New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: children’s music

The Jitro Czech Girls Choir Celebrate Owls, Mudpuddles, and the History of Western Music

Today’s album falls into the fun classical category. Czech composer Ilja Hurnik liked bright, singable melodies but also enigmatic harmonies. His music is picturesque to the extreme, deceptively playful and more complex than it might seem on the surface. The Jitro Czech Girls Choir’s new album Gratias, a Hurnik retrospective streaming at Spotify, contains two numbers about owls and more than one vignette of children having fun in the rain…alongside an improbably successful capsule history of western choral music. That speaks volumes. Jiří Skopal conducts these young women in an evocative performance of very serious unserious music.

Variations on a Mouse Theme are actually an ambitious attempt to trace the entire history of choral music, from the pre-Renaissance to the present, in less than ten minutes. After a coyly bustling bit of an intro, there’s a trio of leaping, Handel-ish miniatures followed by a more austere interlude punctuated by incisive bursts in the high harmonies. The false ending to the fourth segment is irresistibly funny, the group gamely tackling the thorny harmonies and tricky rhythms of the modernist coda.

June Night, for piano and choir, comes across as a more sober series of etudes: counterpoint, Romantically-tinged glitter with an affecting soprano solo, and a study in slowly shifting long tones are part of the picture. If the chromatics of the fifth segment are to be taken on face value, they’re a headache.

The Children’s Tercetta suite is more piano-centric. Icicles drip busily, a sparrow and swallow banter, a colt romps for a bit, a butterfly dips and lingers gracefully. Pianist Michal Chrobák’s poignancy alongside the voices in that second owl miniature make a strikingly somber contrast: it’s one of the album’s high points.

Water, Sweet Water is a triptych for choir and the most lushly enveloping piece here. The ensemble wind up the album with the brief, strikingly translucent six-part Missa Vinea Crucis for choir and organ. The opening kyrie is stunningly dark and chromatically bristling: organist František Vaníček brings to mind the great French composer Maurice Durufle, as he does again in the disquieting twinkle and gusts of the gloria. The lively counterpoint of the credo and ethereal agnus dei each make quite a contrast.

Much as all this music is essentially etudes, the fun Hurnik obviously had writing it translates vividly in the girls’ performance.

Dave Brubeck’s Lullabies: Marginalia or Major Revelations?

Conventional wisdom is that music written for family and kids is ephemera. In reality, the reverse is often true: take the Bach Klavierubung, or Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, for example. Freed from the demands of concert audiences or record labels, a composer can follow his or her own muse. Where does the new Dave Brubeck Lullabies solo piano compilation – streaming at Spotify – fall between those two extremes? Somewhere in between.

Brubeck famously broke up his legendary quartet so he could spend more time at home with his kids, so it’s no surprise that he would record this material, albeit decades later for his grandchildren. It’s his last studio recording, but his chops are undiminished. He bookends the album with appropriately tender, subtly ornamented takes of the famous Brahms lullaby. The tracks everybody wants to hear, obviously, are the originals. Going to Sleep is catchy, on the sparse side and strongly echoes Debussy. Lullaby For Iola, written for his beloved wife, is a similarly spacious pavane.

Softly, William, Softly is arguably the best and most poignantly folksy of the bunch. Brubeck deviously reharmonizes Brahms for Briar Bush. The last one, a solo take of Koto Song wasn’t included with the digital promo for the record.

Gershwin’s Summertime fits in perfectly here, in a casual, lyrical way; brooding bluesiness aside, it’s a lullaby, after all. Brubeck works a low-key, subtly ragtime-inflected sway in When It’s Sleepy Time Down South and makes stately art-song out of There’s No Place Like Home.

He indulges in a bit of unexpected dynamics in an otherwise tender take of A Dream Is a Wish Is Your Heart Makes and finds spare resilience as well as classical heroism in All Through the Night. And he goes deeper into lustrous neoromantic mode with the simply titled Sleep.

He also makes lullabies out of a famous Irish ballad and that number from the Wizard of Oz that needs to be put to sleep forever. This isn’t exactly Brubeck at his most irrepressibly inventive, but it’s unbeatable as functional music. Some of the luckiest members of the generation just being born may someday have fond memories of this completely different side of a jazz icon.

An Album That Puts Your Kids to Sleep But Doesn’t Bore You to Death

Just about the worst thing you can say about an album is that it’s good to fall asleep to. Yet there’s a ton of great, lulling music that will do the job. Just for starters: Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, Philip Glass’ String Quartets, and pretty much anything by Brian Eno.

But is there an album that will help a baby fall asleep, so YOU can finally get some rest? Sure, there are a million easy-listening playlists on Spotify. But they’re saccharine and they’ll give you a headache.

So Kurt Leege sat down with his Strat and his pedalboard, came up with a bunch of instrumental lullabies, roadtested them on his infant daughter – and they worked like a charm. So well, in fact, that the great guitarist decided to release these dreamy nocturnes as an album aptly titled Sleepytime Guitar – streaming at Bandcamp – for the sake of saving the sanity of sleep-deprived parents everywhere.

Kid wakes up in the middle of the night? Pull this up, hit play and everybody will drift off sooner than later. It’s a long album, a total of fourteen tracks to keep you and the little one in REM mode for as long as you need. Most of the songs are lushly enveloping new arrangements of familiar folk tunes, along with a couple of gospel numbers and two Leege originals that bend in seamlessly.

