William Susman at the Movies


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I think this is the fourth disc of the music of William Susman which has come across my desk. Let me say it is a delight to hear this man’s music and experience the range of his artistry. All releases of his music thus far have been on belarca records, a label founded by Susman to promote The Octet Ensemble and other artists who share an interest in the work of Susman and many of his contemporaries.

The disc which is the subject of this review contains selections from soundtracks to three films: When Medicine Got it Wrong (2008), a film by Katie Cadigan and Laura Murray; Balancing Acts: A Jewish Theater in the Soviet Union (2008), a film by Sam Bell, Kate Stilley, and William Susman; Native New Yorker (2005), a film by Steve Bilich. But this is just one of three discs of film music thus far by Mr. Susman.

Soundtrack to the 2007 film
Soundtrack to the 2004 film

I mention these not just to create a list of Susman’s film music but also to point out that all of these scores have engaged the amazing talents of the longtime cellist of the Kronos Quartet, Joan Jeanrenaud, herself a composer and producer. Susman appears to be fond of collaborations with other artists.

The 2004 “Oil on Ice” won the 2004 Pare Lorentz award from the International Documentary Association. It was Pare Lorentz’s collaboration with American composer Virgil Thomson that produced two of his finest film scores, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938). Thomson’s subsequent music for Robert J. Flaherty’s feature length drama, Louisiana Story (1948) earned him the only Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for a film score. Suffice it to say that film scores are a rather neglected genre, at least among non-pop composers. That is another reason to pay attention to these releases, as in “get these before they disappear”. But also because film music by concert hall composers shows a side of their work that may not be evident in concert works. It is a marriage of sound and image, a collaborative effort. Thomson’s film music was written entirely for socially conscious films of the WPA era. Susman’s work seems to be following a similar trajectory some generations later.

Now back to the disc under consideration.

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Joan Jeanrenaud provides her multitracked performances on two of the three films. As always, her artistry is welcome. Her work is evident in the first two film soundtracks. Mr. Susman, an accomplished pianist, plays piano and other keyboards on all three films. Note must also be made of another collaborator, accordion player and vocalist, Mira Stroika (a former student of Susman’s) who plays and sings on the 2008 Balancing Acts film. Among the three this appears to be the one closest to the composer’s heart, he is also one of the film’s producers. Susman plays piano and other keyboards in the final track, an uninterrupted soundtrack (some 13 minutes) to 2005’s Native New Yorker.

Susman manages to create a nuanced variety of music within his predominantly post-minimalist, sometimes neo-romantic style. It exists as subtext in the film context but stands on its own as a purely sonic experience. Fans of film music, and certainly of Susman’s oeuvre, will want to explore all of these.

William Susman: A Quiet Madness


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This 2020 release of chamber and solo pieces by William Susman (1960- ) is the third reviewed by this writer. The music here is from the last six years but these pieces rather unmistakably have Susman’s compositional fingerprints on them. There are six works in total and the solo piano pieces from Susman’s Quiet Rhythms series provide a sort of punctuation on tracks 2, 4, and 6. The Quiet Rhythms (2010, 2012, 2013) series appear to function sort of like working papers, little essays many of which are later used in other compositional projects. Three of those pieces similarly punctuate an album by pianist Erika Tazawa (Belarca 005) of piano pieces by Francesco Di Fiore, Douwe Eisenga, Marc Mellits, Matteo Sommacal and William Susman.

Francesco Di Fiore handles the piano on tracks 2, 4, and 6 playing Quiet Rhythms Nos. 1, 5, and 7 (all from 2010). These are just three tantalizing works from nearly 100 pieces in 4 books. Though these works seem to be a working out of ideas they interesting and engaging rather than simply didactic.

Susman, himself an accomplished pianist, plays the piano with Karen Bentley Pollick on violin in Aria (2013). This is the longest work on the disc and it is tantamount to a concerto or grand sonata which keep both performers very busy. It is above all a joyously lyrical piece likely to please listeners. The liner notes state that this piece uses material from an opera in progress. And a grand teaser it is.

Seven Scenes for Four Flutes (2011) is one of those delightful works which will doubtlessly be performed by a soloist against prerecorded tracks. Patricia Zuber, no stranger to Susman’s work, handles all four flute parts with seeming ease. The piece’s seven movements traverse a variety of moods in the poetically titled movements. This is a pretty densely written piece whose charms belie its complexity. Music using multiples of the same instrument (whether live or multi-tracked) inevitably invoke Steve Reich’s counterpoint pieces but there is in fact a large and growing list of such pieces which produce their own unique results consistent with their respective composers and this one is a most welcome addition to this genre.

