing was pretty well universally praised.

As a member of the chorus, I was happy to see the critics’ response to our singing overall. San Francisco Classical Voice‘s Jeff Kaliss noted “the strength of the West Bay Opera choral ensemble.” Mort Levine from the Milpitas Post praised “the full-throated choral singing.” It’s nice to see reviews of the West Bay Opera chorus that don’t focus on how small it is. At 24 voices, the Der Freischütz chorus is as big as the company can put on the stage at the Lucie Stern Theatre.

I’ve sung in several good choruses at West Bay, but this one was especially fine. I’d like to call our tenor section, pictured above, the “Kings of the High A’s” given the high tessitura of Weber’s tenor choral writing. Weber divides the tenor section three ways at times. Depending on which parts you are singing, you can go from 43 high A’s for a Tenor II to 94 high A’s for a Tenor I singing the Jäger part in Acts I and III. It’s demanding, especially for a 6-voice section, but I think we nailed it.

From left to right, that’s James Pintner, Alexander Frank, Thomas Ellison, Vincent Rubino, Michael Good, and Terry Hayes. We’re backstage at West Bay in our hunter / townsfolk attire. Thanks to fellow chorister Dee Baily for taking the picture. Our co-chorus masters were Hadley McCarroll and Bruce Olstad. It was thrilling singing and performing with everyone. Let’s do it again sometime!

Now it’s on to my debut with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Jim and Tom are in the tenor section there as well. It’s quite something to be singing this work for the first time, in my first performance with this chorus, when at least 3/4 of the chorus have sung and recorded this symphony with MTT. (I’ll be on a more equal footing for the next program, featuring Swedish choral works that perhaps nobody else in the chorus has sung before either.) Performances are next week from March 11 to March 14 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.

Posted in Chorus, Music, Opera | 2 Comments

Three Grammys for the SFS Mahler 8

Back in September, I blogged that the San Francisco Symphony’s recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 was “one for the ages”, just as the concert performances were the preceding year. Tonight, that recording won three Grammy Awards:

  • Best Classical Album
  • Best Choral Performance
  • Best Engineered Album, Classical

Congratulations to Michael Tilson Thomas, Ragnar Bohlin, Kevin Fox, Susan McMane, Andreas Neubronner, Peter Laenger, all the soloists, orchestra, and chorus musicians, and everyone else involved in the recording at the Symphony and SFS Media.

Last week was also my first rehearsal with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. My first concert set will be Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on March 11 – 14. The two soloists, Laura Claycomb and Katarina Karnéus, were two of the fabulous soloists on the Mahler 8th recording. After hearing so much great Mahler in Davies over the years, what a thrill it is to be rehearsing it with the SFS Chorus. Performing it should be amazing.

Posted in Chorus, Music | 1 Comment

Coming Up: An American "Der Freischütz"

West Bay Opera poster for Der FreischützYesterday was our first staging rehearsal for West Bay Opera‘s upcoming production of Der Freischütz. I was already excited about getting the opportunity to perform this German masterwork that is rarely done in the USA. The cast is fabulous, full of favorites from previous West Bay productions, especially from Dutchman. The chorus is as big (and strong) as you can put on the Lucie Stern stage. General director José Luis Moscovich will conduct.

There is a reason that Der Freischütz is not performed often in the USA, despite its glorious music. The work can seem a bit opaque to American audiences who don’t share the cultural context of the opera that German audiences do. How can a production make the staging more immediate and involving to American audiences, while remaining true to the work itself?

Yuval Sharon, directing at West Bay for the first time, has devised some creative ways to add some American cultural references to the staging that cleverly parallel the German references of the work. I don’t want to give away any surprises. But I will say that this production will not fall into either of the twin pitfalls of dusty museum-piece staging or been-there-done-that Eurotrash updating.

Der Freischütz will be performed on February 19, 21, 27, and 28 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. The performances on Friday the 19th and Saturday the 27th start at 8:00 pm; the Sunday performances on the 21st and 28th start at 2:00 pm. Tickets are available online or at the box office.

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Digital Editing Between Experiment and Standardization

Digital Editing between Experiment and Standardization coverIn December 2007, I participated in a conference on “Digital Editing Between Experiment and Standardization” in Paderborn, Germany. The conference focused on issues involving digital critical editions for both music and text, and was attended by many scholars and music publishers, mostly from Germany and elsewhere in central Europe.

I participated in the session on music encoding issues. Perry Roland (the inventor of MEI) and I were asked to evaluate our respective formats against a list of encoding requirements for music editorial applications. Thanks to the feedback we received from a 2006 conference in Mainz on similar issues, MusicXML 2.0 was able to meet all the representation challenges for common Western music notation. There was a lively discussion afterward, not just about the differences between MusicXML and MEI, but larger issues on the goals and use of critical editions.

