Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Privy to a Secret: The Exquisite Playing of Ludovico Einaudi

(A year ago today, I posted this on my main author site. Today, I post it here on its one year anniversary.)

“Privy to a secret.” Those were the words my wife said to me after we walked out of Houston’s Jones Hall last night and got in our car. We each took turns pointing out things we liked and enjoyed from “An Evening With Lucovico Einaudi,” but it was her words that summed it up best.

And we have Radio Paradise to thank.

Radio Paradise is an online streaming music service curated by husband-and-wife team Bill and Rebecca Goldsmith. Operated out of California, the music from Radio Paradise varies widely. You can easily go from “Lady Grinning Soul,” an album cut by David Bowie, to John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” with stopovers featuring Talking Heads, Tears for Fears, Cat Stevens, and The Black Keys. It is one of the few listening experiences nowadays where you truly have no idea what song is coming next.

We heard Einaudi’s music a few times on the station. My wife loved it enough to seek out his music. In the course of her online research, she discovered he was coming to Houston. With zero hesitation, we bought tickets. They were a pair of rear balcony seats, but it didn’t matter. We were in the hall. Ominously, when we walked up to the front doors yesterday, we read signs stating balcony seat ticket holders must go to the box office. The balcony, it seemed, was closed. The looks of worry were etched on more than one face, but I suggested it was likely because the orchestra level wasn’t sold out and they were consolidating everyone down there. Turns out, I spoke the truth. We ended up on row R, a definite upgrade.

Literally, I know Einaudi’s music by the three or four tracks I’ve heard on Radio Paradise. In each of those, it was solo piano, so that’s what I was expecting. The setup on stage was for six musicians with a grand piano in the middle. Interesting, the piano keys faced the audience. That meant we would get to see Eunaudi’s hands while he played but his back would be to us. I hadn’t seen that before, but it turned out perfectly fine because not only was Eunaudi the composer of the music we heard, he acted more as a conductor to his band.

Band. That’s not quite the correct word to use, but orchestra doesn’t fit, either. This collection of musicians consisted of a cellist (who played both acoustic and electric cello), bass (doubled as an extra synth player), percussionist (not a drummer), guitar (who also played some percussion), and a violinist (who picked up acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and played a small organ). Projected on a large screen behind the group were various images, hypnotic in their complexity and which worked so well with the music. Most of the time, the accompanying musicians were in shadow, so you’d only see them in silhouette against the screen.

It’s a little difficult to figure out words to describe the music of Einaudi, but exquisite is up there. Wikipedia lists “minimalist” first. No, this doesn’t mean fewer instruments. It is, according to Richard Rodda, “…the repetition of slowly changing common chords in steady rhythms, often overlaid with a lyrical melody in long, arching phrases…[It] utilizes repetitive melodic patterns, consonant harmonies, motoric rhythms, and a deliberate striving for aural beauty.” It’s the last phrase that is key. “Aural beauty.” What is remarkable about Einaudi’s music in all of its aural wonders is the personification of the music. When you listen to a symphony, a rock song, a jazz piece, or a Broadway tune, there is a common understanding of the music. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” all have those familiar melodies we can sing on our own. With Einaudi’s music, you can’t. Instead, what you are treated to is a unique musical experience that won’t or can’t be repeated ever again. It’s like being in the presence of a great artist and his musician friends as they paint with sound. There is a meditative quality to Einaudi’s music that gets inside your mind as your ears take in these sounds and chords.

One fun thing was to take note of a couple of particular instruments. One was a sort of crystal piece, held by one hand while the other used a violin bow across the surface. The resulting sound was akin to rubbing your wet finger around the rim of a wine glass. The conical-shaped instrument—smaller at top and much wider on the bottom—changed pitch depending on the location of the bowing. The other unique thing was a metal rectangular sheet, suspended by a wire. The percussionist held it by the wire, lowered the sheet into a clear container of water, and used a mallet to strike the plate. He would raise and lower the sheet, creating different tonalities. Lastly, the electric cellist would rub his entire open palm up and down the strings. The aural effect was of a person breathing. Watching these performers last night was itself a work of art.

It’s a rare concert I attend where I know basically nothing about the music I’m there to hear. The experience was utterly mesmerizing. In other settings at other concerts, the performers do their thing for you. If you’re there to watch your favorite rock band, you jam with them and sing along. Einaudi’s concert is a personal journey, communal with all the other folks in the crowd. You all hear the same notes but you take away something entirely personal. The audience knew Eunaudi and his music, as evidenced by the cheers as he walked out, and the loud, boisterous, and prolonged exaltation at the end.

Like my wife said, it was like we got a peek into a man and his music unknown to a large part of the world. Or maybe it was just unknown to me. Don’t’ know. By all indications online, the Houston date was the last in North America after only a handful of dates across the continent. I’m again so happy to live in a city like Houston that can attract an artist such as Ludovico Einaudi, and I’m quite happy to be in on the secret of his exquisite music.

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