Politics and Its Discontents: Sirius Quartet’s New World


siriusnewworld

ZOHO ZM 201908

This is a marvelous disc which functions well on several levels.  First it is a fine disc of new string quartet music played by wonderful musicians (who wrote most of the music here as well).  Second it is a disc of music which is designed to put forth sociopolitical reactions/opinions.  This Zoho label production succeeds quite well in these areas.

Starting with the lovely cover art by Aodán Collins, this Sirius Quartet album is their first full album since 2016.  It is, above all, a political statement, or rather, a series of political statements in the form of inventive compositions by these wonderfully talented musicians.  Each track is incredibly entertaining and each has a closely associated subtext of sorts reflecting a variety of sociopolitical issues.  The Sirius Quartet consists of Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; and Jeremy Harman, cello.

This disc contains ten works on ten tracks, each with an underlying political component.  All appear to have been written from 2016 to the present though the composition dates are not given explicitly.

The first work, Beside the Point, is by first violinist Fung Chern Hwei and it is a friendly scherzo-like piece which sets the tone for what is to come.  The composer describes this piece as his statement against discrimination and it is a plea for equality.  It is a relatively brief but very compelling work.

Next up is a track written by cellist Jeremy Harman called Currents.  It is another scherzo-like affair, slightly longer than the first piece and its political subtext is described by the composer as evoking currents of elements both dark and light whose powers affect us daily.  Another well-written and very exciting piece.

The eponymous New World, November 9, 2016 is essentially an angry lament in response to the election of Donald Trump as president on that date.  The work quotes judiciously and effectively from Dvorak and Shostakovich in the longest work here coming in at 10:16.  It relies on some extended techniques at times but is an essentially tonal work as are its companions on this disc.  This piece is also distinguished as having won the 2017 New York Philharmonic’s “New World Initiative” competition’s grand prize and it is acknowledged as the seed work which eventually spawned this entire album.

#Still by second violinist Gregor Huebner is perhaps the most gut wrenching piece here.  It’s based on the Abel Meeropol song, Strange Fruit (whose title refers to lynched bodies hanging from trees) iconically recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.  Sadly its themes remain painfully relevant today and this heartfelt plea for peace and equality is a strikingly powerful work with an adagio section which rivals the Barber Adagio in its beauty.

Huebner’s cover of the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby occupies the next track.  It is very much in keeping with the political theme of the album with the song’s words about a sad individual “buried along with her name”.  As such it is also one of the finest transcriptions/covers for string quartet that this reviewer has heard.  This is some seriously interesting writing which elevates this to a well crafted piece in it’s own right and not merely a “this string quartet plays…” generic piece.  Jazz inflections seem to invoke Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt at times and a few extended techniques remind us that we are listening in the 21st century.

More Than We Are by cellist Jeremy Harman is described as an “aspirational” composition which was written after the birth of the composer’s son, Silas.  It is an emotional piece, perhaps a paean to hope.

To a New Day by Fung Chern Hwei is, of all things, a celebration of hope for healing politics in the composer’s native country of Malaysia (politics outside of the US and Europe are important too after all).  May 9, 2018 was the date of an election whose result will hopefully heal political wounds and put that country on a more humane and progressive agenda.  There may be more specific references embedded in the music here but that must be left for listeners and musicologists to debate in the future.  It is another gorgeous example of good string quartet writing.

Hwei describes this next piece, “30th Night, Worshiping Heaven and Earth” as a “repurposed prayer”.  It is, he says, an “unapologetically Chinese/Malaysian piece” which uses a combination of Chinese folk melody and specific attention to language to suggest a subversive theme which seeks to encourage a humane approach from a traditionally oppressive government.  It is the only track with vocals.

The penultimate track is another brilliant arrangement (by Huebner) of a rock/pop song, Radio Head’s “Knives Out”.  The political content is expressed by reference to the song’s lyrics and also by musical references which are inserted throughout.  Again an experience of the cover genre that rises above the ordinary.

