Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH”


Sony Classical 19439809212

I first came to know these Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 (1950-1) in the recording by Keith Jarrett on ECM some years ago (1992). At the time I was not familiar with this post-Bach set of compositions (one might even call it a “meme”) written to showcase the newly codified “Well Tempered Tuning” but I was intrigued by Jarrett’s choices of repertoire. Not surprisingly, I immediately liked this gargantuan undertaking. I appreciated these pieces as listenable, stimulating musical compositions and a good choice of repertoire by the always interesting Mr. Jarrett. Many pianists have recorded this cycle of works though I can’t recall a recital of the entire set being performed live as occurs fairly frequently with the Bach cycles (he wrote two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in each of the 24 keys of the western musical scale).

Readers of this blog may recall my fawning over an earlier Levit release, a 3 disc set of piano variations containing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (1741), Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” (1819-23), and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (1975). I asserted that Sony, whose recording (1955) of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations helped elevate that work into the popular repertoire, had at least implied that these three large sets of variations are musically on the same level of significance thus potentially elevating the Rzewski piece to the more mainstream repertory.

Now comes yet another 3 disc set from this fine Russian/German pianist who seems to be possessed of vision as well as virtuosity and interpretive skills. Levit is clearly comfortable with the “usual suspects”, the common repertoire of live piano recitals (Beethoven’s Sonatas, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Liszt, etc.) but is clearly interested in expanding the general repertoire by discovering lesser known works that he finds deserve to be heard more often. A quick look at the pianists other releases reveals a similar pattern even in works of a less grand scale than those discussed in this essay.

Anselm Cybinski’s fine liner notes derive from his reading of history, Shostakovich’s and Stevenson’s biographies, and his conversations with Mr. Levit. Here he describes what Shostakovich was enduring in the years when he brought forth these compositions, post WWII, life in the repressive Stalinist regime, recent censure by said regime, and his attempts to be return from this censure and be allowed to have his works performed again. He relates the story of the then 21 year old Tatiana Nikolayeva who premiered this work and played it before the committee. He also sketches the impact of various historical events on Shostakovich and his music.

The preludes are described as emotional responses to these varied events, a sort of exorcising of the emotional turmoil these events had on the composer. He describes in these notes the contexts which clearly impact the pianist in his understanding and subsequent interpretation of this music, contexts which help the listener grasp the deeper levels of meaning inherent (or at least implied) in these works.

He does the same with the Stevenson work, itself a response to the sufferings of a fellow artist, a sort of artistic dialogue analogous to that of songwriters and other musicians who used their art to make a point (Lynyrd Skynyrd writing, “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Neil Young’s, “Southern Man” or Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” concurrently with the second inaugural concert for Richard Nixon as a political counterpoint are two such examples), not the same situations perhaps but artistic dialogues nonetheless.

Apparently Ronald Stevenson (1928-1915) wrote his gargantuan “Passacaglia on DSCH” in 1960 as a tribute to his fellow composer. There are many examples of Shostakovich using the German note spelling of “D”, “Es” (pronounced, “S”), “C”, “H” (German notation for “B”) all of which translates to the actual notes of D, E flat, C, B as a motif in his work so Stevenson’s use of it is quite apt.

This Passacaglia is a work which I had “known of” but never heard before hearing this recording. It is a marvelous work, not exactly easy listening but a very satisfying work which improves with subsequent hearings, revealing itself as a multi-layered masterpiece. And it is Levit’s vision that effectively gives this work, and the Shostakovich cycle a significant and, thanks again to Sony, a very large public nudge to get this music heard and played more often.

No doubt many reviewers will spend time comparing the various recordings of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and the Stevenson Passacaglia. For the record I did a quick search and found four recordings of the Stevenson work and at least 12 complete recordings of the Shostakovich. However, for the purposes of this review I will leave discussion of the merits and shortcomings of the various interpretations to people better qualified than I. The takeaway I hope to share with my readers is, “Get this set and enjoy it” and to musicians and producers, “Pay attention to Igor Levit’s artistic radar”.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger, a Reacquaintance


First let me say that the title of this blog and its contents is presented as both apology and explanation. It is an apology for the intervening 12 months during which this blog was on unplanned hiatus. Indeed the ongoing requests for reviews were certainly a factor in getting this venture up and running once again and I am grateful for the persistence of musicians and their representatives. It is also a brief explanation of some of the reasons this has happened. Nothing here should be construed as being a lament or request for assistance of any kind (except for encouraging more readers). This blog post is also intended as an announcement that there is much more to come.

