“Mad Genius” with Wiener Kids, The John Brothers Piano Company, and Revolution Duo

Mad Genius” – legitimate category or over-used trope? You decide.

Live ‘n’ Local SF proudly presents Wiener Kids, The John Brothers Piano Company, and the Revolution Duo in an evening of insanely good musical derangements.

WIENER KIDS
Brain child of drummer/composer Jordan Glenn, Wiener Kids began as a duo with guitarist Steini Gunnarsson. After Steini moved back to Iceland Jordan picked the project up again a year later, this time with the help of reed masters Aram Shelton and Cory Wright. The music is inspired by small dogs, old bikes, Muppets, cheap Halloween decorations, babies with glasses and other wiener kids. It’s fast and slow, loud and soft. It draws as much from Jan Svankmajer and Hans Bellmer as Peewee Herman and Jim Hensen. It’s music made by ex/current weaklings for everyone!

More Wiener Kids on Fenderhardt

THE JOHN BROTHERS PIANO COMPANY
An art collective formed by John Steven Morgan, John Thatcher Boomer, and Max Moriyama, the John Brothers’ primary aesthetic mission is to bring different art forms directly to the public outside of established venues in settings like mass transit boarding areas. The John Brothers regularly take a small spinet piano to San Francisco, Berkeley and Rockridge BART stations and play continuously for up to seven hours. All music, though containing several different styles ranging from jazz to blues to stride and classical, is composed by John Morgan and Thatcher Boomer. Max Moriyama provides sole artistic direction—putting a “face” to the John Brothers Piano Company by combining century old illustration with modern techniques to create a nostalgic sensibility.

Listen to John Brothers on Bandcamp

REVOLUTION DUO
Comprised of two wildly talented string players—violist Charith Premawardhana and violinist Matthew Szemela—the Revolution Duo are making their debut performance tonight at Viracocha. Charith Premawardhana is founder and director of Classical Revolution, the global phenomenon of local origin that has been bringing chamber music to the masses for over five years. He has performed and recorded with a long list of artists, such as Beats Antique, The Mars Volta, Meklit Hadero, and the Jazz Mafia. Matt Szemela recently moved from NYC to SF and already has become one of the most in-demand musicians on the local music scene, playing with groups as musically diverse as the Berkeley Symphony, Family Folk Explosion, Musical Art Quintet, Todd Sickafoose, as well as in his own innovative chamber hip-hop duo, Vytal Theory.

LIVE ‘N’ LOCAL SF is dedicated to supporting the thriving local music scene by promoting great music, regardless of genre. L ‘n’ L is especially interested in music that is inventive, distinctive, virtuosic, and exciting. Find us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Saturday March 3rd

Viracocha

998 Valencia Street, SF

Doors at 8pm / Show at 8:30pm
$8-20 sliding scale


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Tales from the Other Side (of the Bay)

Friends will tell you, it takes a lot to tempt me out of the Mission. And for good reason! Why go anywhere when there are a bunch of great venues all within a few blocks of my house?

Occasionally, though, I will venture out into the nether regions of San Francisco and even (gasp!) over/under the bay to Oakland or Berkeley. This week was an unusual one for me in that I crossed the bay not once but twice to attend concerts in Berkeley.

Wednesday night I went to see Herbie Hancock at Zellerbach on the UC Berkeley campus. If you’ve never been, it’s a huge auditorium with three distinct levels. Our seats were way up there in the nosebleeds. We had purchased the second to cheapest price available, which, with two different kinds of fees smacked on top, came out to almost $50 a head.

Now, I don’t normally go to see big names from out of town, partly because of the exorbitant prices for tickets, partly for political reasons (I believe in supporting local artists), and partly because inevitably I end up being disappointed by the big names. Sadly, this too ended up being the case for Herbie.

I’m not exactly sure why I decided to spend the big bucks to go see him in the first place. It’s not like I’m an especially huge fan or anything. Recently I’ve been a little addicted to one particular track of his, “And What If I Don’t” from the 1963 album My Point of View and also from a later compilation, Cantaloupe Island. I think I just really wanted to hear him perform it live and, because of that, I somehow got in into my head—despite the threat implicit in the track’s title—that he would.

So what was disappointing (other than that fact that he, um, didn’t)?

