Harold Meltzer: Wonderful New Chamber Music on Bridge


meltzersongs
Bridge 9513

This is the second Harold Meltzer (1966- ) disc to come across my desk in the last two months or so.  This time he is heard on the venerable Bridge label which produces a great deal of quality recordings of new and recent music.  This one contains four works spread over 15 tracks and, like his previous CD, includes some vocal music alongside two chamber music pieces without voice.

Meltzer seems to be one of a generation of composers who have absorbed many of the vast styles and methods which flowered in the twentieth century.  He is not easy to categorize except as a composer.  There are in his music gestures and ideas that span neo-romanticism, minimalism, etc. but he has a distinctive and very affecting style.

Meltzer’s ability to write for the human voice and these songs put this reviewer in the mind of composers like Ned Rorem.  I’m not saying he exactly sounds like Rorem, just that he is as effective in his writing.  Stylistically there is at times an almost impressionist feel in these songs and, while the piano accompaniment is wonderful, they almost beg to be orchestrated.

There are two song cycles on this disc, the first setting poems of Ted Hughes (Bride of the Island, 2016) and the second setting poems by Ohio poet James Wright (Beautiful Ohio, 2010).  Tenor Paul Appleby had his work cut out for him and he delivers wonderful performances with a voice that is well suited to lieder but clearly with operatic ability as well.  Pianist Natalya Katyukova handles the intricate accompaniments with deceptive ease in these cycles.

There are two chamber works on this disc.  The first is Aqua (2011-12) which is inspired by the architecture of the so-called Aqua building in Chicago by architect Jeanne Gang.  In a city known for its fine architecture this 2007 building manages to stand out in its uniqueness.  Need I say that his piece suggests impressionism.  It’s string writing is complex with a vast mixture of effects that, under the interpretive skill of the Avalon String Quartet, suggest movement in much the way the building itself does.  This is genius, the ability to mix all these string techniques into a coherent whole.  It is a basically tonal work and it is seriously engaging but listener friendly in the end.  

The second chamber work is a piece written for the 50th anniversary of the death of legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler.  As it happens the Library of Congress, who commissioned the piece, owns Kreisler’s Guarneri violin and it is they who commissioned this work.  Miranda Cuckson does the honors on violin ably accompanied by the trustworthy Blair McMillen.  To be sure some of Kreisler’s style is used here but this work, “Kreisleriana” (2012) comes across as more than an homage, more a work informed by Kreisler.  It’s a really entertaining piece too.

Thanks in particular to Bridge Records for releasing this.  Bridge is one of those labels whose every release deserves at least a bit of attention.  This time I think they’ve found a fascinating voice in Meltzer’s works.  Now how about some orchestral work?

Gloria Cheng and Terry Riley Rock the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts


Ritorna vincitor!  I paraphrase from Verdi’s Aida but Charles Amirkhanian introduced this concert telling us that Other Minds held its first concert here 25 years ago.  Indeed this was a victorious return (though the first visit was also victorious)  featuring, as Amirkhanian correctly emphasized, musicians with a decidedly west coast aesthetic. In fact Mr. Riley was on the board of the nascent Other Minds organization founded under the loving and watchful eyes of Jim Newman (now president emeritus) and Charles Amirkhanian, executive and artistic director.

Charles Amirkhanian, 25 years later and going strong with Other Minds.

Gloria Cheng is a California native and is now professor of contemporary performance at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.  She is a Grammy winning artist and has, for many years now, been a champion of Terry Riley’s music among many others.  

Cheng deeply focused.

Terry Riley (1935- ) is also born and educated in the Golden State and is a world renowned composer and performer.  His 1964 piece, “In C” pretty much represents the beginning of the “minimalist” style and remains his most performed work.

Terry Riley at 84 still going strong as both composer and performer.

This was your reviewer’s first time hearing Ms. Cheng live and it is an experience not to be missed.  Cheng’s command of the piano and of the wide range of musical styles she demonstrated on this night was nothing short of stunning.  In particular her command of the varying styles that are Terry Riley including ragtime, barrel house, jazz, classical, modernism, virtuosic romanticism, etc.  In addition to that she demonstrated a truly profound command of the keyboard which left the audience so deeply enthralled that they (we) almost forgot to applaud.  

