Contemporary Classical

Reviewed by Rupert Thomas II

Water Bear/In the Moonlight

Songs have their own personalities: they woo us, entice us to sing in the shower and sometimes even smack us in the proverbial face.  Water Bear’s In The Moonlight goes a step further and assigns forenames to each track.  This is a method the band calls Name Music.  The violin-heavy tunes unfurls into timeless instrumentals wherein a name is given a body through note and pitch.  With a track list slightly favoring femininity, even Henry VIII — cleverly absent from the list — would savor the beauty and persona of each song before slicing to the next.

The idea behind Name Music is both simple and complex.  Letters are assigned a pitch on the violin, and each score is confined to those letters within its given name.  Each band member adds his or her own flavor, creating a depth of personality and a sound that’s as alive as flesh and blood.


Bryan Rowe is not only a musician; he is a poet. Although Songs of the Soul arrives minus any lyrics, the words are illustrated through Rowe’s classically sculpted piano playing. It is a masterwork about life, death, and the renewal of the cycle. The record takes us through the seasons of the Earth – spring, summer, winter, and fall – as it relates to birth and the end of our years. It is an album that chills the heart with overwhelming feelings of loneliness and painful acceptance; in the end, we are left wanting to hold our loved ones next to us, to savor each of those precious moments.

Derek Jensen: What I have heard from you thus far seems to transcend the classical music category in the sense that I hear traces of jazz and soundtrack scores in there. You seem to compose your music without any stylistic boundaries while other classical composers may feel confined. Do you feel a sense of liberation when you write these pieces?

Bryan Rowe: The sense of liberation I feel is simply the product of what I have been feeling or focusing on “inside” and then hearing and seeing how that focus translates into music, the sole expression of those feelings and thoughts. I am, as any other human being, an amalgamation of all the experiences I have lived.  I never feel confined by any form or structure of music, but there is an underlying, logical construction of my music that is perhaps influenced by the classical genre. As a child, my parents listened to all types of music – I inherited their vinyl collection – every genre was represented.  I love soundtracks of movies, particularly those of Morricone and Barry. So all of those musical sounds, coupled with ones I call definitely “Rowe” do represent me as a composer who is naturally influenced by a wide spectrum of genre, including jazz.

Jensen: How do you convey your feelings through the writing of music?

Rowe: There is not much of a plan when I compose. What pours out of my being is essentially the expression of what I am trying to convey.  The piece, “I Lament You,” was written upon my father’s passing just a few years ago. I cannot  express to you how “deep” that piece goes for me.  Sometimes it is utterly painful to hear or play it, but that is what the music is about; it is the conduit of my emotions and experiences.  The music I just wrote for my daugther’s wedding expresses the joy and euphoria of falling in love and the celebration of committing one’s self to another.  The music is grand but dance-like.  So there is no magical formula.  I simply compose what my mind and heart collaboratively decide to convey based on what has influenced me emotionally.

Jensen: There is pain but also acceptance on Songs of the Soul. If you don’t mind, please tell us the story behind the album.

Rowe: Songs of the Soul was recorded in a single take with no music in front of me.  I mention this because the collection expresses an emotional outpouring of  “loss” and “forgiveness” and is based on life events.  The first release of the album was based on my experience of the ending of a marriage and the stages of emotion that naturally accompanied that part of my life.  So it is easy for the listener to comprehend why I titled pieces as I did.  The second release of the album, just last year, was motivated by the losses of my grandmother, mom and dad, and father-in-law, all within 18 months.  Through that span of time, dealing with parents’ illnesses, caring for them, and literally experiencing their deaths was gut wrenching, just as the divorce was for me in the ’90s.  I thought it appropriate to re-release the album with new artwork that expresses the intimacy and personal tragedy of losing someone, and in my case, four important people in my life.

Jensen: Songs of the Soul was recorded in the ’90s. How have you evolved as a musician since then?  

Rowe: When I listen to Songs of the Soul and compare it to the music of Spiorad or even the recent wedding music for my daughter’s wedding, there is for me a marked sense of evolving and maturing into a composer in which there is a sense of “getting to the point” of the music, putting that melody out there and being more economical in my use of notes to do just that.  Living through what life has presented me since the ’90s has naturally contributed to my bank of experiences; so without question I am still evolving into my own as a composer and pianist. And, these life experiences have, I believe, refined my skills as a builder of melodies that  express more intimately than ever those experiences that I have been blessed with by life itself.

Jensen: Growing up, was it always classical music for you? What other forms of music hooked you in during those years?

Rowe: As mentioned previously, my parents always had music playing in the house.  My dad was a very gifted guitar player; he loved Chet Atkins.  My three brothers and I, together with my father, had a band called The Impossibles. We played everything from the Everly Brothers and Nat King Cole to the standards of the ’60s and ’70s.  I even spent several summers during my college years as a cocktail pianist so I had all of “popular” repertoire memorized since I was a child.   My parents were also committed to the family attending church; all of the boys sang in choirs as children and continuing through our high school years. So I was naturally influenced by the music of the church, hence my classical bent.  While I enjoy classical music, I always thought, and still do, that I wanted to pursue my own music, never abandoning the classical background and the music that I grew up listening to and playing as a child with my family band. All of those experiences still contribute and are an integral part of  my evolving as a composer and musician.

You might peg New Hampshire-based musician Deborah Wyndham as a jazz pianist at first; after all, her album Tenderly radiates with the soulfulness of jazz. However, there is a crystalline elegance to her playing that more than suggests the spectre of classical music. If the idea of listening to another album of piano covers bores you to tears, you might want to hear Wyndham’s work to see it done well.