2020 was a year which one which has been a long and strange time for most of us. I took on an extended contract in February, 2020 which required me to move to Tacoma where I pursue my “day job” of working as a registered nurse. My place of employment is a state psychiatric facility and my first few months were consumed with training and other pre-employment hurdles. While I enjoy my work I found the transition to a city far from home and the learning process of dealing with this facility and its clientele impacted me in ways I could not predict. Add to that the overwhelming onset of the Covid 19 pandemic began to eclipse and alter so many things.

Clyde

To ease my transition going approximately 1000 miles from home I brought my little 12 year old Maltese dog, Clyde along for the adventure. This wound up being a most pleasant learning experience about the meaning of “emotional support animal”. He continues to do his job.

As it was most practical, I chose to drive to my new assignment so I packed the car with clothing, a few books, a kindle, a computer, and a small flock of CDs for the drive time. Traveling long distances is a wonderful opportunity to listen to lengthy or multiple pieces of music. Of course this is best appreciated in the long freeway segments between towns that dominated my itinerary.

My listening program consisted of (in no particular order): Ives- Concord Sonata played by Rene Eckhardt, Alvin Curran- Crystal Psalms, the two disc Chicago Blues album by AACM, Charlie Haden- Not in Our Name, several private recordings of music by Primous Fountain, Daniel Bjarnason- Collider, several private recordings of music by David Toub, Peter Maxwell-Davies- Symphony No. 1, Wilfred Josephs- Requiem, and occasional forays to sample the local broadcast spectrum (ew). An eclectic program to be sure, one which benefits from solitude from other homo sapiens. My little companion took the passenger seat and easily accessed the little cup of water in the console, happy regardless of the music selections. It was a satisfying listening experience augmented by some truly eye candy vistas (I did bring my camera but…driving.)

It was jolting to see the post fire-ravaged sections of forest that dotted the landscape in this journey but it remains visually stunning if not in the most beautiful way. It was about 22 hours of leisurely drive time calculated to give me a couple of days to find my residence and figure out my daily driving route. My little companion and I ensconced ourselves in an Extended Stay America hotel arranged by my contract agent.

The planning I had done was pretty good actually. We arrived as I had planned where my companion immediately began his ambassadorial responsibilities by attempting to meet (and charm) all who crossed his path. All signs suggested a smooth transition.

However the unpredictable reared its presence in a variety of forms including licensure delays (not the fault of Washington State), subsequent training delays, a camera in need of repair, a failed hard drive, a rather challenging work environment (this state facility is long term and functions largely as a forensic facility dealing with illness too severe for the jail system), and the onset of the Covid lockdown as well as an actual Covid infection (which I survived with minor consequences and have since been vaccinated). All these did not occur at once but I’m just summarizing. Most of these events could neither be foreseen or prevented but they presented challenges.

One of the most curious effects on my psyche was an extended period of time when I lost my ability to focus on many things other than the job. I had brought a box of CDs for review fully expecting that I would be able to continue my blogging with my readers getting no clue as to the chaos of the writer’s mind. As a Rabbi once told me, “Man plans, God laughs”, a less than comforting chestnut of wisdom which applies as it doubtless will again. So why worry?

Mount Ranier as seen from my hotel window.

My lack of ability to focus manifested in an inability to read for leisure (one can partly blame the toxic writing habits that plague “orientation materials” for numbing my brain) but also in a seemingly selective ability to hold my attention on the musical genres that had been my soundtrack on the trip to get here. I found myself craving jazz and blues and in a serendipitous gesture of fate I was more than pleased to find that my local broadcast options included two NPR stations, one of which (KNKX), plays a masterfully curated selection of jazz and blues most of the day excepting news breaks. That music continues to soothe my soul but I’m happy to say my focus seems to have returned to its accustomed wider spectrum of genres.

From Cahill’s web page.

