Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler 6th on BIS


mahler6vanska

I have heard varying opinions on the conducting skills of Osmo Vänskä.  He is the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2003 and, prior to that, a conductor of the wonderful Lahti Symphony Orchestra.  I very favorably reviewed his Kullervo disc from last year.

The Mahler 6th and, I suppose, with pretty much any Mahler there are many critiques of the music and the performances.  So many complexities with tempo, handling the massive orchestra to bring out one nuance or another, order of movements, etc.  One thing is for certain, no Mahler aficionado will be satisfied with only one recording of each of his works.  There appear to be no definitive recordings agreed upon by all.  By contrast most people seem satisfied with perhaps Herbert von Karajan’s interpretation of the Beethoven Symphonies as being at least a good starting point.

One must recall that Mahler’s music was not well appreciated for a number of years.  Though he gave performances of all his major works interest in them faded rather quickly after his death in 1911.  Performances did occur but critics generally regarded Mahler’s music as dismissable efforts calling it “conductor’s music”.  It wasn’t until Leonard Bernstein began earnestly performing these works that the current cult of Mahler actually took root.

I preface my review with these comments to say that I enjoyed this disc immensely with its gorgeous sonics (as always with BIS).  Vänskä produces a lucid performance which differs from many in tempo choices and such but seems, to this reviewer’s ears, to do justice to this large and masterful work.  In the end the experience is one of a valid performance (he places the slow movement as second) which provides another view of this complex work.  And part of the cult of Mahler, it seems, is the need to own multiple performances.

This may not be the only Mahler Sixth you will want to own but it is definitely worth hearing, preferably on a good sound system.

Indian Raags for Piano made easy


raags easy

Last year I reviewed Mr. Pitts’ How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano.  It was an enthusiastic review and the book continues to have a valued place on my piano as it opens a whole world of ideas.   Now the author has done a kind and useful service by issuing this simplified version of that work.

In fact this simplified version is more in line with the rather unpracticed keyboard skills of your humble reviewer.  The author chooses 6 raags or ragas which provide a good starting point for similarly humble musicians to begin this approach to Hindustani music.

Hindustani music became pretty much ubiquitous, or at least familiarly cliché in western musical culture largely due to the efforts of Indian musicians such as Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha.  In fact it is an endlessly fascinating musical system whose logic has much to offer both musicians and composers.

In the past one had to learn traditional Indian instruments to gain much familiarity with these ancient musical systems but Pitts’ book offers an alternative to musicians whose familiarity is limited to the western keyboard.  Purists may denigrate this approach but even if it does not perfectly represent all aspects of Hindustani musical theory at least it provides a manageable entry point for amateur musicians and professionals alike.

Having struggled somewhat with the previous book I was particularly delighted to have these simplified examples which fall nearer to my skills level.  Even if I don’t wind up incorporating this into performance or compositional efforts I have no doubt that the exposure to the actual practice of this music will leave a valuable bit of programming in my neural circuits that will enhance my musical thinking and ability to appreciate other musics.

As with the first book, this too is highly recommended.  Kudos Mr. Pitts!

Leegowoon’s First Piece: Korean Post-Modernism?


leegowoon

OGUN Music JEC- 0253

This review was completed by chance on International Women’s Day.  It is not intended to stand in for all that means but I am pleased to present this woman’s work today.

Lee Go Woon is a composer new to this reviewer.  My friend Joshua Cheek has been sending me occasional shipments of some really hard to find releases from the western edge of the Pacific Rim.  There are some amazing gems being released from Korea, China, Japan, etc. that rarely find distribution in the United States and this is one of those discs.

One thing these discs (classical or popular) seem to have in common is a serious attention to art work and album design.  It is enough to start people like me whining about the loss of the 12 x 12 format of the LP which brought about the genre of album art, something I can never stop lamenting I’m afraid.

