ICE Plays Music of Du Yun, a Powerful Collaboration


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New Focus/Tundra Recordings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jason Vieaux with the Escher Quartet


 

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Though this album was actually released a few months before the Sharon Isbin recording containing, purely by chance, two of the same guitar quintets is perhaps an indicator that these quintets are making their way into the active performing repertoire.  I’m not really interested in the differences between the two recordings but I am interested in hearing two of the finest guitarists working today finding the two works on their respective radars at more or less the same time.

The present disc with Jason Vieaux (whose fine work has been reviewed elsewhere in this blog) and the Escher Quartet begins (as Isbin’s does) with the inconceivably little known masterpiece, the Guitar Quintet Op. 148 (1950) of Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968).  The composer’s style sounds pretty much mid-century post romantic with a wealth of Spanish references.  The high romanticism of the quintet format (compare Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Brahms and Schumann’s Piano Quintets) is well served here in an incredibly engaging work which makes significant demands on the musicians but is musically very transparent to the listener.  It is a wonder that this piece is not better known and, for that matter, that the rest of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s output is not being explored in a big way.

The second work here also deserves more hearings.  Aaron Jay Kernis’ (1960- ) 100 Greatest Dance Hits is another piece which can be described as post romantic and audience friendly.  Kernis uses some extended techniques like using the instruments percussively at times but its basically a consonant melodic experience.  It’s scoring for guitar and string quartet keep the listener in basically the same sound world and, except for Kernis’ curious titlings, this is a guitar quintet in all but name.  And the use of dance forms is a tradition that goes back at least the baroque era.  Like the opening work, it is cast in four movements.

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) is a prolific Italian composer who spent a great deal of creative life in Spain and, as a result, has incorporated Spanish rhythms and idioms into his work.  This contemporary of Mozart and Haydn shares a similar late classical style.  The last work here is another four movement Guitar Quintet (1793), the fourth of nine he wrote and probably the best known.  The only difference between this rendition and the one by Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet is the absence of castanets in the fandango last movement.  In fact that may be one of the hooks for completists who want to hear what it sounds like in its original version (both work very well).

The performances are all full of enthusiasm and seemingly easy virtuosity that one expects from musicians of this caliber.  If you are stumped as to which one of these to get I think the only reasonable answer is, of course, both.

 

 

Lara Downes Celebrates Women and Love


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Though she has been performing and recording for a while now I first became aware of Lara Downes when I reviewed her truly excellent, America Again album in 2016.  Since then I have become aware of the incredible range of music which she has chosen to champion.  Her various projects have a distinctive Lara Downes fingerprint which establishes her brand in the music world.  She plays music from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with careful attention to women composers, minority composers, and a solid grounding in the more commonly heard recital works.

I jumped at the opportunity to see her play at the “Old First Concerts” in San Francisco later in 2016.  She played a friendly recital of mostly familiar classical works including the solo version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and some Schumann pieces and a couple of selections from the just released America Again album.  Having taken some piano lessons I have a bit of awareness of how difficult this music can be but, as the title of my concert review suggested, Downes elevates the music such that it magically comes alive in ways that fledgling or average pianists can only dream.  The notes are the same but she makes them sing and watching her play is reminiscent of an Olympic athlete.  Don’t stand too close, lol.

It is her love of the 19th century romantic piano literature and her mission to highlight female artists that are the motivation behind this recent release.  Clara Schumann turned 200 years old in September, 2019 and this release is a gift to her and an affirmation of a musical romance of grand romantic dimensions.  The album features Schumann’s masterful Concerto as well as a selection of solo pieces by Clara and Robert.

Downes’ own words from her informative website:

I’m the first of three sisters, and I grew up in a house full of girls and women. My sisters and I made music together, put on plays, shared our clothes and secrets, and navigated together the unpredictable waters of our inconstant childhood. We were a pack. The world of women has always been my home. But the world of my music – of my piano teachers and their teachers, the Great Pianists and Great Composers – was a world of male lineage and legacy. Except for Clara Schumann. When I read about her early  life – such a serious, dark-eyed little girl – I found something of myself. I played her music as soon as I could get my hands around it. As I grew up, the themes of her life resonated in my own:  a struggle for independence; a defiant romance, the work/family conflicts of the artist’s life… As my life unfolds, as a musician, a woman, a mother – I wonder at her accomplishments, her choices, her joys and her heartaches.

This beautifully recorded disc (at Skywalker Ranch’s fine studios) opens grandly with a rendition of Schumann’s grand showpiece piano concerto which was written at the behest of Clara and dedicated to her.  She performs with the venerable San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under music director Martin West.  I don’t know other versions of this concerto well enough to make comparisons but it is clearly a piece she knows and loves and the concerto is a tribute to both Robert and Clara.  Her encouragement and collaborative suggestions technically make the piece speak well for both composers (Robert, who was an accomplished pianist, damaged his hand utilizing a mechanical stretching device and couldn’t play well anymore).

She follows this with some early solo piano pieces by Clara Schumann and a set of early works by Robert.  The style and level of compositional expertise is similar in both of their writing and Downes brings them lovingly, magically to life.  One only hopes that this will be but the first volume of more recordings of Clara’s work.  According to her website she has some mighty fascinating projects planned for completion in 2020, designated as “The Year of the Woman”, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in this country.