I lament the fact that I have missed the opportunity to write about the “Year of the Woman” in 2020 during the actual year but the impact of the sundry musical celebrations and creations will continue to resonate and the cause will continue to deserve attention. One of the few new music events which grabbed my resistant attention was the series that Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill produced on YouTube. The series on women composers features short works (2-8 minutes) played in the artist’s Berkeley home. It is a virtual manifesto collecting a variety of too little known solo piano works by women (here’s hoping there’s an album in the offing). Of course the listener shouldn’t stop with the women composers. Cahill’s site offers of wealth of lesser known male composers interpreted with the same passion.

Linda Twine from Google Images.

I quite reasonably expected a sharp decline in readership given that my last blog post was published on March 7, 2020. There was initially at least a 50% fall off in readership but I was delighted to find that I ended the year with about 9300 hits, only about 4000 less than the previous year. A large part of that readership sought out my articles on black musicians and composers. Now, I focus on new music and just about any music which I think deserves an audience so the inclusion of black musicians is, of course, a given. So it seems particularly apt that I am returning to the blogosphere during black history month. This small portion of my output has driven more than its share of traffic to this site. The article on composer/director/producer Linda Twine was written in 2018 and has gotten well over 1500 views. I hope that means her star continues to rise. Other older articles, some written for Black History Month, also performed remarkably well. Indeed this can certainly be attributed in part to the Black Lives Matter movement and the continuing civil rights struggles in our purportedly “Post-Racial” era.

The blogger with composer Anthony Davis at a house concert in 2018

I was particularly pleased when composer Anthony Davis (whose work I have long admired) was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for his opera The Central Park Five. Like much of Davis’ work this opera is focused on civil rights issues such as, in this case, the miscarriage of justice against five black men falsely accused of a rape in Central Park. At least I got to say this during Black History Month.

I continue to reside in Tacoma where it is only a twenty minute drive to work. I have become accustomed to my daily duties and have found a surprisingly warm welcome for me and my skill set. I truly enjoy my day job.

We are still firmly in the time of Covid, in the time of serious social unrest, now transitioning with excessive drama to a new president as the world seemingly plunges toward fascism, hate, and economic disaster. But musicians have risen most heroically to the challenges of their art, performers trying to maintain a presence during a time in which live performances are severely restricted for public health reasons. But there are now fascinating concerts online, wonderful new music being released and I need to get back to talking about that.

Ramón Sender Barayón, Always Going Toward the Light


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Ramón Sender Barayón at Arion Press in San Francisco (Photo Creative Commons 2011 by Allan J. Cronin)

 

This crowd sourced video opens with a sort of exposition of the various identities of its subject Ramón Sender Barayón (also known as Ramon Sender, Ramon Sender Morningstar, Ray Sender, and Ramon Sender Barayón).  His father was the renowned Spanish novelist Ramón J. Sender whose work was unappreciated (to say the least) by the Franco regime resulting in his spending the last part of his life as an expatriate in the United States of America.  His mother Amparo Barayón fared far less well.  Her short life and her death at the hands of the Franco regime are memorialized in her son’s book, “A Death in Zamora“, an experience which has understandably informed his life.  As a writer, in order to distinguish himself from his father, he adopted his mother’s maiden name appended to his given name.  Happily this and some of his other works are making it to the kindle format.

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The film unfortunately does not appear to be available in any commercial outlets at the time of this writing but one hopes that Amazon or some internet distributor will make it more widely available.  One small critique is the use of sometimes English narration and sometimes Spanish narration with attendant translation subtitles in the opposite languages is a bit difficult to get used to but hardly an insurmountable issue.

Sender’s personal website continues to be a source of useful information.  Links can be found here to many of his writings and other work as well as some discussion of his musical compositions.

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In addition to being a writer he is an acknowledged pioneer in the area of experimental music.  He, along with Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Joseph Byrd, William Maginnis, Tony Martin, Joseph Byrd, and Terry Riley (among others) founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1962.  This later became the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music and remains in operation as of the date of this review.  Barayon’s ” novelized history of this time in his life titled, “Naked Close Up” finally found itself in a Kindle release after having circulated in PDF format for years on the internet.  (This history is also further documented in David Bernstein’s excellent, “The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde“)

His curiosity and wide ranging interests saw him participating in alternative commune living situations (beginning in 1966) in northern California exploring spirituality and challenging established social norms through the exploration of viable alternatives.  He writes most eloquently about this in his recently published “Home Free Home“, a large edited tome on the Morningstar Ranch and Wheeler’s Ahimsa Ranch which includes material by several other former residents.  The book is as much compilation as it is historical writing and memoir.  It is a fascinating read and is filled with historically significant recollections and commentary by many of those one time residents of these (now sadly defunct) communities.

homefree

This DVD is one of those increasingly popular crowd sourced productions (here is the Indiegogo link) which has allowed independent publication of countless books and CDs and countless other projects which stimulate little interest among traditional venues despite the significance of their content.  The content here is of a profoundly important nature to fans of new music as well as fans of alternative living experiments and 60s counterculture and philosophy.  It is contemporary history and biography.

