New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri


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Sunleif Rasmussen is the best known composer from the Faroe Islands which are about mid way between Iceland and Denmark. He turned 60 on March 19th. He is certainly lauded in his homeland but his works have demonstrated him to be an artist whose reputation can hardly be contained by a single country. His works favorably compare with the finest composers from all of the Nordic countries (Iceland, Faroe Islands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland). His work is known, as it should be, internationally.

This most recent release on the Danish label OUR Recordings contains music written between 2009 and 2014. All of these works are collaborations with the wonderful recorder player Michala Petri, a Danish artist whose name is as easily recognized as predecessors like David Munrow and Frans Brüggen. She is arguably the first lady of the recorder and the instruments most prominent advocate having first taken up the instrument at the age of three. and gone on to play over 4000 concerts.

The recorder is featured in several different contexts from solo to collaborations with choral, chamber, and orchestral groups. These contexts serve to demonstrate Petri’s facility as a performer as well as Rasmussen’s range of compositional vision.

The album opens with Flow (2012) for recorder and string trio. Here Petri is joined by the Esbjerg Ensemble String Trio with Bogdan Bozovic, violin; Michele Camile, viola; and Pau Codina Masferrer, cello. The piece was conceived as a companion piece to Mozart’s Flute Quartet K.285 (for flute and string trio). This work, in three movements utilizes a variety of extended techniques on the recorder and Petri’s collaboration was essential to provide the composer with information of the possibilities of such techniques with her instrument. The string writing is also laden with harmonics and techniques that were virtually unknown in Mozart’s time. To be clear, this “companion” piece is more homage than imitation but there are phrases which are clearly neoclassical nods to the Austrian master.

“I” (2011) is for the unusual grouping of recorder with chamber choir (with alto and tenor soloists) in a setting of a poem by Danish poet Inger Christensen whose text is a response to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”(1917). Christensen’s poem is a personal (and dare I say feminist) response to Stevens’ classic work. Lyrical writing in the composer’s essentially tonal idiom belie the intricate structures of this brief setting. It is clearly a challenge for all but the Danish National Vocal Ensemble under their director Stephen Layton, along with Petri, deliver a truly excellent performance.

Next up is a piece for solo recorder, “Sorrow and Joy Fantasy” (2011), essentially a set of variations on a theme. It is based on a folk melody which was applied to the Thomas Kingo (1634-1703) sacred poem/hymn, Sorrow and Joy. There are twelve variations each with increasing demands on the soloist. It is a stunning vehicle for Petri’s lyricism and virtuosity.

Next is “Winter Echoes” (2014), an homage to the late Danish master Axel Borup-Jørgensen whose work has been championed by OUR records. This piece, scored for recorder and 13 solo strings. Petri is accompanied by the Lapland Chamber Orchestra under Clemens Schuldt. It sounds like a concerto in all but name. The piece requires Petri to play bass, tenor, alto, soprano and sopranino recorders as the piece progresses from low to high, dark to light. Extended instrumental techniques are present for the recorder soloist and the the string players.

The final piece, and the one from which this album derives its title, is “Territorial Songs” (2009). This concerto for recorder and orchestra finds Petri accompanied by the Aaborg Symphony Orchestra under Henrik Vagn Christensen. It is cast in five movements. The composer states that he was inspired by bird song in composing this piece, an inspiration shared by Olivier Messiaen most famously but also by composers who have written for the recorder. Again we have music that is lyrical, basically tonal, and virtuosic for both soloist and orchestra. Rasmussen’s facility with orchestral color make for an exciting listening experience and, as always, Petri meets the considerable demands with grace and seeming ease.

The recording, as seems to be the case with all The OUR Recordings that have met these ears, is bright and clear. The liner notes include a statement from the composer and a very welcome and useful set of liner notes by my friend and colleague Joshua Cheek who alerted me to this release. He provides insight and detail that enhance one’s appreciation of the music. The photography and design are both beautiful and distinctive. Lars Hannibal deserves high marks for his work as producer. It is a fine 60th birthday gift to Maestro Rasmussen and a major release for Ms. Petri. If you don’t know Rasmussen’s work (or Petri’s for that matter) this is a fine introduction that will have the listener craving more.

Michala Petri and Sunleif Rasmussen at Other Minds in San Francisco, 2013

Wilhelmina Smith, a Revelatory Solo Cello Release


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I think I can say with assurance that the unaccompanied cello repertoire begins with the Bach solo cello suites. But the concept of this kind of music being worthy of public performance began with Pablo Casals in the early 20th century. Indeed the lovely Bach suites regularly get recorded and performed live pretty frequently with appreciative audiences.

What is generally lesser known is that there exists a large repertoire of unaccompanied cello music which was created in the post Bach era. That’s nearly 300 years and most of this repertory remains largely unknown and, in may cases, unperformed. Rather than attempting to list these I refer the interested listener to the list here on Wikipedia. The list is not exhaustive but it is a fair representation of the extant music.

Wilhelmina Smith, having already produced a fine recording of unaccompanied cello music by Finnish composers Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho, now surveys works of this genre by Danish composers Per Nørgård (1932- ) and Poul Ruders (1949- ).

The quite excellent liner notes by Søren Schauser do a great job of providing a context and a basic analysis of what the listener is hearing in these works. He also provides some historical context and a fellow Dane’s impression of the deeper associations which might be felt by a Nordic audience. But these works are not insular in their intent or their presentation. Make no mistake that these are major works which will speak to all who care to hear.

I have made no secret of my personal love of the music from the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Faroe Islands, and Iceland). And this disc serves to bolster my enthusiasm further. These works span the years 1953 to 1976 and embody largely neoclassical and and post-romantic styles which are very friendly to the ear.

The sheer nakedness of a performance on an instrument usually embedded in a larger context (accompanied by piano or electronics, in a string quartet, or in a symphony orchestra) brings an intense intimacy to the performance. The performer is fully exposed and the music relies on exactly that intensity. Yes, this is a recording but it is not difficult to imagine these performances eliciting reverent silences, of breaths being held, of a level of engagement that elicits rapt attentions.

Completists will be thrilled to have all three of Per Nørgård’s three Solo Cello Sonatas. Nørgård, an internationally regarded master, is better known for this large orchestral works and concertos but here we get to experience him at his most intimate. The first so called “sonatas” appears to take a more classical approach. Even the naming of the three movements (Lento ma espansivo – Allegro non troppo, Tranquillo, Allegro con brio) suggest a more classical approach. This largely tonal piece has both romantic and neoclassical aspects with soaring melodies and classical developments. The second sonata, subtitled “In due tempi” is unusual in that its two movements are separated by compositional dates separated by 27 years. One thinks of Felix Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture separated by 17 years from the subsequent incidental music. So we have a first movement form 1953 followed by a second movement from 1980. This second sonata has much in common with the sound world of the first but the second movement does hint at a more mature style in kind with other works from that historical period. The third sonata, in three movements as was the first, is from 1999 and it is most clearly of a later style. It carries the subtitle, “What – is the Word!”. The movement titles (Prayer, Outcry, Prayer II) are clues to the more deeply existential mood of this piece. Still using basically tonal language, this sonata seems to describe more painful and introspective moods.

Now we come to a work by Poul Ruders (1949- ), “Bravourstudien” (L’Homme Armé Variations) (1976). This is essentially a set of variations on the medieval tune, “L’Homme Armé” (The Armed Man). It is cast in 10 movements (Overture, Recitative, Serenade 1, Potpourri, Etude, Intermezzo, Fantasia, Serenade 2, Finale: Variation classique, L’Homme armé). It is perhaps more deconstruction than classical variation but one need know nothing of the composer’s compositional techniques to appreciate the results.

This is not the first recordings of these works but these performances and the clean Ondine records sound make this release a welcome addition to the ever expanding discography of solo cello repertory and the music of Nordic master composers. You must hear this.

William Susman: A Quiet Madness


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dreams of a New Day”, a Landmark Recording Project from Cedille


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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.

Duo Stephanie and Saar: Cavatina


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It is not generally the mission of New Focus Recordings nor this blog to present music written before 1950. Piano duos are also not new either but Duo Stephanie and Saar are emerging as a piano four hands duo that commands the listener’s attention by their fresh interpretations and their unique choices of repertory.

The present album, Cavatine, focuses on only two works. Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 and Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D.940. The Beethoven is a six movement work scored for the standard string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello). It is presented here in a transcription for two pianos. The first five movements were transcribed by Hans Ulrich and Robert Wittman and the last is by the composer himself. But this is not the final version of this quartet. Beethoven wrote another ending and gave the previous final movement a life of its own as Grosse Fuge with its own opus number (134). It is a large and complex piece of music and judging from previous releases by this duo they seem to love playing counterpoint. Their previous release was Bach’s Art of Fugue.

