Metafagote, Rebekah Heller on Solo Bassoon (mostly)


hellerfagote

For this listener, traversing contemporary music concerts in the 1980s there appeared a trend to modify the traditional look of classical performers. The first striking example I can recall is the venerable Kronos Quartet performing all in tight black leather outfits. And there are performers who have an intentionally different look such as violinist Nigel Kennedy or Kathleen Supove whose look is decidedly unconventional. Focusing on attire could conceivably detract from a musical performance but the previously mentioned performers have in common with the performer on this disc both virtuosity and a distinctly different look which seems integral to their performance delivering decidedly unconventional music.  The photography by Corrie Schneider creates a striking and evocative cover image giving her a sort of superhero ambiance.  Why not?

Rebekah Heller, of course, is also one of the members of the wonderful ICE Ensemble, one of the finest working chamber groups focusing on contemporary music. ICE has in common with groups like Bang on a Can, Alarm Will Sound, ACME, and others the fact that they are populated by some of the finest young musicians who seem to be able to meet any challenge…er, commission thrown at them. In addition many of the musicians in these groups are also interesting composers.  The others have a profound interest in new music that match their skills and passions oh so well.

In Metafagote Rebekah Heller presents 4 works on 4 tracks.  Rand Steiger (1957- ) is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and Cal Arts.  Steiger has been at UC San Diego since He is a 2015 Guggenheim Award recipient and though his discography is adequate this writer sees his name, hears his music too infrequently.

Steiger’s work opens this disc with Concatenation (2012) for bassoon and live electronics.  Steiger is skilled in writing for both conventional instruments and for high tech electronics including spatialization, live processing.  Steiger’s work is assertive, pretty much freely atonal, and packs a punch emotionally if memory serves.  There was a vinyl record (this composer is younger than me by one year and I’m guessing still hoards at least a selection of LPs.  The work was Hexadecathlon: “A New Slain Knight” (1984), basically a horn concerto for horn with chamber ensemble.  It burns in my brain still, wonderful 6 minute cadenza at the end too.

Back to Concatenation, it is a sort of all consuming experience, a sound bath if you will.  The timbres achieved with the combination of bassoon with electronics creates some grand, almost orchestral textures.

The second work is by one Jason Eckhardt (1971- ), a name vaguely familiar but his work is new to me,  Eckhardt earned a B.A. from Berklee in 1992 followed by an M.A. (1994) and a D.M.A. (1998).  He has studied with James Dillon, Jonathan Kramer, Milton Babbitt, Brian Ferneyhough, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  That provenance gives one an idea of what to expect…complexity.  And he dishes that out for solo bassoon.  Heller is up to the challenge in this piece, “Wild Ginger” (2014) from a series of pieces based on native plants in the Catskills.  Again, why not?

The third track contains, “Following” (2014) for solo bassoon from a composer whose inspiration also sometimes comes from plants.  Dai Fujikura (1977- ) is a prolific Japanese composer who also comes from a legacy of complexity having studied with the likes of Boulez, Taketmitsu, and Ligeti.  Fujikura’s music may be complex but his music tends to have a softer edge, more like Takemitsu than Boulez.  Again Heller demonstrates her technical skills that rise to meet the challenges posed here.

Last but not least is a piece as large and encompassing as the Steiger.  Felipe Lara (1979- ) is an accomplished Brazilian composer.  He is represented here  by, “Metafagote” (2015), the most recent of the compositions here.  It is scored for bassoon and 6 pre-recorded tracks.  One is naturally put in the mind of Steve Reich’s counterpoint series for soloist playing against multiple pre-recorded similar instruments.  The piece also can, and has been, performed by a soloist with 6 other bassoonists.

While the Reich notion is not the worst place to start, this piece is anything but minimalist.  Rather it is distinctively modernist.  It is a virtuosic exploration of some fascinating possibilities of the lowly bassoon.  Lara owes more to free jazz at times in this epic, almost a concerto, piece.

I don’t know how many bassoon fanciers are out there but if you like new and experimental music of a virtuosic nature this is a great bet.

Traceur, American Music for Clarinet and Piano


traceur

New Focus Recordings FCR-172

This is a nice little program of pieces for clarinet and piano by 20-21st century composers. It might even be a representation of the state of the art for this genre.  All of these pieces are basically tonal and would work well in a recital.

