Sunday, January 04, 2009

Best of 2008

I intentionally delayed compiling a best-of list until after the new year because I was supposed to go to a kickass concert at the Variety Playhouse (owned by an alum of the 'Monster, as I just discovered) on New Year's Eve and I suspected it might make the cut. Finally! New year's plans guaranteed not to suck!

But alas, the Gods of Rock decided I had gotten more than my fair share of awesome in 2008 and conspired with the equipment on Jon's plane from Spokane to deny me the chance to ring in the new year with The Whigs, Band of Horses, and a sweaty throng of Chuck-Taylored dudes in indie-rock glasses and secondhand t-shirts. (The upside is that it was a really easy ticket to offload, so I didn't lose any money on the deal.)

Without any further ado, I offer up to the blogosphere my top eight concerts for 2008. (The two Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus concerts are ones in which I performed, just to clarify.) Here's the breakdown, in chronological order:

1. The Whigs
Mission Control album release party
January 25, The Earl, Atlanta

Because headliners at the Earl start playing on the far side of really late, I and other early types stood through two mediocre openers before the Whigs plugged in: the Sammies, from Charlotte, and Wax Fang, from Louisville. I recall being wholly unimpressed by the former. The Earl is easily my favorite of all the venues where I've seen the Whigs play -- low ceilings keep the decibels high and a small space means the rowdy crowd has to get friendly (and watch out for sweat and spit flying from the stage). The new awesomeness of Mission Control got the audience just as riled up as the old chestnuts from the band's 2005 debut album. (Example: toward the end of the show, an ecstatic fratboy flung his PBR tallboy into the air, dousing me and the other folks at the front of the crowd in the process.) In summary, they rocked my face off.
photo: - visuals

2. Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten
with Anthony Dean Griffey
Donald Runnicles, conductor
Metropolitan Opera Live in HD
March 15, AMC Discover Mills 18, Lawrenceville

Similarly, the Metropolitan Opera's production of Britten's Peter Grimes rocked my face off, but in a big-screen sort of way. The Live in HD format has some advantages over being in the opera house, and this production is a case in point: while patrons at the Met were made to stare down a hulking wooden wall for the duration, multiple cameras enabled operagoers in multiplexes the world over to experience different angles, to see close-ups and wide pans, and to frequently ignore the fact that the size of the stage had been at least halved by the ginormous set piece. I should also mention that Anthony Dean Griffey and Patricia Racette gave incredible performances, both vocally and dramatically. I now own this on DVD and am beyond excited.
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times -

3. Colin Meloy
April 10, Variety Playhouse, Atlanta

Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists) is my new favorite. This solo show was loose and quirky and completely enchanting. In case you can't discern the detail from my high-quality cell-phone photo, to Meloy's left is a little round table with a bottle of red wine, a glass, and a strange little shrine that he picked up on a previous tour stop. Just a dude, his guitars, some booze... and a shrine. As you do. The music was sincere and pithy and the stories that filled the gaps amusing, but what struck me most was that Meloy came across as a totally normal guy -- one who really, really loves with what he does.

4. The New Pornographers
April 17, Georgia Theatre, Athens

I've come to the conclusion that The New Pornographers are one of the best bands on the face of the earth. There are many reasons for this, principal among which are:
  1. Neko Case
  2. singing in harmony
  3. an accordion
This was the second time I had seen them in the space of six months. Now it's been about eight months and I think I'm going into withdrawal...

5. Requiem by Hector Berlioz
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus with the Berlin Philharmonic
Donald Runnicles, conductor
May 15-17, Berlin Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany

Performing in Berlin with the Philharmonic under Donald Runnicles was an incredible thrill and a privilege -- it's difficult to even put into words. Each evening had its own strengths and weaknesses but, if pressed to pick one that stood out, I'd have to go with our final sing on Saturday. The best part was knowing someone in the audience -- my late grandpa's Berliner friends were there waving at me from the last row -- and hearing the people's reactions to the music afterwards. All I can say is that it was amazing, and I hope I have the chance to do it again in the near future.

I also had the opportunity to share the ASOC's Berlin experience with the folks back home in Atlanta as a writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's now-defunct ATLarts blog -- you can find links to those dispatches here.

6. Pearl Jam
June 22, Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.

Yep, that's me ON THE FRONT ROW. THE ENTIRE AUDIENCE IS BEHIND ME. I nearly started crying when the usher showed us to our seats -- they were dead, I mean DEAD center. On row 1.

