This is another entry in an ongoing series of music for piano trio by the tried and true Lincoln Trio. In this fine release they play a delightful collection of five works (three are world premiere recordings) by living composers. This is their eighth Cedille release by my count. It is the second recording of piano trios from Chicago based composers, a follow up to their previous survey of early to mid-twentieth century piano trios, Trios from the City of Big Shoulders.
The five works presented here are but a sampling of the available repertoire from Chicago based composers. That said it is a fine sampling of the current state of the art and one would do well to explore more of the music of all these composers.
The first selection is the three movement, “city beautiful” (2021) by the American composer of Nigerian/American Heritage, Shawn E. Okpebholo (1981- ), a world premiere recording. The title is taken from that of the 19th century initiative that helped build the now familiar skyline which had been ravaged by the 1871 Chicago Fire.
Okpebholo is no stranger to this blog. His fine album of spiritual arrangements Steal Away (2016), and his contributions to Will Liverman’s album, “Dreams of a New Day” (2021) revealed his interest in and expertise with spirituals and art song. “city beautiful” by contrast is essentially three tone poems inspired by Chicago architecture, perhaps one of the city’s finest distinctions. The three movements, aqua, prairie, and burnham are effectively homages to architects Jeanne Gang (whose Aqua Tower is a most recent major addition to the famous skyline), Frank Lloyd Wright (whose Robie House is a classic example of the “prairie school” design), and Daniel Burnham (whose 19th century designs define the famously beautiful lakefront and the iconic Union Station).
Opkebholo’s idiom is basically tonal and could be characterized as post romantic. But regardless of how you categorize it the music is eminently listener friendly and a fine vehicle for the estimable Lincoln Trio. This is the work of a rapidly emerging composer with both substance and style. Keep his name on your radar. I expect to hear much more from this talented and prolific composer who currently holds a professorship at Wheaton College in that western suburb of Chicago.
Next is a two movement work by Augusta Read Thomas (1964- ) entitled, “…a circle around the sun” (2021). This work was a commission by the Children’s Memorial Foundation for the Amelia Piano Trio in honor of George D. Kennedy. Thomas has long been a fixture in Chicago’s music life where she was a composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony from 1997-2006. She is currently professor of music at the University of Chicago and a former professor at Northwestern University. Her work also tends toward the tonal idiom and this rather brief two movement work is a fine example of her writing for chamber ensemble.
“Soliloquy” (2003) by the truly fine, if still too little known, Shulamit Ran (1949- ), an Israeli born American composer. She was a student of the esteemed Ralph Shapey (1921-2002) to whom she dedicated her Pulitzer Prize winning Symphony (1990). The composer states in her liner notes that the origins of this work come from her opera “Dybbuk”. It is a pleasant piece perhaps less complex and more lyrical in sound than some of her larger works. Ran was professor of music at the University of Chicago from 1973 to her retirement in 2015.
Mischa Zupko (1971- ) contributes the briefest work to this collection. Clocking in at just under three minutes, “Fanfare 80” (2010) was written in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Music Institute of Chicago. The brevity here belies the complexities within this ear catching piece.
The album concludes with a substantial two movement work (just over 23 minutes), “Sanctuary” by Stacy Garrop (1969- ) is the work of another prolific composer whose work is, happily, getting much deserved recognition. The 2016 recording of her wonderful orchestral work was reviewed in these pages. Garrop’s work is invariably kinetic and deeply felt with a dramatic flair. Garrop was on the composition faculty of Roosevelt University in Chicago from 2000 to 2016 and is now a freelance composer.
The usual audiophile production (Bill Maylone, engineer) which characterizes Cedille releases is evident here. This is a fine sampling of music which is roughly representative of the musical riches producer James Ginsburg has mined from the “city beautiful”.
The new singing sensation here is a Julliard trained soprano whose debut at the Met in 1991 has resulted in several return engagements. In addition to grand opera she apparently has experience with zarzuela and flamenco as well. The show, titled, “Y Volveré” (“And I’ll be back” in English) will also feature flamenco artists. They highlight the inclusion of song settings of Federico Garcia Lorca suggesting a program of some political conscience.
The opportunity to see this rising diva in a smaller setting singing a variety of vocal works, some from her background may make this one of those “I was there” moments. Below is the press release. And though this artist is a rising world star on the big stage it is delightful to see her other interests and talents featured.
Your humble reviewer/blogger is unable to travel to this one I eagerly await the reviews.
OPERA HISPÁNICA PRESENTS FAMED OPERA STAR
IN Y VOLVERÉ AT EL TEATRO OF EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO
ON APRIL 7, 2022
Performing with Verónica Villarroel are ‘Zarzuela King’ Pablo Zinger and Flamenco sensations Sonia Olla and Ismael Fernández
Opera Hispánica is proud to present the great Chilean soprano Verónica Villarroel in a romantic recitaltitled Y Volveré at El Teatro of El Museo del Barrio on April 7th at 7:30 PM, 1230 Fifth Avenue along Museum Mile. The performance will feature popular boleros, tangos and songs from Spain and Latin America along with selections from the Canciones Españolas Antiguas by Federico Garcia Lorca.
This special recital will feature songs including Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida, Armando Manzanero’s Cuando estoy contigo, Maria Grever’s Muñequita linda, and Garcia Lorca’s Las morillas de Jaén. The widely respected music director/pianist Pablo Zinger will lead an instrumental ensemble, with guest appearances by star Flamenco dancer Sonia Olla (who choreographed Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour Flamenco numbers), and cantaor
This special recital will feature songs including Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida, Armando Manzanero’s Cuando estoy contigo, Maria Grever’s Muñequita linda, and Garcia Lorca’s Las morillas de Jaén. The widely respected music director/pianist Pablo Zinger will lead an instrumental ensemble, with guest appearances by star Flamenco dancer Sonia Olla (who choreographed Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour Flamenco numbers), and cantaor Ismael Fernández.
Y Volveré is part of Opera Hispánica’s star-studded 2021/2022 season featuring new opera productions, an America premiere, several recitals, traditional and new repertoire, internationally renowned opera stars, fresh young artists, important collaborations and exciting venues.