This then is the original version of the quartet but instead of a string quartet we hear this played on a piano by four able hands. Now the original reason for transcriptions seems to have been to make music playable in situations where string players (in this case) were not available. However the reason a listener would buy this disc is to provide a new perspective on this music. If you are already familiar with the quartet version you may find yourself hearing it differently after listening to this performance. There is something mind altering about hearing music taken out of its original context. This is pure late Beethoven at his best.

The meandering movements traverse various moods and their character is distinctly different from the more generally familiar middle period music. This music is very different from what came before and many people who are familiar with the first eight Beethoven symphonies, the first 12 quartets, and perhaps the first 28 piano sonatas frequently find difficulty, on first hearing of the composer’s later style, recognizing it as being by the same composer.

The penultimate Cavatine from which the album takes its title is the quartet movement selected to be on the famed Voyager Golden Record which was sent with voyager 1 and 2 (both launched in 1977) as examples of the culture of earthlings in pictures and sounds. On that disc, now billions of miles from its origin Cavatine is preceded by Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting “Dark is the Night” and the Cavatine is the last music selection.

The Cavatine is marked with a performance indication “Beklemmt”, a German word which translates something like, “oppressed, anguished, stifled”. It has been suggested that this movement reflects Beethoven’s sadness at his failed pursuit of his mysterious, “Immortal Beloved” and when one hears the music this notion seems to make sense. It is a powerful statement and this recording delivers a convincing reading.

The old finale, recast as a standalone piece, is a rather long (16+ minutes) and listeners familiar with the final new allegretto finale may find this Grosse Fuge as an ending too weighty to follow the previous five movements. This may be the reason for the composer deciding to revise his original. And in the piano four hand version the weightiness and the complexity are seemingly even more in evidence. Whether that is due to the transcription or to the performance is not clear (it is likely both) but this alone is worth the price of the disc.

The last piece, Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor is a personal favorite and it is played here exactly as written, for piano four hands. It is loaded with romantic pathos and according to the brief but useful liner notes this piece may be a reflection of Schubert’s unrequited feelings for Caroline Esterhazy, the music’s dedicatee. Written in the year of Schubert’s death, it is one of his finest works.

This piece has both a strong sense of intimacy but it is music of almost symphonic dimensions. It is cast in four movements played without pause. The last movement includes a fugue. It is played beautifully here and, if you don’t know this late masterpiece, this is a fine place to start.

This album, recorded in late 2019, is dedicated both to the victims of the Covid-19 virus and to one of their mentors, the late great Leon Fleisher. Who knows what this duo will tackle next? The Brahms two piano arrangement of his Piano Quintet? Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Beethoven ninth? That is anybody’s guess but you can be sure that it will be interesting

Ludwig van Pritsker


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Oh, no! Not another Beethoven tribute. Up til now I’ve successfully avoided the avalanche of Beethoven tributes. Those old enough (as is this writer) will recall a similar avalanche from 1970, Beethoven’s 200th birthday. That year gave us countless new recordings of everything Beethoven wrote or almost wrote (the reconstruction of the Beethoven 10th for example. It also gave us some clever contemporary works influenced by the master, most notably perhaps, Mauricio Kagel’s “Ludwig van”.

2020 saw an overwhelming fattenning of the volume of new recordings of Beethoven’s works by yet another generation of appreciative artists. This blogger has declined to review these because these new readings become matters of personal preference and it I think these preferences are best left to water cooler (or social media) discussions. It is curious, though, that no one (as far as I know) has attempted to record the re-orchestrations of Beethoven’s work by the likes of Felix Weingartner but that is a matter for another blog perhaps.

Track List:
1 Ludwig’s Night Out
(for guitar, keys, bass and drums)
EroicAnization
(for Di.J. and chamber ensemble)
2 Eroica Erupted
3 Eroica Extracted
4 Erotic Eroica
5 Eulogy Eroica
feat. Chanda Rule
6 Erroneous Eroica
7 Eka Tala Eroica
8 Für Elise Charleston
(for chamber ensemble)

So along comes ensemble KONTRASTE who chose to commission Gene Pritsker to write a piece for said anniversary. Pritsker continues to be both prolific and interesting in his blending of classical, jazz, klezmer, rap, and hip-hop into a coherent musical style. And the result is the six movement EroicAnization written for the ensemble. In the time of Covid the recording was done in studio in Nuremberg by the ensemble with Pritsker recording the guitar parts in New York.

The work is bookended by two shorter works, “Ludwig’s Night Out”, a humorous deconstruction of Beethoven’s Violin and Piano Sonata No. 7. The work is described by the composer as an imaginary trip to town by the elder composer where he visits various night clubs. It is all in good fun and provides a nice introduction to the more complex six movement EroicAnization where he uses sampling alongside the ensemble in a wild humorous ride. He includes the sweet voice of Chandra Rule in the Elegy section. It is in many ways a summation of musical styles up to this moment as he embraces the genres mentioned above.

The ending bookend piece is another less complex but no less entertaining short tribute which embraces klezmer and jazz, something one could imagine having existed during the brief Weimar Republic before toxic takeover of National Socialism, the doomed to failure Nazi regime. In many ways this album is an island of manic joy in these peculiarly apocalyptic times.

Sharon Isbin’s “Strings for Peace”


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A quick look at Sharon Isbin’s discography makes it clear that she embraces her instrument in all of its historical, cultural, and geographical guises. From baroque classical on to contemporary classical, from jazz to folk and troubadour traditions. She has had over 80 works written for her and has collaborated with a wide range of musicians and musical styles.

For this release, Isbin has chosen to follow the route originally pioneered by Yehudi Menuhin in exploring and collaborating with South Asian musicians. Menuhin helped introduce music from other cultures (we now call it “world music”) to the western world. His recordings with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rahka were revelatory and instructive to thousands of listeners (this writer included). Now comes another generation reaping the joy of collaboration inserting her western instrument in a context with musicians from another culture. The end result enhances both cultures.

Her collaborators span seven generations of familial musical traditions in India. Here we have master sarod player, Amjad Ali Khan and his very accomplished sons, Amaan Ali Bangash and Ayaan Ali Bangash. They are dazzlingly accompanied by tabla player Amit Kavthekar. All the music was written by Amjad Ali Khan and arranged for Sharon Isbin. And so she joins people like Menuhin and Ry Cooder in establishing a new generation of collaborative music making.

There are four compositions here lasting about 15 minutes (the second track is shorter at about 4 minutes) each based on a raga (a stale of notes) and named for that scale. Each piece is also given a more poetic title as well giving us: By the Moon-Raga Behag, Love Avalanche-Raga Mishra Bhairav, Romancing Earth-Raga Pilu, and Sacred Evening-Raga Yaman. All are world premiere recordings.

The recording was done in New York following a successful concert tour in India. It is lucid and a joy to the ears. There are doubtless multiple meanings hidden here in the kaleidoscopic world of Indian musical traditions and in the minds of the performers but the music has a joyous directness that comes from performers who have mastered their craft.

Dither, a Unique Guitar Quartet


Dither is a guitar quartet comprised of Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore and Gyan Riley.  The present release is their third album and, like the preceding releases is an adventure in listening.  Their intelligently designed web site has some nice sound and video samples.

A quick look at their recorded output places their performing repertoire clearly in the “new music” category and their work has been granted a kind of serious legitimacy by their inclusion (of their second album) in John Zorn’s wonderful Tzadik record label.  So along comes the truly rising star of New Focus Recordings whose service to new music adds yet another imprimatur to this group’s collective resume.

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A quick look at the track list on the back of this gorgeously designed album reveals 9 works spread across 12 tracks (one of the works is in 4 movements) which includes one track from each of the musicians alongside some other interesting new music and, at the end, the gift of one older piece which, though certainly modern in concept is too little known. The only negative is the lack of liner notes both on the album and on their website.

I assure you that I don’t mean to trivialize this wonderful album by calling it “post-psychedelic” but it is difficult to not hear the riffs and effects as having an ancestry in the psychedelic sound.  But for this disc the psychedelic sounds appear to include Frank Zappa, Rhys Chatham, La Monte Young, Brian Eno, as well as Jimi Hendrix, Mahavishnu John Mc Laughlin, and their compatriots.

The first track, “The Garden of Cyrus” (1985) by Eve Beglarian, a much sought after composer who emerged from the downtown New York scene and continues to enthrall with her inventive talents.  This track is generally speaking a sort of post minimalist piece with a rather immediate appeal and serves as a fine introduction to the album. It has a variety of sections with varying degrees of rhythmic complexity and harmonic density. It is sometimes microtonal, sometimes spectral, sometimes antiphonal, sometimes dissonant, sometimes warmly consonant, but always engaging.

