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Disc reviews: Phish, Kyr, Dvorak




[Jemp Records]

4 stars

Phish did not need to make another studio album. One of the most consistently successful touring bands of the last quarter century, the group has continued to prosper simply by touring, and could continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Many of the band’s fans would have been fine with that.

So “Fuego” is clearly a labor of love. It’s not likely to earn the band a ton of money. No one really makes money from albums anymore, unless they’re Miranda Lambert or Jay-Z. It is also not likely to earn the band new fans, because anyone who isn’t interested in Phish already is not likely to hear it. If there’s a radio station in the country that isn’t being broadcast to a tiny audience from a college campus that plays any Phish music, I’m unaware of it.

So “Fuego” was made by the band for the band, and for those among its large fan base willing to spend time experiencing Phish in the present tense, rather than simply spinning their favorite live recording from the band’s 1997 tour, or whatever. We should be glad the band bothered. “Fuego” is one of the finest albums of Phish’s career. It’s fresh, vibrant, inventive, brilliantly performed and dynamic. It also benefits greatly from the presence of producer Bob Ezrin – yeah, the guy who produced Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” and several other records no self-respecting student of rock history should be willing to find themselves without. Ezrin did exactly what he should have – he pushed the band to fine-tune its compositions, then recorded them performing those compositions with lush clarity. He also helped the band attain the strongest vocal arrangements of its career.

The 10 songs that comprise “Fuego” are indeed fiery, but they are also subtle, intricate and both musically and emotionally compelling. There’s much of what Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman and Page McConnell have always done so well here. But there’s something else here, too, something best personified by the lush, lambent psychedelia of “Waiting All Night,” the album’s piece de resistance. It’s the beautiful unfolding of a new quality in the band’s collective songwriting, a bittersweet but psychedelic beauty that needs no lengthy jam section, no jaw-dropping improvisations from the four virtuosos who comprise the band, to get across. It’s simply a fantastic pop song with great playing supporting it.

Thirty years into this trip, Phish continues to mean something because it continues to grow, evolve and morph. “Fuego” has the fire. Grab some.

– Jeff Miers


Robert Kyr

“The Cloud of Unknowing” and

“Songs of the Soul”

Conspirare, soloists and the Victoria Bach Festival Orchestra, conductor Craig Hella Johnson

[Harmonia Mundi]

4 stars

It is no surprise to a living soul anymore that some of the most beautiful music to be written and performed in the classical tradition in our century is religious choral music.

This is almost shockingly exquisite music – based on the poetry of 16th century Spanish mystic writers (St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross) as well as a 14th century monk and magnificently performed by one of the great current choral aggregates with soloists soprano Esteli Gomez and David Farwig.

The music is almost vengefully tonal, as if anything else would be inhuman violation. It is also deeply moving. Kyr is a 62-year-old composer who says that these are two cantatas, a two-part cycle that is “my deepest personal response to the horrific violence of our age, which has only continued to intensify with the massacre of innocents (and innocence) in Newtown, Conn., followed by the incomprehensible horror in Boston. … My response to unspeakable violence is to direct my attention toward creation rather than destruction, toward unity rather than separation, and toward love rather than anything less inclusive. I believe that music has the unique power to directly connect us to the core of who we truly are. It reveals aspects of the inner life force that binds us together into one humanity.”

Out of so much noble rhetorical idealism, thousands of composer’s statements have been written over the centuries, few of them accompanying music as beautiful as this. This isn’t just musical consonance, it takes no special discernment to hear intellectual and spiritual consonance, too. Beautiful music magnificently done.

– Jeff Simon


Dvorak and America

Performed by Baritone/narrator Kevin Deas

PostClassical Ensemble, University of Texas Chamber Singers, soloists, conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez


3.5 stars

In April 2012 JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic gave the regional premiere of “Hiawatha Melodrama,” a narration of parts of Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha” intermixed with music of Dvorak. It was the evolving brainchild of the noted author and musical entrepreneur Joseph Horowitz, who says that this recording represents the “final” version of his vision. It consists of the narration of a condensed version of Longfellow’s complete poem flavored by excerpts largely from Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony,” a more extended version of the earlier Buffalo presentation. What Horowitz seeks is a musico-dramatic statement of the cultural temperament of America in the late 19th century when Dvorak was living in New York as director of the National Conservatory of Music (now the Juilliard School). He had been offered that post with the hope that he would be able to forge a truly American voice in concert music. He realized that Hiawatha was embedded in the American soul, and soon learned that the rhythms of Native American Music and soulful message of African-American spirituals had much to offer, as revealed in his own subsequent compositions.

This new recording includes not only the “Hiawatha Melodrama” but also examples of American-influenced compositions such as Dvorak’s Violin Sonatina in G, his “Humoresques,” Op. 101, his “American Suite,” Op. 98 and the ubiquitous quasi- spiritual; “Goin’ Home,” drawn from the slow movement of his “New World Symphony” by his student William Arms Fisher. As a postscript the recording also offers three works by American composer and Native American music scholar Arthur Farwell, of which the premiere of his 1937 choral version of “Pawnee Horses” is a rhythmically stunning discovery. The performances are unfailingly excellent.

– Herman Trotter



Quatuor Ebene With Stacey Kent, Bernard Lavilliers


3 stars

Here it is, your beach listening. Quatuor Ebene – “ebene” means “ebony” – was in Buffalo just a few months ago under the aegis of the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, playing Bartok and Haydn. At the time I noted that the New York Times had praised them as “a string quartet that can easily morph into a jazz band.” And sure enough, here they have.

Actually, I would almost say lounge band, a compliment in my book. This is the kind of cabaret sound that could make you think of Buffalo’s Them Jazzbeards. They have two great singers for their laid-back purposes: breathy chanteuse Stacey Kent and French Latin singer Bernard Lavilliers. Kent croons through a half dozen songs including Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It”; the standard “Smile”; and “Fragile,” which is punctuated by New Age rain sounds (probably someone drumming softly on the wood of a violin). Wayne Shorter’s “Ana Maria” gets a classical treatment from the quartet. A chorus and string orchestra are heard from briefly, in the concluding “Brazil.”

The whole project is cheerily out there, a gift for people who like to bend genres. It has its lulls, shall we say, but all the arrangements are by Quatuor Ebene, and they’re very creative.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

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