Tag Archives: Barcelona

Bach Brazil Barcelona

Johann Sebastian Bach and Brazilian music have always enjoyed an intimate relationship. This is evident from the towering figure of Heitor Villa-Lobos and his magnificent Bachianas Brasileiras to subsequent Brazilian musicians (such as guitarist Baden Powell) who also found inspiration in Bach’s music and combined it with their own distinctive style.

Originally scored for soprano and an orchestra of cellos, the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 suite is probably Villa-Lobos’s best-known work. A special rendition of the suite’s famous Aria (which has been also arranged for soprano and guitar by the composer) was recently made by singer Ilona Schneider and guitarist Diego Caicedo. Based in Barcelona, the duo delivers an emotionally charged and delicate performance, which is further enhanced by the atmosphere of the  accompanying video.

In fact, Barcelona claims a very special connection to Bach. This is largely due to legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals: In 1890, when he was still 13 years old, Casals chanced upon a copy of Bach’s six Cello Suites in a second-hand sheet music store in Barcelona. Several years later, after having studied them laboriously, Casals would perform Bach’s suites  in public and record them between 1936 and 1939.  They have since been performed and recorded extensively, and are now considered to be among Bach’s most important works.

A highly original take on Bach’s famous Prelude from Cello Suite No.1 can be heard from Armonipiano, a duo formed by harmonicist Rodrigo G Pahlen and pianist Gilles Estoppey. Also based in Barcelona, the two musicians perform a fresh and eclectic blend of jazz, tango, and Brazilian music. And a little bit of Bach, that is.

As shown by such brilliant and novel approaches, the mix of Bach, Brazil and Barcelona makes indeed for an exciting musical cocktail: A sort of baroque-flavored caipirinha, served in the music bars of the Catalan capital.

Gil Shaham, Greece and an old Chinese legend

I recently had the chance to meet and talk with American violinist Gil Shaham in Barcelona, on the occasion of his performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto in L’Auditori (you can read the full interview here).

Towards the end of our conversation we talked a bit about Greece and the soloist’s only visit there so far, which he seemed to remember very vividly:

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Gil Shaham with his ‘Countess Polignac’ Stradivarius, backstage in L’Auditori

“I have never been in Athens, but I’ve been in Thessaloniki. I performed there around 10 years ago with a very good Greek orchestra. We played a piece called the Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto. I love this piece. It’s a sort of tone poem, and it tells a traditional story from the Chinese opera, very similar to Romeo and Juliet but in ancient Chinese style.

According to the story, the heroine, Zhu Yingtai, is forced to marry a noble man and she agrees to do so only if the wedding procession passes by the grave of her true love, Liang Shanbo. As the traditional Chinese wedding procession goes by the grave of young Shanbo, the earth shakes and lightning strikes and the earth shallows her up, and she throws herself into the grave of Shanbo. And in the end they are both resurrected as butterflies.

The piece is a symphonic version of a traditional Chinese opera, and it was composed in 1959 by two students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. It became extremely successful; it is the single most often performed symphonic work ever!”

It appears Shaham’s Greek visit was quite special, and he still has fond memories of it:

“So we played this piece in Thessaloniki. It was a very nice experience and and I have a beautiful memory of it. My whole family was with me, including my daughter who was just one year old at the time.”

We also talked about Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, for whom Shaham has a deep appreciation. The two artists also share some common experiences:

“We went to the same music school with Leonidas in New York. He was a little bit older. We live parallel lives so we never see each other, but then around 2 years ago we were in Munich at the same time and we had dinner together. That was very nice. I love his playing.”

Shaham, like Kavakos, has been one of the foremost violinists of his generation and it would be quite an occasion if their parallel routes also intersected in the concert hall – and it would be hard to think of a more fitting location for such a meeting to take place than Greece.

Whole lotta shakin’ – A day at Barcelona’s Cruïlla Festival

Following the incredible experience of Primavera Sound, I find myself heading back to Barcelona’s Parc del Fòrum for the high point of this summer’s Cruïlla Festival. Robert Plant, Alabama Shakes, James, and many more feature in this year’s diverse and promising lineup. 

For the s(h)ake of music

First up come Snarky Puppy, a Brooklyn-based jazz-fusion collective led by bassist Michael League. Their funky tunes get everyone groovin’ as the band’s eclectic mix of styles takes us to a musical trip with such diverse references as Balkan and African sounds to Stevie Wonder and Radiohead.

