I thought I knew this music. After falling in love with György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) work having heard it so aptly used in Stanley Kubrick’s, “2001: A Space Odyssey” I eagerly purchased both of the complete works surveys on Sony and Telefunken but these fresh, insightful performances by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble under conductor Marcus Creed have made me fall in love again. And, while I have some familiarity with Zoltán Kodály’s (1882-1967) music (he is underappreciated) I did not know his unaccompanied choral works. So this encounter was an absolute revelation.
This release succeeds on several levels. First, it is one of the always reliably fine productions from Lars Hannibal’s OUR Recordings. So, from the physical design to and the the choices of repertoire and performers as well as the sound of the recording, this is a thoroughly enjoyable experience for the listener.
But what brings this release from competent to outstanding is the interpretive skillset of conductor Marcus Creed and the disciplined Danish National Vocal Ensemble. These are fresh, insightful readings that shed new light on these masterful composers and their work. Looking at Creed’s extensive discography it is clear that he commands a wide range of repertoire with a penchant for the twentieth century and beyond. His reading of Ernst Krenek’s massive 12 tone contrapuntal a capella masterpiece from 1941-2, “Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae” Op. 93 remains perhaps this challenging work’s finest interpretation in the 1995 Harmonia Mundi recording and a personal favorite of this reviewer. So it should come as no surprise that he is able to breathe new life into these works.
The opening work is probably the most familiar here. Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (1966) was first thrust into the spotlight via its (unpermitted at the time) inclusion is the Kubrick film. This is mid-career Ligeti and one of the most effective uses of his “micropolyphony” and cluster chord harmonies. It is first heard in the Clavius Moonbase scene fairly early in the film. It accompanies the otherwise silent animation of a sort of space shuttle bus as it glides along the lunar surface. Along with the Kyrie of Ligeti’s 1965 Requiem and his orchestral “Atmospheres” (1961) work beautifully in telling the story in this film with its well known paucity of dialogue.
This opening track grabbed my attention immediately. The text, which appears in the traditional Catholic Mass and Requiem Mass is a communion hymn with the following words:
May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy Saints for evermore: for Thou art gracious. Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them: With Thy Saints for evermore, for Thou art gracious.
But the experience of this music is positively otherworldly. Its wall of sound ambiance belies a rather complex construction which has become a landmark in the development of compositional practice. And it is vitally that this music, now nearly synonymous with the film, be heard as originally intended. It exists in both worlds now and this reading helps reaffirm it as the masterpiece it is.
The next six tracks are by Ligeti but this is the Ligeti still composing under the powerful spell of Bela Bartok. All date from 1955 but are a quantum leap back from the sound world of the first track. The two brief a capella choruses (the second includes solos for bass and soprano voices) are settings of words by Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres (1913-1989). These settings are ostensibly influenced by the composer’s early encounter with modern music in Vienna (Ligeti ultimately relocated from the artistically and socially oppressive Hungary to Austria). The second of these choruses had to wait until 1968 for a performance which provides some notion of how oppressive the Hungarian regime had been.
Those brief choruses are followed by four folksong settings which take the listener back into the sound world of Bartok and Kodaly with their respective folksong transcriptions. These are very enjoyable travels into Ligeti’s excellent but markedly more conservative beginnings.
Next is another Ligeti work but one from his later years demonstrating that he never stopped evolving as a composer. The “Three Fantasies after Friederich Holderlin” (1982) are themselves a quantum leap stylistically from the 1966 Lux Aeterna. These are also more complex settings and, suffice it to say, they are a powerful experience. What was micropolyphony in the earlier work is replaced by a more traditional style of polyphonic writing but one that could not exist were it not for those earlier efforts.
And then we come further back again to early and mid-career Kodaly in three a capella works, “Evening Song” (1938), “Evening” (1904), and “Matra Pictures” (1931). I say at the beginning of this review that I believe Kodaly’s music to be underappreciated. Indeed but I find myself with no excuse given the easy availability of so much music on You Tube and other online sources. And this is why the inclusion of this fascinating selection of the composer’s significant cache of a capella choral music is so very welcome.
Like, I suppose, many listeners I mostly know Kodaly’s work via his Peacock Variations and excerpts from his opera, “Hary Janos”. Of course I had also been aware of Kodaly’s pedagogy and his methods for learning music (and I was aware even before I saw it in “Close Encounters).
But my encounter with these fine choral works revealed to me the depth of the composer’s skills. This is marvelously written music by a composer intimately familiar with this medium and it has already sent me to exploring more of this composer’s work in all genres. It is not difficult to see Kodaly’s work as a logical predecessor to that of Ligeti. he same skill and invention the same ability to convincingly set text to music. This is a terrific release, highly recommended to lovers of choral music in general and, of course, of these two composers.
Gail Thompson Kubik (1914-1984) was born in Oklahoma, educated at the Eastman School of Music, Chicago’s American Conservatory (where he studied with Leo Sowerby), and Harvard (where he studied with Walter Piston). He is also among the long list of composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger.
Kubik joined NBC radio in 1940 and was music director for the Office of War Information where he composed and conducted music for their Motion Picture Bureau. He taught at Monmouth College, Columbia Teacher’s College (now Columbia University), and Scripps College.
To this writer’s ears his style is similar to that of Aaron Copland (14 years his senior) and contemporaries who included jazz influences in a mid-century post romantic tonal fabric. The pieces recorded here are roughly contemporary with Stravinsky’s neoclassical era and similar gestures can be heard in them. Carl Stalling’s music is also a likely influence.
Doubtless Kubik’s film work for the war department helped contribute to his success in a basically populist style which served him well. And also like Copland, he wrote for the concert hall producing 3 Symphonies, Violin Concertos for Jascha Heifetz and Ruggiero Ricci along with other orchestral works, chamber music, and two operas.
The present recording is focused on his post war concert music. Four works are presented here, from his Dr. Seuss collaboration of 1950 for narrator, orchestra, and percussion, “Gerald Mc Boing Boing” (possibly the only example from this era in which the music preceded the cartoon film), his two Divertimenti for diverse chamber groups (1958 and 1959), to his best known work, the Symphony Concertante for Piano, Trumpet, and Viola which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1952. (Without doing any research I would venture to say that this is a unique combination of solo instruments). Soloists Vivian Choi (piano), Terry Everson (trumpet), and Jing Peng (viola) handle the challenging solo parts with confidence and skill. This new realization alone is a reason to purchase this disc.
Like Copland and other film composers Kubik repurposed some of his film music as a source for his concert music. Without getting too much into the musicological analysis, the composer himself has related that the Symphony Concertante was repurposing of the music he wrote for the low budget noir film, “C-Man” (1949) which starred Dean Jagger and John Carradine, among others.
The two divertimenti for diverse chamber ensembles are like baroque suites consisting of brief pithy movements. They are analogous to works like Copland’s too seldom heard Music for the Theater (1925) with jazzy rhythms and harmonies throughout. Their unusual groupings of instruments likely limit the occasions on which they might be performed live so these recordings are very welcome.
