Shostakovich dealt with a great deal of adversity as a result of wars, the revolution, and Stalinism. That is sad but it makes for some really amazing stories. So it is with this symphony.
It was composed in 1936 and would mark the entry of more post-romantic elements into the composer’s work which gives it a Mahler-like cast at times. Unfortunately the politics resulted in the composer withdrawing the symphony. During WWII the score was lost and reconstructed from surviving orchestral parts and the present two piano transcription by the composer. The world premiere occurred in 1961 under Kiril Kondrashin.
It is the two piano “reduction” which is featured here. Reduction refers to the transcription of the piece for two pianos but the grand symphonic nature shines through with amazing lucidity. Of course this is as much due to the skill of the transcription but also of the artists. If you have never heard a great transcription this will amaze you.
Davies and Namekawa have established quite a name for themselves as a duo piano team. Davies, the long established conductor and his life partner Namekawa, herself a dazzling pianist have collaborated for some time now as a duo and this recording is testament to what they can do. Here they joyfully share their interests and insights on this masterpiece. Even if you have and know the orchestral version you will want to hear this.
There are three movements here. The outer movements are long extended compositions with a small(but amazing) interlude in between. This is not the Shostakovich of the famed 5th symphony. Rather it is a sort of transitional piece between the student work of the first symphony and the social realism of the second and third symphonies. While deeply intelligent the work has no intended program and one could almost pass this off stylistically as a lost Mahler work.
Fear not, though, the composer’s fingerprint is here. After all this is his 4th essay in the symphony genre. Unfortunately a perfect storm of politics conspired to almost destroy this work. Fortunately both this reduction and the reconstruction make the work available. It is especially curious for the Shostakovich enthusiast to listen to this work and imagine the care that must have been taken to avoid being associated with non state-approved music. It’s a good example of how politics places additional meaning on a piece of music that originally had none.
The recordings is lucid and is due for release on February 8th. One added sort of irony. The work is scheduled for its west coast premiere in San Francisco on February 10th.
Rachel Barton Pine is one of the brightest lights of the solo violin in Chicago and worldwide. Her partnership with Cedille records (also a venerable Chicago based institution) has been both fruitful and revelatory.
In addition to the standard virtuoso repertoire such as Brahms and Beethoven this soloist has demonstrated a passion and a genuine interpretive feel for music by black composers. Were we living in a less racially charged time this focus would be of minor interest. But the fact remains that music by black composers, regardless of the composer’s national origin or the quality of the music, have been seriously neglected.
Indeed this soloist has become a sort of shepherd of the lost and neglected. Her recorded catalog is testament to her achievements in a really wide range of repertoire from the Bach solo violin music to neglected concertos and occasional pieces ranging from the 17th century to the present.
The present disc was an October, 2018 release I am reviewing for Black History Month. And it is a gem. No fewer than 11 composers, 5 of whom are still living. It is both an acknowledgement of some of the classics produced by black composers over the last 100 years and an introduction to new and emerging voices.
The recently deceased David N. Baker (1931-2016) is represented here in the first track, Blues (Deliver My Soul ) and provides a context immediately. The word “blues” is used to refer to the uniquely black musical form which consists of a poetic form in which the first line is repeated. The vocal styles that are the blues are probably the most recognizable aspect of this musical form. But one can’t miss the persistent subtext of the neglect of such fine music as yet another insult to widen the racial divide.
In fact many of these pieces are not, strictly speaking, blues. But that is not the main point here. Pine, along with her quite able accompanist Matthew Hagle, present a beautiful and wide ranging selection which presents some wonderful music and, for those with a conscience, illustrate what can be lost when listening choices are hampered by prejudice.
The Baker piece helps to create a context. It is followed by Coleridge-TaylorPerkinson’s (1932-2004) Blue/s Forms for solo violin. This man’s career alone is worth a book at least. His eclectic and learned musical style found him writing music for movies, television, and the concert hall. He was also versed in jazz and blues and even played drums with Max Roach for a while. These solo violin songs are a beautiful example of the composer’s melodic gifts. One can easily imagine these pieces programmed alongside the Bach solo music.
William Grant Still (1895-1978), truly the dean of black American composers, is next. His Suite for Violin and Piano is happily performed with some frequency and deserves to be recognized as one of the masterpieces by this really still too little known composer. The piece is in three movements, each a representation in music of a painting.
Noel Da Costa (1929-2002) is a new name to this writer. He hails originally from Nigeria but made his career in New York City. His “Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin” makes a nice companion to the Perkinson pieces. This is one of the world premieres on the disc. Here’s hoping we get to hear more of this man’s work.
Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960) is another unfamiliar name. His Levee Dance is next. He was one of the lesser known of the group of early twentieth century black composers which included R. Nathaniel Dett, Dorothy Rudd Moore, Florence Price, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
By far the best known name here is Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974). One out of eleven here has “household name” status. He is represented by Wendell Logan’s arrangement of, “In a Sentimental Mood”. This is the premiere of this arrangement.
Now to the living black composers. This is a forward looking recording which pays homage to the past but also acknowledges a living tradition. Dolores White (1932- ). Her “Blues Dialogues for Solo Violin” add admirably to the solo violin repertoire.
Belize born Errollyn Warren is next with her brief, “Boogie Woogie”. Warren is a composer with a wide range and, while this is a fun piece, she has composed a wealth of music for various sized ensembles including orchestra. She was the first black composer to be represented at the famed Proms concerts. Wallen was a featured composer at Other Minds in San Francisco.
A slightly longer piece by Billy Childs (1957- ), “Incident a Larpenteur Avenue” gives the listener a taste of the work of this prolific composer. This is a world premiere which was written for the soloist. Childs won a Grammy for his jazz album, “Rebirth” in 2018.
Daniel Bernard Roumain is of Haitian roots and works in New York City where he works with turntables and digital sampling to augment his classical compositions. His work, “Filter for Unaccompanied Violin” is given its world premiere recording here.
Charles S. Brown (1940- ) concludes this amazing recital with, “A Song Without Words”.
This is a rich and rewarding recital which will take the interested listener into wonderful new territories. Listen, read about these composers, enjoy their artistry. This is just a beginning.
Robert Sirota (1949- ) is an American composer. A native New Yorker, his earliest compositional training began at the Juilliard School; he received his bachelor’s degree in piano and composition from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Wood and Richard Hoffman. A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship allowed him to study and concertize in Paris, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Returning to America, Sirota earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, studying with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner.
Before becoming Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995, Sirota served as Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music. From 2005-2012, he was the President of Manhattan School of Music, where he was also a member of the School’s composition faculty.
Prior to encountering this disc this reviewer had not encountered Sirota’s work and, frankly, didn’t expect American Romanticism to flow from the Manhattan School. That’s not intended as a critique of the Manhattan School which seems to be more interested in the compositional direction of composers like Morton Feldman and faculty member Nils Vigeland is a huge Feldman supporter.
But no matter. We have a disc of purportedly “romantic” music with an American theme. The disc begins with Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96. It dates from 1893, the same year as his 9th Symphony. It is debatable as to how “American” these works are. Dvorak was enamored of negro spirituals and his melodies, while not directly quoting, do seem to capture some of the spirit of these musics.
Not having heard the piece in some years I was grateful to find it still as interesting as ever. It’s not up there with Beethoven’s or Brahms maybe but there is much to enjoy in this particular piece and it is given her a loving performance. This piece has earned a deserved place in the repertoire.
Next up is the main point of this album, Robert Sirota’s Second String Quartet subtitled, “American Romantic”. It is an episodic piece which takes the listener to various places and, like the Dvorak, uses no direct quotes but manages to capture a certain spirit or Zeitgeist with each of its four movements. His harmonic language seems to be that of some slightly extended tonality but unquestionably romantic. His use of motives seem to trigger memories of familiar tunes. Each movement is focused on a different physical place and time of day.
Sirota’s American Pilgrimage begins in the first movement, Morning: Waldo County, Maine with broad strokes using motives that suggest or are fragments of familiar tunes. He moves in the second movement to Midday: Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the awful church shooting from a few years ago. This pizzicato dominant movement continues the suggestive use of motives and has moments of searing sadness and pain. His program is not explicit but this is protest music as well as music of sadness.
The third movement, Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico sort of takes the place of a scherzo. Despite his basically tonal palette the composer makes strategic use of dissonances for color and effect. This movement is actually more contemplative with a few moments of more kinetic writing. He ends with the fourth movement Evening: Manhattan, the most extensive movement. It opens with a whirlwind like theme and moves quickly (given that it is evening). As with most classical quartets he uses fourth movement to do a bit of summing up, echoes of what has gone before mix with new material.
Finally we get to hear the string quartet version of probably the most famous piece of American Romanticism, the lovely (if overplayed) Adagio for strings from Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet. It’s not clear why the entire quartet was not included but this piece does a nice job of putting a programmatic cap on this satisfying little chamber music program.
Sirota’s idiosyncratic use of melodic fragments and basically tonal idiom are intriguing enough that alert listeners are likely to seek out more of his music. The Sirota is clearly the reason to buy this album but, as a program, the other pieces frame it well and this CD is a very satisfying experience.
