From the Simpsons to the Concert Hall,Classical Gems by Danny Elfman


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Danny Elfman (1953-) has had a varied and successful musical career working in diverse areas.  From his days as lead singer and songwriter for Oingo Boingo, he has cultivated his love of film music into a successful career having scored numerous films and television shows.

Now a great divide seems to exist between composers who score films and composers who compose for the concert hall.  Few have demonstrated the ability to be successful in both arenas.  Erich Wolfgang Korngold is a notable exception as is Aaron Copland.  Both men have succeeded rather famously in both film and classical concert hall music.  In fact John Williams, though known primarily as a film and television composer has written quite a bit for the concert hall as well.

Now here comes Danny Elfman, known best perhaps as the composer of the Simpsons them for the long running animated series.  He has gotten the bug to write for the concert hall and this recording presents two major works.  The first is his violin concerto “11/11)(2017) with soloist Sandy Cameron.  You can read the liner notes about the composer’s obsession with the number 11 or you can relax and enjoy a genuine violin concerto, not a reworking of themes as one might expect from a lesser composer.  The second is a nice addition to the chamber music repertoire, a piano quartet (2017).

The concerto is played by the wonderful Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of the esteemed John Mauceri.  Sandy Cameron is the soloist who handles the concertos four movements flawlessly and does justice to Elfman’s work.  It’s really a beautiful piece.  Only time will tell the work’s eventual place in history but we can certainly enjoy it for what it is, a good and entertaining violin concerto.

The Piano Quartet is played by the Philharmonic Piano Quartet Berlin which consists of Andreas Buschatz, violin ; Matthew Hunter, viola; Knut Weber, cello; and Marcus Groh, piano.  This five movement work would happily grace any chamber music recital.  It is in turn pithy, melodic, humorous, and serious.

This is stronger music than this reviewer had imagined would come from this composer’s pen.  I can’t say, “If you like his film scores you’ll like his music” but there are, perhaps inevitably, snippets of his film music style which work actually quite well.

Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s “Klang”, Gorgeous Postminimalism


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I must confess that Ireland is hardly near the top of my list for countries that are producing interesting contemporary music but this new release will soon have me checking out their Contemporary Music Center to see what else is happening.  Let me be clear, I’m not criticizing Ireland, just lamenting the fact that, like many countries, their contemporary classical music rarely gets to U.S. ears.

As if to magically remedy my wish for a more democratic distribution of said music producer Eamonn Quinn kindly sent me this single track CD containing a work influenced by (among others) the Godfather of minimalism, La Monte Young. He commented to me about the ultimate marketability of a one track CD but his instincts are well placed in this CD recorded February 2019, hot off the presses.   This is my first encounter with the composer, Wolfgang von Schweinitz (1953- ) whose name is now programmed into my surveillance engines as a voice to be followed.  Definitely want to hear more from him.  Born in Hamburg, he now teaches at Cal Arts.  A list of his works can be found here.  (While there you will want to avail yourself of the rest of this great site about just intonation composer at Plainsound)

While I share Mr. Quinn’s concern about the marketability of a single track CD (it is about 45 min), this is an ideal presentation for a work in just intonation by a string trio and the uninterrupted 45 minute interval is integral to the experience of the music.  This work is like the grandchild of La Monte Young’s String Trio (1958).  I am now having fantasies about curating a program of this work paired with its spiritual grandfather.  The single track, just intonation hits at my geeky minimalist heart and I know I’m not alone in that.

The brief but lucid and useful program notes are by the wonderful Paul Griffiths and the recording by Peter Furmanczyk captures the rich overtones well.  The Goeyvaerts String Trio has earned a place in my media alerts now as well.  They perform this work with insight and passion.

Now, past the name dropping and background stuff to the music itself.  If you know the long tones of La Monte Young’s String Trio, which is of similar length, you might hear it as a more melodic version of that.  That is not to say that this work is derivative, it is evolved its predecessor’s DNA, so to speak.  It is postminimalism (or file under “ambient” if you prefer) from that branch of the family tree.

The full title of KLANG” is given as ” PLAINSOUND STRING TRIO KLANG AUF SCHÖN BERG LA MONTE YOUNG…” Op. 39 (1999, rev 2013),  and while the musical references to Schoenberg and Berg are there, the experience is that of an almost romantic tableau of long tones and rich harmonics descended from the Urtext of minimalism that is La Monte Young. The spirit of Morton Feldman appears to reside here as well, maybe even a wisp of Brian Eno.  The kaleidoscopic effect of the just intonation with all the rich harmonic overtones evoke a great deal and probably will provoke different memories for different listeners. It is a maybe even a sort of Verklärte Nacht for the millennium though what is ultimately transformed is the listener themselves.  You can choose your own metaphor, but first you’ll be charmed by the music.

