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Chatting with Fred Child

Click here and check out the 2nd hour of Ensemble HD’s recent venture onto Performance Today.

Happy New Year with our latest vinyl reviews

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Ensemble HD was very happy to have received this from Analog Planet for Christmas:

“A more wondrous and wonderful Christmas present you could not buy for yourself or give to someone else because everything about this record is nothing short of miraculous.” (Here for the full review)

…and delighted to sail into the new year with this from Voix des Arts:

BEST CHAMBER MUSIC RECORDING, 2013 (full review here)

Happiest of new years to all of you.

News and Reviews

 

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We recently submitted “Live at the Happy Dog” for Grammy consideration- narrowing ballots are due at the end of October. Voters can check us out here: ensemblehd.bandcamp.com.

Just added, Grammy news from Voix-des-arts.

In the meantime, here’s a small collection of buzz about the vinyl.
EARLY REVIEWS

The Intent of Our Vinyl Release is Clear – And So Is the Sound!

Thank you to Mark Smotroff of Audiophilereview.com for his thoughtful evaluation and article about the Live at the Happy Dog vinyl release by Ensemble HD.

Happy to share his review with our audience…

 

 

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WCLV Radio named ‘Live at the Happy Dog’ Choice CD of the Day!

Bill O'Connell

Thank you to Bill O’Connell for the shout out to Ensemble HD for naming ‘Live at the Happy Dog’ Choice CD of the Day.

Double Vinyl Release on Bandcamp!

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Our double vinyl release is available on Bandcamp!  Just click on the Bandcamp button to order your copy today.  Vinyl sales that exceed production costs will be donated to music education and outreach programs for young Clevelanders.  What better way to invest in our future?

Counting Down – Release Date May 15th!!

A lot has happened since the Live Recording of Ensemble HD at the Happy Dog on December 4 and 5.  If you have been following these posts, you have a sense of the combined efforts of musicians, engineers, producers, graphic designers, videographers, photographers, impresarios – artists all.

The kernel of the idea of bringing chamber music to a broader audience and the experience of hearing the music is best captured by Charles Michener, a Cleveland native and internationally recognized arts writer and arts advocate. His essay is included in the liner notes of the double album vinyl release.