Verónica Villarroel, arguably the most successful South American soprano of recent times, is regarded as one of the finest singing actresses of our day. She brings passionate intensity to the stage and “her big, forward tone has a Callas-style drama.” (The Guardian, London) Ms. Villarroel has been the recipient of the Plácido Domingo Award as the most important lyrical artist in Latin America (2002), the Medal of Women (2007), the Bicentennial Art Critics Circle Award (2011), and recognition as one of the top 100 women leaders in Chile (2010), among many others.
About Pablo Zinger
Uruguayan-born New Yorker Pablo Zinger is widely acclaimed as a conductor, pianist, composer, arranger, writer, lecturer and narrator, specializing in Astor Piazzolla, tango, Spanish zarzuela, and Latin American music. He accompanied Plácido Domingo at Washington’s Constitution Hall, conducted for Paquito D’Rivera’s Carnegie Hall 50th Anniversary Concert and the Moscow première of Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires, and accompanied legendary Spanish diva Sarita Montiel in NYC. He has been called “The King of Zarzuela” by Opera News magazine, and his La verbena de la Paloma (El Paso, ’96) was seen nationwide on PBS. For more information please visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Zinger
About Sonia Olla and Ismael Fernández
Hailed by The New York Times as “a furnace of earthy sensuality”, bailaora of international prestige, director and choreographer of her own shows, Sonia currently resides in New York, where she combines teaching with her performance and choreography career. Described by The Washington Post as the “most charismatic performer”, Ismael Fernández grew up performing in flamenco festivals throughout the world with his internationally renowned family, La Familia Fernández. Sonia and Ismael collaborated with the pop-icon Madonna for her Rebel Heart Tour and worked with Ricky Martin providing Flamenco choreography and vocals for his show All In! For more information please visist http://www.sonia-ismael.com/en/sonia-ismael
About El Teatro of El Museo del Barrio
Originally called The Heckscher Children’s Theater, El Teatro was built in 1921 by the architectural firm of Maynick and Franke as part of an orphanage. A proscenium arch stage with seating for 599, it has been acknowledged as a Landmark Quality Interior venue for its remarkable series of 30-foot murals and stained-glass roundels. Today, the murals and Art Deco interior give El Teatro special status as a Landmark Quality Venue by the Municipal Arts Society and the City of New York Arts Commission. The theatre was the site for a special tribute to Tito Puente as part of the 39th Annual GRAMMY awards. It is now part of New York City’s Historic Music Trail.
About Opera Hispánica
Opera Hispánica is the premier opera company in the United States exclusively to celebrate and to promote opera and vocal works centered around the Latin American and Spanish experience. Opera Hispánica’s mission is to empower Latin artists and develop our communities through groundbreaking cultural productions and musical content. Its goal is to facilitate the development, creation and performance of socially relevant content from the operatic and lyric repertoire to allow opera companies and performing arts organizations to present diverse programming and to reach traditionally underrepresented audiences.
Highlights of Opera Hispánica’s 21/22 season include Cuando el Fuego Abrasa, a double bill featuring Oblivion -a series of tangos by Piazzolla- and El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla, with Spanish opera superstar Nancy Fabiola Herrera, in collaboration with Teatro Grattacielo and the support of the Consulate of Spain in New York; Buenos Aires, Then and Now, a tribute to the diverse musical culture of Buenos Aires, in collaboration with New York Festival of Songs; a recital of South-American boleros and canciones by the great Chilean soprano Verónica Villarroel at El Museo del Barrio; and the American premiere of Ñomongeta, the first Guarani opera, in collaboration with the Americas Society and the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian (this last event has been postponed to the Fall due to COVID concerns.)
When I learned that you had shuffled off your mortal coil putting an end to a unique and lengthy creative career I was given pause, not because you were the best or my favorite composer (though much of your music is forever a part of my internal soundtrack), but rather because of the timing of when your work entered my life. We never met, I never corresponded with you, and I am not a professional musician/musicologist. I am simply a consumer, audience member who was 14 years old when he first purchased the (thankfully budget priced) recording of Ancient Voices of Children.
At a tender time in my life working on the adolescent task of forming an identity I was not enamored of rock and roll, the music of most of my peers. I was a devoted fan of classical music and it was the intelligent programming of Chicago’s WFMT which, as my daily companion, taught me much about classical music old and new. It would be at least four or five years, when I was in college, that I would find others who shared my interests so my incessant listening with liner notes in hand was a solitary experience. But rather than being what one might imagine as a sad and lonely pursuit, I found it thrilling and somehow validating. It felt like a personal discovery and those bold avant-garde sounds combined with the chilling poetry of Lorca resonated deeply with my nascent personality. It was the first modern music to engage me at a time when I had yet to develop an understanding of Schoenberg, yet to encounter Mahler, or have much appreciation for music written before 1900.
It is difficult all these years later to fully recall the thrill of finding this 1974 release in the record bins at Chicago’s iconic Rose Records, a place that became intimately a part of my sense of self with wooden bins in rows that sprawled to a vanishing point. Three floors of browsing ecstasy for my solitary but increasingly confident self. Finding another recording by that composer who touched me so deeply, and one with a portion of the beautiful calligraphy which I learned characterized your work was overwhelmingly compelling. Of course I had to buy it immediately.
Much as I did with that first disc, I listened intensely and repeatedly, again with liner notes close at hand, and that bolstered with what I had learned since studying that first disc. It is a nod to Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, a presumptuous thing to do but the substance of this music is arguably comparable. In addition each of the 12 pieces was named for one of the Zodiac signs, and, a nod to Edward Elgar (who appended initials of friends to each of the “Enigma” variations). I took delight in reading that these pieces were similarly dedicated by appending initials of various people, and that The Phantom Gondolier of Scorpio was the work’s composer and that of Spring-Fire Aries was the performer, David R. Burge. I recall a certain delight when my junior scholar self decoded Crucifixus Capricorn as being fellow composer Ross Lee Finney. I realize now that I don’t know the other references but again I was hooked on the whole concept.
When I heard Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale) broadcast on WFMT I had already encountered Alan Hovhaness’ use of actual recordings of whale sounds in his orchestral work, “And God Created Great Whales” (1970) and I was stunned at the use of extended instrumental techniques to successfully evoke whale sounds and seagull sounds. It was also my first introduction to your sense of theater, lighting the stage with a blue light, and having the performers wear masks (in addition to asking the musicians to do some unusual things with their instruments and also to use their voices). I’ve since wondered how many musicians rebelled, or at least grumbled, under the weight of those stage directions and then, as now, I am grateful for musicians who aren’t afraid to break boundaries.
