Mike Block

Review: Lev Aronson Festival: Mike Block, Obscure Dignitaries | Lev Aronson Legacy | Caruth Auditorium

Pop Goes the Cello

The third concert of the Lev Aronson Legacy Music Festival offered an eclectic mix from Mike Block and the Obscure Digniataries.

published Friday, June 13, 2014

Photo: Maria Camillo
Mike Block

Dallas — The Lev Aronson Legacy Music Festival continued on Wednesday evening with something completely unexpected in the first half and something even more unexpected—and unrelated—in the second.

Festival curator Brian Thornton certainly covered the range of what his instrument can do when he in presented cellist/songwriter Mike Block on Wednesday.  Block is best known as the “other” cellist in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, which says a lot. Whoever sits next to Ma has their work cut out for them and whoever remains there must really know how to play. But we only heard a little cello playing in any traditional sense of the word.

When Thornton announced that Block stands to play his cello, Woody Allen’s hysterical turn as a cellist in a marching band immediately came to mind.

Nothing quite like that happened, however. Block does indeed stand to play. He wears a contraption, invisible to the audience, that holds the cello in the usual position—as if he were seated. Giving him freedom of movement Allen could only envy, it works perfectly for his style of music and performance.

At intermission, I asked him what he would call his style, in what box he would place himself. He didn’t answer directly about a genre of music (which is what I wanted), but told me that he considers himself songwriter/cellist. Supposedly, if he played the piano or guitar instead of the cello, he would be playing at Gilley’s rather than SMU’s O’Donnell recital/lecture hall.

His style is distinctive, but hard to describe. There is an underlying fast moving, but laid back, soft rock rhythm track that he creates with short notes—much like a pianist would do with the left hand. He slaps the strings, and even taps on the instrument, to add a percussion effect. Over this, his word-driven and narrative vocals move right along, yet the effect is not fast. Standing allows him to move around. While not exactly dancing, his body constantly moves to the beat, in a minimally graceful and natural manner.

Many of the songs sound similar, mostly because of the use of the same underlying rhythm, no matter what else is going on over it. His lyrics all tell a story in the manner of the better pop singer-songwriters, although his mannered diction made that narrative difficult to follow. One song, “I Work in a Parking Lot,” was a hit with its loopy humor: he gave an exceptional effort at diction so you could hear the clever lyrics. There was a lovely ballad early on that used double stops to fill out the harmony and another that featured artificial harmonics (which in this context sounded like a Theremin).

Harmonically, he comes from a Bill Monroe-style bluegrass and Appalachian heritage, with some crossover country/pop added in. Some songs featured old-fashioned barn dance fiddlin’ music and others had a world music influence. Raghupati Raja Raga Ram, a popular Hindu devotional song (supposedly Gandhi’s favorite) was cleverly combined with Hank Williams’ “Soul Never Dies.”

There wasn’t a program and he announced his songs sporadically. A Bach Sarabande gave us a taste of his classical abilities. Another highlight was a short piece he wrote for his own wedding that was played by Ma for the occasion.

A surprise was a performance of the first movement of György Ligeti’s sonata for unaccompanied cello, both by the presence of this esoteric composer on such a program and the uncharacteristically beautiful nature of the music. This sonata is an early work that the composer wrote as an answer to his usual modernism. He achieved his goal. This movement is indeed beautiful and, in the manner Zoltán Kodály, uses the feel and harmony of Hungarian folk music. Other than these few selections, the program was mostly his original songs.

The second half of the program felt like an opening act to Block, even if it came after him. Performers like Block are used to doing a “set,” which is usually about an hour. This is why they use opening acts to help fill out the evening.  Thus, The Obscure Dignitaries took the stage but, for understandable reasons, in the wrong position on the program.

Their website describes them as “… a world-folk music group made up of four, Dallas-based, professional musicians who strive to recreate intricate, traditional, folk rhythms from around the globe.” 

The members of the group are vocalist Rachel LaViola, bassist Kevin Butler, guitarist Michael Nesuda, and percussionist Benjamin Croucher.

Their sound is grounded by Butler’s constantly moving bass and driven by Croucher’s creative use of percussion. No trap set here. He showed impressive virtuosity with a variety of bongo-like drums, adding some color with as hand- hit suspended cymbal. LaViola, dressed in a fringed hippie-reminiscing shawl, belied her perky cheerleader appearance with some excellent jazz-infused singing. Nesuda’s guitar kept the harmony filled out, even when it took a solo turn. The overall effect is a very tight well-rehearsed band with an original sound.

On the down side, we had the same problem that is presented by opera, art song concerts and Block himself earlier: All of the songs were in a foreign language, which would be OK, but we didn’t have translations so we could follow along. Projected supertitles saved opera, but that lesson has not been learned by performers of song. Even a sentence or two, given from the stage about the lyrics, minimally helps you to follow all of the detail.

Overall, The Obscure Dignitaries gave a spirited performance and it was interesting to hear the subtle differences between the music of different nationalities.  Block was scheduled to join them at the end of their set, but a deadline didn’t allow me to remain. 


» Our review of the first concert, featuring Brian Thornton, Emanuel Borok and Spencer Myer.

» Our review of the second concert, featuring cellist Andres Diaz.

» Here is the remaining schedule for the second Lev Aronson Legacy Music Festival. The June 14 recital is in Caruth Auditorium; others are in O'Donnell Hall. Both venues are in the Owens Fine Art Center at SMU. The performance schedule is:

  • 7 p.m. Friday, June 13: Norman Fischer on works of Beethoven for cello and piano
  • 7 p.m. Saturday, June 14: Recital by Ralph Kirshbaum
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Pop Goes the Cello
The third concert of the Lev Aronson Legacy Music Festival offered an eclectic mix from Mike Block and the Obscure Digniataries.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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