Next up is “The Tar of Gyu” (2013) by Gyan Riley.  Gyan is indeed his own man musically who has emerged from the shadow of his famed father Terry Riley in a most gracious manner.  His collaborations with his father continue to be a must see concert event and his work in solo and chamber groups reflect a growing and fascinating identity as a composer and musician entirely in his own right.  The present work makes excellent use of the timbres of the electric guitar and makes for another engaging if rather somber track. This work is largely about sustained tones and timbres and shows a real mastery of composing for this unusual chamber ensemble as well as a side of Riley’s compositional style less familiar to this reviewer.

Paula Matthusen, an associate professor of music at Wesleyan where she became the sort of heir to Alvin Lucier’s Music 109 class (documented so well in Lucier’s book of the same name).  Her music combines electronics with instruments and sometimes recorded sounds.  Her piece, “but because without this” (2009) was written for Dither and continues her unique compositional journey. Without notes it is difficult to say much about this work by a composer who tends to insert herself pretty organically into her compositions.

Jascha Narveson is a name new to this reviewer.  He is another composer deeply involved with electronics as well as acoustic instruments.  Ones (2012) is a four movement work written for the Dither Quartet.  This is basically a set of etudes for the effects pedal.  The four movements, titled “The Wah One”, “The Driving One”, “The Warped One”, and “The Floaty One” are each apparently a reference to electric guitar foot pedals and these minimalist etudes exploit the effect created by the pedal as a compositional device. Really fascinating.

Mi-Go (2012) by the ensemble’s own Joshua Lopes and it is here that the Zappa comparison is most evident.  This piece (the second longest on the album at 9:38) sounds like an aural refugee from Zappa’s “Jazz from Hell” (an album much admired by this writer).  Lopes creates a work of some complexity and many moods utilizing the potential of this instrumentation to great advantage creating a work of almost symphonic dimensions.

Up next is James Moore’s Mannequin (2014), one of the shorter pieces here.  After a loud and somewhat cacophonous opening this piece goes on to explore sustained tones and glissandos.

Candy (2010) by Ted Hearne is the first of only two pieces here that was not written by one of the performers.  Hearned earlier released a fine disc of his own music (also on New Focus). Like many of his peers he wields a tool box of compositional styles that includes jazz as well as contemporary classical techniques. This is certainly one of the more complex pieces here but Hearne’s music communicates well with the audience.

Track 11 is by Dither’s Taylor Levine. Renegade (2013) is a relatively brief piece and one which wanders furthest from my characterization of this album being “minimalist”. It seems to have its roots at least partly in noise bands but its complexity engages and seems to fit the program.

Track 12 is by James Tenney (1934-2006).  His Swell Piece (1966) is actually an early example of minimalism an is part of a series of compositions written on post cards and called, “Postal Pieces”. Tenney spent a portion of his career in California teaching at Cal Arts where he mentored many composers and performers working today,  This is a fitting conclusion, an homage to one of the great experimental composers whose music, thankfully, is now getting fine performances and recordings.

Charles Amirkhanian, Catalyst of New Music Turns 75


Charles Amirkhanian interviewed by Kyle Gann at Berkeley’s David Brower Center (Photo by Allan Cronin, Creative Commons license)

A large and sympathetic crowd filled the Goldman Theater in Berkeley’s David Brower Center on this 19th day of 2020, the 75th birthday of composer, broadcaster, producer, new music catalyst Charles Amirkhanian. His is perhaps not a household name except in the households of the legions of composers, musicians, and fans of new music (this writer’s household definitely included).  That is a substantial crowd actually and close to 200 of them were in attendance.  

It was somehow fitting that this celebration take place in this particular venue. The Brower Center also contains the office from which he administers the wonderful Other Minds organization, the current outlet for his various projects supporting new music including the annual Other Minds concert series. 

Joshua Kosman’s respectful article of January 14th served notice to all of this impending event.   

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Amirkhanian with his ASCAP Award in the background (Photo by Allan Cronin Creative Commons license)

Charles is the executive and artistic director of the Other Minds Music Festival in San Francisco, which he co-founded with Jim Newman in 1992.  That festival will mark its 25th incarnation this year.  In addition he produces Other Minds Records and maintains a huge archive of interviews and music as well as a weekly radio broadcast on KALW featuring new and interesting music presented by he and his musical confederates.  

His stint as music director for KPFA in San Francisco lasted from 1969 to 1992 during which time he also interviewed most (if not all) the significant new music composers and performers of the time.  This writer has dubbed him the “Bill Graham” of new music because of the detail and care he always takes in producing concerts, conversations, recordings, and happenings.

His musicological efforts can be seen in his writings and advocacy of the work of George Antheil (for whom he served as executor of the composer’s estate) and Conlon Nancarrow, expatriate American composer who spent much of his creative life in Mexico City.  It was in the composer’s studio there that Charles recorded all of the groundbreaking studies for player piano on the composer’s original instruments (a major undertaking).  Indeed Charles’ history of advocacy and support of fellow musicians and composers would be a worthy subject for a book on its own.  His advocacy is a large part of his legacy as well.

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Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith (all rights reserved)

The 178 seat Goldman Theater had but a few empty seats.  The crowd was a clearly enthusiastic one comprised of artists and supporters of the arts.  The evening commenced with an interview by fellow composer and scholar Kyle Gann, himself long associated with Mr. Amirkhanian (since at least 1982).  A professor of music at Bard College, Gann came here to the west coast expressly for this interview.  

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Kyle Gann, composer, scholar, professor of music (Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith)

After a brief intro from Blaine Todd, Other Minds’ Associate Director the interview (actually more of a friendly conversation) began  with brief discussion of Amirkhanian’s beginnings and subsequent history in music in the Bay Area (and beyond).  Just in this casual conversation we met the man whose experiences has had him cross paths with a virtual Who’s Who of the most significant figures in 20th (and now 21st) century music while pursuing his own compositional efforts.  

In many, or dare I say, most cases his relationships have been very beneficial to his peers.  This was quite evident in a few conversations which this writer had with fellow audience members.  One gentleman asserted that Charles has put his advocacy ahead of his own work in favor of supporting new and emerging talents.  Another reminisced about how much he had learned of new music as a result of listening to those KPFA shows and how much this meant in his life.  His support of this very blog is another example.  It came about during the experience of volunteering at the Other Minds office.  And one need only look at the histories of many of the composers hosted at the fabulous Other Minds festival to see the subsequent successes attained by the talented individuals invited to perform at those events.  Henry Brant’s Pulitzer Prize winning organ concerto, “Ice Field” (2001) was an Other Minds commission.  More examples abound.

 

Amirkhanian’s sound poetry can be found on albums such as Lexical Music (1979, now on OM records 1032-2), Mental Radio (1985, CRI records, reissued on New World Records), Walking Tune (1997, Starkland Records), and his genre defining anthology “10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces (1975, OM 1006).  

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There is more to be had in this one man’s work than one evening could hope to contain but this program was also a CD release event of Amirkhanian’s sound collage works, a distinctly different genre from those who may know his language based works.  The two CD set on New World Records, “Loudspeakers” is a compendium of four works, Pianola (Pas de mains) (1997–2000; the subtitle is French for “no hands”), Im Frühling (“In Spring”, 1990), Loudspeakers (1990) ,  a vocal portrait of Morton Feldman, and Son of Metropolis San Francisco (1987/1997).  This release serves as a fine birthday present for the composer and his audience illustrating this important aspect of his oeuvre..

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Carol Law

At one point Amirkhanian quipped about his “long suffering wife” Carol Law who is a photographer and visual artist whose work includes some fascinating collaborations with Mr. Amirkhanian.  The two spent the mid 1960s traveling and meeting sound poets throughout Europe and the Nordic countries.  These efforts were very nicely showcased some of his work in the Other Minds 23 concerts.  I include one photo from that festival to give some idea of the significance of the collaboration. Law’s affable presence is a part of all these concerts and, far from suffering, she seems to derive much joy and satisfaction from this work.

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Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry in conjunction with Carol Law’s surreal slide show in which Amirkhanian becomes a part of the striking images.

 

Though Charles once remarked in an interview that one cannot really play these sound collages and expect people to listen in a concert hall (these pieces are originally conceived for presentation on radio) that is exactly what he did at this event.  We were treated to some or all of the pieces on this important new release including the entire 20 minutes or so Son of Metropolis.  And this sympathetic audience ate it like candy.  Indeed these sonic landscapes, the experimental Pianola, and the humorous homage to the late Morton Feldman in the titular Loudspeakers were absorbed by hungry ears and met with appreciative applause.  It is clear to those with new music ears that this release is a major event.

