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.
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.
Laura Kaminsky (1956- ) is a native New Yorker and has plied her trade there for some time. So how does she wind up on a label so intimately dedicated to Chicago music and musicians? Well, the answer is simple, Ursula Oppens. Oppens (a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) is also a New Yorker but her 14 year tenure as Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University (1994-2008) certainly qualifies her as a valued Chicago artist. Realistically she is a highly accomplished and world renowned musician with an admirable history of supporting new music through her many definitive performances and recordings. With the exception of Fantasy, all the music here was commissioned by and/or written for Ursula Oppens, (Reckoning written for Oppens and Lowenthal destined for this recording).
This very welcome disc features three major works: Piano Quintet (2018), Fantasy (2010), and Piano Concerto (2011). as well as Reckoning: Five Miniatures for America (2019), a set of miniatures for piano four hands. As noted on the back cover, all are world premiere recordings. And these are very fine, actually definitive recordings. The Quintet, Fantasy, and Reckoning were all recorded at Brooklyn College, the concerto at Arizona State University. All were produced by the wonderful Judith Sherman and mastering was done by the equally wonderful Bill Maylone.
While Kaminsky works in a largely tonal post-modern idiom, this is not populist music, rather it is music by an accomplished composer who works well within such a medium. Her work is compelling and intriguing as well as entertaining.
Let’s start with the Piano Quintet. This medium is strongly associated with the romantic era. Piano Quintets by the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms largely define the genre and there are many lesser known examples which were produced well into the early 20th century. The genre seems to be enjoying a re-emergence and even modernists like Elliott Carter and Iannis Xenakis have penned masterworks in this form.
Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet is very much in the classical/romantic style. It is cast in three movements some of which reflect the variety of influences in her compositional palette. Her compositional skills allow her to evoke pretty much whatever emotion she chooses. Her style shows influences and echoes from classical forms, jazz, pop, minimalism all integrated into a largely tonal/post romantic style which easily engages listeners and manages to be highly expressive. The three movements are generally modeled on classical forms but Kaminsky manages to personalize her wide stylistic gestures and create a work that is celebratory rather than derivative. That said this piece is quite a ride for the listener as well as a significant addition to the repertory.
The Fantasy is a large and challenging work which ventures through a variety of styles and moods. This is a big work whose pianism reminds this writer of Rzewski and his rather Lisztian virtuosity. It might as easily be called, “rhapsody” for its rapid transitions of mood and style. Oppens manages to give form to this complex piece that does not appear to be easily interpreted by any but the best musicians.
The five miniatures that comprise Reckoning are brief but powerful statements written for Oppens and her sometime collaborator, Jerome Lowenthal, another highly skilled artist whose collaboration on a previous Cedille release, the Rzewski “People United” variations. These two are a good match of technical skills as well as interpretive ability.
The concerto is the big work here. Cedille saves the best for last notwithstanding the preceding masterful compositions. Here in a large orchestral piece with piano, Kaminsky demonstrates even more clearly her facility with instrumental colors which she uses to great effect in this grand concerto.
It is a piano concerto very much in the tradition of the classical soloist/orchestra which features the pianistic skills of the soloist. The orchestral “accompaniment”, if one can even call it by that name, derives more from the grand romantic tradition utilizing a large orchestra to which is given the role of coordinating with the pianist. But here the orchestra is given technical challenges nearly equal to the solo piano part. This is as grand as a Brahms concerto with the orchestra given a great deal to do and for the listener to enjoy. In addition to the nearly athletic, fingerbusting piano part, there are delightful passages in the orchestral playing that sort of sneak up on and charm the listener.
Kaminsky’s Piano Concerto was reportedly inspired by visual images of sunlit rivers in New York City and St. Petersburg, Russia. Oppens gave the world premiere with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic led by its artistic director Jeffery Meyer. On this world-premiere recording, Meyer, who is also director of orchestras at Arizona State University, conducts the ASU Symphony Orchestra and, like Oppens, meets a very challenging task with both grace and insight.
Kaminsky is a solid, disciplined composer who produces music of substance which intelligently engages audiences. This is a fine introduction to her work or a fine addition to an already established collection of her music. Her music was unknown to this writer’s ears before hearing this album and now leaves me wanting to explore more of the work of this fine American composer.
