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A Windham Hill Winter Solstice Concert
21 December 2016
On December 12, 2016, my wife and I attended the Windham Hill Winter Solstice 30th anniversary concert, at the Newmark Theatre in the Antoinette Hatfield Hall complex, on SW Broadway at Main Street in downtown Portland, Oregon.
Performing that evening as part of their seven-stop West Coast tour were William Ackerman, Alex De Grassi, Barbara Higbie, Todd Boston and Ellen Sanders. About this tour, Ackerman wrote:
“Last December I had the great pleasure of performing as part of a Windham Hill concert. It felt pretty amazing to be again part of something I began 40 years ago! My cousin Alex de Grassi and pianist, violinist and vocalist Barbara Higbie were the other Windham Hill artists who performed with me and it was wonderful and magical and we all enjoyed it so much that we’ve decided to tour again in December of 2016. In addition to these Windham Hill artists, Todd Boston whose CD, Touched By the Sun, Tom Eaton and I produced a few years ago, will be playing duets with me and doing a few of his own brilliant pieces. We will be playing in Washington, Oregon and California. I hope to see you at one of these shows! All the best from Windham County, Vermont.”I had never been to the 878-seat Newmark Theatre before. At the beginning of the concert, Barbara commented that it reminded her of La Scala in Milan, Italy. I was surprised to hear her say that, because I had never heard of La Scala until the previous week, as I was reading The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. I’ll leave it to you to decide if there is a resemblance or not. We had pretty good seats in the very center (15 & 16) of Row G on the Orchestra Level.
I went to this concert primarily to see Alex de Grassi, whom I had seen once before in concert at Cal Poly in the mid 1980s when I was a student there. Out of all the music I own by guitarists, I turn to Alex’s music most often. Even though I have been listening to it for 30 years, I never get tired of his virtuosity and guitar genius. I have five of his earlier albums, but have not been very interested in his later works.
Over the years I have tried to find other guitarists of his caliber. In that search I have discovered quite a number of musicians whom I had never encountered before, like Dave Beegle, Don Ross, Michael Gulezian, Pierre Bensusan, Sean Harkness, Tommy Guerrero, Tony Kaltenberg, and others. Each one is a very talented guitarist with their own unique appeal. But Alex de Grassi is in a class by himself. As Todd Boston said during the concert, Alex is a guitarist’s guitarist. That accolade pretty much says it all.
I was also thrilled to see, for the first time, William Ackerman, guitarist, founder of Windham Hill, and first cousin of Alex. I have only one of his albums, the best-of A Windham Hill Retrospective, which, like Alex’s albums, I have probably listened to hundreds of times.
I didn’t know anything about Barbara Higbie. Now that I do, I heartily wish that she had stayed home, and that the concert had revolved around Alex and Will. You probably feel that that is a pretty harsh statement. What did I experience that provokes such a reaction?
Well, let me start by saying that Barbara is a very talented performer. During the concert she played well on the piano and violin, as well as the guitar for one song. She also sings well. Besides English, she also sang a song in Hebrew, and another in French. A true multi-instrument, multi-language performer.
I think that word “performer” is the main reason I didn’t care for her style of “entertainment.” Unfortunately, she was the emcee for the concert. She seems to be a high-energy extrovert, with a very theatrical stage presence. When playing her instruments, she moved her body a lot, with a huge grin plastered across her face. This style is very distracting for me; I often had to close my eyes so I could concentrate on the music. In the end, I felt that her theatrics detracted from her music by putting the attention on herself instead of her music.
In complete contrast, Alex and Will are very calm, quiet performers. When they play, they seem to go deep inside themselves, and lose themselves in the music. It is the music which is central and important, not themselves as the musicians. I could really connect with that, since it is similar to my own personality. In the end, that’s why I was there: to experience awesome music, and not to watch an act. When Barbara was on stage, it felt as if she were trying to make up for Alex’s and Will’s quiet calmness by going overboard the other direction with her hyper-exuberance.
