Jeffrey Sees The Merz Trio (With Wine)

This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 3 October 2019. To see the article in full, click here.

The Merz Trio Salon

The Merz Trio Salon

On a deliciously warm, early Autumn evening in New York, I had the pleasure of making my way downtown to the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture for an evening with the Merz Trio. After disembarking the 6 train and walking down tree-lined Bleecker Street, I met my friend Karen at the door and headed inside to the main stage – the Loreto Theatre.

Upon entering the theatre, we were given programs and instructed by the staff to take our seats…onstage.

Throwing off the formality of having the audience in its proper place, with the musicians holding court from above, I was delighted to find that we, the audience, would be seated round the musicians in a salon-like setting, together bathed in the warmth of the stage lights.

I was also delighted to find out that the evening’s performance would have a wine tasting woven throughout, to add to the intimate, friendly atmosphere.

The Merz Trio, formed in 2017, is made up of pianist Lee Dionne, violinist Brigid Coleridge and cellist Julia Yang. Currently the Graduate Trio in Residence at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts, the group took its name from the early 20th-Century Merz style of German visual artist Kurt Schwitters. In a style often referred to as “psychological collage”, Schwitters created his Merz pictures in an attempt to make a coherent aesthetic sense of the world around him, often using fragments of found objects. In a similar vein, the Merz Trio focuses on projects that promote connection between music, texts, and other art forms (in this case, wine) to create a uniquely beautiful experience for their audiences.

After a brief introduction from Sheen Center managing director Andrew Levine, staff came onto the stage with our first tasting, an Anna de Codorniu Cava Brut Rosé from Penedes, Spain. The three members of the Merz Trio quickly followed. As we sipped our sparkling rosé, we were treated to the Allegro moderato and Allegretto from Joseph Haydn’s Piano Trio No. 44 in E Major. The first Haydn selection particularly is all celebration, bubbling fountains and floral scents, perfectly matching the light exuberance of the wine. The musicians themselves immediately impressed me with their level of connectivity – breathing, moving, and playing as one. In between the two movements, violinist Brigid Coleridge, a Melbourne native, and almost Victorian vision in coral, treated us to the first of several short literary pieces dotted throughout the program – this one about the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, whose words complemented beautifully the tone of the Haydn and the taste of the wine.

From this bright, sparkling beginning, we moved on to darker themes with an oaky Zolo Malbec and the Traumgekrönt from the Sieben Frühe Lieder by Alban Berg, followed by the Modéré from Maurice Ravel’s Trio in A Minor for piano, violin and cello. Expertly paired and immediately changing the mood, the trio continued to impress us with its virtuosity and sensitivity in choosing repertoire. We were next given a Zolo Sauvignon Blanc from Argentina to match Ravel’s Pantoum: Assez vif, also from the Trio in A Minor. A refreshing palate-cleanser for both tongue and ear.

Ravel’s Trio in A Minor continued to reign as we moved into the following section of the program, featuring the Passacaille: Très large and Final – Animé. Pianist Lee Dionne shared some thoughts on Ravel’s sensitive approach to incorporating “orientalism” into his music, and how the melodies we were about to hear would be complemented by the evening’s next wine offering, an unusual and exotic-tasting Bodegas Vegamar Crianza. Perhaps my favourite part of the concert, all three members of the trio effortlessly surrendered themselves to the beauty of the music – delicately and harmoniously in the first movement, building to a frenzied passion in the second. Despite the slight intoxication I was beginning to feel at this point, due to the generous pour of the rich, dark wine that I had received, my appreciation for the impressive musical skill before me was as sharp and present as ever.

For our sweet send-off, we were given our final tasting, a Zolo Signature White with a slight frizzante, and treated to Franz Schubert’s Notturno. Having sung quite a bit of Schubert myself in Austria this past summer, the sweetness of the wine and the gorgeous passages emanating from piano, violin, and cello transported me right back to that magnificent country. And if that wasn’t enough, we were all invited to a post-concert reception in the Sheen Center’s lovely Gallery, with food prepared by Sous-chef Alberto of the restaurant Halifax in Hoboken, New Jersey. I shall certainly be crossing the Hudson to pay that restaurant a visit soon, as I shall also be attentively following the career of the incredibly gifted, innovative, and charming Merz Trio. Truly, these are artists in the deepest sense of the word.

Making Music in the Ridiculously Beautiful Austrian Alps

This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 1 8 September 2019. To see the article in full, click here.

Jeffrey Palmer at Großglockner, photographed by Sergei Kvitko.

