Tim Brady’s Canadian Classical Invasion


Starkland ST-237

This is Tim Brady’s fourth Starkland release, a distinction shared by only two other composers, the late Tod Dockstader and (the delightfully very much living) Guy Klucevsek. And given the impressive track record of the Starkland label’s ability to find and promote innovative composers and performers who later achieve much wider recognition, this is an event that demands serious attention.

ST-232, released in 2019 contained works by Brady along with several associates from his “Instruments of Happiness” ensemble (and others) and is essentially a Brady album which features his “Instruments of Happiness” guitar quartet playing works by various Canadian composers.
STS-230, also a 2019 release contained Brady’s Concerto for Electric Guitar and Chamber Ensemble along with Brady’s “Eight Songs for: Symphony No. 7”
STS-224, a 2016 release, the recording premiere of this live performance guitar quartet, contained, along with a couple of shorter works by fellow Canadians, two versions of Brady’s Symphony 5.0, one for ensemble and a second version for solo guitar with electronics (arguably Brady’s first solo guitar symphony but the original version is for this guitar quartet).

With a catalog presently numbering some 39 plus CDs and a CV that boasts 4 operas and a massive catalog of compositions for ensembles ranging from solo to large orchestra, this proudly Canadian composer has mounted (metaphorically, of course) an invasion from the United State’s northern border of his distinctive artistic vision prompting this reviewer to suggest a comparison to the pop “invasion” of the Beatles in the early 60s.

Track listing

My admittedly tongue in cheek Beatles comparison is not meant to eclipse the incredible artistry of this obviously very industrious artist. My previous reviews compared his work to electric guitar giants like Rhys Chatham and the late Glenn Branca. But this only serves to illuminate a fraction of this man’s work. I invite listeners to peruse his well organized website to get a perspective.

But let me get back to this release. It is undoubtedly a bold move to use the term “symphony” to describe a work for a solo artist. Charles Valentine Alkan (1813-1888) wrote a symphony for solo piano (opus 39 nos. 4-10 from 1857) Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) referred to his third piano sonata (1922) as a symphony and later wrote six more symphonies for solo piano between 1938 and 1976. And more recently the late Glenn Branca (1948-2018) wrote several works for various configurations of guitars he called symphonies. But this is the first symphony written expressly for solo guitar as far as I can determine.

“Symphony in 18 Parts for solo electric guitar (2021) – 50 minutes
For solo electric guitar, FX pedals and looper, in 18 movements” as it is listed on the composer’s website is (if I counted correctly) his 8th Symphony. Brady apparently numbers his symphonies in order of composition without reference to instrumentation. While several of his symphonies involve one or more electric guitars, this is the first solo guitar work to which he gives the weighty title of “Symphony” (unless, as noted above, you count the solo version of Symphony No. 5).

The term “symphony” carries with it connotations, at least, of grandeur, painstaking structure, and serious music making. And this work is very serious and meticulously constructed. It is, of course, reflective of a mid career composer who has written a great deal and has learned from that experience. It has as much a right to be called a “symphony” as any similarly large and painstakingly written piece of music.

First, let me say that, other than a tendency to use one (or a lot more than one) electric guitar in his music, Brady’s music has relatively little in common with Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. In fact, Brady seems to have more in common with Steve Reich and Elliott Sharp. But while Chatham and Branca emerged from a music scene dominated by punk in all its iterations, Brady seems more connected to the Beatles and Les Paul.

The work is divided into 18 sections, each running a modest 1.5 to just under 5 minutes. It is a structure similar in this listeners mind to American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2008), whose Symphony No. 9 (1949-50) “St. Vartan”, a similarly epic masterpiece in no fewer than 24 short movements. It is the interrelatedness of those movements that make them a part of the whole symphony. And so it is with Brady’s Symphony. David Lang (Pulitzer Prize Winner and founding Bang on a Can” member) says essentially this in his segment of the liner notes that come with the recording. Tim Brady acknowledges much the same in his segment of the liner notes.

The cover art by fellow adventuring guitarist and composer Elliott Sharp is functionally an homage to Brady and his work. The recording by Tim Brady and Morris Apelbaum, mastered by Brady, Apelbaum, and John Klepko is lucid (and great on headphones especially when Brady pans the sounds across the stereo field).

The 18 movements all have titles which are metaphorically related to the music therein. David Lang aptly describes these varied and intense movements as sort of biographical statements about what the composer can do with his instrument. Each movement has both form and development much as one would expect of a symphonic movement.

On the one hand, this symphony is not easy listening. On the other hand it is likely catnip to electric guitarists as well as to new music enthusiasts including your humble reviewer. Brady’s Canadian invasion, far from a takeover, is simply a musician sharing his substantial art from across the northern border and presenting his latest efforts. Like the Beatles, Brady deserves to be welcomed. This prolific composer/performer/teacher/innovator has interesting things to say.

At first I attempted to write something about each of the 18 movements but I don’t think that would have added anything useful for prospective listeners. This piece taken as a whole most aptly deserves the descriptor “tour de force” as each movement seems to have its own character deriving from the composer’s use of various (apparently deeply studied and judiciously chosen) techniques and ideas which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the listener, sometimes with sheer volume, sometimes with dazzling virtuosity, sometimes with softness, sometimes with silence, and always with interesting ideas.