The penultimate work is one for accordion, an instrument which has risen from folk music roots to a sometime part of an orchestra and, increasingly, as a solo instrument for classical repertoire both new and old. The soloist here, Stas Venglevski, rises to the challenge of Zydeco Madness (2006), a piece which takes the listener though various sections which challenge the artist and entertain the audience.

Despite the title this album is neither quiet nor mad (well maybe a little obsessive). But it is a welcome selection of music by a consistently interesting composer that leaves this listener wanting more.

Elegant Affable Virtuosity, Hanzhi Wang at the Music Academy of the West


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Hanzhi Wang with her Pigini concert accordion (publicity photo from the internet)

On the first day of February, on a sunny day in Santa Barbara, rising star Hanzhi Wang presented a solo recital in Hahn Hall at the matinee hour of 4PM.  Despite the beautiful weather a substantial crowd gathered for this event which was part of the always notable UCSB Arts and Lectures series.

This young performer only recently came to this writer’s musical radar a few months ago.  Subsequent research revealed her to be a marvelously accomplished musician.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree at the China Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and her Master’s degree at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen as a student of Geir Draugsvoll.  First Prize Winner of the 2017 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, Ms. Wang’s debut opened the Young Concert Artists Series in New York in The Peter Marino Concert at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, and her Washington, DC debut opened the 40th Anniversary Young Concert Artists Series at the Kennedy Center.

Her interesting and rather eclectic program was artfully designed to showcase her strengths.  One of those strengths is certainly her ability to communicate with her audience both is her brief but lovely introductions to her performances using a microphone kept near her seat as well as in her radiant persona which communicates a humility and pleasant affability.  Of course the most important communication to be heard on this afternoon would be the musical.

She began with a couple of Bach pieces which, like most of his keyboard music, can be done equally well on harpsichord, piano, and now, accordion.  It is here that she showed her virtuosity and interpretive skills which reflected an obvious affection for the material.  Though scheduled to perform the famous Chaconne she chose instead to present these shorter, entertaining pieces.

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Her Pigini concert accordion echoed the pleats in the skirt of her tasteful outfit well suited to a recitalist performing these essential works of the western musical canon.  She followed these with three keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)(K. 9, 159, and 146).  This writer first encountered these little gems (the composer wrote over 500 of them) in the landmark recording Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos in the 1970s and they are a delight on any concert program (though not programmed often enough).  She handled these challengingly virtuosic works with seeming ease expertly adding dynamics to define these works to create a wonderfully entertaining concert experience.

Wang followed these with three pieces by another late baroque master, French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).  “L’ Egiptienne”, “La Livri”, and “Le Rappel des oiseau”.  Her obvious affection for these works have subsequently sent this listener to seek out more of Rameau’s works.  These works on the first half of the program were all characterized by her lovely playing, making a strong case for the role of this nineteenth century folk instrument’s role in the playing of classical music.

After a brief intermission Ms. Wang offered a twentieth century work by the late, great Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).  Though not originally for the accordion the composer did utilize this instrument in some of his works.  Russian composers at least since Tchaikovsky have utilized the accordion to stunning effect.  And this performance was another demonstration of this young musician’s easy virtuosity and insight offering up these brief pieces inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s novel, “Dead Souls”.  The music is filled with both humor and passion with echoes of the dead souls (in Schnittke’s trademark “polytsylism”) of prior Russian composers.

The soloist’s clear understanding of the modern idiom was made very clear and one need only look to Wang’s website to see that her repertory ranges across 400 years of the western musical canon.  One wonders if there is anything she can’t play well.

Her last scheduled pieces came from the late nineteenth century by a composer which Wang humorously noted eschewed the accordion, Edvard Grieg (1843-1907).  The Norwegian nationalist’s famed Holberg Suite (originally for string orchestra) sounded pleasantly familiar on Wang’s instrument.

After an enthusiastic standing ovation Ms. Wang presented three more pieces, two by the late Argentinian Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) and a piece by German composer and piano virtuoso, Moritz Moszkovsky (1854-1925).  These were like gifts to the audience which further demonstrated her facility with the tango inflected Piazzola and the playful, though difficult, pianism of Moszkowski.

This young woman is indeed a rising star who belongs on your radar.