Jeffrey Palmer at Großglockner, photographed by Sergei Kvitko.

On a bright August morning, I awoke in my hotel room to the distant, pulsing sound of rushing water. I threw back the curtains and looked out the window to behold the village of Bad Gastein and the glory of the Austrian Alps beyond. I had arrived by train from Bavaria late the night before, shrouded in darkness, navigating my luggage down the steep streets from the station to the hotel. While I was somewhat conscious of the ever-present sound of the iconic waterfall, which cuts straight through the middle of town, I was rather oblivious to the natural beauty of my surroundings. In the clear light of morning, that had certainly changed.

I was fortunate enough to be asked by concert pianist and festival director Dr Irena Portenko to participate in the 2019 Music in the Alps Festival – a gathering of professional musicians and students from across Europe and North America, who come together in the idyllic Austrian spa town of Bad Gastein to learn, perform, and participate in collaborative music-making. I had met Irena earlier in the year in New York, where both of us spend the majority of our time. To say there was an immediate connection is a bit of an understatement, and before I knew it, I was making plans to join her and her merry troupe of musicians in the Austrian Alps.

Founded in 2013, Music in the Alps has grown from a small meeting of classical musicians in Bad Gastein into a robust program of lectures, lessons, masterclasses, and concerts – including a jazz component – that extend out to Innsbruck, Salzburg, and the neighboring villages. I arrived about halfway through the festival for the Bad Gastein portion and set up camp there for a week. Most activity was centered around the stately Grand Hotel de l’Europe in the heart of Bad Gastein, where we would gather for lessons and to hear student and faculty concerts each afternoon and evening respectively in the hotel’s elegant Wienersaal.

I was thrilled to put together my own recital in the Wienersaal, accompanied by Irena Portenko on the Imperial Bösendorfer. As a countertenor, I decided to sing a diverse selection of music I love, ranging from Handel arias, to Debussy and Schumann songs, to Irish folk music, to pieces by Björk and Stephen Sondheim. I also included a selection of songs by Franz Schubert, as he is known as to have spent a good amount of time himself in Bad Gastein. Having the freedom to put together such an eclectic program, and meeting and inviting oboist Amari Barash and cellist Nargiza Yusupova to play on several pieces with me, was a sheer joy and a testament to the bond of music-making across language and cultures.

Something that makes this festival so special is the diversity in its participants and the freedom and encouragement to collaborate and explore. While everyone’s technique and level of musicianship were extremely high, our differences in style and background made for a rich blend of programming. Having the opportunity to work with the talented students – including the chance to perform with a fantastic young countertenor, and my fellow esteemed faculty – was incredibly inspiring and enriching.

Bad Gastein itself, nestled in the back of an Alpine valley, served as a womb of creativity, protecting us from the cares of the outside world and allowing us to fully focus on our musical explorations. It was easy to lose track of what time or even day it was, as we all surrendered to the deliciousness of uninterrupted music-making and the inspiration of the surrounding natural beauty. However, having the chance to leave our haven of creativity and venture into Salzburg to perform a group concert in the famed Mirabell Palace’s Marmorsaal, where Mozart himself played for the imperial family, was also welcome. Hikes were part of our routine as well, including one up Austria’s highest peak, the stunning Großglockner, as were evenings spent at the local Betty’s Bar (run by a New Zealander!) for wine and flatbread after the concerts.

Having a host of talented, innovative, open-minded individuals thrust together in a place that might be as close to heaven on earth as one can get, unsurprisingly, yields some wonderful results. Dr Portenko has created a supportive atmosphere in which teachers and students share the same goal of creating something extraordinarily beautiful in an extraordinarily beautiful space. The residents of Bad Gastein are also extremely engaged, with many of them regularly coming to each performance. This festival really does feel like a community, thanks to the wonderful people that make it possible, and, I suspect, the loving embrace of the Austrian Alps.

Internationaler Konzertsänger Aus Brooklyn In Lohr

During his stay in Lohr am Main, Germany, after participating in the Music in the Alps Festival in Austria, Henrietta Hartl of the Main-Echo interviewed Jeffrey and Nina Pearson, a native of Lohr, about their performance in St Michael’s Church, their artistic backgrounds, and the differences between life in Brooklyn and Bavaria. The text below is in the original German. To see the interview in full, click here.