The concert began with Ms. Cheng’s performance of Riley’s early Two Pieces for Piano (1958-59).  Here she seemed to be channeling Pierre Boulez and that whole school of post-Darmstadt pointillism with an ever present sense of trying to maintain equality for each of the twelve tones used in these pieces.

The uninitiated might have been put off by these early pre-minimalist works that are not generally the sound image conjured by the composer’s name.  Rather they represent Riley’s grasp of and subsequent working through of this material that preceded the compositional insights that characterize his mature style.  As a serious fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a useful source for a metaphor.  On this 50th anniversary of  that film’s debut it seems that Riley, like astronaut David Bowman, steps through the star gate and is transformed beyond even his own wild and creative imagination.

By all appearances this audience seemed to be well-prepared and, as the young man who won the little drawing at intermission stated (I’m paraphrasing), Terry Riley’s concerts are always a good bet.  While  there may have been people who knew less it is clear that no one was less than entertained and many, this writer included, were positively delighted.

The next work, “The Walrus In Memoriam” (1991 rev. 1994) was originally commissioned for Aki Takahashi, one of several pieces based on Beatles tunes, this one a sort of elegy for John Lennon (1940-1980).  The CD is well worth seeking for its creative music and Takahashi is always worth hearing.

As if building to a climax, Cheng really put her performance into high gear with the next set of pieces from 1994 entitled, “The Heaven Ladder Book Seven”.  Don’t get me wrong, she was focused and in fine form for those first three pieces but when she sat down to perform the Heaven Ladder pieces one could feel an intensity such that the audience seemed hypnotized, paying attention to Cheng’s every gesture.  Despite a few stifled coughs (no doubt residue from our recent awful fires here) the audience was laser focused on this performer as she made Riley’s charming pieces come alive.

Intermission was an opportunity to stretch our legs and breathe again knowing that when we returned we would be hearing both Cheng and Riley.  It was a gathering of like minds for the most part and many people validated some of my perceptions that Cheng had transfixed the audience.  

During intermission there was more talk about the upcoming Other Minds 24 with programs scheduled on March 23rd and June 15 and 16.  More on that in future blogs.  And now on to the second half of the concert.

Terry Riley’s energy belies his age.  Riley will turn 84 in June and continues to compose, perform and travel extensively.  And when he sits down at the piano he is magical.

Riley opened with “Simply M” (2007) written in honor of the late Margaret Lyon, a longtime chair of the Mills College Music Department and one of the people who brought Terry Riley there to teach composition.  She had previously presided over teaching tenures by Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud.

The music had a quasi-improvisational feel (like much of Riley’s music) but channeled classical composers along with ragtime, jazz, ragas, and Riley’s usual eclectic mix of styles.  It was a free flowing piece going through abrupt changes in character at different points but the piece seems to rely on some basic classical composition techniques which function as a sort of scaffolding or mold into which the composer pours his creative ideas.  The piece was highly virtuosic but gave off a charming hypnotic flow.

He acknowledged the appreciative applause and moved right into the second piece on this half, “Requiem for Wally” (1997).  This piece is written as a memorial for Riley’s ragtime piano mentor, Wally Rose.  In the very useful notes, Riley states that he combines elements of ragtime with the Hindustani Raga Nat Bhairav.  In this piece we got to hear Riley’s distinctive tenor trained in raga singing by the late Pandit Pran Nath.  It is this ability to combine and synthesize various musics into a coherent style which this audience clearly knows well, Terry Riley.

Following these performances Riley left the stage and came back joined by Gloria Cheng again for the newest music of this evening, “Cheng Tiger Growl Roar” (2018).  It is, by the composer’s description, a four movement suite.  Like much of Riley’s music, it involves both notated and improvised material.  

Riley’s musical training has always involved a great deal of improvisation and that is true in this work.  Cheng, a classically trained pianist, mentions feeling challenged by Riley’s music as it asks her to move out of her comfort zone as an artist.  Well, except for Cheng mentioning this in her notes, there was no evidence of discomfort on the part of either artist.  They played as though they had always played together and their playing was ecstatic suggesting the depth of both artists’ grasp of the material and the affection they shared performing this piece for piano four hands.

Composer Terry Riley warmly greets fellow pianist Gloria Cheng at the end of a wonderful evening of Riley’s piano music from the last 50 years.

The audience, with their laser focus still intact, came out of their trance to share their warm applause.  What a transcendent evening!  What amazing artists!

