Our friendly algorithm spots performances that are off-the-charts good
She has wowed the MacArthur Foundation (Genius Grant, 2017). She has wowed the Recording Academy (multiple Grammys for folk music) and wowed Yo-Yo Ma (recently succeeding him as artistic director of the Silkroad arts collective). But can she wow the Sublime-a-Tron, a mechanical aesthete who is as oblivious to celebrity hoopla as a toaster? Yes. Yes, she can. In this pairing with the accordionist Jeff Cunningham, Rhiannon Giddens shows what she can do with the sparest of materials: a bleak old tune built from five notes, a bare-bones banjo ostinato, and three plain chords on the accordion. Working from this simple palette, she captures all the pain of the human condition. Her pure, supple alto swells with longing for a world free of “sickness, toil, or death,” moderated only by her faith that she will soon be “goin’ over home.” Everything about the video supports the poetry: The dim lighting. The deserted church. The remoteness of the stained-glass windows. The closeups of the singer’s anguished face. And the ethereal accordion, which seems to beckon from somewhere over Jordan. The Sublime-a-Tron needed a couple of stiff belts after this one.
A brilliant little video that proves bassoonists can dance. Much fresher than its name suggests, the Danish-Baltic group Carion turns the traditional woodwind quintet (flute, clarinet, oboe, French horn, and bassoon) into characters in a dazzling musical pantomime. The fivesome have internalized every note of Ligeti’s midcentury (1953) masterpiece, freeing themselves to focus on presentation. They banter, scold, swagger, and glide across a white-girdered loft in synchrony with their flawless playing. The bagatelles — musical “trifles,” a designation composers usually apply out of false modesty — are tributes to Bartók and Stravinsky by a youthful Hungarian creator on his way to becoming 100 percent original (Ligeti’s eerie clouds of sound provided 2001: A Space Odyssey half its mystique). It’s an important reminder that music is something one “plays.”
Healing the heartstrings
Even though there’s not a whiff of ganja in this de-reggae’d version of the Bob Marley classic, it still left the Sublime-a-Tron completely blissed out. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the British cellist who caught the world’s eye (and ear) at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, turns a crowd-pleaser into something tender and intimate. The song’s title is Jamaican dialect for “no, woman, don’t cry.” Sheku pours on the empathy, matching his tempos to the ebb and flow of the woman’s aching heart. And he applies the cello’s full range of medicinal properties: not just the warm, melted-taffy sound that everyone loves but also flashes of harmonics (silvery tones that strings emit when touched in a few magic spots) and flickers of inner voices, fortified by a convincing bass line. When he unleashes waves of four-part harmony without losing his gentle touch, you know it’s time to dry your tears and trust Dr. Sheku.
Sublime-a-Tron says . . .
|Making the cello an extension of himself||11.8|
MORE SHEKU KANNEH-MASON Performing at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, May 19, 2018
Bach with lots of pluck
Stephanie Jones: Fugue from Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Minor BWV 1001 (J.S. Bach), arranged for guitar • 5:12
The Sublime-a-Tron wanted to ding the Australian guitarist for not sounding mechanical enough — until he figured out that Bach’s music only looks mechanical. Over the years, a million violinists have missed the distinction, lifting the horsehair to this fugue’s defining motif of four repeated notes and sawing it into dust. But Stephanie Jones and her guitar bring the fugue back from the dead. In each of many iterations, the four-note motif expands like a living, breathing creature, introducing a melodic line (the “subject,” in fugue lingo) to weave in with the one that preceded it. And every passage benefits from Ms. Jones’s command of color and form: her variety of attacks, from delicate to athletic; her gradations of bright and dark; and her attention to the whole arc of the piece — building toward a climax, pulling back for the denouement, and keeping up a steady supply of oxygenated blood. It doesn’t hurt that the guitar can do things the violin can’t. Its resonance keeps both harmony and counterpoint ringing, and so connects the melodic dots that otherwise die out immediately. Plenty of guitarists have taken up the same violin work, but Stephanie Jones gives it a new sound and a new look. This is Bach played with cunning and passion, accessorized with a platinum side shave and a jaunty scarf.