Holes in the Sky, Lara Downes Channels the Collective Artistry of the Feminine


downesholes

Sony/Portrait

Lara Downes has proven herself as a virtuoso pianist in solo, chamber, and with orchestra.  She has demonstrated facility with standard repertoire as well as an intelligent selection of contemporary composers.  In this sort of mid-career place she has begun releasing a more personal kind of album of which this is the third incarnation.  The “series’ to which I refer is the perception of this reviewer, not one defined as such by Ms. Downes but stick with me. Her previous releases have been organized on one level or another on themes just like most album of any stripe.  The difference is a more sociopolitical focus.

One look at the eclectic musical choices here and one sees Downes sharing her spotlight with kindred spirits (composers and performers both) while her themes take on more socially conscious ideas.  The first of these was America Again (2016) which is a beautiful collection of short piano pieces predominantly though not exclusively by black composers.  It is a very personal choice of repertoire reflecting her profound knowledge of the repertoire as well as the neglect of black composers.  The second was Lenny (2018), a tribute to Leonard Bernstein.  It includes a marvelously varied group of guest artists and, much as Lenny did, blurs the line between the “classical” and the “vernacular”.  It was a love song to a cherished artist (this writer included in the cherishing).

She does something similar here in this album whose title is taken, appropriately enough, from Georgia O’Keefe, “I want real things, live people to take hold of, to see, and talk to, music that makes holes in the sky, I want to love as hard as I can.”  In the essay that opens the program booklet Downes speaks briefly of her relationship with women in general and women as composers and as performers.

The album opens with a 1949 piece by Florence Price, a black American composer much of whose whose work has recently been rediscovered and recorded.  Her work was also featured on the America Again album.  This is a mid-century romantic piece for solo piano.

The second track, and the one that hooked this listener big time is this recording of Judy Collins early song, Albatross (1966) which appeared on her album Wildflowers which in turn provided some of the design elements of the album.  The liner notes to the present album also note this connection.

In place of detailed liner notes there is a fascinating conversation between two of the women involved with this album, Lara Downes and Judy Collins.  A lovely black and white portrait is included in the liner notes.  Their discussion centers primarily on the Albatross song but also touches on the nature of political activism in which Downes laments not being active in marches.  Collins tells her (and this writer agrees wholeheartedly) she belongs at the piano.  Indeed her activism, though of a gentler nature, gets ideas out most effectively utilizing her incredible talents as a pianist, historian, and fellow musician.

Rather than go through an analysis of each of these pieces I am simply going to provide a track list.  It appears that this album is designed to be heard and contemplated as a sonic document first and as a research project at a later time (one hopes for more detail at some point because these are interesting pieces).

1. Memory Mist (1949) by Florence Price

2. Albatross (1967) by Judy Collins

3. A Tale of Living Water (2010) by Clarice Assad

4. Dream Variation with Rhiannon Giddens (1959) by Margaret Bonds and Langston     Hughes

5. Ellis Island with Simone Dinnerstein (1981) by Meredith Monk

6. Don’t Explain with Leyla McCalla (1944) by Billie Holiday

7. Willow Weep for Me (1932) by Ann Ronel (arr. by Hyungin Choi)

8. Venus Projection (1990) by Paula Kimper

9. Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women (2005) by Paola Prestini

10. Farther from The Heart with Hila Pittman (2016) by Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles

11. Favorite Color (1965) by Joni Mitchell (arr. by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum)

12. Noises of Gratitude (2017) by Jennifer Higdon

13. Arroyo, Mi Niña with Mogos Herrera (2018) trad. arr. by Lara Downes

14. Music Pink and Blue (2018) by Elena Ruehr

15. Idyll (1946) by Hazel Scott

16. Blue Piece with Rachel Barton Pine (2010) by Libby Larsen

17. Bloom (2018) by Marika Takeuchi

18. Just for a Thrill with Alicia Hall Moran (1936) by Lil Hardin-Armstrong (arr. by               Hyungin Choi)

19. Agwani (Doves) (2009) by Mary Kouyoumdjian

20. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (2014) by Georgia Stitt

21. Rainbow (n.d.) by Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston (arr. by Laura Karpman)

22. All the Pretty Little Horses with Ifetayo Ali-Landing and The Girls of Musicality (Trad. arr. by Lara Downes and Laura Karpman)

In these 22 tracks all the music is by women composers and, most charmingly a selection of women performers who appear as sort of cameos on different tracks.  The music ranges from the mid-twentieth century to the present and embraces a variety of genres (classical, folk, blues, etc.).  The end result is a charming and very intimate document but also one which is somehow gently subversive as it presents the best in musical and performance quality as an acknowledgement of the accomplishments of women in general, (to paraphrase Ms. O’Keefe) making music as hard as they can.