English rockers James are next, and they start right away with Getting Away with It (All Messed Up) as I am still rushing toward the stage. Singer Tim Booth proceeds with stage diving and as he mingles with the audience I suddenly realize he is literally in front of me, so I keep cool and take the opportunity for an extreme close-up shot!

The evening sky is getting dark and the Cruïlla stage is graced with the presence of Alabama Shakes and their charismatic lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard. Howard’s distinctive vocal style and guitar playing make for a truly captivating and emotionally charged performance. Along with other talented upcoming artists such as Leon Bridges, Alabama Shakes are no doubt one of the most original bands in the current revival of American gospel, blues, and soul music.

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Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters are about to take the stage, and the atmosphere is electrified. A living rock legend, Plant has shown time and again his restless nature and tendency for experimentation. His remarkable last album is another stop in his constant musical exploration and a highly seductive mix of classic rock with African, bluegrass, and Celtic elements.

Even though he is surrounded by a group of excellent instrumentalists and highly accomplished musicians, it is nevertheless Plant’s imposing, majestic stage presence that immediately grasps everyone’s attention. His voice has matured gracefully and, together with the Sensational Space Shifters, he delivers a fascinating set comprising of both new and old numbers, including classics such as Whole Lotta LoveBabe I’m Gonna Leave You, and no less than three songs from Led Zeppelin’s classic fourth album (Black Dog, Rock and Roll, Going to California).

Still under the spell of Plant’s mesmerizing performance, I stick around to check some more of the festival’s acts, such as Fermin Muguruza & New Orleans Basque Orkestra, Shantel, and Skunk Anansie. It has been a full day and a whole lotta shakin’ with groovy, soulful, and exhilarating music.

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The Sound of Primavera

Sure enough, this year’s Primavera Sound included all the necessary ingredients of a grand festival: ping pong between stages, losing friends along the way, rushing for beer, fighting for a good spot, finding your friends only to lose them again. But the most important ingredient of all came in abundance:  an overdose of uplifting, inspiring music, much more that one man alone can handle (I still tried my best!).

But let’s take it one day at a time…

Day 1: Taking off

It’s only fitting that the music journey about to begin kicks off with names such as Explosions In The Sky and Air. As the Barcelona sky is gradually being painted in shades of purple, the air is filled with the sound of miniature instrumental symphonies and electronic art pop from the Texas post-rock band and the French duo respectively.

Once everyone’s mood and spirits are lifted, Australian psychedelic rockers Tame Impala take the stage. With a set comprising mostly of tunes from their excellent last two albums Lonerism and Currents, they give a dynamic performance marked by colorful, trippy visuals and Parker’s precise delivery of the vocal and guitar parts (almost identical to the actual recordings – perhaps a more relaxed take would be even more effective).

The night goes on with LCD Soundsystem and smaller electronic/dance acts that keep the audience going until the early morning hours. But not me: I feel like I only want to go backwards (toward the exit, that is) and charge my batteries for the following days.

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Day 2: Losing one’s self

I arrive in time for Beirut, whose Balkan folk feel and sound gets the blood flowing. It’s already getting dark and I rush to the main stage to secure a decent spot and get a glimpse of Radiohead, the festival’s biggest name and arguably the most important rock group of our times.

The experience is thrilling. It’s been almost a decade since I had last watched them in Amsterdam, and their sound has evolved significantly in the meantime. I know it’s not just me who waits in great anticipation: a deafening silence hovers over the huge crowd that has gahered to watch the revered band from Oxfordshire. And mind you, silence here in Barcelona is not exactly normal during rock concerts.

The first notes of Burn the Witch finally break through, followed by the first half of the band’s  acclaimed new album A Moon Shaped Pool. Radiohead proceed to cover their entire catalogue, including tracks from Kid A, The King of Limbs, and In Rainbows. But it’s with the opening melody of No Surprises that the audience’s silent, reflective mood suddenly changes to open endorsement and unrestrained excitemet. And it’s the spontaneous reaction to Karma Police, another track from OK Computer, that marks the concert’s perhaps most memorable moment, as a sea of people keeps singing “for a minute there… I lost myself, I lost myself…” well after the song is over.

