Holes in the Sky, Lara Downes Channels the Collective Artistry of the Feminine


downesholes

Sony/Portrait

Lara Downes has proven herself as a virtuoso pianist in solo, chamber, and with orchestra.  She has demonstrated facility with standard repertoire as well as an intelligent selection of contemporary composers.  In this sort of mid-career place she has begun releasing a more personal kind of album of which this is the third incarnation.  The “series’ to which I refer is the perception of this reviewer, not one defined as such by Ms. Downes but stick with me. Her previous releases have been organized on one level or another on themes just like most album of any stripe.  The difference is a more sociopolitical focus.

One look at the eclectic musical choices here and one sees Downes sharing her spotlight with kindred spirits (composers and performers both) while her themes take on more socially conscious ideas.  The first of these was America Again (2016) which is a beautiful collection of short piano pieces predominantly though not exclusively by black composers.  It is a very personal choice of repertoire reflecting her profound knowledge of the repertoire as well as the neglect of black composers.  The second was Lenny (2018), a tribute to Leonard Bernstein.  It includes a marvelously varied group of guest artists and, much as Lenny did, blurs the line between the “classical” and the “vernacular”.  It was a love song to a cherished artist (this writer included in the cherishing).

She does something similar here in this album whose title is taken, appropriately enough, from Georgia O’Keefe, “I want real things, live people to take hold of, to see, and talk to, music that makes holes in the sky, I want to love as hard as I can.”  In the essay that opens the program booklet Downes speaks briefly of her relationship with women in general and women as composers and as performers.

The album opens with a 1949 piece by Florence Price, a black American composer much of whose whose work has recently been rediscovered and recorded.  Her work was also featured on the America Again album.  This is a mid-century romantic piece for solo piano.

The second track, and the one that hooked this listener big time is this recording of Judy Collins early song, Albatross (1966) which appeared on her album Wildflowers which in turn provided some of the design elements of the album.  The liner notes to the present album also note this connection.

In place of detailed liner notes there is a fascinating conversation between two of the women involved with this album, Lara Downes and Judy Collins.  A lovely black and white portrait is included in the liner notes.  Their discussion centers primarily on the Albatross song but also touches on the nature of political activism in which Downes laments not being active in marches.  Collins tells her (and this writer agrees wholeheartedly) she belongs at the piano.  Indeed her activism, though of a gentler nature, gets ideas out most effectively utilizing her incredible talents as a pianist, historian, and fellow musician.

Rather than go through an analysis of each of these pieces I am simply going to provide a track list.  It appears that this album is designed to be heard and contemplated as a sonic document first and as a research project at a later time (one hopes for more detail at some point because these are interesting pieces).

1. Memory Mist (1949) by Florence Price

2. Albatross (1967) by Judy Collins

3. A Tale of Living Water (2010) by Clarice Assad

4. Dream Variation with Rhiannon Giddens (1959) by Margaret Bonds and Langston     Hughes

5. Ellis Island with Simone Dinnerstein (1981) by Meredith Monk

6. Don’t Explain with Leyla McCalla (1944) by Billie Holiday

7. Willow Weep for Me (1932) by Ann Ronel (arr. by Hyungin Choi)

8. Venus Projection (1990) by Paula Kimper

9. Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women (2005) by Paola Prestini

10. Farther from The Heart with Hila Pittman (2016) by Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles

11. Favorite Color (1965) by Joni Mitchell (arr. by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum)

12. Noises of Gratitude (2017) by Jennifer Higdon

13. Arroyo, Mi Niña with Mogos Herrera (2018) trad. arr. by Lara Downes

14. Music Pink and Blue (2018) by Elena Ruehr

15. Idyll (1946) by Hazel Scott

16. Blue Piece with Rachel Barton Pine (2010) by Libby Larsen

17. Bloom (2018) by Marika Takeuchi

18. Just for a Thrill with Alicia Hall Moran (1936) by Lil Hardin-Armstrong (arr. by               Hyungin Choi)

19. Agwani (Doves) (2009) by Mary Kouyoumdjian

20. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (2014) by Georgia Stitt

21. Rainbow (n.d.) by Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston (arr. by Laura Karpman)

22. All the Pretty Little Horses with Ifetayo Ali-Landing and The Girls of Musicality (Trad. arr. by Lara Downes and Laura Karpman)