Who? Cenk Ergün (1978- ) is a Turkish born, New York based composer and improvisor. His distinctly ethnic Turkish sounding name will trigger fond memories in “listeners of a certain age” of the profoundly significant work of Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, the Turkish/American brothers whose Atlantic Records label helped define jazz, pop, and rock throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Lesser known is one of Atlantic’s spinoff labels, Finnadar helmed by fellow Turkish/American Ilhan Mimaroglu, himself a composer as well as producer. It was here that one saw the producers’ radar turned to the classical avant garde. And Ergün fits rather comfortably in this category.
A quick Google search reveals Mr. Ergün to have released at least six albums both solo projects and collaborations with composer Alvin Curran, cellist Mariel Roberts, and unclassifiable iconoclastic guitarist Fred Frith. His bio does not document his education but those collaborations show him to be in sympathy with what one might consider the current leading edge of the avant garde.
This disc consisting of two works for string quartet entitled, respectively, “Sonare” and “Celare”. Whether these are separate works or, as this listener perceived them, two parts of a whole, they are engaging works utilizing a variety of extended techniques and tunings. The album lacks liner notes but the works, though complex and unconventional, are rather transparent (at least to ears accustomed to some of the innovations of the last 50 years or so of new classical music).
Sonare is far more rhythmically active than its partner on this disc. Its use of unusual tunings and spectra as well as its apparent micropolyphonies suggest a variety of predecessors including George Crumb (think Black Angels) and some hard to delineate minimalist ideas. Celare, which follows it brings the listener to more of a drone minimalism aesthetic which also suggested Luigi Nono’s “Stille An Diotima” at times. These two pieces (or movements?) collectively clock in at just over 30 minutes which I guess makes this a sort of “CD single”. There is no apparent program other than the music itself and the music suffers from neither understatement nor overstatement and is ultimately a very satisfying experience in the very capable hands of the venerable Jack Quartet.
Put Mr. Ergün on your radar alerts. This is a voice that this listener hopes to hear more from in the near future.
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.
Hannah Lash‘s name began appearing on my radar about two years ago but this is my first actual encounter with her music. This recent (2011) Harvard graduate’s star seems to be rising quickly and this is a fine place as any to start to get to know her work. New Focus Recordings is a label with good instincts regarding new and important music and this one is typical of their collective acumen.
This release features 4 works. One is for harp (Lash’s instrument) with string quartet and the rest are for string quartet alone. I find it difficult to describe Lash’s work concisely. Like many in her generation she seems to have been exposed most comprehensively to a huge range of styles and techniques and she appears to be selecting judiciously among those to apply those techniques by which she can achieve her compositional goals.
The works include the single movement, Frayed followed by Suite: Remembered and Imagined (in 6 short movements), the single movement Pulse-Space, and the three movement Filigree in Textile which features Lash on harp along with the Jack Quartet. The rather sparse liner notes are by the composer. They may lack detail as to composition date, commissioner, etc. but they do reflect what the composer’s thought processes were with each piece. She is clearly more concerned with conveying her metaphorical ideas than the technical aspects of her work. That is perhaps best left to future musicologists.
Her work is direct, one might even say concise. Using a basically tonal palette, the composer explores a variety of musical and metamusical ideas. These are intimate and interesting works that seem very much to the point. Keep in mind too that this is simply a disc of recent chamber music which gives no idea as to how she handles larger forms. But from the perspective of this album alone her brevity has an almost Webernian quality (not the thorny harmonies or difficult rhythms, just the brief and direct statements she makes with the music here).
The always wonderful Jack Quartet plays in two different configurations here. Tracks 1-8 feature Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; and Kevin McFarland, cello. Tracks 9-11 feature: Austin Wullman and Christopher Otto, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello; and Hannah Lash, harp.
As usual with well written new music multiple listens reveal more detail. The music is both interesting at first listen as well as compelling enough to provoke yet another listen. Lash is a rising star who deserves the attention of a new music audience who will learn the subtleties of her musical language. There is great beauty here.
Though this album was actually released a few months before the Sharon Isbin recording containing, purely by chance, two of the same guitar quintets is perhaps an indicator that these quintets are making their way into the active performing repertoire. I’m not really interested in the differences between the two recordings but I am interested in hearing two of the finest guitarists working today finding the two works on their respective radars at more or less the same time.