Two years ago Starkland released Instruments of Happiness which was this writer’s introduction to this artist. As a result I traversed the wall of artistic apartheid and ordered more of his work through the Canadian Music Centre. This is an important and well organized site for anyone interested in Canadian classical artists. (Hint: there are a lot of good composers up that way.)
Tim Brady (1956- ) is a Canadian composer and musician who is best known for his work with multiple guitar ensembles (from 4 to 200). Of course knowledgeable listeners will logically place him in the category of “composers who write for lots of guitars” category. Rhys Chatham and the late Glenn Branca come to mind as probably the best known in this genre. What is important is that, in the same way that Branca sounds very different from Chatham, Brady has his own sound developed over years of playing and composing. In addition to his compositions for guitar ensembles he writes for more traditional classical ensembles including chamber music, concerti and symphonies.
This latest release to storm the bastion of artistic apartheid known as the US/Canadian border is Brady’s second release on an American label and it appears to be a quantum leap. Here we get to hear Brady’s chops in handling a large orchestra. He can no longer fit only into the category of “composers who write for lots of guitars”. The two works on this disc are Desír (2016-17), a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra and Songs About Symphony No. 7 (2016-17). Both works were written for the Victoriaville Festival. Both reflect his development as a composer. And that is why you want this disc.
The concerto Desír is in a pretty standard three movement format. This is not his first concerto for the instrument. Perusing his substantial list of works one finds two other concerti for electric guitar and ensemble. It is Brady’s principal instrument and one he clearly knows from it’s acoustic components to all its electric extensions. What is a revelation for this listener is hearing how skilled Brady is at writing for traditional classical instruments as well. At one time the electric guitar was pretty much anathema in the classical world but Brady and his ilk have pretty much made it into simply another addition to the orchestra by creating a large and fascinating repertoire.
Desír presents a challenge for both orchestra and soloist but manages to be both contemporary and eminently listenable. Brady’s palette is basically tonal with nods to rock and minimalism as well as references to the larger classical world. And it is the larger classical world with which Brady is concerned in the second work on the album, Songs About Symphony No. 7. No, this is not about Brady’s 7th (it looks like he is on his 8th, going on 9th symphonies himself) this is about Dmitri Shostakovitch’s 7th and its first performance in Leningrad on August 9, 1942. It was the Leningrad premiere and it took place in the midst of the actual siege of Leningrad.
Poet Douglas Burnet Smith
The text is by one Douglas Burnet Smith (1949-), a Canadian poet. His text reflects the thoughts and impressions of various people in reaction to the Leningrad premiere of this major work. This work demonstrates Brady’s extreme facility for vocal writing. A quick perusal of Brady’s works list confirms that he has produced operatic works before and his skill in this area is unquestionable.
This piece is essentially an orchestral song cycle and can be favorably compared to works such as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony. The major difference is that the text of this work is clearly anti-war. The various characters describe the horrors of war from their various perspectives and what holds these commentaries together is that they all make reference to the performance which took place in the midst of the awful siege of Leningrad. The “Bradyworks Large Ensemble is ably conducted by Cristian Gort. This is complex music but he manages to make it all work as a listenable whole.
Shostakovitch’s work, despite it’s lack of vocal settings, is clearly an anti-war piece and, like many of his works, is concerned with social justice and human rights. Brady’s work uses that historical performance as a context to share the various characters’ impressions in a sort of kaleidoscopic fashion and his writing here is stunningly good (meaning both text and music). The two soloists, soprano Sarah Albu and baritone Vincent Ranallo, are clearly up to the task from spoken word to full blown operatic power. It is not clear if the arts can affect social justice but this is one damn good try.
Having listened to Instruments of Happiness and a few more of Brady’s Canadian CDs it is fascinating to hear his development as a composer. It is not clear if he has reached his peak but he is certainly up there showing no signs of anything but the progress of a major artist. Bravo, Mr. Brady! Keep it coming.
Chef and host Philip Gelb (left) introduces Rashaan Carter
Friday August 17th was one of the last of Mr. Gelb’s famed Masumoto peach dinners incorporating the incredible peak of the harvest peaches into his magical vegan creations. It is ostensibly among the last of his famed dinner concert series which has now run about 13 years. Whether the series is ending remains to be seen but the opportunity to partake of Gelb’s culinary art should never be missed and this night we had the opportunity to hear a fine young musician as well.
Phil started me with this tasty IPA, perhaps the only item that was not peach related.
Dinner for about twenty happy diners began with this delicious corn soup. Gelb has an eye for artistic presentation.