Nina Pearson and Jeffrey Palmer in St Michael’s Church, Lohr am Main

Nina Pearson and Jeffrey Palmer in St Michael’s Church, Lohr am Main

Eigentlich ist der international auftretende Konzertsänger in Europa, um bei Klassik-Festivals in Bad Gastein und Salzburg im August zu singen. Doch in Brooklyn hat er eine Bekannte, die im selben Chor wie er singt: Nina Pearson. Sie stammt aus Lohr, zog vor zehn Jahren mit ihrem amerikanischen Mann nach New York und besucht jedes Jahr im Sommer ihre Eltern in Wombach.

Zu Gast in Wombach

Und da für einen US-Amerikaner Wombach praktisch um die Ecke von Salzburg liegt, kam Palmer nun vor seinen Auftritten in Österreich gerne mit nach Lohr zu Besuch. Pearson ist begeisterte Sängerin schon seit den Zeiten, als sie am Chor des Lohrer Gymnasiums mitgesungen hat. Sie ist auch engagierte Christin und bot Pfarrer Sven Johannsen spontan an, dass Palmer und sie beim Hochamt an Mariä Himmelfahrt das Ave Maria vortragen könnten. Johannsen nahm das dankend an, und erweiterte das Gesangsprogramm noch um einige andere Stücke.

Ihr Vortrag sei wohl recht gut angekommen, freuen sich Laiensägerin Pearson und Gesangsprofi Palmer am nächsten Tag. Sie sind nochmals in die St. Michaelskirche gekommen, für ein Gespräch des amerikanischen Sängers mit unserem Medienhaus. Es findet auf Englisch statt, da Palmer kein Deutsch spricht, und der Countertenor erzählt ausführlich von seiner etwas ungewöhnlichen Karriere.

Der heute 31-Jährige hat in seiner Heimat in Virginia im Südosten der USA schon im Alter von sieben Jahren angefangen, in Chören zu singen. Mit neun Jahren trat er zum ersten Mal öffentlich auf, und das Singen wurde zu seinem Lebensinhalt. Seine Eltern hätten selber nicht Musik gemacht, meint er, aber sie liebten Musik und Schauspiel und hätten ihn immer in seinen künstlerischen Ambitionen unterstützt. Palmer nahm Gesangs-, Tanz- und Schauspielunterricht und studierte später auch Musik an der englischen Bath Spa University.

Angst vorm Stimmbruch

»Wie viele singende Jungen hatte ich total Angst vor dem Stimmbruch, dass ich dann vielleicht nicht mehr singen kann«, erinnert er sich. Doch der harte Stimmbruch sei nie gekommen, seine Stimme wurde einfach langsam tiefer. Von seinen Lehrern lernte er dann die besonderen Techniken, die ein Countertenor braucht, um stabil hoch singen zu können. Inzwischen hatte Palmer schon viele Auftritte in Amerika, Asien und Europa.

Im Unterschied zu den klassischen Stimmlagen sei das Repertoire an Originalkompositionen für Countertenöre etwas begrenzt, meint Palmer. Darin sieht er durchaus auch Vorteile, denn man sei so sehr viel freier, Dinge für sich selber zu gestalten. Manche eigentlich für andere Stimmen geschriebene Musik singe er »einfach so«, für andere bekomme er auch spezielle Arrangements.

Komponisten schreiben für ihn

Er habe Kontakte zu zeitgenössischen Komponisten, die auch extra für ihn schrieben, wie der Bostoner Musikprofessor Andrew List. Auch mit dem Komponisten Huang Ruo aus Peking, den er bei Musikevents in New York traf, arbeitet er inzwischen zusammen. Mit der Pianistin Riko Higuma hat Palmer kürzlich ein Album herausgebracht, »Beauty«, mit Stücken aus mehreren Jahrhunderten und Kontinenten.

Neben der Musik arbeitet Palmer als Public Relations Manager für ein New Yorker Gesundheits- und Sozialzentrum. Auch diese Arbeit erfülle ihn, und er könne beides gut verbinden. Er wirke oft bei Benefizkonzerten mit, dafür seien seine Bosse auch flexibel, wenn er Musiktermine hat, wie zur Zeit die Konzertreise nach Europa.

Auch Folk und Jazz

Was Musikstile außerhalb der klassischen Musik angeht, ist Palmer offen. Er singe auch gerne Folk und Jazz und meint lächelnd, »wenn eine berühmte Rockgruppe mich will, sage ich auch nicht nein.« Wichtig bleibt ihm als gläubigem Christen dabei auch immer die Kirchenmusik - ob im Kirchenchor in seiner Gemeinde in Brooklyn oder als Solist bei der Messe in der Lohrer Stadtpfarrkirche.

