Haarlem’s musical treasure

The cathedral

Just a 15-minute train ride from boisterous and cosmopolitan Amsterdam lies the charming city of Haarlem (which incidentally gave its name to Nieuw Haarlem in the northern part of Manhattan Island back in 1658). Its skyline has been dominated by the imposing Grote Kerk (or Sint-Bavokerk) cathedral, a Protestant church situated on the city’s central market square.

The organ

The organ situated inside the church (known as the Christiaan Müller organ) is considered as one of the world’s most important organs. Built by the Amsterdam organ builder Christian Müller between 1735 and 1738, it was the largest organ in the world by the time of its completion with 60 voices and 32-feet pedal-towers.

Such has been the instrument’s reputation that even Herman Melville mentioned it in his classic novel Moby-Dick (1851) when describing the inside of a whale’s mouth:

“Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes”

Many important musicians and composers have played the Christiaan Müller organ over the centuries including Mendelssohn, Händel, as well as the 10-year old Mozart who visited Haarlem in 1766 in order to play the renowned organ.

The concerts

Having been modified a number of times over the course of the past centuries, the organ underwent a major renovation between 1959 and 1961. Today regular organ concerts together with several special events are being held in the Grote Kerk in order to give the opportunity to the public to listen to the unique sound of this celebrated organ.

Although I have visited Haarlem in the past, it was only recently that I had the chance to attend one of these concerts. Listening to the sound of this spectacular instrument filling up the vast space of the cathedral’s interior was quite a special experience. And it was only made possible through the masterful  playing of Haarlem’s city ​​organists Jos van der Kooy and Anton Pauw, who treated the audience to an excellent program including works by J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Max Reger, and Hendrik Andriessen.

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Max Richter and Daniel Hope in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

From baroque to the present

It is always refreshing to hear a piece of classic stature in a way you would have never imagined possible. Such is the case with Vivaldi Recomposed: The Four Seasons, Max Richter’s fascinating reworking of Vivaldi’s timeless masterpiece (which has been through several creative transformations through the years).

Richter’s imaginative and highly idiosyncratic re-composition of The Four Seasons is indeed a unique achievement. Having infused Vivaldi’s work with postmodern and minimalist elements, Richter has at the same time managed to remain faithful to the music’s innermost essence producing a result of the highest standards, both aesthetically and technically.

Four Seasons in Paradise

On September 10, I was one of the fortunate Amsterdamers who had the opportunity to experience a live performance of the recomposed Four Seasons (for the first time in The Netherlands) by Max Richter, British violinist Daniel Hope and L’arte del mondo orchestra at Paradiso’s magnificent Grote Zaal.

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Given Paradiso’s tradition in bringing together the old the new, one could hardly think of a better venue for the occasion. Following an impressive opening by the vigorous Francesco Tristano and Alice Sara Ott piano duo, Richter and Hope gave a truly exhilarating performance which produced a highly enthusiastic response from the audience.

And rightly so: it is not every day that one gets to enjoy live the combined magic of Vivaldi’s captivating music and Richter’s innovative vision coming to life under the imposing windows of Amsterdam’s most celebrated music venue.

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Serenity (Γαλήνη)

Of course my moods change, but the average is serenity. I have a firm faith in art, a firm confidence in its being a powerful stream which carries a man to a harbor, though he himself must do his bit too.

Vincent van Gogh

A simple melody I came up with while seeking to evoke a feeling of serenity, arranged here for piano and strings.

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Singing it like it is

Meet Lara Eidi and the band

Lara Eidi is a singer-songwriter of Lebanese-Canadian-Greek background. She first got involved with music the moment she “learned how to mimic” through trying to sing and recreate any sound she happened to hear. She started with classical piano at the age of 8 and also had harmony and theory lessons at the conservatory. Next to her piano and singing skills she is also an accomplished guitar player and the founder of Lara Eidi Band, a small jazz-folk-pop trio comprised of Lara, Stavros Parginos (cello, loops) and  Giotis Paraskevaidis (guitars, loops, beatboxing).

