The Aznavoorian Duo Plays New and Recent Chamber Music from Armenia


Cedille CDR 90000 209

Listeners of a certain age and those versed in recent classical music history will recall another fine pair of Armenian American musicians (also sisters) whose performances and recordings introduced many to the work of Armenian American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2001) as well as John Cage, Aram Khachaturian, and others. I am speaking of pianist Maro Ajemian (1921-1978) and her sister, violinist Anahid Ajemian (1924-2016). And these fine musicians (pianist Marta Aznavoorian and cellist Ani Aznavoorian) carry on some generations later along a similar path, honoring their heritage and promoting its art.

The disc under consideration is this beautiful sampling of Armenian composers of the past 100 years (or so) beginning with Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935), a monk, composer, historian, and ethnomusicologist. Armenian music enters modernism and the twentieth century via Komitas. This is followed by music of four Soviet era composers and three contemporary era composers.

The liner notes are by local historian and producer Gary Peter Rejebian and the Aznavoorian sisters. In this ,their debut album, they speak of their connectedness to Armenian culture personally and musically. In fact Ani’s cello was made in Chicago by her father Peter Aznavoorian. This album is an auspicious debut and an homage to this rich culture.

They begin with five pieces by Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), better known as Komitas Vartabed, the name bestowed upon him after his ordination as a priest in 1894. These are lyrical and beautiful folksong arrangements that grasp the listener immediately. These five pieces ranging in duration from about 1 1/2 minutes to about 4 minutes. These five pieces, four for cello and piano are punctuated by a sad lament for solo piano played as the third track. Komitas, after witnessing 1915 the Armenian genocide, composed no more and, in fact, spent his remaining years in a sanitarium until he died in 1935.

The next two pieces are by one of the best known Armenian composers of the twentieth century, Aram Khachaturian. Though long subsumed into the Soviet straightjacket his individual voice produced many substantial works and his work has done much to preserve and rejuvenate his Armenian culture. These two pieces are not among his best known work but demonstrate his ability to write in smaller forms and, at least in these brief pieces, display his personal style and his love for his native culture.

These are followed by three pieces of another Soviet era composer whose voice is less well known in the United States, Arno Babajanian. Elegy (among the composer’s last works, written in homage after the passing of Aram Khachaturian) is one of two tracks for solo piano on the album and it is followed by Babajanian’s “Aria and Dance” for Cello and Piano. Certainly this is a composer whose works deserve a proper hearing and evaluation. These pieces suggest a composer with a strong voice, another to come out from the Stalinist/Soviet oversight to be heard now with new ears.

Avet Terterian is another Soviet era name whose work is virtually unknown in the west, another whose work deserves at least a second listen. His large three movement sonata for cello and piano (1956) is a major work both in duration and in content. The style is a friendly mid-twentieth century post romantic one that very well may become a regular repertoire item after hearing the powerful and convincing performance documented here.

With the next track we hear the first of the “recent” works on this recording, Serj Kradjian’s transcription of a traditional song, “Sari Siroun Yar”.

The all too brief experience of this small work by another major Soviet era composer, Alexander Arutiunian, this charming Impromptu (1948, one of his earliest compositions) is a beautiful piece but it is a mere appetizer to lead a listener to hear more from this composer who has produced work in pretty much all genres big and small. Arutiunian’s work deserves some new attention. Best known for his 1950 Trumpet Concerto, his output was large and he composed in large and small forms that demand the attention of post Soviet ears.

Back to the 21 st century with this next track, Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance (2017). Sharafyan was a student of Terterian and this work was adapted from a film score.

The Aznavoorians end with the world premiere recording of “Mount Ararat”, a paean to the Holy Mountain that dominates the landscape in the Armenian capitol city of Yerevan. It is the mountain upon which Noah’s Ark was said to have come to rest after the flood. Like Mount Fuji to the Japanese, Mount Everest to the Tibetans, and “Tahoma”, (better known now as Mount Rainier) to the Puyallup and other Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Mount Ararat is considered a holy mountain.

Peter Boyer‘s “Mount Ararat” (2021) was written for the Aznavoorian Duo. Boyer is the only non-Armenian represented here but his composition embraces the spirit of Armenian music and this is a dramatic and heartfelt love song both to the holy mountain and these musicians whose performance provides an ecstatic and virtuosic finale to this fine disc.

Female Artists Matter: Sarah Cahill’s Survey of Piano Music by Neglected Women Composers


First Hand Records FHR 131

Strictly speaking all women composers are neglected. Despite significant efforts in recent years there remain significant disparities in the representation of women composers in the concert and recital halls. Realistically it will take years just to catch up on those composers whose music has languished in unfair obscurity. Now in this International Women’s Month we are seeing the release of a great deal of music by various artists attempting to correct this neglect each with their own lens. Here we have the first installment of three planned CDs by the Berkeley based pianist, Sarah Cahill. This volume, titled “In Nature” is to be followed by one called “At Play” in November, 2022 and “The Dance” in March, 2023.

Photo by Christine Alicino from Cahill’s web site

Cahill is as much curator as artist, a skill evident in her weekly radio program “Revolutions Per Minute” on Bay Area radio station KALW and any number of creative concerts and musical projects in the San Francisco area. She is an internationally acclaimed recitalist and soloist and her You Tube Channel is one I frequently visit just to see what she’s up to. It is where I first heard many of the women composers featured on the present CD and a place where one can get a sense of her unique choices of repertory that characterize her career. Her husband, acclaimed videographer and video artist John Sanborn does the camera work and I must say that these videos were a welcome respite during the COVID lockdown and an opportunity to experience her musicianship up close and personal (only a page turner at a recital gets a better seat).

The first release in this series contains music spanning some 250+ years. The first selection is by Anna Bon (1739/40-ca.1767) which puts her in the late baroque/early classical era. This is the 5th (of 6) in her Opus 2 sonatas for keyboard. This is the first recording on a piano of this entertaining work by this Venetian composer who died in her 20s. Listeners will discern echoes of Mozart (1756-1791) and Haydn (1732-1809) for whom she sang in the choir at Prince Esterhazy’s, Haydn’s celebrated patron and employer. But the sound of the mature J.S. Bach (1685-1750) certainly dominates this very accomplished sonata. This writer hears it almost as a not too distant relative of the Goldberg Variations.

Next we come to 1846 with the music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847), sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Though Fanny composed some 450 pieces in her short life most remained unknown and some were falsely attributed to her more famous younger brother, Felix. In fact he published some of her work under his name (in his Opus 8 and 9 collections) as women rarely got published at the time and Felix recognized his older sister’s talent.

Cahill has chosen numbers one and three of Fanny’s Opus 8 “Four Lieder for Piano” (a form which her younger brother would later embrace in his “Songs Without Words”). These accomplished early romantic works will leave the listener wanting more of this woman’s music which remains still largely unrecorded. They are a testament to her inventiveness as a composer as well as her virtuosity as a pianist and one hopes for a reassessment of her work.

The next selection comes from a Venezuelan composer, soprano, pianist Teresa Carreño (1853-1917). Sometimes referred to as the “Valkyrie of the Piano”, she had a 54 year career championing the work of luminaries such as Edward MacDowell and Edvard Grieg. Her 1848 etude-meditation, “A Dream at Sea” is a romantic virtuosic work that sounds like a challenge to play but a joy for the listener. This deserves to be in the recitalist’s repertory.

The next unknown gem in this fine collection comes from the pen of Leokadiya Aleksandrovna Kashperova (1872-1940) who was one of Igor Stravinsky’s piano teachers. In a sad echo of present day events Kashperova’s works, though published, were suppressed from performance due to her Bolshevik in exile husband whose politics were, to say the least, unpopular. Cahill here plays her Murmur of the Wheat from the piano suite, “In the Midst of Nature” (1910). Cahill handles the finger busting, Lisztian virtuosity with seeming ease and makes a case both for the further exploration of this woman’s music and the inclusion of it in the performing repertoire. This recording is the commercial recording premiere of the work.

We move now from one of Stravinsky’s piano teachers to one of John Cage’s. American composer, pianist, educator Fannie Charles Dillon (1881-1947) studied composition with Rubin Goldmark (one of Aaron Copland’s teachers) and piano with the great virtuoso Leopold Godowsky.

Years before Olivier Messiaen took up the practice, Dillon, was known for the inclusion of birdsong in her works. One of her 8 Descriptive Pieces, “Birds at Dawn Op. 20 No. 2” (1917) was performed and recorded by early 20th century virtuoso Josef Hoffman. Cahill comments in her fine liner notes, “Dillon’s score is remarkable in its specific notation of bird songs: the Chickadee, Wren-tit, Thrush, Canyon Wren, Vireo, and Warbling Vireo…”. It is indeed a sonic painting of the birds at dawn.

The Czech composer, conductor, pianist Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was the daughter of composer, pianist Václav Kaprál (1889-1947). She composed some 50 works in her short life and died at the age of 25 in Montpelier, France two days after France surrendered to the Nazis. Her four “April Preludes Op. 13” were written for the Moravian-American pianist Rudolf Firkušný and are her best known piano works. Cahill has chosen the first and third for this recording. The music is notable for its exploration of extended harmonic language and made this listener curious about her other compositions.

This next work is a classic Cahill achievement. As a pianist known for working with living composers as well as being a producer who knows good music when she hears it this is a bit of musical archeology that brings to life in this world premiere recording a work from 1949 by Hungarian pianist Agi Jambor (1909-1997). Jambor studied with the legendary Edwin Fischer and had a career as a pianist and teacher very tragically interrupted by the events of World War II. She came to the United States in 1947 where her husband passed away two years later. She taught at Bryn Mawr College and was granted Emeritus status in 1974.

Her three movement Piano Sonata “To the Victims of Auschwitz” was brought into a legible and performable score with the assistance of Dr. John DesMarteau who befriended Jambor late in her life and to whom the piece is dedicated. And it was in consultation with Dr. DesMarteau, Cahill writes, that she was assisted in the interpretation of this music. According to Cahill’s liner notes this work attempts to represent sonically some of Jambor’s war time memories. It is a substantial work, a lost and lonely artifact of history given a definitive performance and recording.

