Politics and Its Discontents: Sirius Quartet’s New World


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ZOHO ZM 201908

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.

 

 

The Apotheosis of Lenny, a New Recording of “Mass”


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.

Michala Petri in the 21st Century


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OUR Recordings 8.226912

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.

 

 

 

 

 

PUBLIQuartet: Freedom & Faith


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Bright Shiny Things BSTC 0126

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.

 

Guest Blogger Bill Doggett Reporting on the World Premiere of Anthony Davis’ “Central Park Five”


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Today I am pleased to have a guest blogger, Mr. Bill Doggett.  He has appeared in this blog before.  His bio can be found at the end of the article and, while the photos and the opinions are his own (though I’m in agreement) and I’m glad to be able to share his thoughts on attending this important world premiere.

Here we are:

Implicit Bias, Racism , White Supremacy, Forced Confessions, Restorative Justice:1989-2019, The foundational ideas that continue to mark the world of The Central Park Five
Dateline, June 15th, 2019, The Warner Grand Theater, San Pedro California, a restored Art Deco movie palace was the showcase location for the world premiere of Long Beach Opera’s commissioned presentation of Anthony Davis’ The Central Park Five.

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Composite photo of the “Central Park Five”

Presented two weeks after Ava Duvernay Netflix Series “When They See Us” on The Central Park Five, a diverse and large audience was treated to a cutting edge new opera that added a new dimension, with an exceptional new score that enlarged the pallete of iconic operas by the great Anthony Davis.

Renowned for his 1986 landmark opera, X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X , Amistad, the opera about the slave ship rebellion and Tania, the story about the abduction/kidnapping of Patty Hearst and related drama with The Symbionese Liberation Army, Wakonda’s Dream about the plight of American Indians in Nebraska, Anthony Davis’ operas are landmarks of political discourse and exploration of historical and contemporary topics in American history.

Davis’ operas are richly hewn in intricate African polyrhythms, jazz improvisation, electronics and extraordinary vocal writing. In all of his operas, the expressive use of Rhythm advances the unfoldment of the drama in powerful ways.

The music of The Central Park Five expanded upon Davis’ rich compositional palette with intricate ensemble block scoring writing for the voices of the five Principal male singers that was fresh and impactful .
In the pre concert talk, Mr Davis expounded on some of the influences to this idea of block scoring and harmonization vocal writing that is associated with the well known Jazz and Gospel ensemble, Take Six and the sound worlds of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

A complex score conducted brilliantly by the renowned Leslie B Dunner with Direction/Production design by Long Beach Opera’s Artistic and General Director, Andreas Mitisek, Davis’ opera provides both a discourse and exploration of the historical and contemporary issues of implicit bias, Institutional Racism in the Criminal Justice System and historic and contemporary issues of the Impact of Racism and ideas of White Supremacy that were deeply embedded in the world of 1989 New York City.

This world of racism and white supremacy is embedded in the opera’s sung and spoken character, The Masque who appears throughout the opera.

Donald Trump who began his political career taking out $85,000 ads in major New York newspapers calling for the death penalty of The Central Park Five also shows up in a role that represents not only the nemesis of the youth but additionally represents a clairvoyance for white nationalist ideas that have empowered his Presidency.

Davis and Wesley’s The Central Park Five Five is indeed an impactful and dynamic opera that addresses all of the issues central to The Black Lives Matter Movement.

Provocative in 1989 and in 2019, the opera explicitly deals with forced confessions, police brutality, disingenuous prosecution without collaborating Evidence, the death penalty and the tragedy of lengthy incarceration sentences for black and brown Americans for crimes not committed.

The five principals who sing the roles of The Central Park Five were brilliant in their portrayals of the intricate vocal writing. They are Derrell Acon{Antron McCray},Nathan Granner{Korey Wise} Orson Van Gay {Raymond Santana} Cedric Berry {Yusef Salaam} and Bernard Holcomb{Kevin Richardson}. They are assisted in comparable brilliance by Babatunde Akinboboye {Matias Reyes-the man who committed the crime}, Lindsay Patterson and Joelle Lamarre, the mothers of Yusef and Antron and Ashley Faatoalia who plays Antron’s father. The roles of Donald Trump, The District Attorney and The Masque are performed by Thomas Segen, Jessica Mamey and Zeffin Quinn Holis.

 

There are two more performances of this impactful new opera by Anthony Davis and Richard Wesley on
June 22nd and June 23rd. For tickets, visit http://www.longbeachopera.org

 

About the author, Bill Doggett is a well respected historian, archivist and published specialist in African American Performing Arts History. During 2013, he worked as the marketing agent for Anthony Davis on his new chamber opera, Lear on The Second Floor and promotion for the revival of X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X focused for the 2015 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X.

 

(Just a note from the blogmaster):  I wish to thank Mr. Doggett for his wonderful coverage of this important premiere.  I already had a soft spot for Anthony Davis’ work (which I consider a latter day Luigi Nono who held that one can never separate politics from art) but I never imagined that I would be indexing Donald Trump in this blog space and this context but here he is, lol.  Thanks, Bill.

It is also very important to note that Anthony Davis has been commissioned to write an opera by Opera Tulsa on the subject of the Tulsa race massacre of 1919.  It is scheduled for a premiere next year.