For a start, his drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta, was out of control, and I do not mean that in a good way. Someone should have put that man on a leash! Seriously. He took every opportunity he could to go ape-shit on the drums, when really there are times in which one should just chill out, sit back, and . . . I don’t know . . . keep the goddamn rhythm or something? But no, dude was like a crazed animal most of the time. I found it distracting and annoying. It was like he was in permanent solo-mode. I wanted to tell him, “Dude, you ain’t the star of this show!”

After that, there was nothing in particular to point to that didn’t live up to expectations. A huge venue like Zellerbach is obviously not very intimate and this kind of music played by just four musicians seems a little out of place in a venue like that. It gets swallowed up by the vastness of the space, especially by the time it reaches the nosebleeds.

Also, I couldn’t help but think some of the synth-heavy music sounded a little cheesy and dated. So 80’s . . .

And then there’s the economic assessment of the experience. They were good, but were they $50 good? At that price, I’m expecting to be blown away and when that doesn’t happen, disappointment inevitably sets in. Yeah, big name—what do you expect?

Friday night, on the other hand, I paid a mere $10 admission into downtown Berkeley’s Subterranean Arthouse to see Wiener Kids, the brain child of local drummer and boy wonder Jordan Glenn.

I don’t know exactly how many different ensembles Glenn plays in, but I think I like them all, and it’s rare a week goes by that I do not see him perform with some group or other. I had seen the particular configuration that is Wiener Kids once before at the Switchboard Music Festival in April, but I think by the time they played my brain was so fried from listening to hours of experimental music that I did not fully take in the Wiener genius. That, and/or they have just become out of control in the intervening months. And this time, I mean that in the best possible way.

Wiener Kids is Glenn on drums, Aram Shelton on alto sax, and Cory Wright on bari sax. Shelton and Wright also sometimes play bass clarinet and clarinet, respectively.

According to Glenn, “Wiener Kids sounds like a ninety pound weakling throwing a spastic tantrum regarding something not really important.” I love how composers describe their own music! And it’s true. The music is in that territory between experimental jazz and progressive rock, with lots of abrupt changes in rhythm and direction, brief moments of abstract insanity, a lot of whimsy and humor that will make you laugh out loud, and also enough structure and melody to keep it accessible for music plebs such as myself who are not steeped in theory. There are also some unexpectedly beautiful harmonies between the two reed players that might catch you off-guard amid all the silliness.

Glenn’s playing—in complete and utter contrast to what I saw of Colaiuta’s on Wednesday night—is subtle, playful, and so delightfully creative. Thank goodness for “ninety pound weaklings” who don’t need to pound on as many surfaces as possible to prove their technical chops! It is obvious why Glenn (who I’m sure weighs at least a hundred and twenty pounds) is such an in-demand drummer in the local creative music scene. It is also obvious that he, Shelton, and Wright play together a lot, such is their onstage chemistry.

In fact, just a week before they all played together at Viracocha in one of Shelton’s ensembles, Marches. That group also included keyboard player Michael Coleman and drummer Sam Ospovat, both of whom made a guest appearance on Friday night, along with eight other musicians, for the first and last pieces in the Wiener set.

I really liked how the music shifted compositionally when the ensemble changed from big band to trio, and then back again. For example, the last song of the set, “For My Mother,” which is also the last song on the new album, What A Mess, sounded like a slightly off-kilter New Orleans funeral march, quite a contrast from the spastic, proggy episodes we had heard before. I call them “episodes” because many of them come in under a minute long and seem to end mid phrase, which is part of what makes the music so much fun. There are always quirky little surprises to keep you on your toes.

As if that weren’t enough bang for your buck, the opening act Kapowski, an Oakland based pop quartet that also includes Coleman on keyboards and Ospovat on drums, gave a fantastic performance, which ended with a screening of their adorably cute new video. Lead singer Jesse Rimler’s plaintive, languid vocals, somewhat reminiscent of Thom Yorke or Rufus Wainwright (though stylistically very different from the latter) are very easy to listen to. The instrumentation, consisting of two sets of keyboards, bass, and drums, is an unusual mix that works really well with Rimler’s whimsical song-writing.

And just when you thought the evening could not be better value for money, add on two Wiener Kids CDs for only $15 and you’ve got yourself a real bargain! I took home the aforementioned new album and also Wiener’s first, Why Don’t You Make Me? 

To which the only appropriate response is: And what if I don’t?