The amazing composer Eve Beglarian (1958- ), the only of these composers known to this reviewer prior to receiving this album, provides the next offering, “Fireside” (2001). It is in fact a Cahill commission for a project commemorating the centennial of another neglected female composer, Ruth Crawford (Seeger) (1901-1953). Beglarian takes a poem written by the 13 year old Ruth Crawford hopefully describing her fantasy of what she would be in future years and, utilizing some chords from one of Crawford’s piano pieces, constructs a powerful meditation on the subject at hand. As it turned out Crawford wound up giving up her composing career to work with musicologist Charles Seeger, not exactly tragic, but hardly what her 13 year old self had imagined. Beglarian writes that “Fireside is dedicated to women composers of the future, who will undoubtedly be making devils bargains of their own.”, a cynicism which is hard to deny.

This piece, in its world premiere commercial recording, is one of a genre unique to the 20th and 21st centuries, that of the speaking pianist. This puts in in a category shared by works like Frederic Rzewski’s classic “De Profundis” (1994) and Kyle Gann’s “War is Just a Racket” (2008), a Cahill commission for yet another of her fascinating themed projects and recorded on her CD, “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013.

The penultimate track on this journey is provided by Belfast born (now in London) Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin (1967- ). “Unseen” (2017), in its commercial recording premiere, is described by the composer as a sort of meditation on the innocent victims of violence she has seen in her now home city of London whose presence is frequently unseen by many and, in the composer’s words, “reflects my desire to embrace an awareness more fully of my immediate surroundings in all their beauty and cruel pain”.

Mary D. Watkins (1939- ) is an American pianist and composer, a graduate of Howard University who has penned three operas as we as music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, and solo piano. She is a fine pianist, an advocate for Black

At first glance I was struck by Shane Keaney’s dark, drab art work of this album’s cover. It echoes the photographic work of Declan Haun and his contemporaries who documented the harrowing events of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. But after reading the harrowing stories behind this music I find it entirely apt. There is certainly beauty here but also pain and sadness. The monochrome portraits that make up the inside of this gatefold album charmingly includes Sarah Cahill’s face alongside portraits of the composers within, a reflection of the pianist’s solidarity with them. And the other photos in the booklet by Cahill’s daughter Miranda Sanborn add to the sense of connectedness that seems to characterize her projects. This is a wonderful start to a promising project.

Rising Star Cellist Hannah Collins Defines Her Vision for Her Instrument in “Resonance Lines”


Sono Luminus DSL-92252

Having chosen a debut album featuring solo cello without electronics or accompaniment the Sono Luminus label virtually guarantees that every one of the subtleties of the performer’s skills will be heard in all their glory. And so we have an auspicious solo debut album by a skilled and talented artist with a unique and intelligent vision in her choice of repertoire for her instrument. Hannah Collins has a beautifully designed web page describing her background so I will focus only on the music on this release.

Even a brief glance makes it obvious that Collins’ radar captures a wide range of music which encompasses five centuries of compositional efforts by both a consciously curated selection of composers that reflect both racial and gender diversity and who themselves represent a substantive variety of styles and visions. She begins with a rather obscure baroque composer (I had never heard of him), Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694). His Chiacona (1670) is apparently the first identified composition for solo cello (the famous solo cello suites by J.S. Bach wouldn’t come along until 1717-1723).

This arguably foundational work of the solo cello genre is then followed by the very fine Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) whose Dreaming Chaconne (2010) is in fact a variation on the Colombi piece.

The third track, “In manus tuas” (Into your hands) by the equally fine American composer, Carolyn Shaw (1982- ) was written for Ms. Collins, and is an aural peek inside the mind of the composer as she recalls a performance of a motet by 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). Shaw evokes a sonic memory moment of hearing a performance of “In manus tuas Domine” in Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut which made a strong impression on her. It is a work that appears to be destined to become a modern classic. It creates spectral harmonics that engulf the listener inside Shaw’s memory of the event. The composition’s title also function metaphorically as she offers her music into the hands of the artist and the minds of the listeners. It is a challenge both technically and interpretively and Collins rises to those challenges with seeming ease.

The next seven tracks are given to another Saariaho composition, “Sept Papillons” (2000). This earlier work from her extensive catalog is also given to extended instrumental techniques as she evokes the seven butterflies of the title. This set of pieces was written for the fine Finnish cellist, Anssi Karttunen. It was at the 2008 Creative Dialogue Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico (run by Karttunen) that Collins encountered this music and the extended techniques required for its performance. Saariaho’s sound world is like that of an incarnation of Debussy and his impressionist aesthetic. There is apparently no visual program here but the music recalls, in this listener’s mind, Saariaho’s earlier “Nymphea” (1987) for string quartet and electronics which was inspired by Monet’s famed “Water Lilies” of 1906.

This fine disc includes the first (of three) suites for solo cello by Benjamin Britten. All three of these (1964, 1967, 1971) had all been composed for the Russian virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich. Like the the Saariaho and Shaw pieces these suites are inspired by earlier works, in this case the Bach suites of the early 18th century. Collins plays the first (Opus 72) of these and her performance makes this listener hope that she will later record the other two.

While modeled on earlier music, the Britten work utilizes techniques that would likely be unfamiliar to cellists before the 20th century. It is homage both to Bach and to Maestro Rostropovich. And Collins’ playing furthers this homage to both of these past masters.

The final track is a work by one Thomas Kotcheff (1988- ). Like the first track, this young composer is unfamiliar to this writer. His work, “Cadenza (with or without Haydn)” of 2020” carries on the theme of homage. In a nod to the late great Frederic Rzewski (1938-2021) whose “Cadenza with or without Beethoven” (2003) is an extended cadenza which can be played on its own or as part of the Beethoven 4th piano concerto.

Kotcheff’s work is a cadenza for Haydn’s C major cello concerto. Like the Rzewski, it can be performed with the concerto or as a solo work on its own. Also like the Rzewski, the more modern aspects of this “cadenza” might confuse audiences anticipating more conventional music that fits with the context of the concerto for which it was written and the music stands very strongly on its own.

Like a lot of solo artists are doing these days, Collins’ debut solo album is like her personal manifesto of music for her chosen instrument. It is a fine foundation anticipating what will likely be an enlightening as well as entertaining career.

John Bullard, Expanding a Classical Repertory for a Vernacular Instrument: 24 Preludes for Banjo


Volume One on Bullard Music

I can recall with delight the first time I heard a banjo in a classical piece. It was the 1936 score to the Pare Lorentz film, “The Plow That Broke the Plains” by Virgil Thomson. In one of the movements of the suite extracted from the film score Thomson writes a set of variations on an American folk song, a practice he shared with his contemporary, Aaron Copland. The sound of the banjo was both jarring and charming and marked, for this listener, the first time hearing this vernacular instrument in a classical context. Then there was John McEuen, then of the “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” including his transcription of the (familiar to young pianists) Sonatina by Muzio Clementi on one of their folk/rock/country albums.

So the release of these 24 Preludes for Banjo by Adam Larrabee, expertly played by John Bullard seems a natural next step. Bullard has previously released an album of Bach played on the banjo and seems intent on expanding the classical repertoire for his instrument. Here, rather than having transcriptions of music originally written for other instruments, we have music written directly for the banjo. Larrabee, an accomplished banjo player echoes Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in this set of 12 preludes (with 12 more yet to be recorded to complete the set of 24).

Composer Adam Larrabee strikes a pretty amazing balance writing brief pieces in each of 12 keys, alternating major and minor keys for contrast and incorporating, as Bach did, baroque dance forms. He connects to the twentieth and twenty first century by using some post baroque dance forms such as waltz, barcarolle, and mazurka. He even manages to further blur the lines of genre by penning an homage to rocker Rick Ocasek.

Rather than being intimidated or overwhelmed writing music which will inevitably invite comparisons with Bach, Chopin, Shostakovich, etc. Larrabee never overplays his hand and sticks to short, simple forms devoid of unnecessary complexity. These are pretty much etudes on how to write for banjo and they provide a tasteful, entertaining set of examples that can serve as a great starting point for future compositions and future composers interesting in writing for this unusual folk instrument. I can’t wait for volume two.

The banjo, best known in both black and white vernacular or folk music, traces its origins to west Africa and come to this country as a biproduct of the transatlantic slave trade which began in 1619. Similar instruments can be found in other countries whose participation in the slave trade brought people who subsequently constructed these instruments for their personal use.

Now the utility of Bullard’s instrument is being consciously expanded and welcomed more fully into a place in a genre to which it had not originally been intended. It works.

A Belated Fan Letter: Homage to George Crumb


Dear Mr. Crumb,

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.

The 1971 premiere recording

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.

Makrokosmos I with score excerpt on cover

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.

Voice of the Whale on the premiere recording on Columbia Records, 1974

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.

Lorca Madrigals 1965-69

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.

Makrokosmos III

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.

Robert Miller’s premiere recording of Makrokosmos II

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.

NOT your typical organist, Cameron Carpenter: J.S. Bach and Howard Hanson transcriptions show his genius


My review of Carpenter’s Sony Classical release Flash with Substance, Cameron Carpenter Takes on Rachmaninoff and Poulenc, in which he played his transcription for Organ and Orchestra of Rachmaninoff’s beautiful Paganini Rhapsody paired with his exciting rendition of the always welcome Poulenc Organ Concerto. It’s kind of a gutsy move to perform the Rachmaninoff with an organ instead of a piano, bordering on sacrilege for some. Given that programming though, the choices for this recording are a little less surprising as both further stretch the notion of what an organist is actually able to play and demonstrate the sheer breadth of this composer/performer’s musical vision.