The “Gerald Mc Boing Boing” cartoon took on a life of its own following its concert presentation, spawning a series of shorts furthering the myth of the title character. And during the research for this review I was fascinated to learn that the famed film sound designer, Walter Murch, once revealed that he was sometimes known by the nickname of that character due to an analogous childhood affectation. In addition, many actors voiced the narrator in the the many recordings that have been made of the purely audio recording as heard here. The demands of the narration are similar to those of the soloists in the concertante work. Narrator Frank Kelley delivers a performance that makes this very much his own, using it as a springboard to which he applies his skills as a voice actor. He really seems to enjoy himself here.
Much of Kubik’s music has been recorded before but not for some time, so this release by masterful curator and conductor Gil Rose and his incredibly talented ensemble, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project is a very welcome revival of this very talented and technically skilled composer. The four works on this recording may be a reasonable sampling of some of Kubik’s best work but it would be hard to say that it is a complete portrait without hearing some of the composer’s other large concert works. Mr. Rose and his musicians have shown a tendency to release more than one disc of one of these nearly forgotten composers so listeners charmed by these may anticipate more such gems in, the future, that is, if other ensembles don’t beat them to the punch. Either way this is a very welcome installment in BMOP’s ongoing survey of music that simply deserves to be heard because it’s good.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
Laura Kaminsky (1956- ) is a native New Yorker and has plied her trade there for some time. So how does she wind up on a label so intimately dedicated to Chicago music and musicians? Well, the answer is simple, Ursula Oppens. Oppens (a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) is also a New Yorker but her 14 year tenure as Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University (1994-2008) certainly qualifies her as a valued Chicago artist. Realistically she is a highly accomplished and world renowned musician with an admirable history of supporting new music through her many definitive performances and recordings. With the exception of Fantasy, all the music here was commissioned by and/or written for Ursula Oppens, (Reckoning written for Oppens and Lowenthal destined for this recording).
This very welcome disc features three major works: Piano Quintet (2018), Fantasy (2010), and Piano Concerto (2011). as well as Reckoning: Five Miniatures for America (2019), a set of miniatures for piano four hands. As noted on the back cover, all are world premiere recordings. And these are very fine, actually definitive recordings. The Quintet, Fantasy, and Reckoning were all recorded at Brooklyn College, the concerto at Arizona State University. All were produced by the wonderful Judith Sherman and mastering was done by the equally wonderful Bill Maylone.
While Kaminsky works in a largely tonal post-modern idiom, this is not populist music, rather it is music by an accomplished composer who works well within such a medium. Her work is compelling and intriguing as well as entertaining.
Let’s start with the Piano Quintet. This medium is strongly associated with the romantic era. Piano Quintets by the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms largely define the genre and there are many lesser known examples which were produced well into the early 20th century. The genre seems to be enjoying a re-emergence and even modernists like Elliott Carter and Iannis Xenakis have penned masterworks in this form.
Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet is very much in the classical/romantic style. It is cast in three movements some of which reflect the variety of influences in her compositional palette. Her compositional skills allow her to evoke pretty much whatever emotion she chooses. Her style shows influences and echoes from classical forms, jazz, pop, minimalism all integrated into a largely tonal/post romantic style which easily engages listeners and manages to be highly expressive. The three movements are generally modeled on classical forms but Kaminsky manages to personalize her wide stylistic gestures and create a work that is celebratory rather than derivative. That said this piece is quite a ride for the listener as well as a significant addition to the repertory.
The Fantasy is a large and challenging work which ventures through a variety of styles and moods. This is a big work whose pianism reminds this writer of Rzewski and his rather Lisztian virtuosity. It might as easily be called, “rhapsody” for its rapid transitions of mood and style. Oppens manages to give form to this complex piece that does not appear to be easily interpreted by any but the best musicians.
The five miniatures that comprise Reckoning are brief but powerful statements written for Oppens and her sometime collaborator, Jerome Lowenthal, another highly skilled artist whose collaboration on a previous Cedille release, the Rzewski “People United” variations. These two are a good match of technical skills as well as interpretive ability.
The concerto is the big work here. Cedille saves the best for last notwithstanding the preceding masterful compositions. Here in a large orchestral piece with piano, Kaminsky demonstrates even more clearly her facility with instrumental colors which she uses to great effect in this grand concerto.
It is a piano concerto very much in the tradition of the classical soloist/orchestra which features the pianistic skills of the soloist. The orchestral “accompaniment”, if one can even call it by that name, derives more from the grand romantic tradition utilizing a large orchestra to which is given the role of coordinating with the pianist. But here the orchestra is given technical challenges nearly equal to the solo piano part. This is as grand as a Brahms concerto with the orchestra given a great deal to do and for the listener to enjoy. In addition to the nearly athletic, fingerbusting piano part, there are delightful passages in the orchestral playing that sort of sneak up on and charm the listener.
Kaminsky’s Piano Concerto was reportedly inspired by visual images of sunlit rivers in New York City and St. Petersburg, Russia. Oppens gave the world premiere with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic led by its artistic director Jeffery Meyer. On this world-premiere recording, Meyer, who is also director of orchestras at Arizona State University, conducts the ASU Symphony Orchestra and, like Oppens, meets a very challenging task with both grace and insight.
Kaminsky is a solid, disciplined composer who produces music of substance which intelligently engages audiences. This is a fine introduction to her work or a fine addition to an already established collection of her music. Her music was unknown to this writer’s ears before hearing this album and now leaves me wanting to explore more of the work of this fine American composer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/
Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)
Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.
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.
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).
That’s it. Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.
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.
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.
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.
This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming. No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Since her debut in the mid 1970s Michala Petri has proven herself as one of the great masters of the recorder. The recorder is an instrument which, until the 20th century was pretty much only heard in music written before 1750 or so. Many previous masters such as David Munrow and Franz Brüggen restricted their playing to early music. Petri has certainly broken that mold. She has mastered baroque, renaissance and contemporary music for her instrument as her recent releases demonstrate. And her skills as a musician have only grown stronger and more convincing.
This disc is her celebration of American music for the recorder. We hear four 21st century concerti for the recorder. Composers include Roberto Sierra (1953- ), Steven Stucky (1949-2016), Anthony Newman (1941- ), and (a new name to this reviewer) Sean Hickey (1970- ). These are fine compositions but they are basically mainstream sort of neo-romantic/neo-classical/neo-baroque works. These are all finely crafted compositions but nothing here is experimental. Despite the names all are basically concerti which highlight the interplay between soloist and ensemble. Therein lies the joy.
The disc begins with Roberto Sierra (1953- ) wrote his “Prelude, Habanera, and Perpetual Motion (2016) as an expansion of an earlier recorder and guitar piece but, obviously, with a great deal of expansion and orchestration. Despite its colorful title the work is basically a concerto and a fine one at that. Petri here performs with the Tivoli Copenhagen Philharmonic under Alexander Shelley. From Sierra’s web page there is a link to a video of the premiere here. Sierra, born in Puerto Rico, affirms his skills as a composer in this exciting work.
