ICE Plays Music of Du Yun, a Powerful Collaboration


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New Focus/Tundra Recordings

This disc was this reviewer’s first hearing of music by the Chinese American composer Du Yun and OMG, as they say.  Just WOW on so many levels.  The ten tracks contain music written between 1999 and 2015.

It is truly a tour de force on many levels. No surprise that this artist has received so many accolades. This sampling of her work by the always interesting International Contemporary Ensemble released by the increasingly vital New Focus recordings (on their TUNDRA imprint).  There are no fewer than ten works on ten tracks.

This has been one of those “How could I have missed this…” experiences.  There is a wealth of music here ranging in style from free jazz to modernism (think Darmstadt perhaps) to world music and they blend well the style of this major Chinese-American composer.

She is the recipient of numerous prizes (including a Pulitzer for her opera Angel’s Bone in 2017).  She is the regular recipient of commissions from the Fromm Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Opera America, and the Asian Cultural Council among others.  She is also a Guggenheim fellow.

The poetic, sometimes cryptic titles of her works and the liner notes are brief but succinct. The serious listener will want to know more about the composer and her wide ranging talents.  She writes for every genre and ensemble from opera to solo work and from intensely personal music to clever collaborations.

Add to this the fact that the performers are from the wonderful International Contemporary Ensemble (also known as “ICE”).  Anything they do is worth the adventurous listener’s attention and this album supports that contention most successfully.  The irony of  that acronym is hard to miss in the composer’s grant from the Carnegie Foundation’s “Great Immigrants” program.  Perhaps that can rescue the association of said acronym to art rather than regressive politics.

As usual with New Focus (the parent label of this TUNDRA release) the recording is lucid and does justice to the music.  The cover design alone is a striking portrait of the composer (another reason to lament the 12 x 12 format of LPs as a size standard).

It took this listener several listens to begin to grasp this music.  It is varied and sometimes complex but it is always compelling and seems to have depth and substance.  If you don’t know this composer this is a fine place to start and if you already know her work you will want to add this fine recording to your collection.

 

GVSU’s “Return”, an Intoxicating Adventure in Sound


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                                                                        Innova 983

OK, I’ve listened to this lovely CD numerous times and greatly enjoyed it each time. So why has it languished as a draft and why have I failed to publish this?

Procrastination aside there are several things I can identify as things that make this reviewer pause. First (and perhaps least significant) is unfamiliarity. The disc features three composers completely unknown to me: Daniel Rhode, Adam Cuthbert, and Matt Finch all of whom are listed as doing the additional duty of acting as mixing engineers (they are all students of the ensemble director as well).

GVSU  hails from the state of Michigan and it’s new music ensemble (consisting of Hannah Donnelly on piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute; Ryan Schmidt, clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet; Darwin McMurray, soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones; Makenzie Mattes, percussion; Reese Rehkopf, piano; Jenna Michael, violin; Kirk McBrayer, cello; Niko Schroeder, sound engineer; and Bill Ryan, director and producer) is also new on this writer’s radar. Add the participation of the extraordinary violinist Todd Reynolds (on one track) and one’s attention is further piqued. Reynolds is an artist who chooses his repertoire and collaborations judiciously so his presence certainly functions as an endorsement.  But “unknown” is the heart of my interests both as listener and reviewer so that can’t be the reason though the lack of liner notes is a bugaboo (though hardly a fatal one).

On the positive side this is an Innova release and that fact alone lends credibility. Anything that Minnesota based label (the official label of the American Composers Forum) is worth your attention. Label director Philip Blackburn has a finely tuned radar which has led to many revelatory releases over the years.  Truly anything released on this label is worthy of your attention if you are a new music fan.

So we have hear a 15 track CD of 15 new works whose sounds seems to travel between ambient and postminimal. The pieces merge nicely with each other in a production which assures a fine listening experience. One can put this on either as background or for more intensive listening. It works either way. The playing is dedicated and insightful and the recording is top notch.

The pieces range in length from 1:32 to 7:32 and all seem to be just the right length communicating substance but never dallying too long. They’re bite sized, so to speak but they each have their charms as well as their complexities.  All are premiere recordings and all are commissioned by the ensemble.

Check it out. Click on the links provided in this review. And simply enjoy.