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Other Minds OM-1025-2

In a role reversal consistent with our guest of honor’s reputation for magnanimity a portion of the event was given to listening to an excerpt (the album is over 2 hours long) from Kyle Gann’s masterful Hyperchromatica, a piece written for three computer controlled disklaviers all tuned to a 33 tone octave and produced by Amirkhanian on Other Minds Records.  One cannot accurately describe the sound of this music except that it may remind some of a detuned old piano.  It is anything but detuned and Gann owes his inspiration in part to the experiments with tuning from predecessors such as La Monte Young and Ben Johnston (among others).  Actually he just recently released his own carefully researched tome on the subject of tuning.  

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Amirkhanian briefly took the role of interviewer and provided a very useful introduction to this work prior to hearing one of its movements.  As with the earlier pieces the audience listened with respectful attention and responded with warm applause.  This Other Minds records release was also available before, at intermission, and at the conclusion of the vent with both Charles and Kyle happily autographing and discussing their work.  Both the Hyperchromatica disc and this new book are major additions to the world of new music.

 

 

 

And, of course, no birthday is complete without a cake.

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Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Many lingered following the event (which exceeded its two hour original plan) to chat with the kindred spirits and share in the cake, cookies, and fine UBUNTU brand coffee.  It is an event that will live in this writer’s memory and doubtless in the many who attended.

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The man of the hour toasting his “semisesquicentennial”.

A very Happy Birthday to you, Mr. Amirkhanian.  Your vision and efforts have been and continue to be a blessing to the Bay Area and the new music community in general.  Salud!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell in Santa Barbara


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Shot of the stage of Hahn Hall at Santa Barbara’s historic Music Academy of the West (Photo by author)

The beautiful and acoustically excellent Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara was the venue for a powerful chamber music concert on Saturday, January 25th.  The not too common combination of violin and cello played respectively by violinist extraordinaire Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the equally matched musicianship of cellist Jay Campbell delighted a near full house with a carefully chosen set of pieces from the 642 CE to the present.  Who knew that there was so much music for this combination of instruments and that it would be so marvelously engaging?

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Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell in Massachusetts (Photo from Patricia’s web site)

This concert was part of the UC Santa Barbara’s always excellent Arts and Lectures series.  Kopatchinskaja was clearly the big name on the marquee for this event but Campbell was clearly a match both in skill and enthusiasm for this night’s event.

A slight change in the program was announced at the beginning which, if this reviewer heard correctly placed a piece originally slated for the second half of the program in the number two slot on the first half.

The concert opened with an anonymous “Alleluia” from a collection of works only recently (the past 50 years or so) deciphered by scholars.  The slow melismatic voice lines transcribed here for these string instruments was played with the sort of approximate intonation common to so called “period performances” which attempt to provide as much as possible some sense of how the music may have sounded in its time.  It was a slow piece rich in harmonics and reverent in execution.

The next piece, a clearly modern piece from the look of the oversized score on the music stand, was (again if this reviewer heard this correctly) by Hungarian composer Márton Illés (1975- ).  It was the world premiere of “Én-kör III”, a piece that brought us nearly 1500 years forward and evoked the modernist sound world of Darmstadt and the sort of modernism that dominated the 1950s in Europe.  It was a challenging piece for both listeners and players involving special techniques of playing that doubtless made for a fascinating looking score.  On sheer virtuosity and powerful performance alone the piece was well received.  It is complex music that doubtless benefits from repeated hearings and this premiere suggests that that will be the case.  The interested listener would do well to explore the web site of this fascinating composer whose name and music was new to this writer’s ears.

Next up, music by another modernist composer, the German, Jörg Widmann (1973- ).  Two selections (numbers 21 and 24) from his 24 duos for violin and cello (2008) were also of the Darmstadt style modernism mentioned earlier.  The Valse Bavaroise (Bavarian Waltz) had echoes of the 19th century Viennese traditions while the Toccatina all’inglese which followed it was a finger busting virtuosic showpiece, another audience pleaser actually.

Then, as if to cleanse our aural pallets the duo played Orlando Gibbons’ (1583-1625) Fantasia a 2, No. 4 for two “viols”.  As in the opening piece these are transcriptions since the violin and cello as we know them today did not exist.  This little instrumental miniature was a charming and relaxing interlude.

The final piece on the first half of this concert was the too seldom heard Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).  This again set the mood to virtuosic modernism.  Even people in the audience familiar with Ravel’s better known works were astounded at the modern sound.  According to the program notes this work was written in the shadow of both the death of his esteemed fellow French luminary Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the end of the First World War (also 1918).  Indeed there were angry dissonances to be heard but this four movement sonata remains an astounding work and this performance was a powerful and forceful reading conveying the respect that this masterpiece deserves.  It is filled with both jazz influences as well as gypsy music (no doubt dear to the Moldovan born Kopatchinskaja).  And were it not for the visual cues that only two instruments were actually playing one might guess that there were certainly more.  At this point we all needed an intermission just to breathe.

The second half of the concert consisted of (with one exception) music from the region of Kopatchinskaja’s birth.  The Romanian born Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) produced a great deal of music in the high modernism and experimental traditions but the work which opened the second half of this concert was an early work “Dhipli Zyia” (1951) which sounded much like the work of (also Romanian born) Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) with whom Xenakis had familiarity and, apparently, affection.

The program continued without the punctuation of applause into the 14th century with a work by the French composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca.1300-1377), his Ballade 4.  This is apparently originally a vocal work and was played in transcription for tonight’s soloists.

Again without the transition signal of applause the duo launched into another work which, like the Xenakis, is atypical of his largely modernist oeuvre.  György Ligeti (1923-2006) is perhaps best know for his music’s (unapproved) inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  The work played on this night was “Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg” (1982).  Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1985) was among the earliest Swedish modernist composers and this work was written on the occasion of his 90th birthday.  The piece echoed Ligeti’s affection for the aforementioned Bela Bartok and folk tunes predominated this brief but lovely score.

The duo launched with little pause into a piece by Bartok’s contemporary Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967).  His “Duo for Violin and Cello” Op. 7 (1914) sounded almost like a model for the later Ravel piece heard at the conclusion of the first half of the concert.  This three movement work is unusual in this composer’s catalog in that it is more aggressively modern than much of his more folk inflected pieces (Bartok and Kodaly were early pioneers in ethnomusicology and they collected and recorded a great deal of folk music from the region of Hungary, Romania, etc.)  It was a fantastic finale which garnered the artists an enthusiastic standing ovation.  The smiling and obviously satisfied performers received the traditional bouquets of flowers and returned for a brief little piece (didn’t catch the name) which was a little token of thanks to the equally satisfied and smiling audience.

Nadia Shpachenko’s Poetry of Places


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This is another in an ongoing series from various labels which are publishing a selection of repertoire chosen by artists who define themselves by their individual approaches to new and recent music.  Kathleen Supove, Sarah Cahill, R. Andrew Lee, Lisa Moore, Liza Stepanova, and Lara Downes come to mind as recent entries into this field.  In the past similar such focused collections has opened many listeners minds to hitherto unknown repertoire.  One would have to include names like Robert Helps, Natalie Hinderas, and Ursula Oppens, all of whom produced revelatory adventures into the world of new and recent piano music in historical landmark recordings. (A recent such collection by Emanuele Arciuli was reviewed here).

On this Reference Recordings disc Nadia Shpachenko presents a series of works, many commissioned for her, of piano music whose focus is architecture, buildings, facades, etc.  It is a curious and unique angle on choosing new music.  There are 11 pieces here all involving Shpachenko at the piano but sometimes with various combinations of electronics, another piano, and a couple of percussionists.

Strictly speaking this is the third disc by Shpachenko featuring new music.  Last year’s “Quotations and Homages” and 2013’s “Woman at the Piano” are doubtlessly worthy precursors to the present disc.

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These works are neither trite nor easy listening.  They are new works and one can get lost in their complexity worrying about the way in which architecture is incorporated.  Or one can listen simply to hear the gorgeous sounds (this is a Reference Recording) of the introductory interpretations by a master musician of works which may or may not become repertory staples but whose substance deserves more than a passing listen.

I won’t go into any detail about these works except to say that the disc seems to have been well received by virtue of the amount of reviews it received on Amazon (I am frequently the first and only reviewer on Amazon when it comes to new music such as this) and those reviewers seem to have heard this release in a way similar to what this reviewer has experienced.

Shpachenko is an important artist who, along many of the artists mentioned at the beginning of this review, is pointing the way to some of the best music currently being written.

Devonte Hynes’ Fields, Another Triumph for Third Coast Percussion and Cedille


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This recent release by Cedille Records (which turned 30 this year) is a fitting example of their vision as well as daring.  It is in some ways characteristic of Third Coast Percussion whose albums range widely in their creative explorations ranging from definitive performances of accepted masterpieces as well as of works written for them and/or co-created by them with their own compositional and improvisational skills.  Their Steve Reich disc, Perpetulum, and Book of Keyboards CDs have been reviewed here and can be seen to represent the range about which I speak.

