Friday, April 29, 2011


Sts. Simon & Jude Church
April 28

An early music specialist with a modernist touch.

The viola da gamba is not the first instrument that comes to mind when you think of emotional expression. A mainstay of European classical music ensembles during the Renaissance and Baroque eras, the viol, as it is more commonly known, is a cello-sized bowed string instrument, minus the tail spike; instead of propped on the floor, it is held between the legs. Like many early music instruments, it has an archaic sound, refined but narrow, even compressed, compared to the bigger and broader dynamics of modern instruments. Many performers play it with a matching restraint.

So it was treat to see Petr Wagner give a seven-string viol a good workout last night, playing with the finesse of a virtuoso and the energy of a rock guitarist. Wagner has a distinctive style that starts with the way he holds the instrument – not squarely in front of his body, but tucked at an angle between his right thigh and left knee, which changes the bow approach slightly and gives him a sharper sound. His fingering is emphatic and his bow work is deliberate, producing a beautiful legato. He likes to decorate a piece with grace notes and crisp flourishes, and is not above pounding the strings with the bow occasionally.

This style suited his material very well – a Le Pères et les fils pairing of works by Marin and Roland Marais, and Antoine and Jean-Baptiste Forqueray. The livelier pieces of the senior composers gave him an opportunity to work with colors and intensity, while the more elegant compositions by the sons were studies in stately, sophisticated interpretation.

Sharp attacks on the strings set the tone for the opening Piéces de Viole by Marin Marais, a favorite at Versailles and a remarkably prolific composer – he wrote nearly 600 pieces for the viola da gamba alone. Wagner was especially good at drawing out the melancholy undercurrents of Marais’ work without sacrificing any vitality or flair. He was even better with an assortment of similar pieces by Antoine Forqueray, another favorite of Louis XIV and, according to Wagner, “a terror to all booze joints in Paris.” Wagner pulled an amazing range of sounds out of six of his Piéces de Viole, playing with the same wild exuberance that reportedly characterized Forqueray’s own performances.

To the more staid work of Forqueray Jr., Wagner added a soaring quality that lifted the pieces both musically and aesthetically. And in a complex suite by the younger Marais, he found a deep well of emotion; at one point, the instrument itself seemed on the verge of tears. This would be an impressive accomplishment for any musician. But seeing someone squeeze that out of a viola da gamba was nothing short of a revelation.

It should be noted that Wagner had a stellar supporting cast providing the basso continuo. Viola da gamba player Hana Fleková and Baroque guitar/theorbo player Jan Krejča are regulars with Prague’s finest Baroque ensembles, Collegium 1704 and Collegium Marianum. Shalev Ad-El, who sat modestly in the rear at the harpsichord, is a star in his right, an accomplished conductor and well-regarded early music specialist. And if that wasn’t enough, Wagner’s young daughter ran up on stage as the performers were taking their bows and jumped into her father’s arms.

It said something about the emotional tenor of the evening that the father-daughter moment seemed sweet rather than mawkish. Viola da gamba recitals don’t usually inspire that kind of display, even from young family members. But judging from the reaction of the audience, which brought Wagner back for two well-deserved encores, he touched a lot of hearts in an appreciate crowd.

And for a good primer on the viola da gamba:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


April 22

You never know. Sometimes visiting performers come to town with sterling credentials and a stellar reputation and turn out to be every bit as good as their critical accolades. Other times, you find yourself looking in the program to make sure that the person onstage is indeed the one who was scheduled to perform that night.

Wielding a heavy metal baton.
Case in point: Friday night’s Czech Philharmonic concert, which featured two classical stars from Germany, conductor Jun Märkl and violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff. Märkl is the principal conductor and artistic director of the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony, and has conducted orchestras around the world, including some of the finest in the United States, and at prestigious opera houses throughout Europe. Tetzlaff has recorded extensively and is known for his definitive interpretations of concertos by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Ligeti and Shostakovich, as well as Bach’s Partitas.

