I recall reading a comment from Aaron Copland to the effect that he believed that there was undiscovered gems written in those years between the world wars 1 and 2 (roughly 1918 to 1939). And this release certainly confirms that assertion. The 7 pieces here (of which three are receiving their world premiere recordings) represent the years 1926 to 1939, the end of the period following the “War to End All Wars”. The French term “Avant L’Orage” is generally translated as “The Calm Before the Storm”. It is an apt metaphor for the time.
The string trio form, though common, does not seem to have produced the grand stature of some of the music for the more commonly heard ensemble, the string quartet. The trio of Violin, Viola, Cello can arguably be said to not have truly com of age until the twentieth century which would see major works by Schoenberg (1946), Krenek (1949), Wourinen (1968), and Schnittke (1985) to name a few highlights. But these charming little works on this 2 CD set can be thought of as stepping stones in the evolution of the form.
Now I know a lot of pretty obscure repertoire so I was a tad surprised to find that I had only heard of four of the composers represented here: Henri Tomasi (1901-1971), Jean Francaix (1912-1997), Robert Casadesus (1899-1972), and Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937). The other three: Jean Cras (1879-1932), Émile Goué (1904-1946), and Gustave Samazeuilh (1877-1967) were new to me.
Tomasi’s “Trio en forme de divertissement” (1938) is a four movement work with a lighthearted feel. It is structured in classical form. Largely neoclassical in sound. It opens with a Prelude followed by a gentle Nocturne, a pithy Scherzo, and a playful Final. This, surprisingly, is one of the world premieres on this collection. It reveals a composer who deserves a new reckoning and hopefully this recording will help launch it. It is the first of the three world premiere recordings in this set.
The Jean Cras trio of 1926 also follows the four movement format. Cras is one of the names heretofore unknown to this writer.
This work, also in four movements as the previous piece, reveals a more deeply contemplative work Its harmonies are certainly post classical era but essentially familiar. The first movement strikes a serious tone and is followed by a beautiful and contemplative slow movement. The third movement is a playful scherzo like movement followed by a riotously playful and virtuosic finale. It is virtually a symphony for three instruments.
Émile Goué is represented by a three movement work. This is also an unfamiliar name to this reviewer. Again we hear familiar romantic harmonies in a relatively brief (about 15 minutes) piece.
The classical forms of the first tow movements are followed by a scherzo like playful finale. Surprisingly this work as been recorded before.
Jean René Désiré Françaix will be a familiar name to many. His four movement string trio which concludes the first disc is pretty characteristic of his style. He is the youngest of the composers featured here but he crossed paths with most of the prominent French composers of the twentieth century. Harmonically and melodically his work embodies much of the same sound as his older contemporaries. With the exception of the beautiful slow movement these rather hyperactive episodes hold much in common with his previous and subsequent work. Coming in at about 13 minutes this satisfying work whose complexities are subsumed into a friendly, appealing work.
Robert Casadesus was the patriarch of one of the great piano dynasties of the twentieth century. along with his wife Gaby (1901–1999) and son Jean (1927–1972). Robert was also a prolific composer whose output includes seven symphonies and multiple works for piano and orchestra. His trio is a three movement work which opens the second disc on this epic anthology.
This work is among the world premiere recordings on this set. Its brevity relative to the composer’s larger works suggest that this might be a minor occasional piece but this is in fact a compact and deeply serious work. From the opening Allegro con brio we hear a substantive composition. The slow movement contains a playful scherzo like section in the middle before it returns to the more somber tone of its opening. The finale marked “allegro aperto” is, at first a playful finale as one would expect from a classical era symphony but it goes through various moods before it returns to reassert that playful opening. This one makes a case for the further exploration of this composer’s work.
The “Suite en Trio” (1937) is the outlier here, cast in no fewer than 6 movements. The composer, better known as a music critic, was admittedly heavily influenced by one of his mentors, Claude Debussy.
“Trois pieces en trio” (1937 ) concludes this fascinating survey of the string trio format as composed during the interwar period. This three movement work certainly reflects that influence but this is not mere imitation. This is a truly substantive work, the third of the three world premiere recordings here. Each of the relatively brief movements demonstrate a truly gifted composer. Once again the listener will be curious to hear more from this man’s work. We can only hope.
Last and certainly not least is the trio by Gabriel Pierne. He studied with Jules Massenet and was a contemporary of Claude Debussy. As both composer and conductor his profile loomed large on the French music scene. He is the oldest composer represented here and this is among the last of his works.
This trio is in three movements and, like the Casadeseus trio which opens the second disc of this fine collection, it is a weighty, slow moving, serious work. Once again the listener is given to wonder what other treasures ay undiscovered from this curious era of history when the world was awaiting the growing conflicts that resulted in the second world war.
The truly excellent liner notes are contributed by Dr. Elinor Olin, professor of music at Northern Illinois University. The recording by Bill Maylone is up to the usual high standards we have come to expect from producer James Ginsburg’s wonderful Cedille label. And the graphic design by Madeleine Richter echoes the era that gave birth to this great music. This is an epic anthology which fills a great gap in the history of recorded sound. I suppose one must acknowledge the irony of our present moment in history, hoping against hope that history will not repeat itself. Meanwhile much solace can be taken from this lovely collection. This one is a must have.
William Robin is a musicologist whose credentials (nicely enumerated on his web site) are more than adequate to the task at hand. This is a socioeconomic and political perspective on the seminal Bang on a Can organization. At its core, Bang on a Can is the foundational work of three people now recognized as major American composers: Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon, all of whom met as students at Yale University.
This is the (much needed) first book on the history of the collaboration of these composers and how their work helped transform and move ahead the new music scene. First in New York, then nationally, and now internationally these individuals experimented and embraced innovative ideas while navigating the labyrinth of of social, political and economic hurdles involved in the production and promotion of non-pop new music. Therein lies the “agony” referenced in my title. This essential background information makes for some slow going reading but also serves to demonstrate how daunting their task has been.
The book documents the early efforts both to define their concepts and to learn the politics of the new music economy. But, painful as they are, these efforts are ultimately instructive for anyone involved in the production of new music. This reader comes away with a new found respect for those who wrangle with the varied and complex elements behind the production of concerts in general, and new music in particular. It is “how the sausage is made” so to speak. And it is a useful perspective for the average listener to better understand the incredible complexity of new music production and promotion.
The book is divided into 7 chapters and an epilogue which focuses not just on the trials and tribulations of the gestation of Bang on a Can but also its context among several other new music initiatives that preceded BOC. Meet the Composer, New Music America, and the New York Philharmonic’s New Horizons Festival loomed large in their time and the “downtown” loft scene which nurtured the likes of Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Rhys Chatham, etc. contributed to the promotion of new music during their respective eras.
Robin identifies the innovative efforts by BOC in their use of marathon open air concerts to showcase their innovative programming which effectively blurred the lines of genres like jazz, free jazz, classical, pop, rock, etc. But their challenges were essentially the some, the politics of concert production, funding, advertising, etc. They characterized their efforts in contrast to the economically dominant Lincoln Center. The evolution of BOC from its beginnings through the establishment of the Bang on a Can All Stars touring ensemble, the establishment of a record label (Cantaloupe) and their later performances at Lincoln Center, the stodgy institution against which they railed dubbing their music as “downtown” as an alternative to the “uptown” mainstream. There is the beginnings of a history of new music in recordings that remains to be written but the point here is context and the socioeconomic and political motivations involved.
Author William Robin does his work well in this academic tome which is richly annotated and referenced with a bibliography to take the interested reader to a wealth of information on new music and its production. And while this is more about “how the sausage is made” so to speak, it is a necessary exposition which provides both history and context, something to think about the next time you buy a ticket to hear new music. Admittedly its not a pretty picture but it certainly illuminates the side of new music virtually unknown to the average listener.
While this reader had hoped for more information on the music performed (which deserves a book unto itself) this book takes its place alongside Tom Johnson”s “The Voice of New Music”, Kyle Gann’s “Downtown Music”, Renee Levine Packer’s wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music scene, “This Life of Sounds”, Benjamin Piekut’s “Experimentalism Otherwise”, George Lewis’ “A Power Stronger than Itself”, Luciano Chessa’s “Luigi Russolo, Futurist”, and David Bernstein’s “The San Francisco Tape Music Center” (to name a few) as an essential history of new music.
I thought I knew this music. After falling in love with György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) work having heard it so aptly used in Stanley Kubrick’s, “2001: A Space Odyssey” I eagerly purchased both of the complete works surveys on Sony and Telefunken but these fresh, insightful performances by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble under conductor Marcus Creed have made me fall in love again. And, while I have some familiarity with Zoltán Kodály’s (1882-1967) music (he is underappreciated) I did not know his unaccompanied choral works. So this encounter was an absolute revelation.
This release succeeds on several levels. First, it is one of the always reliably fine productions from Lars Hannibal’s OUR Recordings. So, from the physical design to and the the choices of repertoire and performers as well as the sound of the recording, this is a thoroughly enjoyable experience for the listener.
But what brings this release from competent to outstanding is the interpretive skillset of conductor Marcus Creed and the disciplined Danish National Vocal Ensemble. These are fresh, insightful readings that shed new light on these masterful composers and their work. Looking at Creed’s extensive discography it is clear that he commands a wide range of repertoire with a penchant for the twentieth century and beyond. His reading of Ernst Krenek’s massive 12 tone contrapuntal a capella masterpiece from 1941-2, “Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae” Op. 93 remains perhaps this challenging work’s finest interpretation in the 1995 Harmonia Mundi recording and a personal favorite of this reviewer. So it should come as no surprise that he is able to breathe new life into these works.
The opening work is probably the most familiar here. Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (1966) was first thrust into the spotlight via its (unpermitted at the time) inclusion is the Kubrick film. This is mid-career Ligeti and one of the most effective uses of his “micropolyphony” and cluster chord harmonies. It is first heard in the Clavius Moonbase scene fairly early in the film. It accompanies the otherwise silent animation of a sort of space shuttle bus as it glides along the lunar surface. Along with the Kyrie of Ligeti’s 1965 Requiem and his orchestral “Atmospheres” (1961) work beautifully in telling the story in this film with its well known paucity of dialogue.
This opening track grabbed my attention immediately. The text, which appears in the traditional Catholic Mass and Requiem Mass is a communion hymn with the following words:
May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy Saints for evermore: for Thou art gracious. Eternal rest give to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them: With Thy Saints for evermore, for Thou art gracious.
But the experience of this music is positively otherworldly. Its wall of sound ambiance belies a rather complex construction which has become a landmark in the development of compositional practice. And it is vitally that this music, now nearly synonymous with the film, be heard as originally intended. It exists in both worlds now and this reading helps reaffirm it as the masterpiece it is.
The next six tracks are by Ligeti but this is the Ligeti still composing under the powerful spell of Bela Bartok. All date from 1955 but are a quantum leap back from the sound world of the first track. The two brief a capella choruses (the second includes solos for bass and soprano voices) are settings of words by Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres (1913-1989). These settings are ostensibly influenced by the composer’s early encounter with modern music in Vienna (Ligeti ultimately relocated from the artistically and socially oppressive Hungary to Austria). The second of these choruses had to wait until 1968 for a performance which provides some notion of how oppressive the Hungarian regime had been.
Those brief choruses are followed by four folksong settings which take the listener back into the sound world of Bartok and Kodaly with their respective folksong transcriptions. These are very enjoyable travels into Ligeti’s excellent but markedly more conservative beginnings.
Next is another Ligeti work but one from his later years demonstrating that he never stopped evolving as a composer. The “Three Fantasies after Friederich Holderlin” (1982) are themselves a quantum leap stylistically from the 1966 Lux Aeterna. These are also more complex settings and, suffice it to say, they are a powerful experience. What was micropolyphony in the earlier work is replaced by a more traditional style of polyphonic writing but one that could not exist were it not for those earlier efforts.
And then we come further back again to early and mid-career Kodaly in three a capella works, “Evening Song” (1938), “Evening” (1904), and “Matra Pictures” (1931). I say at the beginning of this review that I believe Kodaly’s music to be underappreciated. Indeed but I find myself with no excuse given the easy availability of so much music on You Tube and other online sources. And this is why the inclusion of this fascinating selection of the composer’s significant cache of a capella choral music is so very welcome.
Like, I suppose, many listeners I mostly know Kodaly’s work via his Peacock Variations and excerpts from his opera, “Hary Janos”. Of course I had also been aware of Kodaly’s pedagogy and his methods for learning music (and I was aware even before I saw it in “Close Encounters).
But my encounter with these fine choral works revealed to me the depth of the composer’s skills. This is marvelously written music by a composer intimately familiar with this medium and it has already sent me to exploring more of this composer’s work in all genres. It is not difficult to see Kodaly’s work as a logical predecessor to that of Ligeti. he same skill and invention the same ability to convincingly set text to music. This is a terrific release, highly recommended to lovers of choral music in general and, of course, of these two composers.
The new singing sensation here is a Julliard trained soprano whose debut at the Met in 1991 has resulted in several return engagements. In addition to grand opera she apparently has experience with zarzuela and flamenco as well. The show, titled, “Y Volveré” (“And I’ll be back” in English) will also feature flamenco artists. They highlight the inclusion of song settings of Federico Garcia Lorca suggesting a program of some political conscience.
The opportunity to see this rising diva in a smaller setting singing a variety of vocal works, some from her background may make this one of those “I was there” moments. Below is the press release. And though this artist is a rising world star on the big stage it is delightful to see her other interests and talents featured.
Your humble reviewer/blogger is unable to travel to this one I eagerly await the reviews.