Now, this release was on the full priced Columbia label which was out of my budgetary reach. But along comes Rose records with their always delightful “cutout bins” where I would later find this gem at a budget friendly price. It was also a time when a major label took calculated risks releasing truly innovative, experimental music. Indeed Columbia would later introduce me to Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow and, my gateway drug, Wendy Carlos with Switched on Bach.
I was hitting my stride and using what I had been learning from liner notes and the intelligent broadcast chatter of my beloved WFMT hosts. No surprise then that, when I found this budget album with the names of both George Crumb and Frederico Garcia Lorca, I knew that I was in my milieu. And this album would occupy me nearly as obsessively as the previous ones.
The sheer beauty and distinctive design of the Nonesuch new music releases were my metaphorical dog whistle, so Makrokosmos III practically jumped into my arms at one of my Rose Records junkets. (I was and still am a bit of a completist, that is, if I buy a piece numbered “2”, I would have to find the one marked “1”, and so on). So I was somewhat upset that I had somehow missed Makrokosmos II or, heavens forbid, that no one had bothered to record it. But I easily put that obsession to the side as I became entranced by this new installment of the celestially inspired Makrokosmos series in this larger ensemble work (NB. I did not dabble in any drugs until well into my college days probably 4-5 years distant so I’m reasonably sure that the profundities I experienced were related to the power of the music, though doubtless with some adolescent hormonal effects). For whatever reason this album engulfed me most blissfully.
Deus ex machina, I visited Rose records, prowling for more music that resonated with me when I found Robert Miller’s reading of the second Makrokosmos (on Columbia’s budget label, Odyssey) which, with the first Makrokosmos, comprised 24 pieces. I would some years later learn that the Zodiac pieces were in fact an analogy (or homage) to J. S. Bach whose two volumes of preludes and fugues, “The Well Tempered Clavier”, represented all 24 keys of the Western well-tempered scale and are a sort of urtext or manifesto, and which remain towering masterpieces. Now I’m not trying to suggest that Crumb’s work is of similarly immortal status. In fact the comparison is almost of an “apples/oranges” sort. But on the level of innovation in composition that Crumb’s work represents here does suggest strongly to this listener that the this set may do for extended techniques what Bach did for harmony and keyboard playing. (Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano of 1962, which I did not hear til many years later and it is clear are sort of the “etudes” or “experiments”, if you will that later expanded into larger forms). They are clearly a truly innovative rethinking of what piano music and piano playing can be. They are also a logical successor to John Cage and Marcel Duchamp’s “prepared piano” innovations of a decade or so earlier.
In the decades of the 80s and 90s, I and my concert goin’ pals would make pilgrimages to live performances of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, AACM, Keith Jarrett, the Arditti Quartet. Chicago Symphony, Civic Orchestra, Contemporary Chamber Players, and, of course, the Kronos Quartet (who I learned were formed shortly after founder and first violin, David Harrington heard Mr. Crumb’s 1970 political/musical masterpiece), “Black Angels”. It was the Kronos, whose beautifully staged and definitively played reading I can still recall (not eidetically complete but I do recall the stage lit from above, one light over each of four music stands with their instruments hung on cables over those desks (which they took down to play after they entered the stage).
After the house lights dimmed, there was a pause which served almost as punctuation, an indicator of a silence which helped get the audience into the mystical space which is deeply embedded in the music by structure, by analogy, by sheer sound, and by the theater. The musicians played standing at their desks (cellist Joan Jenrenaud was afforded a chair, thankfully). References to apocalyptic themes, alchemical symbolism, numerology, extended instrumental techniques, subtexts, epigrams, and striking optics all joined to create a performance that continues to evoke emotional memories. This music, written in protest of the Viet Nam War, also found its way into the score of the hit horror film, “The Exorcist”. Oh, yes, the “Night of the Electric Insects” played by the Electric String Quartet” added no small amount of uneasiness to the film and the music reinforces those emotions curiously well even on its own. The (now ubiquitous) use of amplification gives an “in your face” aspect to the performance of this music. It illuminates what would be barely perceptible extended technique effects and seems to push the music right up to your face and into your ears. Not your typical chamber music experience.
To be fair, while I have continued to follow your music, Mr. Crumb, I have not done so with the same passion as in those early days but I treasure listening to the Pulitzer Prize winning Echoes of Time and the River, Star Child, the early Solo Cello Sonata, and I’m incredibly pleased that David Starobin’s Bridge Records had been collaborating on a complete works edition (still in progress). But my sort of “first love” encounter with your music has been a significant part of making me who I now am and has given me great pleasures to sustain me since those early encounters. I want to thank you for your service to the arts and to let you know that your work has touched me deeply and is forever a part of me, it lives on. Rest in peace, a fan.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is among the most prolific of American composers. He has written so much music that even now, over twenty years since he exited the earthly plane, there remains much music that has not been recorded and manuscripts that await editing and publication. This beautiful recording fills some of those gaps.
First I must say that Hovhaness holds a special place for me personally as his music has always felt like a personal discovery. In my early teens I was immediately hooked when I first heard a recording of his second symphony, better known as “Mysterious Mountain” (in the Chicago Symphony/Reiner recording). It would be years before I attempted to grapple with the structure of his music but I knew it spoke to me.. Another piece which caught my still forming musical ear was his Allegro on a Pakistan Lute Tune from pianist Robert Helps’ classic survey of American piano music on CRI recordings from 1966. And in 1976 Hovhaness’ “Achtamar” was included in radio station WFMT’s bicentennial survey of American Music curated by composer/educator Raymond Wilding-White.
I later heard a broadcast performance from Oberlin of his Visionary Landscapes for piano which also grabbed my attention. I would later hear this in the recording and at a live recital in 2011 performed by Sahan Arzruni in Berkeley, California in celebration of the composer’s centennial (curated by legendary Bay Area Armenian-American composer/producer/educator/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian). I later purchased the two wonderful discs of piano music by equally legendary pianist/broadcaster/educator/new music advocate Marvin Rosen as well as a disc or two with the composer himself at the keyboard.
