Review: DAVID COHEN GUITAR by Maria Thompson Corley

This Review is a reprinted with permission from Maria Thompson Corley and 

Available at: iTunes & CD Baby
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by Maria Thompson Corley
Even though I don’t particularly want to fall into the trap laid by the marketers of jewelry, cards and chocolates, as February 14 approaches I nevertheless find myself thinking about love.  Because I have to admit that when two people find in each other true companionship, it’s beautiful, and deserves celebration.
The Song of Songs says, love is strong as death.  But when death takes one we love, what do we do?  If you’re a maharajah, perhaps you build a majestic edifice.  And if you’re a musician, perhaps you compose something as a way to process your grief, as Johannes Brahms did with his Four Serious Songs, inspired by the passing of his dear friend, Clara Schumann. David Cohen a classical guitarist from Philadelphia and his beloved wife Tanya were together for 17 years, 16 of those as husband and wife.  On Valentine’s Day of 2011, she went to the hospital for a chemotherapy appointment and stayed there. The cancer that would claim her life eleven days later had spread from her ovaries to her liver. So that February 14 was their last together. The CD David Cohen: Guitar is his Latin-tinged Taj Mahal.
First, a few confessions:  1.  David Cohen is my friend,  2.  I have a secret fantasy about taking Latin dance lessons, and 3.  My only brother died of cancer.  The pieces on this CD were a way for David to process his very personal grief, but as I listened to them, I found that they spoke to me, too.
Not surprisingly, each track has a deeply personal connection to Tanya’s life and passing.
The first track, a rumba, is called “Breath;” the full title is “One More Breath, Just to Say How Much We Love You.”  It is full of rhythmic drive and interest; I wouldn’t have guessed at its subject matter.
“Letters to Joann” refers to a woman David met playing the bagpipes two weeks after Tanya’s death.  He hadn’t practiced and his thoughts were, understandably, elsewhere until Joann thanked him for playing, confiding that she had just finished her first round of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.  When she was diagnosed, she’d thought she would never hear the bagpipes again.  The piece, which is inspired by the playing of Joni Mitchell, was meant to contrast David’s tension when he doesn’t hear from her with his joy when he does.  I hear more tension than joy in this piece, which again contains the constant syncopation that is characteristic of many of the pieces on this recording, although the end does seem more upbeat.
The joyful “Every Minute in Paris” grew out of a conversation during Tanya’s hospitalization when she asked David if he could remember a recent time when they’d had fun together, and he told her he remembered every minute in Paris. A week after her death, this piece came to him “in an explosion in my head from start to end.”
“Turn Towards Me,” which is also very upbeat, refers to Tanya’s being a dental hygienist.  She loved working with her patients, who loved her back. Joan Armatrading was an influence on this piece, the only one that wasn’t written to “control through sound” David’s grief.
“The Last Genuine Smile,” which, unlike the other pieces, was written specifically to be technically challenging (which was influenced by both Bach and Michael Dunford), refers to a time when Tanya was in remission. She and David had canceled a cruise when she was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer, but were finally able to go about a year before she died.  When they returned, so had the cancer.  A picture taken in the dining hall, which David brought to surprise her, showed them cheek to cheek, smiling and full of hope.  In David’s words, “I look at that now and realize that was my last genuine smile.”  I must admit that I didn’t find this piece emotionally engaging, despite the subject matter.
I feel just the opposite way about “Saying Goodbye,” which was the result of an aural hallucination so real to David as he was bidding farewell to Tanya that he looked up, thinking that someone was playing music nearby.  This is a beautiful piece, full of emotion.
“Cold Rain” came to him similarly, while he was standing at her graveside in a damp and chilly March day, wishing she could be there with him to feel the rain, which is represented by a tremolo that also conveys his tension.
“In My Dreams, We Fly” was inspired by a vivid dream he had about Tanya that left him surprised, happy, and confused because he remembered seeing her in her coffin. She said “Yeah, but dying won’t stop me”. They flew around like birds, holding each other, and then he realized he was dreaming and started crying so loudly that he woke himself up. The mournful opening yields to an exuberant rumba.
The title, “Power of Attorney” refers to Tanya’s request that David act as her voice in conveying her love to their grandchildren.  Again, I hear the influence of Bach, despite the use of seconds; rather appropriately, I don’t hear a lot of grief, perhaps because the piece is based on a township jive rhythm.
My second favorite track is “Tatyana,” which was Tanya’s formal Russian name.  A celebration of who she was, it is in a major key. Since the CD was recorded in order, this piece came last. By this time, David was so comfortable in the studio with his producer, Phil Romeo, that he felt free to improvise, so that what started as a guitar tremolo piece became a piece for pipa (one of several other instruments David plays), played on the guitar.
The folk-tinged bonus track, “Tabernacle Tea,” was written years earlier and used by Fox Chase Cancer Center as background music for one of their training videos.  This is my least favorite track on the CD, which may be due to the fact that I’m generally not fond of folk music.
David told me that Tanya’s final days were full of laughter, music, and libations—a going home party, in a sense.  So even though there are moments that ache with emotion, most of David Cohen: Guitar will leave you more inspired to dance than to weep, which is the best way to celebrate the kind of love that transcends the annual mid-February dose of hearts and flowers.