Well, it’s not just pretty pictures though.  This is a curious disc by young Korean woman who is familiar with traditional Korean classical music and apparently with other genres as well.  Korean classical is less well known to the general public in America than its analogous counterparts in Japan, China, Thailand, India, etc. but it is a fascinating and ancient system of music with its own set of artfully designed instruments.

Cultural appropriation has become a strongly pejorative term these days but what happens if an artist is appropriating their own culture?  What I mean is, for example, the incorporation of traditional Hindustani instruments and idioms in the hybrid pop of Bollywood music or similar such mashups with Chinese or Japanese traditional musics.  These are creative options and, while not necessarily a cherished part of so called “high culture”, are nonetheless acceptable and marketable options.  It is a hybridization or perhaps something like “self appropriative” or simply promoting?

The incorporation of traditional music is akin to the work done by composers like Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, Aaron Copland, and that whole late 19th and early 20th century fascination with folk and traditional music spurred on by late romantic nationalisms.  The present disc fits roughly in that tradition, just being done in the 21st century and it does not appear to be about nationalism either.

Lee Go Woon’s first piece is basically a song cycle written for voices (one male, one female) and an orchestra comprised of traditional Korean instruments.  It is not the synthesis of east and west that one finds in Toru Takemitsu’s November Steps (1967).  It is not really at all about the west at all.  And it is therein that the real interest lies.

The composer studied piano as a child and later she studied traditional percussion instruments.  She graduated from the Korea National University of Arts in 2012 with a Bachelor’s Degree and attained a Master’s Degree from the same school in 2016.  She received a Gold Medal in the 31st Korean Traditional Music Competition the same year.

Korea has, perhaps more than many countries, had their traditional culture undermined by military occupations, bombings, forced relocations, etc.  The fact that there have been 31 years of competitions attempting to recover some of their precious musical culture is certainly reason for hope and these first compositions by one of their finest new composers is a reason to listen.

Unfortunately the liner notes in that beautiful booklet are mostly in Korean and I haven’t been able to find someone to impose upon for a translation.  But I can tell you that the album has 5 tracks and that the music is quite listenable.  It would be helpful to know the text of the sung portions but the music speaks pretty well for itself.  The recording is lucid and there is quite a bit of definition to bring out the subtleties of the instruments and the performances are wonderful.

Happily this music can be heard via MP3 downloads on Amazon as well as via various streaming services.  Hopefully there will be more to hear as Korea moves on and recovers more of its rich culture and shares it with the world.

 

 

Lara Downes’ Bernstein Tribute


lenny

Lara Downes is one of the finest pianists working today.  Her virtuosity and interpretive skills are well established.  She is well versed in the standard repertoire of classical piano music but has chosen to blaze her own unique path in her recorded legacy.  Here she pays homage in her own unique manner with help from some interesting fellow musicians.

The album consists of 29 tracks none of which lasts more than 4 minutes.  Many are by Bernstein including a generous selection of his Anniversaries, each dedicated to a particular person. Some were written in celebration, some in memoriam. Time marches on and we now celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lenny’s birth. So, of course, all these tracks are in memoriam now. In addition to the all too seldom heard Anniversaries there are a few song transcriptions and a nice selection of Anniversary like pieces contributed for this album by a delightful selection of composers including John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, Michael Abels, Ned Rorem, Ricky Ian Gordon, Eleanor Sandresky, Shulamit Ran, Stephen Schwartz, Marc Blitzstein, Theo Bleckmann, and Craig Urquhart.

This album is (thankfully) not a greatest hits collection but rather, as it’s subtitle says, an intimate tribute by people who were affected by Bernstein in one way or another. Bernstein cut a wide swath of influence embracing new music, mastering the established western classical canon, and embracing jazz, blues, and musical theater much like Ms. Downes actually.

Most of the album is solo piano where Downes casts a loving and magical spell. A few judiciously chosen tracks feature banjo virtuoso Rhiannon Giddens, baritone Thomas Hampton, and two musicians unknown to this writer, Javier Morales-Martinez and Kevin “K.D.” Olusola.