OPERA HISPÁNICA PRESENTS FAMED OPERA STAR
IN Y VOLVERÉ AT EL TEATRO OF EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO
ON APRIL 7, 2022
Performing with Verónica Villarroel are ‘Zarzuela King’ Pablo Zinger and Flamenco sensations Sonia Olla and Ismael Fernández
Opera Hispánica is proud to present the great Chilean soprano Verónica Villarroel in a romantic recitaltitled Y Volveré at El Teatro of El Museo del Barrio on April 7th at 7:30 PM, 1230 Fifth Avenue along Museum Mile. The performance will feature popular boleros, tangos and songs from Spain and Latin America along with selections from the Canciones Españolas Antiguas by Federico Garcia Lorca.
This special recital will feature songs including Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida, Armando Manzanero’s Cuando estoy contigo, Maria Grever’s Muñequita linda, and Garcia Lorca’s Las morillas de Jaén. The widely respected music director/pianist Pablo Zinger will lead an instrumental ensemble, with guest appearances by star Flamenco dancer Sonia Olla (who choreographed Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour Flamenco numbers), and cantaor
This special recital will feature songs including Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida, Armando Manzanero’s Cuando estoy contigo, Maria Grever’s Muñequita linda, and Garcia Lorca’s Las morillas de Jaén. The widely respected music director/pianist Pablo Zinger will lead an instrumental ensemble, with guest appearances by star Flamenco dancer Sonia Olla (who choreographed Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour Flamenco numbers), and cantaor Ismael Fernández.
Y Volveré is part of Opera Hispánica’s star-studded 2021/2022 season featuring new opera productions, an America premiere, several recitals, traditional and new repertoire, internationally renowned opera stars, fresh young artists, important collaborations and exciting venues.
Verónica Villarroel, arguably the most successful South American soprano of recent times, is regarded as one of the finest singing actresses of our day. She brings passionate intensity to the stage and “her big, forward tone has a Callas-style drama.” (The Guardian, London) Ms. Villarroel has been the recipient of the Plácido Domingo Award as the most important lyrical artist in Latin America (2002), the Medal of Women (2007), the Bicentennial Art Critics Circle Award (2011), and recognition as one of the top 100 women leaders in Chile (2010), among many others.
About Pablo Zinger
Uruguayan-born New Yorker Pablo Zinger is widely acclaimed as a conductor, pianist, composer, arranger, writer, lecturer and narrator, specializing in Astor Piazzolla, tango, Spanish zarzuela, and Latin American music. He accompanied Plácido Domingo at Washington’s Constitution Hall, conducted for Paquito D’Rivera’s Carnegie Hall 50th Anniversary Concert and the Moscow première of Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires, and accompanied legendary Spanish diva Sarita Montiel in NYC. He has been called “The King of Zarzuela” by Opera News magazine, and his La verbena de la Paloma (El Paso, ’96) was seen nationwide on PBS. For more information please visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Zinger
About Sonia Olla and Ismael Fernández
Hailed by The New York Times as “a furnace of earthy sensuality”, bailaora of international prestige, director and choreographer of her own shows, Sonia currently resides in New York, where she combines teaching with her performance and choreography career. Described by The Washington Post as the “most charismatic performer”, Ismael Fernández grew up performing in flamenco festivals throughout the world with his internationally renowned family, La Familia Fernández. Sonia and Ismael collaborated with the pop-icon Madonna for her Rebel Heart Tour and worked with Ricky Martin providing Flamenco choreography and vocals for his show All In! For more information please visist http://www.sonia-ismael.com/en/sonia-ismael
About El Teatro of El Museo del Barrio
Originally called The Heckscher Children’s Theater, El Teatro was built in 1921 by the architectural firm of Maynick and Franke as part of an orphanage. A proscenium arch stage with seating for 599, it has been acknowledged as a Landmark Quality Interior venue for its remarkable series of 30-foot murals and stained-glass roundels. Today, the murals and Art Deco interior give El Teatro special status as a Landmark Quality Venue by the Municipal Arts Society and the City of New York Arts Commission. The theatre was the site for a special tribute to Tito Puente as part of the 39th Annual GRAMMY awards. It is now part of New York City’s Historic Music Trail.
About Opera Hispánica
Opera Hispánica is the premier opera company in the United States exclusively to celebrate and to promote opera and vocal works centered around the Latin American and Spanish experience. Opera Hispánica’s mission is to empower Latin artists and develop our communities through groundbreaking cultural productions and musical content. Its goal is to facilitate the development, creation and performance of socially relevant content from the operatic and lyric repertoire to allow opera companies and performing arts organizations to present diverse programming and to reach traditionally underrepresented audiences.
Highlights of Opera Hispánica’s 21/22 season include Cuando el Fuego Abrasa, a double bill featuring Oblivion -a series of tangos by Piazzolla- and El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla, with Spanish opera superstar Nancy Fabiola Herrera, in collaboration with Teatro Grattacielo and the support of the Consulate of Spain in New York; Buenos Aires, Then and Now, a tribute to the diverse musical culture of Buenos Aires, in collaboration with New York Festival of Songs; a recital of South-American boleros and canciones by the great Chilean soprano Verónica Villarroel at El Museo del Barrio; and the American premiere of Ñomongeta, the first Guarani opera, in collaboration with the Americas Society and the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian (this last event has been postponed to the Fall due to COVID concerns.)
A wonderful trend was begun by London/Decca in the early 1990s with the release of their “Entartete Musik” series. It featured music by composers whose work had been suppressed by the dictates of the Nazi regime. It brought to light a great deal of wonderful music by mostly but not entirely Jewish composers many of whom died in concentration camps or were forced to live in exile. These recordings sparked a trend which continues today and this time the Chandos label hosts the efforts of the Toronto based ARC Ensemble whose scholarship and performance skills bring this, the fifth album in this important series. It is saddening to see the sheer volume of these oppressed works evidenced by the seemingly endless flow of new releases in this genre but there is some joy to be had in the fact that this music is slowly getting performances and recognition.
Previous releases featured premiere recordings by Jerzy Fitelberg, Szymon Laks, Walter Kaufmann, and Paul Ben-Haim. Haven’t heard these names? Well, maybe you’ve heard of Paul Ben-Haim, the Jewish/German composer who changed his name (Paul Frankenberger) when he emigrated to Palestine in 1933. The importance of projects like this one is to bring to light the art of composers lost to history and unknown in concert halls due to political oppression and/or outright murder.
This release features music by Jewish/Ukrainian composer Dmitri Klebanov (1907-1987), a composer whose work displeased the Stalinist regime. He wasn’t put in a concentration camp, he wasn’t killed, he wasn’t even sent into exile in the Gulag. Rather he was forced into a sort of intellectual exile in which he produced music which pleased the regime. But he had been cast as a sort of “whipping boy” by the regime and used as an example in the hopes of preventing others from straying to more liberal and outspoken paths such as those of Prokofiev and Shostakovich.Fortunately he outlived Stalin and was able to return to his own personal style of composition. It is this music which is presented here.
The three works from 1946, 1958, and 1965 respectively seem to have been chosen to reflect three fairly distinct eras in Klebanov’s artistic development. Whether these are ultimately representative of those chosen eras seems beside the point which is, I believe, to present a representative sampling of his work to give listeners a taste of his work and to help guide interesting performers and record companies to decide what to record next.
These works will serve to represent this neglected composer for now. There do exist some recordings of this music but these are mostly on small labels and very difficult to find. The hope for this recording and for a project like this is to provide good recordings with authoritative performances which may inspire musicians to explore the remainder of the composer’s work and, hopefully, bring these gems to audiences.
The disc begins with the nearly classical sounding fourth quartet from 1946. Cast in the classical four movements it’s difficult, in 2021, to imagine how this very accessible music could offend Soviet leaders but that is another issue entirely. All music ultimately exists within a variety of contexts but it is only possible to hear this music as it is today, listening with ears that did not exist at the time the music was written. Suffice it to say that this is eminently listenable music played with insight and dedication by the wonderful ARC Ensemble (Erika Raum, violin; Marie Berard, violin; Steven Dann, viola; Thomas Wiebe, cello; and Kevin Ahfat, piano).
The second selection is the Second Piano Trio of 1958. It is cast in three movements, some of which will remind listeners of Shostakovich whose fame and mastery loomed brightly at this time. But neither the rather conservative classical form of a piano trio nor the basically tonal idiom is likely to have charmed Kremlin leaders of the time. This is intelligent music that show the composer at the height of his powers and this, generally speaking, was not appreciated by the powers that be at the time of the work’s genesis.
The last work on the disc is the composer’s fifth string quartet from 1965. Like the two works that precede it in this recording this is music of both substance and charm. It is as listenable as the other two works and would doubtless entertain the average concert goer. It bears comparisons to Shostakovich, yes, but also to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Completists, such as your reviewer here, will wonder at the music not included on this disc: the first three string quartets, the first piano trio, the other chamber music, nine symphonies, and various concerti along with five operas and two ballets. It is both fitting and sad that this overdue review be published at at this moment in history when, as I write, the Russian army advances into the Ukraine leaving death and destruction in their wake. There is doubtless much more music yet to be uncovered/discovered, rescued from oblivion but the sad fact is that the forces which suppressed this Ukrainian composer’s works continue to oppress artists today.
When I learned that you had shuffled off your mortal coil putting an end to a unique and lengthy creative career I was given pause, not because you were the best or my favorite composer (though much of your music is forever a part of my internal soundtrack), but rather because of the timing of when your work entered my life. We never met, I never corresponded with you, and I am not a professional musician/musicologist. I am simply a consumer, audience member who was 14 years old when he first purchased the (thankfully budget priced) recording of Ancient Voices of Children.
At a tender time in my life working on the adolescent task of forming an identity I was not enamored of rock and roll, the music of most of my peers. I was a devoted fan of classical music and it was the intelligent programming of Chicago’s WFMT which, as my daily companion, taught me much about classical music old and new. It would be at least four or five years, when I was in college, that I would find others who shared my interests so my incessant listening with liner notes in hand was a solitary experience. But rather than being what one might imagine as a sad and lonely pursuit, I found it thrilling and somehow validating. It felt like a personal discovery and those bold avant-garde sounds combined with the chilling poetry of Lorca resonated deeply with my nascent personality. It was the first modern music to engage me at a time when I had yet to develop an understanding of Schoenberg, yet to encounter Mahler, or have much appreciation for music written before 1900.
It is difficult all these years later to fully recall the thrill of finding this 1974 release in the record bins at Chicago’s iconic Rose Records, a place that became intimately a part of my sense of self with wooden bins in rows that sprawled to a vanishing point. Three floors of browsing ecstasy for my solitary but increasingly confident self. Finding another recording by that composer who touched me so deeply, and one with a portion of the beautiful calligraphy which I learned characterized your work was overwhelmingly compelling. Of course I had to buy it immediately.
Much as I did with that first disc, I listened intensely and repeatedly, again with liner notes close at hand, and that bolstered with what I had learned since studying that first disc. It is a nod to Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, a presumptuous thing to do but the substance of this music is arguably comparable. In addition each of the 12 pieces was named for one of the Zodiac signs, and, a nod to Edward Elgar (who appended initials of friends to each of the “Enigma” variations). I took delight in reading that these pieces were similarly dedicated by appending initials of various people, and that The Phantom Gondolier of Scorpio was the work’s composer and that of Spring-Fire Aries was the performer, David R. Burge. I recall a certain delight when my junior scholar self decoded Crucifixus Capricorn as being fellow composer Ross Lee Finney. I realize now that I don’t know the other references but again I was hooked on the whole concept.
When I heard Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale) broadcast on WFMT I had already encountered Alan Hovhaness’ use of actual recordings of whale sounds in his orchestral work, “And God Created Great Whales” (1970) and I was stunned at the use of extended instrumental techniques to successfully evoke whale sounds and seagull sounds. It was also my first introduction to your sense of theater, lighting the stage with a blue light, and having the performers wear masks (in addition to asking the musicians to do some unusual things with their instruments and also to use their voices). I’ve since wondered how many musicians rebelled, or at least grumbled, under the weight of those stage directions and then, as now, I am grateful for musicians who aren’t afraid to break boundaries.
Now, this release was on the full priced Columbia label which was out of my budgetary reach. But along comes Rose records with their always delightful “cutout bins” where I would later find this gem at a budget friendly price. It was also a time when a major label took calculated risks releasing truly innovative, experimental music. Indeed Columbia would later introduce me to Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow and, my gateway drug, Wendy Carlos with Switched on Bach.
I was hitting my stride and using what I had been learning from liner notes and the intelligent broadcast chatter of my beloved WFMT hosts. No surprise then that, when I found this budget album with the names of both George Crumb and Frederico Garcia Lorca, I knew that I was in my milieu. And this album would occupy me nearly as obsessively as the previous ones.
The sheer beauty and distinctive design of the Nonesuch new music releases were my metaphorical dog whistle, so Makrokosmos III practically jumped into my arms at one of my Rose Records junkets. (I was and still am a bit of a completist, that is, if I buy a piece numbered “2”, I would have to find the one marked “1”, and so on). So I was somewhat upset that I had somehow missed Makrokosmos II or, heavens forbid, that no one had bothered to record it. But I easily put that obsession to the side as I became entranced by this new installment of the celestially inspired Makrokosmos series in this larger ensemble work (NB. I did not dabble in any drugs until well into my college days probably 4-5 years distant so I’m reasonably sure that the profundities I experienced were related to the power of the music, though doubtless with some adolescent hormonal effects). For whatever reason this album engulfed me most blissfully.