Maria Thompson Corley is a Julliard-trained concert pianist and published novelist. She lives in Lancaster, PA.

Allen Krantz Classical Guitarist Interview w/ David Cohen

Originally published 1/13

Allen Krantz
Sunday January13, 3013
Settlement Music School 3pm

ALLEN KRANTZ, a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory and Stanford University, has received acclaim as a composer, solo guitarist, and chamber musician. His performances throughout the United States have included appearances at Carnegie Hall, Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Phillips Collection in Washington, with his diverse programs often featuring original compositions.

Recent premieres have included “Three Pieces for Chamber Orchestra”; “Passacaglia” for trombone, guitar and piano, premiered by Joseph Alessi of the New York Philharmonic; and “American Document” commissioned by the Martha Graham Dance Company and premiered at the Joyce Theater in NY. Other recent pieces are “Sacred Places” for solo guitar; “A Musical Walk”, a children’s piece commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra; a symphony entitled “In the Air”, and “Under One Roof”, a trio for trumpet violin and piano in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“An American Town” for string orchestra, commissioned by the Village Bach Festival in Michigan was also presented at the Moscow Autumn festival and in Australia. Jason Vieaux performed Krantz’s guitar concerto, “Innocence and Experience”, at the Darwin International Guitar Festival in Australia and with Orchestra 2001 in Philadelphia. “anyone lived in a pretty how town”, commissioned by Gretna Music, has been performed by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit in Saratoga and Philadelphia. Krantz’s arrangement of Copland’s Appalachian Spring sketches were presented at the Library of Congress with the Martha Graham Company.

Allen Krantz is composer in residence for the Philadelphia based chamber ensemble, 1807 & Friends, which has premiered many of his works. Allen Krantz has received support from the American Composers Forum, Meet the Composer, Chamber Music America, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance among others.

Krantz heads the guitar program of The New School Institute at Temple University. He also gives occasional courses on music history and is a lecturer for the Philadelphia Orchestra. He is a core member of the Dolce Suono Ensemble, and performs in “Duo Paganini” and the “Florian Trio” with violinist Nancy Bean and cellist Lloyd Smith. Krantz’s compositions are published by the Theodore Presser Co. and Falls House Press His solo and chamber music arrangements for the guitar are published by International Music. Allen Krantz’s recordings for the DTR label include “Summer Music” , “The Romantic Guitar”, and “The Philadelphia Connection”. He has also recorded for Albany and Crystal Records labels.

David Cohen: I remember hearing your name in Philadelphia as a classical guitarist in my early days of studying the instrument. Are you originally from Philly?

Allen Krantz: I am from Connecticut and came to Philadelphia in1979.

David: When did you pick up guitar?