Impossible as it seems to follow such an act, the show must go on and The Last Shadow Puppets are next on the bill. Not knowing quite what to expect,  I am delighted to see the band accompanied by a string quartet on stage. Alex Turner takes the lead and together with Miles Kane, they give a quite remarkable performance which ends with nothing less than a lengthy jam over the Beatles guitar-heavy dynamite I Want You (She’s So Heavy). That’s a good time to call it a night, and by this point I am pretty exhausted anyway.

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Day 3: The witching hour

Today I have a date with pop history: Songwriting genius Brian Wilson performs the entire Pet Sounds album together with a band of seasoned veteran musicians. His voice has lost its old sparkle (and much of its range) and his stage presence can only be described as ‘static’, but somehow the brilliance of his music makes up for all this. And when Good Vibrations comes up as an encore, I just don’t need I could ask for anything more.

But of course there’s more. I pass by indie rockers Deerhunter before moving on to another stage to catch English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey. Her presence is captivating and she delivers an atmospheric performance that blends well with the surroundings as the Barcelona sky turns dark.

The clock strikes midnight and instead of demons and witches, a different kind of supernatural beings appear on stage. It is the Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Rós with their otherwordly, transcendental sound. It seems impossible to grasp how this kind of music is made by human beings; frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s hunting falsetto, ethereal bowed guitar, and the bewitching background visuals resemble more some strange magic ritual than a music show.

Still mesmerized, I stick around for a little longer to explore some more of the festival’s vast territory. As dawn breaks, I am on my way home full of images, impressions and a music playing constantly in my head: I cannot quite pin it down, but I know it is the sound of Primavera.

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Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil in concert

A piece of history

Few artists have occupied such a prominent place in the history of modern Brazilian music as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Guitarists, singers and composers, the two musicians (both born in 1942) were also key figures in the popular tropicália movement in the 1960s, and have been close friends  and collaborators ever since.

Apart from being widely acclaimed as composers and singers, both Veloso and Gil were also involved in various ways with the political developments in Brazil during the second half of the 20th century. They were both arrested and exiled from Brazil in 1969, as the Brazilian military regime viewed their music and political action as a threat. They eventually returned to Brazil in the early 1970s and, in an interesting turn of events, Gil would even serve as Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008.

It is hard to overestimate Veloso’s and Gil’s contribution to Brazilian music and culture in general. They have had an immense influence upon subsequent musicians and songwriters at home, while they have also been active ambassadors of Brazilian music abroad, introducing it to large audiences worldwide through their recordings and live performances over the years.

Parallel paths, complementary voices

Earlier this week, Veloso and Gil came to Barcelona for a joint concert at the Palau de la Música Catalana. Opening with the cheerful Desde que o Samba é Samba, the two artists went on to present an eclectic mixture of songs covering several decades of Brazilian music, including many popular tunes such as Drão, Terra, Super Homem, A luz de Tieta, and Tres palabras.

Their simple, modest appearance and basic setup (two chairs and two guitars) were a striking contrast to the flamboyant and richly decorated interior of the Palau’s concert hall. But their beautiful melodies, excellent musicianship, delicate singing, and tuneful guitar playing were more than enough to compensate for the absence of fancy costumes or large backing bands.

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Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil at the Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona (2 May 2016)

Gil’s voice may have lost some of its older sparkle and tonal range, and Veloso may not be quite as active on stage as in the past (although he did try a little dance at some point). However, with both of them well into their seventies, these are just details of minor importance. Their brilliant performance proved that they are still perfectly capable of captivating their audience and creating that unique, magical atmosphere that Brazilian music seems to evoke when played by such exceptional performers.

My only thought (and wish) after leaving the concert was that hopefully Veloso and Gil will continue to share their gifts for many years to come. Having been on parallel paths for more than half a century, the chemistry between them is simply astounding, while their playing and unique voices continue to perfectly complement one another.

The seasons they are a changin’

Earlier this month I visited the beautiful Palau de la Música Catalana for a performance of Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni (“The Four Seasons”) by German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and her ensemble. It was an excellent concert and soon after the last notes of Vivaldi’s “Winter” were heard, the audience burst into a grand, extended applause anticipating Mutter’s return to the stage.

Sure enough, the famous virtuoso and her select group of skilled instrumentalists were soon back for a bis – a treatment of the thunderous Presto from Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto. Although this could well have been sufficient, the crowd’s enthusiastic response and continuous cheering resulted in yet another encore. This was when things started to get slightly, ehmm, metamodern.