And dontcha have to love that cover graphic?

Project W: The Chicago Sinfonietta Gloriously Features Women Composers (conductor too)


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The attention paid to women composers remains much less than it should be but releases like this latest on Cedille features the Chicago Sinfonietta (Chicago’s second professional orchestra established in 1987 and sporting programs distinctly different from that of the Chicago Symphony) are incrementally correcting that error.  Here for your listening pleasure is a disc with five world premieres, all by female composers, and a world class orchestra conducted by a female conductor, Mei-Ann Chen.  (They also boast that on average the Sinfonietta is 47% women.  Is there an orchestra that can match that?).

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Florence Price 

With the exception of Florence Price (1887-1953) all are living composers on this release.  The others (who were commissioned by the Sinfonietta to write these pieces) include Clarice Assad (1978- ), Jessie Montgomery (1981- ), Reena Esmail (1983- ), and Jennifer Higdon (1962- ).  Montgomery and Esmail are new names to this reviewer.  Assad and Higdon are generally well known and very accomplished.  Higdon is the second woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in music (the first was Ellen Taafe Zwilich) and Florence Price is enjoying something of a posthumous revival with recent recordings of several of her larger works and the recent discovery of some of her scores long thought lost.

This disc is pretty much representative of Cedille’s mission to record new music and a selection of older music featuring largely Chicago musicians.  This label has done great service in promoting the music of women and other minority groups and has exposed the record buying/listening public to musical gems that otherwise would languish in that minority wasteland of music which remains unperformed due to sociopolitical rather than aesthetic reasons.

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Mei-Ann Chen

This is one of their finest releases.  It is a nice survey of 20/21st century women composers (just a small sampling but an intelligent one) from the early twentieth century to the present.  The works are given definitive readings by a fine ensemble and a clearly accomplished insightful conductor.

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The late great Paul Freeman (from Chicago Symphony web site)

The disc opens with music which serves both the theme of presenting women composers and the desire to do honor to the Chicago Sinfonietta’s founding conductor, the late Dr. Paul Freeman.  His advocacy of the music of black composers began with the groundbreaking Columbia release (now Sony) of music by black composers and continued the series on Cedille (African Heritage Symphonic Series: CDR 90000 055, CDR 90000 061, CDR 90000 066 followed by the Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson disc CDR 90000 087).  The disc opens with a set of piano pieces by Ms. Price (Dances in the Canebreaks, 1952) which were orchestrated by no less than the dean of Black American composers, William Grant Still.  These three friendly, light hearted dances will remind listeners of the sort of fare that characterized the jazz inflected classical idioms of the time, a tradition which also gave birth to Rhapsody in Blue.

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Clarice Assad (from composer’s web site)

Next up is Sin Fronteras (2017) by the Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad.  She comes from the well known musical family which includes her father, guitarist and composer Sergio Assad.  Her work has a tinge of Aaron Copland and works well as a follow up to the opening track.  She, like Still, seems to have an impressive command of the orchestra which she handles with tremendous skill in this overall light hearted piece.

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Jessie Montgomery (from the composer’s web site)

 

Jessie Montgomery (1981- ) is a new name to this reviewer but a look at her well organized web page reveals an astoundingly accomplished young musician.  Her Coincident Dreams (2017) follows in the American traditions of including folk music in her compositions.  Here her material includes non-American folk musics blended into a lucid listenable score that marks her as a musician worth watching.

As with Assad we hear a composer who is comfortable with the sprawling pallet of the modern orchestra where she manages to make the best use of her materials in an entertaining orchestral work.

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Reena Esmail (from composer’s web site)

 

 

Reena Esmail (1983- ) is another name new to this reviewer.  She is the only artist here to have two works on this CD.  The first is a traditional Hindustani piece called Charukeshi Bandish in which she sings the vocal part.  Like many of the composers here she draws on her own cultural heritage and has managed to incorporate these traditions into her more (western) classically oriented works.  In fact she does so in the next track with #metoo (2017), a piece in which she expresses both solidarity and rage at the mistreatment of women worldwide.  Here’s some uncomfortable activism for the concert hall whose time is certainly due.

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Jennifer Higdon (NYT photo) 

The disc concludes with perhaps the best known living American woman composer, Jennifer Higdon.  In addition to being a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music, Higdon is a prolific composer whose work has been heard in concert and opera houses world wide.  Her post-romantic style has made her work popular in concert halls and the depth of her musical invention continues to amaze.  Her five movement “Dance Card” (2017) harkens back to the lighthearted dance music which opened this recording.  But it is tinged with a depth of emotion which reflects not only her personal vision but her solidarity with women world wide, people who would not need a special feature release but for their gender and racial differences which have marginalized them historically.  This release goes a long way to shifting that trend. It’s a gorgeous record.

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


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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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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.

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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


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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.