Ramón is man possessed of both wisdom and humor as well as deep thought.  This film is the first documentary to cover the diverse interest and involvement of this affable cultural polymath.  It begins with an interview of Mr. Sender in the living room of his home in San Francisco.  From there it traverses more or less chronologically among the dizzyingly diverse events which comprise his life thus far.

From his birth in Spain in 1934 to his present role as a sort of spiritual/intellectual guru running a lecture series called, “Odd Mondays” in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood which he and Judith Levy have managed for some 17 years with a variety of carefully chosen speakers.  The film covers a variety of topics and while it leaves out details at times it is a cogent and balanced biographical documentary.

His early involvement in the establishment of the influential San Francisco Tape Music Center finds him connected with fellow luminaries such as Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, William Maginnis, Steve Reich, Joseph Byrd, Tony Martin, and Donald Buchla.  This institution, now relocated as the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, saw the creation of a great deal of musical technology and significant musical compositions (Terry Riley’s groundbreaking “In C” was first performed there in 1964).

Sender was one of the organizers of the Trips Festival in 1966 along with Stewart Brand (later of Whole Earth Catalog fame), Bill Graham, Ken Kesey with his Merry Pranksters. Following this he left San Francisco for Sonoma County in northern California.

He states at one point that he has not wanted to be identified with a single career (as his father was) so, following his experimental music work, he became among the first to experiment with communal living in the Morningstar Ranch and later in the Wheeler Ranch in Sonoma County, California.  These are now well documented in his book, “Home Free Home” mentioned earlier.

Happily the film does a nice job of acknowledging the role that his wife Judith Levy has played in his life since their marriage in 1982.  In particular her support in Sender’s research into his mother’s death at the hands of Franco’s thugs in Spain is both sweet and heartbreaking.  The two appear to be constant companions in a mutually supportive relationship he sought for many years.  They are frequently seen together.

A segment of his work which gets less attention here are his fiction and spiritual writings including Zero Weather, Being of the Sun (co-authored with Alicia Bay Laurel), Zero Summer, and Planetary Sojourn.  He has a collection of unpublished manuscripts and is reportedly now working on his autobiography.  Something which will doubtless be worth the wait.

senderchapelchimes

Sender with unidentified man walking out of the Pauline Oliveros Memorial Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes in December, 2016 (Photo Creative Commons 2016 by Allan J. Cronin)

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


bartonpinedvorak

Avie AV-2411

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music of a Forgotten Master: Daniel Wnukowski Plays Karl Rathaus


The displacements of war, genocide, and oppressive politics has condemned legions of composers and their music to languish in obscurity until resurrected by later generations. I recall Aaron Copland opining in an interview that there are likely more than a few masterpieces to be found from the years between the great wars (about 1918 to 1945). This album is a shining example which seems to validate Copland’s assertion. 

Karl Rathaus (1895-1954) was born in the eastern Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like many (primarily) Jewish composers. He emigrated to the United States to avoid the rising fascist regime. Not all such emigres were able to make a living in the Hollywood film industry and Rathaus labored in relative obscurity in the academy, namely Queens College.

Along comes the enterprising Polish-Canadian pianist Daniel Wnukowski whose knowledge of and affinity for Rathaus’ music brings us the present disc. This is virtuosic music that he seems born to play. The music seems to embody elements of Impressionism, Expressionism, Modernism (of the Rudhyar and Cowell variety), and doubtless others not immediately apparent to your humble reviewer.Wnukowski breathes life into these heretofore forgotten works.  

Certainly this is a genre disc that takes its place alongside Decca/London’s “Entartete Musik” and their ilk but it also stands out with a distinctive, powerful, and entertaining voice which serves to illuminate the folly and destructiveness of fascist politics.This is music that deserves serious attention and would likely enthralling a recital audience. 

