Marc-Andre Hamelin Plays Charles Ives’ “Concord Sonata” in Honor of Other Minds’ 30th Anniversary


Hamelin begins his focused Ives journey

The late, great British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once asserted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (to those who don’t know the technology)”. A similar assertion can be said to be true of music. New music is a large and diverse repertoire that is difficult to navigate without some sort of guide to put those new sounds in context. And Charles Amirkhanian has, via his years as music director of KPFA and his stewardship as Executive and Artistic Director of Other Minds (among the many hats he wears) has provided such guidance for interested listeners to new music since at least 1969.

In an unanticipated gesture of magnanimity there was, at the will call table, not the usual “items for sale”, rather there was a lovely free tote bag and a large selection of OM CDs there for the taking. Suffice it to say, I and many others went home heavier than we had arrived.

Charles Amirkhanian raising a toast at his 75th birthday celebration ( in which Kyle Gann was host and discussant)

He and his hard working team (Blaine Todd, Associate Director; Mark Abramson, Creative Director; Liam Herb, Production Director; Adrienne Cardwell, Archivist; Andrew Weathers, Recordings Director; Jenny Maxwell, Business Manager; and Joseph Bohigian, Program Associate) have provided guides for adventurous listeners that have included interviews with musicians and composers, a record label dedicated to new music, and live lectures and performances of creative new music from all over the world. The annual Other Minds Festival (the 26th was presented earlier this year) has brought in a cornucopia of stellar performers with a knack for finding stars at the outset of their careers. Other Minds at 30 is truly one of the great joys of San Francisco and it’s environs.

This evening was one of the lecture recital variety. Kyle Gann, composer, writer, critic, musicologist, OM alum, and vice president of the Charles Ives Society was brought in to provide the lecture portion of the evening. In addition, this event was held at a major temple of new music in the Bay Area, Mills College (actually Amirkhanian’s alma mater). The beautiful Littlefield Concert Hall itself displays the striking work of California architect, Julia Morgan. Artistic spirits past and present were undoubtedly here this night in the history of this place as well as those artistic spirits present in the audience.

Blaine Todd officiated the preliminaries by introducing tonight’s stars.

The program began with a brief discussion among Mr. Amirkhanian, Professor Gann, and maestro Hamelin. Then Gann took his place at the lectern and Hamelin took a seat at the piano where he had graciously agreed to perform musical excerpts to illustrate Gann’s lecture. Actually Gann has written a definitive and very readable book on the work destined for performance on this night. “Essays After a Sonata” (2017), the title a gentle pun in homage to composer Charles Ives who (in an unprecedented move) wrote a little book titled “Essays Before a Sonata” as a means of introducing his landmark Second Piano Sonata.

Professor Gann providing a context.

In addition to his wonderful book, Gann has had a long interest in the literature of the so called “Transcendentalists” who are the subject (or at least subtext) of this music. He even went as far as to suggest specific literary references implied in the music. The Second Sonata “Concord, Mass., 1840-60, (written 1904 to 1915 with several subsequent revisions) is in four movements titled, “Emerson”, “Hawthorne”, “The Alcotts”, and “Thoreau”. Gann provided a few concise illustrations in a rather brief talk that provided just enough context to assuage the uninitiated (if there were any in the audience, lol). Hamelin coordinated most amicably and then there was a short intermission.

Marc-Andre Hamelin (http://www.marcandrehamelin.com) was born in Montreal and is now based in Boston. His discography consists of over 80 albums. My own introduction to his artistry was his first release in 1988 of William Bolcom’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Twelve New Etudes (1977-1986) and Stefan Wolpe’s “Battle Piece” (1943-47). His web site is worth your time and gives an idea of the sheer scope and acumen of his repertory choices. In fact his most recent releases include more from William Bolcom and a disc of his own compositions. In fact he gives fine performances of music from Mozart and Haydn to the present. Hamelin has performed the Concord Sonata numerous times and has recorded it twice. He performed this gargantuan work entirely from memory.

Maestro Hamelin taking a moment to savor his fine performance and return his focus to the standing ovation that greeted him.

Hamelin gave an extremely focused and convincing performance, an exercise of both intellectual and physical stamina. The audience, due to their reverence for Ives, Hamelin, and the spirits present in the hall, sat in rapt attention with nary a squirm nor a cough (well, maybe one cough) to interrupt the flow of this landmark work of American modernism. Such was Hamelin’s thrall. The piece goes through a wide dynamic range and the soft pianissimo resonances could be heard as clearly as the Beethoven-esque heroic fortes. Hamelin took two curtain calls to a standing ovation of a very appreciative audience. Gann quipped at one point that he uses Hamelin’s Hyperion recording of the Sonata in his classes. It was easy to see why.