Stravinsky’s Les Noces Reworked for Five Voices and Four Hands

Toward the end of Stravinsky’s “Russian” period, before he dove into Neo-Classism and twelve-tone music, he wrote a rather unusual non-symphonic piece for four pianos, percussion, and a full chorus. Like Stravinsky’s The Rite of SpringLes Noces (translated as The Wedding) was composed for the Ballets Russes. It premiered in the Parisian Théâtre de la Gaîté with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska in 1923, though Stravinsky had been working on different versions of the cantata since as early as 1913.

Looking for a new and ambitious project, local composers Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer decided they were going to tackle Les Noces and make a difficult work even more difficult by arranging it for just two pianos and five voices. Their goal was to stay as true as possible to Stravinsky’s score and capture the fullness of the original arrangement with a much paired-down ensemble.

The results?

We’ll find out this weekend when the ten-piece Ensemble Épouser premieres Les Noces at Berkeley’s Maybeck House. Meanwhile, take a listen to this remarkable recording with Nishi and Schaffer on piano and Leone doing all the choral parts, including the soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloist parts.

In case you’re wondering how that was possible, Leone uses a computer pitch shifter to reach all the high and low octaves that are outside his natural range. He also uses voice amplification pedals to double or triple the voice and thus give the effect of a chorus.

The recording is all the more remarkable once you understand the circumstances under which it came into existence.

“Dominique actually tricked us into doing the recording!” says Nishi with a laugh. While she and Schaffer were still just learning the grueling piano parts, Leone spent a month recording them, often only eight bars at a time, apparently for “a demo” to help him learn all the vocal parts.

“It was a very arduous process of stopping and starting and stopping and starting,” says Leone, who later edited all the piano parts together and then recorded the voice parts over them. After Nishi’s initial surprise when Leone released the recording, she was very pleased with the results.

However arduous recording Les Noces may have been, this weekend’s live performance of the piece presents its own set of challenges. As Leone explains, the five singers will be continuously switching in and out of different choral and solo parts with no rest, like they would normally expect to have in a choral performance. They will also have to deal with a lot of the same kind of technology Leone used in the recording, which presents somewhat of an onstage logistical quandary.

Another major challenge for the small ensemble they have put together, says Nishi, is “trying to embody the power of the piece as it’s written originally for a bigger ensemble, trying to accommodate that.”

Her approach to adapting the eight-handed piano for four hands has mostly been to choose what seem to be the most essential parts in each movement. But she also has broken up the different piano parts so that at a given time one pianist may be playing one hand from one piano part, and the other hand will be playing from a different part. Blithely summarizing her approach, she says, “I just try to make it convincing when I play that it’s written for four pianos somehow, so I can get people to believe it and hypnotize them.”

The biggest challenge of all, though, is simply Stravinsky’s score in itself, independently of the way in which it is being adapted for this particular performance. “It is a very very hard piece to start with,” Nishi says, laughing again. “So, that’s been the main challenge, more than the fact that we are doing a different version of it. The parts are just very hard for every single player.”

Leone agrees. “Stravinsky is a very difficult composer for singers,” he says. “He wrote some but not a lot of choral music. He is much more of a instrumental composer. For the singers, that means they have a lot of very tricky lines, a lot of very tricky rhythms, big leaps, lyrics that don’t really seem like they go with the melody that you’re singing. So, it’s kind of odd. You always think that something’s wrong and you never can quite feel it. So, that’s really difficult.”

This, of course, is all part and parcel of what attracts these music adventurers to such a formidable project. While Leone has been a fan of Les Noces for many years, Nishi was unfamiliar with Stravinsky’s choral work till Leone proposed the collaboration. When she first hear it, she too immediately liked it.

“It sounded so contemporary, the way he used the voice in relation to the crazy orchestration he has,” she says, adding, “His writing for piano is just always really amazing. And the idea of having four pianos I thought was really cool.”

Friday and Saturday’s performance of Les Noces will be conducted by Kate McLoughlin with Diana Pray (soprano), Elise Cumberland (mezzo-soprano), Danishta Rivero (alto), Dominique Leone (tenor), Alexandra Buschman (bass), Kanoko Nishi and Regina Schaffer (pianos), Jordan Glenn (percussion), Jason Hoopes (bass), and Mark Clifford (mallets).

Stravinsky’s Les Noces by Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer will be performed at 8pm on July 29 & 30 at the historical Maybeck House in Berkeley. Advance tickets can be purchased here.