In these 22 tracks all the music is by women composers and, most charmingly a selection of women performers who appear as sort of cameos on different tracks.  The music ranges from the mid-twentieth century to the present and embraces a variety of genres (classical, folk, blues, etc.).  The end result is a charming and very intimate document but also one which is somehow gently subversive as it presents the best in musical and performance quality as an acknowledgement of the accomplishments of women in general, (to paraphrase Ms. O’Keefe) making music as hard as they can.

 

 

 

My 2018 in the Arts


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


I’m skeptical about year end lists but I have enough people asking me that it would be impertinent to skip this task. I make no claims to having even listened to enough to make any definitive statements about the “best” but I have my own quirky criteria which I hope at least stirs interest. Here goes.

Let’s start with the most read reviews. Without a doubt the prize here goes to Tim Brady’s “Music for Large Ensemble”. This reviewer was enthralled by this recording by this Canadian musician whose work needs to be better known.

This little gem was sent to me by a producer friend and I liked it immediately. I knew none of these composers but I enjoyed the album tremendously. Don’t let the unusual name “Twiolins” stop you. This is some seriously good music making. It is my sleeper of the year.

Running close behind the Twiolins is the lovely album of post minimalist miniatures by the wonderful Anne Akiko Meyers. Frequently these named soloist albums of miniatures are targeted at a “light music” crowd. Well this isn’t light music but it is quite listenable and entertaining.


The creative programming and dedicated playing made this a popular review to New Music Buff readers. Definitely want to hear more from the Telegraph Quartet.

Another disc sent by my friend Joshua. This one is a DVD/CD combo of music by a composer whose existence was only revealed to me a couple of years ago. Marin includes a clever animated video which accompanies the title track.

I was fortunate enough to have been able to hear Terry Riley and Gloria Cheng in an all Terry Riley program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Both were in spectacular form and the audience was quite pleased.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include the fabulous 6 night series of concerts produced by Other Minds. This is why I am a rabid advocate of OM programs. More on that soon with OM 24 coming up.

And lastly I want to tell you about two more composers who are happily on my radar.

One of the joys of reviewing CDs is the discovery of new artists to follow. Harold Meltzer is now in that group for me. This basically tonal composer has a real feel for writing for the voice and has turned out some seriously interesting chamber music.

Another composer unknown to these ears. I bristle at the term “electroacoustic” because it sometimes means experimental or bad music. Not so here. Moe is fascinating. Definitely worth your time.

OK, gonna can the objectivity here to say that this is possibly the most underappreciated album I’ve heard this year. Combining a recording of the Debussy Preludes along with Schoenberg’s rarely heard “Hanging Gardens”, Webern’s Variations, and Berg’s Piano Sonata creates a picture of a moment in history when music moved from impressionism to expressionism. Jacob Greenberg is very much up to the task. Buy this one and listen, please. It’s wonderful.

Also beyond objectivity is this fascinating major opus by Kyle Gann. It didn’t get much recognition on my blog but it’s a major work that deserves your attention if you like modern music.

Well this is one of my favorite reviews in terms of the quality of my writing. The work is most wonderful as well. Though this review was actually published on December 31st I’m still including it in my 2018.

This is definitely cheating on my part but after that concert at Yerba Buena I can’t resist making folks aware of this wonderful set on the independent label, “Irritable Hedgehog”. Trust me, if you like Riley, you need this set.

I review relatively few books on this site but by far the most intriguing and important book that has made it across my desk to this blog is Gay Guerilla. The efforts of Mary Jane Leach, Renee Levine Packer, Luciano Chessa, and others are now helping to establish an understanding of this composer who died too young. Here’s looking forward to next year.