American Romantics from the Manhattan School



Robert Sirota (1949- ) is an American composer.  A native New Yorker, his earliest compositional training began at the Juilliard School; he received his bachelor’s degree in piano and composition from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Wood and Richard Hoffman. A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship allowed him to study and concertize in Paris, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Returning to America, Sirota earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, studying with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner.

Before becoming Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995, Sirota served as Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music. From 2005-2012, he was the President of Manhattan School of Music, where he was also a member of the School’s composition faculty.

Robert Sirota (from website)

Prior to encountering this disc this reviewer had not encountered Sirota’s work and, frankly, didn’t expect American Romanticism to flow from the Manhattan School.  That’s not intended as a critique of the Manhattan School which seems to be more interested in the compositional direction of composers like Morton Feldman and faculty member Nils Vigeland is a huge Feldman supporter.

But no matter.  We have a disc of purportedly “romantic” music with an American theme.  The disc begins with Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96.  It dates from 1893, the same year as his 9th Symphony.  It is debatable as to how “American” these works are.  Dvorak was enamored of negro spirituals and his melodies, while not directly quoting, do seem to capture some of the spirit of these musics.  

Not having heard the piece in some years I was grateful to find it still as interesting as ever.  It’s not up there with Beethoven’s or Brahms maybe but there is much to enjoy in this particular piece and it is given her a loving  performance.  This piece has earned a deserved place in the repertoire.

Next up is the main point of this album, Robert Sirota’s Second String Quartet subtitled, “American Romantic”.  It is an episodic piece which takes the listener to various places and, like the Dvorak, uses no direct quotes but manages to capture a certain spirit or Zeitgeist with each of its four movements.  His harmonic language seems to be that of some slightly extended tonality but unquestionably romantic.  His use of motives seem to trigger memories of familiar tunes.  Each movement is focused on a different physical place and time of day.

Sirota’s American Pilgrimage begins in the first movement, Morning: Waldo County, Maine with broad strokes using motives that suggest or are fragments of familiar tunes.  He moves in the second movement to Midday: Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the awful church shooting from a few years ago.  This pizzicato dominant movement continues the suggestive use of motives and has moments of searing sadness and pain.  His program is not explicit but this is protest music as well as music of sadness.

The third movement, Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico sort of takes the place of a scherzo.  Despite his basically tonal palette the composer makes strategic use of dissonances for color and effect.  This movement is actually more contemplative with a few moments of more kinetic writing.  He ends with the fourth movement Evening: Manhattan, the most extensive movement.  It opens with a whirlwind like theme and moves quickly (given that it is evening).  As with most classical quartets he uses fourth movement to do a bit of summing up, echoes of what has gone before mix with new material.

Finally we get to hear the string quartet version of probably the most famous piece of American Romanticism, the lovely (if overplayed) Adagio for strings from Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet.  It’s not clear why the entire quartet was not included but this piece does a nice job of putting a programmatic cap on this satisfying little chamber music program.

Sirota’s idiosyncratic use of melodic fragments and basically tonal idiom are intriguing enough that alert listeners are likely to seek out more of his music.  The Sirota is clearly the reason to buy this album but, as a program, the other pieces frame it well and this CD is a very satisfying experience.

Harold Meltzer New Chamber Music


meltzervar

Open G Records

I was delighted to receive this disc directly from the composer.  I had not been familiar with Harold Meltzer‘s (1966- ) work so this would be my introduction.  The disc contains two works, a Piano Quartet (2016) and a song cycle, Variations on a Summer Day (2012-2016).  Both are functional titles which tell the listener little about what to expect in terms of style.  I was even more delighted when he kindly sent me some PDF scores of these pieces.

The Piano Quartet might be described as post minimal I suppose but the salient characteristic of this piece is that it is exciting and quite listenable.  It is also quite a workout for the musicians.  In fact this piece seems to embody a variety of styles which give it a friendly romantic gloss at times.  This is a fine addition to the Piano Quartet repertoire.

The musicians that do such justice to this composition are: Boston Chamber Music Society: Harumi Rhodes, violin, Dimitri Murrath, viola, Ramen Ramakrishnan, violoncello, and Max Levinson, piano.  All are kept quite busy and seems to be enjoying themselves.  I can’t imagine this not playing well to the average chamber music audience.

