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.

From Appropriation to Incorporation, Cornelius Boots’ Innovative Shakuhachi Trilogy


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Portrait of composer/performer Cornelius Boots from his website

If one pays any attention to creative music in the Bay Area the name Cornelius Boots will come up with some frequency.  He is a good example of the rich cross cultural traditions which have flourished in this area.  California was (and is) in many ways the ground zero of east/west collaborations and Boots contributes his unique take on music and on some unusual instruments.  He is known for organizing the world’s first Bass Clarinet Quartet named, “Edmund Welles”.  He characterizes himself as, “Pied Piper of the nerdy, strange and enlightened.”  How California is that?

Boots has released a trilogy, virtually a manifesto, of his take on Shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, and our current musical/cultural proclivities.  In particular he favors the Taimu, described as the “baritone brother” of the shorter, higher pitched shakuhachi which is seen/heard more commonly.  The strange breathy sound of this instrument is widely known in traditional Japanese music and it is associated with Zen Buddhist traditions (Boots uses two different shakuhachis in this recording).  Here is where I derive my title for this review.  What Boots is doing is arguably cultural appropriation.  That pejorative epithet is thrown about rather cavalierly these days but what this artist does in this trilogy is to cross the bridge from mere appropriation to incorporation.  He has absorbed the traditional aspects of the instrument and is now at a point where he can inject his own musical consciousness into and through this unique instrument giving listeners a perspective heretofore unavailable.  That is art.

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Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. I

There is a curious unity to this trilogy of albums which suggests a major reckoning by the composer as he draws musical conclusions filtered through the lens of his experience and the traditions of his chosen instrument.  The unique playful cover art (by Nakona MacDonald) is one of the great unifying factors here.  In fact these CDs are dense with ideas and are worthy of close scrutiny to reveal their richness and how well integrated they are into this production.  Even the numbering of the tracks segregating each disc into a virtual “side A and side B” in the tracklist are a reference and homage to the days of vinyl records.  And of course the big unifying factor is the music itself.  All the music is the responsibility of Mr. Boots who also sings.  The only other noise is made by percussionist Karen Stackpole whose stomping is credited.

This first volume (2016) consists of:

Side A: Darkness

  1.  Blacken the Cursed Sun (Lamb of God)
  2. Heaven and Hell (Black Sabbath and Dio)
  3. Purgatory
  4. Until You Call on the Dark (Danzig)
  5. Damaged Soul (Black Sabbath)
  6. No Quarter (Led Zeppelin)

Side B: Salvation

  1. Hymn to the She Dragon of the Deep
  2. The Devil Points
  3. Taste of Nothing
  4. Year of the Gost God of the Flute
  5. Generuslu
  6. Behind the Wall of Sleep (Black Sabbath)
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Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. II

This second disc:

  1. Run to the Hills (Iron Maiden)
  2. The Wayward Meteor (Man or Astroman?)
  3. Obscured by Clouds (Pink Floyd)
  4. Baby Bear Drinks Tea
  5. One Brown Mouse (Jethro Tull)
  6. Green Swampy Water
  7. Snake Dreams of Dragon
  8. Sycamore Trees (David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti)
  9. Creature Within the Atom Brain (Roky Erikson)
  10. Shadow of the Wind (Black Sabbath with Dio)
  11. The Greening of Mount Subasio
  12. Hung from the Moon (Earth)
  13. Over the Hills and Far Away (Led Zeppelin)
  14. Freebird (Lynyrd Skynyrd)

 

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Shakuhachi Unleashed Vol. III

Here now is the latest release:

Side A: Kung Fu Flute

  1. Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge (Fishbone)
  2. Fisticuffs (Primus)
  3. Return and Enter the Dragon (Bruce Lee Movie Themes)
  4. Death of the Samurai
  5. Battle Without Honor or Humanity (Kill Bill movie music)
  6. Big Boss (Bruce Lee movie theme)
  7. Kung Fu and the Silent Flute (David Carradine theme music)
  8. Hey Joe (Jimi Hendrix)
  9. Rebel Rouser (Duane Eddy)

Side B: Buddhist Blues

  1. Black Earth
  2. Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix)
  3. Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part II (Pink Floyd)
  4. The Mysteries of Harmony and Focus
  5. Beautiful Demon
  6. Shakthamunki
  7. You’re Gonna Find Your Mistake (James Kimbrough)
  8. It Hurts Me Too (Elmore James)
  9. Breathe (Pink Floyd)

There are wide ranging references and playful references like “shakthumunki (shock the monkey)” exist alongside music obviously important to this artist including traditional blues and a curious selection of blues’ baby, rock and roll as well as some very personal compositions.  There is much to ponder here.  There are references to prog rock, movies, Lovecraft, covers of some familiar tunes.  References seem to exist here to beat culture as well as, more prominently, psychedelic culture.  But no Grateful Dead?  Well, that’s another thing to ponder as we follow the piper who calls us to join him.

