Yosemite cleanse

After a week clearing out our New York storage unit (final steps in our Stockholm move), we were lucky to seize a few days with friends on the opposite coast at Sierra Meadows, in the foothills of Yosemite.

We were thrilled to connect with so many old and newer friends from San Francisco and Los Angeles—not to mention Portland, Chicago, and Dublin—that made the Memorial Day trek, many with growing families.

The early summer days were gentle, the evenings golden.

Nighttime brought some stunning area musicians to entertain the crowd, and starry light shows above and below.

Top & asterisked (*) photos credit: Andy Shirey

New Creation

We met in a choir thirteen years ago; and making a home in Stockholm, we’ve been lucky to find a new musical family with Akademiska Kören (AK), with whom we sang our first Swedish concert this week.

Founded in 1931 as the first mixed-voice college choir in Sweden, AK (no longer a student group) celebrated its 85-year jubileum this fall with a performance of Haydn’s Creation (Skapelsen), plus a mix of modern pieces (repertoire list below), under the direction of pianist-composer Håkan Sund. We were joined for the Haydn by three other local choirs (Opera Viva, Uppsala’s Canorus, and Danderyds Sångensemble), three stunning soloists (soprano Hillevi Martinpelto, tenor Thomas Volle, and bass Nils Gustén), and Sandvikens Symphony Orchestra in Stockholm’s monumental Berwaldhallen concert hall.

We are so grateful to Håkan, AK, and our other fellow musicians for boundless patience and hospitality toward their new American colleagues.

Akademiska Kören 85th Jubilee Concert
Dir: Håkan Sund

György Ligeti: Éjszaka, Reggel (Night, Morning)
Eric Whitacre: Water Night
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi: Pseudo-Yoik
Joseph Haydn: The Creation (Part I)

Asterisked (*) photos credit: Maria Thiessen

Top photo credit: Anders Unosson

ACL 2015: real geniu5

Not entirely by accident, we timed our return to Texas with the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival. Brutally hot as always, the tech-forward event nonetheless made getting in, out, fed, watered, and entertained a breeze.

We caught a few familiar favorites (Tame Impala, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, José González, Amason) as well as pleasant surprises (Sylvan Esso, Shakey Graves, Kali Uchis); sample playlist below.

ACL is an eclectic festival, and it can be tough to compare across genres. But in this fan’s opinion, Saturday evening’s Deadmau5 set was in a league of its own. Even the Chronicle called out fans of Joel Zimmerman’s animatronic alter ego as the most engaged…during any set at ACL on Saturday. The majority of the crowd was completely engrossed in the live experience rather than trying to preserve the moment on their phones. If forgetting our devices for a few minutes is the new metric for a compelling show, Zimmerman has evidently found our better-than-Facebook frequency. Not like the real thing, but the sound in Channel 810’s live capture is solid; costume action around the 55-minute mark was hilarious at the time.

Asheville sour power

Saratoga Springs, NY to Asheville, NC

After bidding Europe goodbye, we spent a few days checking in with students, colleagues, and friends at Skidmore, and a night with Oliver’s family in Allendale. But with help from the New Jersey Soells—who had kindly tuned up the Buick in our months away—we were on the road again in less than a week. Chasing Hurricane Joaquin most of the way, we were relieved to make the 700-mile drive to Asheville, NC in under 12 hours, and were rewarded with a warm reception from fellow San Francisco expats Owen Grace and Megan Zehnder.

Asheville - 2The rain quashed our hopes of exploring Asheville’s natural wonders, so we settled for the cozier indoor sights of the new craft beer capital of America. By some counts, the Asheville region is now home to 40 breweries, more per capita than any other US metro area. Alongside local favorites like Green Man and Wicked Weed, big-name outfits Oskar Blues and Sierra Nevada recently established branches in the area, with New Belgium and Deschutes in line for coming years. Although critics have questioned how far the beer boom can go, the fervor to us was palpable.