The song cycle, “Variations on a Summer Day” sets poetry by Wallace Stevens and Meltzer’s compositional style seems to be a good fit for Stevens’ poetic style.  This work is stylistically very similar to the Piano Quartet with hints of minimalism within a larger somewhat romantic style.  It is scored for chamber orchestra with soprano solo.  Actually the orchestra is Ensemble Sequitur, a group founded in part by the composer and clearly dedicated to the performance of new music.  The members of this group include: Abigail Fischer, soprano, Jayce Ogren, conductor, Tara O’Connor and Barry Crawford, flutes, Alan Kay and Vicente Alexim, clarinets, Margaret Kampmeier, piano, Miranda Cuckson and Andrea Schultz, violins, Daniel Panner, viola, Greg Hesselink, violoncello.

The poem is by the sometimes obtuse American poet Wallace Stevens.  Maybe “obtuse” is the wrong word but Stevens is not the easiest read.  What is interesting is how well this composer’s style fits this poetic utterance.  This is a lovely song cycle that puts this writer in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs and Barber’s Hermit Songs and perhaps his Knoxville Summer of 1915.  There is an air of romantic nostalgia in this tonal and passionate setting.

Stevens’ poetry has been inspiring American composers for some years.  Works like Roger Reynolds’ “The Emperor of Ice CreamThe Emperor of Ice Cream“(1961-2) demonstrate an effective avant garde setting of another of his works.  It is fascinating to hear how different composers utilize the poet’s work.  The present cycle is a beautiful setting which presents a challenge to the musicians which is met quite successfully here.

 

 

Mechanical and Microtonal: Kyle Gann’s “Hyperchromatica”


gannchrom

Other Minds OM 1025-2

Kyle Gann‘s interest in the microtonal has been evident at least since his opera Custer and Sitting Bull (1997-99).  Many will be familiar with his justly famed monograph on Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano works.  Given that history this release seems almost inevitable, a series of works (or perhaps it is one big work) written for 3 computer controlled pianos tuned to his 33 note scale based on the harmonics of the E flat scale.

This is also hardly Gann’s first foray into the world of the player piano (as it was called in a different age).  His 2005 Nude Rolling Down an Escalator album contains some of his etudes for this computer controlled instrument which is the modern equivalent of the player piano.  And in addition to his fascination with alternate tunings and scales it should be noted that Gann is also somewhat of an expert as regards the player piano itself.  Gann authored one of the finest books on that composer’s music, “The Music of Conlon Nancarrow” (1995).  So it appears intuitive that he would write a magnum opus for the modern equivalent of the player piano, the disklavier, a computer controlled piano.

Gann refers to this work as being the longest composition for a keyboard in alternate tuning.  Indeed this would appear to be the case but a listener could easily hear these as  individual works with poetic titles like one encounters in Debussy’s Preludes.  Like those works one can listen to them individually or as a complete set.  But regardless of how you may choose to file these in your head this is an intriguing and engaging work (or set of works).

A work of  this dimension will necessarily invite comparisons to The Well Tempered Clavier, The Art of Fugue, and similar works because it effectively demonstrates the scales and the various musical possibilities unlocked by the different tuning much as Bach did nearly 300 years ago with well tempered tuning (or, in the latter example, the possibilities of counterpoint).  This work is like a major thesis on alternate tunings and the effects it has on melody and harmony.  Some listeners will be familiar with the interesting but less comprehensive Microtonal Music (1996) CD by Easley Blackwood.  Using a synthesizer Blackwood explores tonal and melodic relationships of various different tunings achieving some of the same goals as Gann.

The titles the composer uses reflect his ongoing fascination with things cosmic as he did with his, “The Planets” (1994-2008).  In this respect we hear Gann, the romantic, writing little tone poems.  Now these tone poems put the listener into a different universe but they fit the same logical category as tone poems written in a more familiar tuning system and hence have the more romantic quality of representational (as opposed to absolute) music.  Of course the composer’s intention of exploring this tuning system keeps this work also in the category of absolute music meaning that it is in large part about the tuning system.  Unlike the Blackwood experiments which were about finding functional harmonies (at least in the commonly understood western music definition) Gann’s work is about expression, motives, melodies.  It is, if you will, a logical step for one who has worked intensely with the complex rhythms endemic to Nancarrow and the fascination with alternate tuning systems gleaned from both western music history and world musics.