Tell it like it is

The band just released their second EP  Tell it like it is to an amazing crowd at Athen’s Numismatic Museum, and it seems like the musical adventures of the promising trio are only beginning to unfold.

So how did Lara Eidi Band come about? Here’s the story in Lara’s own words:

It came at a point when I was close to packing it all in, music wise, after being disheartened by how little one could accomplish in the music scene in Greece. I had just returned to Greece from Scotland naively thinking I could achieve something. So after being a session singer, piano player and songwriter for a multitude of bands I retreated from the music scene thinking: ‘What can I do to change this course I’ve chosen?’ And then it hit me: 2 years ago I stayed at a friend’s house in Athens, locked inside a beautiful musical basement, writing tons of songs and feeling like a kid discovering toys for the first time. After that I called Stavros Parginos, a wonderful cellist and multi-instrumentalist who I had worked with before, and asked him if he would like to work on some of my songs with his cello. He said yes with a smile. So a year ago we started gigging around Athens, traveled abroad to Beirut, Lebanon, and Edinburgh , and recorded my first EP, “Little People” (Irida Studios). Then we met the third member of our band, guitarist Giotis Paraskevaidis. I heard him play at a gig, not knowing who he was, and approached him to ask if he would like to play my music. He was super positive about it – and also turned out to be a very good friend of Stavros! All of a sudden the music was reborn with this incredible energy. After doing a few cover songs on YouTube (incl. Nina Simone’s Be my Husband, filmed on a rooftop in Athens by videographer Dimitris Stamatiou and our sound guy Iraklis Vlachakis), we were eventually inspired to create “Tell it like it is” (Sierra Studios, In a Jam Studios) which is about just that: My personal way of saying that the music I write, and the way it’s developed together with the guys, doesn’t really fit into an roster and that’s OK. And so we found ourselves going from a singer-songwriter to a band formation. I told the guys I wanted to call the band LSG (laughs) but they insisted on Lara Eidi Band!

A beautiful challenge

Music for Lara is a “life force”, a kind of challenge that “needs to be embraced in its fullest and most beautiful forms”. And it seems she is indeed taking up the challenge – Lara will be going to London to follow a Masters in Jazz Voice Performance at the Guildhall School of Music, while at the same time keep performing with her band in both UK and Greece.

And what if Lara’s record collection was on fire? Here’s what she would save first:

I would save my Woodstock Full Two Volumes CD. I have to zone out to this more times than I care to mention! I’m a girl. I also have to save Sheryl Crow, Sarah Ann McLachlan and Alanis Morissette .

You can find Lara Eidi Band on:

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Roots Open Air (Java Island, Amsterdam)

A festival with strong roots

Throughout its long and interesting history, Roots Festival has been introducing Amsterdam crowds to exciting new sounds and great artists, many of whom (e.g. Fela Kuti, Salif Keita, Manu Dibangowho) were already hugely popular in their home countries before becoming part of the everyday vocabulary among the circles of local music aficionados.

New edition, new location

This year’s edition marked a big change as Roots Open Air, the outdoor event which concluded the festival, moved for the first time from Oosterpark to a new location: the Java Island in Amsterdam’s Eastern Docklands area. Thus, On 6 July, Java Island’s Kop van Java became host to a unique blend of musical styles ranging from non-Western pop and Afro-Caribbean to funk, psychedelic and electronic music.

Roots Festival (Kop van Java, Amsterdam)

Roots Open Air 2014 (Java Island, Amsterdam)

Singing in the rain

Despite the rain showers that persisted throughout most of the evening, the diversity and quality of music on offer were more than enough to make up for the lousy weather.

I first had the chance to watch Garifuna Collective, who presented the soulful melodies and powerful rhythms of their native region in Central America. After the beautiful tunes of the Garifuna people, the volume was raised for the Colombian Bomba Estereo and their dynamic ‘psychedelic cumbia’ sound.

Still, the highlight of this year’s festival was surely the closing performance by Youssou N’Dour. The Senegalese singer and composer performed both new and old songs (including 7 Seconds), as well as covers from such classics as Bob Marley’s Redemption Song.