Here’s the track list for his Decca Gold debut. Take a good look and meet me at the end of this list:

Tracklist

J.S. Bach – The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (1741)

  • Aria
  • Variatio 1. a 1 Clav.
  • Variatio 2. a 1 Clav.
  • Variatio 3. Canone all’Unisono. a 1 Clav.
  • Variatio 4. a 1 Clav.
  • Variatio 5. a 1 ô vero 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 6. Canone alla Seconda. a 1 Clav.
  • Variatio 7. a 1 ô vero 2 Clav. al tempo di Giga
  • Variatio 8. a 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 9. Canone alla Terza. a 1 Clav.
  • Variatio 10. Fughetta. a 1 Clav.
  • Variatio 11. a 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 12. a 1 Clav. Canone alla Quarta in moto contrario
  • Variatio 13. a 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 14. a 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 15. Canone alla Quinta. a 1 Clav.: Andante
  • Variatio 16. Ouverture. a 1 Clav.
  • Variatio 17. a 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 18. Canone alla Sesta. a 1 Clav.
  • Variatio 19. a 1 Clav.
  • Variatio 20. a 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 21. Canone alla Settima
  • Variatio 22. a 1 Clav. alla breve
  • Variatio 23. a 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 24. Canone all’Ottava. a 1 Clav.
  • Variatio 25. a 2 Clav.: Adagio
  • Variatio 26. a 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 27. Canone alla Nona. a 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 28. a 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 29. a 1 ô vero 2 Clav.
  • Variatio 30. a 1 Clav. Quodlibet
  • Aria da Capo

Howard Hanson (arr. Carpenter) – Symphony No. 2 in D-flat Major, Opus 30 “Romantic” (1930)

  1. Adagio
  2. Andante con tenerezza
  3. Allegro con brio

Yup, the Bach Goldberg variations played on the organ followed by Carpenter’s transcription of Howard Hanson’s (1896-1981) lovely Second Symphony, subtitled, “Romantic” (Trivia: the finale of this work is played over the end credits on the Ridley Scott film, Alien). But I’m willing to wager that neither Hanson aficionados (always among my faves) nor fans of Alien ever imagined hearing this piece played on an organ. But it works.

And that is Carpenter’s genius, or a portion of his genius. He is a man with a mission. He is a virtuoso of the highest order, he is a showman such that earns him a membership in my “glam classical” category, and he is a scholar with wide ranging tastes whose choices have challenged and charmed this humble listener and doubtless many others. My God, the man had a digital portable touring organ custom built for him! It is the instrument upon which he recorded this and the previously referenced disc.

He has antecedents such as Virgil Fox and Anthony Newman, musicians who eschew the stoic musician stereotype (nothing wrong with stoic, either) and engage the audience in their more theatrical manners. And it is the delicate balance between the musicianship and the stage presence that is worth the audience’s time. By my count this is his 8th album released. Check out his web page for more.

Watch any of his YouTube videos where his stage presence is as engaging as his virtuosity. Sure, he plays the “standard repertoire” authoritatively. His Bach is as engaging as his genial manner. This is one exciting composer/performer and it is a joy to watch him develop his brand. All sorts of ideas chase themselves in my mind when I ponder what he’ll do next. But I’d rather be surprised.

My End of the Year Personal Best Choices and Other Blather That May Interest My Readers


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.

My home base is in California, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles though I sometimes travel for work

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.

Since February of 2021 I have worked periodically in Washington State, not in a cabin in Mt. Rainier National Park but in Tacoma, just south of Seattle.

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.

Me with my listening buddy, Clyde

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.

Centaur CRC 3836

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.

“Dreams of a New Day”, a Landmark Recording Project from Cedille is a virtual manifesto/survey of art song by black composers. Liverman is an amazing singer and the recording by my favorite Chicago record company is pure beauty. This 2021 release ranks ninth among my most read blogs from the past 12 months.

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.

Primous Fountain arrives in Moldova to oversee the performances of his music.

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.

My “comeback blog”, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger was written to sort of reintroduce myself to the blogosphere and provide some background (excuses?) for my absence. I guess it was a decent read.

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:

Solo Artist Pamela Z releases “a secret code”. This is another Neuma release, one of a truly original and interesting artist who pretty much defies categories but the territory she explores will amaze you.

Lou Harrison: Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, a very special performance of an underappreciated masterpiece is just unabashedly excellent. It is a recording of a 2017 performance (in honor of the composer’s 100th birthday anniversary) in Cleveland by performers who have had a close relationship with this major American composer. I love the music. I love the performers. It’s a digital only release but you can get a download of the album and the fine liner notes from Bandcamp.

Fixing a Hole to Keep the Music Playing: Starkland brings back Guy Klucevsek’s “Citrus, My Love” is also a digital only release, also available on Bandcamp of an album long out of print but essential to the oeuvre of Guy Klucevsek. Like Philip Blackburn, Tom Steenland (who heads Starkland records) is a musical visionary who has released some of my personal favorite albums. If Tom (or Philip) likes it I will at least give it a listen.

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.

Only the Lonely, Frank Horvat’s “Music for Self Isolation” is yet another release from this emerging Canadian composer. This is one of my favorite COVID Isolation albums, a unique response to this pandemic from an eminently listenable and endlessly creative composer.

OUR 6.220674

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.

The Bewitched in Berlin, Kenneth Gaburo does Harry Partch for your head (phones). This is another “save” by Philip Blackburn. This performance in Berlin of Harry Partch’s “The Bewitched” is a binaural recording of a very fine performance directed by Kenneth Gaburo. If you’re a Partch fan this is a must have.

Neuma 123

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.

Ravel and Bartok Go Electric


Sono Luminus SLE-70028

While this album is not likely to cause as much of a stir as Bob Dylan did when he went electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival it is revelatory in its own way. Of course Ravel and Bartok did not write for even acoustic guitar but they, like all western classical musicians, were very familiar with the art of transcription. Functional electric instruments wouldn’t come into use until the late 1940s. But the art of transcription (essentially a synonym for “Covers” as used in pop music) can be applied to any instrument and, at its best, transcription brings out perspectives in the music that were not obvious in its original incarnation. That is what is achieved here.

There are no liner notes but it appears that these musicians have done the transcribing themselves. And their backgrounds include having played guitar with the likes of Chris Cornell, Natalie Merchant, Rufus Wainwright, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Ian Hunter, and others. Their facility with their guitar playing comes from (the more traditional role of the guitar) in rock/pop genres and here they apply this knowledge to playing classical repertoire which they came to love. Why can’t they have both?

A more pedestrian choice of repertoire for a debut might have been Bach inventions or Scarlatti sonatas (which worked remarkably well for Wendy Carlos) but these guys made what, on first look, seems very unusual choices. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (hardly that composer’s best known work) and 6 (of the 44) duos for violins by Bela Bartok (among the composer’s least known compositions). So I approached this release with a great deal of skepticism.

Well, the sounds they create, recorded so lucidly too, instantly won me over. This is a spectacular release and makes a very enjoyable listening experience. Their transcriptions provided a perspective that sent this listener back to the original compositions for another listen. I had a minimal familiarity with the Ravel and even less familiarity with the Bartok but the sheer energy of their performances combined with a real feel for the jazz roots that underlie the Ravel as well as a curious set of sounds chosen for the Hungarian folk derived Bartok effectively recasts these pieces in a very different perspective.

Like Bob Dylan, they thrust the modern electric guitar center stage and provide what will be for some, a jarring or disturbing experience. Purists may find these transcriptions sacrilegious but I suspect that many will be charmed and (perhaps their endgame) may find electric guitars to be anywhere from acceptable to revelatory as instruments which can do justice in the classical world.

Electric guitars are now pretty common in folk as well as rock and blues. Dylan gets significant credit for this and these guys seem to be aiming at a similar goal, that of bringing electric guitars into legitimacy in the performance of classical music. Whether this eventually happens remains to be seen but this is a mighty well conceived and executed effort and, in the end, it is a very fine piece of sonic art. Kudos to Jack Petruzzelli and Cameron Greider as well as to Sono Luminus.

Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns


Centaur CRC 3836

Kinga Augustyn is a new musician to these ears. She kindly sent me this wonderful very recent release for review. And she certainly found a reviewer sympathetic to new music here. A quick review of her releases reveals that she has been releasing recordings since at least 2010 and, in addition to many of the “usual suspects” or “warhorses” of the repertoire, she has demonstrated a keen interest in lesser known works as well as recently minted works hoping for a place in the repertoire.

Her album count by my reckoning is up to 13 now and her musical interests appear to range from the baroque with Telemann’s 12 violin fantasies (no, not a transcription of the better known solo flute works) to the very recent works presented on the present disc. Her choices of repertoire for recording are delightfully unusual as she ventures into the work of neglected composers such as Astor Piazolla (1921-1992) and Romuald Twardowski (1930- ). And she has chosen to release an album of Paganini’s 24 Caprices rather than the Bach solo violin works (though these may come later). The point is that she seems interested in bringing out performances of music which gets less attention than the standard repertoire. Indeed she appears to be attempting to influence and add to the canon of solo violin performance repertoire.

How often can one expect to find a solo violin disc where the only familiar piece is one of Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas? Well this is that disc. The earliest work here is Grazyna Bacewicz’s (1909-1969) Sonata No. 2 (1958). Berio’s Sequenza VIII (1976). Along with Isang Yun’s (1917-1995) Koenigliches Thema (1976) are also 20th century pieces. And though the four movements of Elliot Carter’s (1908-2012) Four Lauds begin in the late 20th century (Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi, 1984 and Remembering Aaron, 1999) they end in the 21st century with Remembering Roger, 2000 and Rhapsodic Musings, 2001.

The brief, almost “Webernian” miniatures that comprise Carter’s “Four Lauds” each have an individual character, the first an homage to Aaron Copland (1900-1990) which doubtless represents the composer via a quotation or perhaps some more personal inside reference. The Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi is the longest and seemingly most complex of the group (I don’t know Petrassi’s music as well as I would like so I’m not sure about the references here). The Rhapsodic Musings are not apparently directed to any musician or composer in particular and The Fantasy-Remembering Roger does seem to embody the sound of Roger Sessions’ style.