Jeffrey Sees Yann Tiersen

This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 31 May 2019. To see the article in full, click here.

Yann Tiersen at the Beacon Theatre, New York City, 28 May

Yann Tiersen at the Beacon Theatre, New York City, 28 May

Known largely for his compositions for cinema, namely the whimsical film Amélie, Yann Tiersen is a composer whose music conjures dramatic visual imagery paired with a sensitive introspection. It gives the listener an ephemeral glimpse into the mind and heart of its creator.

Having felt this way about Yann’s music since the ‘90s, I jumped on the opportunity to see the composer in the flesh and in concert at New York City’s Beacon Theatre on a perfect, late-spring evening. What would this prolific, enigmatic composer be like in person, and playing his own music? Well, the experience exceeded my expectations.

Upon entering the gorgeous, neo-Grecian-style Beacon Theatre, dating from 1926, I wasn’t surprised to stumble upon a chic, predominantly European crowd whose mix of languages in quiet conversation paired nicely with the pre-concert playlist, featuring the Cocteau Twins (whose silver-throated lead singer Elizabeth Fraser collaborated with Yann on his 2005 album Les Retrouvailles), and other similarly dreamy music.

Just a little after 8pm, the theatre was plunged into darkness as a melodic, Northern English-accented voice soliloquised from the speakers about the dance between the hunter and the hunted, namely the wolf and the deer, that exists in nature. Man’s thought is to kill off the predator, tame nature, and afterwards exist in peace and comfort. Yet, that very action leads to an imbalance in the natural order, thus creating long-lasting chaos. The only real peace, beauty, and balance lies in the wild. This would be a theme harkened back to again and again in the concert.

Yann emerged alone from the wings, clad in casual black, waved at the audience, and seated himself behind the grand piano on stage. Lit by a single spotlight, the music began to pour from his fingers, entrancing the audience and suggesting images of sunny Paris streets. After two short songs, he pointed to a tape recorder in the centre of the stage, and told a charming story about meeting said tape recorder drunk in a pub in England. The tape recorder had been depressed after being forced to play the most horrid of pop music all its life, so Yann took pity on him, brought him on tour, and allowed him to play only nature sounds. The tape recorder soon lit up and begin to whir as the sounds of birds, laughter, and wind were issued from it, and Yann launched into Tempelhof, the first track off his most recent album All. And yes, this song was inspired by the Berlin airport of its namesake.

Before we knew it, Yann was joined on stage by three other musicians who quickly took their positions at soundboard, keyboard, and drums to finish the song. The audience was then thrown into a bath of white light and shimmering imagery of the sea, which was projected onto the screen behind the musicians as Yann took us through several songs from his new album. Now would be a good time to point out that All is very much inspired by Yann’s native Brittany, a region in the northwest of France with strong Celtic roots and its own native language, Breton. Most of the vocals in the concert were sung in Breton, and were rendered beautifully by the female and two male musicians onstage, with Yann himself joining in from time to time. To say the set was ethereal would be an understatement. The wash of sound produced by Yann and his clan – paired with the expert lighting design and projected images of sea, rock, and forest – truly made one feel as if one had gone back in time and discovered Celtic Brittany in its pure, original state. To hear words sung in an ancient language, only presently spoken by around 200,000 people, set to music so expertly crafted by one of the region’s native sons is an experience divine and powerful.

As the concert continued, Yann showed off his musical prowess by performing on piano, toy piano, harpsichord, glockenspiel, and violin. I had no idea he played the violin so magnificently! The concert was also dotted with short anecdotes, including one story about the song Usal Road, inspired by the time Yann was chased by a mountain lion during a bike ride in California.

After nearly two hours, it was all over too soon. But the crowd rose to its feet, clamouring and whistling for more. After what felt like an eternity in the dark, the crowd erupted in even greater joy as Yann and his three companions took the stage once more for the encores. The final three pieces were indeed special, with the first being inspired by Brooklyn (just over the East River from the theatre), the second being a new piece not featured on the album and sung beautifully in Breton, and the third bringing the concert full circle to the opening monologue.

Throughout the concert, we experienced Yann’s mastery, an accomplished classical musician who uses inspiration from the natural world to create a refined, graceful musical offering. But in the final song, featuring Yann on screaming violin, we were thrown into a frenzy of clashing sounds, strobe lights, and deep vibrations. It felt as though we were touching on the very primal heart of Nature herself. It was a beautiful reminder that all civilization, all culture, all art is dependent on and a reflection of the untamable power of the universe.

Needless to say, Yann reflects it very, very well.