Michael Norsworthy, professor of clarinet at Boston Conservatory at Berklee has an impressive set of credentials in the interpretation and performance and teaching of new music.  This performing academic has quite a list of recordings to his credit.

David Gompper is a composer and pianist with a similarly extensive set of credentials in support of new music (his own and others’).

The disc opens with a six movement suite of short pieces by Robert Beaser (1954- ) called, Souvenirs (2001-2).  Beaser is one of the finest composers of his generation and his tonal style was a hallmark of his work from the very beginnings.  These short, personal sketches are a delightful example of his work.  These pieces were originally written for piccolo and piano and are here presented in the composer’s transcription for clarinet and piano.

The next piece, Black Anemones (1980) is originally for flute and piano and is a sort of modern classic (here is a recent review of the flute and piano version).  The Pulitzer Prize winning Joseph Schwantner (1943- ) is also among the finest composers working today. This transcription for clarinet by Mr. Norsworthy will most certainly guarantee further performances.  This is truly lovely music inspired by poetry of Agueda Pizarro.

Three American Pieces (1944-5) by Lukas Foss (1922-2009) are another sort of classic set of pieces.  These are early compositions in a neo-classical/nationalist style characteristic of this period of Foss’ compositional style.  It is great to have a new recording of these entertaining pieces.  Foss is due for a reckoning I think.

Marti Epstein (1959- ), also a professor at Berklee was represented in an earlier review of a disc (here) dedicated entirely to her gentle music imbued with memories of her upbringing in the great plains of the Midwest.  Nebraska Impromptu (2013) is characteristic of this composer’s gentle but substantial music.  Her website also contains a very interesting occasional blog that is worth your time.

Derek Bermel (1967- ) is here represented by schiZm (1993-4).  Originally for oboe and piano the composer also made this transcription for clarinet and piano.  Bermel describes some of the fascinating techniques that underlie the structure of this two movement piece but the result of those techniques is a very interesting piece of music.

Last but definitely not least is the title track Traceur (2014-5) by composer/pianist David Gompper (1954-).  It is the longest and most complex of the pieces presented and requires the most involvement on the part of the musicians as well as the listener.  I don’t mean to imply that this is difficult music because it isn’t.  It is substantial music whose charms demand close listening, an effort for which one will be rewarded.

This lucid recording was produced by Norsworthy and Gompper (with the assistance of Robert Beaser in the recording of his work).  It was recorded in 2015 with editing and mastering by Patrick Keating.  Very nice disc.  Highly recommended.

 

Warning: Gentle Music, Marti Epstein’s Hypnagogia


epstein

When Marti Epstein kindly sent this disc to me for review she “warned” me that it was gentle music.  In her liner notes she elaborates that her Midwestern roots will always inform her work.  As fellow Midwesterner (I hail originally from Chicago) I have an idea what she means.  There is a certain gentle affability which seems to characterize folks from the Midwest and no doubt this affects artist expression as well.

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Marti Epstein

This disc contains four such gentle compositions ranging from Grand Island (1986) to A Little Celestial Tenderness (2013).  As such it is a cross-section of Epstein’s work though it is hard to say, of course, if it is an accurate picture or overview.

The first piece Hothouse (2000) is a piece for two pianos which works on a couple of levels. It is quite listenable as a concert piece and seems to be a very effective way of using short phrases replaced by silences as a valid compositional technique.  Loosely interlocking phrases are replaced by silences gradually which lull the listener to the conclusion.

The second track is Grand Island (1986) which is the composer’s depiction of a drive to the city of Grand Island in Nebraska.  This piece for piano, two harps and two percussionists is complex enough to require a conductor (Jeffrey Means) but the complexity does not make for difficult listening.  Rather this is an impressionistic audio narrative of the composer’s experience driving through the Midwest as a child.  It has a very similar character to the first piece with silence being very important to the texture which fades to silence as the journey ends and perhaps the restless child has fallen asleep.

A Little Celestial Tenderness (2013), the most recent on the disc, comes in at under two minutes and evokes Copland-like harmonies in a “tiny” piece written in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Ludovico Ensemble who perform the music on this disc (the composer plays one of the pianos on Hothouse).  The unusual instrumentation here is flute, clarinet and cimbalom.

