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The Lively Arts (redux)

Art and Music in Denver and Beyond

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February 2019

Variations – A House Concert with David Amram 2/9/19

Gilpin Street House Concerts presented an intimate musical conversation with David Amram who was in Denver for the annual Neal Cassaday Birthday Bash at the Mercury Cafe after a January 28th conducting date at Carnegie Hall.  He was Bernstein’s choice for the first composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic, is a preeminent French Horn player and a constant performer at Farm Aid. His chamber music compositions from 1958-2017 are featured on the 2018 Colorado Symphony recording, So in America. Selections from the album were performed last fall by Amram, Yumi Hwang-Williams and Sara Parkinson.  When Ellin Rosenthal introduced David Amram she said “David radiates creativity. David is music.”

The evening began with spontaneous variations on Amazing Grace on flute.  “Music is here,” Amram said before launching into one of his characteristic tales of his 3rd week in New York with Charles Mingus playing on an out of tune piano and fighting to get paid for the gig. Since those early days he has continued to play chamber music  “with the same spirit of Charles Mingus; musicians playing together.”

He described Tchaikovsky as a composer who “wore his heart on his sleeve” and how Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony ‘ was programmatic in the way that he cast nature as integral to the musical lexicon.  Amram’s compositions “reject topography.” He does not follow one genre. His 1971 two record album No More Walls is like Amram: classical chamber music and world music rooted in jazz. When the vinyl was reissued on CD Amram said,  “In music, as in life, if it’s good, it stays good.”    

Selections at the house concert also included the composer at the piano performing his theme from the film Splendor in the Grass, Pull my Daisy from the Jack Kerouac film with ad lib lyrics that paid tribute to the hostess and When I’m Gone by Phil Ochs. The latter is a nostalgic song that is indelible when delivered by the 88 year old Amram.  He explained his return to these songs, “Music is a place where we celebrate the past.” So many songs and so much protest in the Summer of Love and David Amram reminded the listeners that the Louis Armstrong song, What a Wonderful World was written during 1968.  His rendition of the song with spontaneous variations was ‘wonderful.’

  • Watch the documentary David Amram: The First 80 Years
  • Look for his 2008 book: Upbeat: the Nine Lives of a Musical Cat
  • and his 2002 book Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac

American Music BonBons


Bring your sweet tooth to the historic Baur’s building, 1512 Curtis Street, on February 17th at 6:00 pm. The Colorado Symphony presents CSO concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams and pianist Sara Parkinson with a promise of musical BonBons on Dazzle’s “Chandelier Stage.” The first set will feature American composers David Amram and John Novacek. Yumi finds playing music by octogenarian David Amram rewarding because he’s “so full of joy and life.”  His chamber music compositions from 1958-2017 are featured on the 2018 Colorado Symphony recording, So in America. Last fall Denverites were treated an intimate Denver chamber music concert with Amram, Yumi and Sara.  His 1971 two record album No More Walls is like Amram: classical chamber music and world music rooted in jazz. When the vinyl was reissued on CD Amram said,  “In music, as in life, if it’s good, it stays good.”  Composer and pianist John Novacek has collaborated with Joshua Bell, Leila Josefowicz, Yo Yo Ma and worked with composers Jennifer Higdon, John Williams and John Zorn.  

Yumi is an American violinist who started playing in 5th grade in Philadelphia. She went on to study at Curtis Institute of Music. The 2019-2020 season will be her 20th season as Concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony.  She is on the faculty at DU’s Lamont School of Music. Contemporary music is a constant in her repertoire. At the 2007 Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz, CA she performed Concentric Paths, Opus 24 (2004) by Thomas Ades which she will repeat in March with the Brno Philharmonic.   https://yumihwviolin.com/index

Sara Parkinson studied at New England Conservatory of Music and received her Doctoral in Collaborative Piano at CU Boulder where she coached with members of the Takacs String Quartet. She is a founding member of the Grande Orquesta Navarre and is Director of Operations of MAS Eclectic Concerts. http://bouldersuzukistrings.org/faculty/sara-parkinson-piano-accompanist

First Set: 

Elegy (Version for Violin and Piano) David Amram

Violin Sonata – Movement III David Amram

The Fourth Street Drag John Novacek

Second Set:  BonBons – violin favorites from Kreisler, Thais and more.