The present disc is by an English musician, composer, and producer Devonte Hynes.  He is better known by his pseudonym Blood Orange under which he has released several albums whose style might be described as electronic dance music.  One might think it unusual that someone who works in a sort of “Pop” genre would have his work appear on a basically “classical” label.  And one would be wrong.  One need only think of David Byrne’s on The Knee Plays and his work written for string quartet or the incursions into modern classical by Brian Eno on albums like Music for Airports.

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So here we have three works by Mr. Hynes played by one of Chicago’s finest musical exports, Third Coast Percussion.  The music was entirely written by Hynes on a digital work station, not on score paper (goodbye 20th Century) and transcribed (on to score paper) for the percussion quartet by the musicians.  One of the difficulties in writing for an instrument you don’t play is learning exactly how to write for a given instrument.  That is where the members of the percussion quartet add their expertise to this collaborative effort.  The results will likely surprise many listeners.  There are echoes (or homages) to Philip Glass and likely other such echoes as well.  The bottom line is that this music will not fail to engage.

Hynes’ style might be described as post minimal (as might a lot of dance music) with an eclectic spectrum.  The first work, For All Its Fury is a sequence of 11 distinct sections ranging from just over a minute to just over six minutes for a total of just over 35 minutes of music.  One hear the variety of musical ideas that comprise the composer’s style (s).  Rather than try to describe or identify these styles I will only say that the music is a journey which is designed to be experienced as a whole.  As such it is a very listenable and engaging piece.  It is followed by two single movement works titled respectively Perfectly Voiceless and There Was Nothing, each coming in at around 12 minutes.

While there are some clues to the meaning or intent of the music and titles the listener is basically left with the sound object to contemplate.  But wait, and this is perhaps one of my tired “memes” but the design and artwork of the album and accompanying booklet are themselves a joy to behold as visual objects (oh, for the 12 inch by 12 inch format).  Perhaps there are clues one might glean from this packaging as meanings underlying the sounds therein but I would be seriously remiss to fail to credit Sonnenzimmer, the collective output of artists Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi.  And the photographers Stephanie Bassos and Timothy Burkhart of People vs. Places, another collaborative.  These images are strikingly beautiful and they serve to augment this release in a way that can’t be done on radio or any of the streaming services.  What we have here is closer to an art object with sound.  Congrats to Cedille, Third Coast Percussion and Devonte Hynes (aka Blood Orange) and Happy New Year to all!

My 2019 in the Arts


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The amazing Stuart Dempster at a house 2015 house concert at Philip Gelb’s Sound and Savor.  

In many ways this has been a year of reckoning.  I kept my promise to myself to double down on writing this blog and have already reached more viewers than any previous year.  I am now averaging a little more than 1000 hits a month from (at last count) 192 countries and have written 74 pieces (compared to 48 last year).  I need to keep this up just to be able to stay in touch with similarly minded folks (thanks to all my readers).  Add to that the fact that a piece of music I wrote 15 years ago was tracked down by the enterprising Thorson and Thurber Duo.  They will provide me with my very first public performance this coming July in Denmark.  Please stop by if you can.  After having lost all my scores (since 1975) in a fire and subsequently the rest of my work on a stolen digital hard drive I had pretty much let go of that aspect of my life but now…well, maybe not.

Well one of my tasks (little nudges via email have been steadily coming in) is to create a year end “best of” list.  Keep in mind that my personal list is tempered by the fact that I have a day job which at times impinges on my ability to do much else such as my ability to attend concerts.  However I am pleased to say that I did get to 2 of the three Other Minds concerts this past year.  The first one featured all the music for string quartet and string trio by Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979).  The second one featured music by the same composer written for four pianos (with two tuned a quarter tone down).  Both of these concerts exceeded my expectations and brought to light an amazing cache of music which really deserves a wider audience.  These are major musical highlights for this listener this year.

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The Arditti Quartet acknowledging the applause at the Wyschnegradsky Concert.

Read the blog reviews for details but I must say that Other Minds continues to be a artistic and musical treasure.  Under the leadership of composer/producer/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian (who turns 75 in January) the organization is about to produce their 25th anniversary concert with a 4 day series beginning in April, 2020.  For my money its one of the reasons to be in the Bay Area if you love new music.  He is scheduled for a live interview on the actual day of his birthday, January 19th as a guest on his own series, The Nature of Music.  This series of live interviews (sometimes with performance material) with composers and sound artists he has hosted since 2016.

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Amirkhanian performing at OM 23 (2018)

Next I will share with you my most obvious metric, how many views my various blog posts got.  I have decided to share all those which received more than 100 views.

The winner for 2019 is:

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Linda Twine (unknown copyright)

Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know

A rather brief post written and published in February, 2018 for Black History Month.  It was entirely based on internet research and it got 59 views that year.  As of this writing in 2019 it has been seen 592 times.  I have no idea why this “went viral” as they say.  I just hope it serves only to her benefit.  Amazing musician.

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Fatu Duo

Charming little album of lesser known romantic violin and piano pieces played by a husband and wife duo.  This self produced album seems to have had little distribution but for some reason people are enjoying reading about it.  I only hope that the exposure will boost their sales.  This is a fun album.

The Three Black Countertenors

I’m guessing this is one of my “viral” posts.  I wrote it in 2014 and it continues to get escalating hits, 180 this year.  The title pretty much says it all.  First time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage.

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Jenny Q Chai

This concert was an all too brief presentation of some very interesting work.  Quite a pianist too.  File this artist’s name in your “pay attention” category.

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Heavenly Violin and Piano Music by Giya Kancheli 

Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), one of the artists we lost this year (I refuse to do that list).  If you don’t know his work you should. He wrote I think 7 Symphonies and various concertos, film scores, and other works.  He was sort of elected to the “Holy Minimalists” category but that only describes a portion of the man’s work.  Very pretty album actually.

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Because Isaac Schankler

This composer new to me, works with electronics, and maintains an entertaining presence on Twitter.  Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what to make of this music except to say I keep coming back to it.  Very leading edge material.

 

 

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Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s “Klang”

A very different music from that of Schankler listed just above.  But another recording to which I find myself returning.  Thanks to Mr. Eamonn Quinn for turning me on to this one.

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A New Voice for the Accordion

I pretty sure that Gene Pritsker can shoulder at least part of the blame for connecting me with this great new musician  The accordion has come a long way and this guy leads it gently forward.

 

 

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Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety in a new recording

Loved this one.  I had only listened to this work three or four times and probably not with adequate attention.  Hearing this performance was revelatory.  It’s a great work deserving of a place in the standard repertoire/

 

 

 

Black Classical Conductors

Written in 2013, just an occasional piece about black conductors for Black History Month.  It’s now been read over 2000 times.  It is my most read article.  It’s embarrassingly incomplete and in need of a great deal of recent history but that’s a whole ‘nother project.

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Blue Violet Records

Blue Violet Duo

So glad this disc got a little exposure.  Its gorgeous.  This disc of jazz influenced classical Americana unearths some real musical gems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shakuhachi Ecstasy 

OK, I meet this guy at a vegan underground restaurant (whose proprietor is noted Shakuhachi player, Philip Gelb).  A little casual conversation, a few vegan courses (Phil can seriously cook), and whaddya know?  About a month or so later he sends me this gorgeous self produced set of him playing shakuhachi…but the upshot is that this is the distillation of the artist’s sensibilities filtering his very personal take on the world via his instrument.  It has collectible written all over it and that is as much due to the music itself as to the integrated graphics and packaging.  You really have to see and hear this trilogy.  It got over 100 hits.  Thanks to Cornelius Boots and Philip Gelb (musical and culinary concierge).

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That’s it.  Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.

 

Personal Favorites

It was a great year for recordings and I listened to more than I did last year.  Some may have noticed some experimentation with writing style and length of review here.  The problem is that the very nature of my interest is the new and unknown so I have to do the research and have to share at least some of that to hopefully provide some context to potential consumers that will ignite the idea, “gotta check that out” without then boring them to death.

For this last section I will provide the reader with a list in reverse order of the publication of my reviews of CD and streaming releases that prompt this listener to seek out another listen and hopefully draw birds of a feather to listen as well.

 

 

Keep yer ears peeled.  This young accordion virtuoso is an artist to watch.  This was also one of my most read review articles.  This guy is making the future of the instrument.  Stay tuned.

 

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This artist continues to draw my attention in wonderful ways.  Her scope of repertoire ranges hundreds of years and she brings heretofore unknown or lesser known gems to a grateful listening audience.  Blues Dialogues is a fine example.  It is also reflective of the larger vision of the Chicago based Cedille label.

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I found myself really taken by this solo debut album by American Contemporary Ensemble (ACME) director Clarice Jensen.  In particular her collaboration with La Monte Young student Michael Harrison puts this solo cello (with electronics) debut in a class all its own, This independent release is worth your time.

