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With Love

Anne-Sophie Mutter, violinist; André Previn, conductor
Previn: Violin Concerto, Bernstein: Serenade (DG)

A new, affecting, 40-minute violin concerto by a major American composer should be cause for parades and a miniseries, but classical music doesn’t work that way these days. We’ll have to content ourselves with enjoying the recent recording, made with the forces involved at the premiere.

André Previn is easily perceived as something of a musical gadfly, which is unfair. It’s a tribute to his multiple-threat talent, which includes writing music, writing about music, conducting and impressive work as a jazz pianist.

It’s no secret that his alliance with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter is also a romantic one—they married not long after the work premiered—but composers thrive on muses, and this concerto, commissioned in 2001 by the Boston Symphony, fully exploits her marvelous tone and technique as well as the virtuoso sound of the orchestra itself.

Cast in three movements, it culminates in an emotional Andante subtitled “from a train Germany” saluting the country in which both Previn and Mutter were born, and using a German children’s song as the basis for a set of variations. But the movement is much more than that. I’m hearing both the emotional journey of this romance and a yearning (in Previn’s case, at least) for home—for an idealized America (listen for the strains of “let freedom ring”).

The debt to Samuel Barber’s concerto is obvious, but there’s also a debt to the same well Barber visited—which, ironically, includes a tradition of German composers as well as the rambunctiousness of Charles Ives.

And jazz, of course, which is also a Bernstein characteristic. Pairing the Previn concerto with Bernstein’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” is a brilliant move. Each of the work’s five movements is supposedly connected to a character in Plato’s dinner-party dialogue, although when the remarks by physician Erixymachus, extolling bodily harmony as a pathway to love, play out as a jazzy, percussive fugato, it suggests that the meal was heavily spiced.

Even though the conceit of the serenade now looks merely conceited, the piece itself is brilliantly structured and leavened throughout by a mature sense of the composer’s wit. Initially championed by Isaac Stern, in Mutter’s hands it gets a more sensitive and focused interpretation. And the fact that it was written shortly after Bernstein’s own marriage as a celebration of love makes it all the more appropriate for the present interpreters.

The Previn concerto was recorded during a Boston Symphony concert; the Bernstein Serenade is a studio recording featuring the London Symphony. If I’m inclined to credit the BSO with a somewhat looser, more idiomatic style, it may be simple chauvinism attempting to distinguish between two top-flight orchestras.

—B.A. Nilsson

The Everyothers
The Everyothers (Hautlab)

It would be awfully easy to sit back and drape lazy, obvious Bowie references all over the self-titled debut by New York’s Everyothers. Not to say that those comparisons would be unfounded—singer-guitarist Owen McCarthy has all the charisma and at least 75 percent of the vocal chops he’d need to snag the lead if there’s ever a remake of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (don’t get any big ideas, Hollywood—this is clearly not a good idea and I’ll deny any responsibility if it occurs). But there’s a lot more at play here. McCarthy and his mates have distilled the pout and strut of early-’70s glam pop, the bombast of ’90s British arena rock, and the boundless enthusiasm of those new-school garage-rock bands that are oh-so-popular today into a potent, intoxicating brew that’s screaming for heavy rotation.

Subtract the last-minute foray into U2 territory on the acoustic “Dead Star,” and The Everyothers is one big hip-shaking, runway-walking showpiece. The lead track “Can’t Get Around It” has the same bold-faced directness as Blur’s “Song 2,” while “Break That Bottle” is the AOR radio hit that Big Star (post-Chris Bell) never seemed to manage in their day. It would be a lot easier to make this kind of prediction in a less-cutthroat music-industry climate, but I’d still be willing to go out on the proverbial limb and say these guys are gonna be big. Maybe not U2 big, but maybe Strokes big—they probably won’t sell millions, but they’ve got the style and the sound to be pacesetters in the modern-rock footrace.

—John Brodeur

Brian Bassett
Rock and Roll (Small Time Music)

Rock and Roll isn’t simply the title of Brian Bassett’s album; it’s also his modus operandi. The local artist has concocted an unabashed, unironic, straight-up collection of big, throbbing love rock. This is rock with a capital R, but also hooky as hell (and thankfully devoid of irony) with wonderful production (courtesy of the Wait’s Ryan Barnum) that brings the guitars out front, thick as clotted cream.

So many things about this album are dead right—the way, for example, “NYC” breaks wide open into a hook-perfect, prickly-skin-inducing chorus atop a fat rock bed. (Leave no production stone unturned: Even the tambourine touches are dead right here.) On “Grow Up,” Bassett tackles the age-old theme of, erm, aging like he’s just discovered it. The gloriously inflated dynamics of the chorus—all welling guitars, earnest vocals, backup harmony “aaaahs”—are powerful and touching. (And the rich guitars tumble, grind and wheel like early Radiohead or the concert version of Oasis.)

There’s nothing cheeky or arch about Bassett’s album—this is just an earnest, straight-ahead rock record with lots of melodic resonance. The rock power, pop hooks, great songwriting and top-notch production add up to one great album. Not just great on a local scale—just great period.

—Erik Hage

Lester Bowie
When the Spirit Returns (Dreyfus/Birdology)

In 1997, Lester Bowie went into the studio with his Brass Fantasy ensemble and recorded two albums. When the Spirit Returns, his final of the two, makes its appearance now, four years after Bowie’s death. While the troupe were known for their freewheeling approach to contemporary pop songs, jazz classics, R&B nuggets and anything else that struck their fancy, this time out he added another wrinkle. The selections were chosen by his then-15-year-old daughter, Zola. This set also stands as a portrait of a father and his daughter. The mixture of hiphop radio fare and older material describes a teenager’s peer group as well as a depth of musical savvy drawn from her home life. Babyface and TLC mingle easily with “Unchained Melody” and the set’s closer, the Bowie-penned title track. Exuding warmth, humor, respect and surprise, the album is also a sad reminder that the world is an emptier place without Lester Bowie in it.

—David Greenberger

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