Deus ex machina, I visited Rose records, prowling for more music that resonated with me when I found Robert Miller’s reading of the second Makrokosmos (on Columbia’s budget label, Odyssey) which, with the first Makrokosmos, comprised 24 pieces. I would some years later learn that the Zodiac pieces were in fact an analogy (or homage) to J. S. Bach whose two volumes of preludes and fugues, “The Well Tempered Clavier”, represented all 24 keys of the Western well-tempered scale and are a sort of urtext or manifesto, and which remain towering masterpieces. Now I’m not trying to suggest that Crumb’s work is of similarly immortal status. In fact the comparison is almost of an “apples/oranges” sort. But on the level of innovation in composition that Crumb’s work represents here does suggest strongly to this listener that the this set may do for extended techniques what Bach did for harmony and keyboard playing. (Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano of 1962, which I did not hear til many years later and it is clear are sort of the “etudes” or “experiments”, if you will that later expanded into larger forms). They are clearly a truly innovative rethinking of what piano music and piano playing can be. They are also a logical successor to John Cage and Marcel Duchamp’s “prepared piano” innovations of a decade or so earlier.
In the decades of the 80s and 90s, I and my concert goin’ pals would make pilgrimages to live performances of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, AACM, Keith Jarrett, the Arditti Quartet. Chicago Symphony, Civic Orchestra, Contemporary Chamber Players, and, of course, the Kronos Quartet (who I learned were formed shortly after founder and first violin, David Harrington heard Mr. Crumb’s 1970 political/musical masterpiece), “Black Angels”. It was the Kronos, whose beautifully staged and definitively played reading I can still recall (not eidetically complete but I do recall the stage lit from above, one light over each of four music stands with their instruments hung on cables over those desks (which they took down to play after they entered the stage).
After the house lights dimmed, there was a pause which served almost as punctuation, an indicator of a silence which helped get the audience into the mystical space which is deeply embedded in the music by structure, by analogy, by sheer sound, and by the theater. The musicians played standing at their desks (cellist Joan Jenrenaud was afforded a chair, thankfully). References to apocalyptic themes, alchemical symbolism, numerology, extended instrumental techniques, subtexts, epigrams, and striking optics all joined to create a performance that continues to evoke emotional memories. This music, written in protest of the Viet Nam War, also found its way into the score of the hit horror film, “The Exorcist”. Oh, yes, the “Night of the Electric Insects” played by the Electric String Quartet” added no small amount of uneasiness to the film and the music reinforces those emotions curiously well even on its own. The (now ubiquitous) use of amplification gives an “in your face” aspect to the performance of this music. It illuminates what would be barely perceptible extended technique effects and seems to push the music right up to your face and into your ears. Not your typical chamber music experience.
To be fair, while I have continued to follow your music, Mr. Crumb, I have not done so with the same passion as in those early days but I treasure listening to the Pulitzer Prize winning Echoes of Time and the River, Star Child, the early Solo Cello Sonata, and I’m incredibly pleased that David Starobin’s Bridge Records had been collaborating on a complete works edition (still in progress). But my sort of “first love” encounter with your music has been a significant part of making me who I now am and has given me great pleasures to sustain me since those early encounters. I want to thank you for your service to the arts and to let you know that your work has touched me deeply and is forever a part of me, it lives on. Rest in peace, a fan.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
I first came to know these Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 (1950-1) in the recording by Keith Jarrett on ECM some years ago (1992). At the time I was not familiar with this post-Bach set of compositions (one might even call it a “meme”) written to showcase the newly codified “Well Tempered Tuning” but I was intrigued by Jarrett’s choices of repertoire. Not surprisingly, I immediately liked this gargantuan undertaking. I appreciated these pieces as listenable, stimulating musical compositions and a good choice of repertoire by the always interesting Mr. Jarrett. Many pianists have recorded this cycle of works though I can’t recall a recital of the entire set being performed live as occurs fairly frequently with the Bach cycles (he wrote two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in each of the 24 keys of the western musical scale).
Readers of this blog may recall my fawning over an earlier Levit release, a 3 disc set of piano variations containing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (1741), Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” (1819-23), and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (1975). I asserted that Sony, whose recording (1955) of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations helped elevate that work into the popular repertoire, had at least implied that these three large sets of variations are musically on the same level of significance thus potentially elevating the Rzewski piece to the more mainstream repertory.
Now comes yet another 3 disc set from this fine Russian/German pianist who seems to be possessed of vision as well as virtuosity and interpretive skills. Levit is clearly comfortable with the “usual suspects”, the common repertoire of live piano recitals (Beethoven’s Sonatas, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Liszt, etc.) but is clearly interested in expanding the general repertoire by discovering lesser known works that he finds deserve to be heard more often. A quick look at the pianists other releases reveals a similar pattern even in works of a less grand scale than those discussed in this essay.
Anselm Cybinski’s fine liner notes derive from his reading of history, Shostakovich’s and Stevenson’s biographies, and his conversations with Mr. Levit. Here he describes what Shostakovich was enduring in the years when he brought forth these compositions, post WWII, life in the repressive Stalinist regime, recent censure by said regime, and his attempts to be return from this censure and be allowed to have his works performed again. He relates the story of the then 21 year old Tatiana Nikolayeva who premiered this work and played it before the committee. He also sketches the impact of various historical events on Shostakovich and his music.
The preludes are described as emotional responses to these varied events, a sort of exorcising of the emotional turmoil these events had on the composer. He describes in these notes the contexts which clearly impact the pianist in his understanding and subsequent interpretation of this music, contexts which help the listener grasp the deeper levels of meaning inherent (or at least implied) in these works.
He does the same with the Stevenson work, itself a response to the sufferings of a fellow artist, a sort of artistic dialogue analogous to that of songwriters and other musicians who used their art to make a point (Lynyrd Skynyrd writing, “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Neil Young’s, “Southern Man” or Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” concurrently with the second inaugural concert for Richard Nixon as a political counterpoint are two such examples), not the same situations perhaps but artistic dialogues nonetheless.
Apparently Ronald Stevenson (1928-1915) wrote his gargantuan “Passacaglia on DSCH” in 1960 as a tribute to his fellow composer. There are many examples of Shostakovich using the German note spelling of “D”, “Es” (pronounced, “S”), “C”, “H” (German notation for “B”) all of which translates to the actual notes of D, E flat, C, B as a motif in his work so Stevenson’s use of it is quite apt.
This Passacaglia is a work which I had “known of” but never heard before hearing this recording. It is a marvelous work, not exactly easy listening but a very satisfying work which improves with subsequent hearings, revealing itself as a multi-layered masterpiece. And it is Levit’s vision that effectively gives this work, and the Shostakovich cycle a significant and, thanks again to Sony, a very large public nudge to get this music heard and played more often.
No doubt many reviewers will spend time comparing the various recordings of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and the Stevenson Passacaglia. For the record I did a quick search and found four recordings of the Stevenson work and at least 12 complete recordings of the Shostakovich. However, for the purposes of this review I will leave discussion of the merits and shortcomings of the various interpretations to people better qualified than I. The takeaway I hope to share with my readers is, “Get this set and enjoy it” and to musicians and producers, “Pay attention to Igor Levit’s artistic radar”.
One of the undeniable positive effects of the Black Lives Matter movement is exemplified in this amazing release. The Harlem Arts Festival, which ran from June 29 to August 24, 1969 (on Sundays at 3 PM) featured some profoundly important musicians (only one of whom went on to play at the fabled “Woodstock Festival” which ran from August 15-18, 1969 in Bethel, New York). This festival which was held on six Sundays in the summer of 1969 was documented in about 40 hours of footage which then languished in a basement for some 50 years.
Along comes Ahmir Khalib Thompson, known professionally as Questlove, an American musician, songwriter, disc jockey, author, music journalist, and film director. Along with restoring the original footage, Questlove, as director of this auspicious release intercuts contemporary interviews (mostly with people who attended the festival) with carefully chosen performance footage which contextualizes the concert series effectively making this release into a sociological as well as historical document which emphasizes the significance of the festival leaving the viewing audience to contemplate why such important footage had been left to languish in a basement for 50 years.
In fact there had been efforts to capitalize on the popularity of pop concert footage evidenced by Michael Wadleigh’s well documented Woodstock Festival which quickly became a defining document of the era. The fact that production funding was easily obtained for that film (for which the young Martin Scorsese and his frequent collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker contributed their editing skills)is a matter of record. But the efforts failed and the concert footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival would not be seen until 2021.
A quick look at the lineup for the Harlem Festival (original poster on right) demonstrates the obvious blackness of the performers in direct counterpoint to the equally obvious whiteness of the Woodstock Festival (Quill, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, John Sebastian, Keef Hartley Band, The Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, Canned Heat, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Nicky Hopkins, Joe Cocker and The Grease Band, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After, The Band, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na, Jimi Hendrix / Gypsy Sun & Rainbows). The only black musicians (ironically in a concert of predominantly blues based rock) at Woodstock were Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. And the audience at each of these festivals pretty much reflected the racial demographic onstage.
Questlove’s effort won “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” both the Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021. It was released January 28, 2021 (Sundance) and June 25, 2021 (United States) and is currently streaming on Hulu.
Why am I featuring this pop music documentary on this modern classical blog? Well it is a contemporary release of music which has been and continues to be influential in our modern culture. A quick look at some of my previous blogs will reveal reviews of concerts and CDs featuring electric guitars, Hammond Organs, etc. And the repetitive figures and simpler harmonic structures endemic to “rock” have infiltrated the classical realm via minimalism.
We live in an age where the last two Pulitzer Prizes in music went to (very deserving) black composers, Anthony Davis (2020) and Tania Léon (2021). Maestro Davis once shared with me that he seeks inspiration studying the music of James Brown and doubtless there are many more such instances of “pop music” influencing “classical music” which I shall leave for musicologists to explore. But the bottom line is that this film brings to light the fact that there are some 40 hours of amazing concert footage that remains largely unseen and which contains marvelous and significant historical events (the final cut of the film reportedly only uses about 35% of the original film). The moment in which Mahalia Jackson hands the microphone back to Mavis Staples alone is a metaphorical “passing of the torch” from one generation to the next, a truly beautiful moment regardless of one’s race.
It is probably worth noting that the attempt to recreate the success of Woodstock with the December 6, 1969 “Altamont Speedway Free Festival” which was sullied by the tragic death of a concertgoer at the hands of the Hell’s Angels who had been hired to provide security for the event. By contrast, when the New York City Police Department refused to provide security for the Sly and the Family Stone segment of the Harlem Cultural Festival, the Black Panthers were engaged (rather more successfully) to provide security for that event. Read what you will into those facts.
One hopes that the release of Summer of Soul will result in the subsequent release of more of that concert footage from a more innocent (or naive?) time so we may see these fine young musicians near the beginnings of their wonderful careers (well, one could argue that Stevie Wonder was more mid-career at this point). Questlove’s directorial efforts backed by producers David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolen, and Joseph Patel have brought to light this important cultural event placing it in its proper historical perspective in the development and performance of new music. Festival producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin documented the six-week festival in 1969 and called the project “Black Woodstock” in hopes of helping the film sell to studios. After everyone turned him down, 40 hours of unseen footage sat in his basement for half a century. Sadly, Tulchin died in 2017.
I haven’t looked to see how many different cuts exist of the Woodstock Film but the 1994 director’s cut clocks in at 224 minutes and the latest CD release contains no fewer than 4 discs. Would that something similar will happen with the yet unseen film of these fine performers. The sort of “cancel culture” that helped keep this film in a basement for 50 years may be seeing its influence wane. Meanwhile there remains joy in both this film and in the anticipation of seeing more of this historic event, a vital part of music history and American history. Bravo Questlove!
Let me say that this disc represents one of the most integrated releases that I have seen/heard. This has the gravitas of a well conceived and executed prog rock concept album (remember those?). This young group of musicians from Detroit present themselves in a photo in the accompanying booklet in casual dress flouting the old fashioned traditions of playing in tuxes much as another creative chamber ensemble (The Kronos Quartet) did many years ago. The Akropolis Reed Quintet is a group of instruments not commonly known (I’ve never heard of any repertoire for this combination of instruments, any musicians/musicologists want to chime in here?) in classical chamber ensembles. Whereas the Kronos began work a with a long held standard ensemble comprising two violins, a viola and a cello, the classical string quartet which can easily trace a long standing tradition going back to Haydn and very much alive today, the Akropolis consists of oboe (Tim Gocklin), clarinet (Kari Landry), saxophone (Matt Landry), bass clarinet (Andrew Koeppe), and bassoon (Ryan Reynolds), an unheard of combo. Its history begins here.
Unfamiliar music by an unfamiliar group of reed instruments doesn’t exactly shout, “Buy me, listen to me”, but the prospective listener need not fear. The program here consists of all new music for this ensemble. There are no competitors, at least for now. But all this music in truly excellent performances/recordings along with remarkably integrated collaboration with visual artist, British artist and illustrator Ashton Springer, and poet/writer Marsha Music combines in an apparent attempt to reclaim the artistic history that, in the days of the booming automotive industry and the success of Motown Recordings made Detroit a creative center known round the world. Ms. Music (a nom de plume for Marsha Battle Philpot), a Detroit native, is in many ways the heart of this album. Her father was a producer for Motown and her poetic reflections on local history infuses the album with a certain authenticity. The poet states she was “born in a record store”. Indeed it was the Joe’s Records which appears in Ashton’s album cover art to which she refers (metaphorically of course)
Ghost Light brings a variety of things into focus in this paean to Detroit, the home of these artists whose work very organically includes promotion of the arts in local schools and other venues. In works generally focused on themes of birth, death, and rebirth this album tells a sad story of lost history, of razed black neighborhoods, of fond memories, of a once thriving economy now struggling but fully embracing pride of place while seeking resolution of (and forgiveness?) for past injustices while looking optimistically to a better future.