Elio Villafranca – Grammy Nominee

Elio Villafranca

Tune into the Grammys on February 10th. Elio Villafranca’s monumental album Cinqué is nominated for the Best Latin Jazz album. Cinqué, per Villafranca, “showcases the cultural diversity of the five  Caribbean islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic  and Jamaica.” It weaves African traditions “into the fabric of each of these nations.” His instrumentation, vocals and spoken word shape a narrative of the revolt by the slave Joseph Cinqué aboard the Amistad slave ship. Villafranca rightfully earns authorship of the dramatic story in this double album that incorporates field recordings.  The first movement begins with the celebratory El Rey del Congo. The subsequent narration shifts the listener into the music to The Capture and through the dramatic keyboard and horns in Troubled Waters.  The tentative lines of New Sky reflect Cinqué’s hesitation that leads to chaos in the First Colony. The music returns to the Congo and the drums become more insistent.  The sweetness of Haitian-American singer Leyla McCalla on Mesi Bondye (Thank God) is accompanied by Don Vappie’s banjo. The final song, Maluaga from Villafranca’s childhood, is sung entirely acapella.

The 2018 recording features  Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Freddy Hendrix (trumpet), Steve Turre (trombone, conch shells), Greg Tardy (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Vincent Herring (alto sax, flute), Todd Marcus (bass clarinet), Ricky Rodriguez (acoustic bass), Leyla McCalla (cello, banjo, vocals) and percussionists Jonathan Troncoso, Arturo Sable and Miguel Valdes as well as drummer Lewis Nash.

Elio Villafranca was nominated for a Grammy in 2010 for Things I Wanted to Do that he coproduced with master congo drummer Chembo Corniel.  In an interview with John Ephland with Downbeat Magazine, Villafranca described his overall approach: “When I’m composing I think more like a classical composer than a jazz musician…” He was classically trained in both percussion and composition at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. He teaches at Juilliard, NYU, Manhattan School of Music and Temple University in Philadelphia.

Rising Star in the Keyboard category for 2018 awarded by Downbeat magazine’s International Critics. In 2015 he was tapped by Chick Corea to be one of five pianists to perform in the inaugural Chick Corea Festival at Jazz at Lincoln Center.  His keyboard work led to collaborations with Wynton Marsalis, Terrell Stafford and Paquito D’Rivera and other jazz masters. He has earned numerous awards including the BMI Jazz Guaranty award in 2008 and the Sunshine Award in 1989 for excellence in his contributions to the performing arts.  

In 2019/2020 listeners can expect a new recording from Villafranca that brings us back to the 1950’s in Havana and the Cuban jazz traditions of the Club Tropicana and the Los Amigos.

Paul Lewis/Mark Padmore 1/16/2019

On Tuesday night at Gates Hall at the Newman Center for Performing Arts there was a double sighting.  Robert Schumann at the keyboard and Robert Schumann singing the poetry of Heinrich Heine. Internationally known pianist Paul Lewis and the acclaimed tenor Mark Padmore presented an evening of art song for the Friends of Chamber Music series in Denver.  The second half was reserved for Schumann’s Dichterliebe, written in 1822-1823 as a song cycle that circumnavigated the unsteady path of his love for Clara Wieck. With Padmore and Lewis’ care the 16 songs built a narrative arc with complexity and fervor.

Paul Lewis began with the few notes supplied by Schumann for the first short song, ‘In the Wondrous month of May’ (English translations are given here although Padmore sang in German.)  Lewis’ touch reflected the young lover’s hesitation before professing his affection. Padmore’s lyric tenor voice was passionate and tender. The performance was as Schumann intended; an intimate chamber concert.  Padmore suggested that this music was written to be performed in a home with a few guests.

What struck me about Padmore’s rendition of the oft performed song cycle was his restraint.  His expressive singing unfolded the bliss of Schumann seeing his beloved, as well as the pain of heartbreak as expressed in one of the climactic pieces, ‘I bear no grudge.’  From song to song, sung without breaks, Padmore’s fervor grew with the underlying desperation in the score. The song, ‘I wept in my dream,’ was sung initially a cappella.   The audience sat silent without a cough listening to Padmore’s pianissimo. Tears were nearly visible from the Mezzanine.