This New EP Aims To Stimulate Your Pineal Gland

This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 28 May 2019. To see the article in full, click here.

Arwork for Akasha by Amit Slathia

Arwork for Akasha by Amit Slathia

Neal Anand is one of those artists you simply don’t come across every day.

Originally hailing from Northern California, Neal is now making waves in the New York City music scene with the release of his debut EP Akasha.

And, when I say he is making waves, I am referring specifically to those that fall into the brain category.

Neal’s first solo music offering was composed to stimulate the listener’s pineal gland – the part of the brain that produces melatonin to regulate circadian rhythm. Essentially, his music was engineered to heal and relax the mind of the listener.

I first listened to Akasha’s shimmery lead single She on a southward train journey through New York’s Hudson Valley. I almost felt as if I was transported into another dimension as the soothing, pulsating sounds of piano and synth washed over me whilst I watched the sunlight play on the waves of the Hudson River.

His engineering seemed to work!

This serene, unique experience brought several questions to mind, which I felt quite grateful I had the opportunity to ask the composer himself.

Akasha is released on the composer’s own record label Pineal Labs, which is “dedicated to enhancing pineal gland activity through music”.

Neal Anand talks about his (brain) stimulating new release.


Neal, congratulations on the release of your EP! How did this fascinating project first come about?

Thank you very much. I was inspired by my meditation practice. I saw that mindfulness was becoming more important to balance our fast-paced lifestyles, yet many people find it difficult to get into meditation. So, I thought, what if I composed music that would help people relax in a similar way? That was a couple years ago, and I’ve been exploring the concept ever since.

The fact that you composed these songs with the specific purpose to calm the listener through the stimulation of the pineal gland is not only fascinating, but quite a feat. What scientific research did you conduct to learn how to do this?

Science has proven that the pineal gland detects light and produces melatonin, which governs our circadian rhythms. But some recent studies have suggested that it’s capable of much more. Eastern spiritualism and Western philosophy believe it to be the “third eye” [of spiritual perception].

We’re just starting to monitor listeners’ brainwaves through a portable EEG to see if our music emits alpha waves, or a relaxed state of mind.

I’m not claiming that anything we are doing is backed by science, but I’m definitely curious, and I’d like to learn more.

Even though there is this scientific undercurrent to your music, it is still quite accessible and likely to appeal to listeners who might have no idea you are literally getting into their heads! How did you balance this purpose with the aesthetic beauty of the music?

I didn’t think about isochronic tones or solfeggio frequencies. I just made music that was personal to me, that helped bring me to a state of calm, and I hope that listeners feel the same.

You worked with some rather impressive people on this project, including Grammy-winning engineer Warren Riker and Grammy-nominated engineer Justin Shturtz. How was it working with such world-class professionals?

I’ve been working with Warren and Justin for a while, and they’re part of the team. They’re immensely talented and experienced, and it’s always fun bringing projects to life together.

The beautiful artwork for the EP is by Amit Slathia, who hails from Jammu, India. Did your own Indian heritage influence how you approached this project in any way?

It did not, but I discovered Amit’s work at a gallery in New Delhi a few years ago and was totally taken aback. I’d never seen art like his come out of India. I reached out to see if he’d be interested in designing the artwork, and he agreed. After listening to the EP a few times, he created it, and I could not be happier with the result.

There is a large interest in the relationship between music and the mind at the moment, from music therapy and childhood education, to studying how music can even alter the brain. Is this a subject that you would like to further explore?

Absolutely. I’ve always believed music is healing, and I would love to learn more about how it can help people and society. I find it so interesting how we’ve been conditioned to primarily see music as a means of entertainment, when really, it is so much more than that.

What is your vision and hope for how people around the world will listen to and engage with Akasha?

I hope that it makes people relax!

Jeffrey Palmer and Riko Higuma Release an Album Dedicated to Beauty

Editor Stephanie Eslake interviewed Jeffrey and Riko about their new album for Australian music magazine CutCommon. To see the interview in full, click here.

Jeffrey Palmer and Riko Higuma

Jeffrey Palmer and Riko Higuma

It mightn’t come as a surprise to you that many of the familiar faces on the CutCommon team are also forging their own careers in the music industry. I had the pleasure of being introduced to United States music critic Jeffrey Palmer not so long ago and, since he’s started writing stories for you to enjoy. I’ve also been made aware of the truly beautiful path he’s following in music as a countertenor. And I wanted to learn more about it.

When I say ‘beautiful’, I do mean it quite specifically, too: Jeffrey has partnered with pianist Riko Higuma for an album titled, and encompassing, Beauty 美.