That brief personal history serves to illustrate some of why this disc is so exciting to me. This new recording is a sumptuous production that came in a little cardboard CD box with a distinctive design and gold stamped lettering. Inside is a CD in a matching cardboard slipcase and a high gloss paper booklet in three languages (Turkish, Armenian, and English). These useful notes describe the nature and sources of these compositions which are recorded for the first time, some from manuscripts which remain unpublished.
Arzruni is himself of Armenian extraction (born in Istanbul in 1943) and has been active as a pianist for many years as soloist and as a chamber music partner in a wide range of music. Some will recall him as the straight man playing in some of Victor Borge’s humorous recitals. Arzruni is a multifaceted artist whose knowledge and affinity for Turkish and Armenian music along with his firm grounding in the traditional western classical repertoire make him one of the finest interpreters of Hovhaness’ music. The pianists discography is diverse and interesting encompassing classical repertoire as well as fascinating niches of contemporary music from Turkey, Armenia, and their diaspora.
There are 34 tracks which contain 10 compositions. Some of the tracks require a percussionist (Adam Rosenblatt). All tracks are vintage Hovhaness. Though he is an American composer, born in Massachusetts, Hovhaness, in the tradition of learning non-western musics that traces to composers like Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, McPhee, Georges Enescu, and other proto-world music scholars who incorporated non-western scales, tunings, and compositional methods in their work. Hovhaness studied variously Armenian traditional music as well as Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Javanese, and Balinese musics.
The first piece on this disc is the five movement “Invocations to Vahakn” (1945-6). Vahakn is, in Armenian mythology, a god who symbolizes martial victory. According to legend he saved the earth by slaying savage black dragons in pre-Christian Armenia. The first movement is for solo piano. The remaining four augment the piano with various percussion instruments including a thunder sheet, Chinese drums, a conch shell, Burmese gongs, and cymbals. This piece appears to have been recorded only once before in an excellent performance by the Abel/Steinberg/Winant Trio on New Albion records.
Next up is another five (originally seven) movement suite for piano (this time without percussion), “Yenovk” (1951). This work went through several revisions ultimately culminating in it being renamed, “Madras Sonata” (1960). These five movements reveal various aspects of his compositional style including his imitation of non-western instruments and the use of various western and non-western forms. The five movements in the world premiere of this version of the work are: Fantasy, Canzona, Jhala, Canzona, Ballata, and Fugue. Hovhaness was a master of counterpoint and fugue as can be heard here. This was dedicated to Yenovk Der Hagopian, a singer and friend of the composer who introduced him to Armenian traditional folk music.
Lalezar (1947) is for solo piano. The title is a Farsi word for “field of tulips” and, like many of Hovhaness’ works, it went through later transformations culminating in it becoming a song in the 1971 song cycle (The flute Player of the Armenian Mountains) written for the great Armenian bass singer, Ara Berberian.
The next three tracks contain the “Suite on Greek Tunes” (1949). It is dedicated to the Greek-American pianist William Masselos (1920-1992) whose performing repertoire included a great deal of American music. This appears to tbe the first recording of it. The three movements, wedding song, grapeyard song, and dance in seven tala. The last movement reflects Hovhaness’ interest in Hindustani music. Tala is a rhythmic form in that musical system.
Mystic Flute (1937) is a brief piece which is also based on tala. It was a frequent encore played by none other than Sergei Rachmaninoff. The 1962 revision, given the Opus number 22 has been recorded but this is the premiere recording of the 1937 version originally published in 1942.
Journey into Dawn (1954) was originally titled, “Piano Suite No. 2”. This second of four piano suites composed in 1954 is cast in five movements: Hymn, Fugue, Jhala, Aria, Alleluia. Again we hear the eclectic nature of the composer’s interests with elements here of sacred music, western art music, and Hindustani forms.
Laona (1956) was originally titled, “Genesee River” after the river which runs through Rochester, New York. Hovhaness was fond of the views of the river. He later changed the name of the piece in reference to the city in New York state where the Spiritualist Movement established a center in the mid-19th century. This is an impressionistic piece rather unlike Hovhaness’ other works in style but certainly of the same quality. This is its recording premiere.
The three movement “Lake of Van Sonata” (1946, rev 1959). The title refers to Lake Van, the largest body of water in Anatolia and was the center of the Armenian kingdom or Ararat. It was populated predominantly by Armenians from about 1000 B.C. until the Armenian genocide of 1915. In his liner notes Arzruni reports that he has abridged the first movement in collaboration with the composer. This sonata has been recorded at least twice before this release.
Vijag (1946) is a composition for two pianos. The title refers to the traditional Armenian fortune telling festival. Though the notes do not specify, it appears that Arzruni plays both parts. It is a world premiere recording.
The disc ends with a fairly large work, the eight movement “Hakhpat Sonata” (1948-51). It is scored for piano and percussion (apparently the only Hovhaness piano sonata that uses percussion). The percussion consists of a large Tam Tam and a kettle drum tuned to the note “G”.
This is the first recording of this piece whose title refers to a large monastic complex built in 976 CE. The monastery has been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as of 1996.
This is a major release, a gorgeously recorded and produced CD album which fills essential gaps in Alan Hovhaness’ recorded legacy. The liner notes by Mr. Arzruni reflect his depth of knowledge of the music and his thorough research. All collectors of American Music, Armenian Music and lovers of piano music in general will want to have this disc. It is a gem.
I have always made my admiration clear regarding Chicago based Cedille Records. They release quality recordings of unusual but intelligent choices of repertoire. This recording continues that formula but here achieves what is likely to be seen as a landmark anthology (or at least sampling) of Art Song by Black Composers. It speaks on many levels, as poetry, as music, as a collaboration between an incredible baritone, an amazing pianist, in a beautifully recorded and produced album. I was left throughout with the feeling that this is a loving collaboration. It is an integrated collaboration between many people who worked well together. It is a beautiful document and a timely one.
Baritone Will Liverman, the young rising star baritone who is slated to perform at The Met in the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” scheduled for fall of 2021 is clearly at the heart of this production. His intelligent choice of repertoire is both pleasing and revelatory. (the poetry of the song texts are published in one of two booklets that come with this CD). And Liverman’s voice is an admirable instrument that he wields with power and nuance. His commission of fellow rising musical star, composer Shawn Okpebholo whose “Two Black Churches” receives its world premiere recording. The pianist who manages to navigate significant demands with confidence and artistry, is Paul Sanchez, an excellent pianist, composer, and a fine collaborator.