 

 

 

Hee-Young Lim: French Cello Concertos


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Sony 80358118425

Normally I don’t review a lot of popular best seller CDs or recordings of music written before 1900 (I like most all music but that I just don’t think I have much useful to say about it) but this one has the happy exception of including a 20th Century work and it is an example of truly thoughtful and creative programming.

This is the major label debut of Korean born cellist Hee-Young Lim.  She is, according to her website, currently professor of cello at Beijing Central Conservatory.  With this disc she demonstrates her facility with the technical aspects of her instrument as well as a gift for interpretation.  In addition she is known as an advocate of new music, hence the inclusion of the Milhaud Cello Concerto.

This is such a delightful disc combining two lesser heard major cello concertos with some tasty filler material.  But the real gem here is the too rarely heard Milhaud concerto of 1936.  Wow, what a great work!

The disc opens with a true classic, the Saint-Saens’ (1835-1921)  Cello Concerto No. 1 of 1872.  This is one of the great concertos for the instrument.  It is not heard with the frequency of say the Dvorak concerto but it is every bit as good and as challenging.  Ms. Lim handles this romantic gem with both ease and grace.

The second offering is a real rarity, the Cello Concerto (1877) of Èdouard Lalo (1823-1892).  It is not clear why this major work gets heard so rarely (Lalo’s work is way overdue for a reappraisal and some recordings).  It is a wonderful romantic era concerto and Lim handles it like the seasoned professional she is.

The highlight of this disc for me personally is the also rarely heard Cello Concerto No. 1 (1934) of Darius Milhaud (1892-1974).  It is one of two such works by the wonderfully prolific composer.  This work is surely recognizable for some modernist features (Lim seems quite comfortable with the more modern idiom here, a mark of a master it would seem).  Maybe a little dissonance here or there but this is basically a post-romantic work with appropriate nods toward some modernism.  The point is that it is an expressive work that deserves a place in the repertory.  Hopefully this recording will contribute to helping this music achieve its deserved place in history.  And of course there’s the eager anticipation of her recording the second Milhaud Concerto for Cello.

The disc ends with two short romantic bonbons, Jacques Offenbach’s “Les Larmes de Jacqueline” and the too rarely heard Meditation from Jules Massenet’s opera “Thais”.

Scott Yoo conducts the always competent London Symphony.  The useful and well written liner notes by James Inverne are so well researched and written I won’t complain about the microscopic typeface.  The sound is handled well by engineer Jin Choi at the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London town.

The multilingual program notes suggest that this disc looks forward to an international reputation for this fine young artist and it looks/sounds like that is what is happening here.  Let us welcome her to the international music community and look excitedly forward to hearing more from her.  Brava! Ms. Lim!

Heavenly Violin and Piano Music by Giya Kancheli


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For this reviewer, my relationship with the music of Giya Kancheli (1935- ) began with the symphonies (I think there’s seven now) with the character of some outrageous dynamic contrasts such that they spawned warning levels on the package containing the CD.  It was only after that, when ECM began to release the “holy minimalist” type works, that I first heard those.

bednarz

Frederic Bednarz

 

Now comes Canadian violinist Frederic Bednarz  who, along with pianist Natsuki Hiratsuka and bandoneon player Jonathan Goldman have recorded some incredibly lovely chamber music which has not been previously released or widely distributed.  

 

Well its hard to say why these have not been widely heard because they are just beautiful.  These are miniatures, all clock in at less than 4 minutes but all have a certain charm that relies neither on the dynamic range or the “holy minimalist” meme.  These are simply delightful neo-romantic pieces that could not fail to charm a recital audience.

Bednarz clearly knows and loves these little gems.  His playing is both sincere and, I think, definitive.  In this album he shows this lesser known aspect of the composer’s work.  Certainly there have been releases of Kancheli’s chamber orchestra pieces and a string quartet but this is the first recording this reviewer has heard of the violin and piano (and bandoneon) music.

Doubtless there are musical and musicological aspects to this music which escape the average listener (this one included) so no attempt will be made here to analyze these works.  Bednarz provides concise but useful liner notes in the gatefold cover to the CD.

Once again our neighbors to the north have scaled the metaphorical art barrier between our adjacent countries to bring this delightful music to light.  It is a welcome addition to the Kancheli discography and a delight in your CD player.  Whether as calm background or for intense listening this disc is a gem.

