I always liked songs with special arrangements. For example, rock versions of classical pieces, like Bouree by Jethro Tull:
Or, how about this (Hall of The Mountain King by Apocalyptica)?:
But today I’m in a more romantic mood and this takes me to songs with a (predominantly) string arrangement – songs that use only or mainly string instruments as their accompaniment. These songs have a beautiful, melodious sound and give a bit of a sense of classical romantic music. So here are some examples:
We start with the great Beatles. Here are three of their greatest hits, all with a beautiful string arrangement. You surely (should) know these songs. You have heard them a million times. If you haven’t, you must be very, very, very young and shame on you. But did you pay attention to the accompaniment? Here is your chance. Try to focus on the arrangement, rather than the lyrics:
Next, Eleanor Rigby:
And finally, She’s Leaving Home:
The eternal Beatles taught us everything in pop/rock. Even how to use string arrangements.
Now, we take this concept to the next level in scale. Not just a string quartet but a whole orchestra string section. The Israeli pop/rock singer Yehudit Ravitz with a powerful performance of End of the Story (סוף לסיפור). Again, pay attention to the accompaniment:
There are many covers to Queen’s super song and super hit – Bohemian Rhapsody. I would never have believed it’s possible to render a good cover of this song using a string quartet, but I was proven wrong:
And last, we go to something minimalist and unique. A very unusual artist and unusual accompaniment. Joanna Newsom singing Leaving the City, accompanying herself with a harp:
Hmmm. So special. She reminds me a lot of Kate Bush.
So here we are. Rock/Pop songs with string arrangements. I’m sure there are many more beautiful examples. Can you share?
No, this is not about the TV series. It’s about real musicals. On stage. With real performers. Young. High school kids.
I am not usually a big fan of musicals. Not sure why. I sometimes like a certain song from a musical, like Memory from Cats:
(and I cannot avoid but also include Barbra Streisand’s amazing version:)
Or Don’t cry for me Argentina from Evita:
But I never felt interest in musicals in general.
Well, when you have children, you get exposed, sometimes reluctantly, to things you didn’t have much interest in. When my daughter joined her high school drama class, Daddy had to go to the performances. Reluctantly. For me it was a double whammy. Not only I had to go watch a musical, but one performed by kids? That was going to be one of those sacrifices that parents do for their kids. OK, I’ll sacrifice a couple of hours of my precious time and make daughter happy.
So I sat down with the family to watch (Ahm… Nap…) Hairspray
Two hours later I sort of woke up from a lovely dream, pleasantly surprised and amazed. And it was not a nap. I had been wide awake. As far as could judge (not being a great expert in musicals), the show was actually really good! Those kids were as good as pros. And the entire production was very impressive. There where dozens of high school kid actors, a high school kid band, great costumes, impressive stage props, built and operated by, yes, high school kids. A real theater, with professional lighting, sound system – the works. These people take this stuff seriously! I could not see any difference in performance and production between the high school production and a commercial one. In fact, I think a high school accomplishment is that much more impressive: The cast is so young, inexperienced and not career actors (at least yet). All work is done by volunteers, who do it on their spare time because they have to spend most of their time being students. Money is usually very scarce. The production must be relatively big, to give all the students in the drama class an fair opportunity.
The following year, we went to see Urinetown
And then, Nice Work If You Can Get It:
These experiences made me realize the great potential, hidden in people so young of age. At high school age they already show us – the “old” people – what they can do and how far along they are on their way to adulthood. In many ways, they are already there. I called them high school kids. They are really high school adults.
One of the ways I find music that I like is during flights. Yes, flights… You know, airplanes and things. I sit for hours cramped like a sardine in a narrow seat. So I try to break the boredom. I go methodically through the music, offered on the aircraft’s entertainment system. I find something I like, I make a note and later explore it more, and if I still like it, I add it to my collection.
Obviously, there is nothing that really connects between the pieces in the posts in this category other than I found them while “on the flight”. But I still want to share them. So this category will be used to just share things I like without any connecting theme – just random collections of pieces. And even though this category is called “On the Flight”, it will also include things that I found not while flying – just anything random that I like and want to throw out there.
I am not exactly a huge fan of classical music (and certainly not a big expert) but over the years a picked up various pieces that I love. I don’t know how to analyze classical music like the experts do and, in fact, I am fine this way, I just want to listen and enjoy. So, here are some pieces that have a common thread.
We start with Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Prelude in C major, BWV 846. Simple and beautiful. Here is one example by Hélène Grimaud. I love how she starts very soft and almost sort of hesitant and evolves as it progresses and becomes more and more powerful and expressive.
