The Key(board) to the Stones

ON THE NE CORRIDOR LINE SOMEWHERE BETWEEN PHILLY AND NEWARK – While I’m wrapping up a day trip to NYC I stumble across a charming little article written by keyboardist Chuck Leavell buried in the “Business Travel” section wayyyy in the back of Tuesday’s New York Times.

I’ve always been a fan of Leavell’s, who has a pretty amazing resume: Since he joined the Allman Brothers as a teenager (check out his YouTube dissection of “ ), he’s played with Eric Clapton, Blues Traveler, George Harrison, and dozens more. He’s also a pretty fair jazz pianist, and has written books on tree farming and conservation.

But what he’s best known for (and the article is mainly about) is being the pianist and music director for the tours of the Rolling Stones. Which means he’s on the road, and in the air. A lot. Like two years for the most recent “Bigger Bang” tour of the Stones:

In an airplane you have a captive audience, which makes everything easier. I’m well versed in the huge catalog of songs the Stones have written, recorded and performed. Obviously we can’t get to all of them since there are more than 400, but I try to find a balance of the new, old, interesting and unusual. After writing up the set, I’ll consult with Mick, Keith and the others on the particulars of a concert. And a lot of work gets done while we are en route to various destinations.

Quite an image, innit? Chuck sitting down the Mick and the boys, going over a set list like a wedding caterer deciding on the menu.

For more on Chuck, check out this interview and performance from 2002 on the new NPR Music site….

A Tale of Two Orchestras: the “other” NPR

Terrific review (more of a commentary, actually) by Bernard Holland in the New York Times the other day about the duelling Russian Orchestras currently touring the US – the Russian National Orchestra, (sometimes called the RNO), and the recently-constituted National Philharmonic of Russia, a/k/a the NPR. Common to both of them is violinist and conductor
Vladimir Spivakov. He used to lead the Russian National Orchestra until he had some sort of falling out with the management, so he persuaded the Russian government to start the “NPR” – although they originally called themselves the “Russian National Philharmonic” (RNP?) until the RNO objected. With me so far? (Sorta reminds me of the old Monty Python skit of the in the Life of Brian. Just to make things more confusing, Spivakov also heads the Moscow Virtuosi, a chamber-orchestra that features members from both groups, as well as other Russian ensembles.

Anyway, these days you’re as likely to see the RNO and the NPR outside of Moscow as you are in it; and both groups are spending days – weeks – on end chasing the American entertainment dollar. With – you guessed it – a mighty handful of Russian works with high-powered soloists. And their paths happened to overlap in New York earlier this week, prompting Holland’s commentareview: Tasting menu:

Every time you look up there is another Russian orchestra onstage. Russia’s newfound free-market economy and the resulting scramble for financial survival must be a shock to a lot of them. Evidently the National Philharmonic is in a cozier spot, having President

Vladimir V. Putin as its personal godfather. Still, export or die seems the motto for this parade of visitors, whose rivals seem not to be other international orchestras but one another. Getting together and comparing travel schedules might be helpful.When they come, we know what we are going to get: big Russian music conveyed by big Russian sound reinforced by oversized string sections. (Monday’s program listed 32 violins, but I thought I counted more.) Often attached to these events are Russian pianists or violinists of howitzerlike virtuosity. Tender foreign sensibilities are not used to such firepower.