John Bullard, Expanding a Classical Repertory for a Vernacular Instrument: 24 Preludes for Banjo


Volume One on Bullard Music

I can recall with delight the first time I heard a banjo in a classical piece. It was the 1936 score to the Pare Lorentz film, “The Plow That Broke the Plains” by Virgil Thomson. In one of the movements of the suite extracted from the film score Thomson writes a set of variations on an American folk song, a practice he shared with his contemporary, Aaron Copland. The sound of the banjo was both jarring and charming and marked, for this listener, the first time hearing this vernacular instrument in a classical context. Then there was John McEuen, then of the “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” including his transcription of the (familiar to young pianists) Sonatina by Muzio Clementi on one of their folk/rock/country albums.

So the release of these 24 Preludes for Banjo by Adam Larrabee, expertly played by John Bullard seems a natural next step. Bullard has previously released an album of Bach played on the banjo and seems intent on expanding the classical repertoire for his instrument. Here, rather than having transcriptions of music originally written for other instruments, we have music written directly for the banjo. Larrabee, an accomplished banjo player echoes Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in this set of 12 preludes (with 12 more yet to be recorded to complete the set of 24).

Composer Adam Larrabee strikes a pretty amazing balance writing brief pieces in each of 12 keys, alternating major and minor keys for contrast and incorporating, as Bach did, baroque dance forms. He connects to the twentieth and twenty first century by using some post baroque dance forms such as waltz, barcarolle, and mazurka. He even manages to further blur the lines of genre by penning an homage to rocker Rick Ocasek.

Rather than being intimidated or overwhelmed writing music which will inevitably invite comparisons with Bach, Chopin, Shostakovich, etc. Larrabee never overplays his hand and sticks to short, simple forms devoid of unnecessary complexity. These are pretty much etudes on how to write for banjo and they provide a tasteful, entertaining set of examples that can serve as a great starting point for future compositions and future composers interesting in writing for this unusual folk instrument. I can’t wait for volume two.

The banjo, best known in both black and white vernacular or folk music, traces its origins to west Africa and come to this country as a biproduct of the transatlantic slave trade which began in 1619. Similar instruments can be found in other countries whose participation in the slave trade brought people who subsequently constructed these instruments for their personal use.

Now the utility of Bullard’s instrument is being consciously expanded and welcomed more fully into a place in a genre to which it had not originally been intended. It works.

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

Thomas Kozumplik’s Percussion Symphony, “Child of the Earth”


This is a big work written expressly for these musicians and commissioned by conductor Jonathan Haas. It is titled percussion “symphony” which suggests a grand undertaking. It is the only work on the disc.

The composer, Tomas Kozumplik is an American composer unfamiliar to this writer and most likely to most listeners. Kozumplik is a percussionist and composer based in Brooklyn.  He is perhaps best known as a film composer but his interests and his collaborations reveal him to be embracing a wide variety of musical interests.His website is definitely worth your time as it describes this artist’s range.

This work is neither noisy modernism nor “lite classical”. It is almost neo-romantic at times as it lives up to the grand promise of its title. It is a great example of how to write for percussion. Indeed the genesis of this work lies partly in the collaborative. Kozumplik worked closely with the musicians to mold this work into its final form. Multiple listens reveal more of the structure and unity of this work.  It is not, strictly speaking, difficult music but it is also not simple either.

Indeed, as the titles suggest this piece has a sort of external program, “Child of the Earth” and the subtitle, “Un nino busca a Dios” (which my limited Spanish means, “A child looks to God”) are referred to in greater detail in each track. It’s not clear how these ideas are integrated musically it does couch this work in a sociopolitical genre. The music certainly works well by itself but astute listeners will want to be aware of the meaning these ideas have had for the composer’s and, doubtless, the performers whose intimate investment here is ultimately the joy in this release.

Wilhelmina Smith Plays Contemporary Solo Cello Works


img_2331

Ondine

The selection of repertoire suggests that this release is targeted Stan audience which enjoys contemporary solo cello music.  No pairing with earlier established warhorses such as Brahms Cello Sonatas, and no electronics either.  Just a highly skilled musician and her incredible technique navigating these relatively recent examples of this genre from two acknowledged living masters, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho.  It is a daring and unusual program for cellist Wilhelmina Smith but it works as a dazzling display of her skills.

Salonen is, of course, one of the best known composer conductors working today.  This reviewer’s only other exposure to Salonen’s work thus far has been the gorgeous Cello Concerto reviewed here.  No question that this is a name worthy of your attention.

And if you enjoy new music you will be familiar with Kaija Saariaho (1952- ).  Since she first burst on the scene in the early 1980s she has produced one success after another in pretty much all genres.  Like Salonen she is Finnish by birth but has taken her rightful place as an internationally renowned composer.

The performances are virtuosic and deeply felt. The complex range of sounds evoked are rich and stunning.  Highly recommended.

Grand Celebrations of Finnish Culture


BIS- 9048 SACD

 

The choice of repertoire, performers, and the quality of their recordings make any BIS records release worthy of attention.  This two disc set is a fine example.  Three major choral/orchestral works which celebrate the justly proud Finnish culture are given very fine performances in this live recording from 2016.