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This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming.  No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.

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Canadian composer Frank Horvat’s major string quartet opus is a modern classic of political classical music.  It is a tribute to 35 Thai activists who lost their lives in the execution of their work.  His method of translating their names into a purely musical language has created a haunting and beautiful musical work which is a monument to human rights.

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Donut Robot is a playful but seriously executed album.  The kitschy cover art belies a really entertaining set of short pieces commissioned for this duet of saxophone and bassoon.  Really wonderful album.

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It has been my contention that anything released on the Starkland label requires the intelligent listener’s attention.  This release is a fine example which supports that contention.  Unlike most such releases this one was performed and recorded in Lithuania by the composer.  Leave it to the new music bloodhound, producer Tom Steenland to find it.  In Search of Lost Beauty is a major new work by a composer who deserves our attention.

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My favorite big label release.  This new Cello Concerto from conductor/composer Esa-Peka Salonen restores my faith that all the great music has been written and that all new music is only getting attention from independent labels.  Granted, Sony is mostly mainstream and “safe” but banking on the superstar talent of soloist Yo-Yo Ma they have done great service to new music with this release.  Not easy listening but deeply substantive.

project w 365

This release typifies the best of Chicago based Cedille records’ vision. Under the guidance of producer James Ginsburg, this local label blazes important paths in the documentation of great music.  “W” is a disc of classical orchestra pieces written by women and conducted by the newly appointed woman conductor, Mei-Ann Chen.  She succeeds the late great Paul Freeman who founded Chicago’s great “second orchestra”, the Chicago Sinfonietta.  Ginsburg taps into Chicago’s progressive political spirit (I guess its still there) to promote quality music, far beyond the old philosophy of “dead white men” as the only acceptable arbiters of culture.  Bravo to Mr Ginsburg who launched Cedille Records 30 years ago while he was a student at the University of Chicago.

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Become Desert will forever be in my memory as the disc that finally got me hooked on John Luther Adams.  Yes, I had been aware of his work and even purchased and listened to albums like Dream in White on White and Songbirdsongs.  I heard the broadcast of the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean.  I liked his music, but this recording was a quantum change experience that leads me to seek out (eventually) pretty much anything he has done.  Gorgeous music beautifully performed and recorded.

publiquartfreedom

OK, I’m a sucker for political classical.  But Freedom and Faith just does such a great job of advancing progressive political ideas in both social and musical ways.  This is a clever reimagining of the performance possibilities of the string quartet and a showcase for music in support of progressive political ideas.

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Michala Petri is the reigning virtuoso on the recorder.  Combine that with the always substantial production chops of Lars Hannibal and American Recorder Concertos becomes a landmark recording.  Very listenable and substantive music.

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I have admired and sought the music of Harry Partch since I first heard that excerpt from Castor and Pollux on the little 7 inch promotional LP that came packaged with my copy of Switched on Bach.  Now this third volume in the encyclopedic survey of the composer’s work on Bridge Records not only documents but updates, clarifies and, in this case, unearths a previously unknown work by the master.  Sonata Dementia is a profoundly important entry into the late composer’s discography.  I owe PARTCH director, the composer/guitarist John Schneider a sort of apology.  I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this album and the planned future recordings of Partch’s music but that has not yet been completed.  You will see it in 2020 well before the elections.

The aforementioned Shakuhachi Trilogy is a revelatory collection which continues to occupy my thoughts and my CD player.

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Gil Rose, David Krakauer, klezmer and the inventive compositional talent of Mathew Rosenblum have made this album a personal favorite.  Lament/Witches Sabbath is a must hear album.

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Another Cedille disc makes the cut here, Souvenirs of Spain and Italy.  The only actual Chicago connection is that the fine Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago.  But what a fine disc this is!  The musicianship and scholarship are astounding.  Guitar soloist Sharon Isbin celebrates the 30th anniversary of her founding the department of guitar studies at Julliard, a feat that stands in parallel with the 30th anniversary of the founding of Cedille records.  This great disc resurrects a major chamber work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and presents a definitive program of chamber music for guitar and string quartet.  This one has Grammy written all over it.

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This New Focus recording was my personal introduction to the music of Du Yun and I’m still reeling.  What substance!  What force! Dinosaur Scar is quite an experience.

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Another Starkland release, this album of music by the great new music pianist is a personal vision of the pianist and the creators of this forward looking repertoire.  Eye to Ivory is a release containing music by several composers and championed most ably by Kathleen Supové.

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Chicago born Jennifer Koh is one of the finest and most forward looking performers working today.  Limitless is a collaboration between a curious but fascinating bunch of composers who have written music that demands and receives serious collaboration from this open minded ambassador for good music no matter how new it is.  And Cedille scores another must hear.

Many recordings remain to be reviewed and some will bleed over into the new year so don’t imagine for a second that this list is comprehensive.  It is just a personal list I wished to share. Happy listening and reading to all.

The Jack Quartet Plays Music of Hannah Lash


Hannah Lash‘s name began appearing on my radar about two years ago but this is my first actual encounter with her music.  This recent (2011) Harvard graduate’s star seems to be rising quickly and this is a fine place as any to start to get to know her work.  New Focus Recordings is a label with good instincts regarding new and important music and this one is typical of their collective acumen.

This release features 4 works. One is for harp (Lash’s instrument) with string quartet and the rest are for string quartet alone. I find it difficult to describe Lash’s work concisely. Like many in her generation she seems to have been exposed most comprehensively to a huge range of styles and techniques and she appears to be selecting judiciously among those to apply those techniques by which she can achieve her compositional goals.

The works include the single movement, Frayed followed by Suite: Remembered and Imagined (in 6 short movements), the single movement Pulse-Space, and the three movement Filigree in Textile which features Lash on harp along with the Jack Quartet.  The rather sparse liner notes are by the composer.  They may lack detail as to composition date, commissioner, etc. but they do reflect what the composer’s thought processes were with each piece.  She is clearly more concerned with conveying her metaphorical ideas than the technical aspects of her work.  That is perhaps best left to future musicologists.

Her work is direct, one might even say concise.  Using a basically tonal palette, the composer explores a variety of musical and metamusical ideas.  These are intimate and interesting works that seem very much to the point.  Keep in mind too that this is simply a disc of recent chamber music which gives no idea as to how she handles larger forms.  But from the perspective of this album alone her brevity has an almost Webernian quality (not the thorny harmonies or difficult rhythms, just the brief and direct statements she makes with the music here).

The always wonderful Jack Quartet plays in two different configurations here.  Tracks 1-8 feature Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; and Kevin McFarland, cello.  Tracks 9-11 feature: Austin Wullman and Christopher Otto, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello; and Hannah Lash, harp.

As usual with well written new music multiple listens reveal more detail.  The music is both interesting at first listen as well as compelling enough to provoke yet another listen.  Lash is a rising star who deserves the attention of a new music audience who will learn the subtleties of her musical language.  There is great beauty here.

Tantalizing Debut of Margaret Batjer in Four Violin and Orchestra Works


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BIS 2309 SACD

This is a helluva introduction to the wide ranging talents of violinist Margaret Batjer, currently the concert master of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.  OMG, why doesn’t this woman have her own web page?  Well this BIS recording is a sort of, “here’s what I can do across 300+ year of repertoire”.  BIS is a Swedish based record label with a well earned reputation both for quality sound recording as well as intelligent choice of repertoire.  This recording succeeds on both counts.

Batjer opens with a new work by American composer Pierre Jalbert (1967- ) whose star is rising steadily on the reputation of his intense and engaging music.  This is the longest work on the disc and perhaps the most challenging technically.  It is a marvelous violin concerto of a modern but quite accessible composer. Jalbert’s fantastic Piano Quintet was reviewed here.

She follows this with a classic of the western canon, Bach’s A minor concerto, then an arrangement for violin and string orchestra with percussion of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” (it exists in an arrangement for nearly any ensemble one could imagine), a classic of so called “holy minimalism”.

And she concludes her program with a longer piece (his second violin concerto) by another holy minimalist, Peteris Vasks (1946- ), a composer who also needs a web page.  His Lonely Angel (2006) was written for Gidon Kremer and follows in the tradition of meditative consonance that characterizes the holy minimalist genre.

She plays with her familiar colleagues in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under conductor Jeffrey Kahane in an arrestingly beautiful recording of music spanning nearly 300 years.  The combination of technical skills and interpretive skills (by orchestra and soloist) along with a wonderful sound recording make this a welcome debut for this soloist and leaves this writer wanting to hear more from her and this wonderful little orchestra.