Allen: I played violin and piano when I was younger but it was in my teen years that I picked up the guitar. It was mostly blues, folk and jazz. I went through the whole progression. I started to get serious about classical guitar in my first year of college.

David: When you went to college that’s when you picked up classical guitar?

Allen: That’s when I officially took my first classical guitar lesson after trying to teach myself a little bit. There was very nice teacher at Washington University where I went so it was in my freshman year that I started doing it.

David: Did you enter school for composition?

Allen No, I went to Washington University promising my parents that I would get a basic liberal arts education. After one year I changed my major to music. After my second year even my teacher suggested I go to a conservatory, he felt I had out grown him. Washington University was a very interesting place. But he felt I had out grown him and it was very good of him to suggest I go to a conservatory. Then I went to San Francisco Conservatory where I was a guitar major. When I was there I got very interested in renaissance and baroque music. It was a hot bed of activity at Berkeley and Stanford. A lot of my best teachers at the conservatory were graduate students who came up from Stanford. So I got this idea that that’s were I should go so I went there to graduate school at Stanford and studied early music performance and received my Masters there. It’s funny at the at that point everybody urged me that the best guitar programs were in California.

David: That has changes a lot.

Allen: Of course, Julliard has a guitar program Curtis was the last and now has one. In those days there were still other programs – Mannes College had one for instance. At that time Christopher Parkening and Michael Lorimer were the two best know guitarists in America and I went to San Francisco to specifically study with Lorimer.

David: What about Parkening?

Allen: Well, he is a friend of mine. I was there when Parkening was becoming famous. I think his recordings were some of the most beautiful ever made on the guitar. He told me he played differently on recording than he played in concert. He understood how recording worked which Segovia never did. He played to himself in the studio, which Segovia never did. Segovia played the same way in concert and in the studio. The recordings of the 1970’s are gorgeous. The sheer passion of his playing and the colors that he gets has been rarely done so beautifully. I got to be friends with him and spent a lot of time hanging out with him and learned a lot just sitting next to him and listening to him play or he would listen to me and he would give me advice about colors. David: We’re talking days when people were selling out the big halls. Allen: Well you know the guitar was like tennis in the 1970’s. Classical guitar had a growth spurt. Up until then it was Segovia and a handful of other people. There were a lot of people of my age who grew up with the guitar and then naturally followed to classical guitar – in my case especially since I had a classical background. So it was almost a fad in the 1970’s

David: Do you think the popularity has diminished?

Allen: No, I think it’s taken its rightful place in the great scheme of things. I think it’s continued to grow. Yesterday I was adjudicating the Astral auditions. They had four guitarists audition and they were all outstanding. The level of guitar playing continues to grow as it does in other instruments in terms of technique prowess I think the guitar is much more established as part of the musical landscape.

Part 2

David: I read an interview with John Williams where in the course of the interview said that classical guitarists are notorious for being bad sight-readers. What do you see as issues guitarists have to address?

Allen: I’m a very good sight-reader only because I made a point of it. I do think that the guitar is a hard instrument to sight read on. It’s harder than most instruments because we’re playing polyphonic music and also because it’s not laid out in the logical way like the piano is laid out. I do encourage my students to spend a little time every day practicing sight-reading.

David: Other obstacles?

Allen: Well, there are a couple fundamental obstacles that are a natural part of the guitar. Number one- the average guitarist spends too much time playing by themselves and playing solo music and they can develop indulgent bad musical habits, if they played more chamber music that would be corrected. They wouldn’t be able to get away with it. That is one tendency I think is changing. I’ve always considered that one function of mine-to write guitar chamber music, which I’ve written quite a bit of. I think it’s healthy for the guitar that we don’t sit in the corner and play by ourselves-as much as I like solo guitar music. We also participate as chamber music players and we have a surprisingly rich heritage of chamber music if we look for it. What goes along with that is most guitarists play to softly. Go play with a violin and see what happens. I think guitar makers who are building louder guitars are addressing some of that. I think the average guitarist plays too much to themselves and they need to over come those two things.

David: Do you have a specific piece that you wrote that is your favorite?