Next up is music of the late Steven Stucky (1949-2016) sadly known almost as much for his recent demise as for his compositions. However Petri’s performance of his “Etudes” (2000) for recorder and orchestra goes a long way to affirming some of the gravity of the talent we lost and the wonderful legacy he left. The Danish National Symphony under Lan Shui do a fine job of handling the complex orchestral accompaniment and Petri shines as always. This concerto is in three movements titled: Scales, Glides, and Arpeggios respectively.
Anthony Newman (1941- ) is a name that must be familiar to classical recording buyers in the late 1970s into the 1980s when Newman’s exciting recordings of Bach dominated record sales. It is no wonder that he composed an essentially neo-baroque concerto pitting the recorder against an ensemble consisting of a harpsichord (deliciously played by Newman) and a string quartet (in this case the Nordic String Quartet). Clearly a more suitable sized ensemble that might have been used in the 18th century. This is the only piece on this album that is actually called a concerto by its composer. Concerto for recorder, harpsichord, and strings (2016) in four movements (Toccata, Devil’s Dance, Lament, and Furie) shows this performer, musicologist, and composer at the height of his powers in this lovingly crafted work.
Last (and certainly not least as the cliché goes) least is by a composer unfamiliar to this reviewer, Sean Hickey (1970- ) is also the youngest composer here. His A Pacifying Weapon (2015) is subtitled, “Concerto for Recorder, Winds, Brass, Percussion and Harp” which tells you about the rather gargantuan dimensions of his work. While not representing a specific “program” the work is the only one on this CD that espouses some political content. The title reflects the composer’s desire to use this concerto to represent some of his response to “current events”. The three movements are simply numbered 1, 2, and 3. I can only begin to imagine the problems of balancing the little recorder against such a huge and loud ensemble but the Royal Danish Academy of Music under conductor Jean Thorel are clearly up to the task.
Hickey originally hails from Detroit and is now based in New York. A quick perusal of his web page suggests that listeners like your humble reviewer have much to hear from this up and coming young composer.
All these are world premiere recordings which show Michala Petri at the height of her powers. Indeed she is an international treasure whose instrumental skills and her range of repertory continue to amaze and entertain her audience. The recording under Lars Hannibal’s direction is, as usual, lucid and very listenable. Joshua Cheeks liner notes save this writer a great deal of research time and pretty much answered all this listener’s questions.
Happy listening all. This recording has it going on at many levels.
This is the third work in a series which began with Become River (2010). It remains to be seen if this series will be capped as a trilogy or will go on to further installments but, for this reviewer the very name of John Luther Adams (1953- ) has a strong positive bias. I have been a fan since I first heard Songbirdsongs (1974-80) in its original Opus One release. Though I have not followed all of his most recent work I was again drawn in in a big way with his Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean (2013).
J.L. Adams is generally speaking a post minimalist composer to the extent that such categories matter. He is without a doubt the highest profile composer at the moment to focus so much on the natural world and his web site linked above is a fine guide to his recordings and listings of works yet to get such documentation.
Become Desert (2018) is a truly welcome installment in this prolific composer’s oeuvre. It is a one track CD but one would be at a loss to make any divisions by dividing this recording in tracks. The work is a coherent whole much in the spirit of his previous work but distinct in its sound world as are all of his pieces (at least that this reviewer has heard). It is a slowly unfolding work with a large orchestra and chorus used judiciously and softly. The Seattle Symphony and Chorus under Ludovic Morlot (who also premiered Become Ocean) are at the height of their interpretive powers and the recording is first rate.
The release also contains a DVD featuring some of Adams’ stunning photography along with the music is a nice feature but the music also works well all by itself. Reviewing this CD will doubtless find me “preaching to the choir” to the established fans of the composer but it will likely help him find and even wider audience. Much has already been written about this disc so let me just say it is beautiful and, hearing it in your favorite relaxed setting without distraction, is a calming and spiritual experience.
ADDENDUM: I usually publish the text of my reviews on the Amazon website. Given what I tend to review mine is usually the first and frequently the only review. So be it. Though not shocked I was a little surprised to find no reviews as of 6/21/2019 and the invitation link titled, “Be the first to review this item”. I guess that chorus to whom I imagined I preached might not shop on Amazon.
The staging was simple and practical but nonetheless imposing for this third and last OM 24 concert series. Imagine four Steinway concert grand pianos arranged in a semicircle with a conductor and a music stand at the apex. The heavy black curtain at the back served to emphasize the instruments and the musicians in a visually standard concert presentation.
But, and this is significant, pianos 2 and 4 (looking stage left to stage right) had been tuned down 1/4 step. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Callahan of Piedmont Pianos (who provided the instruments for this event). When I inquired about this he replied quickly and authoritatively, “From stage left to right, pianos 1 and 3 are A 440 (concert pitch) and the others are tuned down 1/4 step. When there are two pianos the one stage left is concert pitch and the one on the right tuned down.”
If you have any familiarity with the piano keyboard you know that there are black keys and white keys which correspond to the twelve divisions of the octave (from middle C to C) common to most western music. A quarter tone is half way from the note you hear when you hit a white key and the note you hear if you hit the adjacent black key. Ivan Wyschnegradsky was not the first person to seek more divisions to create the sound he sought. 1/4 tones are common in some middle eastern cultures but not seen in western music much before the twentieth century.
Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979) was a Russian born composer who spent much of his creative years in Paris. It was there that tonight’s producer, Charles Amirkhanian and his wife Carol Law met him and learned of his work. This concert along with the first OM 24 concert heard in March by the Arditti String Quartet (reviewed here) constitute a lovely revival of this unjustly forgotten composer as well as a personal connection to this “missing link” in music history.
Charles Amirkhanian addressing the small but enthusiastic audience.
While some of this composer’s work uses the conventional western music scales (examples were present in this concert) his extensive work with other tunings necessarily limited performances of his music. That, along with his rhythmic complexities, limited the amount of performances he would be able to receive. One hopes that these concerts will spur further interest in his work.
The program booklet, prepared under the direction of Other Minds production director Mark Abramson, contains a wealth of information, knowledge and photographs. You can download a PDF file of the program here. It is a gorgeous production loaded with information for further exploration.
One might have expected 1/4 tones to create a very dissonant harmony but the surprise tonight was that the harmonies sounded like an extension of the work of Debussy and the impressionist composers. Rather than harsh sounds, much of this music comes across like an impressionist painting might sound if it were music. Tuning is a whole subject unto itself and a good resource can be found in the web pages by another Other Minds alumnus, Kyle Gann. His extensive information on the subject can be found here.
The concert opened with Cosmos Op. 28 (1939-40, rev. 1945) for 4 pianos. It is unusual to see a conductor at a multiple piano concert but the logistics of performance required a conductor to guide them through the complexities of rhythm and even the complex use of sustain pedals. The pianists Sarah Gibson, Thomas Kotcheff, Vicki Ray, and Steven Vanhauwaert were ably led by conductor Donald Crockett. This was a US premiere.