In some ways this is a collections of ideas and techniques the composer has amassed over some 50 + years of playing. Each movement seems to be a more or less self contained exposition of playing techniques and the composers own approach to harmony and invention. That sounds potentially very dull but this is not a collection of etudes didactically accounting for and crystallizing his ideas. It is the organic appropriation of personal achievements in developing his compositional style. And it is an homage to electric guitarists that preceded him. Not a textbook as much as perhaps a signpost defining his present stage of development even as he moves forward with other projects.

I suppose one could challenge the notion of calling this a work for solo guitar given the effects pedals, looping systems, etc. but the use of electronics and looping techniques as a compositional aid or method is so ubiquitous that point is moot. Call it what you like but just listen. Let the music flow over your ears. At the very least this is a defining milestone in Brady’s long and productive career. It’s hard to to imagine what he might do next but I’m sure he’ll think of something.

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Catalyzing Blackness, Volume Three: The Catalyst Quartet plays 20th Century music by Black Americans


This is the third volume in the Catalyst Quartet’s wonderful and insightful survey of neglected works by black composers. The first focused on music by the black English composer Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1875-1912), the second on music of late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century American composer Florence Price (1887-1953). The present disc focuses on the works of three men whose musical careers were entirely in the twentieth century: William Grant Still (1895-1978), George Walker (1922-2018), and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004).

William Grant Still is roughly contemporary with Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Copland has often been called the “Dean of American Composers” and Still has been called the “Dean of Afro-American Composers”. Such honorifics, while well intended, do nothing to describe the true depth and significance of either of these composers.

Similarly their best known works, Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (1944), and Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” (1930) are fine pieces of music but cannot represent the whole of their respective authors’ outputs. Both produced quite a bit of music and went through stylistic changes as their artistic sensibilities evolved. Copland’s oeuvre is pretty well documented, allowing listeners to grasp its entirety while Still’s work has not enjoyed the same distinction. That is changing, slowly, and that is reason to celebrate.

The Catalyst Quartet (Karla Donehew Perez, violin; Abi Fayette, violin; Paul Laraia, viola; and Karlos Rodriguez, cello) from their website

Still is represented here by his “Lyric Quartette” (published in 1960 but likely written 1939-1945). These three movements for string quartet are intended to represent a plantation, the mountains of Peru, and a pioneer settlement, respectively. This appears to be the first commercial recording of the work, a set of vignettes (Still never wrote a string quartet as such) seemingly published as an afterthought after looking back over his files. That’s not to denigrate the music. It is finely crafted and reflects a composer closer to the folk eclecticism of his contemporaries William L. Dawson (1899-1980) whose use of folk idioms resembles that of Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), two white contemporaries (rather than his later more post romantic style). These composers’ use of folk idioms and the comforting tonal harmonies, very much in vogue when the music was first written, sound rather old fashioned in their year of the Lyric Quartette’s publication. Nonetheless, it is a vital work in understanding Still and his development as a composer. This would make for a great encore or second selection following a Haydn or Mozart Quartet.

George Walker was a sought after concert pianist and he forever holds the distinction of being the first Black American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music (for his 1996 “Lilacs” for voice and orchestra). I learned from one of my personal favorite Chicago broadcasters that he, Bruce Duffie (WNIB host 1975-2001) played Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” (1946, orch. 1990) as the final sign off music at the closing of the beloved independent station (reportedly very satisfying to that terminal audience). The link provided is to a transcript of his subsequent conversation he had with Walker in 2001, worth your time to read.

So what does all this have to do with this release? Well, that, “Lyric for strings” is actually Walker’s orchestration for string orchestra of the second movement, “molto adagio“ of his three movement String Quartet No.1 (1946) “Lyric”. Samuel Barber garnered a great audience with his “Adagio for Strings” from the molto adagio of his String Quartet (1935-36).

The outer movements (1 and 3) of Walker’s quartet (carefully conceived and thoughtfully developed at length) frame the beautiful adagio with a passionate elaborately developed allegro and a high energy, virtuosic finale (much as in the Barber work). The quartet’s title, derived from the slow movement which was originally titled “lament” is dedicated to Walker’s grandmother, a former slave. A very different perspective of America, for sure, but a truly spectacular example of string quartet writing.

I wrote my review in chronological order to clarify my narrative but the actual track order is:

String Quartet No. 1 “Calvary” Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004)

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio
  3. Allegro vivace
    Lyric Quartet William Grant Still (1895-1978)
  4. The Sentimental One
  5. The Quiet One
  6. The Jovial One
    String Quartet No. 1 “Lyric” George Walker (1922-2018)
  7. Allegro
  8. Molto adagio
  9. Allegro con fuoco

So String Quartet No. 1 “Calvary” (1956) by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson is leaving the most recent for last. This work, shares with the other two it’s having been written fairly early in the composer’s career (he was about 24 when he wrote this piece, Still was in his 40s and Walker about 24 when they wrote their respective quartets). So Catalyst adheres to these important but early utterances from these three important artists. And for clarity the name permutations we encounter here comprise: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is the English poet, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is the black English composer honorifically named after that poet, and Coleridge Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004) the black American composer honorifically named in honor of said English composer.

