The Lincoln Trio Plays Contemporary Piano Trios from Chicago


Cedille CDR 90000 211

This is another entry in an ongoing series of music for piano trio by the tried and true Lincoln Trio. In this fine release they play a delightful collection of five works (three are world premiere recordings) by living composers. This is their eighth Cedille release by my count. It is the second recording of piano trios from Chicago based composers, a follow up to their previous survey of early to mid-twentieth century piano trios, Trios from the City of Big Shoulders.

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The five works presented here are but a sampling of the available repertoire from Chicago based composers. That said it is a fine sampling of the current state of the art and one would do well to explore more of the music of all these composers.

The first selection is the three movement, “city beautiful” (2021) by the American composer of Nigerian/American Heritage, Shawn E. Okpebholo (1981- ), a world premiere recording. The title is taken from that of the 19th century initiative that helped build the now familiar skyline which had been ravaged by the 1871 Chicago Fire.

Okpebholo is no stranger to this blog. His fine album of spiritual arrangements Steal Away (2016), and his contributions to Will Liverman’s album, “Dreams of a New Day” (2021) revealed his interest in and expertise with spirituals and art song. “city beautiful” by contrast is essentially three tone poems inspired by Chicago architecture, perhaps one of the city’s finest distinctions. The three movements, aqua, prairie, and burnham are effectively homages to architects Jeanne Gang (whose Aqua Tower is a most recent major addition to the famous skyline), Frank Lloyd Wright (whose Robie House is a classic example of the “prairie school” design), and Daniel Burnham (whose 19th century designs define the famously beautiful lakefront and the iconic Union Station).

Opkebholo’s idiom is basically tonal and could be characterized as post romantic. But regardless of how you categorize it the music is eminently listener friendly and a fine vehicle for the estimable Lincoln Trio. This is the work of a rapidly emerging composer with both substance and style. Keep his name on your radar. I expect to hear much more from this talented and prolific composer who currently holds a professorship at Wheaton College in that western suburb of Chicago.

Next is a two movement work by Augusta Read Thomas (1964- ) entitled, “…a circle around the sun” (2021). This work was a commission by the Children’s Memorial Foundation for the Amelia Piano Trio in honor of George D. Kennedy. Thomas has long been a fixture in Chicago’s music life where she was a composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony from 1997-2006. She is currently professor of music at the University of Chicago and a former professor at Northwestern University. Her work also tends toward the tonal idiom and this rather brief two movement work is a fine example of her writing for chamber ensemble.

“Soliloquy” (2003) by the truly fine, if still too little known, Shulamit Ran (1949- ), an Israeli born American composer. She was a student of the esteemed Ralph Shapey (1921-2002) to whom she dedicated her Pulitzer Prize winning Symphony (1990). The composer states in her liner notes that the origins of this work come from her opera “Dybbuk”. It is a pleasant piece perhaps less complex and more lyrical in sound than some of her larger works. Ran was professor of music at the University of Chicago from 1973 to her retirement in 2015.

Mischa Zupko (1971- ) contributes the briefest work to this collection. Clocking in at just under three minutes, “Fanfare 80” (2010) was written in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Music Institute of Chicago. The brevity here belies the complexities within this ear catching piece.

The album concludes with a substantial two movement work (just over 23 minutes), “Sanctuary” by Stacy Garrop (1969- ) is the work of another prolific composer whose work is, happily, getting much deserved recognition. The 2016 recording of her wonderful orchestral work was reviewed in these pages. Garrop’s work is invariably kinetic and deeply felt with a dramatic flair. Garrop was on the composition faculty of Roosevelt University in Chicago from 2000 to 2016 and is now a freelance composer.

The usual audiophile production (Bill Maylone, engineer) which characterizes Cedille releases is evident here. This is a fine sampling of music which is roughly representative of the musical riches producer James Ginsburg has mined from the “city beautiful”.

Spektral Quartet, Serious Business


spektral

OK, bear with me here for just a moment.  The proliferation of string quartets (and by that I mean the grouping of musicians as a performing entity) has been positively dizzying over the last 30 years.  For those who grew up with the standard Julliard Quartet, Guarneri Quartet, etc. there were just a few outstanding names in this genre.  However since the advent of the new quartets like Kronos and then Turtle Island, Arditti,etc. the field has expanded rather prolifically. Couple this with a boom in string quartet writing notably Elliot Sharp, John Zorn, Wolfgang Rihm. Elliot Carter, Peter Maxwell-Davies, Ben Johnston among many others and I was filled with some trepidation upon receiving this disc for review.  I mean, how many things can you do with a string quartet?

Apparently there is a great deal more to be explored in this genre.  I am happy to say that these folks are up to the task as are the composers whose work they present.  Serious Business is some seriously interesting music performed with serious skill by this new quartet, the Spektral Quartet.  They are the string quartet in residence at the University of Chicago, itself a venerable place for new music.

We start here with a piece by Sky Macklay called Many Many Cadences (2014) a piece that seems to come from a similar place to that of the work of Conlon Nancarrow with intricate rhythms within a somewhat conservative tonal idiom.  The title is suggestive of Gertrude Stein (Many, Many Women).  It was commissioned for the Spektral Quartet by the Walden School.  The piece is immediately engaging and ultimately satisfying.

The second piece, The Ancestral Mousetrap (2014) by David Reminick features a less common use of a string quartet in that there is a vocal component. This is not the vocalist component pioneered by Schoenberg in his second quartet.  These vocalizations are performed by the quartet.  This is no simple feat either because the vocal writing is itself a challenge in its rhythmic complexity.  The piece resembles a little opera and indeed the text by poet Russell Edson is here called a libretto.  This piece was commissioned by the Spektral Quartet.

The third piece here is an unusual choice (and the only one not commissioned for the Spektral Quartet) which is explored in the liner notes .  Haydn’s Quartet Op. 33 No. 2, subtitled “The Joke” is one of the relatively few examples of attempts at program music (vs absolute music) to be found in the classical era.  First, no one will buy this disc just for the Haydn. Second, many collectors will already have this Haydn piece in their collection.  But with that said this is a lovely performance of one of the emblematic pieces of music that created the need for the performing ensemble known as the string quartet and it is a lovely performance as well.  I will leave it to other listeners to read the program notes and get into the rationale about its inclusion here.

The final piece, Hack (2015) by Chris Fisher-Lochead is perhaps the most unusual of the lot in that the composer uses vocal inflections by a collection of comedians (yes, comedians) as the source for his rhythmic and melodic contours and creates 22 separate pieces about 16 comedians (some get more than one piece).  This piece requires more concentration by the listener but, like any well-written piece, it reveals more of itself with repeated listenings.  The Barlow Endowment at Brigham Young University commissioned this piece for the Spektral Quartet.

The Spektral Quartet is Clara Lyon, violin; Austin Wulliman, violin; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rollen, cello.  The recording, as with every Sono Luminus release I’ve heard is glorious and lucid.