N.B. As of this writing the physical disc does not appear to be available from Amazon but it is available through the usual streaming services.  If you can get the physical disc it is worth it for the notes though.

 

 

Bearthoven: Post Minimal, Post New York School


wollschlegeramdream

Cantaloupe CA 21145

So many associations here.  Jaime Boddorf‘s lovely photography complements the sparse evocations of the music but this writer immediately flashed on the old Pat Metheny album, “American Garage”.

methenygarage

 

This is most definitely not a Pat Metheny album but the somewhat spare sound world of Scott Wollschleger is reflected (metaphorically of course) in the cover photo and the others on the inside. In fact the resemblance stops with the visuals. And don’t jump to conclusions about the name, “Bearthoven”. It’s not Beethoven either.

bear2

 

So what is American Dream and who is “Bearthoven”?

 

 

 

Well, a look at their website suggests we have a classical ensemble spiritually patterned in a way like a prog rock design school dalliance.  Think Talking Heads. For the record, they are (left to right): Matt Evans , percussion; Karl Larson , piano; and Pat Swoboda , bass.  bear1

Well, no, don’t think about Talking Heads or Pat Metheny.  At least for a minute.  And here’s why.

wolls

 

This is Scott Wollschleger (1980- ), originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, now resides in New York.  The fact that he studied at the Manhattan School with Nils Vigeland suggests an educational provenance which can be traced most directly to Morton Feldman.  But this is not a case of derivation as much as it is of evolution and incorporation of styles inherited from his teachers and his experiences upon which he attempts to improve for better or worse.  Isn’t that the basic way an artist works?

Whether such musings hold any water will wait the test of time while we consider the actual music here.  This reviewer encountered this letter laden composer’s work here.  This previous album, Soft Aberration which was a wider ranging sort of snapshot of the composer’s work made a similar impression.  His use of fragments is seemingly idiosyncratic.  I can’t figure out exactly what he is doing but that is secondary to the fact that I like what he is doing. And a quick look at the track titles on American Garage and then reading Wollshleger’s commentary one sees some philosophical/metaphorical confluences.

His intriguing and evolving compositional style draws the listener in.  Like the Soft Aberration Album (in art design and musical content) this album relies heavily on metaphor.  So it is with the impressions penned by the musicians involved which are included in . And it is oh so consistent with the metaphorical tone of the photos as well.  There is something amazingly integrated here.

Going into details about these pieces is both outside my expertise and certainly above my pay grade but I can tell you these works touched me on an emotional level and, like the best in art, will continue to speak to those who want to hear.  This is highly evocative music which, if you listen patiently, will gently surprise you.

 

Double, Double: Three Double Concertos


rihmdoppel

Let me begin with a confession.  The Brahms Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra is not my favorite Brahms concerto.  Think about it.  All his other concertos and certainly the symphonies get many live performances.  Not so with this double concerto.  Nonetheless it pretty much has served as THE model for this particular configuration of multiple soloist concerto.  That said we find ourselves confronted by this really delightful Sony release which effectively contains possibly the three finest examples of this genre (though it would be nice to include Lou Harrison’s double concerto).

The disc opens with a single movement concerto by the prolific German composer Wolfgang Rihm (1952- ).  This busy piece seems to be basically post-romantic in its harmonic language and more like a concerto grosso in terms of the more embedded solo materials.  It is a tour de force for both orchestra and soloists.  The classic three movement concerto format is abandoned in favor of one twenty minute allegro which contains a very large and interesting world of musical ideas.  Yes, there are some harsher sounding harmonies but this assertive music brings the listener along with its rush of ideas.

Next is the Brahms Concerto.  Now I am a Brahms fan and have tried to “get” this concerto for many years.  As beautiful as this performance is I still find the first movement way too long and ponderous.  The second movement is pleasant but not as memorable as I wish it were.  But if you make it through those two you are treated to a scherzo-like finale which is one of the finest things the composer wrote.

The disc concludes with another 21st century concerto.  This one is by the venerable John Harbison is an arresting and powerful piece.  Unlike the Rihm and even the Brahms Harbison relies upon a great deal of solo and duo material for the featured soloists with the orchestra participating when it is allowed.  This is a multiple movement piece with many moods.  It is a virtuosic venture for orchestra and soloists.