The Berio is one of a set of 14 pieces for solo instruments (depending on how you count them) and they are a sort of compositional manifesto utilizing extended techniques. Augustyn delivers a very convincing reading of this intentionally challenging work. It is the longest single work on this recording.

This Polish born, New York based violinist has done homage to the music of her homeland before with her Naxos album of miniatures that I doubt you will find elsewhere. On this album she does homage to Polish musical culture by her inclusion of the inexplicably too little known Grazyna Bacewicz and a world premiere of a solo violin work by the well documented Krzysztof Penderecki in his 2008 Capriccio. As one who fell in love with the avant-garde Penderecki of say 1958-1972 I have not paid as much attention to Penderecki’s later works. In a pleasant surprise these ears heard this very late Penderecki piece as almost a summation including tasty bits of avant-gardist techniques along with nicely lyrical passages. I am now convinced I need to do a reappraisal of my knowledge of this composer’s later work.

She follows this with a very significant work by a criminally neglected composer, Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969). Her Second Sonata for Solo Violin (1958) is an adventuresome work which challenges the violinist while holding the listener’s attention. It is definitely time for a major reassessment of this woman’s work and one hopes that Augustyn’s reading will help encourage more interest in Bacewicz’s work.

Augustyn next chooses another unjustly neglected composer, Isang Yun (1917-1995) whose biography including kidnapping by the South Korean intelligence officers and subsequent sequestration in a South Korean jail stirred artistic outrage which eventually resulted in his release. The piece played here, “Koniglisches Thema”(1976) brings us back to the beginning of solo violin composition by its quotation of a Bach theme. Not a theme from any of the solo violin music but rather the theme given to Bach by Frederick II of Prussia. The origin of the theme is not by Bach and its compositional origins are much debated but what is not debated is that fanciers of Bach know this theme instantly. Isang Yun writes, apparently, a set of variations on the theme, an offering of his own to the master.

This is a dream of an album for people who appreciate modernism, new music, and undiscovered gems but Augustyn’s readings of the unfamiliar Carter “Four Lauds” and, the most recent work on the disc, Debra Kaye‘s (1956- ) “Turning in Time” (2018) are, for this listener, worth the price of the disc by themselves. Carter is no easy task for listeners and certainly for performers but she manages to find the late post-romantic/post-modern lyricism in these pithy little works. And the Debra Kaye work is “hot off the presses” so to speak, having been written just before the second of the two recording sessions that produced this album. The Kaye work is the second longest on this recording and fits well as a concluding work on this ambitious and engaging program.

New music is in need of talented musicians willing to search for and learn their work and Augustyn happily seems to be willing to fill that bill. Her acumen in being able to know music of substance when she sees it and the ability to bring those scores to life bodes well for listeners interested in this repertoire. After all it’s hard not to notice that the Bacewicz Sonata is her second and completists will want to hear that first one. But, more seriously, I look forward to the upcoming releases by this artist who, when sighted on my radar again, will not be let go without a serious listen.

Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH”


Sony Classical 19439809212

I first came to know these Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 (1950-1) in the recording by Keith Jarrett on ECM some years ago (1992). At the time I was not familiar with this post-Bach set of compositions (one might even call it a “meme”) written to showcase the newly codified “Well Tempered Tuning” but I was intrigued by Jarrett’s choices of repertoire. Not surprisingly, I immediately liked this gargantuan undertaking. I appreciated these pieces as listenable, stimulating musical compositions and a good choice of repertoire by the always interesting Mr. Jarrett. Many pianists have recorded this cycle of works though I can’t recall a recital of the entire set being performed live as occurs fairly frequently with the Bach cycles (he wrote two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in each of the 24 keys of the western musical scale).

Readers of this blog may recall my fawning over an earlier Levit release, a 3 disc set of piano variations containing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (1741), Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” (1819-23), and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (1975). I asserted that Sony, whose recording (1955) of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations helped elevate that work into the popular repertoire, had at least implied that these three large sets of variations are musically on the same level of significance thus potentially elevating the Rzewski piece to the more mainstream repertory.

Now comes yet another 3 disc set from this fine Russian/German pianist who seems to be possessed of vision as well as virtuosity and interpretive skills. Levit is clearly comfortable with the “usual suspects”, the common repertoire of live piano recitals (Beethoven’s Sonatas, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Liszt, etc.) but is clearly interested in expanding the general repertoire by discovering lesser known works that he finds deserve to be heard more often. A quick look at the pianists other releases reveals a similar pattern even in works of a less grand scale than those discussed in this essay.

Anselm Cybinski’s fine liner notes derive from his reading of history, Shostakovich’s and Stevenson’s biographies, and his conversations with Mr. Levit. Here he describes what Shostakovich was enduring in the years when he brought forth these compositions, post WWII, life in the repressive Stalinist regime, recent censure by said regime, and his attempts to be return from this censure and be allowed to have his works performed again. He relates the story of the then 21 year old Tatiana Nikolayeva who premiered this work and played it before the committee. He also sketches the impact of various historical events on Shostakovich and his music.

The preludes are described as emotional responses to these varied events, a sort of exorcising of the emotional turmoil these events had on the composer. He describes in these notes the contexts which clearly impact the pianist in his understanding and subsequent interpretation of this music, contexts which help the listener grasp the deeper levels of meaning inherent (or at least implied) in these works.

He does the same with the Stevenson work, itself a response to the sufferings of a fellow artist, a sort of artistic dialogue analogous to that of songwriters and other musicians who used their art to make a point (Lynyrd Skynyrd writing, “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Neil Young’s, “Southern Man” or Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” concurrently with the second inaugural concert for Richard Nixon as a political counterpoint are two such examples), not the same situations perhaps but artistic dialogues nonetheless.

Apparently Ronald Stevenson (1928-1915) wrote his gargantuan “Passacaglia on DSCH” in 1960 as a tribute to his fellow composer. There are many examples of Shostakovich using the German note spelling of “D”, “Es” (pronounced, “S”), “C”, “H” (German notation for “B”) all of which translates to the actual notes of D, E flat, C, B as a motif in his work so Stevenson’s use of it is quite apt.

This Passacaglia is a work which I had “known of” but never heard before hearing this recording. It is a marvelous work, not exactly easy listening but a very satisfying work which improves with subsequent hearings, revealing itself as a multi-layered masterpiece. And it is Levit’s vision that effectively gives this work, and the Shostakovich cycle a significant and, thanks again to Sony, a very large public nudge to get this music heard and played more often.

No doubt many reviewers will spend time comparing the various recordings of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and the Stevenson Passacaglia. For the record I did a quick search and found four recordings of the Stevenson work and at least 12 complete recordings of the Shostakovich. However, for the purposes of this review I will leave discussion of the merits and shortcomings of the various interpretations to people better qualified than I. The takeaway I hope to share with my readers is, “Get this set and enjoy it” and to musicians and producers, “Pay attention to Igor Levit’s artistic radar”.

Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969


One of the undeniable positive effects of the Black Lives Matter movement is exemplified in this amazing release. The Harlem Arts Festival, which ran from June 29 to August 24, 1969 (on Sundays at 3 PM) featured some profoundly important musicians (only one of whom went on to play at the fabled “Woodstock Festival” which ran from August 15-18, 1969 in Bethel, New York). This festival which was held on six Sundays in the summer of 1969 was documented in about 40 hours of footage which then languished in a basement for some 50 years.

Questlove

Along comes Ahmir Khalib Thompson, known professionally as Questlove, an American musician, songwriter, disc jockey, author, music journalist, and film director. Along with restoring the original footage, Questlove, as director of this auspicious release intercuts contemporary interviews (mostly with people who attended the festival) with carefully chosen performance footage which contextualizes the concert series effectively making this release into a sociological as well as historical document which emphasizes the significance of the festival leaving the viewing audience to contemplate why such important footage had been left to languish in a basement for 50 years.

In fact there had been efforts to capitalize on the popularity of pop concert footage evidenced by Michael Wadleigh’s well documented Woodstock Festival which quickly became a defining document of the era. The fact that production funding was easily obtained for that film (for which the young Martin Scorsese and his frequent collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker contributed their editing skills)is a matter of record. But the efforts failed and the concert footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival would not be seen until 2021.

A quick look at the lineup for the Harlem Festival (original poster on right) demonstrates the obvious blackness of the performers in direct counterpoint to the equally obvious whiteness of the Woodstock Festival (Quill, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, John Sebastian, Keef Hartley Band, The Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, Canned Heat, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Nicky Hopkins, Joe Cocker and The Grease Band, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After, The Band, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na, Jimi Hendrix / Gypsy Sun & Rainbows). The only black musicians (ironically in a concert of predominantly blues based rock) at Woodstock were Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. And the audience at each of these festivals pretty much reflected the racial demographic onstage.

Questlove’s effort won “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” both the Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021. It was released January 28, 2021 (Sundance) and June 25, 2021 (United States) and is currently streaming on Hulu.

Why am I featuring this pop music documentary on this modern classical blog? Well it is a contemporary release of music which has been and continues to be influential in our modern culture. A quick look at some of my previous blogs will reveal reviews of concerts and CDs featuring electric guitars, Hammond Organs, etc. And the repetitive figures and simpler harmonic structures endemic to “rock” have infiltrated the classical realm via minimalism.

Mavis Staples (l) with Mahalia Jackson

We live in an age where the last two Pulitzer Prizes in music went to (very deserving) black composers, Anthony Davis (2020) and Tania Léon (2021). Maestro Davis once shared with me that he seeks inspiration studying the music of James Brown and doubtless there are many more such instances of “pop music” influencing “classical music” which I shall leave for musicologists to explore. But the bottom line is that this film brings to light the fact that there are some 40 hours of amazing concert footage that remains largely unseen and which contains marvelous and significant historical events (the final cut of the film reportedly only uses about 35% of the original film). The moment in which Mahalia Jackson hands the microphone back to Mavis Staples alone is a metaphorical “passing of the torch” from one generation to the next, a truly beautiful moment regardless of one’s race.

