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A Mixed Bag

Boston String Quartet's 'Xibus' -
reviewed by

'What all this signifies is not at all clear.'

Boston String Quartet - Xibus. © 2008 Navona Records LLC

They call it 'Xibus' -- now there's a title to conjure with. The guiding light is executive producer and Boston String Quartet leader, Christopher Vuk. BSQ takes top billing; however peppered throughout the ten tracks are four or five solo vocalists, backing vocals, percussion, and a melange of other instruments.

It seems a motley assortment of musical personnel tinkering at the interface of rock-pop and light classics with results, neither one thing nor the other. Several are rookies spawned by music colleges, some embark on slap-dash tours, a sprinkling team with embryonic recording companies (ie Navona Records, formed in May 2008 at Hampton, New Hampshire, USA).

Most however are former students of Berklee College of Music (founded 1945 by Lawrence Berk). BCM's guiding principal is 'that the best way to prepare students for careers in music is through the study and practice of contemporary music.' Situated in Boston, it has a diverse student body representing more than seventy countries, and a music industry 'who's who' of alumni. Furthermore it claims to be the world's premier learning lab (?) for the music of today -- and tomorrow.

Navona is the label imprint of the parent company and audio production house, Parma Recordings.

Listen -- Karl Jenkins: Palladio
(track 2, 0:21-1:21) © 2008 Navona Records LLC

Best-known featured composers are both from the UK; Penclawdd-born Welshman, Karl Jenkins (track 2, Palladio, 1996) and Paul McCartney (track 10, Hey Jude, 1968).

Track 8, Like it is, focuses on a US group; Cold Play and Radiohead lookalikes, the neo-alternative band, Common Thrill, with front man John Courduvelis, who wrote this item.

The Xibus' Hey Jude, in an arrangement by BSQ violist Chen Lin, is too close to McCartney's original for comfort. Here the vocalist is adenoidal twenty-two-year-old Uruguayan (Berklee College of Music, Boston) rock-n-roll student, Agustin Simon. I felt myself subject to a needlessly smudged copy of the irreplaceable legendary classic.

She's Like the Swallow, a traditional Celtic-Newfoundland lament has an over-busy string quartet arrangement by Thomas Parish, but the lyrics, sung by Fionnuala Gill (former lead vocalist with the touring 'Riverdance' and singer/harp player for the Norwegian group 'Secret Garden') are as beautifully delivered as anything on this disc.

Alas, when Gill duets with stunning Italian-born soprano Giorgia Fumanti in the Ave Maria by Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), the two gifted ladies have to compete with Mauricio Yazigi's bothersome instrumental arrangement.

Listen -- Caccini: Ave Maria
(track 9, 2:08-2:47) © 2008 Navona Records LLC

Note that in 1994 the Latvian soprano Inessa Galante also recorded an 'Ave Maria' by Caccini. For some time, despite the title, the aria was thought to be a work by Vladimir Vavilov (1972). Since 1994, numerous artists including Lesley Garrett, Andrea Bocelli, Sumi Jo and Charlotte Church tackled the composition, and the attribution of the work is often misunderstood by the public, due to the misleading title. The confusion resulted from a hoax. Vavilov (1925-1973), a Russian guitarist, lutenist and composer, was music editor for a state music publishing house and, like Kreisler, reworked early music, including Caccini's Ave Maria (in total disregard of an appropriate style), claiming it as his own. To this day, denying Caccini the credit is hotly disputed (see Disc Imports Ltd's Ave Maria by Giulio Caccini).

Navona's inside front cover has its own paraphrase of a seminal quote from John's Gospel; viz 'The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood', while the inside flap recounts the story of Hansel and Gretel (originally adapted by Giambattista Basile, 1575-1632) invited by the witch to enter her gingerbread house. It ends with the words 'No harm shall happen to you'. What all this signifies is not at all clear.

The disc begins with Polaris for instruments and voices, written by Berklee Music College (BMus, 2005) composer/conductor, Columbian-born, Nelson Navarrete.

Listen -- Nelson Navarrete: Polaris
(track 1, 0:00-1:08) © 2008 Navona Records LLC

Many of those involved in Xibus claim to be taking their music 'to the next level' whatever that means. To paraphrase the on-line Uncyclopedia, 'The only way to decipher a phrase correctly is to point a compass at it and guess its meaning.'

Those with A1 eyesight may read (in white-on-green approx 6.5pt typeface) complete details of persons involved on each track. Even those with less than first class vision can assess the size of each ensemble by noting the comparative length of all ten blocks of print. Polaris (track 1) and Ave Maria, (track 9, by Giulio Caccini) boast the largest slabs of type, while The Woods (track 6) comes in third.

The Woods is by German soundtrack composer Ulf Anneken, a 2006 graduate of Berklee College of Music; recipient of the Henry Mancini Scholarship by ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). Michael Chu's lyrics are sung by Giorgia Fumanti, pop-opera vocalist; jointly-billed on tour with José Carreras and Lang Lang and featured at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Listen -- Ulf Anneken: The Woods
(track 6, 6:34-7:16) © 2008 Navona Records LLC

That apart, Navona's 'Xibus' is most surely 'a mixed bag', and decidedly lacking in focus, yet its overall effect is undemanding, mildly soporific and effectively recorded at the Catholic Paulist Centre adjacent to Boston Common. To my mind it drifts around more than I can stomach. But give 'Xibus' a go. You may well find it 'just your ticket'.

Copyright © 25 February 2009 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand




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