Overall the music has echoes of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Debussy, and Schoenberg (from his pre 12 tone days). This large work, according to the program notes, does not have a specific program, rather it is a grand exploration of densities and registers. It does have a cinematic quality that suggests a program.
Martine Joste receives a bouquet as Donald Crockett looks on.
Next on the program was Étude sur le carré Op. 40 (1934, rev. 1960-70) for solo piano (another US premiere). The French title translates as “Study on the Musical Magic Square”. It is a reference to the structure of the piece which involves repetitions of melodic sequences analogous to the magic square with words or numbers. What is important is the musicality of course and Martine Joste played it with passion and intensity providing the audience with a performance that sounds absolutely definitive. Her amazing technique at the keyboard and her focus on this music truly brought life to this technically difficult piece.
Joste is a master pianist and president of the Association Ivan Wyschnegradsky and has been active in the performance of contemporary music along with the better known classical canon of works. She would appear in the second half of the program.
If you are exploring the limits of composition with a new technique it makes sense to write some music that will demonstrate that technique. Much as Bach wrote his Well Tempered Clavier to showcase the (now standard) well tempered tuning. So Wyschnegradsky composed his 24 Preludes Op. 22a (1934 rev. 1960-70) to demonstrate his ideas.
Shot of the two piano stage set up. Remember the concert pitch instrument is stage left.
It was from this collection that we next heard Preludes Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19, 20, 23, and 24 played by the performing duo Hocket. As if they are not busy enough as solo pianists (and composers in their own right) Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff perform as a duo. The link to their work in that area can provide more information,
Sarah Gibson (l) and Thomas Kotcheff (r) performing as the Hocket Duo
They managed to navigate the complexities of these pieces nimbly, as though they had been playing them all their lives. It certainly sparked this listener’s curiosity about the remaining preludes which we did not hear on this night.
Again the 1/4 tones sounded strange to western ears at times but never really harsh.
Following intermission the usual OM raffle of various prizes were drawn. As if the fates intervened the colorful Ivan Wyschnegradsky clock went to master microtonalist John Schneider, another OM alumnus. This clock is available in the Other Minds Store along with a cache of really interesting CDs, clothing, etc.
The four pianists, Gibson, Kotcheff, Ray, and Vanhauwaert again teamed up for a performance of Étude sur les mouvements rotatoires, Op. 45 (1961, rev. 1963). This time they performed without a conductor. Here the magic square becomes a magic octagon, at least metaphorically. This is another example of using extramusical principles applied to organize music differently. And again, as in the previous pieces, the harmonies were friendly and actually quite beautiful.
Mme. Joste returned to the stage for a solo performance (and the third US premiere) of Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 38: Prelude (1957), Elévation (1964), and Solitude (1959). Again we were treated to virtuosity and a seemingly definitive performance. The title puts one in the mind of Schoenberg and his voice, along with that of Messiaen, Debussy, et al were present. What was striking was her energetic and fluid performance which made the notes on the page (Joste performed from traditional paper scores, not the iPads used by the others) come alive in a delightful way.
The stage had to be reconfigured for the final piece, another 4 piano work which took perhaps a minute or two. Mr. Crockett again led these young and enthusiastic performers in Ainsi parlait Zarathustra, an early work which was originally written for a quarter tone piano played by six hands(such things do exist), a quarter tone harmonium (4 hands), a quarter tone clarinet, string ensemble, and percussion. This score has been lost but we heard the 4 piano transcription tonight. It is a sprawling work with four defined sections much like a symphony. The movements are titled Tempo Giusto, Scherzando, Lento, and Allegro con fuoco.
This piece takes its title from the same Nietszsche novel that inspired Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or, in English, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. Only Wyschnegradsky’s Zarathustra seems more pained and less the romantic hero of Strauss’ 1896 orchestral work.
Wyschnegradsky’s piece is virtually a symphony and, though one can scarcely imagine how the now lost orchestration might have sounded, there was still a grand romantic sweep to it. With a scherzo worthy of Bruckner the piece was a coherent whole with the last movement recapitulating, if not literally, the spirit of the fire dance that ended the first movement. This was also a premiere and surely another definitive performance of a true masterpiece.
On this night we witnessed nothing short of a resurrection of the art of a very important 20th century composer. The audience, like the performers were enthusiastic in their response.
The attention paid to women composers remains much less than it should be but releases like this latest on Cedille features the Chicago Sinfonietta (Chicago’s second professional orchestra established in 1987 and sporting programs distinctly different from that of the Chicago Symphony) are incrementally correcting that error. Here for your listening pleasure is a disc with five world premieres, all by female composers, and a world class orchestra conducted by a female conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. (They also boast that on average the Sinfonietta is 47% women. Is there an orchestra that can match that?).
With the exception of Florence Price (1887-1953) all are living composers on this release. The others (who were commissioned by the Sinfonietta to write these pieces) include Clarice Assad (1978- ), Jessie Montgomery (1981- ), Reena Esmail (1983- ), and Jennifer Higdon (1962- ). Montgomery and Esmail are new names to this reviewer. Assad and Higdon are generally well known and very accomplished. Higdon is the second woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in music (the first was Ellen Taafe Zwilich) and Florence Price is enjoying something of a posthumous revival with recent recordings of several of her larger works and the recent discovery of some of her scores long thought lost.
This disc is pretty much representative of Cedille’s mission to record new music and a selection of older music featuring largely Chicago musicians. This label has done great service in promoting the music of women and other minority groups and has exposed the record buying/listening public to musical gems that otherwise would languish in that minority wasteland of music which remains unperformed due to sociopolitical rather than aesthetic reasons.
This is one of their finest releases. It is a nice survey of 20/21st century women composers (just a small sampling but an intelligent one) from the early twentieth century to the present. The works are given definitive readings by a fine ensemble and a clearly accomplished insightful conductor.
The late great Paul Freeman (from Chicago Symphony web site)
The disc opens with music which serves both the theme of presenting women composers and the desire to do honor to the Chicago Sinfonietta’s founding conductor, the late Dr. Paul Freeman. His advocacy of the music of black composers began with the groundbreaking Columbia release (now Sony) of music by black composers and continued the series on Cedille (African Heritage Symphonic Series: CDR 90000 055, CDR 90000 061, CDR 90000 066 followed by the Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson disc CDR 90000 087). The disc opens with a set of piano pieces by Ms. Price (Dances in the Canebreaks, 1952) which were orchestrated by no less than the dean of Black American composers, William Grant Still. These three friendly, light hearted dances will remind listeners of the sort of fare that characterized the jazz inflected classical idioms of the time, a tradition which also gave birth to Rhapsody in Blue.
Clarice Assad (from composer’s web site)
Next up is Sin Fronteras (2017) by the Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad. She comes from the well known musical family which includes her father, guitarist and composer Sergio Assad. Her work has a tinge of Aaron Copland and works well as a follow up to the opening track. She, like Still, seems to have an impressive command of the orchestra which she handles with tremendous skill in this overall light hearted piece.
