Author: Alejandro Marrero

Classical Pianist Denis Matsuev Takes The A Train

My concert review is going to be about a classical pianist named Denis Matsuev.  The videos that I found were on the WQXR website’s blog. In the first video he takes the traditional jazz tune “Take the A Train” and develops a classical rendition to it.  He is playing in Moscow during April 2013.  By listening to the original by Duke Ellington, you can decipher how much of a transformation the jazz painting went through after being dipped in some classical paint. Of course Matsuev uses familiar motifs from the tune, but only to take it through dodecaphony and major chromaticism in his solo during this piano concerto.  The swing feel is completely omitted by crazy harmonic change and multiple tempo and speeds.  Indeed a display of skill, I still consider this a disrespect to jazz as a genre.  The dissonances leaves listeners with an uneasy feeling compared to the original format.  Classic music may be very complex and polished but there is nothing as smooth as jazz.

Denis is in his comfort zone in a classical setting and ensemble covering songs.  This is the second video that can be seen on the same page.  He is performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto 3. He is very expressive while performing.  He lets the music take over, even swaying while playing.  Expression wasn’t only in the instrument, his eyebrow raises and his facial gestures showed true passion.  His eyes seem closed for most of the performance; such an epic piece requires focus and concentration but he looked very comfortable and seemed to be enjoying the music he was playing.  To top it all off Matsuev performed the entire concerto with no music sheet, and an old conductor; dominating and accenting heavily as he pleased throughout.  At 9:57 he took charge of the ensemble then began taking the audience into a world of dissonance and excessive accenting.  Later at 27:46 the ensemble descends, leaving open space for Denis’s modulation and chromatic ascension.  There was sporadic, heroic accompaniment from the ensemble. Matsuev seemed to be just as great a pianist in both genres, but seemed to be more erratic than calm in his “jazz” performance.

In conclusion, Matsuev is an amazing pianist.  As far as he interpreted the jazz tune, he made the concerto his very own, with consistent momentum and energy.  He never sounded off or repetitive.  At 37:50 it’s hard to tell if his harmonic progression is improve as with the jazz performance, but then is mimicked by the band in unison adding texture and reason to the sped up chaos.  At the end of the concerto, there’s a delicate major change, bringing all the madness to a resolution, to THEN be sped up and returned to the minor tonic.  This performance was epic indeed.  I’m glad I took some time out to critique this great pianist, along with the criticism of the jazz “parody” I’m impressed and understand the standing ovation he received for such a virtuosic performance.

Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ ‘Black Mountain Songs’

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ sold out album release party for their debut album ‘Black Mountain Songs’ was very entertaining to watch.  The video was available on WQXR‘s website on Friday March 31st at 7:30 pm and was hosted by Helga Davis.  The Brooklyn Youth Chorus is made up of young children and the chamber ensemble accompanying them was made up of adults, and even one of the featured composers on the album was a part of it.  They performed at The Greene Space at WQXR, which is a reoccurring venue for them throughout the performing season.  Watching the video made me feel as if I was there in the audience being entertained in person by an amazing group of young children who are great at what they do.

The chorus performed many songs from the album and I have chosen to write about a few of them that spoke to me the most.  The first song that they performed showcased their talent but just enough to hook you in and to make you want to keep watching and listening to these talented children, and talented chamber ensemble.  For most of the song, there was only a piano playing lightly while the chorus sang.  This song was one of my favorites because it showed how talented everyone participating was and they sounded very professional.  This song was like dipping your toe into the water before fully submerging yourself in the pool of wonderful music that lay straight ahead waiting to hug your ears with wonderful sounds.

The second song performed was absolutely my favorite song.  It is called There is Sound and it featured violins, vibraphones, double bass, piano and cello.   The chorus sounded very angelic from the start of the song.  The reason why i enjoyed listening to this song so much is because it gives you that nostalgic feeling of a happy and peaceful time in your life.  To me it is one of those songs where you can close your eyes and tilt your head back to just completely envelop yourself in the voices of the chorus and then the perfect playing of the instruments.  Every note is played when it should be and the chorus hits every note that they are supposed to without missing a beat.  This song was so touching to me that once I finished watching the video, I went back and listened to this song again and it felt as if i was listening to it for the first time again but yet it felt so familiar.  The chorus’ words hit you like the chilled breeze a fall evening while the violins and cello are evoking the sense of watching leaves get slightly picked up by the wind while walking through the park.  A song hasn’t impacted my emotions the way this song did in a while, and it is refreshing to see that a youth chorus can do that to a musician.

Something that was very interesting to me was the fact that a composer of three of the songs on the album, including There is Sound, was also playing double bass and then electric guitar on a later song.  Richard Reed Parry is a core member of the indie-rock band Arcade Fire, and he is also a composer and musician among other things.  When the host asked him about transitioning from writing for a rock band to writing for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus he said the collaboration was exciting and something new and rewarding.  He mentioned specifically the last piece that they were going to perform because there was a direct collaboration with the chorus. He asked them if they wanted to extend the last part of the song and because they said yes and were excited about performing it, they lengthened it to meet their standards.  I think its amazing that a composer was willing to listen to the young chorus and actually agree with them and make the song even more amazing than it already was.

The last song performed was my second favorite only because There is Sound just captured my emotions and didn’t let go of them.  The chorus was haunting for this song and their voices are still amazing even after singing so many songs previously.  At the beginning of the performance, the violins and cello are playing softly as the chorus is singing in such a united voice that it just wraps you up like your favorite blanket.  The song then changes to being energetic and very catchy.  The chorus goes from standing still to not only singing but also stomping their feet and clapping their hands in unison.  This part seemed to be a lot of fun for the chorus to perform and it was very enjoyable to watch them.  This was a great song to choose to end the performance with and it leaves you knowing how talented the youth chorus is and how talented the chamber ensemble is as well.  This was a great video to watch and I can just imagine how amazing it was for those fortunate enough to be able to attend in person.