The beautifully packaged CD (you gotta buy the CD) consists of 19 tracks representing 8 composers. The recording is billed as “Songs by Black Composers” but one can hardly miss the justly sad or angry tone of the texts and this was recorded July 22-24 of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and amidst social unrest over the epidemic of modern day lynchings. (2020 was also the year that Anthony Davis won the Pulitzer Prize for his protest opera, “The Central Park Five”) The moving rendition (“put together”, as Liverman quips in the liner notes) of Richard Farina’s 1964 song is played and sung by Liverman connecting this release with the tradition of protest music of another era. The struggle continues.
Before discussing the music I must supply a disclaimer of sorts. My working knowledge of art song in general is fairly limited and my knowledge of black art songs even more so. I know none of this music and have only in the last year or so came to know of the work of Shawn Okpebholo. I had read about the historical significance of Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh and Margaret Bonds but have heard little of their music.
In about 61 minutes listeners are given a survey, a sampling of art song by black composers ranging from Burleigh (who studied with Antonin Dvorak) to Okpebholo whose compositional talents continue to get much deserved recognition. It is a learned sampling of a huge repertory that deserves attention.
The opening song is I Dream a World (2017) by Damien Sneed (1979- ). This setting of the Langston Hughes (1901-1967) poem strikes a somber but cautiously optimistic note. It is followed by “Five Songs of Laurence Hope” (1915) by Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949). The name Laurence Hope is the pseudonym of Adela Florence Nicolson (1865-1904), a British poet who spent much of her life in British India where she developed an interest in the culture of the land. Fascination with the literature and culture of India was strongly in evidence in the early twentieth century. These five songs are reminiscent of Debussy and the impressionists and is but a small sampling of Burleigh’s art song output.
Harrison Leslie Adams’ (1932- ) setting of his own lyrics in “Amazing Grace” is yet another iteration of the abolitionist song. Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972) is represented by her “Three Dream Portraits” (1959), a song cycle on Langston Hughes poems. Bonds’ style put this listener in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs though notably darker. This cycle is contemporary with the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Next is “Riding to Town” (1943) by Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) who chose to reach back to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) for his text. Dunbar was for the 19th century what Langston Hughes would be for the early to mid twentieth century.
“Two Black Churches” (2017) is the work commissioned by Liverman for this recording. It is a setting of two poems and one of the musical highlights here. The first, “Ballad of Birmingham” to a text by Dudley Randall (1914-2000) is a contemporary reaction to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls. The second song, “The Rain” to a text by the Poet laureate of Charleston, poet and musician Marcus Amaker (1976- ). It is about the Charleston Church shooting of 2015 at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal in which a lone gunman killed nine people. Okpebholo is modernist but accessible and these settings are among the most devastating and powerful statements on this recording.
“Mortal Storm” Op. 29 (1969) is a song cycle by one Robert Owens (1925-2017). It is a powerful cycle set to Langston Hughes poems. Owens left the United States in 1968-9 in response to the racial violence and moved to Europe where he had studied music under the GI Bill from 1946-1957. Owens died in Munich having never returned to the land of his birth. This work deserves to be better known and thanks is due to Liverman and his associates for bringing this sad masterpiece to contemporary listeners.
The album concludes with Mr. Liverman’s arrangement of “Birmingham Sunday”, a 1964 song by writer and composer Richard Farina (1937-1966). Liverman plays and sings on this final track which is an homage to a previous generation of song writers and protestors as well as a reminder that that generation’s work in Civil Rights is hardly complete. The song was notably used by Spike Lee in his elegiac film, “Four Little Girls” (1997).
The lucid and detailed program notes by Dr. Louise Toppin are a welcome addition to this production and help to provide a context. The design by Bark Design ties this little gem together. This one has Grammy and “collector’s item” written all over it.
This is not, strictly speaking, an autobiography. It is perhaps more in the style of a memoir. It traces the career and life of a woman whose voice drove much of the avant garde from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. It is told with a sober tone as the artist looks back on the highs and lows of life and career well spent. She tactfully shares just enough of her personal life and relationships to provide a context for her tales.
Anyone with an interest in new music during those years had to encounter Beardslee’s carefully cultivated soprano voice. Along with names like Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Cathy Berberian, and Jan De Gaetani, hers was a very familiar and welcome voice which led listeners (including this writer) reliably and frequently definitively through the plurality of styles that comprise the 20th Century. Of course she was trained in and also sang the so called “classics” meaning Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann etc. but she will likely be best known for her extraordinary service to new music.
Beardslee’s lengthy and sometimes rambling tome is a very personal look at a long and productive career. She recounts teachers, other singers, composers, conductors, accompanists, and husbands over the span of a rich and interesting career. The rambling quality of her prose serves only to cast an even more personal light on these accounts of her life and artistry. Never is there a dull moment and this book will delight singers, composers, historians, and just plain listeners.
In the end this was a very satisfying read and the intelligent decision to include a discography as well as a list of Ms. Beardslee’s world and US premieres makes this book a useful document for further research into her career and the music which drove it.
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.
I’m skeptical about year end lists but I have enough people asking me that it would be impertinent to skip this task. I make no claims to having even listened to enough to make any definitive statements about the “best” but I have my own quirky criteria which I hope at least stirs interest. Here goes.
Let’s start with the most read reviews. Without a doubt the prize here goes to Tim Brady’s “Music for Large Ensemble”. This reviewer was enthralled by this recording by this Canadian musician whose work needs to be better known.
This little gem was sent to me by a producer friend and I liked it immediately. I knew none of these composers but I enjoyed the album tremendously. Don’t let the unusual name “Twiolins” stop you. This is some seriously good music making. It is my sleeper of the year.
Running close behind the Twiolins is the lovely album of post minimalist miniatures by the wonderful Anne Akiko Meyers. Frequently these named soloist albums of miniatures are targeted at a “light music” crowd. Well this isn’t light music but it is quite listenable and entertaining.
The creative programming and dedicated playing made this a popular review to New Music Buff readers. Definitely want to hear more from the Telegraph Quartet.
Another disc sent by my friend Joshua. This one is a DVD/CD combo of music by a composer whose existence was only revealed to me a couple of years ago. Marin includes a clever animated video which accompanies the title track.