I know I have left out a great deal in this quirky year end selection but I hope that I have not offended anyone. Peace and music to all.

Anne Akiko Meyers’ Romantic Post Minimalism Enthralls


aameyers

Avie AV 2386

Admittedly I am a sucker for nearly all things minimalist and post-minimalist.  Such programming can lead to some potentially dull or cloying experiences.  Not so with this lovely collection of miniatures though.  While minimalists like Glass and Pärt make their appearances the concept here seems to reach for larger goals.  We have a mix of relatively simple chamber compositions along with electroacoustic works, a revelatory take on Ravel’s Tzigane and and arrangement for violin and orchestra of a solemn choral piece by Morten Lauridsen.

This eclecticism seems to flow from the artist’s choices rather than choices imposed by a producer.  In this respect she reminds this reviewer of pianist Lara Downes whose repertoire choices are similarly eclectic but born very personally from the artists’ experiences and preferences.

The opening Philip Glass Metamorphosis Two (1988) is presented in an arrangement by none other than Glass’ long time champion Michael Riesman.  It is followed by two violin and piano pieces by Arvo Pärt, Fratres (1977) and Spiegel im Spiegel (1978).  These lovely works serve to draw the listener in most pleasantly.  Akira Eguchi is the fine pianist who plays on all but tracks 4, 7, and 8.

Next up is a piece of musical archaeology.  Tzigane (1924) was originally written for violin and piano.  It was later orchestrated and it is that version which is best known and probably most recorded.  Well it turns out that Ravel had made a version for a now defunct instrument called a Luthéal which is an instrument invented in the early 20th century (patented 1919).  It’s actually not so much an instrument as an add on.  It modifies the sound of a piano.  The device now exists in museums but that hasn’t stopped innovative producers from utilizing an electroacoustic version.  Elizabeth Pridgen plays the keyboard to which the lutheal is virtually attached.

Apparently this version has been recorded before but this writer encountered it first in this release.  It is a very different sound than the piano or orchestral versions and is a lovely take on the music.  Many may buy the album for this track alone.

This is followed by a charming lullaby written for Meyers’ youngest daughter.  John Corigliano has absorbed only a small bit of the minimalism bug (maybe his 1985 Fantasy on an Ostinato  qualifies) but he is one of our finest living composers and he appears to infuse this violin and piano miniature, Lullaby for Natalie (2010) with a tender romanticism that is both sweet and touching.  In the notes we learn that it did seem to put her daughter to sleep but I doubt it will do that to most listeners.

The next two tracks are works by one Jakub Ciupinski  (1981- ) who also has a stage persona under the name Jakub Ζak under which he performs live electronic music.  This Polish born composer is now based in New York and works with various forms of electronics including a theremin.  Both “Edo Lullaby” (2018) and “Wreck of the Umbria” (2009) come from a similar place musically.  Both use electronics in varying degrees to enhance and accompany the solo violin.  Both are delightful little gems that give a nod to some minimalist roots but stand on their own merit and prompt this listener to keep an eye/ear out for more of this composer’s work.

The concluding piece is an arrangement by the composer Morten Lauridsen (1943-  ).  The performer states she pursued Lauridsen for a new piece and when he finally acquiesced he presented this lovely arrangement of his well known choral piece, “O Magnum Mysterium”.  The arrangement is for string orchestra and violin and orchestra here given its world premiere performance.  It should come as no surprise to new music fanciers that the Philharmonia Orchestra is conducted by none other than Kristjan Järvi, a fine conductor, composer, and avid new music advocate who can always be found near some interesting musical projects.

This album stands out in that the choices of the musical selections and the personal connections between the composers and the soloist are clearly collaborative and  inspired.  This is substance rather than fluff but it may appeal to a wider audience.  This one can be said to have crossover hopes but it does not pander.  This is a wonderful album and will likely prompt listeners who, like this writer, have yet to know this soloist to go and seek more of her recordings and live performances.  Brava!

 

 

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.