The album ends with an arrangement by Fung Chern Hwei of the late Stanley Myers’ lovely Cavatina from his score to “The Deer Hunter”.  Like the previous covers this one stands head and shoulders above the usual level of musical discourse for this genre.

All in all an immensely satisfying album.  Kudos to Grammy winning producer and writer (he wrote the wonderful liner notes here) Kabir Seghal and, of course, to the musicianship of this fine ensemble of composer/musicians.  Art continues to struggle in these uncertain times but its struggle can bring forth some amazing creativity and this one sounds like a winner.

 

 

Concertante Music for Flute and Clarinet


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This release is a fine example of a record label fulfilling its mission by highlighting local talent while also making very intelligent selections of repertoire.  Cedille is one of those labels whose every release is worthy of your attention.  Here is a good example of why that is so. We have here four works for the rather uncommon combination of flute and clarinet with orchestra.  Concerti for multiple instruments probably began with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti but this combination of flute and clarinet limits the repertoire choices considerably.  Nonetheless the folks at Cedille have gathered two 21st century pieces, one from the high romanticism of the late 19th century and a seldom heard gem from the late 18th century, all for these two instruments accompanied by orchestra.

Just for local interest let’s also add an opportunity for a local youth orchestra to show their considerable talents.  The Chicago Youth Symphony under conductor Allan Tinkham demonstrates the remarkably polished and mature sound of this local gem (Cedille is a Chicago label).  And Cedille, in its support of black musicians brings this marvelous pair of brothers with their expertise as soloists.  All in all a classic Cedille style release, intelligent choice of repertoire, promotion of young artists, promotion of artists of color, and quality recordings.

The disc opens with the world premiere recording of the eponymous single movement work, “Winged Creatures” (2018) by one Michael Abels (1962- ).  It is essentially a 12 minute concertante for the soloists with orchestra.  Abels is best known for having scored the brilliant horror genre film “Get Out” from 2017 (if you haven’t seen it, do make a note to yourself).

Winged Creatures is a well written mini concerto which, despite its recent vintage, tends toward a sort of neo-romantic sound.  The composer gives ample opportunity for the soloists to show their mettle and for the orchestra to demonstrate its facility with the music.  It is a delightful showpiece which seems to have a cinematic feel to it.

Next up, and this is typical of the acumen of the folks at Cedille, is a full blown, heretofore unknown (practically) Sinfonia Concertante from a lesser known contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  Franz Danzi 1763-1826).  This double concerto for flute, clarinet, and orchestra was published in 1813 and sounds like Mozart and/or early Beethoven.  It is a highly entertaining piece, one which listeners will delight in hearing again.  Who knows this piece could become a sensation in the concert hall once again.  It’s about 22 minutes in length.

The third piece is an early work by French composer, pianist, organist, Charles Camille Saint-Saens (1836-1921).  Tarantella Op. 6 (1857) was written in when the composer was only 22 years old.  This is hardly one of his best works but it is a curiosity worthy of being heard and, like most of this composer’s work, it is eminently listenable.

Finally, we have another large scale concerto (and the second world premiere on the disc), “Concert Duo” (2012) by Joel Puckett (1977- ).  In gestures classical, jazzy, contemporary, but as listenable as anything on this release, Puckett’s work in three movements has tantalizing titles for each of the movements suggesting a wealth of non-musical references.

The ample liner notes provide the listener with a guide to the joys to be heard  on this collection and the recording, as usual with this label is lucid.  You can’t go wrong with this one.

The Apotheosis of Lenny, a New Recording of “Mass”


Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The premier generated both controversy and paranoia (by Nixon and his crew) but the recording sold well.

This is by my count the fifth commercial recordings not counting the one DVD release. In addition there are numerous full performances available on YouTube. All have their individual highs and lows.

This work is in many ways the single work that embraces all the facets of a truly multifaceted composer. There is serious classical music passages, cheesy electronic music, excellent choral writing, showtunes, dancing, and, above all, political protest.