Yet Friday’s concert could hardly have been more disappointing. Märkl seemed to have no feel for the material – Debussy’s “Rondes de Printemps” from Images, Szymanowski’s Violin concerto No. 1 and Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The sound was entirely one-dimensional throughout all three pieces, with no definition or depth. The music had a nice surface gloss, but nothing beneath, like a polished but bloodless statue. And Tetzlaff sounded like he was choking his instrument rather than squeezing tender tones from it.

The problems were apparent early in the Debussy piece, a dazzling impressionist work. The music embodies all the freshness and vitality of spring, with a broad palette of colors, constantly changing rhythms and new geometries of composition. But it sounded heavy and tentative, almost ham-fisted at times, with the percussion section the only bright spot. To be generous, that could have been the orchestra, which is superb in the Central European repertoire but less adept with more dexterous composers.

Less impressive live.
The Szymanowski concerto got off to a rousing start, but Märkl quickly flattened the sound to put the focus on Tetzlaff. No problem with that, especially for a player of Tetzlaff’s technical skills. But his sound was off-putting, to say the least. In reviews of good recordings of the work, the violin sound is usually described as “sweet” or “delicate” – or in one case, “syrupy.” Tetzlaff’s sound Friday was, going directly to this critic’s notebook: “Whiny...a weird kind of moaning or keening...more like a high-pitched whistle than a tone...a wounded this piece supposed to sound like this?”

More than anything, it was baffling. Teztlaff recorded the Szymanowski concerto with Pierre Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic, and got generally positive reviews. But even the orchestra members had a hard time applauding Friday’s performance. And no offense to German violin maker Peter Greiner, but Tetzlaff really should get himself a good concert violin.

Märkl saved the worst for last, starting Pictures at a rapid clip and picking up speed as he went along. The pace alone left no time or space to develop nuances and layers. As if to compensate, he kept cranking the volume higher, until it was almost ear-splitting. Nothing against big noises, but that was the loudest this critic has ever heard the orchestra, bringing to mind the legendary amps from Spinal Tap that go up to 11. For heavy metal, it’s a great technique. On this particular occasion, it was ill-chosen and not enough to cover shabby musicianship.

As another critic noted after the concert, anyone can have an off-night. And perhaps any two can have an off-night. In Tetzlaff’s case, we’ll have a chance to find out, as he will be back in May for a Prague Spring concert with the San Francisco Symphony. He could be baffling again, or brilliant.

You never know.

And more on Christian Tetzlaff:

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Švandovo divadlo
April 19

Kluttig put a fine burnish on the series finale.

The curtain on the seven-year run of La bel aujourd’hui (The beauty of today) drew to a fitting close on Tuesday, with German conductor Roland Kluttig leading a large version of the Prague Modern ensemble in a bracing quartet of contemporary works. Among other things, the concert called to mind a once-famous American advertising slogan: “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

Started by then-French Institute Director Didier Montaigné and conductor Michel Swierczewski, the La bel aujourd’hui series was designed to showcase modern music, in particular by Czech composers. Working with the Prague Philharmonia orchestra, Swierczewski served as dramaturgist and musical director, developing a core group of players that was eventually christened Prague Modern. That ensemble anchored the monthly concerts, which featured a lively cast of visiting performers and conductors, as well as evenings with significant Czech composers like Marek Kopelent.

Though still short of Swierczewski’s ultimate goal – a Prague-based modern music ensemble on par with groups like Ensemble Incontemporain and Ensemble Modern – Prague Modern has made impressive strides. Its musicianship, in particular the styles and skills required for contemporary works, has improved steadily. Last year, Prague Modern presented the Czech premiere of Michael Jarrell’s Cassandre, with French actress Fanny Ardant in the title role. And the FAMA Quartet, a string subset of the ensemble, returned just last week from a successful three-concert tour of Romania.