It is probably worth noting that the attempt to recreate the success of Woodstock with the December 6, 1969  “Altamont Speedway Free Festival” which was sullied by the tragic death of a concertgoer at the hands of the Hell’s Angels who had been hired to provide security for the event. By contrast, when the New York City Police Department refused to provide security for the Sly and the Family Stone segment of the Harlem Cultural Festival, the Black Panthers were engaged (rather more successfully) to provide security for that event. Read what you will into those facts.

One hopes that the release of Summer of Soul will result in the subsequent release of more of that concert footage from a more innocent (or naive?) time so we may see these fine young musicians near the beginnings of their wonderful careers (well, one could argue that Stevie Wonder was more mid-career at this point). Questlove’s directorial efforts backed by producers David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolen, and Joseph Patel have brought to light this important cultural event placing it in its proper historical perspective in the development and performance of new music. Festival producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin documented the six-week festival in 1969 and called the project “Black Woodstock” in hopes of helping the film sell to studios. After everyone turned him down, 40 hours of unseen footage sat in his basement for half a century. Sadly, Tulchin died in 2017.

I haven’t looked to see how many different cuts exist of the Woodstock Film but the 1994 director’s cut clocks in at 224 minutes and the latest CD release contains no fewer than 4 discs. Would that something similar will happen with the yet unseen film of these fine performers. The sort of “cancel culture” that helped keep this film in a basement for 50 years may be seeing its influence wane. Meanwhile there remains joy in both this film and in the anticipation of seeing more of this historic event, a vital part of music history and American history. Bravo Questlove!

Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”


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This album works so very well on many levels. It is a great example of the state of the art in tuning scholarship, a lovely recording of a fine instrument, and a deeply engaging example of authentic and thoughtful performance practice. From the moment I first heard this CD I was entranced by the very musical experience. There is as much to appreciate in the depth and accuracy of the scholarship involved as there is in the deeply committed and learned performance. This recording is “definitive” in that it represents state of the art tuning theory, instrument making, and baroque performance practice.

Readers of this blog know that I rarely review music written before 1950 but this is a rather special case of contemporary scholarship that, in its way, occupies both the old and the new. It is Bach in the context of the modern scholar providing a unique insight for the modern listener. And, having reviewed much of Mr. Lippel’s work with contemporary music this journey to the past provides a useful perspective on the artist’s range.

This is NOT the complete Bach music for guitar (the modern guitar did not exist in Bach’s time). This is NOT the complete Bach music for lute played on guitar. Rather this is the complete Bach music for “Lautenwerk“, a curious instrument which was a cross between a lute and a harpsichord. While there have been reconstructions of this unusual instrument there are no known extant instruments from Bach’s time. The instrument featured gut strings (rather than metal) which produced a softer sound. The strings were plucked by quills controlled by a keyboard in the manner of a harpsichord and pretty much anyone who played keyboard could play this instrument.

This is a performance on a guitar tuned to the “well tempered” tuning which inspired Bach’s definitive masterpiece, “The Well Tempered Clavier” which demonstrated the utility of the well tempered tuning system (Andreas Werckmeister’s to be specific). This differs considerably from equal temperament tuning which permeates most of the music we commonly hear in western classical traditions. While the technicalities of tuning are well beyond the scope of this review (more information is available at http://www.MicroFestRecords.com and in any number of learned theses on tuning) the critical fact is that this recording provides, as much as possible, the experience of hearing this music on an instrument tuned in the manner which Bach and his contemporaries used. This is about as close as one could come to hearing what Bach’s audiences heard.

All this attention to tuning scholarship, authentic instrument building, and authentic performance practice place this album in the lineage of similarly definitive recordings by the likes of Noah Greenberg and the New York Pro Musica along with artists such as David Munrow, Julian Bream, Alfred Deller, and their successors. The scholarship here draws on the work of scholars whose lineage includes Harry Partch and Ben Johnston. The liner notes are written by one of the living royalty of microtonal scholars, John Schneider (himself a guitarist and composer who is in the process of recording definitive editions of all of Harry Partch’s work). Also mentioned is the assertion by another living royalty of tuning scholarship, the composer/scholar Kyle Gann who suggests that, “hearing performances of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in modern equal temperament is like viewing Rembrandt’s work through wax paper”. The analogy is apt and the value of this recording is the “removal of the wax paper” (so to say), allowing the listener to hear something much closer to the composer’s original intent.

Of course a standard guitar cannot play these tunings so the artist turned to German luthier (guitar builder) Walter Vogt whose invention, The Fine Tunable Fretboard, graces the beautiful instrument seen on the album cover. This is the instrument we hear in this recording. It is tuned to Johann Kirnberger’s keyboard well tempered tuning system.

And now to the artist. Daniel Lippel is a guitarist, producer, and new music advocate. Though he did release a Bach on guitar recording in 2007 the majority of his work on recordings has been dominated by music composed after 1950 and actually mostly after 2000. Hearing his affinity for baroque performance practice is indeed a revelation by itself. Lippel whose virtuosity and facility with new music is well known demonstrates his facility with baroque performance turning in a ravishingly beautiful recording of this music.

There are three works on this disc, the 6 movement Suite in E minor BWV 996, the four movement Suite in C minor BWV 997, and the Prelude, Fuga, and Allegro BWV 998. The performances are candy for the ears and food for the soul. This is a level of excellence that has this writer hoping for more.

Political Classical: Dai Fujikura’s Piano Concerto No. 4 “Akiko’s Piano”


As it happens the digital file of the performance of Dai Fujikura‘s Piano Concerto No. 4, “Akiko’s Piano” (2020) was kindly sent to me by the composer. As is clear from the album photo the CD release also contains other music performed at the concert which contained this work. So this review is focused only on the concerto.

It is worthy of noting the musical pairings on the disc which add to the melancholy of the concerto, the lovely but somber Cavatina from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major. The music is said to reflect Beethoven’s sadness over his unsuccessful love life. That is followed by a true classic of beauty and melancholy, Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The last piece is an arrangement (by Hideo Saito) of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D minor solo violin Partita. This ethereal music presumably providing some abstract solace in this sad concert which also happened to occur during the height of the global Covid Pandemic which continues to exert a pall on life in these times.

This is the fourth of Fujikura’s concerti for piano and the first this writer has heard. The recording here is of the world premiere and the composer did the mastering. The pianist is Mami Hagiwara playing both the concert grand and the upright piano (Akiko’s piano). The Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra is led by Tatsuya Shimono. The piece is dedicated to the Hiroshima Symphony’s Peace and Music Ambassador, Martha Argerich.

The appellation, “Political Classical” is this writer’s own proposed genre and one which identifies a series of articles and reviews of music on this blog which I believe fits this definition. And this work fits nicely in that it memorializes a tragedy in the hopes of raising awareness and, hopefully, conveying a lesson and expressing a hope that this little story from history might not be repeated.

What story, you ask? Well the composer’s brief notes tell us that the upright Baldwin piano used only in the final coda of the work was the one used by a then 19 year old girl named Akiko. She was born in Los Angeles to Japanese parents and she and her family moved to Hiroshima when she was six years old. This upright piano was the instrument in her home upon which she practiced her lessons.

On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Though injured, Akiko did make it back from her school to her parents’ home where she died in their arms from acute radiation poisoning. The piano survived but the budding young artist did not.

The concerto is modern but lyrical, a challenge to the soloist, and a fine display of the soloist’s virtuosity. It is cast in one movement with generally identifiable fast and slow sections. The orchestra is kept quite busy throughout until the end. The soloist plays on the concert grand until the last few minutes before the end when she plays on Akiko’s piano, a somber coda, leaving the orchestra and the grand piano behind with their tasks complete. The solo upright brings the work to a rather devastating ending sounding alone, evoking the memory of Akiko.

This is a new twist on the many pieces which have been written decrying the devastation of war and of the atomic bombings which ostensibly brought an end to the war. As the composer notes, there are many “Akikos” in many wars and this work is concerned with the hope that there will be no more.

It is a beautiful concerto, a major addition to Fujikura’s oeuvre and one that moves this writer to want to hear more of this modern Japanese master composer. The music does not appear to have any other obvious references other than the story and the metaphorical use of the upright piano. It is a serious work but one that will forever represent grief at the injustices children suffer at the hands of world politics.

My 2019 in the Arts


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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.

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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.

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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.

The winner for 2019 is:

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Linda Twine (unknown copyright)

Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know

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.

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Fatu Duo

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.

The Three Black Countertenors

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.

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Jenny Q Chai

This concert was an all too brief presentation of some very interesting work.  Quite a pianist too.  File this artist’s name in your “pay attention” category.

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Heavenly Violin and Piano Music by Giya Kancheli 

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.

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Because Isaac Schankler

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.

 

 

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Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s “Klang”

A very different music from that of Schankler listed just above.  But another recording to which I find myself returning.  Thanks to Mr. Eamonn Quinn for turning me on to this one.

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A New Voice for the Accordion

I pretty sure that Gene Pritsker can shoulder at least part of the blame for connecting me with this great new musician  The accordion has come a long way and this guy leads it gently forward.

 

 

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Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety in a new recording

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/

 

 

 

Black Classical Conductors

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.

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Blue Violet Records

Blue Violet Duo

So glad this disc got a little exposure.  Its gorgeous.  This disc of jazz influenced classical Americana unearths some real musical gems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shakuhachi Ecstasy 

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).

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That’s it.  Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.

 

Personal Favorites

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming.  No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Quantum Koh: Jennifer Koh’s “Limitless”


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Watching the flowering career of this wonderful violinist has been both a joy and a labor.  First, the labor: she is so consumed with projects that it is difficult to keep up sometimes.  Second, the joy:  All her projects and recordings are fascinating in concept and satisfying to the attuned listener’s ear and to her collaborators.