For years, classical music professionals have bemoaned the decline of interest in their finely crafted art. Their audience seems increasingly confined to retirees. The airwaves are dominated not by Rossini or Rachmaninoff, but Rihanna, and Rascal Flatts.  Classical musicians are widely stereotyped as ivory tower nerds, hopelessly “out of touch.” Worst of all, in our over-entertained society, is the general impression that what they do is not much fun.
Notable culprits, as keepers of the flame see it, are a lack of musical education in the schools and a youth culture afflicted with A.D.D. and besotted with the trendy rather than the time-tested. Yet, perhaps what ails classical music has less to do with the audience, the nature of the music or the people who play it, than it does with the places and the manner in which it is usually played. What if one could experience Beethoven and Bartók in a setting other than a shrine-like auditorium with its inflexible seating, strict code of behavior, and steep admission prices?  What if the players arrived not in formal evening dress but as people who look and act just like the rest of us? What if they played unencumbered by expectations that listening to them will make you a “more cultured” person? What if you could enjoy Beethoven and Bartók in a casual public watering hole on an ordinary urban street while chatting with your companion, ordering food and drink, and even glancing occasionally at a TV monitor where an NBA or NFL game is also in progress?
Cleveland is an old industrial city with a proud collection of arts institutions. None is more proud than the celebrated Cleveland Orchestra. Its home, Severance Hall, is a magnificent Art Deco palace situated on the city’s culturally endowed East Side, elevated above street level like a temple. Its velvet-upholstered seats fan out in regimental order from a glittering stage upon which some of the world’s finest orchestral players expertly ply their trade, formally dressed and bent toward one another as if engaged in a ritual of which only they know the secrets.
One of those players is the orchestra’s principal flutist, Joshua Smith, who has held that prestigious position since 1990, when he was just 20. Go to his website and you’ll see a slender, bearded young man wearing an impish smile and white tie and tails. He is also barefooted.
A couple of years ago, Smith met Sean Watterson, who had recently returned to his hometown after a career in international finance. In an unlikely professional swerve, Watterson was now a proprietor of Happy Dog, an old corner bar on Cleveland’s gritty, less culturally endowed West Side, situated at the edge of a once crime-ridden neighborhood, recently transformed into the Gordon Square Arts District. Smith and Watterson got talking—not about the saloon’s menu (hot dogs with a choice of fifty different toppings)—but about its live music program. At the time, Happy Dog booked local rock acts and polka bands. “What about classical music?” said Smith. “Why not?” said Watterson. Such was the beginning of what has become a beautiful friendship between some of Cleveland’s finest classical musicians and a whole new legion of fans, most of whom are young and unexpectedly susceptible to the charms of classical music.
Happy Dog, under previous owners, has been around nearly as long as Severance Hall, which opened in 1931. But its ambiance is planets away from the stately pile The Cleveland Orchestra calls home. The heavily scarred bar is a spacious oval surrounded by swiveling stools. The walls are lit in hot pink. The front windows, behind a little stage, are hung with neon advertisements for plebian beverages like Pabst Blue Ribbon, long the bar’s bestselling beer. The kitchen is visible through a small opening—“the bookie’s window when the place doubled as a betting shop,” says Watterson.
“I liked the space right away—not too big or too small,” says Smith. “It seemed like an interesting idea, but I wasn’t thoroughly committed to it. We were like who knows what’s going to happen?”
For the first Happy Dog appearance by Smith and his pals on a week night in June 2010, Watterson put out a little sign that read: “Cleveland Orchestra tonight. 8 p.m.” By 7:30 there was a line extending half way down the block and nearby parking had dried up.
At that first gig, the “Cleveland Orchestra” consisted of Smith and four of his colleagues—principal oboist Frank Rosenwein, associate concertmaster Amy Lee, violist Joanna Patterson Zakany, and cellist Charles Bernard. They wore t-shirts and jeans, just like virtually everyone in their audience, and as they set up their music stands a couple of feet from the bar, they chatted breezily with one another and anyone who came in. To the packed crowd, they played a program that included Mozart, Beethoven, and Britten. People sitting near the players listened raptly. To the boisterous crowd farther back, the music was subliminal at best. “We began with Mozart and it was a mistake—it turned into wallpaper,” says Smith. But the cheering was raucous and the general response could best be summed up by the frequently heard “Awesome!”
The group quickly realized that a piano was needed to “boost acoustical reach and augment repertoire,” as Smith puts it. Their next Happy Dog outing, four months later, added pianist Christina Dahl, director of chamber music at SUNY Stony Brook in New York. The program for this and subsequent performances (all of which have attracted SRO audiences) was re-engineered to include pieces designed, in Smith’s words, “to draw people in, music that exhibits a strong intention to communicate.” To the players’ surprise, the more modern the music was, the better it seemed to work. Perhaps their most riveting piece has been Webern’s spare, atonal Satz, for string trio, which in a traditional concert setting would have most people looking for the exit signs.
The range of strongly communicative pieces on this recording is broad, stylistically and emotionally. None of it is facile; none of it “dumbs down” the audience. Beethoven’s Serenade, for flute, violin and viola, is crystalline, classical ear candy. Britten’s Phantasy, for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, takes listeners into an exotic, mercurial reverie. The pieces by Ravel and Piazzolla are infectiously assertive. Smith and Dahl’s arrangement of Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, for flute and piano, is an alluring, impressionist dream. The Messiaen is a stark meditation on the cataclysm of 20th century war. The Shostakovich memorializes both a dear friend of the composer and victims of the Holocaust. Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag, for solo piano, evokes the easygoing courtliness of early American jazz—the closest thing to “barroom music” on the program.
As members of one of the most finely honed symphonic ensembles in the world, Smith and his cohorts are uncanny when it comes to listening to one another. Yet in the rough-and-ready atmosphere of Happy Dog their playing projects a conviviality that can’t be achieved on the grand stage of Severance Hall. Enhanced by the album’s analog recording format, this is classical music connecting with an audience in real time in a place that belongs more to the audience than to the musicians. Instead of demanding the  audience’s attention, it says, “Listen to us if you like.”  This, one feels, isn’t so much a performance as a happening.
In his blog soloflute.blogspot.com, Smith pinpoints the reasons for the remarkable popularity of these Happy Dog gigs, whose success in attracting young listeners has prompted The Cleveland Orchestra’s nabobs to plan a “residency” in the Gordon Square Arts District, a few blocks west. “I think that people are more than ever eager to be engaged in process, not just product,” Smith writes. “Just think about the popularity of reality shows focused on behind-the-scenes, from Top Chef to Top Model. Or the ramping up of the slow food movement, which fosters an interest in where our food comes from—how it’s grown, cared for, transported to us—and which, in turn, celebrates the experience of eating. I love sharing what I do with people . . . Bringing intimacy, connection, and, especially, awareness of how spontaneous and vital and alive classical music can be . . . into places where people least expect to engage with it might serve to draw [them] into the experience in a different way.”
Just how well this contextual alchemy can work was demonstrated at the close of a recent Happy Dog performance. It was 11 p.m. The beer and wine had slowed down, but the place was still full. Now, the little stage held just Smith, Rosenwein and Dahl. The music they began—Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (mirror in the mirror), a piece they had arranged for flute, oboe and piano—seemed to come from some familiar but unearthly source. In the Estonian composer’s minimal, tintinabular style, the piano played a simple rising triad like an ancient bell that wouldn’t stop tolling. Above, the flute and oboe sang the plainest of melodies, utterly without ornament or apparent breath.  Outside, the night was dark, the streetlights dim, the red neon Pabst sign a forlorn glow.  We were in an Edward Hopper painting, alone but not alone. For ten minutes, all sense of time was suspended and the only sound in Happy Dog was the music.
 