Tuesday’s program opened with a rare treat: Hanns Eisler’s Chamber Symphony for the Film Project White Flood, performed in accompaniment with the film. Eisler composed the piece in 1940 as part of a Rockefeller Foundation-funded study of the relationship between film and music, which gave him an opportunity to demonstrate new ideas in film scoring. The film itself is unremarkable – stock footage of glaciers and their geological effects, with plenty of dramatic calving and ice floes. And as Kluttig took pains to point out, the music is not narrative; it stands fine on its own, without the film.

Seen with the film, however, the score clearly invokes the majestic ice formations and snow-capped mountain peaks, and the thrill of venturing into a dangerous natural setting. Eisler was a student of Schoenberg, and in some ways the music can be taken as a study of how to adapt his twelve-tone technique for a mass medium. The result is remarkably accessible – abstract, yet with enough of the structure and drama of standard film scoring (at that time, anyway) to maintain a firm grounding. And Kluttig handled the piece expertly, even weaving in some fine electronic touches that were part of the original score.

Kluttig also showed a deft touch with Marián Lejava’s Flat Lands and Plains, a slow, predominantly textural work. After a delicate, whisper-soft opening, he built the music to take full advantage of some interesting sound sculptures which unfortunately did not last long, as the piece reverted to long, self-indulgent textural passages.

Local composer and keyboard player Michal Nejtek was at the piano for the premiere of his Sunday Akathisia/Let’s Sing an Akathist, a new work commissioned by Prague Modern. Despite the name, the piece sounded more like modern jazz than a religious hymn, with Nejtek creating a catchy rhythm riff as a counterpoint for a series of jazz-inflected runs, played by a five-piece ensemble that included vibes.

I love this music!” Kluttig confessed about the finale, Richard Ayres’ NONcerto for alto trombone and sextet. The conductor has recorded Ayres’ work, and has a wonderful feel for its mischievous humor, non sequiturs and sudden outbursts of noise and song. Visiting trombonist Florian Juncker showed finesse with both the music and theatrics, fishing about noisily in a cardboard box for various mutes. But the real star of the piece was Kluttig, who handled the NONcertos dizzying turns and variations with aplomb.

The concert closed not just this season but Prague Modern’s seven-year residency at Švandovo, where the rent has become too pricey for shrinking arts budgets. But the ensemble will be back in the fall. With what, exactly, still has not been decided, nor where, though there is talk of setting up shop at the Prague Conservatory’s new performance hall. Wherever and however the new season happens, this is a group worth watching. It’s innovative, imaginative, dedicated and willing to take risks – qualities we could use more of in Prague.

Prague Modern maintains a Facebook page at:

Saturday, April 16, 2011


April 15

A powerful performance from a popular conductor.

Prague has a longstanding love affair with Japanese conductor Ken-ichiro Kobayashi, who seems to inspire affection wherever he goes. The Hungarians have claimed him as a favorite adopted son ever since he broke onto the international scene in 1974 by winning a conductor’s competition in Budapest. And Kobayashi earned a permanent place in the annals of Czech music in 2002, when he became the first Asian to conduct the opening concert of Prague Spring, a stirring performance of Smetana’s Má Vlast that drew an extended, enthusiastic ovation.

The disaster in Japan adds another emotional layer to any appearance by a Japanese performer these days, a point reinforced Friday night by a pre-concert announcement that the Czech Philharmonic benefit performance at the Castle two weeks earlier raised nearly 2 million crowns (about $120,000 USD) for relief efforts. So by the time Kobayashi took the podium, a packed house at the Rudolfinum was primed for something special.

The conductor did not disappoint. The first of two Beethoven symphonies, No. 1, was a masterpiece of color, dynamics and emotional restraint. It’s almost startling at first to hear an Eastern conductor rendering Western music in such authentic phasing and tones, without any foreign inflection or accent. If there is a hint of Kobayashi’s roots, it’s in the richly emotional passages – particularly the second movement of this symphony – that tend to sound gushing, even florid, in lesser hands. With Kobayashi they are deeply felt, but never overdone, a study in powerful passions roiling beneath a controlled, finely detailed surface – in short, not unlike the Japanese character.