This is a loving set of interpretations that will probably have listeners anxiously awaiting the next volume in this important series.That is definitely true for this reviewer. 

The Shostakovich Fourth, the Symphony That Almost Wasn’t


Shostakovich dealt with a great deal of adversity as a result of wars, the revolution, and Stalinism. That is sad but it makes for some really amazing stories. So it is with this symphony.

It was composed in 1936 and would mark the entry of more post-romantic elements into the composer’s work which gives it a Mahler-like cast at times. Unfortunately the politics resulted in the composer withdrawing the symphony. During WWII the score was lost and reconstructed from surviving orchestral parts and the present two piano transcription by the composer. The world premiere occurred in 1961 under Kiril Kondrashin.

It is the two piano “reduction” which is featured here. Reduction refers to the transcription of the piece for two pianos but the grand symphonic nature shines through with amazing lucidity. Of course this is as much due to the skill of the transcription but also of the artists. If you have never heard a great transcription this will amaze you.

Davies and Namekawa have established quite a name for themselves as a duo piano team. Davies, the long established conductor and his life partner Namekawa, herself a dazzling pianist have collaborated for some time now as a duo and this recording is testament to what they can do. Here they joyfully share their interests and insights on this masterpiece. Even if you have and know the orchestral version you will want to hear this.

There are three movements here. The outer movements are long extended compositions with a small(but amazing) interlude in between. This is not the Shostakovich of the famed 5th symphony. Rather it is a sort of transitional piece between the student work of the first symphony and the social realism of the second and third symphonies. While deeply intelligent the work has no intended program and one could almost pass this off stylistically as a lost Mahler work.

Fear not, though, the composer’s fingerprint is here. After all this is his 4th essay in the symphony genre. Unfortunately a perfect storm of politics conspired to almost destroy this work. Fortunately both this reduction and the reconstruction make the work available. It is especially curious for the Shostakovich enthusiast to listen to this work and imagine the care that must have been taken to avoid being associated with non state-approved music. It’s a good example of how politics places additional meaning on a piece of music that originally had none.

The recordings is lucid and is due for release on February 8th. One added sort of irony. The work is scheduled for its west coast premiere in San Francisco on February 10th.

Quince Ensemble: Motherland


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New Focus FRC 203

I looked at the rather drab cover.  I had never heard of the Quince Ensemble nor any of the composers featured on this disc.  I looked again at the cover.  Clearly it was labeled with one of those parental advisory warnings which one rarely sees on a classical recording.

My usual practice is to do some research before spinning a given disc but I decided to just put this one in the CD player cold.  I had about an hour’s drive ahead and I decided to just let the disc speak for itself.  But my spidey sense suggested I might be in for a rather dull listen.

So much for my superhero powers.  From the moment the first track played I felt drawn in.  What I heard seemed to be a mixture of Peter Kotik (of Many, Many Women in particular), Meredith Monk, a touch of La Mystere de Voix Bulgare, the west coast group Kitka, and a few others).  That is to say that this disc grabbed my attention and had echoes of a few other contemporary vocal music styles.  What I heard was very compelling, creative, practiced, passionate.

This is mostly an a capella group though they made very effective use of harmonicas as drone material at one point.  Even after reaching my destination (achieved before the disc ended) I couldn’t bring myself to shut it off so I stayed parked and listening til I had heard the entire disc.  Yes, it was THAT compelling.

Complicating the reviewer’s task further is that the disc contains four compositions by four composers whose first appearance on this writer’s radar was from this very disc.  All four are world premiere recordings and all are by women composers.

The Quince Ensemble consists of Liz Pearse (soprano), Kayleigh Butcher (mezzo soprano), Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano), and Carrie Henneman Shaw (soprano).  And this is the fourth album dedicated entirely to this ensemble’s work.  Two previous albums were appearances and collaborations.

The featured composers are (in order of their appearance on this release): Gilda Lyons (1975- ); Laura Steenberge; Cara Haxo (1991- ); and Jennifer Jolley (1981- ).  All appear to be Calfornia based and at the beginnings of what will doubtless be some interesting careers.  I will leave it to the interested reader to look into the details available at these various web sites but, after listening to the music, most listeners will want to know more.

