Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Perfection In New Classical Music: Yo-Yo Ma Performs Meyer's And O'Connor's Appalachian Journey

The Good: Wonderful, interesting songs, Amazingly well performed, High repeatability, Good length
The Bad: None
The Basics: Truly a wonderful new Classical album, Appalachian Journey combines the talents of Yo-Yo Ma and James Taylor!

Every few months, I try my hand at a Classical music review and more often than not, I feel like I am out of my league. When it comes to Classical music, I can tell what I like, but that does not always translate into what it actually good or bad. In other words, I am no expert in Classical music, though I do know of several Classical artists whose works I enjoy, like Respighi (read a review of mine of a Respighi album here!). One of the reasons I'm actually finding something enjoyable about finding a new "classical" (by which I mean primarily instrumental/orchestral) album is that there are no other recordings of the same music to compare it to, so I do not run into the pretty standard problem of evaluating a work against other recordings of the same songs.

Whenever I begin a search through an artist's musical library, I start at my public library and I simply look up an artist's albums by their name. In my search through the works of James Taylor, I found the Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor album Appalachian Journey. It is actually a serendipitous find for me in that some years ago while driving back from a Star Trek convention, I heard one of the tracks from this album on the radio and had been unable to recall the piece or album it was cited from and thus I had not found this album again . . . until now. The reason it came up during my search of the music of James Taylor was that Taylor wrote one song and plays guitar on two of the tracks (as well as singing on "Hard Times Come Again No More"). Appalachian Journey is new Classical music, much like the music used on The Red Violin Soundtrack (reviewed here).

With fifteen tracks clocking in at 70:37, Appalachian Journey is a perfect mix of violin, cello and bass as written and performed by Mark O'Connor, Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. O'Connor and Meyer wrote ten of the songs, arranged three others, and arranged "Hard Times Come Again No More" with James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma. Taylor is credited with writing "Benjamin" and the only other artist to perform on the album is Alison Krauss, who supplies vocals on two tracks and a violin on one of the songs she sings on.

The album opens with "1B," an upbeat violin and cello-driven track that sets the tone of the album well. It is basically a series of sweeping scales and fast bowing that makes the cello sound like a fiddle. It is a rousing entrance into the album that is full of movement and energy and goes a great job of getting the listener excited about the whole experience. It is followed by "Misty Moonlight Waltz," a rather standard waltz that blends well the cello, bass and violin with a slightly slower tempo than usual. Otherwise, it is a beautiful, flowing piece that illustrates the talents of the performers quite well.

"Hard Times Come Again No More" was written by Stephen Foster, but it was arranged by the trio plus James Taylor. Taylor sings a lonesome ballad accented by the violin, which acts almost as a back-up vocalist to his smooth voice. Taylor sings beautifully creating the album's most memorable vocals when he sings the story-song's lines "'Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave, / 'Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore, / 'Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave. / Oh! Hard times, come again no more" ("Hard Times Come Again No More"). Taylor's performance as a singer to Classical music implies a whole doorway into a career that might be far less narcoleptic than some of his pop-rock efforts.

Recovering from the melancholy and verbosity of Taylor's vocal track the trio shakes it up with "Indecision," a fast paced instrumental track that spends four and a half minutes building a mood that puts the listener on edge. Ahead of the long, low bowing are high pitched plucking sounds which create a distinct mood that is uncertain and somewhat agitated. Every time I hear it, my adrenalin begins to flow!

"Limerock" is a traditional song that has been rearranged by O'Connor and Meyers and it is a fast, almost bluegrass track that will likely change the American listener's impressions of what the limitations upon the cello actually are because it is fast and upbeat in a way that a cello is seldom allowed to be. This song evokes old time country dances in the Appalachian hills at dusk with its rhythms and energy.

Strangely, "Benjamin," a track by James Taylor, actually seems more familiar. As stupid as it might sound, there is a late-70's (I think) pop song with a male vocalist where the singer plaintively sings "on and on, on and on" as part of the refrain and "Benjamin's" cello seems to be singing that the exact same way every time I hear it. It's amazing how strong and sad the track can be without any lyrics. Taylor's guitar blends seamlessly with the classical instruments and (we assume it is) Taylor's whistling is equally sublime and appropriate to the mood of the song.

Alison Krauss's violin joins for the jig-like "Fisher's Hornpipe," another more energetic piece with a lot of fast bowing and an actual sense of percussion (there is knocking on one of the instruments throughout portions of the song which works well for it). It has a feel-good feel to it and is another song that evokes images of people having fun. It is followed by "Duet For Cello And Bass," a slower, sad track that re-establishes a sense of melancholy. If anything, by this point in the album, listeners are likely to be feeling they are getting a diverse range of fast and slow orchestral tracks.

That trend continues with "Emily's Reel," another upbeat song that is short but has a pretty epic scope to it. It sweeps through the full range of the bass and violin's range in a very quick time and also evokes the feeling of telling the story of people fleeing or racing (not so much from something as toward something). It's like listening to a soundtrack of people running up a hill to a crest where they will see something extraordinary.

The "Cloverfoot Reel" is a track I've been unable to describe in analytical terms. It is a little slower, but still upbeat and whenever I hear it, the mix of cello, bass and violin reminds me of the ocean. Big waves; that's the best I've got for describing it! By comparison, "Poem For Carlita" is easy to describe. The long, slow bowing on the cello and violin is a musical expression of loss. This is a sad, generally slow song that has little faster "reminiscences" that fade back into an overall depressed melody that carries the listener on a long, emotional journey through the loss of the players.

"Caprice For Three" is another fast-paced track, but it does not sound in any way light, capricious or insubstantial. Instead, it is another soaring song that moves quick and is brief but forceful. "Second Time Around" takes the slow and musing ground again. This is one of the tracks where the bass is most overt and it creates a counter melody to the eager violin and cello which are almost dueling with one another. Instead, the bass ground the fantasy the other two strings seem to be on with a mature, resonance that sounds like an adult keeping children in place.

"Slumber My Darling" is another Foster song, this time with Alison Krauss providing the vocals. She sings beautifully a love song with sensual lines like "Slumber my darling, the night's coming on. / Sweet visions attend thy sleep / Fondest, dearest to me, / While others their revels keep, / I will watch over thee" ("Slumber My Darling"). While lyrically is appears like it might be a lullaby, it is presented like a plaintive and evocative love song that is actually quite romantic and not at all sappy.

The album closes with "Vistas," a song that is almost ten minutes long that presents a wonderful balance between fast and slow, cello and violin and bass. It evokes mental images of diverse scenes: canyons, rivers, open skies. It is well-named for what it is and it is both fun and substantive, ending the album on a grand note that leaves the listener wanting to hear more.

All of the playing is predictably flawless as people like Yo-Yo Ma are world renowned for the quality of their playing. Anyone looking for a diverse listening experience and proof that there are still artists who can create something new in Classical music will want to pick up Appalachian Journey.

For other instrument-driven music reviews, please check out my takes on:
Mozart Musical Masterpieces - Classic Composers
Heroes Symphony - Philip Glass
String Quartets, Op. 18Beethoven


For other music reviews, please be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of the music reviews!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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