Jessie Montgomery (from the composer’s web site)
Jessie Montgomery (1981- ) is a new name to this reviewer but a look at her well organized web page reveals an astoundingly accomplished young musician. Her Coincident Dreams (2017) follows in the American traditions of including folk music in her compositions. Here her material includes non-American folk musics blended into a lucid listenable score that marks her as a musician worth watching.
As with Assad we hear a composer who is comfortable with the sprawling pallet of the modern orchestra where she manages to make the best use of her materials in an entertaining orchestral work.
Reena Esmail (from composer’s web site)
Reena Esmail (1983- ) is another name new to this reviewer. She is the only artist here to have two works on this CD. The first is a traditional Hindustani piece called Charukeshi Bandish in which she sings the vocal part. Like many of the composers here she draws on her own cultural heritage and has managed to incorporate these traditions into her more (western) classically oriented works. In fact she does so in the next track with #metoo (2017), a piece in which she expresses both solidarity and rage at the mistreatment of women worldwide. Here’s some uncomfortable activism for the concert hall whose time is certainly due.
Jennifer Higdon (NYT photo)
The disc concludes with perhaps the best known living American woman composer, Jennifer Higdon. In addition to being a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music, Higdon is a prolific composer whose work has been heard in concert and opera houses world wide. Her post-romantic style has made her work popular in concert halls and the depth of her musical invention continues to amaze. Her five movement “Dance Card” (2017) harkens back to the lighthearted dance music which opened this recording. But it is tinged with a depth of emotion which reflects not only her personal vision but her solidarity with women world wide, people who would not need a special feature release but for their gender and racial differences which have marginalized them historically. This release goes a long way to shifting that trend. It’s a gorgeous record.
Perhaps this is a stroke of marketing genius or maybe some luck is involved but this recording has success written all over it. Yo-Yo Ma is without a doubt one of the finest musicians of our time. The LA Philharmonic is a world class orchestra with a world class conductor at the helm. And though this is but the first encounter by this reviewer with Salonen’s music this work suggests that his compositional skills are at a similar level.
There is but one work on this disc, a large and very listenable cello concerto which dates from 2016. While the work is clearly modern in its style overall it leans toward romantic and impressionistic textures. Using his conductor’s mastery of the orchestra Salonen traverses territory that embraces the sound of composers such as Ives, Messiaen, Debussy, Barber, etc. Listeners will find familiar gestures but this work is not at all derivative. Rather it ultimately sounds like a complex but very connected improvisation between the soloist and the orchestra neither of whom have easy tasks (though they all play flawlessly).
The rather brief program booklet is basically a program note by the composer/conductor and it is most lucid. It might have been nice to hear as well from Mr. Ma but that is aminor criticism. This is a gorgeous piece given a characteristically powerful performance and this writer was simply enthralled from beginning to end. Now I guess it’s time to look into more of this man’s music.
I’m skeptical about year end lists but I have enough people asking me that it would be impertinent to skip this task. I make no claims to having even listened to enough to make any definitive statements about the “best” but I have my own quirky criteria which I hope at least stirs interest. Here goes.
Let’s start with the most read reviews. Without a doubt the prize here goes to Tim Brady’s “Music for Large Ensemble”. This reviewer was enthralled by this recording by this Canadian musician whose work needs to be better known.
This little gem was sent to me by a producer friend and I liked it immediately. I knew none of these composers but I enjoyed the album tremendously. Don’t let the unusual name “Twiolins” stop you. This is some seriously good music making. It is my sleeper of the year.
Running close behind the Twiolins is the lovely album of post minimalist miniatures by the wonderful Anne Akiko Meyers. Frequently these named soloist albums of miniatures are targeted at a “light music” crowd. Well this isn’t light music but it is quite listenable and entertaining.
The creative programming and dedicated playing made this a popular review to New Music Buff readers. Definitely want to hear more from the Telegraph Quartet.
Another disc sent by my friend Joshua. This one is a DVD/CD combo of music by a composer whose existence was only revealed to me a couple of years ago. Marin includes a clever animated video which accompanies the title track.
I was fortunate enough to have been able to hear Terry Riley and Gloria Cheng in an all Terry Riley program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Both were in spectacular form and the audience was quite pleased.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the fabulous 6 night series of concerts produced by Other Minds. This is why I am a rabid advocate of OM programs. More on that soon with OM 24 coming up.
And lastly I want to tell you about two more composers who are happily on my radar.
One of the joys of reviewing CDs is the discovery of new artists to follow. Harold Meltzer is now in that group for me. This basically tonal composer has a real feel for writing for the voice and has turned out some seriously interesting chamber music.
Another composer unknown to these ears. I bristle at the term “electroacoustic” because it sometimes means experimental or bad music. Not so here. Moe is fascinating. Definitely worth your time.
OK, gonna can the objectivity here to say that this is possibly the most underappreciated album I’ve heard this year. Combining a recording of the Debussy Preludes along with Schoenberg’s rarely heard “Hanging Gardens”, Webern’s Variations, and Berg’s Piano Sonata creates a picture of a moment in history when music moved from impressionism to expressionism. Jacob Greenberg is very much up to the task. Buy this one and listen, please. It’s wonderful.
Also beyond objectivity is this fascinating major opus by Kyle Gann. It didn’t get much recognition on my blog but it’s a major work that deserves your attention if you like modern music.
Well this is one of my favorite reviews in terms of the quality of my writing. The work is most wonderful as well. Though this review was actually published on December 31st I’m still including it in my 2018.
This is definitely cheating on my part but after that concert at Yerba Buena I can’t resist making folks aware of this wonderful set on the independent label, “Irritable Hedgehog”. Trust me, if you like Riley, you need this set.
I review relatively few books on this site but by far the most intriguing and important book that has made it across my desk to this blog is Gay Guerilla. The efforts of Mary Jane Leach, Renee Levine Packer, Luciano Chessa, and others are now helping to establish an understanding of this composer who died too young. Here’s looking forward to next year.
I know I have left out a great deal in this quirky year end selection but I hope that I have not offended anyone. Peace and music to all.
The Louisville Orchestra was established in 1937 and its history has been wonderfully told in a 2010 documentary entitled, Music Makes a City. Since their founding they released about 150 LPs containing new and interesting music not available anywhere else. Many of those recordings have become available on the Albany CD label but the orchestra hasn’t released a new recording in about 30 years.
Along comes new music director, composer, clarinetist Teddy Abrams and now we are graced with a new recording on the Decca Gold label. Now for a reboot this release is somewhat conservative in it’s musical choices but that’s not to say it isn’t interesing. This recording, released also in commemoration of the orchestra’s 80th season, reflects a sincere effort to draw younger audiences to the concert hall.