Another beautiful interpretation (IMHO) is by Tzvi Erez. I think his is the best interpretation, using beautiful nuances in volume and tempo. To me, it just feels right and perfect.
Now let’s take a 90 degree turn. Procol Harum incorporated Bach’s prelude in their song Repent Walpurgis. I love this piece even without the Bach component.
The Prelude is really simple and sounds like a progression of chords. I guess it tempted other musicians to use it as the accompaniment for lead melodies. The excellent Israeli musician, Shlomo Gronich, translated into Hebrew the poem “I Won’t Let You Go!” by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and wrote a melody for it that superimposes beautifully on Bach’s Prelude.
There is, of course, a much more famous such combination – the poem Ave Maria with the beautiful melody by Gounod. Here is a version I like for a cello by Julian Lloyd Webber:
And adding the lyrics and the non-Ave but great Maria Callas:
And a bit less orthodox and buttoned-up, the voice magician Bobby McFerrin and his audience:
When you hear this beautiful melody by Gounot, you realize that Bach’s prelude is not really essential here (although it no doubt adds beauty). Indeed there are many performances of Gounod’s version without the Prelude accompaniment. In this performance by Pavarotti, the Prelude is much less pronounced and you have to listen really carefully to notice it.
Taking the Prelude completely away, the Israeli singer of international fame, Noa, wrote and sang her own Ave Maria pleading.
There are so many more variations and combination. We haven’t even started talking about Schubert’s Ave Maria… I will leave it to you to suggest.
Today we remember fallen leaders, connected by a poem.
In 1865, US president Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The famous American poet Walt Whitman wrote a beautiful poem to mourn the loss of the leader, called: “O Captain!, My Captain!“. I think the poem, by and large, is not very well known. Here is the only version I know of a song with the lyrics of this poem. Melody and singing: Carolyn Hester.
130 years later, another Captain fell. Exactly 20 years ago this week, the 4th of November 1995, then Israeli Prime Minister – Yitzhak Rabin – was assassinated. The great late Naomi Shemer – one of Israel’s greatest song writers, translated Whitman’s poem into Hebrew, wrote her own melody and created a beautiful song. This version has become a standard item in Rabin’s annual memorial ceremonies. Meital Trabelsi delivers a powerful rendition that fits the song’s mood so well. You just want to cry.
Lastly, maybe a bit kitsch but I love it. Israeli TV runs a popular show called “Music School”. Basically, it’s an Israeli version of “The Voice”, only the contestants are kids. In 2011, one of the contestants – 10 year old Adi Biti – performed the Shemer’s version. Coming from a 10 year old child, I think it’s an amazing performance. She seems to really feel the lyrics, although at that young age, she knew and understood so very little about the song and the context.
So, that was an interesting winding road that an old poem took. Where does this take you next?
Today, we are going on a winding journey that somehow connects cultures and generations. The connections are in my mind and heart. I hear them but I am not sure other do too.
Being a member of an East-European Jewish family, Jewish cantor music was part of life. I grew up with it. To observe the Sabbath, no radio was used on Saturday, until the evening. Then, the radio would come to life again and a new week would be welcomed, always starting with this:
Everybody who lived in Israel knew this song. It started the week on the main Israeli radio channel.
Although I never was religious, I loved the Jewish East-European cantor music. Good singers, beautiful melodies, great harmonies. Just the way a good ballad should be 😉 The Malavsky family was one the earliest to become celebrities (in the Jewish community of course). One of their big hits: הבן יקיר לי אפרים (Ephraim my dear son):
Those Israelis who were not close to this sort of music, got a “younger” taste of it much later – in 1969 – when this same song was covered by the Nahal entertainment troupe of the Israeli military with the beautiful Miri Aloni in the lead:
I don’t think the religious establishment was very enthusiastic to see this song performed by a blond bombshell in a mini skirt but who cared? It was a huge hit.
Here is a beautiful example of a cantor song in duet:
As you can see (actually, hear), Jewish cantors are very good singers. In fact, did you know that Jewish cantor-ship has its own three tenors?:
Yeah! How about that? What do you think? Which three tenors ensemble is better?:
This story is not only about Jewish cantor-ship. It is about where this music takes me. I find cantor-ship in many places – not only Jewish – and the connection is not always obvious. Still with a Jewish connection, but not the traditional orthodox as above, I find Barbra Streisand and her beautiful song from the movie Yentl: Papa, Can You Hear Me?:
I remember how my parents, who were pretty cynical people, following their terrible experiences during the holocaust, went to see the movie and returned, touched to their soul. I had never seen them like that. It took them back to their home.