Charles Michener

 

Hot Dog with Ballpark Mustard, Webern, Beethoven and Shostakovich

Ensemble HD is about to release its first recording, “Live at the Happy Dog,” recorded at the celebrated hipster Happy Dog bar in Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts district.  Putting all rules aside, Ensemble HD is taking straight-up chamber music and serving it with gourmet hot dogs and brew.  Hear the audience erupt in cheers to Beethoven, or murmur admiration of Shostakovich as glasses clink and sirens and busses pass on the street outside. On a December night, in this local watering hole in Cleveland, it was about friends and fellowship and food, but as the final beers were served and the crowd settled in to hear the last set, it was all about the music.

 Video Montage – Vinyl Production of “Live at the Happy Dog”

Special thanks to Gotta Groove Records for allowing us to film the process and to Vince Slusarz, Chris Smith, Ray Scott and Matt Earley for taking the time to show us around.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

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Joshua Smith, Founder of Ensemble HD, flew to Washington DC to speak at the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Council meeting. He was invited talk to the Council about the international attention received for Ensemble HD’s chamber music performances at the Happy Dog.  Speaking with Mr. Smith was Joan Katz Napoli, Director of Education and Community Programs for the Cleveland Orchestra.  In a time of dwindling audiences for traditional classical music performances, how have The Cleveland Orchestra and its musicians moved to the forefront of outreach innovations?  The NEA wanted to know.

Photo by Joshua Smith

Link to the NEA Blog Page:

 

Archived Presentation:

Cutting it Close

Clint Holley at the Lathe

World class record production requires a lot of collaboration.  Artisans like Clint Holley of Well Made Music are an essential part of the process.  We started with superb recorded sound from Erica Brenner, producer and Thomas Knab, recording engineer.  But how to transfer the beautifully mastered sound to vinyl? Clint is one of the best in the business at bringing great sound to vinyl.  Here Clint transfers the recorded sound to a lacquered disk.  The machine that cuts the lacquer is a Neumann – VMS 70 cutting lathe – meticulously restored a few years ago by a recording technician who was in his 80s.

 

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Clint lowers the sapphire cutting stylus onto an aluminum disk coated with nitrocellulose lacquer.  The calculation of the groove spacing is a meticulous process.  Any imperfections in the coating or cutting of the lacquer will diminish the quality of the final record.  This lathe, built in the early 1970s, cuts the lacquer disk with a precisely engineered mechanism.  The disk is held in place by a vacuum to keep it secure on the lathe.  The magnetic coils that move the cutting stylus get hot as they move.  To keep them cool, helium gas flows past them to remove the heat. Helium  is used because of its high specific heat.  The spirals of cut lacquer coming off the stylus are quickly drawn off the disk by vacuum.

 

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This is the cutting stylus.  The small tube entering the top of the yellow triangle of the cutting head, supplies the cooling helium.  The metal tube to the right of the stylus, is the vacuum that removes the cut lacquer. Depending on the characteristics of the recording, a sapphire stylus can cut up to 2o hours of music.  For the Ensemble HD recording, Clint used a new stylus to insure optimal sound quality.

 

To check the cutting, Clint can play the lacquer with a tonearm built into the lathe.  Generally, only the test cuts are played back.   The final lacquer is seldom played because that would diminish the sound quality.  Once the lacquer is cut, it is inspected with a microscope to make sure the continuous spiral groove has been properly cut.  If it passes inspection, the  lacquer is inscribed with a serial number, removed from the lathe, and immediately sent off for plating.  The series of nickel plates that are produced from the cut lacquer will be used as stampers to press the vinyl record.

For more information about the process of making a vinyl record, check out the Test Pressing post and video.

Many thanks to Clint Holley of Well Made Music for the tour of his studio.  He clearly loves his work!