Hypnagogia (2009) is the most experimental music here and is very much the star of this release.  It exists only in parts with no unified score and asks the performers to perform as if they were alone.  It is an attempt to depict the state of mind between waking and sleeping.  This piece is more concerned with sound than silence and the mobile-like appearances of the sounds does create a dream-like texture which, as warned, is also very gentle but not without a touch of anxiety at times.  It is perhaps the most substantial (over 45 minutes), striking and successful piece on the disc and brings it to very satisfying conclusion.

The recording has a warmth and presence and the musicians seem well-suited to the tasks at hand.  This writer will be pleased to hear more from these artists in the future.

 

Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain


Primjous Fountain (1949- )

Primjous Fountain (1949- )

I first encountered the work of this composer in 1982 in a broadcast concert of the Milwaukee Symphony that featured his Symphony No. 1. He was billed then as, “Primous Fountain III”.  I listened and, as was my obsessive practice, I recorded the work on a cassette tape so that I could listen again and not have the experience fade into obscurity.  I have listened many times to this wonderful piece and now in the age of social media one can find more of his music on his web page and his Facebook page.

Fountain was born in Chicago in 1949 where he attended Wendell Phillips High School and after graduation completed an orchestral piece Manifestation (1967) which was performed by the Chicago Symphony.  He has also had performances by the Boston Symphony and the New England Conservatory under Gunther Schuller.  I was fortunate recently to make the acquaintance of Mr. Bill Doggett who is a lecturer and marketing representative for black composers who is in touch with Mr. Fountain.  He informs me that Mr. Fountain is alive and well and living in his native Chicago.

Fountain with Hans Werner Henze

Fountain with Hans Werner Henze

Though largely self-taught he later studied with Hans Werner Henze and Gunther Schuller and these experiences seem to have been absorbed into the composer’s palette. In a 1972 interview with Charles Amirkhanian, conductor Harold Farberman and composer Charles Shere the then 20 something Fountain seems to react with disinterest to the apparently sincere  but rather uncomfortable efforts to address racial issues in music.  He speaks as though he feels his music to be so natural a part of his life that he reports his amazing abilities are simply normal to him. He seems unconcerned with the political aspects of being a “black composer”.   His instinct for complex things like orchestration are like walking or breathing, second nature.  His identity is in his music.

Fountain with Gunther Schuller

Fountain with Gunther Schuller

After hearing his youthful work Manifestation none other than Quincy Jones commissioned Fountain’s Symphony No. 2.  There is a performance by the Lugansk Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine under the baton of Miran Vaupotic available for listening on the composer’s web site as well as on You Tube which now sports a performance of the first two movements of his fourth symphony along with the second movement of his Cello Concerto and selections from other orchestral works.

His idiom might be called conservative in that it incorporates a standard orchestra and uses well-known forms such as Symphony and Concerto but his skill at writing is the point much as it is with other composers trained in schools like Julliard, Curtis, Berklee and the New England Conservatory.

His work sounds at times like a latter day Stravinsky with jagged rhythms and rich orchestration.  There is a passionate post-romantic intensity to the pieces I have heard.  I definitely want to hear more.

Fortunately there is now a YouTube channel dedicated to this composer’s work.  There are, however, no commercial recordings of this man’s music that I was able to find.  Here we see a prodigy who was embraced by many in the world of serious music and whose star appeared to have been rising.

But for all the love and attention that prodigies sometimes get it hardly guarantees exposure beyond their youth.  Fountain is not well-known but that has nothing to do with the quality of his music from what I have been able to hear.  And as sincere as the performances are in the MP3 and YouTube selections they are hardly the pinnacle of musical interpretation.  His music is complex and challenging to performers and I have no doubt that a major symphony orchestra with an insightful conductor could better demonstrate the power of his music.

One hopes that the body of music of this American composer will find an audience in his native country some day but limitations of arts funding and the plight of the black minority composer suggest that this will not be an easy path.  I hope that some enterprising young musicology student might take on the cataloging and analysis of his work to help this process.  Any takers?

Maybe the people at Naxos records or one of the many fine and creative independent labels who have recorded so much neglected music might take on the task of bringing some of this music to classical audiences.  It would be a loss to allow it to languish under-appreciated and largely unheard.  We truly don’t know what we’re missing and I think that is a terrible shame.

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