My first listen to this album was an uninterrupted one while driving South from San Francisco. The impression was one of Bernstein’s multiple voices being present seamlessly in every track. Only later reading the liner notes did I become aware that some tracks were written by others.

This is an intimate celebration in honor of a musician who touched so many lives.  Many of the artists on this recording knew Bernstein to some degree but the point here is that Bernstein’s art is so pervasive that few can say they have not been touched by it to some degree.  This listener was brought to nostalgic tears a few times.

In keeping with Downes’ eclectic style this is an unusual selection of pieces, most by Bernstein but all imbued with his spirit, a combination of classical sensibilities with a real feel for jazz, blues and the American musical theater.  This disc contains most, if not all of Bernstein’s “Anniversaries”, short piano pieces written variously in honor of or in memory of many of his friends.  Other pieces are by contemporaries of Bernstein and some were written for this recording.  Add to that a few interludes such as Thomas Hampson coming in to sing, “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s “Mass”, K.D. Olusola riffing on the familiar “Something’s Coming” which opens the disc, Javier Morales-Martinez spicing up “Cool” from “West Side Story” with his clarinet and Rhiannon Giddens sounding so pretty on the track of that title.

This is a love fest and it, appropriately, covers generations much as Lenny affected so many generations whether through his wonderful work as a conductor or his classic musicals and operas that are indeed the American grain incarnate.  And Lenny was also a teacher to children and to adults.  From the Young Peoples Concerts to the Harvard Norton Lectures he thought deeply and taught and stimulated ideas.  Generations have been forever changed by him.

The bulk of this recording depends on Lara Downes amazing virtuosity bringing these brief little poems to life most convincingly and almost magically.  She clearly has a real feel for this music.  This is mostly not the familiar Bernstein that everyone knows.  It is a portrait such as listeners familiar with Downes’ work will recognize, eclectic, intelligent, sometimes nostalgic, a little obscure, frequently virtuosic, and ultimately satisfying.  The disc lists the performers as, “Lara Downes and friends” and that is the feeling of not just the performers but also of the composers whose heartfelt contributions fit so well in this eclectic mix.

This disc represents Downes’ debut on Sony and the only thing this writer can say to that is, “What took them so long?”  Brava!  And cheers to Lenny on his 100th.

Marin: An Unknown Danish Master Gets His Due Marvellously


marin

I have made no secret of my passion for the music which has been coming out of the Scandinavian portion of our planet.  My knowledge of these musical traditions is mostly limited to the twentieth century up to the present but what a horn of plenty there is to be had.  There are so many composers that it is forgivable if one of them fails to get worldwide attention and acclaim during their lifetime.  Or is it?

Well if sins of omission that have been committed all can now be forgiven and the memory of Axel Borup-Jørgenson (1924-2012) is likely guaranteed to remain solidly in the history of music of the twentieth century.  The Danes take their music very seriously it seems (check out the You Tube Channel for the Danish National Symphony Orchestra if you don’t believe me) and producer Lars Hannibal and his crew have labored tirelessly to bring this formerly obscure master most deservingly to light in this DVD/CD combo pack featuring some of his finest works.

This truly major release contains a DVD with a gorgeous animated feature synced to the late composer’s swan song big orchestral piece, Marin op. 60 (1963-70) a really beautifully produced documentary (“Axel”) on the composer featuring some of his fellow composers including, Finn Savery, Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen, Bent Sørensen, Sunleif Rasmussen, Per Nørgard, Gert Mortensen, Ib Nørholm, Michala Petri, and producer Lars Hannibal along with family and other musicians and producers.

The animated feature looks like one of the finer entries one might find on Vimeo.  The animation was done by Lùckow Film and works well with the music.  The biographical feature does a spectacular job of placing the composer in context with his Nordic contemporaries and with contemporary music in general.  The people interviewed give about as definitive a description of the man’s work as can be done in a film biography and the intervening or connecting scenes bespeak a high level concept of cinematography that makes this film both compelling and a delight for the eyes as well as the mind.  The concept of the composer’s use of silence as a compositional tool seems to be reflected in these transitional scenes.