This auspicious release contains as its opening Abrams’ Unified Field, a finely crafted four movement work that channels the late Aaron Copland and his ilk. It’s style is inflected with elements of jazz and other so called “vernacular” music but it incorporates those styles in much the way that Copland and his contmporaries incorporated folk song as well as jazz/pop rhythms. It is virtually a symphony in its dimensions and is highly entertaining while remaining seriously classical and very finely crafted. The year of it’s composition is not specified in the notes this writer received but best guess is that it is of recent vintage in this talented composer’s oeuvre.
This is followed, curiously, by three torch songs, one by the able soloist Storm Large, one by Cole Porter, and one by Teddy Abrams. The stylistic unity of these three songs is striking and Storm Large (who is known for her work with Pink Martini) is a convincing chanteuse.
These are followed by another American masterpiece, the Clarinet Concerto (1948) by Aaron Copland. Originally written (and subsequently recorded by) Benny Goodman, the concerto is definitely in the repertoire but receives far too few hearings in concert. This writer had not heard the concerto in many years and was struck both by its quality and by the convincing performance recorded here. Abrams takes the solo role and the orchestra is conducted with assurance by one Jason Seber.
Abrams’ reading is as convincing and authentic as any and this is a delightful way to close this wonderful recording. Here’s hoping that this release will be the restart of Louisvilled great recorded legacy and that Abrams tenure as conductor will breath new life into an orchestra which has become a venerable part of America’s cultural history.
Lara Downes is one of the finest pianists working today. Her virtuosity and interpretive skills are well established. She is well versed in the standard repertoire of classical piano music but has chosen to blaze her own unique path in her recorded legacy. Here she pays homage in her own unique manner with help from some interesting fellow musicians.
The album consists of 29 tracks none of which lasts more than 4 minutes. Many are by Bernstein including a generous selection of his Anniversaries, each dedicated to a particular person. Some were written in celebration, some in memoriam. Time marches on and we now celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lenny’s birth. So, of course, all these tracks are in memoriam now. In addition to the all too seldom heard Anniversaries there are a few song transcriptions and a nice selection of Anniversary like pieces contributed for this album by a delightful selection of composers including John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, Michael Abels, Ned Rorem, Ricky Ian Gordon, Eleanor Sandresky, Shulamit Ran, Stephen Schwartz, Marc Blitzstein, Theo Bleckmann, and Craig Urquhart.
This album is (thankfully) not a greatest hits collection but rather, as it’s subtitle says, an intimate tribute by people who were affected by Bernstein in one way or another. Bernstein cut a wide swath of influence embracing new music, mastering the established western classical canon, and embracing jazz, blues, and musical theater much like Ms. Downes actually.
Most of the album is solo piano where Downes casts a loving and magical spell. A few judiciously chosen tracks feature banjo virtuoso Rhiannon Giddens, baritone Thomas Hampton, and two musicians unknown to this writer, Javier Morales-Martinez and Kevin “K.D.” Olusola.
My first listen to this album was an uninterrupted one while driving South from San Francisco. The impression was one of Bernstein’s multiple voices being present seamlessly in every track. Only later reading the liner notes did I become aware that some tracks were written by others.
This is an intimate celebration in honor of a musician who touched so many lives. Many of the artists on this recording knew Bernstein to some degree but the point here is that Bernstein’s art is so pervasive that few can say they have not been touched by it to some degree. This listener was brought to nostalgic tears a few times.
In keeping with Downes’ eclectic style this is an unusual selection of pieces, most by Bernstein but all imbued with his spirit, a combination of classical sensibilities with a real feel for jazz, blues and the American musical theater. This disc contains most, if not all of Bernstein’s “Anniversaries”, short piano pieces written variously in honor of or in memory of many of his friends. Other pieces are by contemporaries of Bernstein and some were written for this recording. Add to that a few interludes such as Thomas Hampson coming in to sing, “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s “Mass”, K.D. Olusola riffing on the familiar “Something’s Coming” which opens the disc, Javier Morales-Martinez spicing up “Cool” from “West Side Story” with his clarinet and Rhiannon Giddens sounding so pretty on the track of that title.
This is a love fest and it, appropriately, covers generations much as Lenny affected so many generations whether through his wonderful work as a conductor or his classic musicals and operas that are indeed the American grain incarnate. And Lenny was also a teacher to children and to adults. From the Young Peoples Concerts to the Harvard Norton Lectures he thought deeply and taught and stimulated ideas. Generations have been forever changed by him.
The bulk of this recording depends on Lara Downes amazing virtuosity bringing these brief little poems to life most convincingly and almost magically. She clearly has a real feel for this music. This is mostly not the familiar Bernstein that everyone knows. It is a portrait such as listeners familiar with Downes’ work will recognize, eclectic, intelligent, sometimes nostalgic, a little obscure, frequently virtuosic, and ultimately satisfying. The disc lists the performers as, “Lara Downes and friends” and that is the feeling of not just the performers but also of the composers whose heartfelt contributions fit so well in this eclectic mix.
This disc represents Downes’ debut on Sony and the only thing this writer can say to that is, “What took them so long?” Brava! And cheers to Lenny on his 100th.
I have found it strange that the few articles I have written (and, full disclosure, I’m a white guy) on black musicians seem to have placed me in the position of being one of apparently a limited number of writers/bloggers who pay attention to the topic. Happily these articles have gained an audience. The rather simple piece I wrote on black conductors, a little essay composed in honor of Black History Month, remains by far one of my most read articles.
The vicissitudes of race and racism are such that we need to say, “black lives matter” because even the most cursory examination of statistics shows that they seem to matter far less than lives with other racial identities. The same is true with music and musicians.. There are organizations dedicated to the promotion of black musicians because they remain far less well represented.
It is in this spirit that I am writing this little sketch to highlight a black musician who does not have a Wikipedia page or even a personal web page that I have been able to find. You can find her easily with a Google search but you will find some of the same segregation of which I spoke. One finds her on the “Broadway Black” website which does a fine job of promoting her and her work. And what fine work it is.