Since the end of the Baroque era western music adopted well tempered tuning as a standard and the result is that hearing these alternate tunings sounds wrong to most ears.  One of the things Gann is doing here is to make a foray into what will likely be a more common practice, that being the use of alternate tunings.  They are quite approachable and listenable in this context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Wonderful Survey of Helmut Lachenmann via his Clarinet Music


aestheticapp

New Focus FCR 196

Helmut Lachenmann (1935- ) is a composer who has been “on my radar” for some years now but, like a lot of names I get, I had yet to hear much of his music.  Along comes Gregory Oakes  from, of all places, Iowa.  The Midwest in the United States doesn’t have much of a reputation for embracing the avant garde (though they actually do).  So into the CD player goes this one and…wow, I really need to hear more Lachenmann and whoever this Oakes guy is I want to pay attention to what he is doing with that clarinet.
Admittedly this disc languished a bit before I heard it but I am now glad I did.

This disc consists of only three tracks comprising three works by this major German composer from three different periods in his career.  Dal Niente (Interiur III), Trio Fluido, and Allegro Sostenuto.

Dal Niente (1970) is for solo clarinet and, as the title prescribes, the music is to be played as “from nothing” the meaning of the title.  In fact this seems to be practically a textbook of extended techniques for the clarinet.  But far from being a dull accounting of dry techniques, this is a tour de force which will challenge the skills of even the most experienced players.  It is quite musical and listenable but the virtuosity will knock your socks off.  Oakes pulls it off with a deceptive ease that demonstrates his rather profound knowledge of his instrument.  It is easy to see the seeming cross pollination between the avant garde and free jazz here.

Next up is Trio Fluido (1966-68) which is a respectably avant garde trio for clarinet, viola, and percussion with Matthew Coley, percussion, and Jonathan Sturm, viola.  Like the previous work this one is also about extended techniques (for all three instruments this time).  This is a fine example of mid-twentieth century modernism and deserves a place in the repertoire.  All three musicians are challenged to play their instruments in unconventional ways and the effect is almost like some of the electronic music of the era.  It is a complex and pointillistic texture that has a strong and serious content.

Finally Allegro Sostenuto (1986-88) is another trio, this time for clarinet, cello, and piano.  So while this work would make a fine companion work to the Brahms clarinet trio the work is unambiguously avant garde in the finest Darmstadt traditions.  It is, at about 30 minutes, the longest piece here and it reflects the further maturity of the composer as he creates another challenging but almost surprisingly satisfying work.

This album serves as a nice way to be introduced to Helmut Lachenmann and to get to know some major new champions of the avant garde.  And one would do well to stay informed about the work being done by this fine new music clarinetist.

 

Ken Thomson’s Amazing “Sextet”


 

thomsonsextet

Panoramic Recordings

First of all this packaging is about twice the size of a normal CD package.  It is lovingly designed by Jason Das and visually suggests a sort of nostalgia for innocence, for childhood perhaps.  The performers are all of that “New York Downtown”/modern music background and this is a set of rigorously trained musicians.    Put them together as a sextet and tap their virtuosity as well as their improvisational abilities and some clever programming and you get this album.

It is an unusual but ultimately very satisfying album.  It starts with (of all things) a transcription of music by the late Hungarian master Gyorgy Ligeti, his Pasacaglia Ungherese (1978) which is originally for harpsichord.   This is hardly a “jazz” piece and one wonders at the choice of this particular work to be the one to make that all important first impression.  The transcription (by Ken Thomson) is quite effective however and very entertaining.  I’m not sure why the it was chosen but it works well here.

This leaves us with the remaining six tracks (all composed by Ken Thomson) which are more clearly in the realm of “jazz” the way most listeners are accustomed to hearing it.  Drums keeping the beat, a recognizable bass line, and improvisational solos over the harmonic progression.  These virtuosos are given a challenge by said composer and the solos which populate these tracks are one of the best things about this release.  Clearly these musicians are comfortable with their virtuosity and they seem to understand jazz.  They got and held this listener’s attention most immediately.

The Ken Thomson Sextet consists of Ken Thomson, composer and alto saxophone; Anna Webber, tenor saxophone; Russ Johnson, trumpet; Alan Ferber, trombone; Adam Armstrong, bass; and Daniel Dor, drums.  Clearly all these folks have a thorough knowledge of jazz performance and can take their audience on a mighty exciting ride.  The solos will stick in your head long after the initial thrill of your first hearing and this is a nicely balanced group functioning almost as a single entity.  Very cool.

This is chamber jazz at its finest.