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.

Rachel Barton Pine Restoring Neglected Masterpieces to the Repertoire: Dvorak and Khachaturian


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Avie AV-2411

Rachel Barton-Pine is one of the finest and most interesting performers working today.  Her unique look at the performing repertoire for her instrument continues to be one of the most salient features of her artistry.  Certainly her interpretive abilities are foremost but her choices of neglected repertoire make any release of her recordings a reason to pay close attention.

In the past she has recorded many a neglected piece based on her interest in the music.  She has featured black composers from the baroque to the present and has managed to resurrect unjustly neglected concerti from composers of pretty much every racial and national description.  Here she features two lovely seldom heard concertos.  The Dvorak concerto from 1789 and the Khachaturian concerto from 1941.  Both are major works and a challenge to the soloist and both fit pretty much into the late romantic genre (arguably that would be “post romantic” for the Khachaturian).

The present recording is released on the Avie label which is a progressive independent label which itself boasts an impressive selection of musical works in very fine performances.  This disc is a fine example of the work they do and is a great selection for the listener’s library.  These two concertos were popular in their day but have not seen inclusion in live performances or recordings as much as other romantic concertos.  One could speculate endlessly on why this is so or one could simply celebrate the fact that we are getting to hear them in these fine and definitive recordings.

The Dvorak from 1879 is as tuneful and entertaining as any of its contemporaries (Bruch, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, etc) but for whatever reason has not received as much attention.  Regardless of why this is so I would recommend just listening and drawing your own conclusions.  This three movement work is as challenging technically and as entertaining a concerto as any currently in regular performance.  This work is one of the finest examples of the high romanticism of the late 19th century and one hope this recording will help cement the piece into a more frequent visitor to both concert halls and recordings.

The Khachaturian (from 1940) began its life during the throes of the WWII under the oppressive political scrutiny of Josef Stalin and his regime.  Khachaturian, who is now recognized quite properly as an Armenian composer, was then subsumed into the mix of the vast gaggle of countries and cultures under the rubric of the USSR.  And while this is not particularly or obviously ethnic as other music from this region it is important to know that the composer’s identity was “Russian” by default and not by choice.  Regardless of those considerations one must be grateful for the fact that the oppressive regime was able to recognize a quality work (also one in three movements) and give it the “Stalin prize”.  Doubtless there are influences gleaned from the composer’s efforts to not offend the conservative tastes of the ruling elite but the bottom line here is that we have a true masterpiece of the concerto genre and one which deserves serious attention and continued performances.

The useful liner notes are by the soloist, a fact which spotlights her musicological interests and her ability to communicate with an audience verbally as well as musically.  In fact a quick perusal of Rachel’s web site will lead the interested to some of her more pedagogical efforts featuring scores of some of these lesser known masterpieces.

And, oh yes, there are large orchestral duties here too.  The wonderful Royal Scottish National Orchestra is led by the rising star conductor/composer Teddy Abrams who recently took over leadership of another supporter of new and/or neglected musics, the venerable Louisville Orchestra.  Founded in 1937 they have carried the torch for new music and celebrated the inclusion of all genders and ethnicities in their musical vision, an embodiment of the very intent of the phrase, “E Pluribus Unum” especially in this musical context.

All in all a great disc which is unlikely to duplicate anything in your collection but one to which you will doubtless return for sheer entertainment and joy.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

Contemporary Operatic Portraiture, Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs



I’m not sure who started the trend of so-called”portrait operas” but they seem to be on the increase.  Tech Icon Steve Jobs now has a portrait opera as well as a biopic, numerous documentaries, and at least one good biography.  And who better than music techie Mason Bates to write the opera?

So here we have what appears to have been a beautifully staged premiere of said work in a definitive performance by the always innovative Santa Fe Opera.  Steve Jobs is an icon of the tech industry and the business world and people want to hear about him even if it is a romanticization.

Bates is ideally suited to the task and this is likely to get multiple performances.  Of course a video would be a more ideal document but probably prohibited by cost.  This is an eminently listenable work and the enthusiasm of this live audience serves to underscore this reviewer’s personal response to this performance.

There are eight roles (one role is silent), a large orchestra augmented but never overwhelmed by electronics.  The electronics also serves in a metaphorical way to paint a sonic picture of this tech hero.  It also helps remind us that we are in the 21st century in every way.

The cast includes Kelly Markgraf, Edward Parks, Saha Cooke, Wei Wu, Maria Kaganskaya, Johah Sorenson, Garrett Sorensen, Jessica E. Jones, ensemble soloists (I’m guessing that means, “choir”) consisting of Adelaide Boedecker, Adam Bonanni, Kristen Choi, Thaddeus Ennen, Andrew Maughan, Corrie Stallings, and Tyler Zimmerman with the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra marvelously held together by conductor Michael Christie.

Librettist Mark Campbell has an impressive resume and this is an admirable addition to an already impressive list of dramatic successes. Photos of the production in the wonderful booklet which contains the libretto and background information show some visually a creative production. Computer screen shots of Jobs’ various products serve as background and the staging appears to make a few nods to Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, its obvious progenitor.

Only time will tell the ultimate place this work will occupy historically but we can definitely enjoy this really entertaining piece.

Collider, The Marvelous Music of Daniel Bjarnason






This is the second album I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing by this wonderfully talented composer and conductor from Iceland. The other album which put his name forever into my watch list was Recurrence. Daniel Bjarnason conducted on that recording which features his work as well as that of fellow Icelandic composers.

The present release is also conducted by Bjarnason and features three amazing works by this young composer and conductor. The works include, “Blow Bright” (2013) for orchestra, “The Isle is Full of Noises” (2012) for chorus and orchestra, and the title work, “Collider” (2015).

Blow Bright and Collider are performed by the lucid Icelandic Symphony. They are joined by the Hamrahild Choir for the three movement, Isle Full of Noises. The recording is also listener friendly (with detail that sent this listener to find headphones to hear them).

It is a mark of genius that this composer already has a clearly defined sound all his own. Hearing these left this listener wanting to hear these pieces again and to hear more of this man’s work.

Blow Bright and Collider are significant contributions to the modern orchestral repertoire and Isle Full of Noises is an opportunity to hear Bjarnason’s vocal writing with orchestra. This listener, no surprise was charmed. His facility in melodic invention, judicious use of modern harmonies make for very listener friendly music that challenge gently but always entertain. Classical music is alive and well…at least in Iceland.