We spent the better part of an afternoon in the South Slope tasting room of Catawba Brewing Company, founded in neighboring Burke County in 1998, but recently expanded into an Asheville paper warehouse. Owen and Megan served the aromatically accessible White Zombie at their wedding reception last May; this time I fell in love with the Brown Bear. It’s always special to imbibe on-site, surrounded by the same tanks that brought your beer to life. Like many Asheville breweries, Catawba’s landscape now also features stacks of wooden barrels nurturing long-aged sours, with extra acid-producing microbes adding a distinctive tang to the traditional Saccharomyces strains.

Around the corner at Burial Beer Company, the vibe was darker and hipper, with smaller specialized tanks wedged among the thirsty crowd. I enjoyed the Pollination Honey Saison, one of several Belgian ales on rotation. The brewery’s fascination with Tom Selleck was harder to justify, but artfully overstated.

Wicked Weed Brewing helped put Asheville on the craft beer map in 2011, and opened a dedicated tasting room in 2014 for sour as well as funky mixed fermentations. The Funkatorium offered at least a dozen sour beers when we stopped through, including the beautiful Montmaretto with hints of cherry and almond. Hand-hewn pouring racks drove home the artisanal effect.

Fortunately, our Asheville day wasn’t all about beer, as Megan’s aunt invited us that evening to her fall concert with the Asheville Choral Society. The program, a benefit for the Asheville Humane Society titled All Creatures Great and Small, featured music celebrating humankind’s special relationship with animals. Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, albeit a stretch in context, was a long-time favorite for us both. And while traveling so far from our own boys, it helps to remember how deep our connections to the animal kingdom can run.

Asheville - 11
Asheville Choral Society, in concert for All Creatures

Riga, tête-à-tête

Like many choral music enthusiasts, we’ve been enchanted for years by the artistry and composition coming out of the Baltic States. Stockholm to RigaBut frankly, aside from echoes of Tormis and Pärt, we knew next to nothing about the region. So on our last weekend abroad, we made a somewhat rash decision to hop the 80-minute flight from Stockholm for a weekend in Riga, Latvia.

We were drawn by a headline concert of the 2015 Rudens Kamermūzikas Festivāls (Autumn Chamber Music Festival), which would bring together the Latvian Radio Choir and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in a live encore performance of their 2014 Grammy-winning album, Adam’s Lament.Riga Cathedral tapestry The program, a text by Orthodox Saint Silouan set to music by Arvo Pärt, also marked the composer’s 80th birthday. Per the organizers, The motto of the festival is tête-à-tête, ‘a private conversation’ in French, emphasizing the uniquely intimate chamber musicianship atmosphere and the very special dialogue that takes place between the audience and musicians.

Beyond the rhetoric, even a couple days in town made clear the ideological weight of music for this former Soviet State. The reclaiming of Latvian national identity in the late 19th century revolved around the propagation of songs and singing groups, still celebrated in the massive Vispārējie Latviešu Dziesmu un Deju Svētki (Latvian Song and Dance Festival) every five years. The Latvian Presidency of the European Union closed this June with a 6,000-voice choral concert. So it was no surprise that the performance in the cavernous Rīgas Doms (Riga Cathedral) was packed and, suffice to say, transcendent.

Apart from the music, we went with few expectations; and Riga caught us by surprise. From the soaring architecture of Svētā Pētera Baznīca (St Peter’s Church) and the Melnglavju Nams (House of the Blackheads, a 14th-century mercantile exchange) just outside our hotel, to the expansive gardens of Bastejkalns (Bastion Hill) Park, haunting relics at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, and the operatic baritone busking in the Rātslaukums (Town Hall Square), Riga was a stunning integration of old-world artistry and modern, multinational style.

By night, the streets were lit by illuminated sculptures and vodka bars, bridges and skyscrapers glittering off the Daugava River.

We spent a rainy Sunday exploring the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation, one of the oldest artifact collections in Europe. The fresco of a beneficent Peter the Great, embellished with an actual cannon ball embedded in the wall, felt emblematic of the exhibit’s tangible violence and glory.