Julian Wilson: How long have you been playing the piano?

Wyndham: On and off for about 20 years, professionally for eight. As a teen I didn’t play much at all and almost forgot how to play once. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but I was barely hanging on by one thin thread called “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”

Wilson: What were the compositions that you learned first?

Wyndham: Some kind of march, I can’t remember, but my teacher didn’t mess around and soon had me playing Bach.

WIlson: What is the jazz scene like in New Hampshire?

Wyndham: What jazz scene? (Laughs.) Well, Boston is where you’d go for live music if you’re in New Hampshire, and I think they do a pretty good job there. I recently saw some big names and of course there is a lot of popular music schools in the area.

Wilson: What other genres of music do you listen to?

Wyndham: Currently, I listen to mostly mellow stuff like ’70s soft rock. I like ethereal pop/rock music, European bands, and jazz fusion, but mostly older stuff, not much past 1985. I’ve listened to very little jazz and like listening to silence since I play so much.

Wilson: Are you considering diving into other styles?

Wyndham: Yes, even though I don’t play classical music and therefore fall more into the jazz category, I actually don’t consider myself a jazz pianist as in what jazz pianists are considered nowadays. My style has more of a classical sound, though, encompassing many styles including contemporary, jazz, and jazz-influenced modern classical (the best way to describe my own compositions).

Julie Nesrallah will stun you with her soaring operatic voice; her singing is ethereal, dramatic, and transcendent. Even untrained ears will be hard to resist the emotional pull of this magnificent mezzo-soprano.

Julian Wilson: You don’t look like an opera singer or a classical musician at all. There seems to be a sort of stuffiness when it comes to the look of artists who work within those genres. Have you faced any criticism from peers because of your stylish appearance?

Julie Nesrallah: I have not received any criticism from peers whatsoever and I love the fact that I look very contrary to what people expect from an opera singer. I intend to continue to smash pre-conceived notions of what is it to be an opera singer in this day and age. Besides, the face of opera is changing. It’s becoming sexier, more hip and very “red carpet” in an attempt to win new audiences.

Wilson: How did you become interested in classical music and opera? What triggered this passion?

Nesrallah: From a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a performer. When I was 10, my parents bought me a piano. The guy who delivered it sat down to play, and I went totally berserk. That’s when I knew I had to learn how to do that, too, and my classical flame was ignited. I started off as a pianist, but I sang in the school choir and was given lead singing roles in school productions, and eventually the singing took over. When I was 12, I was in the children’s chorus of my first professional opera, and after that I started private voice lessons. I never knew anything else existed. Becoming a classical musician was an obvious and natural evolution that took over my life. I completed two degrees in music, was launched into the professional world right out of university, and the rest is history. Although some of my family members are very musical, I was the only one who pursued it as a career. It wasn’t like I grew up in an upper-class household with a butler, and Haydn and Mozart playing in the background during tea time. I had a normal childhood; I was a regular kid who happened to have a big, strong voice and couldn’t live without singing. And classical singing (as opposed to musical theatre or pop) is not only what turned me on the most, but it was the thing I did best.

Wilson: Opera and classical music are generally considered by kids to be boring and something that only old people would listen to. How do we get a younger generation with very short attention spans into this music?

Nesrallah: The last thing in the world I would call opera is boring. The whole event is a feast for the senses: it’s opulent, decadent, fantastic, incredible, it spans the range of human emotion and experience — on and off stage! And what people don’t realize about opera is that most of the big hits (Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro, La Bohème, Tosca, La Traviata) are truly compelling human dramas, and that the characters being portrayed in those dramas are portraits of regular people trying to make their way in the world. That’s why these stories and this art form have endured for so long: they are about you and me and everything in between. Opera is a super-human expression of the most elemental human experiences.

When you are able to successfully engage people, you are not boring them. The trick is knowing how get them hooked, and the only way to do that is to have someone present this music to them in a way that they can relate and respond to. For me, opera and rock & roll aren’t so different in terms what they provide as musical nourishment to the listener, and I enjoy conveying this idea to people. I am absolutely convinced that I would be able to turn people on to this genre given the right platform. It has been my lifelong mission to try and break down those barriers by approaching it in a very down-to-Earth way, in a way that people don’t usually expect from a classical musician.

Wilson: Do you consider yourself a rebel?

Nesrallah: If being a rebel means maintaining a very pure sense of self, regardless of what is expected of you, regardless of what the rest of the gang is doing and regardless of what you might lose in the process, then my answer is yes. I always did exactly what my intincts screamed loudest for me to do, for better or for worse. I have never taken the safe path in life or on stage. One Canadian reviewer and critic called me “opera’s wild child,” and I have to admit I loved it.  Look at it this way, I am a Canadian opera singer answering questions for an American hipster indie site, and I think that speaks volumes.

Wilson: You’re based in Canada. Is there a real appreciation for this kind of music over there?

Nesrallah: There is a real appreciation for this kind of music in Canada and in the United States. There are hundreds of opera companies all over North America, and the market is flooded with opera singers. What opera needs is a bigger fan base in an effort to help keep opera alive and vital and forward moving. I know that there are thousands of innocent and unsuspecting rockers out there just waiting to be bitten by the opera bug, and I look forward to trying to infect them all. It is so worth it and such an interesting and unique genre. All people need to do is give it a chance.