Lara Downes Celebrates Women and Love


downesloveofyou

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.

 

Politics and Its Discontents: Sirius Quartet’s New World


siriusnewworld

ZOHO ZM 201908

This is a marvelous disc which functions well on several levels.  First it is a fine disc of new string quartet music played by wonderful musicians (who wrote most of the music here as well).  Second it is a disc of music which is designed to put forth sociopolitical reactions/opinions.  This Zoho label production succeeds quite well in these areas.

Starting with the lovely cover art by Aodán Collins, this Sirius Quartet album is their first full album since 2016.  It is, above all, a political statement, or rather, a series of political statements in the form of inventive compositions by these wonderfully talented musicians.  Each track is incredibly entertaining and each has a closely associated subtext of sorts reflecting a variety of sociopolitical issues.  The Sirius Quartet consists of Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; and Jeremy Harman, cello.

This disc contains ten works on ten tracks, each with an underlying political component.  All appear to have been written from 2016 to the present though the composition dates are not given explicitly.

The first work, Beside the Point, is by first violinist Fung Chern Hwei and it is a friendly scherzo-like piece which sets the tone for what is to come.  The composer describes this piece as his statement against discrimination and it is a plea for equality.  It is a relatively brief but very compelling work.

Next up is a track written by cellist Jeremy Harman called Currents.  It is another scherzo-like affair, slightly longer than the first piece and its political subtext is described by the composer as evoking currents of elements both dark and light whose powers affect us daily.  Another well-written and very exciting piece.

The eponymous New World, November 9, 2016 is essentially an angry lament in response to the election of Donald Trump as president on that date.  The work quotes judiciously and effectively from Dvorak and Shostakovich in the longest work here coming in at 10:16.  It relies on some extended techniques at times but is an essentially tonal work as are its companions on this disc.  This piece is also distinguished as having won the 2017 New York Philharmonic’s “New World Initiative” competition’s grand prize and it is acknowledged as the seed work which eventually spawned this entire album.

#Still by second violinist Gregor Huebner is perhaps the most gut wrenching piece here.  It’s based on the Abel Meeropol song, Strange Fruit (whose title refers to lynched bodies hanging from trees) iconically recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.  Sadly its themes remain painfully relevant today and this heartfelt plea for peace and equality is a strikingly powerful work with an adagio section which rivals the Barber Adagio in its beauty.

Huebner’s cover of the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby occupies the next track.  It is very much in keeping with the political theme of the album with the song’s words about a sad individual “buried along with her name”.  As such it is also one of the finest transcriptions/covers for string quartet that this reviewer has heard.  This is some seriously interesting writing which elevates this to a well crafted piece in it’s own right and not merely a “this string quartet plays…” generic piece.  Jazz inflections seem to invoke Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt at times and a few extended techniques remind us that we are listening in the 21st century.

More Than We Are by cellist Jeremy Harman is described as an “aspirational” composition which was written after the birth of the composer’s son, Silas.  It is an emotional piece, perhaps a paean to hope.

To a New Day by Fung Chern Hwei is, of all things, a celebration of hope for healing politics in the composer’s native country of Malaysia (politics outside of the US and Europe are important too after all).  May 9, 2018 was the date of an election whose result will hopefully heal political wounds and put that country on a more humane and progressive agenda.  There may be more specific references embedded in the music here but that must be left for listeners and musicologists to debate in the future.  It is another gorgeous example of good string quartet writing.

Hwei describes this next piece, “30th Night, Worshiping Heaven and Earth” as a “repurposed prayer”.  It is, he says, an “unapologetically Chinese/Malaysian piece” which uses a combination of Chinese folk melody and specific attention to language to suggest a subversive theme which seeks to encourage a humane approach from a traditionally oppressive government.  It is the only track with vocals.

The penultimate track is another brilliant arrangement (by Huebner) of a rock/pop song, Radio Head’s “Knives Out”.  The political content is expressed by reference to the song’s lyrics and also by musical references which are inserted throughout.  Again an experience of the cover genre that rises above the ordinary.

The album ends with an arrangement by Fung Chern Hwei of the late Stanley Myers’ lovely Cavatina from his score to “The Deer Hunter”.  Like the previous covers this one stands head and shoulders above the usual level of musical discourse for this genre.

All in all an immensely satisfying album.  Kudos to Grammy winning producer and writer (he wrote the wonderful liner notes here) Kabir Seghal and, of course, to the musicianship of this fine ensemble of composer/musicians.  Art continues to struggle in these uncertain times but its struggle can bring forth some amazing creativity and this one sounds like a winner.