I was fortunate enough to have been able to hear Terry Riley and Gloria Cheng in an all Terry Riley program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Both were in spectacular form and the audience was quite pleased.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the fabulous 6 night series of concerts produced by Other Minds. This is why I am a rabid advocate of OM programs. More on that soon with OM 24 coming up.
And lastly I want to tell you about two more composers who are happily on my radar.
One of the joys of reviewing CDs is the discovery of new artists to follow. Harold Meltzer is now in that group for me. This basically tonal composer has a real feel for writing for the voice and has turned out some seriously interesting chamber music.
Another composer unknown to these ears. I bristle at the term “electroacoustic” because it sometimes means experimental or bad music. Not so here. Moe is fascinating. Definitely worth your time.
OK, gonna can the objectivity here to say that this is possibly the most underappreciated album I’ve heard this year. Combining a recording of the Debussy Preludes along with Schoenberg’s rarely heard “Hanging Gardens”, Webern’s Variations, and Berg’s Piano Sonata creates a picture of a moment in history when music moved from impressionism to expressionism. Jacob Greenberg is very much up to the task. Buy this one and listen, please. It’s wonderful.
Also beyond objectivity is this fascinating major opus by Kyle Gann. It didn’t get much recognition on my blog but it’s a major work that deserves your attention if you like modern music.
Well this is one of my favorite reviews in terms of the quality of my writing. The work is most wonderful as well. Though this review was actually published on December 31st I’m still including it in my 2018.
This is definitely cheating on my part but after that concert at Yerba Buena I can’t resist making folks aware of this wonderful set on the independent label, “Irritable Hedgehog”. Trust me, if you like Riley, you need this set.
I review relatively few books on this site but by far the most intriguing and important book that has made it across my desk to this blog is Gay Guerilla. The efforts of Mary Jane Leach, Renee Levine Packer, Luciano Chessa, and others are now helping to establish an understanding of this composer who died too young. Here’s looking forward to next year.
I know I have left out a great deal in this quirky year end selection but I hope that I have not offended anyone. Peace and music to all.
I was delighted to receive this disc directly from the composer. I had not been familiar with Harold Meltzer‘s (1966- ) work so this would be my introduction. The disc contains two works, a Piano Quartet (2016) and a song cycle, Variations on a Summer Day (2012-2016). Both are functional titles which tell the listener little about what to expect in terms of style. I was even more delighted when he kindly sent me some PDF scores of these pieces.
The Piano Quartet might be described as post minimal I suppose but the salient characteristic of this piece is that it is exciting and quite listenable. It is also quite a workout for the musicians. In fact this piece seems to embody a variety of styles which give it a friendly romantic gloss at times. This is a fine addition to the Piano Quartet repertoire.
The musicians that do such justice to this composition are: Boston Chamber Music Society: Harumi Rhodes, violin, Dimitri Murrath, viola, Ramen Ramakrishnan, violoncello, and Max Levinson, piano. All are kept quite busy and seems to be enjoying themselves. I can’t imagine this not playing well to the average chamber music audience.
The song cycle, “Variations on a Summer Day” sets poetry by Wallace Stevens and Meltzer’s compositional style seems to be a good fit for Stevens’ poetic style. This work is stylistically very similar to the Piano Quartet with hints of minimalism within a larger somewhat romantic style. It is scored for chamber orchestra with soprano solo. Actually the orchestra is Ensemble Sequitur, a group founded in part by the composer and clearly dedicated to the performance of new music. The members of this group include: Abigail Fischer, soprano, Jayce Ogren, conductor, Tara O’Connor and Barry Crawford, flutes, Alan Kay and Vicente Alexim, clarinets, Margaret Kampmeier, piano, Miranda Cuckson and Andrea Schultz, violins, Daniel Panner, viola, Greg Hesselink, violoncello.
The poem is by the sometimes obtuse American poet Wallace Stevens. Maybe “obtuse” is the wrong word but Stevens is not the easiest read. What is interesting is how well this composer’s style fits this poetic utterance. This is a lovely song cycle that puts this writer in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs and Barber’s Hermit Songs and perhaps his Knoxville Summer of 1915. There is an air of romantic nostalgia in this tonal and passionate setting.
Stevens’ poetry has been inspiring American composers for some years. Works like Roger Reynolds’ “The Emperor of Ice CreamThe Emperor of Ice Cream“(1961-2) demonstrate an effective avant garde setting of another of his works. It is fascinating to hear how different composers utilize the poet’s work. The present cycle is a beautiful setting which presents a challenge to the musicians which is met quite successfully here.
Of all the publicity heaped on the Supreme Court of the United States recently this CD definitely stands out as the most unusual but also the most joyous. Notorious RBG in Song is something of a first, a CD celebrating one of our living Supreme Court Justices.
Ginsburg’s son James is the founder of this wonderful Chicago based recording label and clearly shares in the admiration of this physically diminutive intellectual powerhouse of a justice. The surprise for this writer is to hear the compositional skills of the wonderful soloist Patrice Michaels (also James Ginsburg’s wife) who has long been a welcome musical performer in Chicago. She composed The Long View (2017) for this album and the liner notes list even more compositional accomplishments. The remaining four songs are by Lori Laitman, Vivian Fung, Stacy Garrop, and Derrick Wang. Wang, the only male composer in this group (a symbolically satisfying fact) also happens to be the composer of an opera “Scalia/Ginsburg” (2012-15) which actually premiered in Washington D. C. The other man in this recording is the fine accompanist Kuang-Hao Huang.
We learn from the extensive liner notes that this CD is a labor of love involving many people from various orbits around this important American Justice. The liner notes recount many admiring perspectives on this public figure who so improbably has risen to being a major cultural icon in part by her incisively written dissenting opinions. She has touched many lives and has thus far lived an amazing life herself.
The lyrics which are tastefully produced in a separate booklet come from a variety of very personal sources all carefully recounted here. And “personal” is exactly what this album is about. This is not about politics, it’s about family. There are quite a few lovely photographs included and the cover art by Tom Bachtell with graphic design by Studio Rubric bring this intimate tribute together most successfully. This will be a collector’s item some day.
Ultimately this is a recital disc featuring one of the finest sopranos working today featuring her as a composer as well. It is also an unusually beautiful tribute to a truly great American and, evidenced by the love and admiration here, to a truly beautiful circle of family and friends. Listen to the music, read the words, and feel the love. This is a classic.