The art work itself is a nostalgic example of fine cover art which successfully reflects the content and the character of the music contained within. The illustrations which so beautifully attract the eye to the cover are continued in the accompanying booklet which provides concise notes which place the music in the context of the composers’ various intent and processes as well as the nearly cinematic efforts made to represent the intended content of each piece. Though neither the poet nor the illustrator are known to this writer it is reasonable to assume that we will see/hear from them again. That would be my wish.
This is the fourth album by this prize winning chamber group which was formed in 2009 at the University of Michigan. It contains five musical compositions and three poems (which precede movements I, II, and IV of the final work). All the music, as noted above is generally on themes of life, death, and rebirth as well as “ghosts” of the past.
The first work by the only composer here that was known previously to this writer is “Rites for the Afterlife” (2018) by the amazing Stacy Garrop whose facility with melodic invention and subtle use of tone colors permeated her exciting Mythology Symphony. The four movements are roughly analogous to the classical sonata forms with a longer more complex first movement followed by a slow movement, a scherzo-like movement, and a finale which ties them all together. Here she titles her movements: I. Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead, II. Passage Through the Netherworld, III. The Hall of Judgement, and IV. The Field of Reeds. The composer provides a scenario which is recounted in the booklet. Let me say that her tone painting is that of a true master and I advise listeners to collect anything she releases. You will not be disappointed.
Second is “Kinds of Light” (2018) by Michael Gilbertson. This piece, in four brief movements attempting to metaphorically treat each instrument as a pigment. The movements: I. Flicker, II. Twilight, III. Fluorescence, and IV. Ultraviolet utilize timbres and combinations of timbres to represent the visuals implied by the titles. This is probably the most “experimental” of the pieces here but the experiment engages rather than repels.
“Firing Squad” (2018?) by Niloufar Nourbakhsh. If I’m reading those liner notes correctly, the performance of this work is accomplished with the ensemble playing with a recording of themselves playing the work. This is the most overtly political of the works represented here in its intense single movement.
“Seed to Snag” (2018) by Theo Chandler is cast in three movements: I. Sprout, II. Stretch, and III. Sow. Here is a metaphoric evocation of the cycle of life from birth to death utilizing baroque musical structures.
The album concludes with “Homage to Paradise Valley” by Jeff Scott. This is the largest work here clocking in at over 30 minutes including the poetry. Its four movements attempt to describe forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit. The movements are titled: I. Ghosts of black Bottom, II. Hastings Street blues, III. Roho Pumzika Kwa Amani, and IV. Paradise Theater Jump. Movements I, II, and IV are preceded by Detroit poet Marsha Music reading from her work. The beautiful title of the third movement is a phrase in Swahili which translates as, “Spirits, Rest Peacefully”. The other movements channel the ghosts of these nearly forgotten neighborhoods and that third movement invites those ghosts to a place of rest and the peace of knowing that they will not be forgotten.
I’ve placed links throughout this article so that readers can find more detail about the composers and other artists involved. All of the artists involved here deserve at least a second look if not more. Kudos to all who were involved in this project.
This welcome recording presents music by five contemporary Armenian composers: Artur Avanesov (1980- ), Ashot Zohrabyan (1945- ), Michel Petrossian (1973- ), Artashes Kartalyan (1961- ), and Ashot Kartalyan (1985- ). All of these are new names to this writer and, most likely, to the majority of listeners. That is what makes this disc such an exciting prospect. This post WW2 generation of composers are writing music from the perspective of their generations, one which is qualitatively different than that of previous generations but all owe a debt to the man who is arguably Armenia’s first truly modern composer, Tigran Mansurian (1939- ) whose brave integration of modern trends in western music distinguish him from previous generations of classical composers whose focus was either nationalistic (as Copland was to American music) or traditional religious music for the Armenian Orthodox Christian rites. Mansurian, in addition to embracing European modernism also returned to embrace the traditional religious compositions of Komitas. Spirituality is a frequent and revered aspect of Armenian classical music.
One must, of course, acknowledge the “elephant in the room” issue of the Armenian genocide of 1915 (only now in 2021 finally acknowledged by the United States) as a factor in some degree in the artistic output of this small nation. There are no obvious references as such in the compositions recorded here but the selection of texts which either inspire or are literally set to be sung are notably somber whether hat be the Latin title of the first work on the disc, Artur Avanesov’s “Quasi Harema Maris” taken from the Book of Job or the beautiful but lonely poetry of Vahan Tekayan set in Artashes Katalyan’s “Tekayan Triptych”. Horrors such as this affect generations after all.
It was Maestro Movses Pogossian who kindly sent me a review copy of this album. He played a large role in the conceptualization and production of this album. He also plays violin on the first track. The Armenian born Pogossian, a world renowned violinist, is also the head of the Armenian Music Program at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. He is also the artistic director of the Dilijan Chamber Music Series and artistic director of the VEM Ensemble, a group of graduate musicians in residence at UCLA. His involvement is yet another reason to get this disc. It is clearly a project close to his heart and one upon which he has invested a great deal of artistic energy.
This album was recorded in May, 2019 and released in 2020 where it ran up against the pandemic shutdowns which affected performing musicians and temporarily stifled this reviewer as well. So here is my very appreciative review perhaps a year later than intended.
There are 18 tracks containing pieces by five Armenian composers, all of whom took part in this production.
The first track contains a piece for piano quintet in one movement (Movses Pogossian and Ji Eun Hwang, violins; Morgan O’Shaughnessey, viola; Niall Ferguson, cello; and the composer Artur Avanesov at the piano). “Quasi Harena Maris” (2016) takes its Latin name from the Biblical Book of Job. The title in English reads, “Like the Sand of the Sea”. It is a metaphor spoken by Job as he compares his grief to the sand of the sea sinking in its heaviness. The piece is described by the composer as a set of variations. Microtonal gestures evoke a choir interacting in a sort of call and response strategy with the piano. This is a powerful piece sometimes meditative, sometimes declamatory, but always evoking pain and sadness such as that described by the Biblical Job. While embracing modernism in his compositional methods Avanesov embraces spirituality as well.
The second track contains another single movement work, Novelette (2010) by Ashot Zohrabyan. It is scored for piano quartet (Varty Manouelian, violin; Scott St. John, viola; Antonio Lysy, cello; and Artur Avanesov once again at the piano. This work seems to have much in common with the first in that it embraces modernist techniques with spiritual references to suggest longing and separation. It is another powerful expression which engages the listener with clever invention while evoking a post apocalyptic sadness.
Now we move from quintet through quartet and on to, of course, trio. This work, also in a single movement, is scored for piano trio (Varty Manouelian, violin; Charles Tyler, cello; and Artur Avanesov on piano. Michel Petrossian’s, “A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire” (2017), the title a contrasting of two different translations of the biblical event in which the Angel of God appears to Moses in a burning bush. The composer describes this piece as an investigation of identity (his own being variously of “Armenian by birth, Russian by education, and French by culture”). It is also an homage to Mr. Pogossian. More kinetic and varied than the previous two pieces, this tour de force nonetheless also knows pain.
Tracks 4-6 contain the “Tekeyan Triptych” by Artashes Kartalyan showcases the poetry of Vahan Tekeyan in an English translation by Vatsche Barsoumian. The UCLA VEM Ensemble (Danielle Segen, mezzo-soprano; Ji Eun Hwang and Aiko Richter, violins; Morgan O’Shaughnessey, viola; and Jason Pegis, cello). This is a beautifully lyric setting of some mighty somber poetry which is very much in keeping with the tone of this recording. The VEM Ensemble handles this lyricism with ease and professionalism.
We now move on to music for something other than strings and piano, namely the “Suite for Saxophone and Percussion” (2015) by Ashot Kartalyan. This five movement suite puts this writer in the mind of similar works by American composer Alan Hovhaness, the composer whose immersion in Armenian culture introduced many (this writer included) to the splendors of Armenian art music. This piece uses instrumental choices similar to Hovhaness and utilizes contrapuntal writing as well. but one cannot miss the jazz inflections doubtless gleaned from Kartalyan’s exposure to the work of his jazz musician father. This suite is also a more animated piece providing relief from the intense and somber music on the first half of the disc.
The final seven tracks are given to a selection from a series of works by the hard working pianist/composer who performed in the first three works on the disc. And it is here that we can solve the mystery of the title of the album as well. These brief works seem to be etudes, experimental compositional efforts which doubtless become material in some way for later works. The third piece presented here is titled “Modulation Necklace”. This selection comes from what the composers says are some seventy similar works under the title “Feux Follets” (frenzied flames in English). They are said to have no singe unifying aspect but it appears that these are an insight to some of the composer’s compositional methods. They provide a calm and curiously speculative little journey which leaves the listener wanting more.
This is a delightful disc made with serious scholarship and dedication which introduces audiences to the splendors of contemporary Armenian art music. One hopes that this well lead to more and larger works being recorded.
Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is among the most prolific of American composers. He has written so much music that even now, over twenty years since he exited the earthly plane, there remains much music that has not been recorded and manuscripts that await editing and publication. This beautiful recording fills some of those gaps.
First I must say that Hovhaness holds a special place for me personally as his music has always felt like a personal discovery. In my early teens I was immediately hooked when I first heard a recording of his second symphony, better known as “Mysterious Mountain” (in the Chicago Symphony/Reiner recording). It would be years before I attempted to grapple with the structure of his music but I knew it spoke to me.. Another piece which caught my still forming musical ear was his Allegro on a Pakistan Lute Tune from pianist Robert Helps’ classic survey of American piano music on CRI recordings from 1966. And in 1976 Hovhaness’ “Achtamar” was included in radio station WFMT’s bicentennial survey of American Music curated by composer/educator Raymond Wilding-White.
I later heard a broadcast performance from Oberlin of his Visionary Landscapes for piano which also grabbed my attention. I would later hear this in the recording and at a live recital in 2011 performed by Sahan Arzruni in Berkeley, California in celebration of the composer’s centennial (curated by legendary Bay Area Armenian-American composer/producer/educator/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian). I later purchased the two wonderful discs of piano music by equally legendary pianist/broadcaster/educator/new music advocate Marvin Rosen as well as a disc or two with the composer himself at the keyboard.
That brief personal history serves to illustrate some of why this disc is so exciting to me. This new recording is a sumptuous production that came in a little cardboard CD box with a distinctive design and gold stamped lettering. Inside is a CD in a matching cardboard slipcase and a high gloss paper booklet in three languages (Turkish, Armenian, and English). These useful notes describe the nature and sources of these compositions which are recorded for the first time, some from manuscripts which remain unpublished.
Arzruni is himself of Armenian extraction (born in Istanbul in 1943) and has been active as a pianist for many years as soloist and as a chamber music partner in a wide range of music. Some will recall him as the straight man playing in some of Victor Borge’s humorous recitals. Arzruni is a multifaceted artist whose knowledge and affinity for Turkish and Armenian music along with his firm grounding in the traditional western classical repertoire make him one of the finest interpreters of Hovhaness’ music. The pianists discography is diverse and interesting encompassing classical repertoire as well as fascinating niches of contemporary music from Turkey, Armenia, and their diaspora.
There are 34 tracks which contain 10 compositions. Some of the tracks require a percussionist (Adam Rosenblatt). All tracks are vintage Hovhaness. Though he is an American composer, born in Massachusetts, Hovhaness, in the tradition of learning non-western musics that traces to composers like Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, McPhee, Georges Enescu, and other proto-world music scholars who incorporated non-western scales, tunings, and compositional methods in their work. Hovhaness studied variously Armenian traditional music as well as Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Javanese, and Balinese musics.
The first piece on this disc is the five movement “Invocations to Vahakn” (1945-6). Vahakn is, in Armenian mythology, a god who symbolizes martial victory. According to legend he saved the earth by slaying savage black dragons in pre-Christian Armenia. The first movement is for solo piano. The remaining four augment the piano with various percussion instruments including a thunder sheet, Chinese drums, a conch shell, Burmese gongs, and cymbals. This piece appears to have been recorded only once before in an excellent performance by the Abel/Steinberg/Winant Trio on New Albion records.
Next up is another five (originally seven) movement suite for piano (this time without percussion), “Yenovk” (1951). This work went through several revisions ultimately culminating in it being renamed, “Madras Sonata” (1960). These five movements reveal various aspects of his compositional style including his imitation of non-western instruments and the use of various western and non-western forms. The five movements in the world premiere of this version of the work are: Fantasy, Canzona, Jhala, Canzona, Ballata, and Fugue. Hovhaness was a master of counterpoint and fugue as can be heard here. This was dedicated to Yenovk Der Hagopian, a singer and friend of the composer who introduced him to Armenian traditional folk music.
Lalezar (1947) is for solo piano. The title is a Farsi word for “field of tulips” and, like many of Hovhaness’ works, it went through later transformations culminating in it becoming a song in the 1971 song cycle (The flute Player of the Armenian Mountains) written for the great Armenian bass singer, Ara Berberian.
The next three tracks contain the “Suite on Greek Tunes” (1949). It is dedicated to the Greek-American pianist William Masselos (1920-1992) whose performing repertoire included a great deal of American music. This appears to tbe the first recording of it. The three movements, wedding song, grapeyard song, and dance in seven tala. The last movement reflects Hovhaness’ interest in Hindustani music. Tala is a rhythmic form in that musical system.