Roedeo, inc. is a not-disinterested observer to all of this: I do a lot of the “concert previews” for the Washington Performing Arts Society‘s terrific subscription season. So I’m doing a lot of thinking about the “other” NPR’s concert at the Kennedy Center on Saturday. Despite the fact that the orchestra’s is designed to signal “the rebirth of the Russian post-reconstruction State,” the repertory for their US tour is almost exclusively limited to works that are at least half-a-century old: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. The DC performance will also feature Van Cliburn Competition winner Olga Kern (pictured above) playing the same “Rocky 2” she’s been playing everywhere on this tour – and the Shostakovich 5th Symphony. I’m especially interested in hearing how the NPR plays the Shostakovich Symphony…the one the composer, in one of the most difficult years of his life, subtitled A Soviet Artist’s Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism.’ Last time I heard this symphony was in Moscow, at one of the most emotionally-draining concerts I have ever witnessed: a Winter of 1990 appearance by Mstislav Rostropovich, conducting Washington’s own National Symphony Orchestra in a program that also included the Barber “Adagio for Strings,” the Death of Tybalt from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, “Aase’s Death” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, and the Tchaikovsky “Pathetique” Symphony. As my Russian friends said, the entire concert had a “Tyema Smyert,” – theme of Death. But the playing – and atmosphere in the “Bolshoi Zahl” of the Moscow Conservatory was absolutely electric. Sony made a outstanding documentary (directed by new MET Opera chief Peter Gelb, among others) called Soldiers of Music about Rostropovich and the NSO’s Russian experience, and likewise released a now-out-of-print CD called “Rostropovich: Return to Russia.” Some of the best playing the Rostropovich-era NSO ever did on record, IMHO; but unfortunately the Shostakovich 5th was left off of the disc. If you’re a fan at all of Russian music – and of Cold War history, for that matter – both the DVD and CD are worth your attention. And Rostropovich turns 80 next week! Check back in and I’ll tell you how the concert turned out…

The Klassical Komeback, Pt III: Surge or Free Fall?

A couple of mainstream media outlets have picked up on the Great Classical (crossover) Comeback of 2006 lately: My old employer NPR had a story on All Things Considered The hook in the Tuesday (Mar 20) New York Times story was the just announced Classical Blowout Store from – a response, in the dot-com’s words, to “the disappearance of prominent brick and mortar music stores and the fact that most music retailers are scaling back their selection of classical music.” with led to the Time’s observation that Amazon’s initiative comes at a time when classical music sales are either advancing nicely or in a free fall, depending on whom you believe and what you consider classical music.

And that’s the problem, innit? Who do you believe? The initial trigger for all of this reporting was the Nielsen SoundScan report of classical sales being up 22.5 per cent – something I wrote about last month. And, hmm….as part of their rationale for the new service Amazon notes that their 2006 sales of classical music were up – get this – 22 per cent! Same accounting methods? Does Amazon consider Josh Groban to be as classical at Louis Moreau Gottschalk? They don’t say.

Similarly, after noting that “independent [classical] labels like Koch and Naxos report that their sales are also up”the above-referenced NPR story ends with the throwaway line, “the total number of classical albums purchased online more than doubled last year.” That’s great…but, again, what’s the definition of “classical?”

And, for that matter, what, exactly, constitutes a downloaded “album,” anyway? More on that in a future post. A more sobering assessment of the health of classical-music comes from the market-research firm NPD group, quoted in the Times article: NPD Group’s consumer survey data, which does not include albums like these in its classical music category, shows that classical sales dropped last year by 28 percent, and have dropped by 54 percent in five years.”

Ouch! Whether the numbers are truly up or down, there does seem to be a renewed energy in retailing classical music. After all, classical music fans, traditionally older and wealthier, “actually buy, rather than steal, their music,” to quote the Times. I noticed, too, doing some focus groups in Philadelphia last year that a lot of men of, ahem, a certain age, LOVE those much-maligned “bricks and mortar” stores – us hunter-gatherer music freaks intoxicated by the ambience, being surrounded by fellow members of our tribe, poring through bins, stumbling upon old favorites or making new discoveries. Same reasons why we vinyl junkies can’t let go. For classical music fans, multiply everything I just said by two. Or five. Or ten. Mark Berry’s Naxos Blog has some interesting comments about what retailers in Philadelphia and elsewhere are doing to fill the classical void. Sample grab:

“At the same time, retailers seem to be expending more energy on classical, perhaps due to the SoundScan rise but also to fill the hole left in major market areas by the demise of Tower Records. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this month that national chain FYE has made classical music a priority in its new store in the space previously occupied by Tower, moving its 11,000 CD and DVD titles to the main floor and committing to growing the section. Of course, a part of this collection is crossover material but, as writer Peter Dobrin points out, there is still plenty for the core classical “afficianado” and fan of local classical artists.

Snarky aside: If you didn’t know that Koch had a significant classical catalog you’d never know it by their website. Their classical listings are “below the fold” on their home page, category 13 out of 13 music categories, coming on the heels of “Dance, Electronica & New Age,” “Jazz,” “Gospel,” “Country,” “Kinks Reissues,” and “Broadway Productions and Show Recordings.”