Rite, It is still Spring: NC Symphony’s Impressive Program

The NC Symphony will perform a lovely program including Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring tonight and Saturday night in Raleigh. I heard it last night in UNC’s Memorial Hall, where I’ve heard MANY versions of The Rite over the last several months. This one is among the finest. Read my review in The News & Observer here.

Grant Llewellyn in action. Music director of the NC Symphony, he conducts this weekend's fine program.

Grant Llewellyn in action. Music director of the NC Symphony, he conducts this weekend’s fine program, which includes a ravishing interpretation of Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, as well as a dynamite playing of The Rite of Spring. Photo: NC Symphony.

SOS, says DSA: Our Pianos Need More than TLC

Concert Friday, 5/17, to support Durham School of the Arts’ Steinway piano renovation project.

The Durham School of the Arts is a fine example of the Durham spirit. Now filling the old Durham High School campus bounded by Morgan, Duke, Trinity and Gregson Streets, the magnet middle and high school is among Durham’s most sought-after–and highest achieving schools. When it was founded with a single class in the 1990s, the school’s buildings were, uh, not at their best–in fact, the school system wanted to sell the property, which had fallen vacant due to white flight and the consolidation of the city and county schools. But a few visionaries carried the day, making possible today’s vibrant arts-centered school in the heart of town–where a school ought to be. Gradually, all the buildings and outdoor facilities have been renovated, and the DSA holds a prideful place in the community. But not everything is fixed yet.

Save Our Steinways: This 1943 concert grand belonging to the Durham School of the Arts needs renovation. Photo: Trudi Abel.

Save Our Steinways: This 1943 concert grand belonging to the Durham School of the Arts needs a full restoration. Photo: Trudi Abel.

This 9-foot concert grand Steinway piano built in 1943 is the largest of the three venerable pianos at DSA. Neither it nor the two 5-foot, 8-inch pianos from 1924 and 1917 (the last a recent gift from Duke University) can be played. The school has one functioning acoustic piano, but mostly the students learn on electronic keyboards. Not the same.

In typical DSA fashion, a coalition of teachers, parents and students has tackled the problem. The Save Our Steinways group of the DSA Foundation has already raised $21,000 of the projected $32,000 cost to renovate the 1943 instrument (that amount includes a $5000 fund for ongoing care). A new Steinway of this size would cost at least $125,000. So–only $11,000 to go for Piano No. 1. In order to encourage donations, the SOS fundraisers, along with the Duke University Department of Music, have organized a concert this Friday night. It won’t be in DSA’s Weaver Auditorium–there’s no suitable piano–but in Duke’s Nelson Music Room. Presented free of charge, donations of any amount happily accepted, the program will include talented pianists ranging from DSA students to the chair of the piano program in the UNC’s music department, playing a mixed program that sounds delightful in its variety.

Thomas Otten from UNC will play

Thomas Otten from UNC will play etudes by Leslie Adams in Friday’s concert in Nelson Music Room.

SOS Piano Recital

Friday, May 17, 7:30 p.m.

Nelson Music Room

East Duke Building, Duke East Campus, 1304 Campus Drive.

Remember, Main Street is closed for bridge work between Broad and Buchanan. Go to the intersection of Main and Buchanan, where a police officer will permit recital attendees to access the East Campus gate in order to reach East Duke Building.

To donate online, go to durhamschoolofthearts.org. Write “piano restoration” in the “special instructions” field. Donations also can be made by check to Durham School of the Arts Foundation (Attn: Piano Restoration), Durham School of the Arts, 400 N. Duke St., Durham, NC 27701.

Jazz pianist Ariel Pocock will play Joni Mitchell.

Jazz pianist Ariel Pocock will play Joni Mitchell.