Mystic Flute (1937) is a brief piece which is also based on tala. It was a frequent encore played by none other than Sergei Rachmaninoff. The 1962 revision, given the Opus number 22 has been recorded but this is the premiere recording of the 1937 version originally published in 1942.
Journey into Dawn (1954) was originally titled, “Piano Suite No. 2”. This second of four piano suites composed in 1954 is cast in five movements: Hymn, Fugue, Jhala, Aria, Alleluia. Again we hear the eclectic nature of the composer’s interests with elements here of sacred music, western art music, and Hindustani forms.
Laona (1956) was originally titled, “Genesee River” after the river which runs through Rochester, New York. Hovhaness was fond of the views of the river. He later changed the name of the piece in reference to the city in New York state where the Spiritualist Movement established a center in the mid-19th century. This is an impressionistic piece rather unlike Hovhaness’ other works in style but certainly of the same quality. This is its recording premiere.
The three movement “Lake of Van Sonata” (1946, rev 1959). The title refers to Lake Van, the largest body of water in Anatolia and was the center of the Armenian kingdom or Ararat. It was populated predominantly by Armenians from about 1000 B.C. until the Armenian genocide of 1915. In his liner notes Arzruni reports that he has abridged the first movement in collaboration with the composer. This sonata has been recorded at least twice before this release.
Vijag (1946) is a composition for two pianos. The title refers to the traditional Armenian fortune telling festival. Though the notes do not specify, it appears that Arzruni plays both parts. It is a world premiere recording.
The disc ends with a fairly large work, the eight movement “Hakhpat Sonata” (1948-51). It is scored for piano and percussion (apparently the only Hovhaness piano sonata that uses percussion). The percussion consists of a large Tam Tam and a kettle drum tuned to the note “G”.
This is the first recording of this piece whose title refers to a large monastic complex built in 976 CE. The monastery has been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as of 1996.
This is a major release, a gorgeously recorded and produced CD album which fills essential gaps in Alan Hovhaness’ recorded legacy. The liner notes by Mr. Arzruni reflect his depth of knowledge of the music and his thorough research. All collectors of American Music, Armenian Music and lovers of piano music in general will want to have this disc. It is a gem.
As far as I can tell this is only the second recording of Harry Partch’s 1958 dance theater masterpiece. The recording that most folks know is likely the CRI release which used that awful simulated stereo (which is rather unpleasant heard on headphones). That recording (thankfully remastered in the original mono for New World Records) is of the 1958 premiere of this inventive and groundbreaking work originally released on the composer’s Gate 5 label.
This release of the 1980 (six years after the composer’s death) Berlin performance is here released for the first time on Neuma records under Philip Blackburn’s new tenure. Neuma’s tagline, “Food for the Mind’s Ear” is curiously reflected in the recording method used here. Binaural recording was pioneered in the late 1960s using two microphones facing away from each other inside a dummy head with anatomically accurate human inner and outer ears. The idea was to produce recordings which, when heard on headphones, simulated the experience of being present in the audience. Of course one can listen on conventional speakers but it is truly worth one’s time and money to get a good set of headphones to appreciate this amazing performance.
This is the second Neuma release which embraces Kenneth Gaburo’s legacy. The above recording (reviewed in an earlier blog post) is of a 1967 choral concert curated and conducted by Kenneth Gaburo at the University of Illinois at Champaign where, nearly ten years before that event, the premiere of Partch’s Bewitched was first imposed on a audience. It is Gaburo’s skills as a musical theater director that come into play in the 1980 Berlin production which features the Harry Partch Ensemble conducted by Danlee Mitchell, a long time Partch collaborator and performer.
The recording has a refreshingly superior sound to the 1958 mono premiere but the crucial significance of this release is of Kenneth Gaburo’s holistic theatrical vision which draws upon world music theater conventions such as Japanese Noh, Hindu Mahabharata performances, Gamelan accompanied Balinese Shadow Puppet theater, and the “happenings” of Allan Kaprow as well as ancient Greek theater. Gaburo rehearsed the musicians and dancers to channel Partch’s grand vision in this, the first of his three major dance/theater works (the others being Revelations in the Courthouse Park, 1960; and Delusion of the Fury, 1965-66). It is a masterpiece of American music.
The Harry Partch Ensemble in this recording consisted of Isabella Tercero (The Witch), Peter Hamlin (Adapted Koto), Phil Keeney (Spoils of War), Cris Forster (Marimba Eroica), Randy Hoffman (Cloud Chamber Bowls), Francis Thumm (Chromelodeon I), John Szanto (New Boo I), Dan Maureen (Bass Clarinet), Donna Caruso (Piccolo and Flute), Robert Paredes (Clarinet), David Dunn (Adapted Viola), Robin Gillette and Anna Mitchell (Kithara II), Ron Caruso (Diamond Marimba), Gary Irvine (Bass Marimba), David Savage and Paul William Simons (Harmonic Canon II), Ron Engel (Surrogate Kithara). Lou Blankenburg (choreographer/associate director) and Kenneth Gaburo (director). The Partch instruments are as much characters in this piece as the musicians and dancers.
The original recording done by RIAS (Radio In the American Sector) was restored and mastered by David Dunn. The booklet includes commentary from clarinetist Bob Paredes as well as Partch’s original scenario taken from the published score.
The Bewitched is a visionary politically progressive music/dance theatrical satire that parallels the work of Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater and presages theatrical and musical trends that would later characterize the 1960s and beyond. This recording is a very significant historical document and a great sounding CD, an essential recording for fanciers of Partch’s work, and a performance that sets a standard for the future.
If you don’t already have a good pair of headphones get one and buy this CD. You won’t regret it.
As it happens the digital file of the performance of Dai Fujikura‘s Piano Concerto No. 4, “Akiko’s Piano” (2020) was kindly sent to me by the composer. As is clear from the album photo the CD release also contains other music performed at the concert which contained this work. So this review is focused only on the concerto.
It is worthy of noting the musical pairings on the disc which add to the melancholy of the concerto, the lovely but somber Cavatina from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major. The music is said to reflect Beethoven’s sadness over his unsuccessful love life. That is followed by a true classic of beauty and melancholy, Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The last piece is an arrangement (by Hideo Saito) of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D minor solo violin Partita. This ethereal music presumably providing some abstract solace in this sad concert which also happened to occur during the height of the global Covid Pandemic which continues to exert a pall on life in these times.
This is the fourth of Fujikura’s concerti for piano and the first this writer has heard. The recording here is of the world premiere and the composer did the mastering. The pianist is Mami Hagiwara playing both the concert grand and the upright piano (Akiko’s piano). The Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra is led by Tatsuya Shimono. The piece is dedicated to the Hiroshima Symphony’s Peace and Music Ambassador, Martha Argerich.
The appellation, “Political Classical” is this writer’s own proposed genre and one which identifies a series of articles and reviews of music on this blog which I believe fits this definition. And this work fits nicely in that it memorializes a tragedy in the hopes of raising awareness and, hopefully, conveying a lesson and expressing a hope that this little story from history might not be repeated.
What story, you ask? Well the composer’s brief notes tell us that the upright Baldwin piano used only in the final coda of the work was the one used by a then 19 year old girl named Akiko. She was born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents and she and her family moved to Hiroshima when she was six years old. This upright piano was the instrument in her home upon which she practiced her lessons.
On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Though injured, Akiko did make it back from her school to her parents’ home where she died in their arms from acute radiation poisoning. The piano survived but the budding young artist did not.
The concerto is modern but lyrical, a challenge to the soloist, and a fine display of the soloist’s virtuosity. It is cast in one movement with generally identifiable fast and slow sections. The orchestra is kept quite busy throughout until the end. The soloist plays on the concert grand until the last few minutes before the end when she plays on Akiko’s piano, a somber coda, leaving the orchestra and the grand piano behind with their tasks complete. The solo upright brings the work to a rather devastating ending sounding alone, evoking the memory of Akiko.
This is a new twist on the many pieces which have been written decrying the devastation of war and of the atomic bombings which ostensibly brought an end to the war. As the composer notes, there are many “Akikos” in many wars and this work is concerned with the hope that there will be no more.
It is a beautiful concerto, a major addition to Fujikura’s oeuvre and one that moves this writer to want to hear more of this modern Japanese master composer. The music does not appear to have any other obvious references other than the story and the metaphorical use of the upright piano. It is a serious work but one that will forever represent grief at the injustices children suffer at the hands of world politics.
I think this is the fourth disc of the music of William Susman which has come across my desk. Let me say it is a delight to hear this man’s music and experience the range of his artistry. All releases of his music thus far have been on belarca records, a label founded by Susman to promote The Octet Ensemble and other artists who share an interest in the work of Susman and many of his contemporaries.
The disc which is the subject of this review contains selections from soundtracks to three films: When Medicine Got it Wrong (2008), a film by Katie Cadigan and Laura Murray; Balancing Acts: A Jewish Theater in the Soviet Union (2008), a film by Sam Bell, Kate Stilley, and William Susman; Native New Yorker (2005), a film by Steve Bilich. But this is just one of three discs of film music thus far by Mr. Susman.
I mention these not just to create a list of Susman’s film music but also to point out that all of these scores have engaged the amazing talents of the longtime cellist of the Kronos Quartet, Joan Jeanrenaud, herself a composer and producer. Susman appears to be fond of collaborations with other artists.
The 2004 “Oil on Ice” won the 2004 Pare Lorentz award from the International Documentary Association. It was Pare Lorentz’s collaboration with American composer Virgil Thomson that produced two of his finest film scores, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938). Thomson’s subsequent music for Robert J. Flaherty’s feature length drama, Louisiana Story (1948) earned him the only Pulitzer Prize ever awarded for a film score. Suffice it to say that film scores are a rather neglected genre, at least among non-pop composers. That is another reason to pay attention to these releases, as in “get these before they disappear”. But also because film music by concert hall composers shows a side of their work that may not be evident in concert works. It is a marriage of sound and image, a collaborative effort. Thomson’s film music was written entirely for socially conscious films of the WPA era. Susman’s work seems to be following a similar trajectory some generations later.
Now back to the disc under consideration.
Joan Jeanrenaud provides her multitracked performances on two of the three films. As always, her artistry is welcome. Her work is evident in the first two film soundtracks. Mr. Susman, an accomplished pianist, plays piano and other keyboards on all three films. Note must also be made of another collaborator, accordion player and vocalist, Mira Stroika (a former student of Susman’s) who plays and sings on the 2008 Balancing Acts film. Among the three this appears to be the one closest to the composer’s heart, he is also one of the film’s producers. Susman plays piano and other keyboards in the final track, an uninterrupted soundtrack (some 13 minutes) to 2005’s Native New Yorker.
Susman manages to create a nuanced variety of music within his predominantly post-minimalist, sometimes neo-romantic style. It exists as subtext in the film context but stands on its own as a purely sonic experience. Fans of film music, and certainly of Susman’s oeuvre, will want to explore all of these.
I have always made my admiration clear regarding Chicago based Cedille Records. They release quality recordings of unusual but intelligent choices of repertoire. This recording continues that formula but here achieves what is likely to be seen as a landmark anthology (or at least sampling) of Art Song by Black Composers. It speaks on many levels, as poetry, as music, as a collaboration between an incredible baritone, an amazing pianist, in a beautifully recorded and produced album. I was left throughout with the feeling that this is a loving collaboration. It is an integrated collaboration between many people who worked well together. It is a beautiful document and a timely one.
Baritone Will Liverman, the young rising star baritone who is slated to perform at The Met in the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” scheduled for fall of 2021 is clearly at the heart of this production. His intelligent choice of repertoire is both pleasing and revelatory. (the poetry of the song texts are published in one of two booklets that come with this CD). And Liverman’s voice is an admirable instrument that he wields with power and nuance. His commission of fellow rising musical star, composer Shawn Okpebholo whose “Two Black Churches” receives its world premiere recording. The pianist who manages to navigate significant demands with confidence and artistry, is Paul Sanchez, an excellent pianist, composer, and a fine collaborator.
The beautifully packaged CD (you gotta buy the CD) consists of 19 tracks representing 8 composers. The recording is billed as “Songs by Black Composers” but one can hardly miss the justly sad or angry tone of the texts and this was recorded July 22-24 of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and amidst social unrest over the epidemic of modern day lynchings. (2020 was also the year that Anthony Davis won the Pulitzer Prize for his protest opera, “The Central Park Five”) The moving rendition (“put together”, as Liverman quips in the liner notes) of Richard Farina’s 1964 song is played and sung by Liverman connecting this release with the tradition of protest music of another era. The struggle continues.
Before discussing the music I must supply a disclaimer of sorts. My working knowledge of art song in general is fairly limited and my knowledge of black art songs even more so. I know none of this music and have only in the last year or so came to know of the work of Shawn Okpebholo. I had read about the historical significance of Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh and Margaret Bonds but have heard little of their music.
In about 61 minutes listeners are given a survey, a sampling of art song by black composers ranging from Burleigh (who studied with Antonin Dvorak) to Okpebholo whose compositional talents continue to get much deserved recognition. It is a learned sampling of a huge repertory that deserves attention.
The opening song is I Dream a World (2017) by Damien Sneed (1979- ). This setting of the Langston Hughes (1901-1967) poem strikes a somber but cautiously optimistic note. It is followed by “Five Songs of Laurence Hope” (1915) by Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949). The name Laurence Hope is the pseudonym of Adela Florence Nicolson (1865-1904), a British poet who spent much of her life in British India where she developed an interest in the culture of the land. Fascination with the literature and culture of India was strongly in evidence in the early twentieth century. These five songs are reminiscent of Debussy and the impressionists and is but a small sampling of Burleigh’s art song output.