Speaking of “on stage,” they way the concert unfolded was very disjointed and disorientating. Every two or three songs, one or more of the five musicians would leave the stage or come on stage. It was a weird type of musical chairs! Maybe half the time it was Barbara, Ellen, Alex and Todd performing together. But then suddenly the ladies would leave, and it would be just Alex and Todd. Then Alex would leave and Will would take his place. Then Will would leave and Alex and the ladies would be back. And each musician (except Ellen) played at least one solo piece as well. All the coming and going on the stage was making me dizzy!
The first set was about an hour long. I had expected them to play mostly songs from the nine Windham Hill Winter Solstice albums, since the title of the concert was “30th Anniversary of Windham Hill’s Winter Solstice.” I have listened to the first five of those albums innumerable times over the past couple of decades, so I know them really well. Therefore, I think I can say with assurance that they did not play one song from those albums. Instead, they played a grab-bag of songs composed by Barbara, Alex, Will and Todd. Some of them were Christmas songs, but many of them were not. I think Barbara played (and sang) a song from Celtic Christmas III, which is a separate but related series of albums.
For one piece Will played a Martin parlor guitar given to him by Michael Hedges. Will got teary-eyed when he talked about Michael and the guitar.
One of the best songs was Alex and Todd playing a version of Little Drummer Boy that Todd had arranged. It was well done, with innovative and virtuoso guitar playing together. Wonderful!
Alex De Grassi told about how he decided to make a Christmas album after many years. Actually, it doesn’t seem that he ever made such an album, so perhaps he was saying “if I were to make such an album.” He said that he picked the most commercial, crass Christmas song he could think of: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Bad choice, because I absolutely detest pagan Christmas songs! But Alex made this song that I hate into a very cool, entertaining piece. I was very impressed!
For two songs Alex played his 18-string Carlson sympitar It didn’t really work with God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, but it was pretty good with Little Drummer Boy. If you want to hear Alex’s sympitar playing at its best, listen to Hidden Voices from his excellent album Deep at Night. The song still gives me the goose bumps each time I listen to it, after all these years!
Alex has a couple of excellent pieces on the Winter Solstice albums, like Trumpet Tune from Volume IV and The Holly and the Ivy from Volume V. But instead of playing one of those appropriate and amazing songs as a solo, he chose instead to play the weird and dissonant Mr. B Takes a Walk in the Rain, a piece he composed as a tribute to James Brown. Too bad!
After a half-hour intermission, the second set continued the concert much like the first. There were a number of surprises for me during the evening:
I couldn’t help but wonder if the two cousins are even on speaking terms or not! The last two surprises listed above really astonish me. It seems so obvious and natural that these two cousin guitarists would play together, that I just can’t believe that they didn’t. Seems pretty weird to me.
All in all the concert was a mixed bag. There were some excellent performances, with a generous helping of mediocrity — not so much in the ability of the musicians as in the pieces they selected to perform.
For example, when Alex was playing with Barbara and the rest of the group, I could not help feeling that he was kind of bored as he strummed away at his guitar. Of course, even in those pieces he sometimes had a little solo part, but in general such accompaniment seemed way below his awesome capability. Perhaps he was OK with that, but I don’t think I was!
In all truthfulness I would not be able to say that this was an excellent concert. It was pretty good, and I was very glad to see and hear Alex and Will (and Todd) perform. But other concerts I have attended (and documented) were so awesome that I would highly recommend that you attend one of their performances if you can:
I took a total of 72 pictures at the Antoinette Hatfield Hall venue. The best 21 can be viewed in the new Windham Hill Winter Solstice 2016 album on my ByrdPhoto Web site. These include larger versions of most of the photos on this page, 12 photos taken during the concert, and 9 pictures taken in the Hall’s spectacular lobby. For the rest of the details of our date night in Portland, see my ByrdPhoto article Date Night on Portland’s Broadway.
This article is 19th a series of articles on this Web site related to Literature, Music and Photography which also includes (scroll to see the entire list):
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