And the sound was remarkable, perfectly balanced and almost completely transparent. This is a particularly difficult refinement; typically, only orchestras and conductors that have worked together for a long time manage to achieve it. Kobayashi’s genius is in crafting both balance and depth, giving the sound a three-dimensional quality. Indeed, parts of the third movement were like waves pounding back and forth across the stage, awesome in power and majestic in their beauty.

The heavy percussion demands of No. 7 muffled some of the luster and transparency, though none of the compact energy that Kobayashi infuses into the music. He kept the thundering rhythms of the first movement expertly controlled, and maintained a brisk pace through the famous second movement that kept it from slipping over the line into maudlin. The third and fourth movements were ramped up in both tempo and volume, but never so much that Kobayashi couldn’t segue into light, delicate sounds from the woodwinds, which sounded golden the entire evening.

The conductor is a show in himself, politely bowing to the orchestra before the start of each piece and only then ascending the podium, as if reluctant to place himself above the players. He never uses a score, focusing instead on the musicians and exploding into a ball of energy that never stops moving; even a shake of his shaggy head is a conducting gesture.

Chemistry played a big part in Fridays performance. Kobayashi is a permanent guest conductor with the Czech Philharmonic, and the players genuinely like him. They have mischievously nicknamed him “Indian granny,” for his resemblance to an aging Navajo. More importantly, they put out for him, responding to his direction and desires with the extra effort that transforms a merely good performance into a great one.

The conductor has a practice of going through the entire orchestra after a performance, which he did twice on Friday, making many of the players stand for individual applause after each symphony. The gesture endeared him not only to the musicians but the audience, which burst into a standing ovation when Kobayashi returned to the front of the stage at the end of the concert and, in perfect timing with the players, executed a crisp, Japanese-style bow.

It was a heartfelt moment on all sides, and well-deserved. Kobayashi had done more than simply conduct Beethoven. He and the orchestra had sounded ringing notes of hope and renewal during a time of tragedy and despair.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


April 12

A Western superstar without much appeal in Prague.

The most important thing to know about Joshua Bell is that he plays the 1713 Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius violin, using an 18th-century bow made by Francois Tourte. That quickly settles the question of whether he’s worth going to hear.

The sound is straight from heaven.

And the violin is in good hands. Bell is a gifted player who utilizes its full potential, drawing out golden, heartbreakingly beautiful chords, or setting a piece on fire with crisp, intricate fingerwork. It’s a superb match of a first-rate talent with a world-class instrument.

So it was surprising to see such a small crowd turn out for Bell’s appearance with British pianist Sam Haywood on Tuesday. Or in retrospect, maybe not. For one thing, the audience was noticeably different from the usual classical music crowd at the Rudolfinum – younger, comparatively lowbrow and so adulatory that it reminded this reviewer of fans who follow rock stars from city to city in the States, hanging on every note of every performance.

The character of the concert was also atypical, at least by Prague standards. Most recitalists don’t stroll out on stage in casual wear – Haywood in a sport coat and Bell in a loose black shirt, sporting an early Beatles bob. Nor do they indulge in the grandiloquent gestures that Bell and Haywood favor, with increasingly exaggerated body language capped by arms raised in the air or similar dramatic flourishes to finish a piece. In cheaper clothes, Bell and Haywood could have been a hip jazz duo.

Which is pretty much how they played. Bell in particular puts a distinctive stamp on everything he touches, with changing tempos, unusual phrasing and sharp emphases, and a highly contemporary style of interpretation. In his hands, the music lingers here, dashes there, gathers momentum and races to an emotional climax. It’s the kind of modern approach that makes audiences burst into excited applause – and would have professors at the Prague Conservatory wagging their fingers and urging more attention to what’s on the page.