 

PUBLIQuartet: Freedom & Faith


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Bright Shiny Things BSTC 0126

There are seemingly more string quartets performing these days than ever before and they are fine musicians.  Whether we’re talking about the Kronos Quartet, Arditti Quartet, Pacifica, Telegraph, etc. all contain truly finely trained and virtuosic musicians.  The problem is to distinguish one’s self (or one’s ensemble) in some way.  I’m not going to go into how each of the mentioned string quartets have done this so don’t worry.

My point here is to review this fine disc by yet another new music quartet called PULBIQuartet.  They have chosen, at least in this, their second release, to continue their efforts at “genre bending”, exploring music and transcribing music that is atypical of the standard quartet repertoire.  Like their colleagues they are aiming at a redefinition or perhaps a revitalization of the string quartet genre.  The performers are: Curtis Stewart, Jannina Norpoth, violins; Nick Revel, viola; and Amanda Gookin, cello.

The album at hand, titled “Freedom and Faith” presents music predominantly written by or associated with women.  Get into the Now (2017) by Jessica Meyer is classical in the sense that it uses the standard 2 violins, viola,and cello and is divided into three movements played with short pauses.  Content wise this is a strong piece which requires a great deal of virtuosity and a handful of extended techniques involving percussive use of the bodies of the instruments themselves and even a few spots that require the musicians to vocalize.  All in all a riot of a piece with good humor.  It lasts about 20 minutes and begs to be heard again.  Very entertaining!

The next 9 tracks fit into the PUBLIQuartet’s project called Mind|the|Gap which is at the heart of their efforts to breathe new life into the string quartet and, hopefully, garner some new fans.  All members of the quartet share arrangement and, at times, co-compositional duties.

Tracks 4, 5, and 6 contain transcriptions of sacred vocal music by female composers.  The Medieval Hildegard von Bingen’s, “O ignee Spiritus” is followed by Francesca Caccini’s, “Regina Coeli”, and then Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s, “O quam suavis est Domine spiritus tuus”.  The vocal originals must be quite lovely but these works seem to retain their sacred ambiance even without the words.  So ends the section which contributes to the “faith” in the title of the album.

Who knew that “A tisket, a tasket…” was by Ella Fitzgerald’s arranger Van Alexander.  The PUBLIs (if you’ll forgive the truncation) do a marvelous and entertaining arrangement of this novelty song.  It provides a sort of comic relief dividing the faith segment of the program to the “freedom” segment.

The next 4 tracks focus on transcriptions of popular music.  These are serious pieces, not the “pop” type songs that are basically feel good or dance tunes but the type of music that is in the shadow of serious social issues.  Who better  than Nina Simone?  These are loving and strikingly original arrangements of Herb Sacker/Nina Simone’s, “Blackbird”, Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newly’s, “Feelin Good”, Nina Simone/Weldon Irvine’s, “Young Gifted and Black”, and Nina Simone’s powerful antiracist reproach in her, “Mississippi Goddam”.

These transcriptions are done in a free manner with echoes of Stephane Grappelli, Cajun music and, doubtless, references that this reviewer has not grasped.  They are highly entertaining.

The album ends with another string quartet.  This one is by Shelley Washington and it is a powerful piece.  In its relatively short ten minutes or so she manages to create some memorable sound worlds.  There are few program notes that give a clue as to the background and intended meanings of the purely instrumental works (those not derived from vocal music) but one senses political stirrings.

All in all a unique little recital which at least challenges the common notions of this chamber grouping and, frequently, succeeds.

 

Guest Blogger Bill Doggett Reporting on the World Premiere of Anthony Davis’ “Central Park Five”


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Today I am pleased to have a guest blogger, Mr. Bill Doggett.  He has appeared in this blog before.  His bio can be found at the end of the article and, while the photos and the opinions are his own (though I’m in agreement) and I’m glad to be able to share his thoughts on attending this important world premiere.