Pauline Kim Harris’ Solo Debut: Heroine


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Sono Luminus DSL-92235

Pauline Kim Harris is a marvelously accomplished violinist.  Her resume includes her work as composer as well as performer.  At first glance this disc would seem to be an unusual choice for a solo debut but a quick look at her discography reveals that we have here a musician who has chosen experimental and potentially cutting edge music to define her work.  This album is a collaboration with another musician, Spencer Topel, who has chosen a similarly difficult and complex challenge to define his career.

I have chosen for the scope of this review to forego attempts at analyzing these nascent artists and their uniquely defined personas as musicians and have simply provided links to their respective websites.  What I feel obligated to do however is look at the nature of this genre of this music.  Is it ambient?  Is it drone? Is it transcription?  And who is the intended audience?  Musicians? Listeners sitting in a seat in a concert hall?  Background music a la Eno’s Music for Airports?  How will this disc be used?

One clue as to this music’s intended purpose is the recording label itself.  Sono Luminus, a new music label defined largely by a concern with producing the finest sound via digital signal processing.  This independent classical label has sent me several CDs which are reviewed (most favorably) elsewhere in these pages.  One of the things that is notable about this label is the intelligent choice of programming.  Rather than settle simply for quality sound alone they seem to focus their repertoirial radar on new and/or unusual music which is not being heard on other labels.  Their choices have been intelligent in the past.

OK, now to the disc.  There are but two pieces here.  One is a sort of deconstruction of the Chaconne from Bach’s solo violin partita (BWV 1004).  This much lauded masterpiece has received a great deal of attention and composers such as Feruccio Busoni have done transcriptions of the work.  Another recent recording (reviewed here) features a just intonation version of the work.  I’m not sure what Bach would have thought of either of these but the fact is that this is a work very much representative of western music in the high baroque era and one which endures in performances to this day.

The sound, of course, is wonderful.  The range and the clarity of the recording beg to be heard on the highest quality sound system the listener can commandeer.  It is beautiful. It is in a tonal idiom.  But what volume is needed?  Well that depends on your listening context.  For the purpose of this review I listened on my factory sound system in my 2015 Toyota RAV 4.  Not the highest end of audio reproduction but one which did allow me to perceive the quality of the recording.

So I listened at a volume which allowed the music to be heard above road and traffic noise.  I wondered if I would have appreciated this from an audience seat.  Hmm, not sure.  Then the more ambient notion suggested itself to me.  Maybe this could be music that is played in the foyer of a concert hall before the concert and during intermissions (regardless of the content of the actual concert to be heard).  Intriguing idea but I know of no one willing to consider this notion in any sizable venue.

I listened to the second track, a “reimagining” of Deo Gratias by renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem.  Same thoughts…dedicated listener in a chair, music to modify a sonic space.  Both tracks are listed as “Composed by Pauline Kim Harris and Spencer Topel.”  So the artists think of these as their compositions.  Fine by me.  The long standing and ongoing tradition of working with older music and recasting it by changing its instrumentation, writing variations, changing its performance context, etc. is well known and has been put to good use in any number of subsequently respected musical compositions.

So in the end I remain undecided as to the intent (other than experimentalism) of these pieces and will leave my readers with the suggestion that they simply listen and utilize the music as it fits your own life.  It is certainly beautiful but it is not dramatic or assertive, rather it almost subsists inviting listeners to contemplate and choose to do more deeply or to simply allow the music to exist as a pleasing sound object (the listener indeed may be the “Heroine” of the title).  Either way this disc provides much more than what initially meets the ear.  And that would seem to be a significant artistic achievement.

Singing the Unsingable, Bethany Beardslee’s Autobiography


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by Bethany Beardslee and Minna Zallman Proctor

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.

Shida Shahabi, a Fresh New Voice


This EP released by UK label Fatcat Records managed to traverse the World Wide Web to my sympathetic ears last week. This is my first experience reviewing a release solely on the SoundCloud platform. No EPK, sparse liner notes, never heard of the artist or label. I have no idea why I decided to check this one out but I’m glad I did.

These five tracks which can be described as new music, ambient, drone, perhaps even the edges of spectral. The tracks reminded this listener of the late, great, and still under appreciated New York based artist Elodie Lauten. Shahabi, described as a Swedish-Iranian pianist and composer joins with her friend, cellist Linnea Olsson to create some very compelling post minimalist/ambient/drone new music that compels attention in a manner similar to Lauten’s early independent releases on her Cat Collectors label (what is it with this cat theme?

Here are the liner notes:

A wonderfully immersive suite of five stunning new tracks, ‘Shifts’ expands upon Swedish-Iranian pianist / composer Shida Shahabi’s debut album and confirms her as a genuine new force in contemporary piano music.

Without radically departing from the ‘Homes’ blueprint, this time around her pallette is expanded, with the opening three tracks seeing the prominent addition of cello, intertwining with piano to provide a powerfully emotive sweep and drone. These parts were provided by Linnea Olsson, who Shida calls “an old musician friend of mine and without a doubt the best cellist I know in Sweden.”

Recorded by Shida and Elias Krantz, the record was mixed by Hampus Norén and mastered at Calyx by Francesco Donadello (Jóhann Jóhannsson, Modeselektor & Thom Yorke, A winged Victory for the Sullen, Dustin O’Halloran, Lubomyr Melnyk, Hauchka, etc).

In an attempt to get ahead of the inundation of my review requests I’m presenting this curiosity briefly and will leave curious listeners to do their own research into the origins, training, etc of this composer/performer. I will, however, keep an ear/eye out for this composer, these artists, and this delightfully odd little label. You should too. Brava, Ms. Shahabi. Keep up the good work. Continue reading

Starkland Captures the Exploding Pianist: Kathleen Supové’s “Eye to Ivory”


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Starkland ST- 233

Kathleen Supové is one of a handful of new music pianists whose repertoire choices are such that anything she does is worthy of at least one listen and most frequently many more.  (She was previously reviewed on this blog for her wonderful The Debussy Effect album from 2017 on New Focus recordings.)  Starkland, analogously, is a label whose choices of both repertoire and artists is similarly reliable.  So it is with this most recent release.

Five composers are represented on 16 tracks.  All but one utilize some form of electronics (computer, sampler, etc.).  It is difficult to characterize the sort of choices Supové makes except to say that she leans toward the experimental but includes a variety of genres that run the gamut from minimalism to obtuse and complex experimentalism.  The issue here is not the genres but the quality of the performer’s choices and that is what makes this release so compelling.

The title track is by the still too little known Mary Ellen Childs (1957- ).  Eye to Ivory (2005) is a commission written for Supové is described in the brief but useful program notes as a composition focused on the sound densities of the various ranges of the keyboard and one which requires a variety of movements by the pianist (including sitting standing, etc.).  Obviously the visual component is not captured here but the sound clusters, no doubt analogous in some way with the movements, make for compelling listening.

Talkback IV (2010/12) by one Guy Barash, a composer new to this reviewer’s ears.  It is described as one of a series of pieces exploring the interaction between the piano and a computer in real time (i.e. the computer responds to what the piano is playing.  Barash does the real time digital processing.  Here is some of the edgy, perhaps even somewhat obtuse (to the casual listener I think) music where Supové and Starkland excel.  Its not easy listening but it is substantial enough to prompt this reviewer to bookmark the composer’s internet page (you should too).

It is with Rama Broom (2000) by Nick Didkovsky aka Dr. Nerve (1958- ) that we begin to hear a more intimate music making via the use of the performer’s voice speaking a text of her own composition. Written for this artist, the piece is an opportunity to showcase her dramatic abilities both as a writer and as a vocal performer.  There are algorithmic composition processes here but the music belies these complexities and what comes through is the drama in music, text, and performance.  Play this one on Halloween (that’s all I’m gonna say).

Also of 2000 vintage and continuing the intimate aspects of this album is the next selection, “In the Privacy of My Own Home” written by the Bang on a Can composer Randall Woolf.  He is also Supové’s husband and a composer of serious note.  If you haven’t yet encountered his work then you owe it to yourself to do so.

The intimacy of the work involves Woolf’s sampling of the pianist’s various types of laughter and playing the laughter on a sampling keyboard more or less simultaneously with the piano.  This twelve movement work has got to be this writer’s favorite of the group both for its melodic invention and the novel use of what is basically involuntary sounds made by or provoke from the pianist.  It’s like, “tickle me, I want to play piano” and it is a piece full of good humor and also deeply personal, even kind of sweet actually.  Will this be played by other artists using Supové’s sampled laugh or will they need to be tickled and sampled?  It is a delightful work.

Dafna Naphtali is yet another composer unfamiliar to this reviewer, also one with a fascinating, now bookmarked, internet page.  Her work Landmine (1999-2017) is another work written for Supové and another work involving real time interaction between a computer (which alters the timbre of the piano).  Its four movements are named with computer code (which adds a curious dimension especially to the tech challenged such as I).  And yes, this is probably one of the more obtuse and complex works but one which, with the curation of this artist, demands at least a listen or two.