This is another outstanding but neglected American composer who happens to be black. This fine string quartet is defined by its serious tone and elaborate development in a passionate romantic tonal idiom. Of course the composer shares his prominent jazz (Perkins was nothing if not eclectic) influences in rhythms and harmonic structure. Based loosely on the hymn, “Calvary” from which it takes its name, it was actually premiered in Carnegie Hall as part of a memorial for composer and baritone Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949). The opening allegro is a searching and unsettling matter followed by a calming slow movement characterized by an incessant pizzicato repeating figure. The finale, a touch more hopeful sounds almost improvisatory at times much in the manner of some jazz forms. Truly another outstanding example of good string quartet writing. This is powerful music!

These recordings are both beautifully done and, arguably, definitive in their interpretation of these delightful and essential additions to the quartet literature. The Catalyst does a fine and honorable job in their ongoing mission to reclaim forgotten gems such as these for present and future listeners. Thank you for that. Please keep working on this body of work lest it be lost to history.

The End of the Beginning: Sarah Cahill’s “The Future is Female” Trilogy Completed


First Hand Records FHR 133

This release completes Sarah Cahill’s monumental survey of piano music written by women which saw its first two CD volumes last year.last year. This, the third volume titled “At Play”, follows the first two as seen below. This trilogy is not, of course, the last word, the end on the subject of piano works by women. There can be no last word but these selections are a reflection of Cahill’s perspective as a performer but also a producer/programmer whose scholarship and advocacy are well known and respected worldwide. These releases speak to women, certainly. But they also speak to audiences in general, producers, and fellow musicians. They comprise a careful sampling of some three hundred years of music which effectively demonstrates that “there’s gold in them thar hills” (after all Cahill is a Californian). Here’s hoping that this survey will help start a metaphorical gold rush to unearth the gold that can be found in this neglected music.

Other Minds OM 1022-2

I recall my fascination with Cahill’s earlier commissioning project which resulted in her CD “A Sweeter Music” (2013). I recall attending a very preliminary recital at Mills College where she did brief run through of some of the compositions and spoke about the project. She later toured the music (sometimes with John Sanborn’s wonderful accompanying visuals, sometimes without). Little did Cahill know that she hit upon a genre of classical music dear to this listener’s heart, that of politically inflected classical music. As a result, my interest in her artistry and choices of repertoire escalated tremendously (I heard two of her Bay Area recitals of this music and reviewed the recording in the early incarnation of this very blog). So another project, this time supporting female composers, with even greater dimension than that earlier project has similarly grabbed my attention in this landmark collection of music by women composers which has largely been neglected by mainstream artists, producers, and programmers.

This trilogy of recordings hardly solves the egregious neglect of this music but it does contribute rather authoritatively to the canon (there is one now) of music by non-male composers. Cahill is not the first artist to do this, and there are multiple ongoing projects exploring the work of female composers, but this project deserves top billing as it casts a mighty wide net with its three volumes covering about 300 years (of neglect). These recordings of some 30 pieces are but a fraction of music by women composers in this pianist’s repertoire. But, more than simply righting wrongs, this is about celebrating a legacy of artists getting their due recognition. (The “bad idea” Biblical metaphor of hiding a lamp beneath a basket comes to mind). Just look, er, listen at/to what’s been under that basket!

Cahill playing at the Chapel of the Chimes Solstice Concerts in 2013, a major annual Bay Area event created and managed by her. (Photo by Allan Cronin Creative Commons License)

This now completed trilogy doubtless will not mark the end of Cahill’s advocacy but it will stand as a major manifesto of sorts and will hopefully bring more performers and producers to be open to performing and recording them. Simply hearing these recordings exposes the listener to music of stunning substance selected by an artist whose curatorial radar is finely tuned and whose choices will speak definitively to listeners (and likely fellow performing artists) for years to come. (N.B. Listeners would do well to check out Cahill’s YouTube channel where one can find a gold mine of music which reflects the scope of her performances and advocacy, not just for women composers, but for an amazing range of artists.)

This third volume is entitled, “At Play”. Like the previously released volumes, this collection gets a collective title that vaguely hints at the character of the music herein. The sequencing of the music is, like the previous two volumes, pretty much chronological. The essential program notes by Ms. Cahill (in all three volumes) provide just enough background to provide useful contexts for the listener. And you have to love the “Cahill and friends” photo galleries (on each volume) reflecting the deeply personal nature of this undertaking. That may sound hyperbolic but just listen to this music and feel the love, the passion, the connections, the sincerity, and the incisive playing. (Should I throw in a “Pied Piper” metaphor?) Listen and you’ll likely get hooked.

Track listings

There are 16 tracks comprising nine works by nine female composers over nearly three centuries. Four of the nine works receive here receive their first (or first commercial) recordings. As noted earlier, the track sequence is chronological. (N.B. That makes 30 + works over the 3 CDs), a little less than half of the total commissions.

We begin with the last of 9 sonatas by Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836). Her lifespan covers the classical to the early romantic eras in western musical history but recordings of her music didn’t begin to appear until about 2006 when Jérôme Dorival published a biography of her. Listeners will likely find this music similar to that of Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven but with a level of virtuosic writing that anticipates Chopin and Liszt. This three movement sonata was published in 1811. This is apparently the second recording of this work as another new music champion, Nicolas Horvath, released a recording of all nine of these in 2021, further testament that time has come for this composer (and perhaps women composers in general).

Next is the Thème varié, Op. 98 (1895) by Cécile CHAMINADE (1857–1944). This late romantic composer is probably the only name with which most listeners may be acquainted. A recording of her Concertino for flute and orchestra (1902) continues to receive attention by classical broadcasters but most of her work remains very little known. Cahill makes a strong case for this music with her interpretation of this virtuosic early romantic styled work. She is far better known in her native France. It is time we see what the French have been hiding.