The pieces range from Lyon’s Bone “Needles” coming in at just over 4 minutes to the next two multiple movement pieces and finally Jolley’s “Prisoner of Conscience” which is an homage to the politically active musical group, “Pussy Riot”.  This is the longest and most political piece on the album.

From the initial (and incorrect) assumption that this would be a dull disc to the end of this listening journey I came to see this disc in quite a different light.  The cover now seems friendly and appropriately representative of the album.

Rather than go into a bland or potentially inaccurate analysis of these pieces suffice it to say that this is effective and affecting music by a delightfully talented and energetic ensemble.  If you like vocal music, political music, music by women, or are just looking for something to lift you from your daily malaise give this one a try.  You will be both challenged and entertained.  No doubt this group would be fantastic in a live performance but for now we shall have to make do with this wonderful recording.

 

 

 

February 18th, Mark Your Calendars: Other Minds 22, A Must Hear


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Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

The American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Korean composer Isang Yun (1917-1995) turn 100 this year and Other Minds 22 has a wonderful celebration that is not to be missed.  On February 18th at 7:30 PM in the beautiful, historic Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco’s famed Mission District.  This is actually only the first of two concerts which will comprise the Other Minds season 22 which is subtitled, “Pacific Rim Centennials”.  It is curated by Charles Amirkhanian, the reliable arbiter of modern musical tastes in the Bay Area and beyond.  (The second concert, scheduled for May 20, will be an all Lou Harrison concert closer to the composer’s May 14th birthday.)

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Yun Isang (1917-1995)

Harrison is well known to new music aficionados, especially on the west coast for his compositions as well as his scholarship and teaching.  His extensive catalog contains symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other such traditional classical forms as well as some of the finest of what we now call “world music” featuring instruments from non-western cultures including the Indonesian gamelan.  He is also the man responsible for the preparation and premiere of Charles Ives’ Third Symphony in 1946 which was subsequently awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Yun is perhaps less of a household name but is known for his many finely crafted compositions in the modern western classical tradition and, later, incorporating instruments and techniques from his native Korea.  He was infamously kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers in 1967 and taken from his Berlin home to South Korea where he was held and tortured due to allegations (later proven fabricated) of collaboration with North Korea.  Over two hundred composers and other artists signed a petition for his release.  After several years he was returned to his adopted home in Berlin in 1969 where he continued to compose prolifically and teach until his death in 1995.

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                              Dennis Russell Davies (from the American Composers Orchestra site)

This celebratory and memorial concert will feature world renowned artists including Grammy Award winning conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies who knew and collaborated with both Harrison and Isang.  Other artists will include pianist Maki Namekawa, violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams, percussionist William Winant (with his percussion group), and the Other Minds Ensemble.

The program is slated to consist of:

Sonata No. 3 for Piano

(1938, Lou Harrison)

Dennis Russell Davies

Kontraste I for Solo Violin

(1987, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams

Gasa, for Violin & Piano

(1963, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Grand Duo for Violin and Piano (excerpts)

(1988, Lou Harrison)

IIII. Air
II. Stampede

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Intermission

Canticle No. 3

(1941, Lou Harrison)

William Winant Percussion Group
Joanna Martin, ocarina
Brian Baumbusch, guitar
Dan Kennedy, Loren Mach, Ben Paysen, William Winant, Nick Woodbury, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Interludium A

(1982, Isang Yun)

Maki Namekawa, piano

Suite for Violin, Piano & Small Orchestra

(1951, Lou Harrison)

I. Overture
II. Elegy
III. First Gamelan
IIII. Aria
V. Second Gamelan
VI. Chorale

Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin
Maki Namekawa, piano
The Other Minds Ensemble:
Joanna Martin and Janet Woodhans, flute
Kyle Bruckman, oboe
Meredith Clark, harp
Evelyn Davis, celesta
Andrew Jamieson, tack piano
Emil Miland and Crystal Pascucci, cello
Scott Padden, bass
William Winant, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Other Minds is also co-sponsoring (with the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive) a screening of the 2015 German television produced film, Isang Yun: In Between North and South Korea on February 19th (4:15PM) at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.  Dennis Russell Davies and composer Charles Boone will also be present to discuss the film.

If you do know these composers you probably already have your tickets but if you don’t know them you owe it to yourself to check out these performances.