When I was in my early twenties, I woke up one morning, turned on the radio and was mesmerized by a song. If ever I heard a Jewish cantor-ship song in my life that was not at all Jewish cantor-ship, that was it. It was African American soul. I was blown away by how these two so unrelated musical cultures sounded so similar. Stevie Wonder and They Won’t Go When I Go:
Since then I found more African American songs that so remind me of Jewish Cantor-ship. Here is Alicia Keys and Fallin’:
Do you also hear similar sounds? Do you hear the Malavsky family in this song?
Finally: Tamia with Stranger in My House:
So here you are. East European Jewish soul and African American soul. What a connection.
Back in the 70’s, Israel was introduced to a new and very unique media phenomenon: The Voice of Peace – a floating radio station. It was located on a boat, which was stationed in the Mediterranean, just outside Israeli territorial waters. The owner was Abie Nathan – an Israeli pacifist, who used the station to broadcast his relentless message of peace, much to the chagrin of the Israeli government (hence the positioning of the boat outside territorial waters). The station brought a mix of pacifist material and really really great music, all in English. The music was the latest and greatest in pop/rock, with modern-style DJs, something that was completely new in old-fashioned and conservative Israel. Every new hit in the world – we first heard it on the Voice of Peace and only weeks (sometimes months) later on Israeli stations. I know that as a teen, my generation simply abandoned Israeli radio stations and made The Voice of Peace our new home. We came for the music and got an earful of peace. My generation was never before so close to “abroad” as this station made us feel.
Naturally, since the goal of the station was to deliver the message of peace, it offered an ample daily dose of peace and anti-war rhetoric and music. One example that comes easily to mind: Give Peace A Chance:
There was, though, another song that was played on The Voice of Peace that made a great impression on me. It was a harsh criticism against “war-happy” governments, not mincing words. For a country like Israel that brought its children up on the ethos of heroism in war, the military as our defender and savior and our great leaders, who know how to protect us from the bad guys etc., hearing a song that decreed the leaders as cowards and criminals, sounded almost as blasphemy. Listening to the song felt almost like doing something illegal and associating with some sort of a criminal underground. But at the same time it already sowed the first seeds of doubt in my mind. Maybe our leaders are not so virtuous? Maybe there is another way?
I knew nothing about the song – not the name, not the poet, not the artist. It was a female artist and I was just fascinated by her deep, powerful alto, which made the message all that more ominous. When the Voice of Peace ceased operations in 1993, the song was gone for me. Not knowing anything about it, I had no way of finding it. But I never forgot it and always wondered about it and hoped someday to rediscover it. It took many years but I did, only a few years ago. To my surprise, it turned out to be a song by Bob Dylan: Masters of War.
Somehow that version by that mysterious lady was so good, it never occurred to me it wasn’t originally hers. Well, once I identified the song, it didn’t take long to find her cover. It was Odetta:
So here you are. I leave it to you to decide which version you like better.
On a side note: I just found out that several Voice of Peace veterans resurrected the station in a more modern setting – as an Internet streaming radio station by the same name. The Voice of Peace lives.
Last Friday, my wife and I went to Reno, NV to see Engelbert Humperdinck. Yep, the famous Engelbert. Yep, live. Yep, he still performs. The man is 79 and he tours and performs like he was 19. Wow. I suspect when I’m 79 (if I even make it), I’ll be glad if I remember whether I already went to the bathroom today.
As I’m sure all people a million years or more old will agree, Engelbert was one of the great heart breakers of… the last million years, especially for girls. I don’t think I need to explain much about those great years when he was young and handsome and all. Young people will not understand anyway. So I will focus on the show.
First of all, the audience. Anybody who would look at the audience would determine that this was a special event for a retirement house. I think from all the people there, my wife and I were the youngest. It was really funny and amazing. Bent people, white hair, canes, limping, wheel chairs, the works. Some had nannies, some, younger family members, who “brought them in”. Right next to us was a young Asian couple, probably in their 20s. They didn’t know Engelbert but his dad was a great fan, so they bought him a ticket to make the old man happy. And they came along to see what’s the story with that dinosaur. They were very puzzled that it was very hard to get tickets for the show. In their young generation, they no longer remember (or care) who was the big star 5 years ago.
About the show itself. It ran nearly two hours with no intermission! That in itself is a big accomplishment. Physically, his age shows and it’s not surprising. In terms of his singing, his voice is still strong and good but I think it is now harder for him to maintain a note for a long time. He sings his phrases in short bits, generally in a lower scale, etc. to avoid challenging his chords too much. He can still reach high notes (and he did) but it seems to be harder for him and he didn’t do it much. Probably for the same reason, his singing was softer and sometimes was hard to hear over the orchestra, especially as he has the habit of moving the mic away from his face when singing more loudly (professionals usually do).