Harrison Leslie Adams’ (1932- ) setting of his own lyrics in “Amazing Grace” is yet another iteration of the abolitionist song. Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972) is represented by her “Three Dream Portraits” (1959), a song cycle on Langston Hughes poems. Bonds’ style put this listener in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs though notably darker. This cycle is contemporary with the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Next is “Riding to Town” (1943) by Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) who chose to reach back to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) for his text. Dunbar was for the 19th century what Langston Hughes would be for the early to mid twentieth century.
“Two Black Churches” (2017) is the work commissioned by Liverman for this recording. It is a setting of two poems and one of the musical highlights here. The first, “Ballad of Birmingham” to a text by Dudley Randall (1914-2000) is a contemporary reaction to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls. The second song, “The Rain” to a text by the Poet laureate of Charleston, poet and musician Marcus Amaker (1976- ). It is about the Charleston Church shooting of 2015 at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal in which a lone gunman killed nine people. Okpebholo is modernist but accessible and these settings are among the most devastating and powerful statements on this recording.
“Mortal Storm” Op. 29 (1969) is a song cycle by one Robert Owens (1925-2017). It is a powerful cycle set to Langston Hughes poems. Owens left the United States in 1968-9 in response to the racial violence and moved to Europe where he had studied music under the GI Bill from 1946-1957. Owens died in Munich having never returned to the land of his birth. This work deserves to be better known and thanks is due to Liverman and his associates for bringing this sad masterpiece to contemporary listeners.
The album concludes with Mr. Liverman’s arrangement of “Birmingham Sunday”, a 1964 song by writer and composer Richard Farina (1937-1966). Liverman plays and sings on this final track which is an homage to a previous generation of song writers and protestors as well as a reminder that that generation’s work in Civil Rights is hardly complete. The song was notably used by Spike Lee in his elegiac film, “Four Little Girls” (1997).
The lucid and detailed program notes by Dr. Louise Toppin are a welcome addition to this production and help to provide a context. The design by Bark Design ties this little gem together. This one has Grammy and “collector’s item” written all over it.
First let me say that the title of this blog and its contents is presented as both apology and explanation. It is an apology for the intervening 12 months during which this blog was on unplanned hiatus. Indeed the ongoing requests for reviews were certainly a factor in getting this venture up and running once again and I am grateful for the persistence of musicians and their representatives. It is also a brief explanation of some of the reasons this has happened. Nothing here should be construed as being a lament or request for assistance of any kind (except for encouraging more readers). This blog post is also intended as an announcement that there is much more to come.
2020 was a year which one which has been a long and strange time for most of us. I took on an extended contract in February, 2020 which required me to move to Tacoma where I pursue my “day job” of working as a registered nurse. My place of employment is a state psychiatric facility and my first few months were consumed with training and other pre-employment hurdles. While I enjoy my work I found the transition to a city far from home and the learning process of dealing with this facility and its clientele impacted me in ways I could not predict. Add to that the overwhelming onset of the Covid 19 pandemic began to eclipse and alter so many things.
To ease my transition going approximately 1000 miles from home I brought my little 12 year old Maltese dog, Clyde along for the adventure. This wound up being a most pleasant learning experience about the meaning of “emotional support animal”. He continues to do his job.
As it was most practical, I chose to drive to my new assignment so I packed the car with clothing, a few books, a kindle, a computer, and a small flock of CDs for the drive time. Traveling long distances is a wonderful opportunity to listen to lengthy or multiple pieces of music. Of course this is best appreciated in the long freeway segments between towns that dominated my itinerary.
My listening program consisted of (in no particular order): Ives- Concord Sonata played by Rene Eckhardt, Alvin Curran- Crystal Psalms, the two disc Chicago Blues album by AACM, Charlie Haden- Not in Our Name, several private recordings of music by Primous Fountain, Daniel Bjarnason- Collider, several private recordings of music by David Toub, Peter Maxwell-Davies- Symphony No. 1, Wilfred Josephs- Requiem, and occasional forays to sample the local broadcast spectrum (ew). An eclectic program to be sure, one which benefits from solitude from other homo sapiens. My little companion took the passenger seat and easily accessed the little cup of water in the console, happy regardless of the music selections. It was a satisfying listening experience augmented by some truly eye candy vistas (I did bring my camera but…driving.)
It was jolting to see the post fire-ravaged sections of forest that dotted the landscape in this journey but it remains visually stunning if not in the most beautiful way. It was about 22 hours of leisurely drive time calculated to give me a couple of days to find my residence and figure out my daily driving route. My little companion and I ensconced ourselves in an Extended Stay America hotel arranged by my contract agent.
The planning I had done was pretty good actually. We arrived as I had planned where my companion immediately began his ambassadorial responsibilities by attempting to meet (and charm) all who crossed his path. All signs suggested a smooth transition.
However the unpredictable reared its presence in a variety of forms including licensure delays (not the fault of Washington State), subsequent training delays, a camera in need of repair, a failed hard drive, a rather challenging work environment (this state facility is long term and functions largely as a forensic facility dealing with illness too severe for the jail system), and the onset of the Covid lockdown as well as an actual Covid infection (which I survived with minor consequences and have since been vaccinated). All these did not occur at once but I’m just summarizing. Most of these events could neither be foreseen or prevented but they presented challenges.
One of the most curious effects on my psyche was an extended period of time when I lost my ability to focus on many things other than the job. I had brought a box of CDs for review fully expecting that I would be able to continue my blogging with my readers getting no clue as to the chaos of the writer’s mind. As a Rabbi once told me, “Man plans, God laughs”, a less than comforting chestnut of wisdom which applies as it doubtless will again. So why worry?
My lack of ability to focus manifested in an inability to read for leisure (one can partly blame the toxic writing habits that plague “orientation materials” for numbing my brain) but also in a seemingly selective ability to hold my attention on the musical genres that had been my soundtrack on the trip to get here. I found myself craving jazz and blues and in a serendipitous gesture of fate I was more than pleased to find that my local broadcast options included two NPR stations, one of which (KNKX), plays a masterfully curated selection of jazz and blues most of the day excepting news breaks. That music continues to soothe my soul but I’m happy to say my focus seems to have returned to its accustomed wider spectrum of genres.
I lament the fact that I have missed the opportunity to write about the “Year of the Woman” in 2020 during the actual year but the impact of the sundry musical celebrations and creations will continue to resonate and the cause will continue to deserve attention. One of the few new music events which grabbed my resistant attention was the series that Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill produced on YouTube. The series on women composers features short works (2-8 minutes) played in the artist’s Berkeley home. It is a virtual manifesto collecting a variety of too little known solo piano works by women (here’s hoping there’s an album in the offing). Of course the listener shouldn’t stop with the women composers. Cahill’s site offers of wealth of lesser known male composers interpreted with the same passion.
I quite reasonably expected a sharp decline in readership given that my last blog post was published on March 7, 2020. There was initially at least a 50% fall off in readership but I was delighted to find that I ended the year with about 9300 hits, only about 4000 less than the previous year. A large part of that readership sought out my articles on black musicians and composers. Now, I focus on new music and just about any music which I think deserves an audience so the inclusion of black musicians is, of course, a given. So it seems particularly apt that I am returning to the blogosphere during black history month. This small portion of my output has driven more than its share of traffic to this site. The article on composer/director/producer Linda Twine was written in 2018 and has gotten well over 1500 views. I hope that means her star continues to rise. Other older articles, some written for Black History Month, also performed remarkably well. Indeed this can certainly be attributed in part to the Black Lives Matter movement and the continuing civil rights struggles in our purportedly “Post-Racial” era.
I was particularly pleased when composer Anthony Davis (whose work I have long admired) was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for his opera The Central Park Five. Like much of Davis’ work this opera is focused on civil rights issues such as, in this case, the miscarriage of justice against five black men falsely accused of a rape in Central Park. At least I got to say this during Black History Month.
I continue to reside in Tacoma where it is only a twenty minute drive to work. I have become accustomed to my daily duties and have found a surprisingly warm welcome for me and my skill set. I truly enjoy my day job.
We are still firmly in the time of Covid, in the time of serious social unrest, now transitioning with excessive drama to a new president as the world seemingly plunges toward fascism, hate, and economic disaster. But musicians have risen most heroically to the challenges of their art, performers trying to maintain a presence during a time in which live performances are severely restricted for public health reasons. But there are now fascinating concerts online, wonderful new music being released and I need to get back to talking about that.
Ramón Sender Barayón at Arion Press in San Francisco (Photo Creative Commons 2011 by Allan J. Cronin)
This crowd sourced video opens with a sort of exposition of the various identities of its subject Ramón Sender Barayón (also known as Ramon Sender, Ramon Sender Morningstar, Ray Sender, and Ramon Sender Barayón). His father was the renowned Spanish novelist Ramón J. Sender whose work was unappreciated (to say the least) by the Franco regime resulting in his spending the last part of his life as an expatriate in the United States of America. His mother Amparo Barayón fared far less well. Her short life and her death at the hands of the Franco regime are memorialized in her son’s book, “A Death in Zamora“, an experience which has understandably informed his life. As a writer, in order to distinguish himself from his father, he adopted his mother’s maiden name appended to his given name. Happily this and some of his other works are making it to the kindle format.
The film unfortunately does not appear to be available in any commercial outlets at the time of this writing but one hopes that Amazon or some internet distributor will make it more widely available. One small critique is the use of sometimes English narration and sometimes Spanish narration with attendant translation subtitles in the opposite languages is a bit difficult to get used to but hardly an insurmountable issue.
Sender’s personal website continues to be a source of useful information. Links can be found here to many of his writings and other work as well as some discussion of his musical compositions.
In addition to being a writer he is an acknowledged pioneer in the area of experimental music. He, along with Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Joseph Byrd, William Maginnis, Tony Martin, Joseph Byrd, and Terry Riley (among others) founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1962. This later became the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music and remains in operation as of the date of this review. Barayon’s ” novelized history of this time in his life titled, “Naked Close Up” finally found itself in a Kindle release after having circulated in PDF format for years on the internet. (This history is also further documented in David Bernstein’s excellent, “The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde“)
His curiosity and wide ranging interests saw him participating in alternative commune living situations (beginning in 1966) in northern California exploring spirituality and challenging established social norms through the exploration of viable alternatives. He writes most eloquently about this in his recently published “Home Free Home“, a large edited tome on the Morningstar Ranch and Wheeler’s Ahimsa Ranch which includes material by several other former residents. The book is as much compilation as it is historical writing and memoir. It is a fascinating read and is filled with historically significant recollections and commentary by many of those one time residents of these (now sadly defunct) communities.
This DVD is one of those increasingly popular crowd sourced productions (here is the Indiegogo link) which has allowed independent publication of countless books and CDs and countless other projects which stimulate little interest among traditional venues despite the significance of their content. The content here is of a profoundly important nature to fans of new music as well as fans of alternative living experiments and 60s counterculture and philosophy. It is contemporary history and biography.
Ramón is man possessed of both wisdom and humor as well as deep thought. This film is the first documentary to cover the diverse interest and involvement of this affable cultural polymath. It begins with an interview of Mr. Sender in the living room of his home in San Francisco. From there it traverses more or less chronologically among the dizzyingly diverse events which comprise his life thus far.
From his birth in Spain in 1934 to his present role as a sort of spiritual/intellectual guru running a lecture series called, “Odd Mondays” in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood which he and Judith Levy have managed for some 17 years with a variety of carefully chosen speakers. The film covers a variety of topics and while it leaves out details at times it is a cogent and balanced biographical documentary.
His early involvement in the establishment of the influential San Francisco Tape Music Center finds him connected with fellow luminaries such as Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, William Maginnis, Steve Reich, Joseph Byrd, Tony Martin, and Donald Buchla. This institution, now relocated as the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, saw the creation of a great deal of musical technology and significant musical compositions (Terry Riley’s groundbreaking “In C” was first performed there in 1964).
Sender was one of the organizers of the Trips Festival in 1966 along with Stewart Brand (later of Whole Earth Catalog fame), Bill Graham, Ken Kesey with his Merry Pranksters. Following this he left San Francisco for Sonoma County in northern California.
He states at one point that he has not wanted to be identified with a single career (as his father was) so, following his experimental music work, he became among the first to experiment with communal living in the Morningstar Ranch and later in the Wheeler Ranch in Sonoma County, California. These are now well documented in his book, “Home Free Home” mentioned earlier.
Happily the film does a nice job of acknowledging the role that his wife Judith Levy has played in his life since their marriage in 1982. In particular her support in Sender’s research into his mother’s death at the hands of Franco’s thugs in Spain is both sweet and heartbreaking. The two appear to be constant companions in a mutually supportive relationship he sought for many years. They are frequently seen together.
A segment of his work which gets less attention here are his fiction and spiritual writings including Zero Weather, Being of the Sun (co-authored with Alicia Bay Laurel), Zero Summer, and Planetary Sojourn. He has a collection of unpublished manuscripts and is reportedly now working on his autobiography. Something which will doubtless be worth the wait.
Sender with unidentified man walking out of the Pauline Oliveros Memorial Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes in December, 2016 (Photo Creative Commons 2016 by Allan J. Cronin)
The amazing Stuart Dempster at a house 2015 house concert at Philip Gelb’s Sound and Savor.