Allow me to explain: Perl Jam's fan club, Ten Club, has always distributed concert tickets based on seniority. This particular eight-date mini tour marked the start of a new policy whereby the first four rows of seating are chosen randomly from the entire fan club pool. In short, there is a god, and he loves me very very much.

This is another concert experience that I can't really put into words, but in a totally different way than the previous one. From where I stood pressed against the security rail, Eddie Vedder wasn't 15 feet away from me. It didn't even feel like I was at a concert: all those things concerts normally entail for me -- standing on tiptoes, dealing with a purse, craning my neck to see the stage -- didn't apply. It was just me and Eddie, with naught but a security grate, a four-foot stage and some sound equipment between us.

So close was I that the shot below, taken with my trusty cell phone, was not zoomed in at all. I also made eye contact with Eddie Vedder on at least one occasion, prompting him to toss me a half-empty water bottle from which he had just taken a swig right before he launched into "Given to fly." At the end of the show, drummer Matt Cameron threw me one of his personalized Pearl Jam wrist-sweatbands. Toss in my ticket and front-row wristband and I've got a pretty sweet collection going.

To my left there was a thirty-something mom who had brought her 11-year-old son to the show as his first concert and had landed on the front row by the same stroke of luck Jon and I had. The band members were constantly chucking guitar picks at the kid. Eddie bent down at a couple points to ask him if he played guitar and was he any good, and during the encore they pulled him up onstage to play. !!! (Afterwards he and his mother got to go backstage. DAAHH.)

I still don't think I've fully processed the experience. Unbelievable. Epic.

7. Ra Ra Riot
October 10, The Drunken Unicorn, Atlanta

Ra Ra Riot, a band out of Syracuse University that was just starting to get good attention when I was in grad school there, has redeemed the fact that Northwestern produced exactly zero worthwhile groups during my time in Evanston. Like the New Pornographers, Ra Ra Riot is a larger-than-usual co-ed group with interesting instruments -- the two female members play electric violin and cello, respectively (not just tambourine). This date marked the second time I've seen them in Atlanta, the first being in August of '07 at Vinyl (photo is from that concert). At the Drunken Unicorn, the group was rolling out the material from its first full-length album The Rhumb Line, some new, some reimagined, all pretty damn awesome. If you haven't looked into Ra Ra Riot, do so posthaste.

8. Doctor Atomic by John Adams
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
with Gerald Finley and Jessica Rivera
Robert Spano, conductor
November 21 and 23, Symphony Hall, Atlanta

If any of you has talked to me in recent months, you are probably aware that Doctor Atomic is my latest obsession. Gerald Finley (right, pounding a very watery martini) had me all aswoon from the moment I first heard him in the Met Opera Live in HD broadcast on Nov. 8, and the situation only got worse once he arrived in Atlanta. Nathan Gunn who? Finley is my new baritone love. Sigh...

But I digress. The ASO and ASOC, supporting singers largely from the recent Met production, mounted the opera in a "semi-staged" format -- often a difficult pill to swallow, in terms of concert presentation, and here the production's weakest aspect. In spite of a preponderance of park-and-bark blocking, Gerald Finley and Jessica Rivera were undeniably stunning in their well-worn roles. A sizable majority of the chorus detested the music, but I found that the more time I spent with it, the more brilliant and beautiful the score revealed itself to be. I was among the apparent few who were sad to have to turn in our scores -- although I was not at all sad to part ways with the staging.

Regardless of whether or not Doctor Atomic resonated with you, the fact that Bob Spano and the ASO challenge Atlanta audiences each season by programming top-quality contemporary works is something worth noting and supporting. (I reeeally wish the AJC hadn't discontinued its arts blog just before the performances took place because I would have loved to have heard more feedback.) As a performer, I haven't been this excited about anything in years. John Adams was there. The singers from the Met and the original production in San Francisco were there. The chorus worked its collective ass off and sang its role better than any other chorus has to date. The whole experience made me want to be a better musician and strengthened my resolve to find a way to make creative and cultural endeavors the focus of my professional life.

The stars of Doctor Atomic, with director James Alexander,
conductor Robert Spano, and composer John Adams.
photos: someone at the ASO (I got them off the chorus website)

Bring it on, 2009.

1 comment:

Erica Littlefield said...

GREAT write up Kathleen! It sounds like it was a great music year for you! ;-)