 

Isang Yun: Sunrise Falling


PTC 5186-693

2018 marks the 100th birth anniversary of Korea’s best known composer, Isang Yun (1918-1995). His work has received many performances and recordings but he is not exactly a household name and live performances are still not very common.

Yun is well known for his having been kidnapped by the South Korean secret service from his home in Germany in 1967 due to alleged espionage. He remained a prisoner for two years and was subjected to torture and forced interrogations. It took intervention from the artistic community to secure his release and the petition included signatures of Igor Stravinsky, Herbert von Karajan, Luigi Dallapiccola, Hans Werner Henze, Heinz Holliger, Mauricio Kagel, Joseph Keilberth, Otto Klemperer, György Ligeti, Arne Mellnäs, Per Nørgård, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann. He was held for the better part of two years and never again returned to South Korea.

This fine 2 CD set is the first release in what this writer hopes will be a series of recordings of Yun’s major works. Dennis Russell Davies has demonstrated both knowledge and mastery of new and unusual repertoire as well as that of established works of the western canon. Despite many recordings of his work in the past those recordings were (and still are) notoriously difficult to find so this set is especially welcome.

Here Davies joins forces with the Bruckner Orchestra Linz and the talents of soloists Matt Haimovitz, Yumi Hwang-Williams, and Maki Namekawa to record a sampling of Yun’s works. In addition to the first (of three) Violin concerto (1981), the Cello concerto (1976), and a sampling of chamber works including Interludium in A (1982) for piano, Glisees (1970) for solo cello, Kontraste (1987) for solo violin, Gasa (1965) for violin and piano (probably the composer’s best known piece), and a short orchestral piece, Fanfare and Memorial (1979).

If you don’t know Yun’s work this is a fine place to start. If you already know his work you will want to hear these performances.  These are definitive and will set the standard for all that follows.

The concertos are somewhat thorny and dissonant but deeply substantive affairs that challenge both orchestra and soloist. Yun’s style draws more from modernist (think Darmstadt) than romanticism but he is capable of great beauty within that context.  In both concertos the soloists must deal with virtuosic challenges but each concerto provides a marvelous showcase for their skills.  Hearing them played by musicians of this caliber they are shown to be masterpieces of the genre.

The chamber music is similarly thorny at times but always interesting. This composer deserves to be better known and recordings like this with quality performances and recordings makes a great step in that direction. Yun was a prolific composer of pretty consistent quality so even a two disc retrospective such as this can only be a brief sampling.  The choices of what to record can’t avoid taking on a personal dimension. Intelligent choices of repertoire combined with defining performances such as these will send the listener on a quest to explore more of his work.

Political Classical: Frank Horvat’s “For Those Who Died Trying”


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Atma ACD2 2788

Frank Horvat (1974- )is a Canadian composer and musician with a profound interest in social justice and human rights.  In this 35 movement string quartet he is concerned with memorializing the lives of 35 activists who died while furthering the cause of human rights.  This work is made even more compelling by including photos from a photo essay of the subjects taken by Luke Duggleby, a Thai-based photographer and journalist.

Without a doubt this is a shining example of what I have termed, “Political Classical”, a genre of protest music which seems to have emerged in the twentieth century.  This work takes its place now with Frederic Rzewski’s Pueblo Unido Variations, and works by composers like Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze, and countless others who have chosen to use their expertise in the classical genre to write works analogous to the folk protest music which is perhaps better known to the listening public.

With songs one has the words which can directly or indirectly evoke the particular issue being addressed.  But, other than a dedication in the program notes, how does one imbue their music with the intended meaning for a given protest work.  Well, Mr. Horvat has chosen to utilize only the letters from these victims’ names to form the musical material for each portrait.  That is he uses the letters which correspond to musical notes.  Most famously this practice is known through the B, A, C, H (corresponding in German notation as B flat, A, C, B) theme which is the basis for Bach’s Art of Fugue.

By itself this can be a bland and meaningless exercise but Horvat manages to work within this carefully limited framework to create 35 very convincing portraits of these Human Rights Heroes.  The 35 movements are relatively brief and put this listener in the mind of composers who have  succeeded quite well with such a format such as Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison.  Both of these composers and the man in discussion here work in a basically tonal framework with a balanced and judicious use of dissonance.  What is curious is how he seems to succeed in evoking these people purely through sound.

In comes the Mivos Quartet whose job it is to make sense of the composer’s intentions and breath life into the notes on the page.  This New York based string quartet consists of Olivia de Prato, violin; Maya Bennardo, violin; Victor Lowrie Tafoya, viola; and Tyler J. Borden, cello.  And let’s just say they are up to the task.  Each movement takes on its individual character but retains a larger connection to the work as a whole.  Perhaps this is also a metaphor for the nature of individuality as part of the larger concept of humanity and why each perspective is vital to our collective survival.

Before I wax too philosophical let me just say that, at least in terms of this recording, this is a document of classical string quartet which also serves as a memorial to the victims it references and, hopefully, as a sort of wake up call to those who, for whatever reason, are unaware of these atrocities.  Ultimately, I suppose, the goal is the amelioration of inhumane practices.  But until then we may find comfort in the beauty which this composer has brought to this work.  This would seem to be a stab at acknowledgement of sacrifice in the name of human rights seeking justice but, for now, we must settle for beauty even if it brings tears which are a mix of both sadness and joy.