Some of the arrangements draw on Bill Frisell’s most atmospheric adventures in gentle, rapturous loopmusic. Eno, and the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie also seem to be obvious influences. And Leege doesn’t play like he’s falling asleep – it seems like he’s having a lot of fun, quietly. His formula pretty much all the way through is to build gentle waves and washes in the background, add some thoughtful fingerpicking over that and put the melody and variations front and center. He plays most of it way up the fretboard: this is a twinkly, trebly album.

If you’re making your own playlist with it, start with the rapt, Frisellian take of Down By the Riverside, segue with the wistful version of Danny Boy and then Wild Mountain Thyme, which Leege anchors with subtly polyrhythmic deep-space pulses. The other tracks are just as warmly enveloping, but the guitar is livelier.

He does Shenandoah as David Gilmour might, with lots of long-tone bends, if not the anguished screams of Pink Floyd. There are all sorts of neat little flourishes in Wayfaring Stranger: a couple of funny Gilmour quotes, and a little Bill Withers, maybe. Leege finds the doo-wop stashed away deep within the calmly lilting melody of the old Welsh tune Ar Hyd y Nos, and reinvents Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as a waltz.

A Curvature of Shadow, the first Leege oriiginal, is a one-chord jam, series of hypnotic variations that drift further from a folk-flavored theme toward spacerock. Scarborough Fair circles around, Leege having fun playing the melody with his volume knob – the effect is similar to a talkbox. Peter Frampton would approve – at least until Leege distantly channels Pink Floyd.

Leege transcends cheesiness in Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star by playing harmonies and then implying the melody: a lot of moms are going to be singing karaoke to this one. Down to the River to Pray is much the same, as Leege works variations on the verse over what sounds like a vocal drone.

He cuts loose just a little bit with some spare, purist, bluesy playing and then some charming glockenspiel-like tones in the Irish folk song Bonnie Lass o’Fyvie. The Brahms Lullaby sounds more like the Tennessee Waltz; the album closes with a slow, enigmatic instrumental version of Riverbed, the title track of his current funky Americana jamband the Sometime Boys’ second album. 

Fun fact: since now you know how peaceful and calming Leege’s compositions can be, it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. He is renowned in New York rock circles as one of the most diversely tuneful, and most assaultive players around. His celestial moods here, and his elegantly eclectic virtuosity in the Sometime Boys don’t offer a clue to his past as co-leader of the gloriously acidic, pummeling, aptly named System Noise.

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

Les Nubians Charm the Kids and Their Parents Too at the French Alliance

What if you told your six-year-old that you were going to take them to a performance that was educational, multicultural, rhythmically challenging and completely G-rated? They’d probably tell you to get lost, right? Well, late yesterday morning the French Alliance staged a program that was all that…and the kids loved it.

French-Cameroonian duo Les Nubians – sisters Helene and Celia Faussart – celebrate sisterhood, unity and Africanness in ways that aren’t cliched, or annoyingly P.C., or patronizing. Their music is sophisticated, blending elements of American soul, central African folk, downtempo, funk, bossa nova and hip-hop, to name a few styles. And much as all these genres got a similarly multicultural, vividly New York crowd of kids and their parents dancing and swaying along, you wanna know what energized the kids the most? A detour into an ancient Cameroonian folk dance fueled by balafonist François Nnang’s gracefully kinetic flourishes, the crowd spontaneously clapping along with its offbeat triplet rhythm. Some things are so innately wholesome that kids automatically gravitate toward them, and the folks at the French Alliance are keenly aware of that.

Age groups quickly separated out: gradeschoolers and preschoolers down front, filling the first two rows, tapping out a rhythm along with the band onstage, singing and dancing along as their parents watched bemusedly from the back rows. The crowd was pretty much split down the middle genderwise, at least among the kids, boys just as swept up as the girls in the pulsing grooves and the Faussart sisters’ irrepressible good cheer, charisma and dance moves. Their parents got a 90s nostalgia fix via a playful, French-language remake of the Sade hit The Sweetest Taboo, along with songs like the pensive Demaind (Jazz) from the group’s 1998 debut album, and the spiky, catchy Makeda. Guitarist Masaharu Shimizu played eclectically and energietically over animated, globally fluent clip-clup percussion by Shaun Kell.

Les Nubians have a handle on what kids like. They worked a trajectory upward, enticing the kids to mimic their dance moves, getting some call-and-response going, up to a couple of well-received singalongs (employing some complex close harmonies rarely if ever heard in American pop music). The big hit of the day was the Afro Dance, Helene swinging her dreads around like a dervish. The show was briskly and smartly paced, holding everyone’s attention throughout just a bit more than forty-five minutes. Considering the venue, the sisters took turns addressing the crowd in both French and also in good English; Helene seems to be the main translator of the two. Their repartee with the children was direct and unselfconsciously affectionate – both women taking plenty of time to highfive all the kids down front to make sure that nobody was left out – but the two didn’t talk down to the children either.

Out of this blog’s posse, the hardest member to please is usually Annabel. She’s six – woops, make that six and a half. She spent most of the first half of the show occupied with some actually very sweet sisterly bonding with her friend Ava, age seven, whom she hadn’t seen in awhile. By the twenty-minute mark, both girls had run to the front, Annabel right up at the edge of the stage, transfixed. She got a highfive from Helene; meanwhile, Ava was getting a workout along with the rest of the dancers. What was most striking was that both girls could have been very blasé about this concert: neither is culturally deprived. But they both had a rousingly good time…and were ready for a big lunch afterward.

The French Alliance has all kinds of fun bilingual events and experiences for families on the weekend: this concert was just one example of how kids can get an exposure to cultures and languages they might not ordinarily encounter. As just one example, there are a whole bunch of free workshops for toddlers, preschoolers and their parents this coming Saturday, December 12 in the early afternoon.