Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Here's what the future of music looks like

(This review appeared in the Broad Street Review on June 4, 2018. To see all my reviews, go to www.broadstreetreview.com and search <Linda Holt>)

I was not prepared for Studio Dan’s Inventive Mothers: A Tribute to Frank Zappa (June 2 and 3, 2018). Staged in a dark corner of the Kimmel Center’s basement, the show, part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, promised a walk down memory lane honoring that bad boy of the 1970s, Frank Zappa. ​

Imagine my astonishment when from a low, Wagnerian grumble, the ensemble of 13 youngish musicians from Vienna, Austria, not only recapped some of the West's greatest sounds from the last century but pioneered a new music binding jazz, rock, classical, improv, and pop.

It was original music-making fused with influences from Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ellington, John Adams, and Jimi Hendrix, interpreted by Dan Riegler’s ingenious arrangements of Zappa melodies, and several startling works by Studio Dan members. Commentators have lamented the uneasy couplings of these disparate influences, and suddenly here it is: the future of music, in the basement of a traditional concert hall.

Getting in the groove

Riegler assembled, coached, supported, and inspired a screamingly talented ensemble of musicians. The 14-member group, all virtuoso soloists, formed in Vienna 13 years ago. Together they reclaim the cheek and wit, of Zappa’s catalog, and some damn good tunes.

But Studio Dan (a pun on the title of Zappa’s album, Studio Tan) is also much more. The musicians have an infectious energy. Once they connected and got into the groove, there was no stopping them.

In defiance of expectations, Riegler presented the image of a classical conductor: self-assured, in a conservative grey suit, carefully following the scores on his music stand. Given the program’s rhythmic excitement, he had a few cool moves that wouldn’t be seen upstairs when the symphony’s in town.

Yet, many times in each selection, he stood back and let these sublimely talented artists display the full range of their improvisational and technical skills. Each musician was given at least one solo opportunity, with several duets and other groupings.

While all were remarkable, special note must be made of the duet featuring percussionists Hubert Bründlmayer (drums) and Raphael Meinhart (everything else), creating dust devils of sound. The decibel level and small venue, filled with a spellbound audience of mostly 50-somethings, intensified a delightful display of passion and virtuosity.

I was tremendously impressed by Clemens Salesny on sax and clarinets, but especially in his fluid, soulful bass-clarinet solos. And all was not blistering volume and speed: My eyes misted over as Michael Tiefenbacher (piano) and Bernd Satzinger (double bass) improvised a tender jazz duet.

Shining in the string section were Sophia Goidinger-Koch, violin; Magdalena Zenz, viola, memorable in a duet with soprano sax; and Maiken Beer, cello.

Fan favorites

Unfortunately, the program did not name the selections, although Riegler identified each work in his friendly chatter between numbers. Some selections included or alluded to Zappa tunes, such as “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance,” "Be-Bop Tango,” “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” “G-Spot Tornado” (distinguished by its musical logic and crazed, manic drive), and “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbeque,” which got a roar from fans when announced. The program closed with the ever-popular “Peaches en Regalia.”

Riegler composed the opening salvo, while bassoonist Christof Dienz composed two interludes of striking originality and lyricism. One of Dienz’s pieces contained a mesmerizing effect demonstrating just how in control these musicians are. It included single staccato chords with unusually long rests between them, articulated by five or six instruments on different parts of the stage, a daunting challenge.

“Improvised Concerto for Bicycle, Prerecorded Tape and Instrumental Ensemble” (1963), offered a tribute to Zappa’s debut on the Steve Allen Show. This included sounds from a bicycle’s spinning wheels and pedals, tapping on the downtube, scraping the whirling spokes with a stick, all while a taped voice droned “Mary had a little lamb.” The piece was worth a few minutes but was not as engaging as the rest of the program, so full of wit, ferocity, and splendor.

My only other criticism was the lack of a playlist. The one-page sheet about Studio Dan, distributed at the beginning of the concert, contained a long quote by Zappa, ending with the words, “Music is THE BEST.”

This is clearly the collective opinion of Studio Dan, and we are the happy beneficiaries of their philosophy.