The three pieces Bell and Haywood are playing on their current tour – sonatas by Brahms and Grieg and Schubert’s Fantasy for violin and piano in C major – give both performers a chance to show off their impressive technical skills. But they are not regular performing partners, and much of the concert sounded like two people playing along with each other rather than playing together. When they hit that collaborative groove, to borrow the jazz vernacular, they could be very good. But for most of the night it sounded like Bell was the superstar and Haywood his accompanist, despite the camaraderie the men displayed.

The best part of the concert was a generous set of three encores that took the level of playing up a notch, in particular a Wieniawski polonaise and a Chopin nocturne. Those are violin showpieces, but for the first time, the duo sounded integrated. And given a chance to run with a complex short work, Bell can be breathtaking.

In some ways, the concert offered a telling contrast between the Old and New Worlds. The flash-and-dazzle style that impresses American audiences is too nouveau for European tastes – hence the small crowd. But it’s part of a larger trend in the West toward integrating different genres and styles of music, reflected very well by Bell himself. Some of his most popular music was done as film soundtracks, and on his latest release, At Home With Friends, he works mostly with crossover stars like trumpeter Chris Botti and double-bassist Edgar Meyer, and pop singers like Frankie Moreno and Sting.

In short, this is not music for purists. But like many things from the New World, it has energy and vitality and flair, and a bold sense of experimentation. And no matter what your tastes, you should never pass up a chance to hear that divine violin.

For more on Joshua Bell and his legendary Stradivarius:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


April 11

A proud father hosts his highly talented daughter.

There may be no one in Prague who knows more about violins than Jaroslav Svěcený, a proselytizer for his instrument and a player of considerable skill. His aptitude must be genetic, as he’s passed it on to his daughter Julie, a budding talent who joined him for a private performance last night at a small club near Wenceslas Square.

Svěcený has impeccable credentials. Widely regarded as a virtuoso violinist, he has performed all over the world, recorded some 40 CDs, authored a book about notable European violins and starred in innumerable television specials. He gives musical lectures on violins made by famous craftsmen, demonstrating their different styles and sounds. He is a state-certified expert who advises clients buying valuable violins as investments. And it’s a rare time of year when he isn’t organizing and starring in a music festival (his Easter festival in Smiřice begins April 16).

Yet in Prague, Svěcený probably has as many detractors as admirers. His relentless self-promotion doesn’t sit well in a former communist country where ambition is still a foreign concept. Then there’s his tendency to popularize classical music with projects like Vivaldianno, an updating of The Four Seasons done in collaboration with Czech rock star Michal Dvořák. Svěcený maintains that such gimmicks are necessary to attract younger audiences to the concert halls; classical purists are horrified. The resentment runs so deep that there’s even a parody of Svěcený’s impassioned playing style posted on You Tube.

It was fascinating to see that style close-up at Violino, a small club that hosted big jazz names when it was AghaRTA (which relocated to Old Town). Now a private space used mostly for invitation-only affairs, it was filled last night with fans who appreciate an approach that doesn’t change, whether Svěcený is in a large concert hall or a cramped basement space: intense, emotional, propelled by a lot of body language and swooning stretches of eyes-closed, energetic bow work.

Accompanied by pianist Václav Mácha, Svěcený opened with a Beethoven sonata that started slow, then jelled into an uptempo interplay, with Mácha laying a solid foundation for some fine, even delicate work on the strings. Svěcený then brought his daughter onstage and mentioned that she had just turned 17 before retreating to the back row to watch, like any anxious parent, as she and Mácha played Sarasate’s Romanza Andaluza and a Brahms scherzo.

Julie plays with the same passion as her father, though in a less dramatic style, and with a young woman’s charm. She has a clear, strong voice that sounds remarkably mature, and the poise of a performer twice her age. After a rich, confident reading of the Sarasate, she zipped through a proficient rundown of the Brahms.