The CD consists of seven carefully selected pieces on seven tracks.  The disc opens with the big orchestra piece which was heard behind the animation on the DVD, Marin Op. 60 (1963-70) followed by Music for Percussion and Viola Op. 18 (1955-56), For Cembalo and Orgel Op. 133 (1989), Nachtstuck Op. 181 (1987) (played here by the composer’s daughter, Elisabeth Selin), Winter Pieces Op. 30b (1959) for piano, Pergolato Op. 182 (2011) for treble recorder, and Coast of Sirens Op. 100 (1980-85) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, guitar, piano, percussion, and multivoice tape.  This is truly a balanced portrait with examples of orchestral, solo instrument, keyboard, chamber and electroacoustic works from 1959-2011, a more than fair sampling of the composer’s output both by genre and by time.

The music seems to move between post-romantic tonality and expressionistic experiments such as one hears in the music of Gyorgy Ligeti.  The music is evocative and very listenable especially if one avails one’s self of the introductory film.  It certainly seemed to tune this reviewer’s ears properly.  It is helped as well by some very fine recordings that capture the subtlety of the composer’s work.

Lars Hannibal is clearly the guiding hand in this project but his genius (he is a fine guitarist as well as a producer) is his ability to engage all these fine musicians, artists, producers, and family in what is one of the most loving portraits this writer has ever seen.  Now that is the way to blast someone out of obscurity forever.

And this is but one entry in a larger project to record the composer’s complete output.  Two previous releases were reviewed on this blog and, presumably there are more to come.  But in the meantime there is much to savor here and one hopes that this will introduce this music into the general repertoire.  I’m sure Axel would be pleased to be placed as he is now among the masters of Danish composers.

 

Crazy Nigger, Gay Guerrilla, Precious Artist: Julius Eastman Examined


eastman

This essential collection celebrates the life and work of a composer and performer whose unique presence was nearly eroded to nothing but for the work of composer (and co-editor of this volume) Mary Jane Leach who spearheaded an effort to rescue as many scores and recordings as possible after Eastman’s death in 1990 at the age of 49.  The first evidence of this modern archaeological effort came with the release of Unjust Malaise (2005), three CDs which featured some of the recordings that were gathered in that early effort.  In addition it should be noted that Leach continues to maintain a resource page with the most up to date information on Eastman scholarship efforts.

Now, along with Renée Levine Packer (whose wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music Days, “This Life of Sounds” (2010) is not to be missed) we have a lovingly edited collection of essays which comprise a sort of biography as well as an appreciation of this very important American composer.

One look at the acknowledgements reveals the wide scope of individuals with whom Eastman came into contact and whose contributions became so essential to this volume.  The wonderful introductory essay is so very appropriately written by George E. Lewis whose figure itself continues to loom knowledgeably over late twentieth and early twenty first century music.  He takes a characteristically unflinching look at the cultural, historical and socioeconomic factors that contextualize Eastman’s work as well as his untimely demise.  Eastman’s frequent use of politically incorrect titles that challenge a smooth vocal delivery in the most seasoned of broadcasters is here made to seem quite understandable (if not comfortably palatable) within the complex forces that defined Eastman’s milieu.  Lewis embraces Eastman’s talents and makes the prospect of further study of his work tantalizing.  He provides a truly authoritative context which can serve all future work in this area.

There are nine chapters, a chronology and a select bibliography along with photographs and score examples.  The essays that comprise each chapter focus from the macro-view of Packer’s biographical sketch and Leach’s timeline to micro-analyses of some of Eastman’s works and some additional personal perspectives.  One of the most endearing qualities of this volume is the fact that many of the contributors knew and/or worked with Eastman at one time or another.  It is clear that all the contributors were deeply affected by their encounters with Eastman himself and/or with his music and all are rather uniquely suited to be in this volume.