So it is with this marvelous 2 disc set from Cedille Records (now celebrating its 30th anniversary as one of the finest independent classical labels) which consists of duos with composers.  She partners with a variety of up and coming composers in this varied but always interesting collection. These sincere and intimate collaborations exude quantum sparks of creative genius.

Eight composers and nine compositions span two discs demonstrating the Chicago native’s eclectic interests and marvelously collaborative nature. These compositions represent some of the cutting edge nature of her repertory choices as well as the respect earned from these composers.

It begins with The Banquet by Qasim Naqvi who is perhaps best known for his post minimalist acoustic group, Dawn of Midi. Here Naqvi works with a modular synthesizer utilizing that instrument’s quirks to create a sort of drone with minimalistic effects created by his exploitation of those quirks (this could even be classified as a species of glitch). Koh’s part interacts in ways that seem quasi improvisational, doubtless the product of close collaborative efforts.

Next are the lovely Sanctuary Songs by Lisa Bielawa, a fine singer whose solfege singing was for years part of the defining sound of the Philip Glass Ensemble. (Koh masterfully played the solo violin dressed in costume in the title role in the recent revival of Einstein on the Beach.)  She comes to us on this disc as a both composer and singer in this lovely cycle.

Bielawa has developed her own compositional voice and this little song cycle is a fine example. Both voice and violin are given challenging roles in exploring this unusual combination of musical timbres.  Bielawa compositional voice is entirely her own and her gift for it is evident in this and all that this writer has heard.  The work is in three short movements.

Du Yun, whose astounding work was recently reviewed here is represented by her voice and violin duo, Give me back my fingerprints.  The link on her name will take the curious listener through this composer’s amazing accomplishments but nothing can prepare the listener for the raw energy that characterizes her work.

Rapidly rising star Tyshawn Sorey uses his amazing ear to create this memoriam for one of his mentors, Muhal Richard Abrams. Sorey uses a glockenspiel as a counterpoint to Koh’s violin in this all too brief memorial piece written on the passing of AACM (a gaggle of brilliant musicians whose grouping reminds this writer of France’s “Le Six”, the “Russian Five”, and the early twentieth century “American Five”) founding member, a truly great composer, collaborator, and performer.  The AACM was founded in Chicago.

I had the pleasure of meeting the genial and quick minded Sorey at OM 17.  The link to my blog review is provided for the curious listener.  The concert took place in 2012.  Here is the shortcut to the Other Minds archival page.  Sorey provides no liner notes perhaps because he has succeeded in saying everything he wanted to say in the music (Koh seems quite appropriately tuned in here.

Nina Young‘s Sun Propeller involves the composer on electronics which interact to some degree with the solo acoustic instrument to extend the range of what the audience hears from the violin.  The title refers to the rays of sun one sees when the sun is behind a cloud and the sunbeams radiate out in glorious fashion.  This serves as a metaphor for the process involved in the composition.  But not to worry, the complexity does not hide the beauty of the music itself.

As if all the preceding weren’t enough there is a second disc continuing this collaboration.  First up is another name new to this writer, Wang Lu .  This Chinese American composer uses electronics alongside acoustic instruments in much of her work.  Her digital sampling reflects the eclectic nature of her world comprising everything from Korean pop to Chinese opera and a host of environmental sounds.  This piece also contains an opportunity for the composer to do some free improvisation as well as provide accompaniment to Koh’s violin part.  It is a dizzying and mind manifesting experience.

Next up is Vijay Iyer.  Iyer is perhaps best known as a jazz pianist and, as such, he is a fine example but his south Asian heritage doubtless has had an influence on him musically though that is but one aspect of his work. The American born Iyer, like many of his generation, mine their and our collective heritages as needed for inspiration. The present composition, “Diamond” also draws from his rich cultural background as it refers to the Buddhist Diamond Sutra and utilizes the structure of that religious parable to create the piece.  It is probably the most conventional sounding work here but that tells the listener little given the wide ranging eclecticism.  It is a piece which gives homage to jazz filtered through the experience and the person that is Vijay Iyer and, in this case, shared with the violinist.

The last composer is Missy Mazzoli, an established American composer.  She is represented by two works, “A Thousand Tongues” and (the now Grammy nominated) “Vespers”.  The composer provides accompaniment with piano and electronics.  The first piece has more the ambiance of a pop song though an avant garde one.  The last piece, the Vespers, feels deeper and more haunting.  Both provide more than adequate writing to keep soloist Koh both busy and happy.  

Indeed this album will keep the astute listener happy for its musical content, its progressive interest in new music, its wonderful soloist and beautiful sound.


 

The Ecstasy of Enjoyment: Sharon Isbin with the Pacifica Quartet


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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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Because Isaac Schankler


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aerocade music

Isaac Schankler billed on their own website as “composer, etc.” clearly has a sense of humor but that characterization is as good as any to describe this composer, performer, teacher, writer.  Suffice it to say it is worth your time to check out that web site.

Schankler’s name and music are new to this writer’s eyes/ears bit it is delightful to make the acquaintance of this artist via the present release.  Three electroacoustic works are presented.  Schankler does the electronics and an array of musicians play the acoustic instruments.

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Isaac Schankler (from the composer’s web site)

The combination of acoustic instruments with electronics (fixed and/or interactive) goes back at least to Edgar Varese and has practitioners which include Mario Davidovsky, David Behrman, Milton Babbitt, and a host of others too numerous to discuss within the scope of this review.  The point is that Schankler seems to be a part of these traditions and has developed a personal way to work with this hybrid medium.

One of the problems this writer has experienced while trying to understand and write meaningfully about electronic music (with or without acoustic instruments) is that textbooks on such music seem to end their surveys in about 1990.  Add to that the fact that electronic music, once a category banished to a sort of appendix in the days of the Schwann Catalog, has now acquired multiple meanings.  Electronic music now apparently includes dance music, dark ambient musings reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream, individual experiments typified by artists like David Lee Myers and Kim Cascone, and the original meaning with work by pioneers like Subotnick, Luening, Babbitt, etc.

This disc would have been listed in that little appendix I mentioned earlier if it had been released in the 70s or so.  It is, in this listener’s mind, classical electronic music.  Perhaps one could dance to it but it seems to be written with the intent of presenting musical ideas and highlighting the musical skills of performers on their acoustic instruments.  This one is best heard with headphones and serious attention.

The first track is Because Patterns/Deep State (2019) is a sort of reworking of two earlier pieces Because Patterns (2015) for prepared piano duo (Ray/Kallay Duo) and The Deep State (2017) for double bass and electronics.  There is an interview on Schankler’s website that discusses the composer’s processes in each piece and the reasons for combining the two into the present form.  The solo parts, such as they are, are performed by Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray on keyboards and Scott Worthington on double bass (curiously the soloists were recorded in different studios).

From a listener’s perspective one of the most striking things was how deeply embedded the solo performers are.  This is like a concerto grosso in which the instruments are more embedded in the texture.  It is a complex piece which demands the listener’s attention but ultimately rewards said listener in a musically satisfying way.  In short, your reviewer has only the faintest grasp of the processes involved but appreciates the end product.  At about 25 minutes this is a commitment but one worth tackling.

Mobile I (2009) is written for violin and electronics (interactive) and is described by the composer as an audio analogue of mobile sculpture.  Think Calder set to music perhaps.  Again regardless of the process the main concern for the listener is whether the result actually entertains. Here, where the soloist (Sakura Tsai) is more at the forefront, it is easier to hear the interactive nature of the music as the gestures of the violin are responded to by the electronics.  It is a form of call and response with the soloist in the lead and the electronics answering.

The third and final track is Future Feelings (2018) commissioned and premiered by Nadia Shpachenko and, according to the composer’s website was the result of experiments seeking pleasing sounds for the composer’s first child.  This is not a lullaby but rather a working out of ideas.  It works as a concert piece as intended but is probably not going to make its way onto a “soothing sounds for babies” CD any time soon.

This digital and vinyl release semis to have precious little in the way of notes to guide the listener but this label aerocade can be forgiven on the strength of their choices in repertoire and quality of recorded sound and the composer’s website is nicely designed and informative. Their release of the Post-Haste Duo was reviewed most favorably in these pages earlier and a quick scan of the label’s website suggests that this label (established by Meerenai Shim , who also did the lovely design of the cover, this is the 11th release of a label that deserves the attention of new music fanciers).  Links are provided for the interested listener, all of which will lead to a better understanding and will serve as a guide to find similarly interesting and creative music.

Other Minds 24, Concert Three, Reviving the Music of a Forgotten Master


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Photo: Ebbe Yovino-Smith

The staging was simple and practical but nonetheless imposing for this third and last OM 24 concert series.  Imagine four Steinway concert grand pianos arranged in a semicircle with a conductor and a music stand at the apex.  The heavy black curtain at the back served to emphasize the instruments and the musicians in a visually standard concert presentation.

jimcallahan

But, and this is significant, pianos 2 and 4 (looking stage left to stage right) had been tuned down 1/4 step.  I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Callahan of Piedmont Pianos (who provided the instruments for this event).  When I inquired about this he replied quickly and authoritatively, “From stage left to right, pianos 1 and 3 are A 440 (concert pitch) and the others are tuned down 1/4 step.  When there are two pianos the one stage left is concert pitch and the one on the right tuned down.”

If you have any familiarity with the piano keyboard you know that there are black keys and white keys which correspond to the twelve divisions of the octave (from middle C to C) common to most western music.  A quarter tone is half way from the note you hear when you hit a white key and the note you hear if you hit the adjacent black key.  Ivan Wyschnegradsky was not the first person to seek more divisions to create the sound he sought.  1/4 tones are common in some middle eastern cultures but not seen in western music much before the twentieth century.

Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979) was a Russian born composer who spent much of his creative years in Paris.  It was there that tonight’s producer, Charles Amirkhanian and his wife Carol Law met him and learned of his work.  This concert along with the first OM 24 concert heard in March by the Arditti String Quartet (reviewed here) constitute a lovely revival of this unjustly forgotten composer as well as a personal connection to this “missing link” in music history.