This writer fell in love with the original Columbia vinyl boxed set on the mid seventies and that recording remains a critical reference point but the joy of multiple interpretations begins to show the depth and complexity of this work. It is, in this writer’s mind this composer’s song of the earth, struggling with all its complexities both beautiful ones and sad ugly realities.

The present release is very enjoyable but is marred at points by some clunky miking if the singers. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that this is a document taken from several live performances. That makes it difficult to hear the words at times.

Nezet-Seguin is strongest in his interpretation of the orchestral parts where he elevates the discourse effectively placing Bernstein alongside the great masters who he championed as a conductor. If his and the singers’ interpretation don’t swing the way Bernstein’s own did I would assert that it’s OK to hear those passages differently. Every serious interpretation is effectively a dialogue between composer, performers, and audience. And this one is moving.

Blue Violet Duo: American Souvenirs


blueviolet

Blue Violet Records



This release actually makes a nice companion to the just recently reviewed Rachel Barton-Pine album. Both feature the classic chamber music combo of violin and piano and both bring life to American music that has languished for want of skilled and interested performers.  Let’s consider this release to be another selection in celebration of Women’s History Month.  Of course the only women here are the performers.  Alas no women made it into the mix this time.  But this is, after all, only their first release.
The Blue Violet Duo is just what is needed here.  These young artists make their recording debut with this fine selection of mid-twentieth to early twenty first century American music for violin and piano.  Included here are less familiar names such as Norman Dello Joio, Paul Schoenfeld, William Bolcom, and John Adams (if you know any names here you know this last one).  All are highly accomplished composers who work in basically a tonal language incorporating elements of blues and jazz.  Kate Carter plays violin and Louise Chan handles the keyboard in this interesting selection of lesser known but really entertaining and substantive music.  
The earliest work is the Variations and Capriccio (1948) by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008). It sets the tone for this album of jazz influenced violin and piano music.  The two movements go through a variety of moods and demand a high level of virtuosity.
Next up is the wonderful Second Violin Sonata (1978) by William Bolcom (1938- ) who is known as much as a ragtime composer as well as classical.  His embrace of so called vernacular music is characteristic of much of his work. Carter and Chan appear to have a solid grasp of vernacular styles which they incorporate seamlessly as though they belonged (which, of course they do).John Adams (1947- ) is represented by his playful, Road Movies (1995). Adams’ take on pop and vernacular musical is somehow different and the listener will realize that one of the joys here is hearing the way in which these composers respond to their encounters with popular musics.  Adams also demands much of his musicians in terms of technical expertise but his music here always remains playful.
For the last selection Paul Schoenfeld (1947- ) was chosen and he is one that deserves more attention.  Like Adams he works as a classical composer who incorporates other styles into his work. Four Souvenirs (1990) makes a fitting finale to this collection.The real joy here is having such fine renditions of lesser known repertoire.  On hearing these pieces listeners will likely want to hear them again.  The hope is that these pieces will become more regularly performed.  The Blue Violet Duo has given this repertoire a boost in that direction.  Brava!

 

Rachel Barton Pine: Black and Blue


Cedille CDR 9000 182


Rachel Barton Pine is one of the brightest lights of the solo violin in Chicago and worldwide. Her partnership with Cedille records (also a venerable Chicago based institution) has been both fruitful and revelatory.

In addition to the standard virtuoso repertoire such as Brahms and Beethoven this soloist has demonstrated a passion and a genuine interpretive feel for music by black composers. Were we living in a less racially charged time this focus would be of minor interest. But the fact remains that music by black composers, regardless of the composer’s national origin or the quality of the music, have been seriously neglected.

Indeed this soloist has become a sort of shepherd of the lost and neglected. Her recorded catalog is testament to her achievements in a really wide range of repertoire from the Bach solo violin music to neglected concertos and occasional pieces ranging from the 17th century to the present.

The present disc was an October, 2018 release I am reviewing for Black History Month. And it is a gem. No fewer than 11 composers, 5 of whom are still living. It is both an acknowledgement of some of the classics produced by black composers over the last 100 years and an introduction to new and emerging voices.

