Ortner-Roberts Duo heats up the world on new album preview
May 10, 2012 9:49 AM
Clarinetist Susanne Ortner-Roberts and pianist Tom Roberts are a team on stage as the Ortner-Roberts duo and off as spouses.
By Manny Theiner
The temperature outside is probably in the mid-80s, and Pittsburghers may be speculating whether the effects of global warming have come home to roost.
If so, what would be the ideal music for a hotter world? Perhaps something with snippets of spicy flair from around the globe with deep emotion, yet minimal instrumentation to reduce the carbon footprint.
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The accomplished local duo of clarinetist Susanne Ortner-Roberts and pianist Tom Roberts fill that bill (yes, they're a married couple) and their new second CD is conveniently titled "Hot World Chamber Music." In fact, "chamber music" is one of few terms that accurately encompasses the variety of styles the pair brings to the table -- jazz, Latin, calypso, gypsy, gospel, tango, and even French musettes and Greek rembetika -- in a change from past efforts mainly fusing klezmer with ragtime-era jazz.
The duo's background is as eclectic as its selections [see ortnerrobertsduo.de]. Ms. Ortner-Roberts was born in Augsburg, southern Germany, and as a clarinetist fell in love with old klezmer recordings before even realizing it was Jewish music. Forming the quartet Sing Your Soul, she toured Germany and Israel and was invited by the University of Pittsburgh as a representative of the "new Germany" to do projects with area Holocaust survivors. Here in Pittsburgh, she met Mr. Roberts, who returned to his hometown after long sojourns in New Orleans (playing the Jazz Festival and Tipitina's) and New York City (arranging for Wynton Marsalis, working on the soundtrack for "The Aviator," playing with Vince Giordano's blues band The Nighthawks).
Ms. Ortner-Roberts had been teaching (leading a klezmer group at Jewish high school J-Site) and learning (taking lessons from Kurt Bjorling of klezmer icons Brave Old World), but met Mr. Roberts for the first time at -- of all places -- a bar mitzvah. In Yiddish terms, it was an instant "shidduch" (a divinely ordained match).
So was the melding of Jewish klezmer and New Orleans stride piano that garnered strong reviews for their 2008 CD "A Trip to America: A Yiddish/Creole Fusion," prompted by connections they found between Jewish and black musicians in the '20s and '30s as exemplified on Mr. Roberts' collection of old 78 RPM records. "I don't think anyone ever did that before," he says. "But it's bad to be typecast, and we also have other interests."
Hence "Hot World," which arose from a Bastille Day celebration by the North Side couple. "We had French musettes [from that]," he says. "And then did a jazz concert in Oil City with swing-era stuff that was repertory re-creation of the Benny Goodman Trio [on the CD as 'Tiger Rag' and 'Body and Soul']. So we started with material for specific events and expanded on those ideas. We take these little bits and pieces and incorporate them into something else," creating tracks that are more like postmodern pastiches (the audio equivalent of a visual collage) than medleys.
"For example, we start with the musette and fuse it with an Edith Piaf, looking for the connection points," she says.
"And then there's a little bit of Chopin that's similar, so that becomes the glue that sticks them all together, and then you've got just one of our numbers ['Sous le ciel flambé de Paris']," he says.
The same collaging method repeats numerous times over the course of "Hot World," from hippie-jazzer Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy" merging into a Venezuelan calypso tune and a Dvorak quintet ("Little Venezuelan Boy") to Greek rembetika flowing into klezmer giant Naftule Brandwein ("Three Songs of Vagabonds"). "The process of creating something brand new means that you end up with stuff that's not necessarily pleasant," he says. "But making new things out of combining old things is comparable to fashion."
That's not the only trick Mr. Roberts has up his sleeve -- his wholly original composition "Allegheny Rag" also enters the mix. The piece was composed for a film commemorating the centennial of Allegheny City's absorption into Pittsburgh in 1907. "It's a melancholy piece ... to show the loss of beautiful Victorian buildings with the destruction during urban renewal ... and the tearing up of neighborhoods to put up a mall that's basically empty now," he elaborates.
His other original work, "Freda's Swinging 88," was written for the CD's patron, Freda Silberman, whose now-deceased husband, Aaron, endowed the principal clarinet chair for the Pittsburgh Symphony, as well as a classical music series at Rodef Shalom.
"She found a CD of my German group and then saw the article about our previous album," says Ms. Ortner-Roberts. "Tom wrote a piece for her birthday along the lines of the Benny Goodman material. We usually play it with our drummer, Tom Elrick, but these recordings were done in Germany so we used the drummer, Markus Halder, whom we play with there."
The duo just returned from a three-week tour of Germany, building on Sing Your Soul's existing fan base.
"We played at the Leopold Mozart Conservatory, which is a prestigious school, and I also lectured at the University of Augsburg on American jazz piano," Mr. Roberts says.
The "Hot World" CD was released last month at a concert at the Allegheny Unitarian Church, and will be exposed in Squirrel Hill at the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival on June 3, when the duo joins Vince Giordano and drummer Roger Humphries to explore the Jewish influences on jazz icons Scott Joplin and Louis Armstrong. But Downtown Cultural District types will encounter the CD for the first time on sale this weekend in Heinz Hall's Regency Room, where the duo contributes to the Symphony's Paris Festival by performing original music for a series of silent Charlie Chaplin shorts.
"One of the outreach directors wanted me to improvise live music for the silent films," he says. "But I asked if they'd let the two of us compose a score. There's two films from 1916 -- 'The Rink' and 'One A.M' -- where Chaplin's a wealthy gentleman coming home late, drunk out of his mind. He wants to get upstairs and go to bed, but for 25 minutes he's interacting with various props in his apartment."
Mr. Roberts incorporates unusual world music styles (like Brazilian choro) into the score.
"These shorts are where Chaplin really started to get his groove on. The famous 'One A.M.' [soundtrack] that Benny Goodman did came off zany and slapstick pie-in-the-face like Keystone Kops -- but mine has more melancholy humor. There's a little sadness to it even though it's funny. It was challenging to create a musical piece that was appropriate timewise and captures the images on the screen without words, since it's totally pantomime. The music can create a totally different emotional space for the film."