Sunday 27 September 2015

Guadalupe Álvarez in a Tribute to Joni Mitchell in Madrid July 2015: review

It was my friend Michael who first alerted me to Joni Mitchell’s   health  problems earlier this year. It is clear from his Facebook page that he has been a devoted fan for many years, I mean of Joni Mitchell, not of me. I confess I have not followed her with the same devotion: for me Joni Mitchell from a distance has been a combination of a thinking person’s Madonna and a Bob Dylan alter ego with a better voice.  I suppose Both Sides Now is the song that I would think of as essentially hers, Joni Mitchell’s, I mean, not Madonna’s. Yes, in part due to the scene in Love Actually, sorry.

So, when I got back to Madrid for the summer I noticed a Tribute to Joni Mitchell concert in the listings. Normally I would run a mile rather than go to a Tribute To … concert as I can live without a bunch of wannabees cynically living of other artistes’ achievements. Still, with Michael’s heartfelt messages in mind, and with the confidence I have in the Café Central,   in Madrid  along I went.

Guadalupe Álvarez is a fantastic   singer  and this concert was wonderful. I had never heard of her before (sorry!) but she is a renowned singer in her native Argentina and has many achievements and recordings to her name: here´s just    one example. She can take a song from a whisper to a 10 force gale in the space of a line, her jazz phrasing is rhythmically excellent, and her pitch control in the many angular phrases of these interesting songs was superb.

On top of all that is her expressive power. There is a myth in show business that you can only be really expressive as a performer if you have suffered in real life, as if the real life suffering were the true inspiration for great performances. I saw this earlier this month in an article by Dan Cairns, who should know better, writing about Cilla Black in the Sunday   Times  (paywall).

I don’t know whether Guadalupe Álvarez has suffered in her life or not: I hope not.  She certainly is able to perform these powerful songs in a way that brought tears to her eyes, and to mine. I think there are other things you need to be able to express deep emotions in music: among them are a well developed technique on your instrument/voice; a careful choice of material/repertoire with arrangements that present the material at its best; and an accompanist or band who present your work in the best light.

On this occasion at the Café Central Guadalupe Álvarez showed that she has all this and more.  Her own technique and performance standards are superb, and she has surrounded herself with excellent musicians who, as far as I can see, have all contributed to the interested and varied jazz arrangements of Joni Mitchell’s songs:

Toni  Brunet, guitar & vocals; Josué Santos, piano & alto sax; José Vera, bass; and Pedro Barceló, drums.

There was a lot of noise, in the best sense of the word, of high energy power music in this concert. One of the most interesting points was a solo by Toni Brunet, accompanying himself on guitar. This was among the quietest few minutes I have heard at the Café Central in more than 20 years of going to concerts there: a wonderful performance.

All the songs were arranged in a very interesting and sensitive way. These were not just copies, they were genuine arrangements with a strong jazz flavor. I would like to hear this same group of musicians play a straight jazz set: something to look forward to.  And in the end, there it was, Both Sides Now, sung with passion, pain and power from the very depths of her being to the most needing points of my heart. Wonderful.

So, thank you, Michael for many things: most recently for jogging my mind so that I saw this concert.
And thanks to Guadalupe Álvarez and musicians, and Café Central, for an excellent evening of music.

Quartet Mezza Voce in Denia: review. Classical music in an original performing space

One of the nice surprises in  Denia  this year was to hear a concert of string quartet music in a relaxed atmosphere with views overlooking the historic castle. Young talent and ancient views combined in a very enjoyable occasion on 6 August at the  Jauja Port   venue.

Sadly I missed the first part of the concert because this area was new to me even though I have been holidaying in Denia in Spain for more than 20 years. It was certainly worth the effort required to find the concert.

The Quartet Mezza Voce performed Mendelssohn’s Quartet Op 13 no 2 in A minor. Of course the playing was excellent, after all these young players are students at the Conservatorio Superior de Música de Aragón. (I missed the Haydn Op 76 no 3 in the first half of the concert.)

Yes but … the moving thing for me was to see a string quartet whose players have rehearsed painstakingly throughout the year and who have been able to arrange a tour which takes them so far musically and geographically. Denia is more than 400 km from   the conservatoire in    Zaragoza, where they are based. Much more important is the musical journey they have undertaken together. It was clear from the standard of playing and from the quality of their ensemble technique that they have performed this repertoire in several concerts.

The history of music is full of quartets which have started with great promise and yet have faded away. The point is that there are so many difficulties involved in maintaining a quartet: from the logistics of having a rehearsal venue to rehearse together for several hours a day in addition to the hours of individual  practice the players need to keep up their technique; the financial demands; adjusting to each member’s taste in choice of repertoire, and finding venues to play which will keep the quartet alive.

Many of these problems are explored in the fictional story of a string quartet based in New York City: an entertaining film,  A Late Quartet   starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others.
Thankfully, the young players of the Quartet Mezza Voce are young enough not to face the pressures of those fictional musicians, and, more importantly, have had the benefit of coaching  from the members of one of the leading string quartets active today, the Cuarteto  Quiroga .

The debate about getting music out of the strict formalities of the concert hall is alive and well: some musicians are exploring alternative venues including car parks. There are advantages in using venues which are not formal concert halls, even though we have to put up with little children running around and the clink of wine glasses being collected by the bar staff while the musicians are playing. On this occasion, the disadvantages were outweighed by the pleasure of listening to this lovely music.

According to the programme, The Quartet Mezza Voce are Eva Laliena Sanz & Eva Ortells Pecheco, violins; Carolina Úriz Malón, viola; and Violeta Mur Minguell, ‘cello.

A concert in this venue would have been impossible just a handful of years ago. The Balearia shipping company have made substantial improvements to the port facilities to provide docking for larger vessels, including an entirely new dock area for their ferries, and there are many improvements in hand which are making Denia a more attractive place every year.

Thanks to the Balearia company for making this concert possible, and thanks to the wonderful young players of the Quartet Mezza Voce for their lovely playing. I hope to hear you all playing together in 20 years time.