Grażyna BACEWICZ (1909–1969), represented here by her Scherzo (1934), has gotten recognition in her native Poland but has only fairly recently become known internationally. This early work, less modernist than her later work, has apparently been recorded before but is new to this reviewer’s ears. Bacewicz was a prolific composer and this fine piece, a virtuosic showpiece, is likely to encourage listeners to further explore her extensive catalog which includes Symphonies, Concertos for violin, viola, cello, and for piano, 7 string quartets, symphonies, operas, songs, and much more.

Now Cahill brings us into present time, featuring living composers, beginning with the music of Chinese-American composer Chen YI (b. 1953). Guessing (1989) is a small piano piece which incorporates a Chinese folk song in a set of variations.

This is the first commercial recording of this music. To be honest, I am not familiar with much of this composer’s work (nor most of them here) save for Oliveros and Wong) but this piece as with all the selections here are sufficiently intriguing to prompt listeners to explore further. That is the point of an anthology such as this, to spark curiosity, suggest another path for the journey. Mission accomplished.

Franghiz ALI-ZADEH (b. 1947), born in Azerbaijan, incorporates elements from her ethnic heritage into modern classical idioms. Music for Piano (1989/1997) utilizes Cagean-like preparations, in this case a glass beaded necklace laid across the strings. The resulting sound, evoking Alan Hovhaness and/or Henry Cowell at times, is intended to evoke that of the traditional Azerbaijani string instrument called “tar” (not a reference to the recent film). The composers use of different scales also seems to derive from folk models. The piece is in several sections delineated by dynamics and by register in which is, I believe, an ingenious use of register used to control when to allow for those prepared strings to sound. The piece is by a composer with a wide expressive pallete and the ability to use those methods judiciously toward her unique creative ends.

Next, in the briefest entry at just over 4 minutes, we get one piece from a set of commissions (all by women composers) Cahill made to honor the 100th birthday of American composer Ruth Crawford (1901-1953). Pauline OLIVEROS (1932–2016) submitted this work (her first notated composition since the 60s) which uses her own unique approach to indeterminate composition in Quintuplets Play Pen: Homage to Ruth Crawford (2001), here in its world premiere recording. Oliveros, who exerted a profound influence on a generation of composers, performers, and listeners via her work in electronic music and improvisation, but most powerfully via her “Deep Listening” concepts which effectively define the role of the listener as being a part of the compositional process.

A clearly happy Pauline Oliveros acknowledges the warm applause of the Other Minds 20 audience after her performance at the SF Jazz Center in 2015. Her gentle spirit and powerful intellect preside over this trilogy and continue to influence all who knew her and her work. She would have loved these recordings. (Photo by Allan Cronin Creative Commons license)
I’m claiming fair use in publishing this lovely photo ad for an expensive perfume inspired by the same poem. Kinda Freudian, no?

Hannah KENDALL (b. 1984) is a black British composer whose three movement “On the Chequer’d Field Array’d” (2013) is based on the 1763 poem Caissa by Sir William Jones and depicts the three sections
of a game of chess. The lengthy Elizabethan styled poem can easily be read as protofeminist given that the female chess piece heroically wins. Read it if you don’t believe me. And there are musical metaphors as well. It is these: mindplay, middlegame, and coda into which the work is divided. The music, like the poem is an intimate perspective which invites the reader (or hearer of the music) to create their own meanings here.

Aida SHIRAZI (b. 1987), an Iranian born composer, takes the performer inside the piano. Her blandly titled, “Albumblatt” (2017) belies her deep understanding of the piano and its possibilities. This is arguably the most avant garde (or modernist if you prefer) composition of the trilogy. Cahill’s choices reflect her eclectic approach to music programming.

In addition to a chronological approach, this trilogy is stylistically diverse. This music borrows from forbears such as John Cage and Morton Feldman as well as Henry Cowell. This meditative music only reveals itself fully to the focused listener. This is like an etude comprised of sounds you rarely hear (intentionally) from a piano. Played much of the time inside the piano but also at the keyboard more conventionally, the piece also demands close attention to dynamics (down to silence). Here is where the recordist’s art shines through. The subtleties of dynamics and the ability to capture the variety of harmonics evoked. Of course said performer had to accomplish rather large postural changes and do so silently if the performance adheres to the score, lol. And both are accomplished here in what sounds like a single take. This is a pretty great listen.

Regina HARRIS BAIOCCHI (b. 1956), a native Chicagoan poet and composer is given the last word with her, “Piano Poems” (2020). Last but not least by any means is a testament to Cahill’s singular but relevant choices as well as her advocacy of young composers as their stars begin to rise. This artist is new on my radar but one that will remain there. As both poet and composer, this young artist, commissioned by Cahill with a request that the music be about poetry, specifically by fellow (adopted) Chicagoans Gwendoline Brooks (one of this formerly Chicagoan reviewer’s personal faves) and Richard Wright.

The response was these 4 meditations on Brooks, Wright, and on the composer’s own poetical musings. The language here seemingly derives, appropriately, from 30s to 40s jazz of Ellington and Basie and a seemingly latter day version of that in the last two pieces describing the composer’s own literary utterances. Both virtuosic and apparently written by a composer very familiar with the instrument, a fitting and hopeful glimpse to the future.