Here we are:

Implicit Bias, Racism , White Supremacy, Forced Confessions, Restorative Justice:1989-2019, The foundational ideas that continue to mark the world of The Central Park Five
Dateline, June 15th, 2019, The Warner Grand Theater, San Pedro California, a restored Art Deco movie palace was the showcase location for the world premiere of Long Beach Opera’s commissioned presentation of Anthony Davis’ The Central Park Five.

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Composite photo of the “Central Park Five”

Presented two weeks after Ava Duvernay Netflix Series “When They See Us” on The Central Park Five, a diverse and large audience was treated to a cutting edge new opera that added a new dimension, with an exceptional new score that enlarged the pallete of iconic operas by the great Anthony Davis.

Renowned for his 1986 landmark opera, X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X , Amistad, the opera about the slave ship rebellion and Tania, the story about the abduction/kidnapping of Patty Hearst and related drama with The Symbionese Liberation Army, Wakonda’s Dream about the plight of American Indians in Nebraska, Anthony Davis’ operas are landmarks of political discourse and exploration of historical and contemporary topics in American history.

Davis’ operas are richly hewn in intricate African polyrhythms, jazz improvisation, electronics and extraordinary vocal writing. In all of his operas, the expressive use of Rhythm advances the unfoldment of the drama in powerful ways.

The music of The Central Park Five expanded upon Davis’ rich compositional palette with intricate ensemble block scoring writing for the voices of the five Principal male singers that was fresh and impactful .
In the pre concert talk, Mr Davis expounded on some of the influences to this idea of block scoring and harmonization vocal writing that is associated with the well known Jazz and Gospel ensemble, Take Six and the sound worlds of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

A complex score conducted brilliantly by the renowned Leslie B Dunner with Direction/Production design by Long Beach Opera’s Artistic and General Director, Andreas Mitisek, Davis’ opera provides both a discourse and exploration of the historical and contemporary issues of implicit bias, Institutional Racism in the Criminal Justice System and historic and contemporary issues of the Impact of Racism and ideas of White Supremacy that were deeply embedded in the world of 1989 New York City.

This world of racism and white supremacy is embedded in the opera’s sung and spoken character, The Masque who appears throughout the opera.

Donald Trump who began his political career taking out $85,000 ads in major New York newspapers calling for the death penalty of The Central Park Five also shows up in a role that represents not only the nemesis of the youth but additionally represents a clairvoyance for white nationalist ideas that have empowered his Presidency.

Davis and Wesley’s The Central Park Five Five is indeed an impactful and dynamic opera that addresses all of the issues central to The Black Lives Matter Movement.

Provocative in 1989 and in 2019, the opera explicitly deals with forced confessions, police brutality, disingenuous prosecution without collaborating Evidence, the death penalty and the tragedy of lengthy incarceration sentences for black and brown Americans for crimes not committed.

The five principals who sing the roles of The Central Park Five were brilliant in their portrayals of the intricate vocal writing. They are Derrell Acon{Antron McCray},Nathan Granner{Korey Wise} Orson Van Gay {Raymond Santana} Cedric Berry {Yusef Salaam} and Bernard Holcomb{Kevin Richardson}. They are assisted in comparable brilliance by Babatunde Akinboboye {Matias Reyes-the man who committed the crime}, Lindsay Patterson and Joelle Lamarre, the mothers of Yusef and Antron and Ashley Faatoalia who plays Antron’s father. The roles of Donald Trump, The District Attorney and The Masque are performed by Thomas Segen, Jessica Mamey and Zeffin Quinn Holis.

 

There are two more performances of this impactful new opera by Anthony Davis and Richard Wesley on
June 22nd and June 23rd. For tickets, visit http://www.longbeachopera.org

 

About the author, Bill Doggett is a well respected historian, archivist and published specialist in African American Performing Arts History. During 2013, he worked as the marketing agent for Anthony Davis on his new chamber opera, Lear on The Second Floor and promotion for the revival of X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X focused for the 2015 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X.

 

(Just a note from the blogmaster):  I wish to thank Mr. Doggett for his wonderful coverage of this important premiere.  I already had a soft spot for Anthony Davis’ work (which I consider a latter day Luigi Nono who held that one can never separate politics from art) but I never imagined that I would be indexing Donald Trump in this blog space and this context but here he is, lol.  Thanks, Bill.

It is also very important to note that Anthony Davis has been commissioned to write an opera by Opera Tulsa on the subject of the Tulsa race massacre of 1919.  It is scheduled for a premiere next year.

 

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


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Cedille CDR 90000 185

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.