Duo plays Bach to Keith Jarrett in one seamless concert
By Luke Quinton
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Music is an à la carte environment these days.
Fewer people buy a full album. Kids might download a couple of tracks or not buy them at all, opting instead to hear them on YouTube for the cost of watching a commercial. Percussionist Graeme Francis will play a concert with pianist Michelle Schumann designed to continue without interruption.
And if some classical music presenters are looking at balance sheets and wondering how to reach the download generation, others are playing to this new generation’s strengths, with an increasingly popular concert style: non-stop sets for this omnivorous, and often adventurous, audience.
“It’s a seamless aesthetic space for all the composers,” says percussionist Graeme Francis.
Francis is talking about “North Star,” his concert on Saturday with pianist and Austin Chamber Music Center artistic director Michelle Schumann.
The concert will guide audiences from Bach to music by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and naturalist composer John Luther Adams, all in one fell swoop, without — so far as is humanly possible — interruption.
“This is the real road trip kind of stuff,” Francis says, coincidentally on the phone from his car as he drives from Houston to the University of Texas-San Antonio where he leads a percussion studio.
Schumann and Francis are reuniting for this concert. They’ve shared the bill in the past. The duo’s previous live performances have been broadcast nationally on American Public Media’s “Performance Today.”
“While we’re spanning 250 years of music, it actually works brilliantly together,” Francis says. “People have been writing beautiful music for a very long time. There’s something in each of these pieces to hold on to — something harmonic or rhythmic.”
No wonder. The pair have chosen some of the 20th century’s most endearing and ethereal music by Arvo Pärt, Eric Satie and Philip Glass.
“A lot of these pieces are quasi-minimalist,” Francis says.
In the Adams work (“Red Arc/Blue Veil”) “the texture never really changes,” Francis says. “It’s incredibly satisfying. Maybe because it’s so simple. It builds slowly. The resolution of that constant momentum is just as satisfying for the audience as it is for us.”
After that, Francis says, they turn to Bach.
Those transitions — how they maintain the concert’s momentum (and a sense of mystery, perhaps) — is another musician’s trick.
“There are harmonic hijinks, I think, in a couple places,” Francis says.
The hijinks are actually bridges that Schumann and Francis have written or planned out, to leave one song and arrive at the next.
Francis says they’ve managed this by tracking down something complementary — a key signature or a rhythm shared by two different piece of music.
“To get from one piece to another without it sounding really jarring, that’s really important,” he says.
“We sort of stumbled on the vibraphone and piano thing. Partly it was a practical thing because of the sonic nature of the piano. The combination of those two instruments gives you the opportunity to create one instrument.”
The Jarrett piece was transcribed note for note from Jarrett’s concert of live improvisations and given a very different life with piano and vibes.
For the Adams piece, Francis says: “If I had more notes on the vibraphone, (Michelle and I) could actually switch parts.”
And for the Bach? “We divided it up, the timbres are so similar, but just different enough.”
The piano supports the vibraphone, especially in the low register.
“It’s an incredible sound,” Francis says.
Francis and Schumann are both Canadians who’ve lived in Texas for years, and Francis, a busy freelancer and educator, seems glad indeed to have a green card. “Almost no university jobs pay a living wage,” he says, pointedly. “So all the other stuff you do” — playing with the ASO, gigging for South Texas Jazz — “all those are freelance.”
Now, married to a dual citizen, he laughs: “I don’t have to think, ‘OK, is this cheapo church gig going to get me kicked out of the country?’”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: First Unitarian Church, 4700 Grover Ave.
Cost: $25-$40 Buy Tickets
Information: 512-454-0026, www.austinchambermusic.org