I looked at the rather drab cover. I had never heard of the Quince Ensemble nor any of the composers featured on this disc. I looked again at the cover. Clearly it was labeled with one of those parental advisory warnings which one rarely sees on a classical recording.
My usual practice is to do some research before spinning a given disc but I decided to just put this one in the CD player cold. I had about an hour’s drive ahead and I decided to just let the disc speak for itself. But my spidey sense suggested I might be in for a rather dull listen.
So much for my superhero powers. From the moment the first track played I felt drawn in. What I heard seemed to be a mixture of Peter Kotik (of Many, Many Women in particular), Meredith Monk, a touch of La Mystere de Voix Bulgare, the west coast group Kitka, and a few others). That is to say that this disc grabbed my attention and had echoes of a few other contemporary vocal music styles. What I heard was very compelling, creative, practiced, passionate.
This is mostly an a capella group though they made very effective use of harmonicas as drone material at one point. Even after reaching my destination (achieved before the disc ended) I couldn’t bring myself to shut it off so I stayed parked and listening til I had heard the entire disc. Yes, it was THAT compelling.
Complicating the reviewer’s task further is that the disc contains four compositions by four composers whose first appearance on this writer’s radar was from this very disc. All four are world premiere recordings and all are by women composers.
The Quince Ensemble consists of Liz Pearse (soprano), Kayleigh Butcher (mezzo soprano), Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano), and Carrie Henneman Shaw (soprano). And this is the fourth album dedicated entirely to this ensemble’s work. Two previous albums were appearances and collaborations.
The featured composers are (in order of their appearance on this release): Gilda Lyons (1975- ); Laura Steenberge; Cara Haxo (1991- ); and Jennifer Jolley (1981- ). All appear to be Calfornia based and at the beginnings of what will doubtless be some interesting careers. I will leave it to the interested reader to look into the details available at these various web sites but, after listening to the music, most listeners will want to know more.
The pieces range from Lyon’s Bone “Needles” coming in at just over 4 minutes to the next two multiple movement pieces and finally Jolley’s “Prisoner of Conscience” which is an homage to the politically active musical group, “Pussy Riot”. This is the longest and most political piece on the album.
From the initial (and incorrect) assumption that this would be a dull disc to the end of this listening journey I came to see this disc in quite a different light. The cover now seems friendly and appropriately representative of the album.
Rather than go into a bland or potentially inaccurate analysis of these pieces suffice it to say that this is effective and affecting music by a delightfully talented and energetic ensemble. If you like vocal music, political music, music by women, or are just looking for something to lift you from your daily malaise give this one a try. You will be both challenged and entertained. No doubt this group would be fantastic in a live performance but for now we shall have to make do with this wonderful recording.
Reiko Füting (1970- ) is the chair of the music department at the Manhattan School of music. The present album is actually my introduction to this man and his work. It consists of a series of 15 works written between 2000 and 2014.
These works tend to emphasize brevity especially the solo vocal pieces (tracks 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10). These, originally for baritone and piano are here rendered very effectively as solo vocal pieces. They are used as a sort of punctuation in this recording of mostly brief pieces which remind this listener of Webern at times. They are in fact the movements of a collection called, “…gesammeltes Schweigen” (2004/2011, translated as Collected Silence). It is worth the trouble to listen to these in order as a complete set.
The first track here is also the longest piece on the album at 15:43. Kaddish: The Art of Losing (2014) for cello and piano is an elegiac piece inspired by several people and seems to be about both loss and remembrance. The writing in this powerful and affecting piece is of an almost symphonic quality in which both instruments are completely interdependent as they share notes and phrases. The cello is called upon to use a variety of extended techniques and the piano part is so fully integrated as to make this seem like a single instrument rather than solo with accompaniment. It has a nostalgic quality and is a stunning start to this collection of highly original compositions.
tanz, tanz (dance, dance) (2010) is a sort of Bachian exegesis of the Chaconne from the D minor violin partita. This sort of homage is not uncommon especially in the 20th/21st century and this is a fascinating example of this genre. The writing is similar to what was heard in the cello writing in the first track. This piece is challenging and highly demanding of the performer. It is a delicate though complex piece but those complexities do not make for difficult listening.
leaving without/palimpsest (2006) for clarinet and piano begins with a piano introduction after which the clarinet enters in almost pointillistic fashion as it becomes integrated to the structure initiated by the piano. Again the composer is fond of delicate sounds and a very close relationship between the musicians.
names erased (Prelude, 2012) is for solo cello and is, similar to the solo violin piece “tanz, tanz”, a Bach homage. The performer executes the composer’s signature delicate textures which utilize quotes from various sources including the composer himself. And again the complexities and extended techniques challenge the performer far more than the listener in this lovely piece.
Track 9 contains two pieces: “ist-Mensch-geworden” (was-made-man, 2014) for flute and piano and “land-haus-berg” (land-house-mountain, 2008) for piano. Both pieces involve quotation from other music in this composer’s compact and unique style. Here he includes references to Morton Feldman, J.S. Bach, Alban Berg, Gyorgy Ligeti, Schumann, Debussy, Nils Vigeland, Beat Furrer, Jo Kondo and Tristan Murail.
light, asleep (2002/2010) for violin and piano apparently began its life as a piece based on quotation but, as the liner notes say, lost those actual quotes in the process of revision.
finden-suchen (to find-to search, 2003/2011) for alto flute, cello and piano is a lyrical piece with the same interdependent writing that seems to be characteristic of this composer’s style.
…und ich bin Dein Spiegel (…and I am Your Reflection, 2000/2012) is a setting of fragments by a medieval mystic Mechthild von Magdeburg for mezzo soprano and string quartet. This is deeply introspective music.
All of Fùting’s compositions have a very personal quality with deeply embedded references. His aesthetic seems to be derived from his roots in the German Democratic Republic having been born into that unique nation state both separate from the West German state and still deeply connected to it. He is of a generation distant from the historical events that gave birth to that artificially separate German nation but, no doubt, affected by its atmosphere.
The musicians on this recording include David Broome, piano; Miranda Cuckson, violin; Nani Füting (the composer’s wife), mezzo soprano; Luna Cholong Kang, flutes; Eric Lamb, flutes; Joshua Rubin, clarinet; John Popham, cello; Yegor Shevtsov, piano; Jing Yang, piano; and the Mivos Quartet. All are dedicated and thoughtful performances executed effortlessly.
