Project W: The Chicago Sinfonietta Gloriously Features Women Composers (conductor too)


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Cedille CDR 90000 185

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?).

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Florence Price 

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.

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Mei-Ann Chen

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Major New Cello Concerto from Esa-Pekka Salonen


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. 

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My 2018 in the Arts


One of the Theater Organs at House on the Rock, Spring Green, WI, a really fun place to visit.


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.

Louisville Orchestra Reboot on CD: All In


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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.

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Teddy Abrams

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’ Bernstein Tribute


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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.

Linda Twine, A Musician You Should Know


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Linda Twine

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.

To be fair she is also on the “Internet Broadway Database“, “Playbill“, the “Internet Movie Database“, and one can find her most recent work listed on the “Broadway World” site.  Her cantata, “Changed My Name” can be found on You Tube.  And it is there where, curiously enough, one can find the most comprehensive information on her.  I present it here:

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.

Jeremy Gill: Before the Wresting Tides


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BMOP 1055

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.