But honestly, at the end of the day, that was all minor stuff. He started to sing and we all got lost in the sound, the music, the memories, the emotions. The audience (remember: average age was probably 70) suddenly came to life, just like they were back in their 20s and it was all magic. We yelled and whistled and waved hands and relived the dream. Humperdinck is very experienced and knows how to deliver a show. It was worth every cent and every minute, including the 4-hour drive in each direction. My wife even had a few tears.
A few interesting moments:
Humperdinck ran a video of comedian Eddie Izzard making fun of his name. Funny. Nice to see Engelbert took this whole name thing lightly:
Recently, Humperdinck finished a new album of duets. It’s called Engelbert Calling and includes hits with many big icons from the music world. In the show, he performed one of those songs – Something About the Way You Look Tonight – with Elton John. Engelbert sang his part live right there and then with Elton’s voice playing in a video on the screens. Was a nice trick. And I love the song and Elton John, so it was a treat all around.
During the show Humperdinck sang a song I didn’t know: How I love You. What a beautiful ballad. I loved the lyrics. Anybody old enough (as we all surely were) recognizes and appreciates the words and the emotions. Not sure how I never heard it before. So there you are, old Engelbert still teaches me things.
It turns out that Humperdinck has an old tradition in his shows that I didn’t know about: He uses red handkerchiefs to wipe his face during the show and at the end, he gives them out to people in the audience. Shortly before the end of the show, most of the people in the audience suddenly got up and rushed towards the stage, as if by some secret command. My wife and I were puzzled what was happening but decided to go with the flow and joined them. Since we were among the last to arrive at the stage, we found space only at the very side of the stage. I took that opportunity to shoot the last few minutes of the show. That includes the part when he started to give out those red handkerchiefs.
As you can see in the video, just by coincidence, he threw the last handkerchief more or less in my direction, as I was shooting. And you can see how at that very moment, the video becomes all crazy and blurry for a few seconds. You might imagine why. Yes, I caught it! What a cool bonus to a great experience. My wife just couldn’t be happier.
If you look carefully, you will see his signature embroidered into the handkerchief at the lower left corner (zoom in). Turns out this is a desirable collectible. Sellers are asking for hundreds of Dollars on eBay for these.
So there we are. A beautiful experience. Humperdinck is not young and we are very happy we had this opportunity to experience this legend.
This post was supposed to discuss music from El Salvador but things didn’t turn out this way. My “adventure” ended with no music but a good laugh. I thought I’d share it here.
Yesterday, I went to a restaurant in San Francisco that offers Salvadorian food. The Balompie Cafe is a simple, small, family-owned Salvadorian food restaurant. Made me feel almost like I was having lunch at somebody’s home in an El Salvador village.
Inside the restaurant, they were playing some music on the speakers and I thought maybe that was Salvadorian music. But upon inspection, I found out it was just general Latin music that you could select from a wall-mounted, modern, digital jukebox, like this:
And the music selection in it was pretty uninteresting. So much for the music part 🙁
But while we’re at it, I will share something else that made me smile. If you look closely at the restaurant name in the restaurant sign in the picture above, you can see what is the second most important thing for them (after food). Yes, soccer. And indeed this is very noticeable inside the restaurant. They have a wall-mounted TV that plays… you guessed it, soccer games. But the more interesting part is the walls. They have a beautiful collection of scarves from famous soccer clubs hanging on the walls. There are scarves from all over the world: Bayern Munchen, Boca Juniors, Tottenham. All the big names. Very nice collection. And mind you, it’s very hard to find much interest in soccer in the US. Indeed you have to go to the Latin communities and places to get high on a good dose of soccer. That was a very refreshing experience which reminded me of the good old days back in Israel.
Anyway, I was enjoying checking out all the scarves when something caught my eye. I took a picture of it:
There, right above the TV, in red. Do you recognize the scarf? Well, it’s probably hard for most of you as it is not in Latin alphabet. It’s in Hebrew. But even those who read Hebrew will notice a problem with it. A very funny one 🙂 I will leave it to you to call out what the issue is. I had a blast when I saw it and when I spoke about it to the restaurant staff everybody had a good laugh, including all the patrons.
Oh and the food? Well El Salvador sounds rather exotic but the food actually reminded me a lot of Israel, believe it or not. It had different names but tasted the same. Pupusas is pita bread, only made of corn, pollo guisado is what we call בשר מכובס ברוטב (laundered meat in sauce) in Israel and the empanadas look and taste like Kibbeh. So all in all, I felt a bit like back home right in San Francisco.