The present disc with Jason Vieaux (whose fine work has been reviewed elsewhere in this blog) and the Escher Quartet begins (as Isbin’s does) with the inconceivably little known masterpiece, the Guitar Quintet Op. 148 (1950) of Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968). The composer’s style sounds pretty much mid-century post romantic with a wealth of Spanish references. The high romanticism of the quintet format (compare Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Brahms and Schumann’s Piano Quintets) is well served here in an incredibly engaging work which makes significant demands on the musicians but is musically very transparent to the listener. It is a wonder that this piece is not better known and, for that matter, that the rest of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s output is not being explored in a big way.
The second work here also deserves more hearings. Aaron Jay Kernis’ (1960- ) 100 Greatest Dance Hits is another piece which can be described as post romantic and audience friendly. Kernis uses some extended techniques like using the instruments percussively at times but its basically a consonant melodic experience. It’s scoring for guitar and string quartet keep the listener in basically the same sound world and, except for Kernis’ curious titlings, this is a guitar quintet in all but name. And the use of dance forms is a tradition that goes back at least the baroque era. Like the opening work, it is cast in four movements.
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) is a prolific Italian composer who spent a great deal of creative life in Spain and, as a result, has incorporated Spanish rhythms and idioms into his work. This contemporary of Mozart and Haydn shares a similar late classical style. The last work here is another four movement Guitar Quintet (1793), the fourth of nine he wrote and probably the best known. The only difference between this rendition and the one by Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet is the absence of castanets in the fandango last movement. In fact that may be one of the hooks for completists who want to hear what it sounds like in its original version (both work very well).
The performances are all full of enthusiasm and seemingly easy virtuosity that one expects from musicians of this caliber. If you are stumped as to which one of these to get I think the only reasonable answer is, of course, both.
I was delighted to have had the opportunity to speak with guitarist Sharon Isbin (1956-) about this fine album. She appeared to be in the midst of a queue of interviewers set up by her press corps but she came across as a confident, relaxed, and skilled interviewee and a gracious person with a palpable passion for music. Listening to this latest release and having a more than passing interest in this fine musician it is a joy to see her getting recognition.
Originally from the Midwest, Isbin actually began her studies in Italy where her nuclear scientist father was working as a consultant. Her studies in Varese, Italy began at age 9 with Aldo Minella. She also counts among her teachers Andre Segovia, Alirio Diaz, and Oscar Ghiglia among her many teachers.
Most curiously she spent time studying Bach with none other than pianist Rosalyn Tureck during the time she was working on her landmark recording of the Bach Lute Suites. Isbin stated, “I don’t play piano and Tureck doesn’t play guitar but I wanted her insights into the preparation of this music.” Apparently this collaborative scholarship resulted in the publication (by G. Schirmer) of two of these suites originally written for lute.
As an academic, Isbin is all about research, fact checking, and collaboration and this clearly pays off as listeners will be delighted to find. But she is also the founder of the Guitar Department at the venerable Julliard School, a department which this year celebrates 30 years hosting students from 20 countries and, this year, establishing a DMA in guitar performance. Her first graduate, Australian guitarist Alberta Khoury, is the first recipient of this degree.
Asked about being THE musician to start the guitar department at Julliard she related that Segovia had proposed the idea some years ago and was rejected but that she was actually asked to start the department. An example, perhaps, of the student transcending the teacher.
Isbin plays a great deal of guitar music but, unlike many in her field, she has shown interest and devotion to music of our time as well. In fact she estimates having at least 80 scores and arrangements either commissioned by her or dedicated to her. It was with her recording “American Landscapes” featuring concerti commissioned from Lukas Foss, John Corigliano, and Tan Dun that first brought this artist to this reviewer’s attention. She is the recipient of three Grammys (and this album may very well earn her a fourth).
Regarding the present release, Isbin spoke of the process of preparation involved with this music. The Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago and this was the connection (Cedille is a Chicago based, Chicago friendly label) that allowed her collaboration to appear of this fine record label.
She also spoke of the serendipitous discovery of finding that the composer’s granddaughter, Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco, actually lived near her in New York. They began discussions and Isbin was able to view and work directly with the manuscript of the Quintet which opens the disc. Asked about the fact that this very quintet had been recorded about a year ago by Jason Vieaux, Isbin replied that it was pure coincidence but that this piece was considered by the composer to be his finest work of chamber music.
The Italian composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) was born in Italy but was forced to flee the Nazis and was able, with the sponsorship of Jascha Heifetz (then a recently minted citizen himself), to come to the United States in 1939 just before the outbreak of WWII. In fact, his family suffered a similar indignity in 1492 when they were forced from their native Spain when the Alhambra Edict forced the expulsion of Jews from the country. The composer’s curious hyphenated name, according to Isbin, resulted when a dying friend who had no progeny asked that the composer somehow incorporate his name. This is both sweetly romantic and evocative of the sensitivities of the man himself.