Lewis’ playing was not accompaniment.  That was not his assignment. His interpretation gripped the complications of love.  Beyond his precise technique was Lewis’ sensitive collaborative ear that lent a symbiotic balance of the two voices as they interlaced to create a whole. His virtuoustic handling of the insistent music added tension to their interpretation.  Each note in ‘My coach rolls slowly’ released into the next like the ‘shadowy forms’ as seen in the poet’s dream. Padmore’s phrasing was a mirror.  The two musicians breathed as one, one Schumann.

From Neel to Casteel, a Visual Rhyme

From Neel to Casteel, a Visual Rhyme

Elizabeth Sweeney

Born in Denver five years after the painter Alice Neel’s death in 1984, Jordan Casteel follows Neel’s tradition of painting real people to show “what the world has done to them and their retaliation.” (Alice Neel)  Casteel’s solo exhibition, Returning the Gaze, opened on February 2, 2019 at the Denver Art Museum.  Rebecca Hart, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the DAM since 2015, amassed a selection of recent work and nudes shown at the Sargent’s Daughters Gallery in New York in 2014. Ms. Hart states that Casteel poses her sitters but Casteel works by taking hundreds of photos of her subjects before painting. Rebecca adds that Casteel’s paintings bring the “periphery into focus.”  Her “profound empathy” for Harlem business owners and subway riders and others initiates an intimate dialogue between the viewer and her subject.

Neel’s influence is evident in Casteel’s work as well as her keen awareness of the Netherlandish portrait painters. The rich details seen in Van Eyck and Rembrandt’s work echo in Casteel’s psychological studies of her subjects. The history of portrait painting according to Jordan Casteel is weighted by white men painting white men.  Casteel chose Charles – 2016 to keep for herself but she shares the 78” x 60” canvas in the Denver Art Museum exhibition. His kingly pose reflects Casteel’s manner of glorifying the unseen. She consistently leaves her distant observant self outside the studio and paints men as she understands them so her viewers can absorb ‘what the world has done’ to black men.

She elevated her subject Charles in a coat that is not unlike a king’s ermine cloak.  The velvet-like folds are sensuous. His hat reminds this viewer of the bonnet worn by Sir Thomas More.  Charles is royalty under Jordan Casteel’s brush although his throne is a discarded box. Her strong use of color and deliberate construction corners her subject.  The details beyond his unprotected gaze earn equal attention. The mannequin head under another noble hat, the newspaper vending box that is stuffed with trash and sealed with a sign ‘To me uno gratis.’ It is in her painterly instinct that she embraces the social realism endorsed by Neel years earlier.

In Devan – 2014, not featured in the DAM show, Casteel carefully renders a dog that is more expressionistic than the realistic nude. The viewer looks closely at the painting hanging behind the man to see another mark of social realism. The painting in the painting is signed, ‘Trayvon Martin.’  Does it matter to the viewer that the painting is of a sunflower dwarfed by an oversized beetle? Yes, it does. The construction of the 74” X 54” canvas is intentional from the subject’s bare feet to his boots set aside.  The lines of the lamp and the chair and the radiator and the floorboards point upwards to the man’s accusatory gaze.

Alice Neel’s subjects also from Spanish Harlem gaze outwards.  In Two Puerto Rican Boys from 1956 the faces of the boys suggest trust but maintain a guarded expression. They likely were neighbors of Neel. It is assumed that like Casteel she meant to represent the unseen. She walked the same streets and knew these boys would become men in a difficult world. Writer and curator Hilton Als wrote, “What fascinated her was the breadth of humanity that she encountered.” 

The difficulties of becoming a man in America have not dimmed. Black Lives Matter and so do the lives of Casteel’s barber in Harlem and the trio at Benyam,a restaurant where one can order Sambusa and Firfir.  Viewers can celebrate the humanity rendered by both artists and return the gaze of their subjects. Jordan Casteel, Returning the Gaze, Denver Art Museum, Denver, 2/2 – 5/26 2019.  Alice Neel, Alice Neel: Freedom, David Zwirner Gallery, New York 2/26 – 4/13 2019.

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