Allen: It’s hard to be objective they’re your children. I think one that I feel best about is a trio that I wrote for guitar, violin and cello. I’m very happy in fact and my desire is to have other people play them. There is an up and coming guitarist named Adam Levin who lives in Boston, he is playing it a number of times this year around the country in different venues. He’s playing it in Chicago and I’m going out there as the guest composer on this chamber music series he is part of. I like that piece a lot, when he heard it he it he got very excited about it. That’s one piece I feel good about. I feel good about my Guitar Concerto that Jason Vieaux has played a number of times. It’s for guitar and chamber orchestra.

David: Does being a classical guitarist give you a different perspective?

Allen: Yes, Bruckner is an example of somebody who was a great orchestral composer and you can really tell he approached the orchestra differently because his instrument was the organ. His orchestral music really has that imprint of his organ background. I’d like to think my guitar background gives me a little different way to think of things.

David: Is the guitar a hard instrument to write for?

Allen: Yes, I know it is. I think the guitar is the hardest instrument to write for. It has so many idiosyncrasies that make it difficult to anticipate unless you play it yourself. So I think the best advice is what Segovia use to do. He’d have composers listen to a few pieces and get a sense of the texture and basically say just write, don’t inhibit yourself and I’ll help you correct the details. I think composers who don’t play the guitar should take an approach like that. To make the guitar sound natural is really tough. I’ve worked a lot with composers, as long as they have basic idea of the right sound and texture and try not to make it sound like a grand piano. Usually you work with them and hold theirs hands a little bit and show them some options of what they want to do. And then there are the composers who write successfully for the guitar in a limited way because they treat it like a violin. So it is really hard to write for the guitar especially solo guitar music without playing it. To me the most impressive example of that is the Britten Nocturnal at least in the standard repertoire. A lot of the best pieces have been written with a guitarist on the scene working with the composer.

David: Was your piece Small Symphony for Saxophone and Electric Guitar written with a specific electric guitar in mind?

Allen: I wanted it to have a bridge between a classical symphony but with the expressivity of a blues guitar. I guess I was thinking of your typical blues guitar can play that like a Stratocaster. Theres a lot of places in that also where you play it with finger style. In a sense the way Jimi Hendrix would play Little Wing, beautiful quasi-acoustic sounding. I wanted to treat the guitar in that way. I’d love to write a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra. That’s in the back of my mind.

David: Do you have an electric guitar?

Allen: It’s actually a Stratocaster copy. It’s a Casio that I bought when I use to do commercial music. It’s a Midi guitar and it actually functions quite nicely as a Strat.

David: What kind of commercial music did you write?

Allen: I went through a stage in the late 1980’s early 1990’s where I was writing TV and radio commercials.

David: Was it a stage or necessity?

Allen: It was a stage. If it were out of necessity I would still be doing it. What happed was I was getting restless and I had an opportunity to write at a fairly high level. My first job was an American Express commercial. That’s what jump-started me as a composer. Getting to write commercials and film scores.

David: What else have I bought as a result of your music?

Allen: Well it was American Express and Molson Ale that were the big radio campaigns. I did it for maybe eight to ten years. It justified composing as a viable profession. The funny thing was that once I stared doing it I realized that how much I wanted to do it but was afraid of it but was now getting paid and it justified it. And it was doing film where I was able to be myself and then I got some opportunities to write chamber music and I realized this is what I really want to be doing. Making a living as a classical composer is pretty difficult. Of course by the time I got there I cared less about the difficulty because it’s what I wanted to do.

David: Do consider yourself a guitarist/composer or a composer/guitarist?

Allen: (Laughter) It depends on what day you ask me that question. It’s true, that’s the challenge of my life. I love both and find it very difficult to do both at the same time. That’s what my challenge is trying to plan my day well enough or plan my schedule well enough because I find when I’m composing especially if I have a commission that has a dead line to it, it takes over. I love the fact that it takes over and it’s difficult to practice with the intensity for a concert and vice –a-versa. I have a juggling act. It’s not hard to pick up the guitar when I’m out of practice but it’s hard to pick up composing when I’m out of practice. That’s something I’d like to try and improve in my life. Which is just that I don’t get really intensely into composing mode and then drop it and lose that momentum. I find it painful to get started again. I think I’ll compose better if I keep those gears going.