 

 

Politics and Its Discontents: Sirius Quartet’s New World


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ZOHO ZM 201908

This is a marvelous disc which functions well on several levels.  First it is a fine disc of new string quartet music played by wonderful musicians (who wrote most of the music here as well).  Second it is a disc of music which is designed to put forth sociopolitical reactions/opinions.  This Zoho label production succeeds quite well in these areas.

Starting with the lovely cover art by Aodán Collins, this Sirius Quartet album is their first full album since 2016.  It is, above all, a political statement, or rather, a series of political statements in the form of inventive compositions by these wonderfully talented musicians.  Each track is incredibly entertaining and each has a closely associated subtext of sorts reflecting a variety of sociopolitical issues.  The Sirius Quartet consists of Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; and Jeremy Harman, cello.

This disc contains ten works on ten tracks, each with an underlying political component.  All appear to have been written from 2016 to the present though the composition dates are not given explicitly.

The first work, Beside the Point, is by first violinist Fung Chern Hwei and it is a friendly scherzo-like piece which sets the tone for what is to come.  The composer describes this piece as his statement against discrimination and it is a plea for equality.  It is a relatively brief but very compelling work.

Next up is a track written by cellist Jeremy Harman called Currents.  It is another scherzo-like affair, slightly longer than the first piece and its political subtext is described by the composer as evoking currents of elements both dark and light whose powers affect us daily.  Another well-written and very exciting piece.

The eponymous New World, November 9, 2016 is essentially an angry lament in response to the election of Donald Trump as president on that date.  The work quotes judiciously and effectively from Dvorak and Shostakovich in the longest work here coming in at 10:16.  It relies on some extended techniques at times but is an essentially tonal work as are its companions on this disc.  This piece is also distinguished as having won the 2017 New York Philharmonic’s “New World Initiative” competition’s grand prize and it is acknowledged as the seed work which eventually spawned this entire album.

#Still by second violinist Gregor Huebner is perhaps the most gut wrenching piece here.  It’s based on the Abel Meeropol song, Strange Fruit (whose title refers to lynched bodies hanging from trees) iconically recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.  Sadly its themes remain painfully relevant today and this heartfelt plea for peace and equality is a strikingly powerful work with an adagio section which rivals the Barber Adagio in its beauty.

Huebner’s cover of the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby occupies the next track.  It is very much in keeping with the political theme of the album with the song’s words about a sad individual “buried along with her name”.  As such it is also one of the finest transcriptions/covers for string quartet that this reviewer has heard.  This is some seriously interesting writing which elevates this to a well crafted piece in it’s own right and not merely a “this string quartet plays…” generic piece.  Jazz inflections seem to invoke Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt at times and a few extended techniques remind us that we are listening in the 21st century.

More Than We Are by cellist Jeremy Harman is described as an “aspirational” composition which was written after the birth of the composer’s son, Silas.  It is an emotional piece, perhaps a paean to hope.

To a New Day by Fung Chern Hwei is, of all things, a celebration of hope for healing politics in the composer’s native country of Malaysia (politics outside of the US and Europe are important too after all).  May 9, 2018 was the date of an election whose result will hopefully heal political wounds and put that country on a more humane and progressive agenda.  There may be more specific references embedded in the music here but that must be left for listeners and musicologists to debate in the future.  It is another gorgeous example of good string quartet writing.

Hwei describes this next piece, “30th Night, Worshiping Heaven and Earth” as a “repurposed prayer”.  It is, he says, an “unapologetically Chinese/Malaysian piece” which uses a combination of Chinese folk melody and specific attention to language to suggest a subversive theme which seeks to encourage a humane approach from a traditionally oppressive government.  It is the only track with vocals.

The penultimate track is another brilliant arrangement (by Huebner) of a rock/pop song, Radio Head’s “Knives Out”.  The political content is expressed by reference to the song’s lyrics and also by musical references which are inserted throughout.  Again an experience of the cover genre that rises above the ordinary.

The album ends with an arrangement by Fung Chern Hwei of the late Stanley Myers’ lovely Cavatina from his score to “The Deer Hunter”.  Like the previous covers this one stands head and shoulders above the usual level of musical discourse for this genre.

All in all an immensely satisfying album.  Kudos to Grammy winning producer and writer (he wrote the wonderful liner notes here) Kabir Seghal and, of course, to the musicianship of this fine ensemble of composer/musicians.  Art continues to struggle in these uncertain times but its struggle can bring forth some amazing creativity and this one sounds like a winner.