A little peach based salsa added a bit of fire for those of us who enjoy spicy things.
And on to the Baiganee (eggplant fritters) with peach kuchela and peach chutney.
The main course was Jerk Stewed Tempeh, Rice, and Peas Calaloo. Unfortunately my eating got a bit ahead of my picture taking but you get the idea.
Peaches are, as I said earlier, from the Masumoto family farm near Fresno where three generations have been producing some of the finest fruit in the state. The tempeh is also locally sourced from Rhizocali Tempeh of Oakland. It doesn’t get better than this.
The tradition here puts the musician on stage just before dessert. Rashaan Carter is an American musician from Washington D.C. who now resides in New York. He was passing through the bay area and Philip Gelb extended an invitation which he graciously accepted.
He began with an improvisation which he had initially done for a dance piece depicting the lynching of a black American woman Laura Nelson and her son in Oklahoma in 1911. Now this could really bring down the mood of the evening but for the fact that Carter spoke of and subsequently played this piece with such passion that all one could really feel is the tragedy of the act and the heroic expression of what is essentially protest music dedicated to her memory.
Rashaan has no small bit of the Blarney. His running commentary during the performance was as entertaining as that of a stand up comic as he engaged most thoughtfully with the evening’s clearly appreciative audience.
He graced us with what he said was originally intended to be a performance of a Charlie Haden piece but decided he wanted to do his own piece as a sort of homage. Indeed he captured Haden’s spirit oh so well in another virtuosic and passionate performance.
He ended with another sort of tribute, this time to Henry Threadgill. Again his gift of gab provided just the right segue into the next piece and his familiarity with Threadgill was immediately apparent. His facility with the acoustic bass produced nearly vocal sounding lines in a performance that did honor to Threadgill and left the evening’s audience very pleased.
We concluded with Blueberry polenta cake with peach ice cream and blueberry raspberry sauce, all vegan, all absolutely delicious.
And we will all keep an ear out for Rashaan Carter from this point on. Bravo!
It was only a few days after receiving this CD that I received a visit from a friend similarly interested in new music. Shortly after that visit I discovered that the CD was missing. My friend confessed to having taken it immediately when I asked but I already knew why he had taken it and why I might have done the same thing. After all it’s a Starkland CD and this new performing ensemble have chosen for this, their debut recording, to do an arrangement of one of the finest pieces of political classical music ever. It is their clever interpretation/homage of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971) that provoked my friend’s larceny and laid bare my own moral weakness. How could anyone resist that? (I told him took keep it and bought myself a new copy).
Nakedeye Ensemble was founded in 2011 with the intent of performing new music. They were founded in Philadelphia
Curiously, of the six compositions featured on this release, three are “sociopolitical” and the other three I suppose come closer to a category like “absolute music”, the notion that music can be just about music. While all art is a victim (or product) of its sociopolitical, geographical, and economic context one can at least say that there is a continuum in which some music actually depends on those contexts in a greater degree. Sociopolitical music is a pet obsession with your humble reviewer.
The disc begins innocently enough with a fine rendition of Sextet (2010) by Jonathan Russell (1979). This is a pleasant post-minimal work with rock influences and provides a gentle introduction to an apparently carefully constructed playlist designed to demonstrate some of the range of skills possessed by this group. The influence of Steve Reich is present and functions almost like a framework for the post minimal music that emerges. Another generation puts its stamp on this genre which is now older than anyone in this ensemble.
With the second track we get to one of those political pieces and to the second oldest composer represented. Zack Browning‘s Decade of the Dragon (2015) was written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 50th anniversary of its beginning. Browning (1957- ) is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and the director of the Salvatore Martirano Composition Award (Sal was also no stranger to politics).
Decade of the Dragon sounds like a post-modern sort of tone poem, evoking through musical quotation and development of original themes, the composer’s memories of the travesties that permeated those years formative to his development much as they were to your reviewer’s and doubtless many whom I imagine to be an ideal target audience for this music (and all the music on this disc actually). And there is a sort of painful irony to hearing the artistic expressions of these sad historical events played (very effectively) by an ensemble for whom the events are solely history.
Rusty Banks‘ (1974- ) “Surface Tensions” (2015) is another playful post-minimalist essay which is not afraid of a little experimentation. Banks is among the younger composers here but this little sampling of his work suggests we will be hearing much more from his pen.
Randal Woolf (1959) is a name which will likely be more familiar to listeners as he is a seasoned member of the so called “downtown” musicians. He applies his considerable compositional skills to a politically infused work, “Punching the Clock” (2015).