The recently deceased David N. Baker (1931-2016) is represented here in the first track, Blues (Deliver My Soul ) and provides a context immediately. The word “blues” is used to refer to the uniquely black musical form which consists of a poetic form in which the first line is repeated. The vocal styles that are the blues are probably the most recognizable aspect of this musical form. But one can’t miss the persistent subtext of the neglect of such fine music as yet another insult to widen the racial divide.

In fact many of these pieces are not, strictly speaking, blues. But that is not the main point here. Pine, along with her quite able accompanist Matthew Hagle, present a beautiful and wide ranging selection which presents some wonderful music and, for those with a conscience, illustrate what can be lost when listening choices are hampered by prejudice.

The Baker piece helps to create a context. It is followed by Coleridge-TaylorPerkinson’s (1932-2004) Blue/s Forms for solo violin. This man’s career alone is worth a book at least. His eclectic and learned musical style found him writing music for movies, television, and the concert hall. He was also versed in jazz and blues and even played drums with Max Roach for a while. These solo violin songs are a beautiful example of the composer’s melodic gifts. One can easily imagine these pieces programmed alongside the Bach solo music.

William Grant Still (1895-1978), truly the dean of black American composers, is next. His Suite for Violin and Piano is happily performed with some frequency and deserves to be recognized as one of the masterpieces by this really still too little known composer. The piece is in three movements, each a representation in music of a painting.

Noel Da Costa (1929-2002) is a new name to this writer. He hails originally from Nigeria but made his career in New York City. His “Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin” makes a nice companion to the Perkinson pieces. This is one of the world premieres on the disc. Here’s hoping we get to hear more of this man’s work.

Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960) is another unfamiliar name. His Levee Dance is next. He was one of the lesser known of the group of early twentieth century black composers which included R. Nathaniel Dett, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Florence Price, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

By far the best known name here is Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974). One out of eleven here has “household name” status. He is represented by Wendell Logan’s arrangement of, “In a Sentimental Mood”. This is the premiere of this arrangement.

Now to the living black composers. This is a forward looking recording which pays homage to the past but also acknowledges a living tradition. Dolores White (1932- ). Her “Blues Dialogues for Solo Violin” add admirably to the solo violin repertoire.

Belize born Errollyn Warren is next with her brief, “Boogie Woogie”. Warren is a composer with a wide range and, while this is a fun piece, she has composed a wealth of music for various sized ensembles including orchestra. She was the first black composer to be represented at the famed Proms concerts. Wallen was a featured composer at Other Minds in San Francisco.

A slightly longer piece by Billy Childs (1957- ), “Incident a Larpenteur Avenue” gives the listener a taste of the work of this prolific composer. This is a world premiere which was written for the soloist. Childs won a Grammy for his jazz album, “Rebirth” in 2018.

Daniel Bernard Roumain is of Haitian roots and works in New York City where he works with turntables and digital sampling to augment his classical compositions. His work, “Filter for Unaccompanied Violin” is given its world premiere recording here.

Charles S. Brown (1940- ) concludes this amazing recital with, “A Song Without Words”.

This is a rich and rewarding recital which will take the interested listener into wonderful new territories. Listen, read about these composers, enjoy their artistry. This is just a beginning.

Ken Thomson’s Amazing “Sextet”


 

thomsonsextet

Panoramic Recordings

First of all this packaging is about twice the size of a normal CD package.  It is lovingly designed by Jason Das and visually suggests a sort of nostalgia for innocence, for childhood perhaps.  The performers are all of that “New York Downtown”/modern music background and this is a set of rigorously trained musicians.    Put them together as a sextet and tap their virtuosity as well as their improvisational abilities and some clever programming and you get this album.

It is an unusual but ultimately very satisfying album.  It starts with (of all things) a transcription of music by the late Hungarian master Gyorgy Ligeti, his Pasacaglia Ungherese (1978) which is originally for harpsichord.   This is hardly a “jazz” piece and one wonders at the choice of this particular work to be the one to make that all important first impression.  The transcription (by Ken Thomson) is quite effective however and very entertaining.  I’m not sure why the it was chosen but it works well here.