The proceedings of this remarkable conference are now available! Digitale Edition zwischen Experiment und Standardisierung, edited by Peter Stadler and Joachim Veit, includes papers based on the conference presentations as well as summaries of the conference discussion sessions. It reflects the bilingual nature of the conference. Most of the chapters are in German except for the music encoding session, where the following papers are in English:

  • “Musical Variants in Digital Practice” by Eleanor Selfridge-Field
  • “The CMME Occo Codex Edition: Variants and Versions in Encoding and Interface” by Theodor Dumitrescu and Marnix van Berchum
  • “Editing Renaissance Music: The Aruspix Project” by Laurent Pugin
  • “Using MusicXML 2.0 for Music Editorial Applications” by Michael Good
  • “MEI as an Editorial Music Format” by Perry Roland

If you are interested in scholarly music notation issues, these five English-language chapters could be well worth the price of the book by themselves. At this writing it is temporarily out of stock at Amazon in the US, but in stock at Amazon in Germany.

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"MusicXML in Commercial Applications" Now Online

My 2006 paper on “MusicXML in Commercial Applications“, published in Music Analysis East and West, is now available online. This gives a scholarly summary of MusicXML practice in the music industry as of four years ago.

It is interesting to see what has changed and what has stayed the same. MusicXML has moved from version 1.1 to 2.0, and the number of supporting applications has grown from over 50 to over 120. MusicXML’s role in music distribution has started to grow – see our list of MusicXML sites – but the format still is mostly used for interchange rather than distribution. That is something I hope we address in our work at Recordare this year.

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Manhattan Big Band Heaven

Thanksgiving week was a slice of contemporary big band heaven in Manhattan. On Wednesday night, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society performed two sets at Iridium. These photos are from the first set:

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society at IridiumIt’s interesting how you can go your whole life without seeing a bucket-muted bass trombone, and then you can see it twice in three days. Here’s the Secret Society version, with Jennifer Wharton on bass trombone:

Jennifer Wharton playing bucket-muted bass tromboneDarcy gave interesting introductions to some of the tunes:

Darcy James Argue introducing the next chartThe second set was even better than the first, highlighted by a great performance of Ferromagnetic. But our seats didn’t work as well for photos.

On Friday night, we saw the Maria Schneider Orchestra play their second set at the Jazz Standard. We heard the band when they played in San Francisco a few years ago, but it’s so much better to hear them in a small club like this than in someplace like Herbst Theatre. The set included a new commissioned piece, tentatively called “The Bean Fields.”

Maria was conducting in between a couple of the front tables, so we were really up close and personal, as you can see from this after-set photo:

Maria Schneider at the Jazz StandardThanks so much to Darcy for mentioning the Kandinsky retrospective at the Guggenheim in his Secret Society newsletter. We went to see it on Friday and it was as wonderful as advertised. My introduction to Kandinsky’s art was a bit different than most people’s: one of his paintings provided the cover art for the MIT Symphony Orchestra’s first LP on Turnabout. This LP was recorded my freshman year, so I’m playing third trumpet on both selections. Both the Piston and Copland recordings are still available on CD in different packagings.

MIT Symphony Orchestra Album with Kandinsky Cover ArtThe Guggenheim Museum looked as lovely as ever in the cloudy late November light:

Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2009Argue and Schneider write wonderfully well for big band, so it was a real thrill to hear them in clubs within a few days of each other. I’m looking forward to more great music from these bands and bandleaders in the future.

Posted in Jazz, Travel | 1 Comment

Dolet 5.1 Updates Now Available

Recordare now has version 5.1 maintenance updates available for both the Dolet 5 for Finale and Dolet 5 for Sibelius plug-ins. The Dolet 5.1 for Finale update was just released today, and includes a dozen new features and fixes compared to version 5.0.

The Dolet 5.1 for Sibelius update was released back in October, but I missed blogging about it. It now supports Sibelius 6.1, which added ManuScript support for many new features, including document setup and selected engraving rules. So version 5.1 exports much more score formatting from Sibelius 6.1 than has been possible in the past. Sibelius 6.1 also runs plug-ins 2 or 3 times faster than previous Sibelius versions, and most Dolet users will really notice this difference.

These updates are free for current Dolet 5 customers. Both plug-ins are available at the Recordare Online Store, with upgrade discounts available for Dolet 4 users. These updates take another step forward in making digital sheet music interchange between different music programs as seamless and accurate as possible.

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