Each of these discs contains at least one piece that reflects a deeper than average commitment by the performer. Cahill’s collaborative wok (with Dr. John DesMarteau) in the Agi Jambor sonata in volume I, her advocacy of Teresa Wong premiering the first performance of (She dances Naked…),the justly celebrated bay area artist’s selection on volume II. And her reaching out to Regina HARRIS BAIOCCHI for a commission (in volume III) all reflect another valued aspect of this performer.

The recording by Matt Carr is very listener friendly demonstrating serious skills at times in dealing with the many sonic challenges. This album and its two predecessors belong in any serious collector’s library. If the future is indeed female, then this is a fine soundtrack. Listeners, performers, Brava!!

Agnese Toniutti‘s New Music Vision


Neuma 172

This is the most recent recording by Italian pianist Agnese Toniutti. (her third release by my research). It is also the most recent recording of John Cage’s masterful Sonatas and Interludes (1946-8) for prepared piano, a defining work for that unusual instrument. It has been recorded at least 30 times but is rather rarely heard in live performance.

John Cage is perhaps best known for his challenges to the philosophy and the very definition of music itself epitomized in his infamous silent piece titled 4’33” premiered in 1952. The composer eschewed the notion of a “masterpiece” but irony loving “fate” would hand him that title at least for this set of pieces.

Toniutti, a graduate of The Conservatory of Venice, seems to be as much a researcher and activist as she is a widely skilled pianist. While doubtless schooled in the commonly played repertoire for her instrument, she favors new music and music undeservedly neglected in her performances and recordings as well as the commissioning of new works and finding yet unplayed that strike her fancy.

The Sonatas and Interludes, now some 80 years old doesn’t really qualify as “new music” per se nor can it really be called neglected having been recorded 30+ times. In the context of this release this cycle of pieces seems to function much as a new recording of the Goldberg Variations or the late Beethoven Sonatas might function to introduce the skills of a musician whose trajectory was aimed at the conventional recital hall circuit. Toniutti clearly has other plans.

I won’t attempt to compare this most recent interpretation to the other available recordings. I believe this recording does much to validate the music as an essential work in the western canon of art music and to display the estimable understanding and widely skilled competence of the performer whose work is and will continue to embrace new music and advocate for that music to earn an esteemed place in the minds and hearts of listeners and other performers.

This is a very enjoyable recording whether it is to be a collector’s only recording of this music or one that stands most favorably in comparison to previous recordings. If this is to be your first recording of this work or if you simply want to hear another interpretation, you will not be disappointed. This is a wonderful performance.

Pianist Agnese Toniutti previously released a very forward looking recording on Neuma Records. The 2021 release pictured below is a collection of much more recent music. I listened numerous times and didn’t feel I “got it” well enough to say something reasonably intelligent (if not insightful) until this second release. And while I may not fully understand these “subtle matters” I now have a better context.

Neuma 138

This collection which I had yet to review represents Toniutti’s understanding and appreciation as well as her apparent mission to expand the experimental repertoire for piano. Here is a fascinating set of composers, each with a unique view of her instrument. Just listen, trust this artist. You’ll be glad you did.

Track listing

Keep your eyes and ears open for Agnese Toniutti, an advocate for and a master of the avant garde. And to Ms. Toniutti, I greet you at the beginning of a great career.

Igor Levit: Defining Tristan


Sony 194399434826 2 CD

Igor Levit is a man of vision and of multiple talents. His pianistic skills and his vast knowledge of repertoire are pretty much unquestioned at this point. His vision is evidenced by his very personal choices in choosing what he will play and record. In my first encounter with this artist, his three disc survey of large keyboard variation works spanning three centuries including Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United…” suggested that this piece represent the 20 century with the Beethoven “Diabelli Variations” representing the 19th century, and Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” the 18th, and virtually the origin of the form.

I have not heard all of Levit’s albums but those I have seem a similar pattern in his choices of what to record. They seem to serve his vision of choosing works for which he makes the case that they be included in the common concert hall repertoire. His inclusion of Ronald Stevenson’s monumental “Variations on DSCH” alongside the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues effectively issued a challenge to his fellow artists to consider including those masterworks in the canon of music commonly played in concert halls.

The two disc set considered here seems to follow that same pattern. In “Tristan”, Levit makes provocative and unusual but ultimately intelligent choices of what to play.

Here, Levit makes a charming choice of performing the late, great Hungarian pianist, composer, and conductor Zoltan Kocsis whose transcription of Wagner’s “Tristan Prelude” (1857-9) for piano is basically the seed from which this quasi-concept album grows. And finally, in another brilliant move, he includes Ronald Stevenson’s piano transcription of the gorgeous, angst ridden Adagio of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony 1910-11), making at least the suggestion of a connection between the 19th century of Wagner’s landmark opera and, via Mahler’s post romanticism to Henze’s 20th century Tristan whose inspiration was garnered from that same medieval epic poem.

The centerpiece here is obviously Hans Werner Henze’s “Tristan Preludes” (1974) for piano, orchestra, and tape (a rare but effective choice by this composer). He pairs this large work with curiously connected pieces such as Liszt’s very familiar “Liebestraum No. 3“ (1850), and the less familiar Transcendental Etude, “Harmonies du soir” (1851). Liszt, a contemporary and supporter of Wagner, was the virtuosic showman, the “Liberace” of his day. This helps provide the listener a historical context as well as a contrast to the severe intensity and harmonic rebellion of Wagner’s “Tristan”.