One suspects that Packer’s biographical sketch which opens this volume will henceforth serve as a basic model for all future biographical research.  Whether one finds agreements or not the material is presented in as complete and organized a fashion as can be imagined.  It paints the picture of a prodigy who, for whatever reason, fell into disarray.  Whether there was drug use or symptoms of mental illness will be the debate which will, of course, never be satisfactorily resolved.  What shines through though are tantalizing moments and a plethora of relationships, however brief sometimes, that contribute to all we will ever really know of the enigma of the life of this precious artist.

Some of what follows has the quality of memoir and some leans more toward academic analysis.  All of these essays, timelines, bibliographies, etc. tie this book together as the first most comprehensive effort at trying to understand the man, his music, his milieu, his unusual personality.

These accounts will always be crucial in any future analysis of the enigmatic talent of Julius Eastman.  Though many will attempt to affix labels to his personality variously attributing his quirks to mental or physical illness no one will ever know him the way the people in this book did, as a precious artist whose work was rescued (as much as it could be) from obscurity by his family (both biological and artistic).  He was and is loved in perhaps the only way that he would allow, through his work and his deeds.

This book is a fascinating read which serves to put the artist back into his proper place as the genius he was.  Much remains to be written, performed, analyzed and recorded but this book will always serve as the reference point for what is to come.

The Rite Through an Eclectic Spectrum


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Composers Concordance com/con 0041

Gene Pritsker strikes again.  In this new work just released on CD he manages to pay homage to Igor Stravinsky in this eclectic parody of The Rite of Spring.  And one can’t possibly miss this as being a reference to Gil Evans orchestrations of Rodrigo in the classic Miles Davis album Sketches of Spain.

This is a parody in the classical sense that it uses melodies from the original to create a different musical context.  This is neither an imitation of Stravinsky nor of the Davis/Evans disc.  It is more like an updating of the Evans/Davis concept with an eclectic mix of musical styles which incorporates jazz and classical elements and is perhaps freer harmonically than the older disc and more angular in its treatment of themes.

Franz Hackl’s prominent trumpet takes on the initial bassoon riff which opens the actual ballet and along with Pritsker’s guitar these two instruments seem to provide a sort of backbone for the later inclusion of Chanda Rule (what a voice!) and the four other musicians.  Everyone gets a chance to shine much like traditional jazz and the listener will likely always be able to identify the section referenced from the original score.  This is not a deconstruction…well, not entirely anyway.

What is very clear is that these musicians are having a lot of fun (and so is the audience from the few moments where you can hear them).  There are 8 discrete tracks all recorded live (which tells you much about the musicians’ confidence in their virtuosity).  This writer can’t get over the impression that much of the inspiration here comes from  1970s musical styles.  Now that is not generally thought of as the high point of musical inspiration in the pop world but here it functions as nostalgic fun.  There is fusion reminiscent of some incarnations of Gong, guitar solos that would be the envy of any hair band guitarist, vocals, scat singing and rap that put this writer in the mind of Earth, Wind, and Fire at various times and perhaps even a touch of Chick Corea as he tried to hang a tapestry of jazz on Alice in Wonderland.

Each of the sections makes reference more or less directly to various sections of the original ballet score and the entire ballet is pretty much represented (or torn apart) depending on your point of view.  This is serious high energy virtuosic jazz by a truly driven and dedicated group consisting of: Gene Pritsker (guitar, rap, DJ), Chanda Rule (voice), Max Pollak (tap dancer, percussion, rap), Franz Hackl (trumpet), Greg Baker (guitar), Philipp Moll (bass), Gernot Bernroider (drums).

This is a very appealing album though all Stravinsky fans might not like it and maybe all jazz fans might not like it.  But those same statements could be made about the Miles Davis/Gil Evans recording reference earlier.

This live recording from the Outreach Music Festival 2014 in Austria was recorded by Sigi Konzett and Andreas Wein with mixing by Wein.  This release is on Composers Concordance Records.  It was set for release on December 8th.  Check it out.  It will rock your world.