The recording is the composer’s production engineered by Ryan Streber. This is a very original set of compositions which benefit from multiple hearings.
We have here three very different CDs all of which feature composer/performer Gene Pritsker along with a variety of his colleagues and collaborators. Each of these CDs is a unique production and reflects a marvelously creative group of composers and performers.
I first came to know of Pritsker’s work when he sent me a copy of his wonderful chamber opera, Manhattan in Charcoal and when I began to learn of the scope of his work through his numerous You Tube videos and his website I found myself rather overwhelmed and wholly intrigued. In fact I can’t shake a comment which Leonard Bernstein once made about Igor Stravinsky to the effect that he was able to switch between different styles at different times with seeming ease and certainly skill (It was a comment made on a vinyl disc in which Bernstein spoke of Stravinsky in general on one cut and described the imagery of Petroushka on another.). Pritsker’s Russian origins certainly play a part in reminding me of this association but it is the sheer extent and variety of his compositional visions and techniques that drive me to be reminded of this. His virtuosity on the guitar also puts me in the mind of Frank Zappa at times too. And he seems to be doing it pretty much all at once too, utilizing a wide palette of styles selectively with care and subtlety. Pritsker switches between some very classical sounds to rock, jazz, rap, etc. as though the distinctions don’t exist or matter. In the end they don’t matter really. All is music I suppose and he seems be able to use them all pretty well and these discs are a nice sampling of some of this interesting musician’s various guises and interests.
Fortunately I am not attempting a comprehensive cataloging of all that but rather reviewing a nice little selection of some current releases which Mr. Pritsker was kind enough to entrust to my critical ear. First up here will be a Mozart tribute of sorts. Regular readers may recall another entertaining Mozart-based recording by John Clark (here). Indeed Mr. Clark makes an appearance here both as composer and performer. This curious little disc consists of short, clever glosses on Mozart by Gene Pritsker, Patrick Grant, John Clark, Milica Paranosic, Dan Cooper and David Taylor. Pritsker in particular seems to have a penchant for reworking music by other composers. His Bach-based works also deserve attention as well. But that is another matter.
There are 13 tracks and all have a somewhat improvisational character. Of course variation forms are ubiquitous and varied throughout music history and these are, if not strictly speaking, “variations”, then something close which is why I have chosen the term glosses. But all are entertaining and reflect a sort of new music take on Mozart who appears to have some meaning for each of the composers (Mozart is my desert island composer by the way). I am sure that Mozart himself would have been amused and honored. These are most certainly homage at the very least.
The CompCord Ensemble consists of Charles Coleman, voice; Chanda Rule, voice; Milica Paranosic, voice/gusle; Patrick Grant, voice/harpsichord; Lynn Bechtold, violin; Dan Barrett, cello; John Clark, horn; David Taylor, bass trombone; Gene Pritsker, guitar; Dan Cooper, bass; Javier Diaz, percussion/voice; Gernot Bernroider, drums; Franz Hackl, trumpet.
There are no liner notes here and perhaps that is for the best. I have no doubt that there are a great deal of personal stories here as to how these pieces came about and what they mean to the respective musicians but they do stand on their own as entertainment and to my ear sound like they could even work as a film soundtrack (most likely a non-American film). This is entertaining material, perhaps a bit “inside” with its references but not difficult or obscure. I will leave it to some future musical archaeologist to elucidate those details. The listener need only sit back and be entertained.
Now to the second disc. This is quite different in character being a duo between a guitarist (Gene Pritsker) and a drummer (Peter Jarvis). Such scant scoring tells one nothing about what is to come. Each of the six tracks is by a different composer (Peter Jarvis, Gene Pritsker, David Saperstein, Joseph Pehrson, Jessica Wells and Daniel Palkowski). As with the previous disc there are no liner notes so one is left with nothing but the sound.
This appears to be much more of an improvisational nature than the previous recording considered above. The style here ranges from free jazz to rock and perhaps some contemporary musical styles as well. Each track is a succinct statement and none of the tracks seem to go longer than necessary. The musicianship is superb so if you are fond of the sound of guitars and drums played creatively and well you will enjoy this disc. These musicians extract a great deal of varied sounds from their instruments.
Finally we have this disc of song cycles. Now the only song cycles I know at all well are those of Franz Schubert but that is, I think, an adequate place to begin to understand what is going on here (still flying without liner notes).
Eight composers and eight poets are featured in six song cycles. The first and last cycles (tracks 1-3 and 16-19) are the only ones which include instruments in addition to the voice and piano. Only one song here (Inside on track 15) features poetry by the composer. The rest, like Schubert utilized existing poetry.
Most of these composers are unknown to me which is both the joy and the bane of reviewing such discs. All of these fall roughly into the classical art song tradition even with their occasional blues inflections (as in the Pritsker songs) or extended instrumental techniques. David Gutay, Zach Seely, Patrick Hardish, Luis Andrei Cobo, Eleanor Cory are all new names to me and it Mr. Pritsker is to be commended for his efforts to promote others’ music. The two composers here who are familiar are Mr. Pritsker and, another reason for commendation, Lester Trimble (1923-1986), a man embraced by Leonard Bernstein and cut from similar sonic cloth as both Bernstein and Copland. This recording of Trimble’s Canterbury Tales is a welcome addition to the discography of mid to late twentieth century masters who deserve at least another listen.
The poets include: Tony Roberts, Jacob Miller, Dorrie Weiss, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, Eleanor Cory and Geoffrey Chaucer.
Performers include Elizabeth Cherry, soprano; Thomas Carlo Bo, piano; Katie Cox, flute; Charles Coleman, voice; Derin Oge, piano; Patricia Songego, soprano; Taka Kigawa, piano; Lynn Norris, soprano; Amir Khorsrowpour, piano; Eleanor Taylor, soprano; Christopher Oldfather, piano; Circadia Ensemble consisting of: Melissa Fogarty, soprano; Kaoru Hinata, flute; Christopher Cullen, clarinet; Jenifer Griesbach, harpsichord (in the Trimble cycle).
The performances are uniformly excellent albeit a collection of separate recordings all mastered, as were the previous two discs by Sheldon Steiger. If you love art song this is a treasure trove of current compositions but with a healthy respect for the past.