Surprisingly, as far as I can tell, this is only the second recording of this major Henze work (wonderfully conducted by the fine Franz Welser-Möst) and likely the first recording of the Kocsis and Stevenson transcriptions. I have no doubt the Liszt selections have received much attention but they are critical here to Levit’s appropriately lofty (and very much romantic) vision, that of garnering a deserved place for all of this music to be kept alive both in recordings and the concert hall.

Levit’s playing is slow paced, full of romantic angst, and full of nuance. His pacing and his use of a wide dynamic range create an atmosphere that is both dark, and meditative. This album has the deep substance of Levit’s personal vision, a glory to behold. The gauntlet has been laid down.

Collider, The Marvelous Music of Daniel Bjarnason






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

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

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

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

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

Ann Millikan’s Symphony


millikansym

The combination of Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project alone are reasons to buy this disc.  The process of discovering new music can be an arduous task with few hints along the way.  However certain musical gurus have been very helpful to this writer and one of the finest is Mr. Rose and his orchestra.  His curation and the dedication of these incredible musicians pretty much guarantees a satisfying listening experience. The useful liner notes by Bay Area music maven Sarah Cahill also serve to recommend this disc.

If those accolades are not enough for you let me tell you that this was my first encounter with this composer so I went in with few expectations and no negative prejudices.  What I found was a hugely entertaining work of deep substance which grows on the listener with each run through.

The work is in four movements, each concerned with each focused upon one theme or idea related to the life of Robert Millikan, the composer’s brother. The movements are, “science”, “animals”, “rowing”, and “violin”. Each one describes an aspect of his life and, while elegy is a part of the intent in this music (which it does well), each one stands on its own musically and the work entertains on a purely musical level as well.

That last movement is virtually a violin concerto and seems among the most personal of the four. No doubt there are many personal references but the overall feeling is celebratory, the step just past mourning.

All in all a great listening experience which will send this listener on a quest for more of this composer’s work.

Grand Celebrations of Finnish Culture


BIS- 9048 SACD

 

The choice of repertoire, performers, and the quality of their recordings make any BIS records release worthy of attention.  This two disc set is a fine example.  Three major choral/orchestral works which celebrate the justly proud Finnish culture are given very fine performances in this live recording from 2016.

The earliest work, Jean Sibelius’ Kullervo Op. 7 (1892) is one of the less recognized masterpieces by Finland’s best known composer.  Based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, this massive symphony has acquired a bit of its own mythology.  Though several recordings of this work now exist the world world premiere recording by the late Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) from the early 1970s brought this neglected masterpiece to a larger listening audience.  The intelligent liner notes by Andrew Barnett (and Olli Kortekangas) document and dispel the myths that Sibelius suppressed all or portions of this work which was premiered in 1892 yet had to wait until after the composer’s death in 1957 to receive its first twentieth century performance.  

In fact it seems more likely that the large forces required along with programmers’ preference for the composer’s later masterpieces were responsible for the unfortunate neglect of the present work.  It was the more romantically inclined myth of mysterious oppression that greeted Berglund’s triumphant premiere recording and this reviewer recalls being both charmed and intrigued by it.  Whatever the story the music is now a recognized early triumph by its creator and it is given a gorgeous reading by Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, (principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra which plays powerfully and definitively.

So why a second disc?  Well, Maestro Vänskä saw fit to commission a new work by contemporary Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas to serve as a companion piece to Kullervo and, then include a version with chorus of Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia.  Together these three works would very satisfyingly fill an entire concert program.

Olli Kortekangas (1955- ) chose poetry by Finnish-American poet Sheila Packa and composed a 7 movement work (three are interludes for orchestra alone) in celebration of the 150th anniversary of modern Finnish migration to the United States.  The work, Migration (2014), is similar in orchestration with its use of male chorus and two soloists backed by a large orchestra.  The composer’s style is a sort of 21st century romantic style with tasteful modern touches.  

The focus of this fine new work is an affirmation of Finnish culture and its impact on the United States.  It seems both fitting and satisfying then that this program conclude with the landmark work of Finnish pride and nationalism, Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia (1899).  But rather than just another reading of this classic of the concert hall  Vänskä chooses to do a version with chorus.  This was not the composer’s original intent but this version fits remarkably well in the context of this album.  

This is a very enjoyable album, well conceived and executed in every way.  Soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Tommi Hakala sing their roles with skill and passion as does the YL Male Voice Choir.  The applause track at the end of the Finlandia performance echoed the emotional experience of this reviewer and will likely do so for anyone who chooses to avail themselves of this fine example of recording art.

Next Gen Steve Reich: Two Great New Recordings


One of the hurdles on the way to long-term historical recognition is finding the next generation of interpreters for whom the music itself is not new but whose interpretation is needed anew in light of the music’s place in the canon of performed and recorded music. So Mr. Reich has now arrived in two fantastic new recordings.


The first CD here is the Cedille (Cedille 90000 161) label debut by Third Coast Percussion, a young Chicago based group.  The label itself is reason enough to pay attention with their intelligently selected and well-recorded releases.  But even so this one stands out for a couple of reasons.