Though we each possess our own understandings of the concept of beauty, I nevertheless found myself startled by its quality in this release. It’s an enigmatic and complex form of beauty, emanating from works spanning Handel to Purcell, Huang Ruo to Andrew List.

Brooklyn-based Jeffrey has practised his art since his performance debut as a 9-year-old, and has since travelled the US, Europe, and Asia with his remarkable voice; also forming collaborations with visual artists and fashion designers along the way.

His duo partner in Beauty 美 is Riko, who is a staff pianist and coach at the Manhattan School of Music, and has toured festivals the world over (including a South American recital tour with Ray Chen, among other collaborations with artists such as Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Alan Gilbert).

So when it comes down to it, how do you collaborate with a musician to make an album beautiful? And what does beauty even mean on an aesthetic and musical level?

We ask these two musicians in light of the first album they’ve released together. (And you might just win a copy for yourself, too. Read on.)

Jeffrey and Riko, it’s lovely to learn about your first album. Congratulations! Why did you want to release a CD together? 

RIKO: Jeffrey and I had the opportunity to perform in Hefei, China together back in 2013 with a mutual friend of ours, violinist Yijia Zhang. Since then, we’ve had several occasions to work together, and also have become really good friends! 

Last year, we both agreed that it really felt like the right time for the two of us to do our very own project together. I had previously worked with producer Sergei Kvitko, who founded Blue Griffin Records, on two album projects with my trio (Zodiac Trio), and I had a feeling that the combination of the three of us working on an album together would be the perfect fit.

A first album is quite a big deal, and for yours you’ve chosen the theme of beauty. Why is this a theme you were so interested in exploring together through music?

JEFFREY: After we decided to record an album together and started thinking about repertoire, the idea of simply performing music that we found very beautiful really excited and resonated with the both of us.

Essentially, this album is a collection of incredibly diverse works, both old and new, that show different facets of the concept of beauty, and that have touched us both personally at different points in life.

The very idea of beauty today is so fluid. What does beauty mean on an aesthetic level? 

R: Jeffrey and I have been inspired by many different concerts and other arts events that we’ve attended together over the past few years in New York, where we both live. I think we both agree that beauty is something that transcends culture, language, and artistic expression.

We agreed on the repertoire for the album very easily, which was just one of the many reasons why I had no hesitation in making this album and calling it Beauty.

J: Yes, fortunately we find a similar thing beautiful! I do think that, when it comes down to it, something that is beautiful — music or otherwise — is both true to itself and inherently good. And we think the pieces on this album really fit that description.

Riko and Jeffrey, you each have such impressive backgrounds, having collaborated with many of the world’s great artists in your music careers. In such a competitive industry, what do you think is the relationship between a musician and a desire to generate ‘beauty’ in their own sound? 

R: Having grown up in Japan training to be a pianist, acquiring technical perfection was one of the most important aspects of the process.  But now, after years of performing professionally, even though it is necessary to have as much perfect technique as possible, it is crucial to understand that at the end of the day, instrumental or vocal technique is only one of the tools necessary to communicate and produce beauty when the music calls for it. It’s not the endgame in and of itself. At the end of the day, art is expression, and technical perfection is only one part of it.  

J: Music is all about connecting with an audience. That should always be the main focus. And when done in a clear, effective, sensitive way, that is truly beautiful.

Moving to the practical side of your album, what did you each expect (or demand!) of each other as professional artists through this recording process?

R: I expected perfection from Jeffrey, as I always do from him!

J: And I succeeded, right?

R: In all honesty, I’ve worked with many vocal students who sometimes don’t put enough thought into meaning behind the words they’re singing. It’s not just a sound job, it’s a communications job. But with Jeffrey, I had no worries in that department!

J: One of the many reasons why I absolutely love working with Riko is that she consistently plays to perfection and is an extremely sensitive pianist. As a singer, working with a pianist like that is such a joy. So, I don’t know if we had any grand expectations of each other for this album project specifically, other than just enjoying the process of making music together as much as we always do.

What sort of feedback did you give and receive through the collaboration, which you weren’t expecting?

R: I don’t think there was anything unexpected between the two of us, but Sergei Kvitko, the producer, who is a brilliant pianist himself, really helped guide us and lent a fresh perspective.

J: It was wonderful having someone so accomplished there to shepherd us through the recording process and offer ideas along the way. He definitely pushed us a few times to try things in different ways, which resulted in some takes that were much better and quite different than what we had originally planned.