 

 

Huang Ruo: Red Rain, a New Generation From the East Makes Itself Known


redrain

This recording grabbed my attention in wonderful ways from the very beginning and didn’t cease to amaze me until it ended.  Huang Ruo (1976- ) is one of the most striking new voices this reviewer has heard in some time.  This Chinese born American composer draws on his ancestral culture, modern culture and synthesizes it with contemporary compositional techniques in new and interesting ways.  He provokes the same sort of excitement in this reviewer that first contact with the music of Bright Sheng and Ge Gan Ru did when they first came into earshot some years ago.

huangruo

Huang Ruo (1976- )

(Perhaps it is due to the rising star nature of this artist but there seems to be relatively little reliable info on him.  His website is apparently not yet complete and even his Theodore Presser page fails to even give dates for his scores.  I’m hoping these glitches get resolved soon because I think this is a composer who deserves serious attention.)

The very first track, Four Fragments (2006?) in the version for cello solo (apparently there is a version for violin solo but it is not clear which came first) is a powerful and virtuosic piece loaded with various pizzicati, glissandi and other effects that perhaps only a score could really tell you with certainty.  What is interesting is the really organic nature of these effects, that is to say that they serve the composition and aren’t simply “golly gee what a virtuoso” type fireworks. The amazing Canadian Korean cellist Soo Bae handles this work beautifully and seemingly with relative ease.  This is the second longest (by about ten seconds) of the pieces on this disc and the music, the performance snagged me immediately.  What a powerful piece!

After that I was prepared for perhaps a let down, something more “ordinary”.  But, no, the next track, the title track, Red Rain (200?) for piano played by the wonderful Emanuele Arciuli is another distinctive statement which seems to mine the riches of the composer’s native culture and place it anew in a contemporary and relevant modern context.  At 10:50 it is a substantial piano work.  Like the cello piece it seems to use some unconventional idioms for the instrument and by that I mean it sounds nothing like Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy or even Boulez or Stockhausen.  It seems infused with an eastern musical flavor no doubt gained from techniques native to non-western traditions.

In another assault to any expectations I might have had the three movements of Shifting Shades have the pianist using a whistle such as your gym coach likely used with the pea inside to create a tremolo.  Here the pianist whistles (and plays some sort of flute, maybe a recorder or shakuhachi? at one point; he also apparently plays directly on the piano strings at times) whilst playing the rapid tremolos and the drones that seem to characterize Huang’s keyboard writing. Stephen Buck is the hard working pianist here.

Buck comes back again for the Tree Without Wind for piano (this time played a bit more conventionally).  This is the longest piece on the disc at 13:57 and rewards the listener’s attention.  It seems to probe mythological depths and was suggested by a Chan Buddhist narrative by Hui Neng.  Tremolos, clusters, drones and melodic fragments take on a symphonic grandeur at times.  There is a wide range of dynamics and tempi as the pianist recounts in sounds the meaning of movement and silence.

Three Pieces for Piano gives names to the short movements.  Prelude: Diffluent, Postlude: Left… and, Interlude: Points and Lines all contain the same techniques as the other piano pieces here (though without any additional instruments this time).  These sound like they might be earlier works and perhaps studies investigating different techniques though they seem fully fleshed out and complete in themselves.  The three movements are varied and the last one is apparently the composer’s only dalliance with twelve tone techniques and is by far the most conventional sounding work here though Huang’s distinctive fingerprint is present.  Once again we hear Stephen Buck navigating the score.

In the last track we get to hear the composer himself at the piano with Arash Amini (a member of the American Modern Ensemble) on cello in Wind Blows…  Like the previous tracks and as indicated in the fine notes by Stephen Buck this piece utilizes specialized effects to produce a unique sonic image.  The piano part is referred to as a “drone” and it is indeed static at least in relation to the part for cello. Unlike the preceding pieces there seems to be less concern about evoking images and more concern for just the sound itself which is described aptly as “meditative”.   In fact it is powerfully lyrical, even “Brahmsian” if I can be forgiven for that comparison.

The brief biography in the overall fascinating liner notes describe the composer as having been influenced by a wide variety of musical styles ranging from traditional Chinese folk musics to Chinese Opera, various western classical traditions including modernists such as Lutoslawski and various “pop” traditions as well.  He studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and he appears to have achieved a fascinating synthesis in what seems to be his mature style.  He is a composer, conductor and vocalist.  His music is unique and beautiful as a Taoist painting but grounded in traditions that embrace perhaps the entire world as filtered through his creative mind. Bravo Innova for bringing this music to light in this fine and interesting CD.

Definitely keep and eye and ear out for this guy.  He has many things to say and interesting ways to say them.