As  Reich reaches his 80th birthday (as are many composers whose work informed my listening life since the 70s) we are seeing the next generation (or so)  of performers, musicians for whom this music is not new.  (Third Coast Percussion is Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore. They were founded in Chicago in 2005.). As these dedicated musicians traverse this repertoire they see it from a different perspective and they acknowledge this in the accompanying notes by Robert Dillon.  No doubt they are familiar with the music and have heard some if not all previous recordings. This music is no longer new and novel the way it was to those who first heard it.  And that is what we have here, a new take on music already familiar giving us the perspective of another generation.

The second reason to get this recording is the sheer beauty of the sound.  It is a masterpiece of recorded sound which does justice to the work of these fine musicians as well as the music.  The album was recorded at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (where Third Coast is in residency).  Dan Nichols was the engineer assisted by Matt Ponio.  It was mastered by Jessie Lewis and Kyle Pyke.
The CD opens with the recent Mallett Quartet (2009) which has been recorded only once before.  The piece is in three sections fast-slow-fast split over the first three tracks.  It is one of Reich’s finest compositions showing him as a still vital artist and it will no doubt receive many more performances but it would be hard to imagine a better recording.

The second selection is, for this writer, one of Reich’s more unusual pieces.  The Sextet (1984) is scored for two keyboards (pianos doubling synthesizers used for long held tones) and percussion.  David Friend and Oliver Hagen lend their formidable keyboard skills to this work and help it to swing.

I must admit that this performance has resulted in me giving this work some serious close listening again and I am liking it better.  Some of these movements seem like precursors to some of the writing in Reich’s wonderful The Four Sections (1987), another work that deserves more attention.

The brief but lovely Nagoya Marimbas (1994) is pretty much an accepted staple of the classical marimba repertoire and has also been transcribed and performed on guitars as well.  As with the preceding the performance is faithful and lively.

For the final track a decision was made to go back to early in Reich’s output with Music for Pieces of Wood (1973).  As with much of his early work we see his experimental side focusing as much as possible on a single process.  It uses the same rhythmic pattern as the 1972 Clapping Music but uses additive rather than phasing techniques (I believe), a great example of the roots of minimalism.  The group does some toying with the choice of percussion but, as in the preceding tracks, manage to create a performance worthy of the best interpreters in their generation.  Happy Birthday Mr. Reich!!


This second CD (New Focus fcr 165) is another aspect of crafting a legitimate new interpretation of a given piece of music.  Guitarist Daniel Lippel goes back to some of the roots of Reich’s mature style, Ghanaian drumming.  Reich seems to have achieved his personal artistic synthesis after his encounter and study with the master drummers of Ghana.  It is here that he was finally able to synthesize the gifts received from his study of jazz (Reich was/is a jazz drummer) and his tape music experiments into the larger forms for which he is now known through these studies with West African musicians.  And it is here that Lippel goes, with an assist from musicologist Martin Scherzinger, to create his (re)vision of this classic Reich composition.

Electric Counterpoint (1987) was written for and first recorded by the still wonderful jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.  His recording is certainly definitive but, as with all music performance, hardly the last word.  Several artists have presented their versions (David Tanenbaum’s acoustic guitar version deserves more attention by the way).  It is a very appealing and interesting piece cast in a classic fast-slow-fast format that presents formidable challenges for the musician but not for the listener.

It is difficult (and certainly beyond the scope of this review) to say specifically what Mr. Lippel has done differently but there is clearly a difference (further notes can be found here).  I am loathe to find adjectives to describe this recording except to say that it is well worth your time to hear it.  It provides a different way of hearing much as Glenn Gould has done for Bach.  Just sit back and enjoy.

Getting the Oboe (et al) to Stand on Its Own, Catherine Lee


    Connections can be fascinating and not long after publishing my review of Emily Doolittle’s  release here I received, in addition to a stunning number of readers for that article, a CD by one of her fellow musicians featuring another of Doolittle’s interesting works alongside four other works for solo oboe (or English Horn or Oboe d’amore).  Though certainly kind and timely I did not relish the idea of being subjected to even this short CD single of a soloist with no accompanying musicians playing a series of unknown soliloquies.  My concern was that of having to endure the sincere efforts of a musician who is convinced of her instruments’ solo potentials and who labors to prove this to all but hardly gets past technical achievement like a recording I once heard of the Bach Cello Suites played on a Double Bass, interesting as a technical achievement but…

My fears were clearly unfounded as I listened to each track.  Patience turned to excitement and I think I’ve now heard a sort of new breed of instrumental specialist.  Lee plays oboe as well as the closely related English Horn and the very little known Oboe d’amore with expertise.  But she is not a specialist in the “period ensemble” genre per se. Rather her focus is on the potentialities of her instruments as vehicles for new music, improvisation and solo performances.  There seems to be little threat of a forthcoming rendition of the Telemann Flute Fantasies played on one or all of those.  Instead we have a gifted musician who seems poised to shepherd these instruments into new adventures in the 21st century.

The album consists of 5 tracks, all less than nine minutes in duration but each is a fully realized composition lovingly interpreted by this performer.  I am only familiar with one of the composers here, Emily Doolittle whose Social Sounds from Whales at Night (2007) is the only track which features any accompaniment.  It is a good example of Doolittle’s potentially groundbreaking work with animal sounds.  The other tracks manage to rise above the level of mere effects-ridden etudes to the level of compositions that define their own sound world and subjugate that world to artistic expression.  Very interesting listening.