This leaves us with the remaining six tracks (all composed by Ken Thomson) which are more clearly in the realm of “jazz” the way most listeners are accustomed to hearing it.  Drums keeping the beat, a recognizable bass line, and improvisational solos over the harmonic progression.  These virtuosos are given a challenge by said composer and the solos which populate these tracks are one of the best things about this release.  Clearly these musicians are comfortable with their virtuosity and they seem to understand jazz.  They got and held this listener’s attention most immediately.

The Ken Thomson Sextet consists of Ken Thomson, composer and alto saxophone; Anna Webber, tenor saxophone; Russ Johnson, trumpet; Alan Ferber, trombone; Adam Armstrong, bass; and Daniel Dor, drums.  Clearly all these folks have a thorough knowledge of jazz performance and can take their audience on a mighty exciting ride.  The solos will stick in your head long after the initial thrill of your first hearing and this is a nicely balanced group functioning almost as a single entity.  Very cool.

This is chamber jazz at its finest.

 

Telegraph Quartet Debut: Into the Light


TelegraphQuartet_IntoTheLight_AlbumCoverThis is the debut album for the Telegraph Quartet who are based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  They have chosen some curious works from the quartet repertoire to represent this nascent ensemble, Anton Webern’s Op. 5 Fünf Satze (1909, Benjamin Britten’s Three Divertimenti (1936), and Leon Kirchner’s String Quartet No. 1 (1949).

Webern is, of course well known, but relatively seldom played.  His pithy, brief, pieces belie a complexity which may delight musicologists but his music, for all of it’s craft, is never going to be a crowd pleaser like Haydn or Beethoven.  It appears that The Telegraph folks are putting together a carefully selected intro to their work.  They execute these little masterpieces with care and manage to squeeze the expression out so that the audience can begin to appreciate it.

The Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Divertimenti were unfamiliar to this listener and, doubtless, will be a pleasant surprise to many.  Britten wrote three string quartets and a few other miscellaneous pieces for quartet.  It is a bit surprising that these little Britten gems have gone with so little notice before now.  These are three brief (though not as brief as the Webern) but engaging little compositions that clearly deserve at least an occasional performance.  The Telegraphs handle these with a powerful almost romantic interpretation.  It’s hard to say not ever having heard any other performance but these are engaging pieces.

Leaving the best for last we get to hear music by Leon Kirchner (1919-2009).  This Pulitzer Prize winning composer (he won for his Third String Quartet from 1967).  Kirchner wrote 4 quartets in total which vary widely in style.  They date from 1949, 1958, 1966, and 2006 (which remains unrecorded…hint, hint).  Kirchner wrote in pretty much all genres and even worked with electronics.  It is time for a new reckoning of his work.

The first quartet is the least heard of the lot and is of a sort of romantic quality.  It is a passionate composition that is influenced by a variety of styles but it precedes his 12 tone compositions.  This quartet seems to have an affinity for romantic gesture and singing melodies and listeners will doubtless want to hear this work multiple times.

Some may recall a Columbia album from the 1970s that recorded Kirchner Schoenbergian second quartet as a “B side” to an album which contained Kirchner’s drama, Lily, based on Saul Bellow’s “The Rain King”.  That disc was almost a Kirchner sampler displaying two major aspects of the composer’s output.

All the works here are bound to please a concert audience and this little collection of works dating a forty year period from 1909 to 1949 are excellent vehicles for this ensemble which sports a lush sound and a feeling for the proper shaping of melodies.

The Telegraph Quartet consists of Joseph Maile and Eric Chin (who apparently share the role of first violin with the other taking the second violin), Pei-Ling Lin, viola, and Jeremiah Shaw cello.  It’s difficult to say how this new quartet will fare but this album suggests that they are already on their way musically and, judging from their choice of repertoire, they are likely to unearth (and probably commission) unheard delights of the quartet repertoire.  Well done!