The earliest work, Jean Sibelius’ Kullervo Op. 7 (1892) is one of the less recognized masterpieces by Finland’s best known composer.  Based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, this massive symphony has acquired a bit of its own mythology.  Though several recordings of this work now exist the world world premiere recording by the late Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) from the early 1970s brought this neglected masterpiece to a larger listening audience.  The intelligent liner notes by Andrew Barnett (and Olli Kortekangas) document and dispel the myths that Sibelius suppressed all or portions of this work which was premiered in 1892 yet had to wait until after the composer’s death in 1957 to receive its first twentieth century performance.  

In fact it seems more likely that the large forces required along with programmers’ preference for the composer’s later masterpieces were responsible for the unfortunate neglect of the present work.  It was the more romantically inclined myth of mysterious oppression that greeted Berglund’s triumphant premiere recording and this reviewer recalls being both charmed and intrigued by it.  Whatever the story the music is now a recognized early triumph by its creator and it is given a gorgeous reading by Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, (principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra which plays powerfully and definitively.

So why a second disc?  Well, Maestro Vänskä saw fit to commission a new work by contemporary Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas to serve as a companion piece to Kullervo and, then include a version with chorus of Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia.  Together these three works would very satisfyingly fill an entire concert program.

Olli Kortekangas (1955- ) chose poetry by Finnish-American poet Sheila Packa and composed a 7 movement work (three are interludes for orchestra alone) in celebration of the 150th anniversary of modern Finnish migration to the United States.  The work, Migration (2014), is similar in orchestration with its use of male chorus and two soloists backed by a large orchestra.  The composer’s style is a sort of 21st century romantic style with tasteful modern touches.  

The focus of this fine new work is an affirmation of Finnish culture and its impact on the United States.  It seems both fitting and satisfying then that this program conclude with the landmark work of Finnish pride and nationalism, Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia (1899).  But rather than just another reading of this classic of the concert hall  Vänskä chooses to do a version with chorus.  This was not the composer’s original intent but this version fits remarkably well in the context of this album.  

This is a very enjoyable album, well conceived and executed in every way.  Soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Tommi Hakala sing their roles with skill and passion as does the YL Male Voice Choir.  The applause track at the end of the Finlandia performance echoed the emotional experience of this reviewer and will likely do so for anyone who chooses to avail themselves of this fine example of recording art.

Alberto Ginastera at 100


ginastera

Oberlin Conservatory OC 16-04

Let me start by saying that the only thing wrong with this album is that it is only one CD. Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) is without doubt one of the finest composers of the twentieth century.  Stylistically he holds much in common with composers like his contemporaries Aaron Copland (with whom he studied), Carlos Chavez, Leonard Bernstein and others who incorporated the spirit if not always the literal music of his homeland’s folk culture into his music.  In additional to these nationalist works he wrote a substantial amount of traditional concert music which touched on the edges of modernistic trends.

He wrote three operas, two ballets. two piano concertos, two cello concertos, a harp concerto, three string quartets, a bevy of piano music and sundry other items.  It is simply not possible to contain a fair representation of his work on a single CD.  Despite that this disc is not a bad retrospective.  It is lovingly played and recorded and if it does not represent the whole of Ginastera’s oeuvre it is a nice sampling.

The disc begins with the wonderful Harp Concerto Op. 25 (1956, rev. 1968).  Though originally commissioned by Edna Phillips (principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra) she had retired before she could perform it and it was premiered in 1965 by the amazing Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta.  This three movement work is certainly one of the composer’s finest works and is beautifully played by Yolanda Kondonassis with the Oberlin Orchestra under Raphael Jiménez.  This piece is one of the finest modern harp concertos and is representative of the composer’s international style with perhaps just a taste of modernism.

Next up is the single movement Pampeana Op. 16 (1947) with the great Gil Shaham on violin and his sister Orli Shaham on piano.  This is a sort of window on Ginastera’s earliest nationalist style full of melody and virtuosity.

The next work is the Sonata for Guitar Op. 47 (1976) played by Grammy winning virtuoso Jason Vieaux.  I had not heard this work and my first hearing was indeed a revelation.  This is a major work for guitar and a wonderful sonata in the classical form.  I gave these four tracks a few listens in an attempt to digest some of their beauty and complexity and I will doubtless give them many more listens.  This is a major piece that belongs in the repertory.

And, finally, we move to the earliest utterance here with the Danzas Argentinas Op. 2 (1937) in an exciting and dedicated performance from Orli Shaham.

The sound is wonderful and there are a geekily satisfying set of liner notes which include a useful analysis by James O’Leary, Frederick B. Selch Assistant Professor of Musicology, Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  All in all a beautiful production and a great introduction to Ginastera’s work but please, don’t stop here.  Make sure you get to hear his other work and perhaps the wonderful folks at Oberlin will consider a volume two?