From the first track it is clear that this is a musician with a deep understanding of the expressive possibilities of her instruments in both traditional and extended techniques as well as a clear sense of how to find music of substance.  Her playing sounds effortless suggesting that she puts a great deal of time into honing her virtuosity but she clearly moves beyond the technical to master the expressive range.
I would certainly be willing to hear just about anything Ms. Lee chooses to play including the relatively obscure repertoire for the oboe d’amore but I have my fingers crossed that we may get to hear her tackling concertos by Morton Feldman, Vincent Persichetti, Witold Lutoslawski and Hans Werner Henze, big projects that are nice to hope for but we do see that her ear for the smaller projects is clearly golden.

BMOP Opening Concert Commemorates Armenian Genocide


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ADDENDUM:  Unfortunately the pianist Nareh Arghamanyan will not be able to perform.  BMOP informs me that they are substituting a piece by the wonder.ful Israeli composer Betty Olivero called Neharot Neharot (2006-7) for two string orchestras, accordion, percussion, tape and viola.  It will feature none other than violist extraordinaire Kim Kashkashian.  

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project begins it 20th season on Sunday October 18th with a concert in honor of the 1915 Armenian genocide with a celebration of that country’s artistic heritage.  Titled Resilient Voices 1915-2015, the concert will feature works by Komitas (1869-1935), Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Tigran Mansurian (1939- ).

Komitas_1902

Komitas, born Soghomon Soghomonian, is generally regarded as the foundational composer for Armenian classical music in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Like Bartok and Kodaly, he collected and transcribed folk music from his country.  He is considered an early founder of the practice of ethnomusicology collecting Armenian and Kurdish folk music.  He was ordained a priest in the Armenian rite church and took the name Komitas.  The impact of the genocide affected him deeply and he spent the last 20 years of his life in a psychiatric facility where he died in 1935.

Alan Hovhaness

Alan Hovhaness

American composer Alan Hovhaness also embraced a musicological approach to his composition by including Armenian folk songs and that of other musical cultures he had explored including Korean and South Asian. He also acknowledges a debt to Komitas (Hovhaness released a recording on his own Poseidon label of him performing Komitas’ complete piano music).

Hovhaness remains less well-represented than he deserves in the concert hall so this performance of Khrimian Hairig (1944, rev 1948) is a welcome one.  The piece is in three continuous movements titled, “Chalice of Holiness”, “Wings of Compassion” and “Triumph of Faith”.  It is scored for string orchestra with solo trumpet.  The solo here will be played by prominent new music trumpeter Terry Everson (whose talents are to be required in the next piece on the program).  Hairig was a prominent Armenian cleric and mystic of the 19th century.

This work is early in Hovhaness’ prolific output and is characteristic of his Armenian period utilizing Armenian folk melodies and writing on Armenian themes.  He would later gain wider fame when Leopold Stokowski premiered his 2nd Symphony “Mysterious Mountain” in 1955 on NBC television.  Hovhaness died in 2001 leaving over 400 compositions of which 67 are symphonies.

Arghamanyan_Nareh

Nareh Arghamanyan

The Armenian connection to the next piece is apparently the BMOP début of the young Armenian pianist, Nareh Arghamanyan (1989- ) in the First Piano Concerto Op. 35 (1933) of Dmitri Shostakovich.  This unusual piece is scored for piano, string orchestra and trumpet (I told you Everson would be back).  It is one of those neo-baroque experiments and quotes from well-known classical pieces.  It is quite challenge for a pianist and the début of this rising artist will doubtless be one of the highlights of the concert.

The title of the concert is Resilient Voices 1915-2015 and is given in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923) but more so in celebration of the voices and the talents that have endured.  Controversy remains evidenced by the fact that Azerbaijan and Turkey continue to deny the genocide but the estimated death toll was 1.5 million and this is the event for which the term “genocide” was first used.

Artistic Director and Conductor Gil Rose

Artistic Director and Conductor Gil Rose

It is the genius of Gil Rose, conductor and artistic director whose creative vision in a couple of releases  I recently reviewed ( Anthony Davis and Irving Fine) that first alerted me to the work of this fine ensemble (a little late, I know).  But I discovered a great orchestra with some of the most innovative programming with attention to new and recent music.  I was graciously offered a seat at this concert but it will have to be one of my regrets.  This sounds like a fantastic program.

Tigran Mansurian

Tigran Mansurian

How very appropriate then to have the BMOP premiere of the Requiem (2009) by Tigran Mansurian (1930- ) by far Armenia’s best known living composer.  The Requiem was written in memory of the holocaust and is scored for large orchestra, chorus and soprano and baritone soloists (not announced when last I checked yesterday).  Gil Rose conducts the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum with the Boston University Marsh Chapel Choir.  This is indeed a species of political music and BMOP is to be applauded for this as a contribution to the recognition of human rights. through music.

Tigran Mansurian at the piano at Other Minds in San Francisco.

Tigran Mansurian at the piano at Other Minds in San Francisco.

Mansurian previously appeared at the Other Minds 20th Anniversary concert (also dedicated to the holocaust) in March of 2015 in San Francisco.  At that concert I captured a moment from the pre-concert discussion in which Mansurian agreed to sing a traditional Armenian song accompanying himself at the piano, a very personal moment from a composer whose art is deeply felt.

Please, BMOP, record this.  Thanks in advance!!!