Bang On A Can!


An amazing concert I went to on January 9, 2017 at the Merkin Concert Hall was titled “Bang on a Can”. The band was made up of great musicians including six for most of the show and then eight during the second part of the show. The band not only played each instrument extremely well, but also seemed to have an amazing chemistry with each other and this in turn made each piece even more enjoyable to watch. The show featured seven composers who were great and their pieces were interesting and very colorful. There were eight pieces included in the show. Bang on a Can; a formidable concert based off of funds from the people’s commission, had its’ 30th year anniversary showcasing the owners, composers, and most of all the Bang on a Can’s All Stars. There was great dialogue from the Host John Schaefer, who is also the radio host of WNYC on the 93.9 FM radio station. There was a great ambience in the venue because it was warm, huge and full of seats. Before each piece was played, the composers were called onto the stage by John Schaefer and had a mini interview about the piece, and how they came up with the idea for the music.

During the first part of the show, the performers in the band stayed the same for all of the pieces and during the second part they added Eliza Bagg on violin and voice and Charles Yang on violin and voice as well. The band was incredibly amazing; their energy for each piece was impeccable and they did not even look tired at the end of the show, which was roughly two hours. It featured David Cossin on Percussion, Derek Johnson on Electric Guitar, Robert Black on Solo Double Bass, Ashley Bathgate on Cello, Ken Thomson on Clarinets and Vicky Chow on Piano and Keyboard. When they were required to do so, they lent their voices to pieces as well. I think that the performers made the show amazing by giving their all to every piece.

The first half of the concert featured two pieces from composers from different parts of the world. During this part of the show, the composers had to use field recordings. They were asked to record something new or old in the field of sound and then write music to correspond with what they found. The piece by American composer and co-founder of Bang on a Can, David Lang who received a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for one of his pieces, was titled sunray. Anna Thorvaldsdottir from Iceland, whose works have been nominated and awarded on many occasions, wrote a piece that was titled Fields. The piece by Juan Felipe Waller who is a Mexican-Dutch composer was titled Hybrid Ambiguities and the settings of his works vary from symphonic orchestra to chamber music and electronics. The piece by American composer Nico Muhly, who has written over 80 works for the concert stage, was titled Comfortable Cruising Altitude. The pieces featured Field Recordings incorporated into them which were either old recordings or new recordings found in real life and I was pleasantly surprised at how seamlessly they were woven into the pieces.

David Lang said sunray was inspired by masonic shapes and bringing life to physical form in music. The piece had many dissonances and used cool pizzicato chords from the strings, repetitious modulation and subtle dynamic build-up. The percussionist literally played everything; he would switch from the vibraphones to bells. He used broken rhythms and the piece gradually got stronger and louder as the percussionist went to the drum set. David Lang indeed illuminated the building with his amazing piece.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir was one of the international composers that contributed to Bang on a Can. Her piece had live, natural textures that made you feel as if you were running through fields. She mentioned she was influenced by actual fields in Iceland to write this piece. Random piano and guitar trills and scale runs were used with clarinet tonguing, breaths and spits to give the song a natural live feel. The string section held long suspenseful notes and the drummer used like a choked snare sound by using conga drum slaps.

Juan Felipe highlighted a Korean Harp in Hybrid Ambiguities that was inspired by a friend. This piece was very experimental. That unique instrument had 96 tones, 12 semi-tones for each 8 notes in the scale. The drummer was smacking the vibraphones with the shaker; he used timpani, toms, and vibraphone. The bass clarinet held higher notes for a long period of time and the pianist which was also amazing helped create a hip-hop feel and pulse. The string section produced a speeding car sound. The guitarist used many chromatic notes. This piece was definitely awesome.

Nico Muhly was absent but Comfortable Cruising Altitude was ok. It used uneasy airplane noises, and babies crying on the plane. The drummer used a violin bow on his cymbal which I’ve never seen… ever. The decay and overtones of the crash cymbal were dramatically enhanced with one arc. The piece constantly resolved dissonances, had beautiful chords and there was deep distance between the left and right hand of the pianist covering low and high octaves. All of the pieces were adventurous and daring and the artists weren’t afraid to think outside of the box and make their pieces unique to their own personalities.

The artists in the second part of the show were American composers but that did not take away from how exotic and fresh the pieces were. There was a piece by Michael Gordon, a member of the Philharmonic known to add rock instruments to chamber music. His work was titled St. Remy from his opera Van Gogh and it happens to be his final movement. Julia Wolfe whose music pushes performers to extremes and demands audiences’ attention, composed a piece titled Believing and it included double bass chaos when he would move up and down sporadically. Then there were two pieces by Philip Glass, who has written music for experimental theater and Academy Award winning motion pictures, one titled Bed which has a consonance on off-beats from his opera Einstein on the Beach and the second one is titled Closing which included cello vibrato with shaking notes from his debut record Glassworks were included in the second part. Michael Gordon’s St. Remy was conducted by the clarinetist in common time but the band would start on an off-beat. There were group vocals from everyone on this song, there were a lot of half-step ascensions. Some of the lyrics used by the male singer and violinist were “I think I have done well”. These pieces were just as interesting and unique as the pieces in the first part of the show.

The show was amazing and very insightful. I enjoyed every piece, composer, and program. I learned plenty just from being in the front row, and I’m sure I got a different sonic experience being able to hear the unfiltered effect of the music. Thank you so much Professor Tilley, I definitely plan on going to more Bang on a Can concerts.