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Bach, Ballet And 1-Bit Symphonies: New Classical CDs

Tristan Perich's "1-Bit Symphony" features hand-assembled circuitry housed in a clear plastic CD case.

Amid the dog days of summer, the mind tends to shift suddenly -- like the weather, which can pivot from blistering sun to flash-flood-inducing rainstorms in a matter of minutes. It's reflected in this fractious mix of new releases that NPR Music's Tom Huizenga spins for Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. Dramatic soprano Christine Brewer delivers plenty of thunderbolts on her new CD of Strauss scenes, while accordionist Richard Galliano turns Bach's music into a soundtrack for a sultry Sunday afternoon. Sample the latest in classical music below.

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(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

Now, normally, the button harmonica doesn't spring to mind when I hear Johann Sebastian Bach, but this really works, Tom. Who is this?

TOM HUIZENGA: This is Richard Galliano, and he's a jazz accordionist primarily from France. And right here, he's playing this instrument called the accordina, which look a bit like a harmonica with buttons on it like an accordion.

RAZ: That's Tom Huizenga, NPR's classical music producer and a regular on this program.

So, Tom, this piece, it's fantastic. I love it.

HUIZENGA: It's a really great disc, all Bach's music. And we've heard Bach over the years play it on a lot of different things - banjo, marimba, even on power tool. So, I mean, why not the accordion?

RAZ: Why not?

HUIZENGA: Actually, if you think about it, it's a very close instrument to Bach's own instrument, the organ, so it's essentially, you know, blowing wind through some kind of contraption. And on this record, Galliano plays with some string players. And here's what it all sounds like in this really beautiful slow movement from Bach's "Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor."

(Soundbite of song, "Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor")

RAZ: I don't think I've ever heard of someone who specializes in classical accordion, Tom.

HUIZENGA: Well, he's actually experimented in many styles over the years. And Galliano, at age 4, followed his dad's footsteps and took up the accordion and largely made a career by playing with jazz greats.

RAZ: Does Galliano, would he offend Bach purists? I mean, will they hear this and say this is really cheesy?

HUIZENGA: Well, this is not Bach on period instruments, let's say.

RAZ: Right.

HUIZENGA: But, I think, Guy, he's not overstepping his bounds. I mean, if he where taking these heart wrenching arias and pieces from the St. Matthew Passion or Bach's cantatas and trying to rework that for an accordion, it might not sound so great. But most of the music on this CD is music that Bach himself probably played in coffeehouses. So, I mean, this is nice, light music. A good summer CD.

RAZ: It is. Tom, for our next piece by an artist named Tristan Perich, I believe you have a little show and tell presentation here.

HUIZENGA: Well, this is the radio, so it's a perfect opportunity for a show.

RAZ: Absolutely, yes.

HUIZENGA: Actually, it's a five-movement symphony that plays off just a single teeny-weeny microchip. And I think...

RAZ: Like a computer chip?

HUIZENGA: Yeah. Right. And I think half the beauty of the whole project, Guy, is its design. So, take a look at this. It's - here it is - it's housed in this clear plastic CD case made by hand.

RAZ: Oh, well. And it looks like the inner workings of, like, a small computer housed in a CD case.

HUIZENGA: Right. We've got a photo up at our website. If you want to take a look at it, you can go to nprmusic.org.

RAZ: It's really beautiful.

HUIZENGA: It's kind of like a weird 21st century music box. There are six small plastic parts lined up beside each other connected by these little half-moon shaped wires. There's a lithium battery about the size of a nickel, then there's the teeny chip that contains the symphony and then a port to plug in your headphones, because that's the only way that you can actually hear it, unless you have engineers, like we do here, that can take it and throw it into a computer.

RAZ: It looks absolutely amazing. What does it sound like?

HUIZENGA: Well, let's hear a little bit of it. I mean, you got to remember, this is on a very small chip, and he constructs the music by a series of on and off pulses. You're probably either going to be fascinated by it like me or you're going to run away screaming.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: I don't want to take anything away from Tristan Perich's creativity, because it is a pretty creative concept, but I don't think I could listen to this for more than 30 seconds, 40 seconds.

HUIZENGA: Well, I agree that 35 minutes or so of this, you know, it can go on a little long. And actually, Guy, he constructs this so that the last movement never ends.

RAZ: It never ends. It's perpetual.

HUIZENGA: No. So it just goes on...

RAZ: Until the battery dies.