From the Muskogee Phoenix, 11/10/2007, we have this information about Linda Twine:
Twine, a native of Muskogee, OK, graduated from Oklahoma City University in 1966, with a bachelor of arts degree in music. There, she studied piano with the esteemed Dr. Clarence Burg and Professor Nancy Apgar. After graduating from OCU, Twine studied at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where she earned a master’s degree, and made New York her home. She began her musical career in New York, teaching music in public school by day and accompanying classical and jazz artists at night. At one of these engagements, she was asked if she would like to substitute for the keyboardist of the Tony Award winning Broadway hit, “The Wiz.” Her positive response began a long career in Broadway musicals from keyboard substitute to assistant conductor of Broadway orchestras. In 1981, to conductor when Lena Horne asked her to conduct her one-woman hit, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” This garnered Twine the respect of her peers and as a much sought-after Broadway musical conductor. In addition to “The Wiz” and “Lena Horne,” Twine’s Broadway credits include, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Big River” (the score composed by Oklahoman Roger Miller), “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “Frog and Toad,” “Caroline or Change,” “Purlie,” and the current “The Color Purple,” starring Fantasia. Not only a distinguished conductor, Twine is also a composer and arranger. She composed “Changed My Name,” a cantata inspired by slave women Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, and written for two actresses, four soloists, and a chorus. Her popular spiritual arrangements are published by Hinshaw. As a producer, instrumental and vocal arranger, her work can be seen and heard in the books and CDs of the Silver Burdett Publishing company, which are used by many public schools in the United States. Community commitment and involvement have also marked Twine’s outstanding career. She has arranged and composed for the renowned Boys Choir of Harlem, and she served for 14 years as minister of music for St. James Presbyterian Church of New York. Among her many awards and honors is the “Personal Best Award for Achievement and the Pursuit of Excellence,” for her role as a writer and arranger for the Boys Choir of Harlem, her artistic achievements in the world of Musical Theatre, and her concern for humanity. Twine, a proud Oklahoman, is the granddaughter of William Henry Twine, a pioneer lawyer who made a homestead claim in the 1891 Sac and Fox Run, and along with G.W.F. Sawner and E.I. Saddler established the first black law partnership in Oklahoma Territory.
So here, in honor of Black History Month, I wish to present this fine musician whose art deserves the world’s attention. Take note please.
In this writer’s mind there are two types of releases on the BMOP label. Discs with music or at least composers that have some familiarity to these ears and discs of unfamiliar composers. This disc fits into the latter category. Jeremy Gill is a new name to these ears but he is hardly new on the scene with at least 3 or 4 CDs already out devoted mostly to his chamber music.
This disc then will give the listener an idea of how well Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project choose and subsequently perform less familiar new music. There is a lot of music out there and it takes a special ear to choose wisely such that one can expect a given release to keep its place among the other well chosen music that makes up the BMOP label’s catalog. It would appear that this was and will remain a wise choice. Three works are presented in chronological order of their composition.
The first is the title work, Before the Wresting Tides (2012), a choral fantasy setting a poem by American poet Hart Crane (1899-1932). This was written specifically to function as a companion piece for Beethoven’s rarely performed Choral Fantasy Op. 80 (ca. 1808). This work shares a similar orchestration and formal plan. There is an obligatto piano solo written for Gill’s friend and colleague Ching-Yun Hu, a large orchestra, chorus, and vocal solos. All of this fits into a compact 16 minutes or so. It is decidedly more modern in orchestration and harmony than Beethoven’s work but it shares a virtuosic piano part, lyrical melodies, and marvelously efficient setting of the text handled beautifully by the Marsh Chapel Choir under Scott Allen Jarrett. There is a lot going on here but I can’t imagine an audience being anything but entertained by this rather bombastic companion which one hopes will continue to be performed alongside the Beethoven model bringing both works to modern ears.
The second work is titled Serenada Concertante (2013) for oboe and orchestra. It is sort of an enlarged oboe concerto. The soloist, Erin Hannigan demonstrates the virtuosic and lyric skills that seem to be endemic to this entire orchestra. Gill’s writing makes large romantic gestures with plenty of painfully virtuosic opportunities (handled beautifully) for the soloist and the various soli and duettini which occur in the course of this full blown concerto. The composer’s ability to utilize such a large orchestra yet still produce lucid textures is a mark of genius and, no doubt, one of the reasons that Gill’s music was chosen for this series of recordings.
Our finale is another concerto of sorts, the Notturno Concertante (2014) for clarinet and orchestra. Again we hear an amazing soloist, Chris Grymes, on clarinet. Again we hear amazing virtuosity and lyricism played against a large and lucid orchestral fabric. Very satisfying music for both audience and orchestra. It is clearly a workout for orchestra, soloist, and conductor but the energies expended produce a very satisfying result.
Whether or not Jeremy Gill winds up being a household name, one of the brightest lights of the 21st century remains to be seen but this is an auspicious release. This largely romantic sounding composer also seems to have a curiously “American” sound which harkens to the likes of William Schuman, David Diamond, and, well choose your own favorite mid-twentieth century American master after you hear this. Well done.
Nicole Paiement led a touching performance of Lou Harrison’s La Koro Sutro
Nominally this was a celebration of the life and music of Lou Silver Harrison (1917-2003) but this last concert of Other Minds 22nd year celebrated so much more.
Curator and Other Minds Executive and artistic director introduces the night’s festivities with these artistic icons titled St. Lou and St. Bill (Lou Harrison and his partner, instrument builder Bill Colvig). The portraits were sold by silent auction.
One can’t celebrate the life and music of Lou Harrison without acknowledging his life partner of 30 years, Bill Colvig (1917-2000). Colvig was the man who designed and built the American Gamelan percussion instruments used in tonight’s performance. These repurposed industrial materials were inspired by the Indonesian Gamelan which Lou Harrison encountered at the 1939 world’s fair which took place on Treasure Island just a few miles away. Amirkhanian added another fascinating historical footnote when he informed the audience that Harrison had come to this very church to learn to sing Gregorian Chant some time in the 1930s.
A further and very intimate context was revealed when Amirkhanian took an informal poll of the audience asking who had met and/or worked with Lou Harrison. By his count he estimated that about 40% of the audience had encountered “St. Lou” (this writer met the magnanimous gentleman in Chicago in the early 1990s). Indeed many of the musicians had encountered and/or studied with Harrison and the passion reflected in their performances and the audiences response clearly shows why he (and Bill) were elevated tonight to secular sainthood.
The wonderful acoustics of the Basilica easily accommodated Harrison’s dislike of electrical amplification. Even the solo and small ensemble music was heard as it was intended.
The organ console at the Basilica.
The well attended concert began with an early rather uncharacteristic piece called Praises for Michael the Archangel (1946-7). It reflected the influence of Arnold Schoenberg, one of Harrison’s teachers (Henry Cowell and K.T.H. Notoprojo were also among his teachers). Harrison also famously worked with Charles Ives whose Third Symphony he premiered. He also worked with John Cage and collaborated on at least one composition with him (Double Music). The angular and dissonant sounds were lovingly interpreted by Jerome Lenk, organist and chorus master at the Basilica.
Organist Jerome Lenk acknowledges the audience applause and allows himself just a touch of a satisfied smile for a well wrought performance.
Next was a solo harp piece Threnody for Oliver Daniel (1990). (Oliver Daniel (1911-1990) was a composer, musicologist, and founder of Composer’s Recording Incorporated. He was a friend of Harrison’s and a great promoter of new music).
The Threnody was performed on this smaller troubador harp in Ptolemy’s soft diatonic tuning.
Meredith Clark played with focused concentration and gave a very moving performance of this brief and beautiful composition. Harrison was fond of paying homage to his friends through music.
Clark was then joined by cellist Emil Miland for a performance of Suite for Cello and Harp (1948). Composed just a year after the angular organ piece which opened the program this gentle suite is entirely tonal and very lyrical in its five movements using music repurposed from earlier works. Clark here used a full sized concert harp.