How would you encourage people to listen to your album, uniting the theme with what you’ve created musically?

J: This album really deserves to be listened to from start to finish in its entirety. Not just because of my voice or Riko’s playing, but because the beauty and depth of feeling in the music that we selected really warrant it. It’s not exactly background music!

R: I think our album is a great escape from the noise of everyday life. It would make me very happy to know that we could transport you somewhere else just by listening to our album. And I think we do a pretty good job in making that possible!

Jeffrey Listens to Gernot Wolfgang's New Release

This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 3 April 2019. To see the article in full, click here.

Vienna and the West by Gernot Wolfgang

Vienna and the West by Gernot Wolfgang

Gernot Wolfgang is one of those contemporary chamber music composers that pushes musical boundaries while simultaneously keeping his audience incredibly engaged and entertained. Gernot is originally from Bad Gastein, Austria, but has been based in Los Angeles for the past 23 years. His latest album for Albany Records Vienna and the West is a collection of works that touch on the composer’s connection to both the high-brow musical ingenuity of early 20th-Century Vienna and the free expansiveness of the American West. Gernot assembled some of LA’s top classical musicians to bring these pieces to life – some of which are Grammy nominees and winners; others who perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and more. Together, they pay masterful tribute to both Gernot’s native land and current home.

From the first bars of the album’s opening track Road Signs, I was immediately struck by the effortless grace with which the composer wove the soaring bassoon line through the rhythmic jazz chords of the piano. It felt like a dance, sailing along, pausing, and then picking up again to take me around another musical bend.

I later came to find out this piece was about navigating LA traffic. Perfection.

The album continues to impress with pieces that very clearly demonstrate Californian and Viennese influences in ways that surprisingly complement each other. Standouts include Passage to Vienna for piano trio, in which the composer takes us from contemporary America back to early 1900s Vienna (think Schoenberg and Webern) and back again; and the epic Impressions for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and double bass. Upon first hearing the three movements of the latter piece called Carnival in Venice, Dream and Country Road, the composer somehow managed to take me from a heady night at a carnival (it could have been in either Italy or Venice Beach, LA), to a smoky Viennese salon, to racing down the Ventura Freeway with the wind blowing through my hair.

Don’t believe me? Have a listen.

The album ends with the beautiful, Mahler-inspired From Vienna with Love. Touching on the brilliance of early 20th-century Austrian composition, the exciting influences of Eastern European music on Vienna, and the American jazz that has so influenced the composer, this piece serves as the perfect conclusion to a musical testament to the greatness that is Gernot Wolfgang.

In short, Gernot is proud of both his Austrian and American ties, and both nations should be equally proud of him.

Jeffrey Goes To The Living Dying Opera

This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 6 March 2019. To see the article in full, click here.

Countertenor Juecheng Chen

Countertenor Juecheng Chen

Upon entering the dimly lit Underground Theatre of the Abrons Arts Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the audience members who had drifted in to see The Living Dying Opera were greeted with the booming question, “What is opera?”. American electronic composer and performer Hwarg (Howie Kenty), donning a tuxedo, was already at his station onstage behind laptop and mixing board causing this inquisitive cacophony of questioning voices to waft from the large speakers. While at first making everyone laugh nervously, giggles soon shifted to audience members posing this same question to each other.

As the room was plunged into complete darkness, voices gave way to a synthesized organ playing the opening strains of the famous aria Ombra Mai Fu from Handel’s 1738 opera Serse. There was Chinese countertenor Ju-eh (Juecheng Chen), dressed in a white Western shirt and traditional black Hanfu skirt, basking in the spotlight and descending the concrete staircase for what he would later in the event describe as “The Descent of the Goddess”. Upon finishing the aria, Ju-eh immediately entered into a monologue, first praising his own success as a singer, then questioning it. This led to a series of vignettes, beautifully enhanced by the masterful work of French lighting designer François-Thibaut Pencenat, that gave a very intimate look into the mind of a young man trying to make it as an opera star today. From dragging audience members onstage and directing them to behave in certain ways, to soliloquising about singing naked in the bathroom as a teenager, to leading everyone in a guided meditation, the audience was shown different sides of the singer’s complex, fierce, and sometimes fragile persona. By far, one of the most moving scenes in the piece was when, standing back-to-back with Ju-eh, Hwarg read aloud several rejection letters from various music conservatories and programs that Ju-eh had received while Ju-eh himself sang the devastating In Darkness Let Me Dwell by English Renaissance composer John Dowland.