In our few days there, Latvian cuisine presented as simple but savory. The cavernous underground pub Alus Arsenals served us Lāčplēsis, a pork leg dish named for the hero of a 19th-century national epic (or possibly for the brewery by the same name), memorable even to my limited meat tooth. Other local restaurants reflected Latvia’s heritage as a trade and naval hub for Europe and the former Soviet Union: Armenian basturma (air-dried beef) with homemade lavash and adžika (pepper sauce) at Armenia Restorāns was a particularly pungent wonder.

Ever with an eye to research, we were thrilled to discover Latvia’s traditional herbal liqueur, Rīgas Melnais Balzams (Riga Black Balsam). In the family of Jägermeister, the 90-proof spirit claims 24 ingredients formulated by chemist Abraham Kunze in 1789; it gained popularity for curing Catherine the Great of colic or, possibly, poisoning. Though the medicinal flavor was offputting straight up, I loved the Hot Balsam variation served at several cafes with warm blackcurrant juice and cinnamon. Sadly, the traditional ceramic packaging discouraged us from taking home more than a few samples; a clerk assured us the distillery couldn’t possibly use plastic, as the Balsam would eat right through. (This seemed unlikely, but maybe just as well to limit our intake).

After the past few months expanding our world, Riga for me was a humbling reminder just how little we’ve seen, and a tantalizing taste of how much more is out there.

Psychedelic Strasbourg

On Friday night of our Alsace weekend, Christel’s mum took charge of the kids so we could venture into Strasbourg, thirty minutes east of Marlenheim. The city was celebrating the millenial of its iconic cathedral with a stunning sound and light show projected directly on the building. Some photos and footage below (transition at 1:00 captures a little of the magic), or see the full-length version online.

Way Out West

While in Gothenburg, we made it to the final day of Way Out West, Way Out Westtouted as Sweden’s #1 music festival. This year’s line-up included 60+ bands at the main Slottskogen park site; taking a cue from SXSW in our former hometown, another 60+ played affiliated evening venues.

The sold-out event accommodated 25,000 daily attendees in a grassy maze of music tents, picnic grounds, and bar enclosures. Intermittent rain forced us under the tree canopy several times, though the Gothenburg crowd seemed to shrug it off.

Way Out West sparked controversy in 2012 for electing to provide only vegetarian food; this year was dairy-free as well (except ice cream, of course). Strolling coffee cows dispensed Zoegas, our favorite Swedish brand, with oat milk. By one account, the festival reduced its carbon footprint 20% by cutting meat; fortunately, the country that helped grow quorn knows tasty veg options.

A guiltier pleasure was test-driving Guitar Hero Live at the Sony booth. Hope my sabbatical doesn’t take too much of a hit when this comes out in October.

Fortunately, the music eclipsed the entertaining environs. Highlights included Todd Terje, whose touring band the Olsens captured the catchy sound of his inaugural 2014 album (video from last year’s Øya festival by bognorlittle):

Patti Smith was predictably potent, charging the crowd with revolutionary fervor only slightly redundant with Sweden’s leftist political history (live by rock and roll heart videos):

Chic’s vintage soul got the damp crowd dancing (live by aetl74):

Supergroup Amason was a great find. We didn’t understood the Swedish lyrics, but were swept up by the audience’s sing-along fervor (live by majstoffe):

We had high expectations of headliners First Aid Kit, and weren’t disappointed: the Söderberg sisters do Americana better than most Americans. Covers of Simon & Garfunkel and Black Sabbath (our engagement song!) were especially nostalgic. But the band’s originals truly shined—especially their emotional closer, Emmylou. Emmylou Harris, winner this year of Sweden’s Polar Music Prize, had played the same stage Friday, and the reverence in the sisters’ voices was palpable; worth a rainy day in the park for sure (video by TV4 at the June 2015 ceremony):

Oh the bitter winds are coming in
And I’m already missing the summer.
Stockholm’s cold, but I’ve been told
I was born to endure this kind of weather.

When it’s you I find, like a ghost in my mind,
I am defeated, and I gladly wear the crown.

I’ll be your Emmylou, and I’ll be your June
If you’ll be my Gram, and my Johnny too; no,

I’m not asking much of you, just
Sing, little darling, sing with me.

First Aid Kit
First Aid Kit closing Way Out West 2015