'Blackstar' at Bing

Bowie's final album gets an orchestral tribute

In the worlds of both cellist Maya Beiser and rockstar David Bowie, an instrumentalist revisiting of the final, modern-jazz-influenced album of a chameleonic music icon with a contemporary classical ensemble is special but not too unusual.

Like Miles Davis before him, the late music legend David Bowie changed styles and morphed personas throughout his career. His final album, "Blackstar," was recorded with saxophonist Donny McCaslin's quartet and released unexpectedly two days before his death in January 2016. Cellist Beiser has been revisiting "Blackstar" sequentially and in its entirety with frequent collaborator and longtime musical comrade Evan Ziporyn, who arranged the album for her and his Ambient Orchestra, which he also conducts.

Fans of rock 'n' roll, modern classical and 21st-century jazz can hear the dynamic results for themselves, as Beiser and the Ambient Orchestra perform Bowie's "Blackstar" Wednesday, Nov. 7, at Bing Concert Hall in a show presented by Stanford Live.

"After Bowie died, it was just a shock to all of us. It was kind of surprising how hard hit a lot of us in the community were," Beiser said. "And the release of 'Blackstar' was just such a powerful, powerful statement from him."

Ziporyn had assembled an 80-piece group of professional and student musicians in the Boston area to perform works by the likes of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. The Ambient Orchestra made its debut a mere two and a half weeks after Bowie's death with a concert featuring Philip Glass' "Low" and "Heroes" symphonies, based on songs from the titular Bowie albums from 1977.

Ziporyn phoned Beiser up and suggested that they try to perform "Blackstar" as a work for cello and orchestra, she recalled. Neither knew whether it would work, musically, though they'd teamed up before on well-received interpretations of songs by Led Zeppelin and Nirvana. Head of music and theater arts at MIT as well as a composer, clarinetist and member of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, Ziporyn booked the tribute for a 1,200-seat venue on the university's campus in early March 2017.

"We really didn't think much about doing it more than that one time. We just wanted to do it because it meant a lot to us," she reflected. "And then it took on a life of its own. It sold out and, and we started to get all these phone calls from people around the world, like from the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra."

These are occasional events with dates only in Stanford and Austin, Texas on the calendar for November before Beiser has her own engagements at Carnegie Hall as well as in Tokyo. "We're both busy with many other things," she said, of her and Ziporyn's schedules. "But it's just such an emotional journey every time for everyone playing 'Blackstar' from beginning to end."

Because "Blackstar" was Bowie's last full release, it's the album that fans have had the least time with which to spend "Also, the fact that it's not really a very well known album as opposed to a lot of the big Bowie hits gives us a certain freedom with it," she said.

"A lot of people who come to the show -- even the Bowie fans -- don't necessarily know 'Blackstar' that well. We found that a lot of people after they hear the show, they say, 'Well, we really should go check out the album.'" (Spoiler alert: An audibly enthusiastic Bing audience will likely hear more familiar Bowie hits as an encores.)

As the featured musician, Beiser is playing both lines sung by Bowie and solos played by members of McCaslin's quartet. "We didn't really try to depart very far from the album," she pointed out. "Of course, the instrumentation is different. But in many ways, what this is about is an exploration of the emotional power of the album with me, with the cello, exploring the different sounds that I can come up with both completely acoustic and with some electronic processing," she continued. "The key is not to make my cello sound like Bowie but to resonate in that world and have the stunning emotional power that Bowie had in his voice."

Like jazz instrumentalists tackling standards from the Great American Songbook, Beiser has the lyrics from "Blackstar" to guide her as she performs. "I'm totally processing those as I play," she replied, when asked about the relationship between Bowie's words and her playing. "In fact, I've memorized all the lyrics."

Might she be "singing" some of them silently as she bows and plucks? "In certain places I am, actually," she said. "Like 'Blackstar,' the tune that opens the album. On 'Lazarus,' too."

As a co-founding member (with Ziporyn and others) of Bang on a Can All Stars, Beiser has been performing 20th- and now 21st-century works by living and recent composers since the early '90s. Classically trained and a graduate of the Yale School of Music, she's steeped in the "Big B's" Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók. And now she's equally at home exploring the legacy of a more recent "B" in delving into Bowie's songbook.

"Just the way Mozart was the cultural hero of his time, I think Bowie is one of those people who is an incredibly important artist and influential on many levels as a musician, a thinker, an artist and an icon -- in every aspect of his life and work, really.

"So to me, it's just a great opportunity to play his music and go deep into his legacy with this show," she said. Freelance Writer Yoshi Kato can be emailed at yoshiyoungblood@earthlink.net.

What: Ambient Orchestra with Maya Beiser perform David Bowie's "Blackstar."

Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford

When: Wednesday, Nov. 7, at 7:30 p.m.


Info: Go to Stanford Live.

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