 

In Celebration of a Lost Culture: Sephardic Journey by the Cavatina Duo


cavaduo

Cedille CDR 9000 163

This tasty little disc of world premieres commissioned through grants to Cedille Records in Chicago consists of new works which celebrate the culture of the Sephardim, the Jews of southwestern Europe, primarily Spain.  It both memorializes and resurrects the rich music of this all but lost culture.  In the last few years we have seen a growing interest in this culture through settings of texts in the original Ladino language as well as in the melodies which sprang from their folk traditions.

The Cavatina Duo consists of Eugenia Moliner, flute and Denis Agabagic, guitar.  Moliner is originally from Spain and Agabagic is originally from Yugoslavia (now Bosnia-Herzegovina) and they are husband and wife.  Both have a strong interest in the folk musics of their respective cultures and in exploring other folk music cultures.  Their previous album for Cedille, The Balkan Project, similarly demonstrates their affection and scholarship for the cultures of that region of the world.

Five composers were commissioned for this project: Alan Thomas (1967- ), Joseph V. Williams II (1979- ), Carlos Rafael Rivera (1970- ), David Leisner (1953- ) and Clarice Assad (1978- ).  This is one of those wonderful crowd funded efforts through Kickstarter.

Thomas’ contribution adds a cello (played by David Cunliffe) to the mix for this Trio Sephardi in three movements each of which is based on a traditional Sephardic song.  The piece makes good use of the vocal qualities of the songs quoted and the lyrics seem to exist as a subtext even though they are not sung here.

Isabel by Joseph V. Williams is a sort of homage to Isabel de los Olives y López, a Sephardic woman who lived during the time of the Spanish Inquisition.  She outwardly converted to Catholicism but lived secretly as a Jew.  One can hardly miss the sad irony of this tale of religious intolerance from the 15th century and its relevance for today.  This piece is based on a resistance song which masquerades as a love song, again a metaphor for our times.  It is scored for flute and guitar.

We move again into the realm of the trio, this time with violin (played by Desiree Ruhstrat), for this piece by Carlos Rafael Rivera called, “Plegaria y Canto”.  This is the most extensive single movement amongst all the works on the disc and is a deeply affecting and dramatic piece for which the composer’s notes provide insights.

The last two pieces utilize the forces of the Avalon Quartet for whom this is their second appearance on the Cedille label.  Their first disc, Illuminations, was released last year. They are currently in residence at Northwestern University and Cedille does a great job of promoting the work of talented Chicago area musicians.

Love and Dreams of the Exile is David Leisner‘s poignant contribution.  Its three movements tell an aching tale of love, pain and, ultimately, transcendence.

Clarice Assad is a Brazilian composer too little known in the U.S.  She is indeed related to the famed Assad family of musicians and she clearly has as abundant a talent.  Her Sephardic Suite concludes this program with this three movement essay on love and relationships.

Bill Maylone is the engineer with editing by Jean Velonis and the executive producer is James Ginsburg.  Photography of the Alhambra Palace by Maureen Jameson graces the cover.  Design is by Nancy Bieshcke.

This is music of an oppressed culture and it is tempting to look upon the creative impetus which oppression sometimes seems to provide but the message here is one of sadness and nostalgia but also of hope.  It is perhaps a tribute to the ultimate triumph over said oppression even if it took 500 years.  There is some comfort and healing to be had from the celebration of this lost culture and that is the triumph of this disc.

 

 

 

The Future Was Noise


Luciano Chessa’s book, ‘Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts and the Occult is as of this writing the only book available about the Italian futurist composer other than the composer’s writings themselves.   I purchased this book with a sense of excitement having read about Russolo (1885-1947) in various references in books on 20th century music and being puzzled as to why this subject had not been dealt with in any real detail.

Well that is now no longer the case.  Chessa’s book, published in March of this year fills this scholarly musicological gap quite well.  The book provides a comprehensive picture of the cultural milieu of the Italian Futurist movement embracing visual as well as musical arts as it developed in the early twentieth century prior to, during and after the first world war and into the second.

The cultural milieu was heavily steeped in the Theosophy movement, an exploration of various ecstatic and esoteric spiritual practices which flourished as the practice of Spiritualism was waning in popularity.  Both practices shared an interest in the after life but Theosophy was perhaps more comprehensive as adherents explored various eastern religions and practices in search of answers about consciousness before, during and after life itself as well as the interactions between the material and the spiritual.  Both Spiritualism and Theosophy along with the immediate thought content philosophical theories of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) informed the futurists as they, along with the rest of society began to explore the impact and implications of the industrial revolution and discoveries like electric light, recording machines, x-rays and radio.