As it is also an election year seeing more women than ever before in politics, literature, and music 2020 can’t avoid being an auspicious event and Downes will make her mark most decisively.  Meanwhile we can enjoy this first installment in anticipation of exciting developments and releases ahead.  Brava, Ms. Downes.  We’re watching and listening.

 

Channeling Casals’ Bach: Amit Peled


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

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

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

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.

 

The Apotheosis of Lenny, a New Recording of “Mass”


Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The premier generated both controversy and paranoia (by Nixon and his crew) but the recording sold well.

This is by my count the fifth commercial recordings not counting the one DVD release. In addition there are numerous full performances available on YouTube. All have their individual highs and lows.

This work is in many ways the single work that embraces all the facets of a truly multifaceted composer. There is serious classical music passages, cheesy electronic music, excellent choral writing, showtunes, dancing, and, above all, political protest.

This writer fell in love with the original Columbia vinyl boxed set on the mid seventies and that recording remains a critical reference point but the joy of multiple interpretations begins to show the depth and complexity of this work. It is, in this writer’s mind this composer’s song of the earth, struggling with all its complexities both beautiful ones and sad ugly realities.

The present release is very enjoyable but is marred at points by some clunky miking if the singers. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that this is a document taken from several live performances. That makes it difficult to hear the words at times.

Nezet-Seguin is strongest in his interpretation of the orchestral parts where he elevates the discourse effectively placing Bernstein alongside the great masters who he championed as a conductor. If his and the singers’ interpretation don’t swing the way Bernstein’s own did I would assert that it’s OK to hear those passages differently. Every serious interpretation is effectively a dialogue between composer, performers, and audience. And this one is moving.

Flash with Substance, Cameron Carpenter Takes on Rachmaninoff and Poulenc


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Sony 8898590822

Cameron Carpenter (1981- ) is a spectacular musician and showman.  But don’t let his showmanship fool you.  He is a brilliant and disciplined musician and arranger and belongs to a tradition of flashy virtuosos.  He is also not the first organist to have and use a portable organ either.  Prior to Carpenter people “of a certain age” (your reviewer qualifies) may remember one Virgil Fox (1912-1980) whose musicianship and showmanship delighted audiences of an earlier era.  He too sometimes worked with a portable organ.  In fact he did a show at, of all venues, The Fillmore East with his Rodgers Touring Organ.  This storied home to late 60s rock and rollers included a light show with Fox’s performance of Bach et al.

Another keyboard genius who took on a little flash at one time is Anthony Newman (1941- ) whose enthusiastic and authoritative presentations opened a whole new generation to music of Bach and others as well as introducing them to the organ and harpsichord.  Newman, also a composer of note continues to be a valued concert performer and interested listeners are encouraged to check out his website for more details about this man’s recordings and compositions.

One can’t look at Carpenter with his mod haircuts and stylish clothing without thinking of another wonderful flashy virtuoso, Nigel Kennedy (1956- ), a wonderful violinist with a powerful style and stage presence.  Once again the presence belies the genius just beneath the flash.  Surprisingly he does not have his own web page so I linked to his Wikipedia page.  The Guardian and at Warner Classics also maintain pages on him.  C’mon Nigel, get someone to set up a page for you, dude.

All this is just to put Mr. Carpenter in context (as much for myself as my readers).  So on to the main purpose of this review, the disc.  I don’t know off hand how many discs he has released so far but this one is a fine place to start if you don’t already know this musician’s work.  It includes his work as organist solo and with orchestra, and as arranger in the opening work, Rachmaninoff’s wonderful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1943).  Originally, of course, the work is for Piano and Orchestra and is a piano concerto in all but name.  (And the disc is indexed so you can choose each variation separately if you wish.)

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Carpenter posing with his touring instrument

Cameron’s arrangement is effective and entertaining.  I will not give up my love for the original but this arrangement does what a good arrangement should by providing insight to the music.  I can only imagine the difficulties encountered trying to make this piece playable on an organ and balancing the sound with the orchestra.  Fortunately Cameron has a valuable partner in crime here.  The Konzerthausorchester Berlin is led by the brilliant conductor Christoph Eschenbach.  And he uses his portable touring organ which sounds as good as any I’ve heard.  They sound fabulous together and the recording is top notch.

How do you follow the Rachmaninoff?  Well, how about the Francis Poulenc Organ Concerto (1934-8)?  Yes, this concerto for Organ, Strings, and Tympani may be a discovery for many folks.  It is a piece which hooks the listener from the very beginning with a crashing fortissimo chord from the organ.  It goes on to an almost baroque sounding development with modern harmonies throughout.  It is a fitting companion on this disc to the opening piece.

And, finally, the final allegro from the Organ Symphony No. 1 Op. 14 (1898-99) by Louis Vierne (1870-1937) who was the organist at Notre Dame in Paris from 1900 to 1937.  Vierne (who wrote six grand symphonies for solo organ) studied with another grand master of the organ Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937).  He wrote ten organ symphonies and a host of other music as well.  Also worthy of note is the fact that the man who first performed the Poulenc concerto was another grand organist/composer named Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) who was Vierne’s assistant at Notre Dame for a time.

If you like organ music you will love this album.  And if you like flashy virtuosos then by all means check out Carpenter’s website and YouTube channels.  Enjoy, and play it loudly.