In many ways this has been a year of reckoning. I kept my promise to myself to double down on writing this blog and have already reached more viewers than any previous year. I am now averaging a little more than 1000 hits a month from (at last count) 192 countries and have written 74 pieces (compared to 48 last year). I need to keep this up just to be able to stay in touch with similarly minded folks (thanks to all my readers). Add to that the fact that a piece of music I wrote 15 years ago was tracked down by the enterprising Thorson and Thurber Duo. They will provide me with my very first public performance this coming July in Denmark. Please stop by if you can. After having lost all my scores (since 1975) in a fire and subsequently the rest of my work on a stolen digital hard drive I had pretty much let go of that aspect of my life but now…well, maybe not.
Well one of my tasks (little nudges via email have been steadily coming in) is to create a year end “best of” list. Keep in mind that my personal list is tempered by the fact that I have a day job which at times impinges on my ability to do much else such as my ability to attend concerts. However I am pleased to say that I did get to 2 of the three Other Minds concerts this past year. The first one featured all the music for string quartet and string trio by Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979). The second one featured music by the same composer written for four pianos (with two tuned a quarter tone down). Both of these concerts exceeded my expectations and brought to light an amazing cache of music which really deserves a wider audience. These are major musical highlights for this listener this year.
The Arditti Quartet acknowledging the applause at the Wyschnegradsky Concert.
Read the blog reviews for details but I must say that Other Minds continues to be a artistic and musical treasure. Under the leadership of composer/producer/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian (who turns 75 in January) the organization is about to produce their 25th anniversary concert with a 4 day series beginning in April, 2020. For my money its one of the reasons to be in the Bay Area if you love new music. He is scheduled for a live interview on the actual day of his birthday, January 19th as a guest on his own series, The Nature of Music. This series of live interviews (sometimes with performance material) with composers and sound artists he has hosted since 2016.
Amirkhanian performing at OM 23 (2018)
Next I will share with you my most obvious metric, how many views my various blog posts got. I have decided to share all those which received more than 100 views.
A rather brief post written and published in February, 2018 for Black History Month. It was entirely based on internet research and it got 59 views that year. As of this writing in 2019 it has been seen 592 times. I have no idea why this “went viral” as they say. I just hope it serves only to her benefit. Amazing musician.
Charming little album of lesser known romantic violin and piano pieces played by a husband and wife duo. This self produced album seems to have had little distribution but for some reason people are enjoying reading about it. I only hope that the exposure will boost their sales. This is a fun album.
I’m guessing this is one of my “viral” posts. I wrote it in 2014 and it continues to get escalating hits, 180 this year. The title pretty much says it all. First time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage.
Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), one of the artists we lost this year (I refuse to do that list). If you don’t know his work you should. He wrote I think 7 Symphonies and various concertos, film scores, and other works. He was sort of elected to the “Holy Minimalists” category but that only describes a portion of the man’s work. Very pretty album actually.
This composer new to me, works with electronics, and maintains an entertaining presence on Twitter. Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what to make of this music except to say I keep coming back to it. Very leading edge material.
Loved this one. I had only listened to this work three or four times and probably not with adequate attention. Hearing this performance was revelatory. It’s a great work deserving of a place in the standard repertoire/
Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)
Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.
Written in 2013, just an occasional piece about black conductors for Black History Month. It’s now been read over 2000 times. It is my most read article. It’s embarrassingly incomplete and in need of a great deal of recent history but that’s a whole ‘nother project.
OK, I meet this guy at a vegan underground restaurant (whose proprietor is noted Shakuhachi player, Philip Gelb). A little casual conversation, a few vegan courses (Phil can seriously cook), and whaddya know? About a month or so later he sends me this gorgeous self produced set of him playing shakuhachi…but the upshot is that this is the distillation of the artist’s sensibilities filtering his very personal take on the world via his instrument. It has collectible written all over it and that is as much due to the music itself as to the integrated graphics and packaging. You really have to see and hear this trilogy. It got over 100 hits. Thanks to Cornelius Boots and Philip Gelb (musical and culinary concierge).
That’s it. Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.
It was a great year for recordings and I listened to more than I did last year. Some may have noticed some experimentation with writing style and length of review here. The problem is that the very nature of my interest is the new and unknown so I have to do the research and have to share at least some of that to hopefully provide some context to potential consumers that will ignite the idea, “gotta check that out” without then boring them to death.
For this last section I will provide the reader with a list in reverse order of the publication of my reviews of CD and streaming releases that prompt this listener to seek out another listen and hopefully draw birds of a feather to listen as well.
Keep yer ears peeled. This young accordion virtuoso is an artist to watch. This was also one of my most read review articles. This guy is making the future of the instrument. Stay tuned.
This artist continues to draw my attention in wonderful ways. Her scope of repertoire ranges hundreds of years and she brings heretofore unknown or lesser known gems to a grateful listening audience. Blues Dialogues is a fine example. It is also reflective of the larger vision of the Chicago based Cedille label.
I found myself really taken by this solo debut album by American Contemporary Ensemble (ACME) director Clarice Jensen. In particular her collaboration with La Monte Young student Michael Harrison puts this solo cello (with electronics) debut in a class all its own, This independent release is worth your time.
This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming. No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.
Canadian composer Frank Horvat’s major string quartet opus is a modern classic of political classical music. It is a tribute to 35 Thai activists who lost their lives in the execution of their work. His method of translating their names into a purely musical language has created a haunting and beautiful musical work which is a monument to human rights.
Donut Robot is a playful but seriously executed album. The kitschy cover art belies a really entertaining set of short pieces commissioned for this duet of saxophone and bassoon. Really wonderful album.
It has been my contention that anything released on the Starkland label requires the intelligent listener’s attention. This release is a fine example which supports that contention. Unlike most such releases this one was performed and recorded in Lithuania by the composer. Leave it to the new music bloodhound, producer Tom Steenland to find it. In Search of Lost Beauty is a major new work by a composer who deserves our attention.
My favorite big label release. This new Cello Concerto from conductor/composer Esa-Peka Salonen restores my faith that all the great music has been written and that all new music is only getting attention from independent labels. Granted, Sony is mostly mainstream and “safe” but banking on the superstar talent of soloist Yo-Yo Ma they have done great service to new music with this release. Not easy listening but deeply substantive.
This release typifies the best of Chicago based Cedille records’ vision. Under the guidance of producer James Ginsburg, this local label blazes important paths in the documentation of great music. “W” is a disc of classical orchestra pieces written by women and conducted by the newly appointed woman conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. She succeeds the late great Paul Freeman who founded Chicago’s great “second orchestra”, the Chicago Sinfonietta. Ginsburg taps into Chicago’s progressive political spirit (I guess its still there) to promote quality music, far beyond the old philosophy of “dead white men” as the only acceptable arbiters of culture. Bravo to Mr Ginsburg who launched Cedille Records 30 years ago while he was a student at the University of Chicago.
Become Desert will forever be in my memory as the disc that finally got me hooked on John Luther Adams. Yes, I had been aware of his work and even purchased and listened to albums like Dream in White on White and Songbirdsongs. I heard the broadcast of the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean. I liked his music, but this recording was a quantum change experience that leads me to seek out (eventually) pretty much anything he has done. Gorgeous music beautifully performed and recorded.
OK, I’m a sucker for political classical. But Freedom and Faith just does such a great job of advancing progressive political ideas in both social and musical ways. This is a clever reimagining of the performance possibilities of the string quartet and a showcase for music in support of progressive political ideas.
Michala Petri is the reigning virtuoso on the recorder. Combine that with the always substantial production chops of Lars Hannibal and American Recorder Concertos becomes a landmark recording. Very listenable and substantive music.
I have admired and sought the music of Harry Partch since I first heard that excerpt from Castor and Pollux on the little 7 inch promotional LP that came packaged with my copy of Switched on Bach. Now this third volume in the encyclopedic survey of the composer’s work on Bridge Records not only documents but updates, clarifies and, in this case, unearths a previously unknown work by the master. Sonata Dementia is a profoundly important entry into the late composer’s discography. I owe PARTCH director, the composer/guitarist John Schneider a sort of apology. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this album and the planned future recordings of Partch’s music but that has not yet been completed. You will see it in 2020 well before the elections.
The aforementioned Shakuhachi Trilogy is a revelatory collection which continues to occupy my thoughts and my CD player.
Gil Rose, David Krakauer, klezmer and the inventive compositional talent of Mathew Rosenblum have made this album a personal favorite. Lament/Witches Sabbath is a must hear album.
Another Cedille disc makes the cut here, Souvenirs of Spain and Italy. The only actual Chicago connection is that the fine Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago. But what a fine disc this is! The musicianship and scholarship are astounding. Guitar soloist Sharon Isbin celebrates the 30th anniversary of her founding the department of guitar studies at Julliard, a feat that stands in parallel with the 30th anniversary of the founding of Cedille records. This great disc resurrects a major chamber work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and presents a definitive program of chamber music for guitar and string quartet. This one has Grammy written all over it.
This New Focus recording was my personal introduction to the music of Du Yun and I’m still reeling. What substance! What force! Dinosaur Scar is quite an experience.
Another Starkland release, this album of music by the great new music pianist is a personal vision of the pianist and the creators of this forward looking repertoire. Eye to Ivory is a release containing music by several composers and championed most ably by Kathleen Supové.
Chicago born Jennifer Koh is one of the finest and most forward looking performers working today. Limitless is a collaboration between a curious but fascinating bunch of composers who have written music that demands and receives serious collaboration from this open minded ambassador for good music no matter how new it is. And Cedille scores another must hear.
Many recordings remain to be reviewed and some will bleed over into the new year so don’t imagine for a second that this list is comprehensive. It is just a personal list I wished to share. Happy listening and reading to all.
This disc was this reviewer’s first hearing of music by the Chinese American composer Du Yun and OMG, as they say. Just WOW on so many levels. The ten tracks contain music written between 1999 and 2015.
It is truly a tour de force on many levels. No surprise that this artist has received so many accolades. This sampling of her work by the always interesting International Contemporary Ensemble released by the increasingly vital New Focus recordings (on their TUNDRA imprint). There are no fewer than ten works on ten tracks.
This has been one of those “How could I have missed this…” experiences. There is a wealth of music here ranging in style from free jazz to modernism (think Darmstadt perhaps) to world music and they blend well the style of this major Chinese-American composer.
She is the recipient of numerous prizes (including a Pulitzer for her opera Angel’s Bone in 2017). She is the regular recipient of commissions from the Fromm Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Opera America, and the Asian Cultural Council among others. She is also a Guggenheim fellow.
The poetic, sometimes cryptic titles of her works and the liner notes are brief but succinct. The serious listener will want to know more about the composer and her wide ranging talents. She writes for every genre and ensemble from opera to solo work and from intensely personal music to clever collaborations.
Add to this the fact that the performers are from the wonderful International Contemporary Ensemble (also known as “ICE”). Anything they do is worth the adventurous listener’s attention and this album supports that contention most successfully. The irony of that acronym is hard to miss in the composer’s grant from the Carnegie Foundation’s “Great Immigrants” program. Perhaps that can rescue the association of said acronym to art rather than regressive politics.
As usual with New Focus (the parent label of this TUNDRA release) the recording is lucid and does justice to the music. The cover design alone is a striking portrait of the composer (another reason to lament the 12 x 12 format of LPs as a size standard).
It took this listener several listens to begin to grasp this music. It is varied and sometimes complex but it is always compelling and seems to have depth and substance. If you don’t know this composer this is a fine place to start and if you already know her work you will want to add this fine recording to your collection.
Though she has been performing and recording for a while now I first became aware of Lara Downes when I reviewed her truly excellent, America Again album in 2016. Since then I have become aware of the incredible range of music which she has chosen to champion. Her various projects have a distinctive Lara Downes fingerprint which establishes her brand in the music world. She plays music from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with careful attention to women composers, minority composers, and a solid grounding in the more commonly heard recital works.
I jumped at the opportunity to see her play at the “Old First Concerts” in San Francisco later in 2016. She played a friendly recital of mostly familiar classical works including the solo version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and some Schumann pieces and a couple of selections from the just released America Again album. Having taken some piano lessons I have a bit of awareness of how difficult this music can be but, as the title of my concert review suggested, Downes elevates the music such that it magically comes alive in ways that fledgling or average pianists can only dream. The notes are the same but she makes them sing and watching her play is reminiscent of an Olympic athlete. Don’t stand too close, lol.
It is her love of the 19th century romantic piano literature and her mission to highlight female artists that are the motivation behind this recent release. Clara Schumann turned 200 years old in September, 2019 and this release is a gift to her and an affirmation of a musical romance of grand romantic dimensions. The album features Schumann’s masterful Concerto as well as a selection of solo pieces by Clara and Robert.
“I’m the first of three sisters, and I grew up in a house full of girls and women. My sisters and I made music together, put on plays, shared our clothes and secrets, and navigated together the unpredictable waters of our inconstant childhood. We were a pack. The world of women has always been my home. But the world of my music – of my piano teachers and their teachers, the Great Pianists and Great Composers – was a world of male lineage and legacy. Except for Clara Schumann. When I read about her early life – such a serious, dark-eyed little girl – I found something of myself. I played her music as soon as I could get my hands around it. As I grew up, the themes of her life resonated in my own: a struggle for independence; a defiant romance, the work/family conflicts of the artist’s life… As my life unfolds, as a musician, a woman, a mother – I wonder at her accomplishments, her choices, her joys and her heartaches.”