The Living Dying Opera artfully sums up the great paradox that many classical singers face today: they have dedicated their entire lives to mastering an art form that the world largely considers to be dying, while routinely submitting themselves to rejections from those mighty few tasked with preserving that same art form. Yet, through it all, they retain a sense of determination, and often spiritual vocation, knowing that to be a singer is why they were born.

Questions of identity around being Chinese while studying in the West, and not being accepted by schoolmates or others in the classical world, were expertly woven into the piece. Focus was also given to the mysterious role that countertenors play in classical music today.

Ju-eh and Hwarg have created a uniquely 21st Century operatic experience that pushes boundaries while getting to the core of what opera is all about. The flexibility and crystalline qualities of Ju-eh’s voice, Hwarg’s stark and sometimes jarring electronic accompaniment, and the vast amounts of room for improvisation make this opera quite accessible to a contemporary audience, just as 17th and 18th Century operas strived to be in their own days. Thanks to these two young artists and others like them, perhaps our world will be reminded that opera is nothing more than an honest expression of the joy and suffering of the human condition in the highest artistic form of its age. Therefore, opera never really dies, but rather lives on in new incarnations.

Discovering An Australian Composer In New York

This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 8 February 2019. To see the article in full, click here.

Composer Michael Grebla

Composer Michael Grebla

On a chilly Saturday night in January, an eclectic mix of Australians, new music lovers, and curious neighbourhood locals gathered in a church in Manhattan’s West Village for an Australia Day Concert. It was host to an array of new works by some of Australia’s best and brightest composers

One of these composers, Michael Grebla, happened to be present that evening.

I was fortunate enough to meet Michael for the first time just a few months ago at a New York concert given by the critically acclaimed Zodiac Trio – true champions of new and innovative chamber music. Michael was selected to attend the trio’s annual festival in the South of France in 2018, where he won the prize for Most Outstanding New Work.

A native of Perth and a graduate of the University of Western Australia, Michael first came to the United States to study at Boston’s New England Conservatory; last year completing a Master of Music with Honours. I had heard great things about him from the Zodiac Trio members themselves and was very keen to hear some of his compositions, to which he graciously sent me links. I was immediately taken with his lush, almost cinematic orchestrations, and asked that he let me know when one of his pieces would next be performed in New York; which brings us back to that church in the West Village. When he invited me to write about the experience of listening to his music, I welcomed the challenge.

Nestled in between pieces by fellow Australian composers Jodie O’Regan, Chrstopher Healey, Jakob Bragg, Josephine Jin, Isabella Gerometta, and Peter Martin was Michael’s new work Sympathy. Written for voice and cello, the piece is a setting of the poem of the same name by Paul Laurence Dunbar, a freed slave from Kentucky who became one of the first influential black poets in the United States. Like nearly every other American who studied poetry in high school, I was very familiar with this poem, but had never heard it set to music. I settled in for what was I felt to be a rare treat.

Michael immediately sets the mood with the cello’s chilling opening line, giving way to Brisbane soprano Amber Evans’ voice – low, almost chant-like, singing the famous words: “I know how the caged bird feels, alas!”. I was immediately hit by the powerful pang of sorrow encapsulated in these words. The piece continued to build beautifully into the middle section, climaxing on the line: “And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars; and they pulse again with a keener sting. I know why he beats his wing!”. The juxtaposition of the soaring vocal line with the cello’s churning triplets perfectly reflected the poet’s beautifully crafted words of longing.

I found Michael’s work to be a particularly refreshing take on a piece of classic American poetry; perhaps because it was composed by someone who wasn’t as familiar with its history, coming at it with fresh eyes and ears. There have been many instances when a piece of art deemed as a national treasure was created by someone with diverse heritage. El Greco (The Greek) became one of the greatest artists of the Spanish Renaissance. Many of the most popular Christmas songs of the 20th Century were written by Jewish composers. Even Australia’s own national anthem was Scot Of course, the evil of slavery taints the history of both the United States and Australia. When listening to the lines in Michael’s work, “When the sun is bright on the upland slopes; When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass”, one could just as easily imagine the sugar can plantations of Queensland as the cotton fields of Kentucky. This is what makes Michael’s Sympathy not only a prime example of the many fine works that young Australians are contributing to America’s new music scene, but also a testament to the universal strength and endurance of the human spirit.

Like many others in his generation, Michael is one of many young Australians making his mark on new American music and contributing greatly to this important art form. I can only hope that he will continue to lend his musicality to classic pieces of American poetry in the future and help Australia Fair advance to greater success in the halls of American music.