Beautiful Dreamers: The Stray Birds give a high-flying concert at the ArtsCenter

A young band came to the Carrboro ArtsCenter on May 4, and the 80 or so avid listeners in the audience got a big delicious taste of the famousness sure to come. The Stray Birds are a remarkable trio playing Americana music on guitars, fiddles, banjos, stand-up bass and mandolin. They write much of their own material, but also arrange classic songs by others–from really old tunes like “The Waggoner’s Lad,” to Susanna Clark’s “San Antone Rose.” That last should give you an idea of their boldness. Not that many singers want to take on a song Emmy Lou has put her indelible imprint on. Even fewer would be worthy.

The Stray Birds. L-R: Charles Muench, Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven.

The Stray Birds. L-R: Charles Muench, Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven. Photo: Scott Bookman.

The Stray Birds have quite a bit of classical music training among them, but their real influences are Appalachian mountain music, bluegrass, country, gospel and Texas swing. Maya de Vitry, who writes many of the group’s songs, cites Townes van Zandt, Iris DeMent, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Lyle Lovett, and J.S. Bach (the unaccompanied cello suites), along with poets Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds, at the top of her list. Hearing The Stray Birds two days after hearing Iris DeMent in the same venue was pretty great: The younger band’s cheerful energy, even on the sadder songs, threw a bright light on DeMent’s chronic melancholy. Iris gave a strong concert (accompanied by excellent bass man Kyle Kegerreis and hot guitar/mandolin player Jon Graboff), but The Stray Birds were far more enjoyable.

“Performing,” de Vitry told me, “is usually the happiest, most joyful part of the day.” That sentiment communicates itself. It is also easy to understand–these three have put nearly 50,000 miles on a Subaru Outback since April a year ago, when they began touring. Imagine it: three grown people, slim but tall; the bass, fatter than any of them; assorted other instruments, notebooks, laptops, and a change or two of clothes, all crammed in together, riding up and down the highways and backroads. Rarely spending two nights in the same place. Playing bars and clubs and small venues like the ArtsCenter. Writing and arranging between shows. Just getting out of the car must be a mood elevator.

The group also produces its own recordings. “There used to be a hierarchy of power,” de Vitry told me, regarding the music business, and of course, a division of labor. But The Stray Birds, following the current DIY model, do it all, with the help of Durham-based Americana Agency. Even if the music were not wonderful, their story would be inspiring. Both their EP, Borderlands, and their full-length CD, The Stray Birds, are very good, and the band played many songs from both in their show, as well as some old songs and some new material they will record later this month.

They opened their ArtsCenter show with a graceful song reminiscent of the late great George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” For The Stray Birds, love stops not at death, but when dreaming stops. They followed this up with a nice backhand: “White Words/Black Hills,” about “the calculated insult” of Mount Rushmore, then changed up to “Lay Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor,” Texas swing style, with a great guitar break by Oliver Craven and some fabulous bass slapping by Charles Muench.

The two men were in a band called River Wheel before they formed The Stray Birds with de Vitry, and it came out that they’d played at The Cave. Apparently not a happy experience. Craven noted that nobody was listening at The Cave, and couldn’t seem to get over the focused attention they were receiving at the ArtsCenter. The band made it easy to listen. They mike their instruments well, and sing together at a single microphone, stepping up and back as needed for their skin-tingling close harmonies.

The second set, like the first, was a mix of fine original songs and classics like “I Was a Stranger” (Muench noted he’d learned it from a Doc Watson record). They finished up with a really nice arrangement of the traditional “Waggoner’s Lad,” calling it “My Horses Ain’t Hungry.” It’s on the EP. Coming back, a little surprised, for an encore, they did a roof-raising version of Craven’s song, “My Brother’s Hill.” One of Craven’s big influences is Ralph Stanley, and he wrote the song thinking about what Stanley had told him about his tie to his land, and the place where his brother is buried. It is a beautiful song, with the refrain, “my body ruined, my soul will rise.” We do not have to wait for the inevitable ruin to have our spirits rise. Just put on the CD. And next time these folks come around, get your tickets early.

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