Enjoy this album for its sonic beauties (Silas Brown’s mastering is always an event in itself) but also as a sort of advance guard suggesting the path of music yet to come.  It is in some ways similar to the CRI SD 288 recordings discs by the late Robert Helps from 1971 which helped guide this writer into the realms of new music.  It is a rich realm.

 

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.

 

GVSU’s “Return”, an Intoxicating Adventure in Sound


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                                                                        Innova 983

OK, I’ve listened to this lovely CD numerous times and greatly enjoyed it each time. So why has it languished as a draft and why have I failed to publish this?

Procrastination aside there are several things I can identify as things that make this reviewer pause. First (and perhaps least significant) is unfamiliarity. The disc features three composers completely unknown to me: Daniel Rhode, Adam Cuthbert, and Matt Finch all of whom are listed as doing the additional duty of acting as mixing engineers (they are all students of the ensemble director as well).

GVSU  hails from the state of Michigan and it’s new music ensemble (consisting of Hannah Donnelly on piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute; Ryan Schmidt, clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet; Darwin McMurray, soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones; Makenzie Mattes, percussion; Reese Rehkopf, piano; Jenna Michael, violin; Kirk McBrayer, cello; Niko Schroeder, sound engineer; and Bill Ryan, director and producer) is also new on this writer’s radar. Add the participation of the extraordinary violinist Todd Reynolds (on one track) and one’s attention is further piqued. Reynolds is an artist who chooses his repertoire and collaborations judiciously so his presence certainly functions as an endorsement.  But “unknown” is the heart of my interests both as listener and reviewer so that can’t be the reason though the lack of liner notes is a bugaboo (though hardly a fatal one).

On the positive side this is an Innova release and that fact alone lends credibility. Anything that Minnesota based label (the official label of the American Composers Forum) is worth your attention. Label director Philip Blackburn has a finely tuned radar which has led to many revelatory releases over the years.  Truly anything released on this label is worthy of your attention if you are a new music fan.

So we have hear a 15 track CD of 15 new works whose sounds seems to travel between ambient and postminimal. The pieces merge nicely with each other in a production which assures a fine listening experience. One can put this on either as background or for more intensive listening. It works either way. The playing is dedicated and insightful and the recording is top notch.

The pieces range in length from 1:32 to 7:32 and all seem to be just the right length communicating substance but never dallying too long. They’re bite sized, so to speak but they each have their charms as well as their complexities.  All are premiere recordings and all are commissioned by the ensemble.

Check it out. Click on the links provided in this review. And simply enjoy.

 

 

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.

 

The Ecstasy of Enjoyment: Sharon Isbin with the Pacifica Quartet


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Cedille CDR 9000 190

I was delighted to have had the opportunity to speak with guitarist Sharon Isbin (1956-) about this fine album.  She appeared to be in the midst of a queue of interviewers set up by her press corps but she came across as a confident, relaxed, and skilled interviewee and a gracious person with a palpable passion for music.  Listening to this latest release and having a more than passing interest in this fine musician it is a joy to see her getting recognition.

Originally from the Midwest, Isbin actually began her studies in Italy where her nuclear scientist father was working as a consultant.  Her studies in Varese, Italy began at age 9 with Aldo Minella.  She also counts among her teachers Andre Segovia, Alirio Diaz, and Oscar Ghiglia among her many teachers.

Most curiously she spent time studying Bach with none other than pianist Rosalyn Tureck during the time she was working on her landmark recording of the Bach Lute Suites.  Isbin stated, “I don’t play piano and Tureck doesn’t play guitar but I wanted her insights into the preparation of this music.”  Apparently this collaborative scholarship resulted in the publication (by G. Schirmer) of two of these suites originally written for lute.

As an academic, Isbin is all about research, fact checking, and collaboration and this clearly pays off as listeners will be delighted to find.  But she is also the founder of the Guitar Department at the venerable Julliard School, a department which this year celebrates 30 years hosting students from 20 countries and, this year, establishing a DMA in guitar performance.  Her first graduate, Australian guitarist Alberta Khoury, is the first recipient of this degree.

Asked about being THE musician to start the guitar department at Julliard she related that Segovia had proposed the idea some years ago and was rejected but that she was actually asked to start the department.  An example, perhaps, of the student transcending the teacher.

Isbin plays a great deal of guitar music but, unlike many in her field, she has shown interest and devotion to music of our time as well.  In fact she estimates having at least 80 scores and arrangements either commissioned by her or dedicated to her.  It was with her recording “American Landscapes” featuring concerti commissioned from Lukas Foss, John Corigliano, and Tan Dun that first brought this artist to this reviewer’s attention.  She is the recipient of three Grammys (and this album may very well earn her a fourth).

Regarding the present release, Isbin spoke of the process of preparation involved with this music.  The Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago and this was the connection (Cedille is a Chicago based, Chicago friendly label) that allowed her collaboration to appear of this fine record label.

She also spoke of the serendipitous discovery of finding that the composer’s granddaughter, Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco, actually lived near her in New York.  They began discussions and Isbin was able to view and work directly with the manuscript of the Quintet which opens the disc.  Asked about the fact that this very quintet had been recorded about a year ago by Jason Vieaux, Isbin replied that it was pure coincidence but that this piece was considered by the composer to be his finest work of chamber music.

The Italian composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) was born in Italy but was forced to flee the Nazis and was able, with the sponsorship of Jascha Heifetz (then a recently minted citizen himself), to come to the United States in 1939 just before the outbreak of WWII.  In fact, his family suffered a similar indignity in 1492 when they were forced from their native Spain when the Alhambra Edict forced the expulsion of Jews from the country.  The composer’s curious hyphenated name, according to Isbin, resulted when a dying friend who had no progeny asked that the composer somehow incorporate his name.  This is both sweetly romantic and evocative of the sensitivities of the man himself.

The Guitar Quintet Op. 143 (1950) is a grand romantic and virtuosic work that deserves to be heard.  It is difficult to imagine an audience not being thrilled by this music.  It is cast in four movements like a classical work (allegro, andante, scherzo, finale).  From the beginning the listener is carried along by beautiful melodies and clever collaborations between the strings and the guitar.  Isbin related that superscriptions on the score saying, “Souvenir of Spain” gave the idea for the title of this album.

This is followed by one of the most recognizable guitar concertos, the Concerto in D Major for guitar and strings by Antonio Vivaldi written about 1730.  The original is written for lute and Isbin uses an edition for guitar by Emilio Pujol with gorgeous ornamentation consistent with late baroque practice added by the present performer.  This performance is with guitar, violin, viola, and cello (no second violin) but manages to make a big sound.  This work is a personal favorite and, unlike the other works on the album, extremely well known and loved by this reviewer.  My baseline favorite recording of this piece will probably always be Julian Bream’s performance on this RCA recording but Isbin’s scholarship provides a fascinating perspective on this work.  So basically I now have two favorite recordings.

Next up is the only piece on the album where the Pacifica Quartet plays without guitar.  Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) is more or less a contemporary of Castelnuovo-Tedesco.  Offered here is Oración del Torero Op. 34 (1925).  Curiously this work was written originally for four lutes or string quartet.  Only the quartet version seems to get much play though the lute version might be interesting as well.  This work, which translates into English as “Bullfighter’s Prayer” is essentially a miniature tone poem whose drama takes on almost cinematic dimensions in its just over 7 minutes.  The Pacifica Quartet does a potent job of delivering an engaging performance.  The Pacifica consists of Simin Ganatra, first violin; Austin Hartman, second violin; Mark Holloway, viola; and Brandon Vamos, cello.  They are based at Indiana University.

Last and certainly not least is another major Quintet by an Italian composer, Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805).  His dates make him a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, though he was born in Italy, many of his productive years were spent in Spain where he enjoyed royal patronage.  He was a prolific composer who has experienced a significant interest in the 20th century.

He wrote no less than 9 Quintets for guitar and string quartet and this one, in D Major G. 448 dates from about 1798 and is the best known of his works for this combination.  It has the rather unusual attribute of having a percussionist (one Eduardo Leandro) improvise on castanets and tambourine in the last movement, fandango.

The work is cast in three movements (pastorale, allegro, grave assai-fandango) and will remind the listener of Haydn, Mozart, and/or early Beethoven.  The music is both familiar and very entertaining.  The castanets do not appear to be included in the original score and one can find recordings without them but they really rock that last movement.

This is another triumph for Ms. Isbin and a feather in the caps of the Pacifica Quartet.  It is sonically spectacular album as well having employed the producer/engineer team of Judith Sherman and Bill Maylone.  They achieve a lucid and warm sound field with an appropriately dry resonance that makes for an intimate listening experience which reveals the details the musicians coax from the score.  Get this one, you’ll play it often.