HUIZENGA: But, you know, it takes a little bit of your ear getting used to the fact that this is music, like I said, made out of these very simple electronic pulses and arranged by this complicated source code. It's tinny, yes. Too long, probably, yes. But there are really some interesting textures, some polyrhythms and some small musical ideas that Tristan Perich builds on, nicely, I think.

RAZ: I think you're being a little generous calling this symphony, Tom.

HUIZENGA: Well, I guess symphony is in the ear of the beholder, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HUIZENGA: How you define it. But I mean, you know, small bits are fine. Beethoven built the 5th Symphony on very small building blocks. And I'm not saying this is anything like Beethoven, but there are building blocks here that I think are thoughtful.

RAZ: That's Tristan Perich's one-bit symphony. NPR classical musical producer Tom Huizenga is my guest, and he's playing us a few of the notable releases that have crossed his desk recently.

Now, Tom, do I hear, or are we feeling - it sounds like Space Mountain a little BIT - sort of rumbling or sort of creeping on us?

HUIZENGA: This is not an earthquake like we had a few weeks ago, no. It's music by Max Richter from his ballet called "Infra."

(Soundbite of song, "Infra")

HUIZENGA: Guy, I've really kind of grown to love Max Richter's music over the last couple of years. You know, I especially like Richter's music with this old shortwave radio sounds, these industrial rumbles and clicks and pops. He uses this as kind of an underlying bed for this soundscape slash ballet. Here's a good example, actually, of this kind of grimy, smudgy industrial landscape with some forlorn strings painted on the top of it.

(Soundbite of song, "Infra")

HUIZENGA: And then we get to a more lyrical section of the ballet with piano, slightly minimalist.

(Soundbite of song, "Infra")

RAZ: You know, this sounds so much like from the movie "The Piano."

HUIZENGA: It does, actually, doesn't it?

RAZ: Right.

HUIZENGA: With those repeating figures...

RAZ: Yeah.

HUIZENGA: But there are a lot of other influences here in this record, too, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, and I love how he puts it all together in this strange sonic landscape.

(Soundbite of song, "Infra")

RAZ: Tom, I know you're a big opera fanatic. Is there anything interesting that's been released lately that you've come across?

HUIZENGA: Oh, yeah. Definitely. And there's a brand new disc from American soprano Christine Brewer. And, Guy, you know you're in for a relaxing time when the CD starts like this.

(Soundbite of opera)

Ms. CHRISTINE BREWER: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: Just like a monastery on a Tibetan mountaintop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HUIZENGA: Yes. Opera's answer to jet propulsion, Christine Brewer. You know, Guy, I saw her in concert a few months ago this spring at the Kennedy Center, and I swear if they had opened the windows, you could have heard her all the way across the Potomac.

RAZ: Wow.

HUIZENGA: There are relatively few singers today that have what Brewer has, and that is the muscle, the buttery beauty in the voice and the intelligence with which she uses it.

RAZ: What's the piece we're hearing now?

HUIZENGA: This is one of a number of scenes from operas by Richard Strauss that Brewer sings on this new disc. And that particular outburst is one of many found in the Strauss' operatic retelling of the story of Elektra. And this is the recognition scene, where, just in a moment, Elektra finally recognizes her brother, who has returned home to, among other things, take an ax to their mother, who had previously murdered her husband.

RAZ: Should we brace ourselves for more jet propulsion?

HUIZENGA: Well, there is a lot more on the record, but no. Actually, I want to go to a passage here so you can hear that, although Brewer has this really huge voice, she can scale it down here with some gorgeous, terrifically supported soft singing. Now, here, she's just recognized this stranger in the house as her brother, and she's relieved, because she knows what's on his to-do list.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BREWER: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: Christine Brewer, it's beautiful.

HUIZENGA: Yeah. She is fantastic. And - but she's not the only terrific thing on the record. I mean, she sings these Strauss scenes - a few alone but a few with a new exciting bass-baritone, Eric Owens, whose career is just starting to take off very nicely, a singer to keep an ear on for sure. And Brewer's becoming more and more in demand in opera houses all over the place.

And then the third player, actually, is the orchestra, because any time you have music of Strauss, the orchestra itself is very important, and here very nice playing by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and conductor Donald Runnicles.

RAZ: That's NPR's classical music producer Tom Huizenga. He joins us every few weeks to update us on some of the music that's crossed his desk. You can hear more from any of these recordings at our web site: nprmusic.org.

Tom, thank you so much.

HUIZENGA: Thanks again, Guy.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BREWER: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We're back tomorrow. For now, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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