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Charles Amirkhanian addressing the small but enthusiastic audience.

While some of this composer’s work uses the conventional western music scales (examples were present in this concert) his extensive work with other tunings necessarily limited performances of his music.  That, along with his rhythmic complexities, limited the amount of performances he would be able to receive.  One hopes that these concerts will spur further interest in his work.

The program booklet, prepared under the direction of Other Minds production director Mark Abramson, contains a wealth of information, knowledge and photographs.  You can download a PDF file of the program here.  It is a gorgeous production loaded with information for further exploration.

One might have expected 1/4 tones to create a very dissonant harmony but the surprise tonight was that the harmonies sounded like an extension of the work of Debussy and the impressionist composers.  Rather than harsh sounds, much of this music comes across like an impressionist painting might sound if it were music.  Tuning is a whole subject unto itself and a good resource can be found in the web pages by another Other Minds alumnus, Kyle Gann.  His extensive information on the subject can be found here.

The concert opened with Cosmos Op. 28 (1939-40, rev. 1945) for 4 pianos.  It is unusual to see a conductor at a multiple piano concert but the logistics of performance required a conductor to guide them through the complexities of rhythm and even the complex use of sustain pedals.  The pianists Sarah Gibson, Thomas Kotcheff, Vicki Ray, and Steven Vanhauwaert were ably led by conductor Donald Crockett.  This was a US premiere.

Overall the music has echoes of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Debussy, and Schoenberg (from his pre 12 tone days).  This large work, according to the program notes, does not have a specific program, rather it is a grand exploration of densities and registers. It does have a cinematic quality that suggests a program.

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Martine Joste receives a bouquet as Donald Crockett looks on.

Next on the program was Étude sur le carré Op. 40 (1934, rev. 1960-70) for solo piano (another US premiere).  The French title translates as “Study on the Musical Magic Square”.  It is a reference to the structure of the piece which involves repetitions of melodic sequences analogous to the magic square with words or numbers.  What is important is the musicality of course and Martine Joste played it with passion and intensity providing the audience with a performance that sounds absolutely definitive.  Her amazing technique at the keyboard and her focus on this music truly brought life to this technically difficult piece.

Joste is a master pianist and president of the Association Ivan Wyschnegradsky and has been active in the performance of contemporary music along with the better known classical canon of works.  She would appear in the second half of the program.

If you are exploring the limits of composition with a new technique it makes sense to write some music that will demonstrate that technique.  Much as Bach wrote his Well Tempered Clavier to showcase the (now standard) well tempered tuning.  So Wyschnegradsky composed his 24 Preludes Op. 22a (1934 rev. 1960-70) to demonstrate his ideas.

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Shot of the two piano stage set up.  Remember the concert pitch instrument is stage left.

It was from this collection that we next heard Preludes Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19, 20, 23, and 24 played by the performing duo Hocket.  As if they are not busy enough as solo pianists (and composers in their own right) Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff perform as a duo.  The link to their work in that area can provide more information,

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Sarah Gibson (l) and Thomas Kotcheff (r) performing as the Hocket Duo

They managed to navigate the complexities of these pieces nimbly, as though they had been playing them all their lives.  It certainly sparked this listener’s curiosity about the remaining preludes which we did not hear on this night.

Again the 1/4 tones sounded strange to western ears at times but never really harsh.

Following intermission the usual OM raffle of various prizes were drawn.  As if the fates intervened the colorful Ivan Wyschnegradsky clock went to master microtonalist John Schneider, another OM alumnus.  This clock is available in the Other Minds Store along with a cache of really interesting CDs, clothing, etc.

The four pianists, Gibson, Kotcheff, Ray, and Vanhauwaert again teamed up for a performance of Étude sur les mouvements rotatoires, Op. 45 (1961, rev. 1963).  This time they performed without a conductor.  Here the magic square becomes a magic octagon, at least metaphorically.  This is another example of using extramusical principles applied to organize music differently.  And again, as in the previous pieces, the harmonies were friendly and actually quite beautiful.

Mme. Joste returned to the stage for a solo performance (and the third US premiere) of Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 38:  Prelude (1957), Elévation (1964), and Solitude (1959).  Again we were treated to virtuosity and a seemingly definitive performance.  The title puts one in the mind of Schoenberg and his voice, along with that of Messiaen, Debussy, et al were present.  What was striking was her energetic and fluid performance which made the notes on the page (Joste performed from traditional paper scores, not the iPads used by the others) come alive in a delightful way.

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The stage had to be reconfigured for the final piece, another 4 piano work which took perhaps a minute or two.  Mr. Crockett again led these young and enthusiastic performers in Ainsi parlait Zarathustra, an early work which was originally written for a quarter tone piano played by six hands(such things do exist), a quarter tone harmonium (4 hands), a quarter tone clarinet, string ensemble, and percussion.  This score has been lost but we heard the 4 piano transcription tonight.  It is a sprawling work with four defined sections much like a symphony.  The movements are titled Tempo Giusto, Scherzando, Lento, and Allegro con fuoco.

This piece takes its title from the same Nietszsche novel that inspired Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or, in English, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”.  Only Wyschnegradsky’s Zarathustra seems more pained and less the romantic hero of Strauss’ 1896 orchestral work.

Wyschnegradsky’s piece is virtually a symphony and, though one can scarcely imagine how the now lost orchestration might have sounded, there was still a grand romantic sweep to it.  With a scherzo worthy of Bruckner the piece was a coherent whole with the last movement recapitulating, if not literally, the spirit of the fire dance that ended the first movement.  This was also a premiere and surely another definitive performance of a true masterpiece.

On this night we witnessed nothing short of a resurrection of the art of a very important 20th century composer.  The audience, like the performers were enthusiastic in their response.

Mariel Roberts’ Cartography: New Cello Music


This is another of those releases that is functionally a business card if you will. By that I mean that I’m finding a fair amount of solo instrumental discs (some with electronics, like this one, some not) in which the artist demonstrates their skill with their instrument but, more importantly, their familiarity and facility with the segment of the repertoire they embrace.  Actually this is the second such album from this artist, the previous (yet unheard by this listener) having been released in 2012.

Mariel Roberts is one of those New York based musicians whose milieu puts her in contact with the cutting edge (at least in New York) of modern composition.  Roberts has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across four continents, most notably as a member of the Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Bang on a Can All Stars, and Ensemble Signal. Her skills and her talent seem boundless.

Here she features four rather large works for cello, solo, with piano, and/or with electronics.  The composers featured include: George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson, and a collaborative work she wrote with Cenk Ergun.  Not the usual suspects but a panoply of interesting and creative composers.

Rather than attempt any analysis of the works presented here let me just say that all require a high level of virtuosity. An essential aspect of this virtuosity is whatever coordination is required of the soloist interacting with electronics. The lack of detailed liner notes make it difficult to know the nature of this interaction but one can certainly enjoy the resulting performance even without those details.

This is NOT easy listening by any means but it is a tasty sampling of some truly creative music for the right ears. Multiple listenings will be needed but the listener will be rewarded for their effort.

 

A Wonderful Survey of Helmut Lachenmann via his Clarinet Music


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New Focus FCR 196

Helmut Lachenmann (1935- ) is a composer who has been “on my radar” for some years now but, like a lot of names I get, I had yet to hear much of his music.  Along comes Gregory Oakes  from, of all places, Iowa.  The Midwest in the United States doesn’t have much of a reputation for embracing the avant garde (though they actually do).  So into the CD player goes this one and…wow, I really need to hear more Lachenmann and whoever this Oakes guy is I want to pay attention to what he is doing with that clarinet.
Admittedly this disc languished a bit before I heard it but I am now glad I did.

This disc consists of only three tracks comprising three works by this major German composer from three different periods in his career.  Dal Niente (Interiur III), Trio Fluido, and Allegro Sostenuto.

Dal Niente (1970) is for solo clarinet and, as the title prescribes, the music is to be played as “from nothing” the meaning of the title.  In fact this seems to be practically a textbook of extended techniques for the clarinet.  But far from being a dull accounting of dry techniques, this is a tour de force which will challenge the skills of even the most experienced players.  It is quite musical and listenable but the virtuosity will knock your socks off.  Oakes pulls it off with a deceptive ease that demonstrates his rather profound knowledge of his instrument.  It is easy to see the seeming cross pollination between the avant garde and free jazz here.

Next up is Trio Fluido (1966-68) which is a respectably avant garde trio for clarinet, viola, and percussion with Matthew Coley, percussion, and Jonathan Sturm, viola.  Like the previous work this one is also about extended techniques (for all three instruments this time).  This is a fine example of mid-twentieth century modernism and deserves a place in the repertoire.  All three musicians are challenged to play their instruments in unconventional ways and the effect is almost like some of the electronic music of the era.  It is a complex and pointillistic texture that has a strong and serious content.

Finally Allegro Sostenuto (1986-88) is another trio, this time for clarinet, cello, and piano.  So while this work would make a fine companion work to the Brahms clarinet trio the work is unambiguously avant garde in the finest Darmstadt traditions.  It is, at about 30 minutes, the longest piece here and it reflects the further maturity of the composer as he creates another challenging but almost surprisingly satisfying work.

This album serves as a nice way to be introduced to Helmut Lachenmann and to get to know some major new champions of the avant garde.  And one would do well to stay informed about the work being done by this fine new music clarinetist.