Svěcený opened the second half accompanied by his daughter on Charles-Auguste de Bériot’s 3 Duos Concertante, then took a few minutes to introduce the instruments – a standard part of his act. He was playing two violins from his collection, one made by Stefano Scarampella (Italy, early 20th century) and the other by Giuseppe Fiorini (Italy, Germany and Switzerland, late 19th and early 20th centuries). Julie’s violin was made by one of Fiorini’s apprentices. Each had its own character and tone, qualities difficult to appreciate in a concert hall, but on vivid display in a small setting.
Mácha returned to join the two violinists for three lively and colorful Piazzolla pieces that sounded more like 19th-century Europe than 20th-century Argentina. But no complaints – Piazzolla doesn’t get played nearly often enough in Prague, and is always good to hear, with portamento or without. And it was a treat to hear the trio close with Shostakovich, a difficult composer for many listeners. “Shostakovich isn’t so bad,” Svěcený assured the audience before launching into a brisk five-piece set that concluded with a rousing polka.

Engaging music, a bit of erudition and promising young talent – what’s not to like? The detractors may turn up their noses, but this reviewer will take a night like that anytime.

For more on Jaroslav Svěcený:

For details on the Smiřice Easter festival:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


April 3

This time around, applause for the players.

Russian pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy brings a lot of baggage when he comes to Prague. And we’re not talking about suitcases. Ashkenazy was the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic from 1998 to 2003, and when he left that position, he didn’t go quietly. In an interview with Alan Levy of The Prague Post, he said it was a great experience but complained about the players’ bad attitudes, fostered by the chronic complaint that they don’t get paid enough.

I was told by many members of the orchestra that they lack motivation,” he said. “I feel a lot of resentment coming from them...I’m worried for the future of the orchestra, because to compete with the greatest orchestras in the world, you have to give your best every time...I’d hope they think about what I’m saying to you and take themselves in hand – their own hands.”

So it was probably good that the Czech Philharmonic and most of the city’s music establishment were at Prague Castle Sunday night for a high-profile benefit concert to aid relief efforts in Japan. That left Ashkenazy free to bask in the adulation of a nearly full house at his old haunt, the Rudolfinum, where he bounced onstage, leaped to the podium and plunged immediately into Pavel Haas’ Study for Strings.

The orchestra pairing was ideal. Ashkenazy enjoys working with young musicians and has a knack for bringing out their best, a talent he’s demonstrated in his work as music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra. The Philharmonia is the youngest orchestra in Prague, loaded with talented players who take instruction well. They responded positively, working hard to give Ashkenazy what he wanted, earning a beaming two thumbs-up from the conductor at the end of the concert.

Unfortunately, the synergy wasn’t apparent in the Haas piece, which was out of balance and too bright in both sound and spirit. The timbre was quite high, almost lacking a bottom, and the music was energetic and cheerful. As many commentators have noted, for a work written by a doomed man in a concentration camp, Study for Strings is remarkably buoyant, a brilliant statement of human resolve. But there wasn’t a single dark tone in this performance; the piece sounded more like music from the 19th than the 20th century.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 (K. 488) was better, with Ashkenazy showing a fine sensitivity for the textures and nuances of the work, and striking a better balance in the sound. The piece was a replacement for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (Op. 58), which Ashkenazy’s son Vovka was scheduled to perform. But he fell ill, so Czech pianist Ivo Kahánek was recruited as a last-minute substitute. It’s too bad – the father-son combination was the principal attraction of the evening, and it would have been fascinating to watch them work together.

Kahánek is a fine pianist, but Mozart is not his usual material. He came out on stage accompanied by a page-turner and played the concerto very conservatively, without any risks or notable interpretation. The term “covering” a song came to mind. But just to show what he can really do, Kahánek came back with a rousing encore of the “Dupak” section from Martinů’s Three Czech Dances.