The Guitar Quintet Op. 143 (1950) is a grand romantic and virtuosic work that deserves to be heard. It is difficult to imagine an audience not being thrilled by this music. It is cast in four movements like a classical work (allegro, andante, scherzo, finale). From the beginning the listener is carried along by beautiful melodies and clever collaborations between the strings and the guitar. Isbin related that superscriptions on the score saying, “Souvenir of Spain” gave the idea for the title of this album.
This is followed by one of the most recognizable guitar concertos, the Concerto in D Major for guitar and strings by Antonio Vivaldi written about 1730. The original is written for lute and Isbin uses an edition for guitar by Emilio Pujol with gorgeous ornamentation consistent with late baroque practice added by the present performer. This performance is with guitar, violin, viola, and cello (no second violin) but manages to make a big sound. This work is a personal favorite and, unlike the other works on the album, extremely well known and loved by this reviewer. My baseline favorite recording of this piece will probably always be Julian Bream’s performance on this RCA recording but Isbin’s scholarship provides a fascinating perspective on this work. So basically I now have two favorite recordings.
Next up is the only piece on the album where the Pacifica Quartet plays without guitar. Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) is more or less a contemporary of Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Offered here is Oración del Torero Op. 34 (1925). Curiously this work was written originally for four lutes or string quartet. Only the quartet version seems to get much play though the lute version might be interesting as well. This work, which translates into English as “Bullfighter’s Prayer” is essentially a miniature tone poem whose drama takes on almost cinematic dimensions in its just over 7 minutes. The Pacifica Quartet does a potent job of delivering an engaging performance. The Pacifica consists of Simin Ganatra, first violin; Austin Hartman, second violin; Mark Holloway, viola; and Brandon Vamos, cello. They are based at Indiana University.
Last and certainly not least is another major Quintet by an Italian composer, Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805). His dates make him a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, though he was born in Italy, many of his productive years were spent in Spain where he enjoyed royal patronage. He was a prolific composer who has experienced a significant interest in the 20th century.
He wrote no less than 9 Quintets for guitar and string quartet and this one, in D Major G. 448 dates from about 1798 and is the best known of his works for this combination. It has the rather unusual attribute of having a percussionist (one Eduardo Leandro) improvise on castanets and tambourine in the last movement, fandango.
The work is cast in three movements (pastorale, allegro, grave assai-fandango) and will remind the listener of Haydn, Mozart, and/or early Beethoven. The music is both familiar and very entertaining. The castanets do not appear to be included in the original score and one can find recordings without them but they really rock that last movement.
This is another triumph for Ms. Isbin and a feather in the caps of the Pacifica Quartet. It is sonically spectacular album as well having employed the producer/engineer team of Judith Sherman and Bill Maylone. They achieve a lucid and warm sound field with an appropriately dry resonance that makes for an intimate listening experience which reveals the details the musicians coax from the score. Get this one, you’ll play it often.
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.
Conjuring the spirits of the 1950s/ 60s avant-garde and a few musical references composer Mathew Rosenblum (1954- ) enlists the klezmer spirit of none other than David Krakauer and master conductor Gil Rose with his wonderful Boston Modern Orchestra Project to bring life to this klezmer clarinet concerto.
The concerto, titled, “Lament/Witches Sabbath” (2017) is a tour de force for the soloist and certainly a challenge for the large orchestra. Using elements of klezmer style along with musical references such as Berlioz in suggesting the evil sabbath revels the composer creates an unusual but fascinating canvas. Nothing evil here, just some truly exciting musicianship. In addition we hear various noisy avant-garde effects and even voice overs reminiscent of Robert Ashley. Ultimately it is also a species of classical which has a sociopolitical view and this is both memory and homage to the composer’s past, lamenting the suffering and pondering the evil that fueled it.
Krakauer’s facility with his instrument is simply astonishing. He has the klezmer thing down but he also brings with him a great virtuosity as a classical clarinetist and a working knowledge of free jazz. It’s not clear how much creativity this soloist was allowed within the constraints of the piece but the bottom line is that it works very well. Gil Rose’ expertise in handling all this potential chaos is impressive as always and he delivers ultimately a very enjoyable performance despite those noisy avant-garde moments. Indeed it is Rose’ ability to select repertoire with which he can grasp and from which he can conjure a compelling performance. It is Rosenblum’s family biography taking him from the pogroms of the Ukraine to the United States.
