Music Reviews
2:09 pm
Tue December 13, 2011

From Mozart To Michael Jackson: Classical Contenders

Originally published on Tue December 13, 2011 9:01 am

As we're thinking about the best music of the year, All Things Considered host Melissa Block spoke with Performance Today host Fred Child about more recent classical releases. From an indie-minded ensemble and a piano duet of "Billie Jean" to a set of Mozart quartet pieces, here's what tickling Child's fancy.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

And as we head toward year's end, we thought we'd take a listen to some recent classical music releases.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROVEN BADLANDS")

BLOCK: Starting with this one from a young group that would probably shudder at being stuck in that classical box. They're called yMusic. That's the letter yMusic. You're listening to their debut album titled "Beautiful Mechanical."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROVEN BADLANDS")

BLOCK: I'm joined by the host of public radio's "Performance Today," Fred Child, who flagged this album to our attention. Hi, Fred.

FRED CHILD: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: And tell us more about yMusic. What caught your ear?

CHILD: Well, first of all, really interesting ensemble. To me, this is one of the groups that is really helping to shape the future of classical music. You might have heard this term indie classical or alt-classical being kicked around, and this scene is really beginning to thrive in several cities around the country. Especially in New York and especially in the borough of Brooklyn, there are so many 20-something and 30-something musicians who are classically trained and love and play a huge range of music: rock and pop and hip-hop and folk music and much, much more. Six musicians in yMusic, kind of a mini orchestra: violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet and trumpet.

BLOCK: And I think a guitar in there too. Mostly all Juilliard trained, I read, Fred. And this tune we're listening to written by Annie Clark, also known as St. Vincent, a New York indie musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROVEN BADLANDS")

CHILD: This piece, "Proven Badlands," I find this really beautiful. To me, this almost sounds like the soundtrack to a 21st-century Western movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROVEN BADLANDS")

BLOCK: I'm really fond of the last track on this album from yMusic. It's titled simply "Song." It's by Gabriel Kahane.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG")

CHILD: Yeah. A little bit of electric guitar at the beginning, and then the trumpet comes in over the top.

BLOCK: That old classical music standby, the electric guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHILD: You know, this really points to the fact that these musicians don't draw distinctions anymore between what used to be very sharply delineated genres: classical, pop, rock, jazz, folk. It's just music to these musicians, and they draw on whatever feels right for the moment, whatever feels right for the piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG")

BLOCK: So that's the sextet called yMusic. And let's pivot to another young group, Fred. This is the piano duo of Anderson & Roe. Their new album is called "When Words Fade."

CHILD: Actually, I want to start this by playing a little bit of a track for you. And, Melissa, tell me when you recognize this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLIE JEAN")

BLOCK: OK, Fred. I've had the advantage of having heard this already and seen the album, so I know what's coming. But I'm going to tell you, it would be right around...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLIE JEAN")

BLOCK: OK. I'd like to say it would be right around here that I would recognize that this is in fact Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."

CHILD: You are correct.

BLOCK: Amazing. Amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHILD: A piano four-hands arrangement, a piano duet arrangement of "Billie Jean." Again, classically trained musicians, Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe. They both just turned 30 this year, and they grew up loving a huge range of music. They think Michael Jackson's a great musical genius. They think Mozart is a great musical genius. And in fact, they're side by side on this album. One of the things I love, their inventive arrangements, the way they choose to arrange the notes on the piano. They make it very much their own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLIE JEAN")

CHILD: I love what they do with that Michael Jackson tune, and they do the same thing with classical composers as well. The very next track is a piece by Antonio Vivaldi from the early 1700s. It's an aria from an opera by Vivaldi called "I Feel Within a Rain of Tears." And what they did to create the sound of kind of a rain of tears, they went to the hardware store and they built some mutes that they put inside the piano, and it kind of mute the strings and they create this beautiful sound like falling raindrops or teardrops.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL WITHIN A RAIN OF TEARS")

CHILD: ...mute the strings, and they create this beautiful sound like falling raindrops or teardrops.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL WITHIN A RAIN OF TEARS")

BLOCK: That's the piano duo Anderson & Roe. This is their new album, "When Words Fade." And your last choice, Fred, is more purely classically traditional.

CHILD: Yes. Right down the center of the classical tradition, the Emerson String Quartet, without a doubt, the great American string quartet of our time. Their new recording this fall, a set of three string quartets by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRING QUARTET NO. 21 IN D MAJOR, PRUSSIAN 1")

BLOCK: And, Fred, we're listening right now to the first of the three "Prussian Quartets" on this new release.

CHILD: Yes, and they're called the "Prussian Quartets" because Mozart wrote these for the Prussian king at the time, a guy named Friedrich Wilhelm II. The king was a cellist himself, but he was not a great cellist. So Mozart had to write these quartets so the king could play if he wanted to. He had to write cello parts that were interesting, not too hard, but at times were in the lead, everybody else following the cello. And there's a moment in this first quartet, in the third movement, where you can hear this happening. You hear the two violins playing for a few seconds, and it's almost like they bowed down the cello.

BLOCK: Huh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: I'm thinking, Fred, that the cellist here in the Emerson String Quartet, David Finckel, would be challenging your notion that this is not too tough to play. Easy for you to say.

CHILD: It's true. Easy to say. And actually, something David Finckel does really well: He brings out a kind of singing quality from these lines. In fact, the members of the Emerson Quartet say that when they play Mozart, one of their primary goals is to get a real sense of singing in their string play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Fred, it's great to talk to you again. Thanks so much.

CHILD: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's Fred Child, host of the American Public Media program "Performance Today." We've been talking about Mozart's "Prussian Quartets" performed by the Emerson String Quartet. We also heard the piano duo, Anderson & Roe's new release, "When Words Fade," and the debut album from the sextet yMusic, titled "Beautiful Mechanical."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.