There is a dedication and respect communicated by these musicians for their art, the artists whose work they interpret, and for the history that inspired some of them. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the last track, Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).
This piece has been done by many ensembles over the years but the only recording other than Rzewski’s original on Opus One records is one by the Hungarian ensemble “Amadinda”. The text is spoken clearly, dramatically, and effectively and in English, albeit with a charming Hungarian accent. There are also various lovely and interesting readings to be found on You Tube (including an uncharacteristically hesitant reading by rapper/actor Mos Def) but the arrangement by resident composer Richard Belcastro does a stunning (Am I too old to say “reboot”?) or reworking of the original.
Using different voices, intonations, and inflections this arrangement uses the voices in a sort of pointillistic counterpoint with voices having solos, sometimes answering each other, sometimes together. Ranging from plain speech to whispers to various different vocal inflections this arrangement sort of democratizes the voices and creates a scenario in which the listener could envision their own voice and struggles.
The music here is great all the way through but the special joy of this release is the discovery of these youthful artists whose insights belie their age and whose technical skills suggest that Nakedeye can now take their place (alongside Eighth Blackbird, ICE, Alarm Will Sound, Band on a Can All Stars, etc.) Definitely a group that bears watching/listening.
Duo Noire consists of Thomas Flippin and Christopher Mallet. These guitarists are graduates of the Yale School of Music. For this, their debut album, they have chosen to feature a program of all women composers. Add to that the fact that these fine emerging artists are African-American (also the first African American graduates of Yale School of Music) and you have a glorious celebration of gender/cultural diversity as well as some mind blowing compositional efforts ably handled by these visionary musicians.
The demographics are necessarily prominent especially in these contentious times when racial and gender discrimination are, sadly, huge and difficult issues that remain largely unresolved. But the real story here is creative music and musicians. This duo seems to have a unique sound and are clearly schooled in their instruments to the point that they even seem to be expanding the very possibilities of a guitar duo. Above all this is an intelligent album.
There on six compositions on this thirteen track CD which has over an hour of music on it and it appears to be a landmark release for identifying new composers contributing to the guitar duo genre. Guitar duos are not an unusual instrumental grouping but this collection suggests fresh new directions that extend the possibilities of this instrumental configuration.
Of course the guitar duo is hardly a new idea. On the more pop side we have had Les Paul and Mary Ford and on the classical side many listeners will be familiar with Sergio and Odair Assad. And that brings us to Clarice Assad who is the daughter of Sergio Assad. Her composition, Hocus Pocus (2016) is in three movements, each ostensibly describing an aspect of magic. Clearly Assad is familiar with both traditional and extended techniques of composition for guitar. This is a sort of impressionistic work which calls upon the musicians to utilize a variety of techniques to evoke moods and images of each of the three movements, Abracadabra!, Shamans, and Klutzy Witches.
Byblos (2017) by Mary Kouyoumdjian embraces her Persian roots as well as the conflicts which have plagued this area of the world. Here she is evoking an ancient town in Lebanon. This is the most extended single movement on the disc and demonstrates the composer’s mastery of form while it challenges the instrumentalists to evoke the ancient and mystical sounds of her classical culture.
The only African-American composer featured on this recording is Courtney Bryan. Her “Solo Dei Gloria” (2017) which was commissioned by Duo Noire takes the listener on a sonic journey through the composer’s impression of the inner process of prayer. That’s a mighty abstract concept and she manages accomplish it with just the two guitars (and, of course, two talented musicians).
The three movement, “Night Triptych” (2017) was also written for Duo Noire and has the honor of being the title track for this truly eclectic and innovative album. This has more the feel of an abstract musical work than the others featured but one does hear the influences of her ethnic origin (Persian/Iranian). Despite the more extended nature of this composition this work, like all the works presented here, is a sampling of the composer’s work and the astute listener will have many reasons to seek out more of this young composer’s work.
Four Haikus (2017) was also written for Duo Noire. This Iranian born composer is rapidly becoming established internationally as an accomplished composer. Like the previous work these four short movements are of a more abstract nature. Another sampling that will prompt listeners to seek out more of this emerging composer’s work.
Last but not least is the second most extended work here by the youngest of the composers represented. “Loop the Fractal Hold of Rain” (2017) is another Duo Noire commission. This is probably the most abstract and modern composition on the disc.
Many works here have at least the suggestion of dealing with politics, conflict, and the impact of such things on individuals.
It is admittedly unusual (though clearly not risky) to program compositions by all women composers. This is a wonderful collection with performances that are incisive and intriguing enough to leave their listeners wanting more. This is a group to watch/listen to.