David: Will we ever see you perform a program of just your music?
Allen: I would never say never maybe that would be a nice thing at some point. I’d feel better If somebody else wanted to do it.
David: That’s the composer in you.
Allen: Yes it is! I really find it hard playing my own pieces. My guitar pieces are pretty difficult. I have to just be one of the musicians and I don’t mind playing one or two pieces but a whole program would kill me.
David: Emotionally or technically?
Allen: Emotionally! It is an interesting thought I shouldn’t rule it out. It isn’t something I’ve worried about but you know in a way it would be a pretty cool thing now that you’ve raised the question. I think I’ve written enough guitar chamber music. I would put the electric guitar piece on there, woodwinds and strings. There would be a good variety and a make a nice program.

David: What kind of guitar do you use?

Allen: I’m playing on a Delarue which I bought from Bob Page at the Classical Guitar Store. He came over to my house one day and I was not in the market for a guitar. He wanted me to see this for my Temple students and then I played it and it was like WOW!

David: What kind of strings do you use?
Allen: Hannabach.
David: Can you tell me about your program on Sunday?
Allen: I’m playing the Sarabande from the Bach Cello Suite it’s like a prayer to start the concert with. Then I am playing five fantasies from de Milano who I have really begun to appreciate in the past few year’s. Why in fact he is so important I’m constantly being amazed at how beautiful, deep and sophisticated his music is. I understand why he was called “El Davino” in the 16th century. In the program it lists that I am paying four but I’ve added one. And then a great Sonata by Wencelas Matiegka who is also a recent discovery in the past six years. I’ve now played through all eleven of his sonatas and he clearly has the largest body and most important body of large form guitar music from the early 19th century. To find somebody in the era of Beethoven and Schubert who was comfortable with sophisticated large sonata form was exciting to me so I’m playing the Bmi Sonata.
In the second half of program is my transcription of Spanish Dance no. 11 by Granados. That’s not played as a solo guitar piece usually and I’am finishing with Sephardic Life by Michael White. It was written for Peter Segal who founded the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society. It’s beautiful and that’s an example of Michael writing it with Peter’s participation.

Congratulation to Allen and his wife Susan who were married last week.

Phil Romeo – Guitarcity

Guitarcity is the first release from native Philadelphian Phil Romeo. Born and raised in South Phily, Masters in music education from Temple University, Guitarcity will hopefully bring well deserved recognition to this musician.

Romeo’s first release has eleven tracks of which Penn’s Landing opens the CD. The tune was also the initial inspiration behind this first CD. “I love riding my bike through the city at night, I was walking with my bike on Penn’s landing one night and there was a really cool vibe going on and the  melody started running through my head. I couldn’t get home fast enough to write it down” Phil recalls. Romeo’s spoken thoughts about his music are organized as well as his music, each line bringing the perfect transition into the next note culminating in a perfect cadence.

Sitting down with Phillip and his wife Barbara in their south Philadelphia home to talk about his CD over cappuccino and Barbra’s biscotti gives this witness a visual image behind the inspirations for Guitarcity. The kindness and love in the lyrics on the 7th track, For my Girl is exhibited as I watch both Phil and Barbra interact. The personal side of Romeo’s life are the notes played on his guitar for us to hear.

Lyrics aside, the skill, technique and ideas in his playing are flawless. When asked why he never went out to try to “make it in music” Phil points to a family portrait next to his piano and proudly states, “because I always wanted to have a family”.

Romeo plays guitar, bass, percussion, harmonica, soprano recorder, and vocals. Backing Phil is Steve Tanzer on flute. While the commercial use of his music isn’t what Phil is striving for, the track that inspired the CD would be a perfect soundtrack for an advertising campaign for Philadelphia tourism with the closing line, I’m Mayor Michael Nutter and this is Philadelphia.