The performers in this recording, though not familiar names to this reviewer, are clearly world class performers who go fearlessly into new music and have mastered the old.  Jan Vogler is on cello and Mira Wang is on violin.  The orchestra is the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  They are up to the seemingly considerable challenges under the guidance of Peter Oundjian.  And the recording is lucid and warm.

 

Bis Recordings Takes on Ben-Haim


benhaim

BIS 2398

Israeli composers are too little known so this album of the music of Paul Ben-Haim is particularly welcome.  BIS records is known for its quality recordings and its attention to neglected repertoire.  Hopefully this is only the first release and BIS will go on to record more of this man’s work as they have with so many other neglected masters.

Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich.  He moved to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1933 as the Nazis took power.  He has become known, for better or worse, as the Israeli Aaron Copland.  Indeed there are parallels between the two composers in terms of their embrace of mid-twentieth century romanticism and, to some degree, nationalism.  He worked as an assistant to Bruno Walter at one point.

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Portrait of Paul Ben-Haim from Wikipedia

A quick glance at Wikipedia will reveal that he mentored many composers including Ben Zion-Orgad, Zvi Avni, Eliahu Inbal, Henri Lazarof, Shulamit Ran, and Ami Maayani among many others.  Leonard Bernstein recorded Ben-Haim’s “Sweet Psalmist of Israel” and was supportive of the composer’s work.  He was very influential during his lifetime and the neglect of his work is hard to fathom.

Much of Ben-Haim’s work has been recorded to be sure but it tends to get little airplay and few concert performances.  As is true for many countries it is difficult to get music by Israeli composers in the United States (Is this true in other countries?).  This release from the Swedish based BIS records with its distribution network may be a partial remedy to that problem.

The Violin Concerto of 1960 is the big work here.  It has been recorded previously, most notably by the wonderful Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman.  It is filled out with his 1942 Evocation “Yizkor” for violin and orchestra and some chamber pieces, the Three Songs Without Words (1951) and Berceuse Sfaradite (1945) both for violin and piano.  In addition there is an arrangement for violin and piano of the composer’s well known Toccata (1943) for piano.  And in keeping with the violin theme the world premiere recording of his Three Studies (1981) for solo violin rounds out this wonderful survey of the composer’s work.

Itamar Zorman is the soloist and this, not his first release, is a major statement in his career.  Zorman previously released a violin and piano album with more conventional repertoire but this is his first release playing with an orchestra.  Having demonstrated his facility with the conventional repertoire he seems to be blazing a path beyond.

zorman

Portrait of the Artist from his website

The album opens with the highly romantic Evocation “Yizkor” (1942) reflecting the composer’s style as developed in his native Germany.  The disc basically follows the order of composition except for the last two tracks.  This gives some sense of the composer’s evolution over his substantial career and the album includes the composer’s last work.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is ably conducted by Philippe Bach in the Evocation and the Concerto and Amy Yang is the very busy accompanist in the violin and piano pieces.  Mr. Zorman himself contributed the lucid liner notes.

Having just reviewed another fine album which included a Ben-Haim piece it was particularly delightful to receive this recording.  It brings this important music to a new generation of listeners.  Also toward that goal the following link will take the interested reader to a comprehensive list of the the recordings of this composer’s work.  The link is here.

 

 

Mariel Roberts’ Cartography: New Cello Music


This is another of those releases that is functionally a business card if you will. By that I mean that I’m finding a fair amount of solo instrumental discs (some with electronics, like this one, some not) in which the artist demonstrates their skill with their instrument but, more importantly, their familiarity and facility with the segment of the repertoire they embrace.  Actually this is the second such album from this artist, the previous (yet unheard by this listener) having been released in 2012.

Mariel Roberts is one of those New York based musicians whose milieu puts her in contact with the cutting edge (at least in New York) of modern composition.  Roberts has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across four continents, most notably as a member of the Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Bang on a Can All Stars, and Ensemble Signal. Her skills and her talent seem boundless.

Here she features four rather large works for cello, solo, with piano, and/or with electronics.  The composers featured include: George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson, and a collaborative work she wrote with Cenk Ergun.  Not the usual suspects but a panoply of interesting and creative composers.

Rather than attempt any analysis of the works presented here let me just say that all require a high level of virtuosity. An essential aspect of this virtuosity is whatever coordination is required of the soloist interacting with electronics. The lack of detailed liner notes make it difficult to know the nature of this interaction but one can certainly enjoy the resulting performance even without those details.

This is NOT easy listening by any means but it is a tasty sampling of some truly creative music for the right ears. Multiple listenings will be needed but the listener will be rewarded for their effort.