Having only a slight acquaintance with Theosophy and practically no acquaintance with Italian visual arts in the early twentieth century required a bit of time for me to absorb.  But there is no question that these are essential to understanding the genesis and practice of the ‘art of noises’ as Russolo named it in his 1913 manifesto.

Chessa recounts an era in which this philosophy along with fascism were the formative underpinnings of the futurist movement at the dawn of the twentieth century.  In only 230 pages of text (and 64 pages of notes and references)  he provides a wealth of information most of which was new to this writer and will likely be unfamiliar to the average reader as well.  This book opens virtually a whole new world begging to be researched and understood both for the arts the produced in that era as well as its influence on later developments in both art and music.

The futurists attempted to create new art forms that would more directly express or represent ‘thought forms’ as described by the theosophists and the world of the spirits.  The industrial age, mechanization, new media like recordings and radio transmission, x-rays all held a mystique which resulted in the questioning of philosophy and religion as well as politics much as the atomic bomb and, later, computers would shake beliefs and ideas in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Prior to the publication of this book Chessa had recreated the lost ‘Intonarumori’ which were destroyed and/or lost during the second world war.  Only one sound recording exists of this music and even the scores have been lost but Chessa has essentially resurrected the noise machines, performed with them and has had music written for them as well.  This is music which in 1914 and 1921 that provoked riots comparable to the 1913 performance of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ and presaged the work with noise by the likes of George Antheil and later John Cage.

There is no explaining the neglect of this area of art and music history but there is joy in this wonderful book which is both an intriguing tale and a fine reference work for further research.  One wonders if Chessa might now embark on further explorations of this era and perhaps even a biography of Russolo but the essential ground work has been laid here for many researches to come on this fascinating era.

The book is available in hard cover, paperback and kindle editions.  This reviewer downloaded the kindle edition which has been produced with the same care as the print editions.

 

 

RIP Hans Werner Henze


I just learned last night that the great German composer Hans Werner Henze died on Saturday October 27th at the age of 86.  I have been fascinated by this man and his music since the mid 1970s.  While generally classified as a sort of neo-romantic these days I recall the man and the music of controversy.

Henze was, for me, one of the great political composers and stands with the likes of Luigi Nono, Hans Eisler.  His compositions like ‘Essay on Pigs’, ‘The Raft of the Frigate Medusa’, ‘El Cimmaron’, and the 6th Symphony stand out as some of the finest political commentary achieved in classical music.  The premiere of The Raft of the Frigate Medusa had to be cancelled due to political protests which broke out in the concert hall and among the musicians themselves.

Though he may be better known for his wonderful operas and film scores (which I like as well) I will always remember when DGG suddenly dropped Henze from their catalog in the 1970s due to how politically hot he was.  I recall his interview in Stereo Review, I believe, where he discussed his homosexuality and denigrated his German homeland for their discriminatory practices.  Henze had moved to Italy where he spent many productive years.

Much of his music has, for me, a sort of “in your face” quality that reminds me of the expressionism of Schoenberg and the sound world of Varese.  Pieces like the Essay on Pigs will still not fail to offend, repel and fascinate listeners because of it’s dissonant style and unusual extended vocal techniques as well as the political content of the text.  One of my favorite Henze pieces will always be the noisy and very dissonant 6th Symphony which he composed during a stay in Cuba.  And while his style mellowed somewhat after that his compositional approaches were frequently pushing the envelope using tape, spoken voices and dissonances that worked well in the context of his work.

The sweeping grandiose orchestral works include ballets, 10 symphonies, various concerti.  His operas are rather frequently performed.  And his chamber music, including 5 string quartets, deserve more attention.  It is clear as to why he is considered a sort of neo-romantic and I don’t think that that is at odds with his political convictions.  Henze seems to me to have been an idealist, supporting progressive and radical political ideas as a part of his grand and all embracing  style.  Harsh sounds did not need to be excluded from his sonic pallete.  He seems to have embraced a wide variety of techniques and sustained a long and productive career.  Perhaps he was the ideal post-modern romantic.

RIP, Hans.  We go on listening.  Thank you for the sounds.

henze