GVSU’s “Return”, an Intoxicating Adventure in Sound


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                                                                        Innova 983

OK, I’ve listened to this lovely CD numerous times and greatly enjoyed it each time. So why has it languished as a draft and why have I failed to publish this?

Procrastination aside there are several things I can identify as things that make this reviewer pause. First (and perhaps least significant) is unfamiliarity. The disc features three composers completely unknown to me: Daniel Rhode, Adam Cuthbert, and Matt Finch all of whom are listed as doing the additional duty of acting as mixing engineers (they are all students of the ensemble director as well).

GVSU  hails from the state of Michigan and it’s new music ensemble (consisting of Hannah Donnelly on piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute; Ryan Schmidt, clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet; Darwin McMurray, soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones; Makenzie Mattes, percussion; Reese Rehkopf, piano; Jenna Michael, violin; Kirk McBrayer, cello; Niko Schroeder, sound engineer; and Bill Ryan, director and producer) is also new on this writer’s radar. Add the participation of the extraordinary violinist Todd Reynolds (on one track) and one’s attention is further piqued. Reynolds is an artist who chooses his repertoire and collaborations judiciously so his presence certainly functions as an endorsement.  But “unknown” is the heart of my interests both as listener and reviewer so that can’t be the reason though the lack of liner notes is a bugaboo (though hardly a fatal one).

On the positive side this is an Innova release and that fact alone lends credibility. Anything that Minnesota based label (the official label of the American Composers Forum) is worth your attention. Label director Philip Blackburn has a finely tuned radar which has led to many revelatory releases over the years.  Truly anything released on this label is worthy of your attention if you are a new music fan.

So we have hear a 15 track CD of 15 new works whose sounds seems to travel between ambient and postminimal. The pieces merge nicely with each other in a production which assures a fine listening experience. One can put this on either as background or for more intensive listening. It works either way. The playing is dedicated and insightful and the recording is top notch.

The pieces range in length from 1:32 to 7:32 and all seem to be just the right length communicating substance but never dallying too long. They’re bite sized, so to speak but they each have their charms as well as their complexities.  All are premiere recordings and all are commissioned by the ensemble.

Check it out. Click on the links provided in this review. And simply enjoy.

 

 

Lara Downes Celebrates Women and Love


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Though she has been performing and recording for a while now I first became aware of Lara Downes when I reviewed her truly excellent, America Again album in 2016.  Since then I have become aware of the incredible range of music which she has chosen to champion.  Her various projects have a distinctive Lara Downes fingerprint which establishes her brand in the music world.  She plays music from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with careful attention to women composers, minority composers, and a solid grounding in the more commonly heard recital works.

I jumped at the opportunity to see her play at the “Old First Concerts” in San Francisco later in 2016.  She played a friendly recital of mostly familiar classical works including the solo version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and some Schumann pieces and a couple of selections from the just released America Again album.  Having taken some piano lessons I have a bit of awareness of how difficult this music can be but, as the title of my concert review suggested, Downes elevates the music such that it magically comes alive in ways that fledgling or average pianists can only dream.  The notes are the same but she makes them sing and watching her play is reminiscent of an Olympic athlete.  Don’t stand too close, lol.

It is her love of the 19th century romantic piano literature and her mission to highlight female artists that are the motivation behind this recent release.  Clara Schumann turned 200 years old in September, 2019 and this release is a gift to her and an affirmation of a musical romance of grand romantic dimensions.  The album features Schumann’s masterful Concerto as well as a selection of solo pieces by Clara and Robert.

Downes’ own words from her informative website:

I’m the first of three sisters, and I grew up in a house full of girls and women. My sisters and I made music together, put on plays, shared our clothes and secrets, and navigated together the unpredictable waters of our inconstant childhood. We were a pack. The world of women has always been my home. But the world of my music – of my piano teachers and their teachers, the Great Pianists and Great Composers – was a world of male lineage and legacy. Except for Clara Schumann. When I read about her early  life – such a serious, dark-eyed little girl – I found something of myself. I played her music as soon as I could get my hands around it. As I grew up, the themes of her life resonated in my own:  a struggle for independence; a defiant romance, the work/family conflicts of the artist’s life… As my life unfolds, as a musician, a woman, a mother – I wonder at her accomplishments, her choices, her joys and her heartaches.

This beautifully recorded disc (at Skywalker Ranch’s fine studios) opens grandly with a rendition of Schumann’s grand showpiece piano concerto which was written at the behest of Clara and dedicated to her.  She performs with the venerable San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under music director Martin West.  I don’t know other versions of this concerto well enough to make comparisons but it is clearly a piece she knows and loves and the concerto is a tribute to both Robert and Clara.  Her encouragement and collaborative suggestions technically make the piece speak well for both composers (Robert, who was an accomplished pianist, damaged his hand utilizing a mechanical stretching device and couldn’t play well anymore).

She follows this with some early solo piano pieces by Clara Schumann and a set of early works by Robert.  The style and level of compositional expertise is similar in both of their writing and Downes brings them lovingly, magically to life.  One only hopes that this will be but the first volume of more recordings of Clara’s work.  According to her website she has some mighty fascinating projects planned for completion in 2020, designated as “The Year of the Woman”, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in this country.

As it is also an election year seeing more women than ever before in politics, literature, and music 2020 can’t avoid being an auspicious event and Downes will make her mark most decisively.  Meanwhile we can enjoy this first installment in anticipation of exciting developments and releases ahead.  Brava, Ms. Downes.  We’re watching and listening.

 

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collider, The Marvelous Music of Daniel Bjarnason






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

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

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

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

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

Michala Petri in the 21st Century


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OUR Recordings 8.226912

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Painting With Sound: J.L. Adams’ “Become Desert”


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Cantaloupe

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.

Other Minds 24, Concert Three, Reviving the Music of a Forgotten Master


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Photo: Ebbe Yovino-Smith

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

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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.

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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.