Putting a spin on Pavel Haas.
This reviewer made his own adjustment for the second half, changing to a seat near the bass and cello sections that compensated for the sound imbalance. That added considerable depth to Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, which Ashkenazy rendered in warm tones, ripe with emotion that built to a glowing finish. There were no more than hints at the dark undercurrents in the piece, but that seemed fine with the audience, which responded with enthusiastic applause.

Ravel’s La Tombeau de Couperin was the most satisfying piece of the evening, fresh and high-spirited, even radiant in spots. If some details were missing – the oboe solos in particular call for virtuoso playing – the energy of the performance and close attention to the composer’s intricate orchestration made up for it nicely.

The Ravel suite also showcased Ashkenazy’s chief strength – his versatility across a variety of periods and styles. While none of his versions of the four pieces were definitive, there aren’t many conductors who can handle that range of material with competency and flair. It all sounds Romantic in Ashkenazy’s hands. But this time around, nobody was complaining.

For more on Vladimir Ashkenazy:

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Lucerna Music Bar
April 5 at 8

Everyone's part of the family when Allison plays.

The last time Bernard Allison performed in Prague, he disappeared in the middle of his set. But he never stopped playing. He left the stage and wandered through the pumped-up crowd at Lucerna Music Bar, upstairs and down, mingling with his fans while never missing a note as his band continued pounding out the blues onstage.

It relaxes people a bit and lets them know they’re not watching a movie,” Allison says via e-mail. “Let’s treat each other as if we’re all family, and have a good time together.”

The sentiment and showmanship come naturally to Allison, as does his proficiency on blues guitar. He is the son of Luther Allison, a fiery American blues guitarist who started on the club circuit in the 1950s and was still blowing away concert audiences in 1997, when he fell victim to lung cancer. Reviewing Reckless, the last album the senior Allison recorded, Guitar World characterized it as “Reckless in the best sense of the word, dancing on a razor’s edge, remaining just this side of out-of-control. Hard-driving, piercing West Side Chicago single-note leads with a soul base and a rock edge.”

Bernard, 45, brings a lot of the same energy to his music, though with less of the Chicago style and more of a mix of the sounds he absorbed playing with his father and touring the world with Koko Taylor. He also picked up some interesting influences in Paris, where he lived for 12 years after his father relocated there in 1977.

I learned a lot of African styles of music, and their instruments, while I was in Paris,” Allison says. “I’ve added African rhythms to some of my music – very funky!”

Like his father, Bernard is a versatile player, comfortable across a variety of styles – standard 12-bar blues, slow blues, shuffle and blues-rock. There are clear strains of gospel and R&B in his sound, and when you ask him who has influenced him most, the spectrum gets even wider.

My main influences are Albert King, George Clinton, the Isley Brothers and Sly Stone,” he says. “I grew up with all styles of music at home, so believe me, that list goes on and on.”

And his favorite blues guitar player?

My favorite guitar player of all time is Albert King,” he says. “That’s pretty much where all your guitar greats got a huge influence.”

Now based in Minneapolis, Allison has maintained an international profile, touring and recording in both the U.S. and Europe. His last two releases – Energized, a DVD concert recording, and Chills & Thrills, 13 cuts of high-powered blues – were recorded in Germany. If that seems unusual for a practitioner of a uniquely American art form, it’s partly because Allison has discovered something in Europe that’s increasingly difficult to find in the States.

I just think the Europeans are more accepting of all styles of music, whereas the USA is more commercial, and focused on the younger generation,” he says. “On television and radio, as well as the actual concerts, they’re promoting Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, etc. – that’s all the kids see. It’s very, very rare to see any blues-related music on television.”

It’s equally rare to hear great blues in Prague, so Allison’s visit is a welcome event. He’ll be bringing the latest version of his touring band: Jose James on sax, percussion and vocals, Erick Ballard on drums, Michael Goldsmith on guitar, Toby Marshall on keyboards and vocals and George Moye on bass. As for what they’ll be playing, even Allison isn’t sure yet.

