Review: Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox at The Birchmere

My regular readers know that I had to take a break from blogging for a few weeks, both due to changing jobs and the holidays. So it seems fitting that I return to regular writing with a piece about a band that embodies one of the key virtues of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog: that somewhat hard-to-define Italian quality known as “sprezzatura”, which Castiglione writes of so glowingly in his “Book of the Courtier”. For as I discovered last evening at The Birchmere, musician and arranger Scott Bradlee has that quality in spades, as indeed do his friends who make up the members of Postmodern Jukebox.

For those unfamiliar with Bradlee and his band, PMJ takes modern pop songs and arranges them into different musical styles – whether Prohibition-Era or ’50’s Jazz, Classic Country or Motown. The right performer is selected for the right arrangement of the song, and a video of the result is then released on YouTube for us to enjoy. It is smart, it is sometimes infinitely better than the original, e.g. the entire auto-tuned Miley Cyrus catalogue, and it is FUN.

Last evening’s performance at The Birchmere in Alexandria was fun from the start. The show included elements like silly jokes combining contemporary life and nostalgia, such as Facebook Messenger in the style of a 1940’s radio show ad, and when Bradlee himself came out on stage for the first time, he sat down at the piano and began playing the theme music to Super Mario Brothers. It was also a pleasure to see not only the performers themselves dressed stylishly for an evening performance – no torn jeans or tats in sight – but to see many members of the audience dressed up themselves, in suits and ties, evening dresses, and even a few tuxedos here and there in the crowd.

The energy in the room did not lag one moment during the entire evening, something very rare indeed at any concert, particularly for one that was almost three hours long and standing room only. We were informed that the sold-out show that evening was the largest PMJ has played so far on their current tour. One could easily believe that the audiences will grow even larger, and the sold-out shows more frequent, the more this band becomes known.

Returning to where we started, “sprezzatura” can be understood as the art of making things look effortless. Castiglione advocated that the gentlemen and ladies who read his book study hard, and learn as much as possible, but then make their work seem easy. Given the extraordinary range of talent on display last evening, there were no doubt countless hours of lessons, practice sessions, rehearsals, and so forth which lead each of the performers to the point where they could entertain a large audience for several hours. Yet what struck me was the quiet, effortless confidence of those on stage. They know they are good at what they do, but are never pretentious about it: they are having a great time, and they want you to have a great time as well.

In particular, Scott Bradlee himself was something of a revelation. I already admired Bradlee’s inventiveness as well as his skills as a pianist. There are some piano phrases in the PMJ recordings of “Call Me Maybe” and “All About That Bass” that I would go back and watch repeatedly to try to get a sense of what he was doing with his fingering and phrasing. As a classically trained pianist who gave up on the instrument at 18 after my last recital, I could appreciate the technical skill on display, even if I could not reproduce it myself.

What surprised me a great deal last evening was that Bradlee was not the bandleader insisting on hogging the limelight fr himself. In fact not only did he not emcee, as I had expected he would, but he did not say one word until about 2/3 of the way through the concert. He was there to play, and to make his fellow musicians look good, but he was clearly not interested in having the spotlight for himself for any longer than was necessary, no matter how much he clearly deserved it given his genius. And that characterization is backed up by moments such as when, probably to no notice at all from most, Bradlee unexpectedly slipped in a quote of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as a background bridge in the middle of a song, or took suggestions from the audience and on the spot created a jazz mash-up of songs from Queen, Frank Sinatra, Beyonce, and George Michael, combining them into a song of his own invention.

PMJ are beginning the European tour shortly, and those of my readers on the other side of the pond would do well to avail themselves of the opportunity to see these incredible musicians. You will come away not only impressed, but you will also have a great deal of fun. And you will have an excuse, should you choose to take advantage of it, to dress up and go out to a concert for an evening, maybe do a little dancing with the one you love – like adults used to do, before the culture decided that being an adult was something bad. It’s terrific to see musicians and indeed an audience with a greater appreciation for the music, style, and fun that our grandparents’ generation had, while not abandoning the music of today.

Frankly, I can’t WAIT to see PMJ again in concert, next time they return to DC.

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Postmodern Jukebox last evening at The Birchmere

 

Thursday Night in DC: A Classical Christmas Concert

During the Advent and Christmas season, there are usually a surfeit of Christmas concerts for those who love music.  Unfortunately, many of them take place on weekends.  This makes it impossible to attend more than one or two, due to the overlapping of these events.

Fortunately for those of you in the DC area, tomorrow night – Thursday – you have the chance to attend a Christmas concert that does not take away from your already-booked weekend schedule before Christmas arrives next week, and to do so with a truly international talent.

Soprano Alina Kozinska will be celebrating the season in song, poetry, carols, and Sacred Scripture, along with Pianist Patricia McKewen Amato, Actress Renata Plecha, and a cast of soloists/musicians. The program includes works by Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert, and others.

The concert will take place at 7pm at St. Stephen Martyr Church in Foggy Bottom.  St. Stephen’s is located on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th Street NW, a short walk from the Foggy Bottom Metro station. There is usually plenty of street parking around the neighborhood, or in one of the garages nearby.

Ms. Kozinska teaches voice at The Peabody, and sang for Pope St. John Paul II at the Papal Mass in Camden Yards when he visited Baltimore (I was there and remember her well.) Therefore this promises to be quite the evening. And for those of you who have never visited my parish of St. Stephen’s, which seems so nondescript from the outside, don’t take my word for it: ask someone who has attended Mass or a concert there. They will tell you that the acoustics of the church are absolutely superb for performances such as this.

Hope to see many of my DC readers there, and if you spot me, do come over and say hello after the concert!

St. Stephen's at Christmastide

This Saturday Night in DC: Advent Stations

If you were at the Catholic Information Center last night for the Christmas Poetry Party, then you know that I took a bit of a risk of never being invited back to speak there in pointing out the Dominican friars in attendance, and asking the audience to talk to them later about a very special event which they are organizing in DC this Saturday. What can I say? I am a well-known groupie of the Dogs of the Lord (Domini Canes).

If you were not there, but you do happen to be in the DC area this weekend, then I hope you’ll join me at historic St. Dominic’s Church, just a couple of blocks from The National Mall, this Saturday December 13th at 7pm for the service of Advent Stations. It is being organized by the Dominican student brothers from the Dominican House of Studies here in Washington. It promises to be a highly memorable event, and hopefully one that will become an annual must-attend, like the very popular Vigil of All Saints and Tenebrae services held at Dominican House every year.

There will be 6 stations around the church, each with a different preacher preaching at the station itself. The six topics will be:

– The Fall of Adam and Eve (Gen 3)
– Noah and the Great Flood (Gen 6)
– Abraham and the Sacrifice of His Son (Gen 22)
– Moses and the Burning Bush (Exod 3)
– Ezekiel and the Vision of the Temple (Ezek 43)
– David’s Psalm of Kingship (Ps. 110)

The 7th station will have no preaching, but instead will feature the chanted words of the Prologue from St. John’s Gospel (Jn 1:1-14). There will also be music sung between each station, including hymns, chants, and polyphony. I also have it on good authority that there will be 600 candles employed in the darkened church during the service which, in such a magnificent building accompanied by beautiful music, should be quite atmospheric. And there will even be a relic of Bethlehem itself: a true piece of the crib in which the Infant Jesus was placed when He was born.

For further information, please be sure to check out the Facebook invite, or these articles from Kathryn Lopez in National Review Online and also over at Chant Cafe. Catholic or not, you are most welcome! Hope to see you there!

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St. Dominic’s in Washington, DC