 

 

Concertante Music for Flute and Clarinet


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This release is a fine example of a record label fulfilling its mission by highlighting local talent while also making very intelligent selections of repertoire.  Cedille is one of those labels whose every release is worthy of your attention.  Here is a good example of why that is so. We have here four works for the rather uncommon combination of flute and clarinet with orchestra.  Concerti for multiple instruments probably began with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti but this combination of flute and clarinet limits the repertoire choices considerably.  Nonetheless the folks at Cedille have gathered two 21st century pieces, one from the high romanticism of the late 19th century and a seldom heard gem from the late 18th century, all for these two instruments accompanied by orchestra.

Just for local interest let’s also add an opportunity for a local youth orchestra to show their considerable talents.  The Chicago Youth Symphony under conductor Allan Tinkham demonstrates the remarkably polished and mature sound of this local gem (Cedille is a Chicago label).  And Cedille, in its support of black musicians brings this marvelous pair of brothers with their expertise as soloists.  All in all a classic Cedille style release, intelligent choice of repertoire, promotion of young artists, promotion of artists of color, and quality recordings.

The disc opens with the world premiere recording of the eponymous single movement work, “Winged Creatures” (2018) by one Michael Abels (1962- ).  It is essentially a 12 minute concertante for the soloists with orchestra.  Abels is best known for having scored the brilliant horror genre film “Get Out” from 2017 (if you haven’t seen it, do make a note to yourself).

Winged Creatures is a well written mini concerto which, despite its recent vintage, tends toward a sort of neo-romantic sound.  The composer gives ample opportunity for the soloists to show their mettle and for the orchestra to demonstrate its facility with the music.  It is a delightful showpiece which seems to have a cinematic feel to it.

Next up, and this is typical of the acumen of the folks at Cedille, is a full blown, heretofore unknown (practically) Sinfonia Concertante from a lesser known contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  Franz Danzi 1763-1826).  This double concerto for flute, clarinet, and orchestra was published in 1813 and sounds like Mozart and/or early Beethoven.  It is a highly entertaining piece, one which listeners will delight in hearing again.  Who knows this piece could become a sensation in the concert hall once again.  It’s about 22 minutes in length.

The third piece is an early work by French composer, pianist, organist, Charles Camille Saint-Saens (1836-1921).  Tarantella Op. 6 (1857) was written in when the composer was only 22 years old.  This is hardly one of his best works but it is a curiosity worthy of being heard and, like most of this composer’s work, it is eminently listenable.

Finally, we have another large scale concerto (and the second world premiere on the disc), “Concert Duo” (2012) by Joel Puckett (1977- ).  In gestures classical, jazzy, contemporary, but as listenable as anything on this release, Puckett’s work in three movements has tantalizing titles for each of the movements suggesting a wealth of non-musical references.

The ample liner notes provide the listener with a guide to the joys to be heard  on this collection and the recording, as usual with this label is lucid.  You can’t go wrong with this one.

Channeling Casals’ Bach: Amit Peled


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It was in 1936 that the famed Catalan cellist and composer Pablo Casals performed and recorded the now familiar Bach Cello Suites.  Long thought to be intellectual and technical exercises not intended for public performance these works languished for nearly 200 years on manuscript alone.  Casals pretty much single handedly has made these masterworks a staple of the cellists repertory.  Since Casals there have been numerous readings of these works and no sign of any flagging interest.

It is difficult to imagine any really new perspectives on these works and, aside from Kim Kashkashian’s wonderful transcriptions for viola, one gets basically the musician’s take on the music.  So here comes the Israeli cellist Amit Peled who, since 2004 has had the honor (and attendant responsibilities) of playing Casals’ own cello, a 1730 Gofriller personally loaned to him by Casals’ widow.  So in this first volume (second one not out yet as far as I can tell) is the first time Bach’s masterful Cello Suites have been sung by this instrument since it was in Casals’ hands.

What we have here is a sensitive and committed performance that many will want to hear perhaps as “channeling Casals” but ultimately we have a gorgeous performance by a fine musician channeling his own talents and sensitivities to produce a quite viable performance (are those gut strings I hear?).  Perhaps there are nostalgic aspects here as well but whatever your preference, be it channeling, nostalgia, or simply a great performance of these masterpieces you will find all these here.  Can’t wait for volume II.

Mathew Rosenblum: Klezmer, Witches, and the Avant-Garde


Conjuring the spirits of the 1950s/ 60s avant-garde and a few musical references composer Mathew Rosenblum (1954- ) enlists the klezmer spirit of none other than David Krakauer and master conductor Gil Rose with his wonderful Boston Modern Orchestra Project to bring life to this klezmer clarinet concerto.