It’s never a written set, I just go with the flow,” he says. “We’ll do tunes from our last two releases, as well as some new things. I often ʻfeel the people’ and decide what comes next.”

And can fans look forward to another close encounter?

We’ll have to see if the walk will take place once the show is going,” he says, adding an almost-audible “lol.”

Friday, April 1, 2011


Retro Music Hall
March 31

Young at heart: Preston, Brock, Estrada, Mangano and Garcia.

Was a group ever more appropriately named than the Grande Mothers? They take forever to get started, talk too much, feature long solos that allow everybody else in the band to lay back, and take so long to recover between songs that after some teasing from the audience last night, Napoleon Murphy Brock looked up from his water bottle and said, “Hey, this can be exhausting!”

Still, it’s hard to argue with the music they’re putting out, spirited and heartfelt covers of the early Zappa oeuvre. They know it as well as anyone. Keyboard wizard Don Preston and bass player Roy Estrada were members of the original Mothers of Invention in the ’60s. Singer, sax player and flutist Brock joined Zappa in ’73, and became a prominent front man in touring versions of the band over the next decade. Rounding out the current lineup are drummer and Zappa devotee Chris Garcia, and guitarist Robbie Mangano.

Their core repertoire doesn’t change much, drawing heavily from We’re Only in it For the Money, Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Roxy & Elsewhere, with forays into favorites like “Florentine Pogen” and “Peaches en Regalia.” Last night they even dove into “Debra Kadabra,” with Garcia providing the gravel-voiced lead.

Musically, the band can be uneven, pumping fresh life into note-perfect versions of some songs, then turning sour on others. They murdered “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” last night, and some of the doo-wop vocals fell a bit shy. But the purely instrumental covers were for the most part outstanding, and when they get warmed up, the Grande Mothers can cook. There are moments when you find yourself waiting for Frank to come in with one of his searing guitar lines...just like the old days.

And of all the Zappa bands on the circuit these days, this one best embodies the spirit of the music, the wild sense of anarchy and absurdity that characterized the early albums in particular. A familiar tune can suddenly segue into Preston, Estrada and Brock doing a vocal trio from outer space. Mangano played most of last night’s show with a chicken perched on his guitar neck, and for the “Chester’s gorillas” portion of “Florentine Pogen,” Brock did a very effective impersonation of a pulsating vagina. There was even a bit of audience participation, with the band bringing the hulking Zappo, Prague’s leading Zappaphile, on stage while they sang “Happy Birthday” to him.

The solos and instrumental covers provided the most substantive music of the evening, but predictably, familiar favorites like “Trouble Every Day,” “Peaches” and “Sofa” drew the most enthusiastic reactions from the predominantly older audience. For this reviewer, there’s always a surprise in the mix – a song that it’s hard to imagine reaching this part of the world during the Cold War, much less becoming a fan favorite. Last night it was a rousing rendition of “I Am the Slime,” which lit up the crowd big-time. At first blush, the appeal of a vicious swipe at America’s corporate consumer culture seems puzzling. But when you’re living under communism, there’s a familiar bite to lines like, “You will obey me while I lead you/And eat the garbage that I feed you/Until the day that we dont need you...”

Give credit to this band for being generous, too. By the end of the show, Brock had acknowledged and/or thanked everybody from God down to the local sound and light crew. It’s unlikely the Czechs knew what he was talking about when he said things like, “Let’s get down to it. Are you up for that?” But the lighting technician no doubt appreciated this compliment: “I can’t pronounce your name, but you’re the shit, dude.”

And the ultimate tribute was paid properly, with the loudest and most sustained applause of the evening coming in response to Brock yelling, “Let’s hear it for Frank Zappa!” As the band was leaving the stage, he offered a great parting shot: “Play this music for your children, so they know there’s an alternative.”

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