This beautifully recorded disc (at Skywalker Ranch’s fine studios) opens grandly with a rendition of Schumann’s grand showpiece piano concerto which was written at the behest of Clara and dedicated to her. She performs with the venerable San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under music director Martin West. I don’t know other versions of this concerto well enough to make comparisons but it is clearly a piece she knows and loves and the concerto is a tribute to both Robert and Clara. Her encouragement and collaborative suggestions technically make the piece speak well for both composers (Robert, who was an accomplished pianist, damaged his hand utilizing a mechanical stretching device and couldn’t play well anymore).
She follows this with some early solo piano pieces by Clara Schumann and a set of early works by Robert. The style and level of compositional expertise is similar in both of their writing and Downes brings them lovingly, magically to life. One only hopes that this will be but the first volume of more recordings of Clara’s work. According to her website she has some mighty fascinating projects planned for completion in 2020, designated as “The Year of the Woman”, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in this country.
As it is also an election year seeing more women than ever before in politics, literature, and music 2020 can’t avoid being an auspicious event and Downes will make her mark most decisively. Meanwhile we can enjoy this first installment in anticipation of exciting developments and releases ahead. Brava, Ms. Downes. We’re watching and listening.
This is a marvelous disc which functions well on several levels. First it is a fine disc of new string quartet music played by wonderful musicians (who wrote most of the music here as well). Second it is a disc of music which is designed to put forth sociopolitical reactions/opinions. This Zoho label production succeeds quite well in these areas.
Starting with the lovely cover art by Aodán Collins, this Sirius Quartet album is their first full album since 2016. It is, above all, a political statement, or rather, a series of political statements in the form of inventive compositions by these wonderfully talented musicians. Each track is incredibly entertaining and each has a closely associated subtext of sorts reflecting a variety of sociopolitical issues. The Sirius Quartet consists of Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; and Jeremy Harman, cello.
This disc contains ten works on ten tracks, each with an underlying political component. All appear to have been written from 2016 to the present though the composition dates are not given explicitly.
The first work, Beside the Point, is by first violinist Fung Chern Hwei and it is a friendly scherzo-like piece which sets the tone for what is to come. The composer describes this piece as his statement against discrimination and it is a plea for equality. It is a relatively brief but very compelling work.
Next up is a track written by cellist Jeremy Harman called Currents. It is another scherzo-like affair, slightly longer than the first piece and its political subtext is described by the composer as evoking currents of elements both dark and light whose powers affect us daily. Another well-written and very exciting piece.
The eponymous New World, November 9, 2016 is essentially an angry lament in response to the election of Donald Trump as president on that date. The work quotes judiciously and effectively from Dvorak and Shostakovich in the longest work here coming in at 10:16. It relies on some extended techniques at times but is an essentially tonal work as are its companions on this disc. This piece is also distinguished as having won the 2017 New York Philharmonic’s “New World Initiative” competition’s grand prize and it is acknowledged as the seed work which eventually spawned this entire album.
#Still by second violinist Gregor Huebner is perhaps the most gut wrenching piece here. It’s based on the Abel Meeropol song, Strange Fruit (whose title refers to lynched bodies hanging from trees) iconically recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. Sadly its themes remain painfully relevant today and this heartfelt plea for peace and equality is a strikingly powerful work with an adagio section which rivals the Barber Adagio in its beauty.
Huebner’s cover of the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby occupies the next track. It is very much in keeping with the political theme of the album with the song’s words about a sad individual “buried along with her name”. As such it is also one of the finest transcriptions/covers for string quartet that this reviewer has heard. This is some seriously interesting writing which elevates this to a well crafted piece in it’s own right and not merely a “this string quartet plays…” generic piece. Jazz inflections seem to invoke Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt at times and a few extended techniques remind us that we are listening in the 21st century.
More Than We Are by cellist Jeremy Harman is described as an “aspirational” composition which was written after the birth of the composer’s son, Silas. It is an emotional piece, perhaps a paean to hope.
To a New Day by Fung Chern Hwei is, of all things, a celebration of hope for healing politics in the composer’s native country of Malaysia (politics outside of the US and Europe are important too after all). May 9, 2018 was the date of an election whose result will hopefully heal political wounds and put that country on a more humane and progressive agenda. There may be more specific references embedded in the music here but that must be left for listeners and musicologists to debate in the future. It is another gorgeous example of good string quartet writing.
Hwei describes this next piece, “30th Night, Worshiping Heaven and Earth” as a “repurposed prayer”. It is, he says, an “unapologetically Chinese/Malaysian piece” which uses a combination of Chinese folk melody and specific attention to language to suggest a subversive theme which seeks to encourage a humane approach from a traditionally oppressive government. It is the only track with vocals.
The penultimate track is another brilliant arrangement (by Huebner) of a rock/pop song, Radio Head’s “Knives Out”. The political content is expressed by reference to the song’s lyrics and also by musical references which are inserted throughout. Again an experience of the cover genre that rises above the ordinary.
The album ends with an arrangement by Fung Chern Hwei of the late Stanley Myers’ lovely Cavatina from his score to “The Deer Hunter”. Like the previous covers this one stands head and shoulders above the usual level of musical discourse for this genre.
All in all an immensely satisfying album. Kudos to Grammy winning producer and writer (he wrote the wonderful liner notes here) Kabir Seghal and, of course, to the musicianship of this fine ensemble of composer/musicians. Art continues to struggle in these uncertain times but its struggle can bring forth some amazing creativity and this one sounds like a winner.
Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The premier generated both controversy and paranoia (by Nixon and his crew) but the recording sold well.
This is by my count the fifth commercial recordings not counting the one DVD release. In addition there are numerous full performances available on YouTube. All have their individual highs and lows.
This work is in many ways the single work that embraces all the facets of a truly multifaceted composer. There is serious classical music passages, cheesy electronic music, excellent choral writing, showtunes, dancing, and, above all, political protest.
This writer fell in love with the original Columbia vinyl boxed set on the mid seventies and that recording remains a critical reference point but the joy of multiple interpretations begins to show the depth and complexity of this work. It is, in this writer’s mind this composer’s song of the earth, struggling with all its complexities both beautiful ones and sad ugly realities.
The present release is very enjoyable but is marred at points by some clunky miking if the singers. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that this is a document taken from several live performances. That makes it difficult to hear the words at times.
Nezet-Seguin is strongest in his interpretation of the orchestral parts where he elevates the discourse effectively placing Bernstein alongside the great masters who he championed as a conductor. If his and the singers’ interpretation don’t swing the way Bernstein’s own did I would assert that it’s OK to hear those passages differently. Every serious interpretation is effectively a dialogue between composer, performers, and audience. And this one is moving.
Since her debut in the mid 1970s Michala Petri has proven herself as one of the great masters of the recorder. The recorder is an instrument which, until the 20th century was pretty much only heard in music written before 1750 or so. Many previous masters such as David Munrow and Franz Brüggen restricted their playing to early music. Petri has certainly broken that mold. She has mastered baroque, renaissance and contemporary music for her instrument as her recent releases demonstrate. And her skills as a musician have only grown stronger and more convincing.
This disc is her celebration of American music for the recorder. We hear four 21st century concerti for the recorder. Composers include Roberto Sierra (1953- ), Steven Stucky (1949-2016), Anthony Newman (1941- ), and (a new name to this reviewer) Sean Hickey (1970- ). These are fine compositions but they are basically mainstream sort of neo-romantic/neo-classical/neo-baroque works. These are all finely crafted compositions but nothing here is experimental. Despite the names all are basically concerti which highlight the interplay between soloist and ensemble. Therein lies the joy.
The disc begins with Roberto Sierra (1953- ) wrote his “Prelude, Habanera, and Perpetual Motion (2016) as an expansion of an earlier recorder and guitar piece but, obviously, with a great deal of expansion and orchestration. Despite its colorful title the work is basically a concerto and a fine one at that. Petri here performs with the Tivoli Copenhagen Philharmonic under Alexander Shelley. From Sierra’s web page there is a link to a video of the premiere here. Sierra, born in Puerto Rico, affirms his skills as a composer in this exciting work.
Next up is music of the late Steven Stucky (1949-2016) sadly known almost as much for his recent demise as for his compositions. However Petri’s performance of his “Etudes” (2000) for recorder and orchestra goes a long way to affirming some of the gravity of the talent we lost and the wonderful legacy he left. The Danish National Symphony under Lan Shui do a fine job of handling the complex orchestral accompaniment and Petri shines as always. This concerto is in three movements titled: Scales, Glides, and Arpeggios respectively.
Anthony Newman (1941- ) is a name that must be familiar to classical recording buyers in the late 1970s into the 1980s when Newman’s exciting recordings of Bach dominated record sales. It is no wonder that he composed an essentially neo-baroque concerto pitting the recorder against an ensemble consisting of a harpsichord (deliciously played by Newman) and a string quartet (in this case the Nordic String Quartet). Clearly a more suitable sized ensemble that might have been used in the 18th century. This is the only piece on this album that is actually called a concerto by its composer. Concerto for recorder, harpsichord, and strings (2016) in four movements (Toccata, Devil’s Dance, Lament, and Furie) shows this performer, musicologist, and composer at the height of his powers in this lovingly crafted work.
Last (and certainly not least as the cliché goes) least is by a composer unfamiliar to this reviewer, Sean Hickey (1970- ) is also the youngest composer here. His A Pacifying Weapon (2015) is subtitled, “Concerto for Recorder, Winds, Brass, Percussion and Harp” which tells you about the rather gargantuan dimensions of his work. While not representing a specific “program” the work is the only one on this CD that espouses some political content. The title reflects the composer’s desire to use this concerto to represent some of his response to “current events”. The three movements are simply numbered 1, 2, and 3. I can only begin to imagine the problems of balancing the little recorder against such a huge and loud ensemble but the Royal Danish Academy of Music under conductor Jean Thorel are clearly up to the task.
Hickey originally hails from Detroit and is now based in New York. A quick perusal of his web page suggests that listeners like your humble reviewer have much to hear from this up and coming young composer.
All these are world premiere recordings which show Michala Petri at the height of her powers. Indeed she is an international treasure whose instrumental skills and her range of repertory continue to amaze and entertain her audience. The recording under Lars Hannibal’s direction is, as usual, lucid and very listenable. Joshua Cheeks liner notes save this writer a great deal of research time and pretty much answered all this listener’s questions.
Happy listening all. This recording has it going on at many levels.
There are seemingly more string quartets performing these days than ever before and they are fine musicians. Whether we’re talking about the Kronos Quartet, Arditti Quartet, Pacifica, Telegraph, etc. all contain truly finely trained and virtuosic musicians. The problem is to distinguish one’s self (or one’s ensemble) in some way. I’m not going to go into how each of the mentioned string quartets have done this so don’t worry.
My point here is to review this fine disc by yet another new music quartet called PULBIQuartet. They have chosen, at least in this, their second release, to continue their efforts at “genre bending”, exploring music and transcribing music that is atypical of the standard quartet repertoire. Like their colleagues they are aiming at a redefinition or perhaps a revitalization of the string quartet genre. The performers are: Curtis Stewart, Jannina Norpoth, violins; Nick Revel, viola; and Amanda Gookin, cello.
The album at hand, titled “Freedom and Faith” presents music predominantly written by or associated with women. Get into the Now (2017) by Jessica Meyer is classical in the sense that it uses the standard 2 violins, viola,and cello and is divided into three movements played with short pauses. Content wise this is a strong piece which requires a great deal of virtuosity and a handful of extended techniques involving percussive use of the bodies of the instruments themselves and even a few spots that require the musicians to vocalize. All in all a riot of a piece with good humor. It lasts about 20 minutes and begs to be heard again. Very entertaining!
The next 9 tracks fit into the PUBLIQuartet’s project called Mind|the|Gap which is at the heart of their efforts to breathe new life into the string quartet and, hopefully, garner some new fans. All members of the quartet share arrangement and, at times, co-compositional duties.
Tracks 4, 5, and 6 contain transcriptions of sacred vocal music by female composers. The Medieval Hildegard von Bingen’s, “O ignee Spiritus” is followed by Francesca Caccini’s, “Regina Coeli”, and then Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s, “O quam suavis est Domine spiritus tuus”. The vocal originals must be quite lovely but these works seem to retain their sacred ambiance even without the words. So ends the section which contributes to the “faith” in the title of the album.
Who knew that “A tisket, a tasket…” was by Ella Fitzgerald’s arranger Van Alexander. The PUBLIs (if you’ll forgive the truncation) do a marvelous and entertaining arrangement of this novelty song. It provides a sort of comic relief dividing the faith segment of the program to the “freedom” segment.
The next 4 tracks focus on transcriptions of popular music. These are serious pieces, not the “pop” type songs that are basically feel good or dance tunes but the type of music that is in the shadow of serious social issues. Who better than Nina Simone? These are loving and strikingly original arrangements of Herb Sacker/Nina Simone’s, “Blackbird”, Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newly’s, “Feelin Good”, Nina Simone/Weldon Irvine’s, “Young Gifted and Black”, and Nina Simone’s powerful antiracist reproach in her, “Mississippi Goddam”.
These transcriptions are done in a free manner with echoes of Stephane Grappelli, Cajun music and, doubtless, references that this reviewer has not grasped. They are highly entertaining.
The album ends with another string quartet. This one is by Shelley Washington and it is a powerful piece. In its relatively short ten minutes or so she manages to create some memorable sound worlds. There are few program notes that give a clue as to the background and intended meanings of the purely instrumental works (those not derived from vocal music) but one senses political stirrings.
All in all a unique little recital which at least challenges the common notions of this chamber grouping and, frequently, succeeds.