The concerto, titled, “Lament/Witches Sabbath” (2017) is a tour de force for the soloist and certainly a challenge for the large orchestra.  Using elements of klezmer style along with musical references such as Berlioz in suggesting the evil sabbath revels the composer creates an unusual but fascinating canvas.  Nothing evil here, just some truly exciting musicianship. In addition we hear various noisy avant-garde effects and even voice overs reminiscent of Robert Ashley.  Ultimately it is also a species of classical which has a sociopolitical view and this is both memory and homage to the composer’s past, lamenting the suffering and pondering the evil that fueled it.

Krakauer’s facility with his instrument is simply astonishing.  He has the klezmer thing down but he also brings with him a great virtuosity as a classical clarinetist and a working knowledge of free jazz.  It’s not clear how much creativity this soloist was allowed within the constraints of the piece but the bottom line is that it works very well.  Gil Rose’ expertise in handling all this potential chaos is impressive as always and he delivers ultimately a very enjoyable performance despite those noisy avant-garde moments.  Indeed it is Rose’ ability to select repertoire with which he can grasp and from which he can conjure a compelling performance.  It is Rosenblum’s family biography taking him from the pogroms of the Ukraine to the United States.

The second track (of 4) is a solo for percussion.  Again the avant-garde remains interesting and both performance and recording communicate well with the listener.  Northern Flicker (2013) is no filler, it is an interesting, if rather brief, work.  Lisa Pegher is the busy soloist.

Falling (2013) is a complex work involving pre-recorded audio as well as a chamber group in a song cycle based on the James Dickey poem of the same name.  It is a retelling of an incident in which an airline stewardess who died when she was sucked out of a defective emergency exit in the plane and fell to her death.  The cycle recounts an imagined look into her psyche as she fell to her death.  It is an affecting, if unusual, presentation but Rosenblum’s judicious use of modern elements  while still using recognizable melodies and more traditional techniques make for a listenable, if harrowing, experience.

Here the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble consisting of Lindsey Goodman, flute; Eric Jacobs, clarinet; Nathalie Shaw, violin; Norbert Lewandowski, cello; Ian Rosenbaum, percussion; and Oscar Micaelsson, piano/keyboard join with soprano Lindsey Kesselman with conductor Kevin Noe to produce this rewarding work.

Finally we get another large work, this time for multi-tracked string quartet with percussion titled Last Round (2015) which is also biographical in that the composer is attempting to evoke a time in the 1980s when he frequented an establishment with fellow composers.  The composer, in his entertaining and informative liner notes recounts his time with fellow composer Lee Hyla and friends and seeks to evoke elements of the downtown scene of that era.  This is a rather large work with its own complexities but one which speaks easily to an audience, even one not experienced in the time and place the composer attempts to evoke.

This is a marvelous recording of a music by a composer unfamiliar to this writer (until now) whose work deserves your attention.

Thomas Kozumplik’s Percussion Symphony, “Child of the Earth”


This is a big work written expressly for these musicians and commissioned by conductor Jonathan Haas. It is titled percussion “symphony” which suggests a grand undertaking. It is the only work on the disc.

The composer, Tomas Kozumplik is an American composer unfamiliar to this writer and most likely to most listeners. Kozumplik is a percussionist and composer based in Brooklyn.  He is perhaps best known as a film composer but his interests and his collaborations reveal him to be embracing a wide variety of musical interests.His website is definitely worth your time as it describes this artist’s range.

This work is neither noisy modernism nor “lite classical”. It is almost neo-romantic at times as it lives up to the grand promise of its title. It is a great example of how to write for percussion. Indeed the genesis of this work lies partly in the collaborative. Kozumplik worked closely with the musicians to mold this work into its final form. Multiple listens reveal more of the structure and unity of this work.  It is not, strictly speaking, difficult music but it is also not simple either.

Indeed, as the titles suggest this piece has a sort of external program, “Child of the Earth” and the subtitle, “Un nino busca a Dios” (which my limited Spanish means, “A child looks to God”) are referred to in greater detail in each track. It’s not clear how these ideas are integrated musically it does couch this work in a sociopolitical genre. The music certainly works well by itself but astute listeners will want to be aware of the meaning these ideas have had for the composer’s and, doubtless, the performers whose intimate investment here is ultimately the joy in this release.