As soon as Mutter and her ensemble started playing (the piece was an arrangement of Bach’s famous Air from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major), I found myself surrounded by people reaching out to their mobile phones, cameras and tablets, struggling to capture as best they could every single second of that final performance. And there I was, hopeless and helpless, utterly incapable of enjoying the beauty of such sublime music and the unique setting.

I know what you are thinking: “This is happening in nearly every concert nowadays, so what’s the big deal?” And yes, I (as I am sure you too, dear reader) have also indulged in similar practices on one occasion or another. But here’s the thing: It’s quite different taking a photo (or video) during a rock gig or a large pop concert than doing the same during an intimate performance where music (classical or otherwise) is played on acoustic instruments and all its color, subtleties, and nuances are of the essence.

As Bach’s Air was about to end, I couldn’t help but think that the uplifting qualities of such magnificent music had somehow been suspended, the atmosphere irreversibly ruined; in short, the magic had been lost.

photo

Thinking back on the incident, an excerpt from Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise came to mind, where the author relates a visit to a tourist attraction known as “the most photographed barn in America”:

People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image. We’re here to maintain one. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

Although sightseeing is not identical to a concert hall visit, there are certainly some eerie resemblances on how more and more people are experiencing the two. I would like to believe that taking pictures, making selfies or videos, buying postcards and seeing “only what the others see” have not yet displaced the essence of attending a music performance, i.e. nurturing one’s mind and soul with sounds that please, excite and stimulate.

The seasons are changing, and mobile devices have invariably made their way into the concert hall. Still, as much as it is about entertainment, a gig (regardless of music genre) can also be an opportunity for contemplation or the cause of life-changing insights. It can be indeed a religious experience, where one willingly becomes part of a collective perception, to use DeLillo’s words. My hope is that it doesn’t degenerate into “spiritual surrender” or any short of mindless “tourism.”

Lee “Scratch” Perry in concert

Few artists can claim to have played such a defining role in the development of reggae and dub music as Lee “Scratch” Perry (b. 1936). With an astonishing career spanning well over 50 years, the legendary  Jamaican music producer continues to excite audiences despite his advanced age. Just one day after his 80th birthday, Perry performed at the Apolo, Barcelona’s landmark music hall; quite a special gig indeed.

Upsetting the music business

Born into a poor family, Perry’s beginnings were humble.  As he relates:I went to school, first in Kendal, then in Green Island, ‘til fourth grade, around 15. I learned nothing at all. Everything I have learned has come from nature. My father worked on the road, my mother in the fields. We were very poor.”

Perry decided to move to Kingston, Jamaica in order to pursue his passion for music. In the late 1950s he started working at the renowned Studio One hit factory, known as “the Motown of Jamaica.” In 1968 he went on to form his own label, Upsetter Records. Perry, by now an experienced and daring producer, released numerous recordings during the following years, further developing and experimenting with new approaches to music production.

Lee "Scratch" Perry

 

 

”Everything I have learned has come from nature”

Lee “Scratch” Perry

 

The Ark is on fire

In the early 1970s Perry built his his own personal studio, named the Black Ark, in the back yard of his family home. Using basic and unsophisticated equipment compared to the state-of-the-art recording studios of Jamaica’s big producers, he gained total control over the production process, thus giving birth to a diverse array of exciting new sounds and advance innovating recording techniques.

It was during this extremely creative period that Perry worked with notable musicians such as Bob Marley & the Wailers and Max Romeo. Around 1980, however, work at the black Ark was stopped as the studio was burned to the ground. Although there is some controversy about the actual circumstances, Perry has claimed that he set the Black Ark on fire himself in order to “cleanse” it from undesired spirits. In his own words: “[T]he atmosphere in the Black Ark studio was changing; it wasn’t like it used to be. Then I decided to make a sacrifice as the energy wasn’t good anymore.”

The legend lives on

A highly eccentric figure and a man with seemingly inexhaustible resources of both physical and creative energy, Perry continues his long and extraordinary career to this day, having produced several notable albums and collaborated with distinguished musicians over the last years.

What is more, his flamboyant presence and unique performing style make him a great entertainer on stage, as was aptly demonstrated last Monday in Apolo. An eternally young and heretic spirit, Lee “Scratch” Perry has given music his body and soul; as to the rest of us, he has given an abundance of intoxicating sounds, new ways to make and approach music, as well as constant inspiration to listen to it with a new set of ears.

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