The second track (of 4) is a solo for percussion. Again the avant-garde remains interesting and both performance and recording communicate well with the listener. Northern Flicker (2013) is no filler, it is an interesting, if rather brief, work. Lisa Pegher is the busy soloist.
Falling (2013) is a complex work involving pre-recorded audio as well as a chamber group in a song cycle based on the James Dickey poem of the same name. It is a retelling of an incident in which an airline stewardess who died when she was sucked out of a defective emergency exit in the plane and fell to her death. The cycle recounts an imagined look into her psyche as she fell to her death. It is an affecting, if unusual, presentation but Rosenblum’s judicious use of modern elements while still using recognizable melodies and more traditional techniques make for a listenable, if harrowing, experience.
Here the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble consisting of Lindsey Goodman, flute; Eric Jacobs, clarinet; Nathalie Shaw, violin; Norbert Lewandowski, cello; Ian Rosenbaum, percussion; and Oscar Micaelsson, piano/keyboard join with soprano Lindsey Kesselman with conductor Kevin Noe to produce this rewarding work.
Finally we get another large work, this time for multi-tracked string quartet with percussion titled Last Round (2015) which is also biographical in that the composer is attempting to evoke a time in the 1980s when he frequented an establishment with fellow composers. The composer, in his entertaining and informative liner notes recounts his time with fellow composer Lee Hyla and friends and seeks to evoke elements of the downtown scene of that era. This is a rather large work with its own complexities but one which speaks easily to an audience, even one not experienced in the time and place the composer attempts to evoke.
This is a marvelous recording of a music by a composer unfamiliar to this writer (until now) whose work deserves your attention.
There is no small irony for this reviewer in the title of this offering. As soon as it was removed from its packaging I, much as Alice was implored by the comestibles in Wonderland, felt compelled by joyous expectation to consume it with eyes and ears. And I was not disappointed.
Three composers are represented with one work each (two by Mr. Jalbert) in an album of recent compositions in modern but essentially tonal chamber music for highly skilled musicians. All But one (Secret Alchemy) are world premiere recordings commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music and all contribute most handsomely to the piano and strings literature.
The highly skilled musicians are the extraordinary Australian Bernadette Harvey on piano with the Jupiter Quartet (Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violins; Liz Freivogel, viola; and Daniel McDonough, cello). They play extremely well together despite having to navigate all new and challenging material. Harvey, in addition to traditional repertoire is a major advocate for living Australian composers.
The album opens with Piano Quintet (2017) by Pierre Jalbert (1967- ) which draws as much on the romantic tradition (can one hear the ensemble name “piano quintet” without thinking of Schubert, Brahms, and Schumann?) of that ensemble’s configuration as on his more modernist sense of rhythm and harmony. It is cast in four movements titled, Mannheim Rocket, Kyrie, Scherzo, and Pulse. This is a major work by a composer new to these ears and apparently very substantial. This is highly engaging music with romantic leanings perhaps but there is nothing derivative here. This composer is a voice that deserves an ear or two.
Next up is music by the late lamented Steven Stucky (1949-2016). While I regret not having gotten to know a lot of his music during his lifetime I find myself enthralled at the power and lyricism of each work I hear (the man was prolific too so I have much listening to catch up on). This one is no exception, Piano Quartet (2004-5) is in a single movement with multiple sections of varied character. Anyone who has heard any of Stucky’s music will find this piece both exciting and accessible.
Carl Vine (1954- ) is a prolific Australian composer (the only non-American composer represented) whose work certainly deserves to be better known outside of his native country. He does appear to get recognition and respect there and with Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013) we can see why. This one movement work is (like the Stucky piece) divided into sections played without pause. This is another work of both power and virtuosity which holds the listener’s interest and, ultimately, provides a satisfying concert experience.
The program ends with another substantial work from Mr. Jalbert, a piano quintet in all but name. Secret Alchemy (2012) allows us to hear some earlier chamber music writing by this composer. Again each movement is given a title but this time they are more like expression markings and less poetic. They are: Mystical, Agitated, Timeless, and With Great Energy. Why that’s practically a program note! And like the piece that opened this disc it indeed has great energy and will engage the listener.
This album exceeded my enthusiastic expectations and I will listen again, probably many times. Well done.