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The best conclusion to the event (and certainly one of the day’s extra-musical highlights) was coming out of the main stage after the rain was over to watch an incredible evening skyline…

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Real magic

While reading a collection of short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 1927), known as the “father of the Japanese short story”, I came across the following passage (it’s taken from his autobiographical story The Life of a Stupid Man, translated by Jay Rubin):

He suffered an onslaught of insomnia. His physical strength began to fade as well. (…) But he knew well enough what was wrong with him: he was ashamed of himself and afraid of them – afraid of the society he so despised.

One afternoon when snow clouds hung over the city, he was in the corner of a café, smoking a cigar and listening to music from the gramophone on the other side of the room. He found the music permeating his emotions in a strange new way. When it ended, he walked over to the gramophone to read the label on the record.

Magic Flute – Mozart.”

All at once it became clear to him: Mozart too had broken the Ten Commandments and suffered. Probably not the way he had, but…

He bowed his head and returned to his table in silence.

I found this passage particularly powerful, as it manages to convey very elegantly one of music’s most intriguing characteristics: its universality, that is, its ability to reach straight into the hearts of people who lived under completely different social conditions and many hundreds years apart, forging a bond between all those who feel our common humanity through works such as Mozart’s sublime opera.

And that is some real magic indeed.

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The geniuses behind the hits

In the history of popular music there have been certain groups of musicians with a profound impact on the making and recording of hit records. They consist of the session players largely responsible for the sound of many great songs we all know and love, but never cared to look beyond the names of the star performers they’re usually associated with.  So let’s get to know some of these unsung heroes…

Hidden in the shadows

Known as The Funk Brothers, the Detroit-based session musicians who performed on Motown recordings from 1959 to 1972 played on more No.1 hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined! Despite this astonishing feat, they were essentially uncredited  as Motown did not list session musician credits on their releases until 1971.

Consisting of phenomenal talents such as bass player James Jamerson and drummer Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin, The Funk Brothers played on a long string of classic recordings including I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Their extraordinary story is told in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002).

Looking back at their list of achievements, one indeed understands why they have been called “the greatest hit machine in the history of pop music.”

Meet The Wrecking Crew

Another group of session musicians that played a big part in how American pop music sounded during the 1960s was The Wrecking Crew. This assembly of highly skilled and versatile musicians, many of whom were formally trained in jazz or classical music, recorded practically every style of pop music in existence and worked with artists such as Nat King Cole, Nancy Sinatra, The Mamas & the Papas, The Carpenters and Simon & Garfunkel.

Moreover, The Wrecking Crew was used by legendary producer Phil Spector for his trademark “Wall of Sound”, while songwriter Brian Wilson also worked with the Crew to materialize many of his sonic visions during the 1960s, including the album Pet Sounds and songs such as Good Vibrations and California Girls.

The remarkable story of The Wrecking Crew was also made into a film, which can serve as a great introduction to the musicians responsible for the sound of some of the most successful pop music the world has ever known (such as guitarist Tommy Tedesco, drummer Hal Blaine, and bassist/guitarist Carol Kaye – one of the few female session players of that period).

The secret of Muscle Shoals

There are some special places where the conditions for making great music seem to be just right. One such place is Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

The musicians largely responsible for what came to be known as the “Muscle Shoals Sound” were The Swampers (aka The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), a group of soul, R&B, and country studio musicians based in Muscle Shoals who have appeared on more than 75 gold and platinum hits in total.

The Swampers worked originally at the legendary FAME Studios, established by American record producer Rick Hall. Some of the artists they recorded with at FAME were Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Duane Allman, Paul Anka and Tom Jones.

FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals

Immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic Sweet Home Alabama (“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers / And they’ve been known to pick a song or two”), The Swampers left FAME in 1969 to form The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, becoming first time rhythm section -consisting of Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass)- to own a studio they could use for recording and production purposes.

Several rock and pop artists arrived to record at the new studio, including The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Elton John, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. The incredible story of  Rick Hall, The Swampers and a small town that would become the mecca of America’s most celebrated recording artists  is the theme of the recent documentary Muscle Shoals.

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