The artistic connection between these performers clearly added to the intensity of the performance. Despite the varied sources of the music the suite has a certain unity that, like Bach and indeed many composers, justifies the re-use of material in the creation of a new piece.
This was followed by another organ piece from Mr. Lenk. This Pedal Sonata (1989) is played solely by the musician’s very busy feet on the pedals alone (no hands on the keyboard). Listening to the piece it was easy to believe that more than just two agile feet were involved in this challenging and virtuosic composition. It appeared to be quite a workout but one accomplished with great ease by the performer.
Emil Miland and Meredith Clark smiling in response the the applause following their performance.
Following an extended intermission (owing to a dearth of restroom facilities) there was an awards ceremony. Charles Amirkhanian was awarded the 2017 Champion of New Music Award (tonight’s conductor Nicole Paiement was also a previous awardee). Presentation of the award was done by American Composer’s Forum President and CEO John Neuchterlein and Forum member, composer Vivian Fung.
Amirkhanian took the time to pay tribute to his mother (who also would have been 100 this year) his father (who passed away in December at the age of 101) and his charming wife of 49 years, Carol Law, who continues her work as a photographer and her participation in Other Minds and related projects. He also gave thanks to the staff of Other Minds and his former associates at KPFA where Charles served as music director for over 20 years.
American Composer’s Forum President John Neuchterlein looks on as composer Vivian Fung presents the prestigious 2017 Champion of New Music Award to a very pleased Charles Amirkhanian.
In a touching and humorous move Mr. Neuchterlein advised the audience that Mr. Amirkhanian would be given yet another award tied to Minnesota which is the home of General Mills (yes, the cereal people). Amirkhanian (who himself has quite a gentle sense of humor) was surprised and charmed to receive a box of Wheaties emblazoned with his image from whence he can now reign in the rarefied group of breakfast champions in addition to his other roles.
The breakfast of new music champions.
The second half of the concert began with the co-composed Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (1974). Co-composer Richard Dee was in the audience for the performance of this work written two years after La Koro Sutro (1972) and incorporating the same gamelan instrument created for that piece. The substantial violin solo was handled with assurance and expressivity by Shalini Vijayan, herself a major new music advocate.
Composer Richard Dee waving thanks for the performance of Suite for Violin and American Gamelan.
At about 30 minutes in performance the multiple movements all but comprised a concerto with challenging roles for both the percussion orchestra led by the amazing William Winant and his percussion ensemble and the soloist. All were masterfully coordinated by conductor Nicole Paiement.
Shalini Vijayan smiles from behind her bouquet acknowledging the thunderous applause following her performance.
In a previous promo blog I had noted that the location of this concert is a designated pilgrimage site, one where the faithful journey as part of a spiritual quest. Well, having been sidelined by a foot injury for the last 3 1/2 months this amounted to a musico-spiritual pilgrimage for this writer who has not been able to be out to hear music for some time. The last piece on the concert in particular was a powerful motivation for this personal pilgrimage and I was not disappointed.
The American Gamelan was played by the William Winant percussion group consisting of master percussionist Winant along with Ed Garcia, Jon Meyers, Sean Josey, Henry Wilson, and Sarong Kim.
They were joined by the Resound Choir (Luçik Aprahämian, Music Director), Sacred and Profane (Rebecca Seeman, Music Director), and the Mission Dolores Choir (Jerome Lenk, Music Director).
Meredith Clark joined on concert harp and Mr. Lenk on the small ensemble organ. All were conducted with both discipline and panache by Nicole Paiement.
This multiple movement work is a setting of the Buddhist Heart Sutra and is done in an Esperanto translation by fellow Esperantist Bruce Kennedy and, though written for the world Esperanto Convention in Portland, Oregon, it was premiered at the University of San Francisco in 1972. This was the fourth performance in the Bay Area, a fact that reveals the love that this area has had and still has for its beloved citizen Lou Harrison.
Warm smiles proliferated as the bouquets were distributed amid a standing ovation from a very appreciative audience.
In fact this concert can be seen as a affirmation of so many things. Harrison was a composer, teacher, dancer, calligrapher, Esperantist, conductor, musician, musicologist and early gay rights advocate. It is a testament to Lou that he has been given a most spectacular birthday celebration which gave credence and appreciation to all aspects of this west coast genius and all his extended family. It happened 50 years after the fabled Summer of Love and apparently the love continues in its way.
A clearly very happy conductor Nicole Paiement’s smile echoes both her feeling and that of the attendees, a wonderful night.
Steven Stucky (1949-2016) was sadly taken from the world too soon. But we can rejoice in this wonderful new disc of (mostly) first recordings of some of his wonderful orchestral music and songs. Boston Modern Orchestra Project adds another entry to their growing discography of must hear American music with this beautiful recording.
Three works are featured, Rhapsodies (2008), American Muse (1999), and Concerto for Orchestra (No. 1, 1987). Only one, American Muse has been recorded (on Albany Records) before and all are worthy selections from the composer’s ample catalog.
Rhapsodies, the most recent work, is also the shortest at just over 8 minutes. It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony and is for large orchestra and sounds as though it could serve as a movement in another Concerto for Orchestra. Stucky, who was an expert on the music of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), was a master orchestrator as was Lutosławski though Stucky’s style is distinctly different reflecting a sort of friendly romantic modernism with serious virtuosity. This little gem gives the orchestra and, no doubt, the conductor, a run for their money in this virtuosic and highly entertaining little sonic gem. It was premiered in 2008 under Lorin Maazel.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic commission, American Muse was written with the fine baritone Sanford Sylvan in mind. It is a four song cycle setting poems by John Berryman, e.e. cummings, A.R. Ammons, and Walt Whitman and was premiered in 1999 under Esa-Pekka Salonen. Sylvan is a very fine interpreter of American music and first won this reviewer’s heart with his rendition of John Adams’ The Wound Dresser (also a Whitman setting). One should never miss an opportunity to hear Sylvan’s work.
Again we are treated to Stucky’s acute and subtle sense of orchestration which works with the poetry unobtrusively paralleling the words with the musical accompaniment and seemingly creating its own poetry in sound. Sylvan is in fine voice and seems to be enjoying his performance, a very satisfying experience.
The inclusion of Stucky’s first Concerto for Orchestra which was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in 1988 (under Ricardo Muti) will satisfy fans of this composer’s work as it provides an opportunity to hear “the one that got away” so to speak. It was the runner up for the Pulitzer Prize which he would later win for his Second Concerto for Orchestra (2003) in 2005.
In it’s three movements Stucky is clearly the master of his realm and creates a wonderful listening experience. His sense of drama and emotion are stunning and serve to underscore the dimension of what the world has lost in his passing. But it is time to leave sorrow aside and let the music speak and thus provide the composer with a dimension of immortality.
As usual the performance and recording are impeccable and Gil Rose continues to record wonderful music that deserves more frequent hearings and does honor to the memory of a cherished artist. Now can a recording of Stucky’s 2012 Symphony be far behind? Let’s hope so.