 

A Major Peter Garland Work


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The Whole Earth Catalog turned 50 this year.  It was in the 1980 edition of this classic publication that this writer stumbled across and embraced a small article which listed, “A Basic 10 Records of American Composers”.  It was written by one Peter Garland and forever influenced most of my subsequent listening choices and purchases.  For the record they are:

The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles (recently released on CD Other Minds OM 1020-21-2)

Piano Music of Henry Cowell (Folkways FM 3349)

Ameriques, Arcana, Ionisation by Edgar Varese (Columbia M 34552)

Peaens, Stars, Granites: Music by Dane Rudhyar and Ruth Crawford Seeger (CRI  S 247)

Ives: Three Places in New England, Copland: Appalachian Spring (Sound 80 DLR 101)

Music of Silvestre Revueltas (RCA)

Conlon Nancarrow: Complete Studies for Player Piano (Other Minds CD 1012-1015-2)

Lou Harrison: Pacifika Rondo and other works (Desto DC 6478)

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury (Columbia M2 30576)

John Cage: Three Dances for Two Pianos, Steve Reich: Four Organs (Angel S 36059)

And I start here to illustrate the range of this still too little known composer, musicologist, writer, musician.  Peter Garland (1952- ) doesn’t even have a dedicated website as of this writing and this list helps to put him in a context.  But a quick look at Google, Wikipedia, and Baker’s Biographical Dictionary will confirm that Garland is indeed a prolific composer as well as an accomplished and dedicated musicologist. The list of albums reflect far ranging tastes and interests. That 1980 article serves to reflect how his scholarship reached effectively beyond academia and reached a much wider audience and the same wide embrace is slowly being realized about his musical output.

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Peter Garland

He studied at Cal Arts with James Tenney and Harold Budd.  He started Soundings Press after attending a workshop with Dick Higgins.  Soundings press published articles by Garland and other musicologists.  Garland has focused on Native American and Latin American indigenous musics and is regarded as an expert in these areas.  Hie own music employs a variety of styles including minimalism and some use of folk melodies but he doesn’t really sound like anyone else.

His compositions almost seem secondary to his academic pursuits and, despite tantalizing descriptions of Garland’s performances in places like EAR magazine his music was hard to come by for some time. There have been a few recordings and, for those who don’t know his work, here is a little discography:

  • 1982 Matachin Dances (EP, Cold Blue)
  • 1986 Peñasco Blanco (Cold Blue, reissued on Nana + Victorio, 1993)
  • 1992 Border Music (¿What Next?, reissued on OO Disc, 2002)
  • 1992 Walk in Beauty (New Albion)
  • 1993 Nana + Victorio (Avant)
  • 2000 The Days Run Away (Tzadik)
  • 2002 Another Sunrise (Mode)
  • 2005 Love Songs (Tzadik)
  • 2008 Three Strange Angels (Tzadik) reissue of Border Music expanded with live recordings
  • 2009 String Quartets (Cold Blue)
  • 2011 Waves Breaking on Rocks (New World)
  • 2015 After the Wars (Cold Blue) EP with Sarah Cahill
  • 2017 The Birthday Party (New World)

Fortunately there are a few record producers who have recognized Garland’s talents.  And it should come as no surprise that these producers are of the independent label variety.  Starkland Records is indeed one of those independents with a reliable nose/ear for good new music and have chosen to record a major opus, The Landscape Scrolls.

This choice embodies much of what is great about Peter Garland.  In this work we get exposed to his scholarship of the stories and symbols of the scrolls as well as some insight to his interest in experimental and unusual instruments.  This is in fact a percussion piece but not the percussion music of your mother’s generation.

Commissioned by and dedicated to percussionist John Lane, The Landscape Scrolls (2010-2011) depicts the 24-hour day cycle in five movements. Garland remarks the work was influenced by Indian ragas, Japanese haiku poetry, and, especially, the famous Landscape Scroll of the Four Seasons by Japan’s 15th century painter Sesshu.

Each of the five movements is a metaphorical monochromatic study, more about resonance and space than melody or harmony: mid-day (Chinese drums); afternoon (rice bowls); after dark (triangles); late (glockenspiel); early morning (tubular bells). Garland notes that, after the fact, he was likely influenced by his fascination with the single-tonal color paintings of Barnett Newman.

John Luther Adams, himself a composer of some significant percussion music lately, provides most of the lucid liner notes.  Clearly Garland is respected by his fellow artists.  This release provides a fine opportunity to get to know this American master through this major opus.  As usual the Starkland production is very well recorded and sounds great.  This one was really done right.

 

Douglas Boyce New and Exciting Chamber Music


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The rather plain cover belies the contents of this album of exciting and powerful chamber music.  This is billed as a “sampler” album and it contains three works by Douglas Boyce (1970- ).  He is a founding member, curator, and composer-in-residence of counter)induction, a composer/performer collective active in the New York region.  He also has experience playing in various punk bands.

Boyce holds a B.A. in Physics and Music from Williams College, an M.M. from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1999).  He has studied with George Crumb, James Primosch, Kathryn Alexander, Robert Kyr, Judith Weir, Ladislav Kubik and Robert Suderburg.  He currently serves as Associate Professor of Music at the George Washington University in Washington, DC.

All this gives only the faintest hint of what his music sounds like.  In the three works represented here the listener will notice some influence of Bartok and mid-century modernism.  The first work “102nd and Amsterdam” (2005)  reflects a composer well schooled in writing for string instruments.  This piece is a string trio played by members of the Aeolus Quartet (Rachel Shapiro, violin; Greg Luce, viola; Alan Richardson, cello) and they are given a great deal to do.  This is an energetic piece which engages the listener immediately and doesn’t really let go until the end some 14 plus minutes later.

The writing is virtuosic and the variety of techniques employed in his string writing are engaging and never seem gratuitous (i.e. extended techniques because I can).  Despite multiple glissandi and other string effects the work, like the others on the album, are basically using the tonal language common to most western music.  This is seriously engaging and masterfully developed music.  It hooked this listener immediately.

The second work is Piano Quartet No. 1 (2009).  This is an even more visceral work true to Bartokian esthetics.  In its relatively brief 8 plus minutes the listener is taken on a virtuosic journey by the musicians of counter)induction (Jessica Meyer, viola; Sumire Kudo, cello; Steve Beck, piano)  They are joined by the wonderful Miranda Cuckson who steps out of her soloist role and moves deftly into this chamber group as the finest musicians can do.  Boyce cites influences as diverse as Robert Fripp and King Crimson but the details of that are not necessarily clear to this writer nor is it necessary to the appreciation of the work.  It is a powerful and exciting piece of chamber music.  This work left this listener a bit tired by the end (it is quite a workout) but the same ability to sustain interest and attention which applied to the first work is also present here.

Finally the Trio Cavatina (Harumi Rhodes, violin; Priscilla Lee, cello; leva Jokubaviciute, piano) presents a reading of the four movement “Fortuitous Variations” (2014).  This most recent composition is the big work on this disc.  The underpinnings, if you will, involve philosophical ideas and are elaborated well by the composer on his web site but, like the influences of the previous work, the music stands very well on it’s own.

There are four movements which seem to correspond (at least roughly) to the sonata form commonly used in such works.  Each maintains it’s character as said variations are rolled out and, as in the previous works, sustains interest easily.  This is perhaps a more ponderous work which is less direct than the previous two pieces but this most recent composition no doubt reflects the composer’s development and time will tell what direction his work will take.  There is, however, a sense that the composer has developed a personal style and is cultivating it.  Give a listen.

Most will want to hear these works multiple times.  This reviewer managed to find three separate drives which allowed uninterrupted listening to the entire disc and I know those three won’t be the last.

Josh Modney’s “Engage”, New Music for Violin Solo and Not Solo


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New Focus FCR 211

This is an awesome undertaking.  I recall when pop musicians were cautioned that it may be unwise to release a so called “double album” for fear that their inspiration (or talent) may not be up to the task.  Well here comes Josh Modney violinist and Executive Director of the Wet Ink Ensemble , a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and a performer with the Mivos Quartet for eight years.  This 3 CD set is his solo violin debut album.  And what an album it is.  There is no lack of talent, skill, or imagination here.  This is essentially three faces of Josh Modney a sort of sonic CV.

The first disc features four tracks of music by contemporary composers for violin with soprano, piano, and/or electronics.  All four are fairly recent compositions:  Sam Pluta’s “Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit (2011), Taylor Brook’s “Vocalise” (2009), Kate Soper’s “Cipher” (2011), and Anthony Braxton’s “Composition No. 22” (1998).All of these are challenging for the musicians and none are easy listening but all demonstrate aspects of Modney’s skills as a musician

The second disc features J. S. Bach’s “Ciacona” or “Chaconne” (1720) from the second violin partita.  But this is not just another performance of this towering masterwork of the solo violin repertoire.  Modney has chosen to perform it in just intonation.  Now how’s that for versatile?

The effect is subtle and may even be lost on some listeners but fanciers of Bach and alternate tunings will likely find this to be anywhere from mildly interesting to revelatory.  It is a fine performance and it is interesting to hear it in just intonation and amazing to know that this performer has this uncommon skill of playing accurately in an alternate tuning on the violin.

Filling out the second disc is a piece by pianist Eric Wubbels, “the children of fire come looking for fire” (2012).  This is a very different piece and I’m not sure why it was paired with the Bach except that it fit the available space.  Wubbels contribution is a sort of electroacoustic collage.

The third (and last) disc is of solo violin compositions by Josh Modney.  Again we move into contemporary and experimental compositions which reflect Modney’s skill with the instrument as well as his insights into it’s potentials.  Again there are no echoes of Bach here but rather more of the experimental/avant garde/free jazz style which dominates this album.  The solo violin repertoire is not huge so it is reasonable to assume that these little gems will find a place there.

This is a lovely production with striking cover art and excellent sound.  If you like cutting edge violin music you will have a wonderful time with these discs.  And if you’re looking for a wildly skilled and imaginative musician check this set out and get ready to be wowed.

 

 

300 Years of Virtuosity, Liza Stepanova’s Tones and Colors


stepanova

Concert Artist Guild CAG 120

This is the solo piano debut of this talented and incredibly virtuosic artist.  This hard working pianist can be heard on a previous CD (After a Dream) with the Lysander Piano Trio.  Her web site can provide a good idea of the range of solo, chamber, and orchestral music in her repertory.

This CD is a good example of creating a brand, a practice which seems to be the current rage especially among artists who specialize in new music.  I have previously commented on the brands of pianists like Sarah Cahill, Kathleen Supové, Nicolas Horvath, and Stephane Ginsburgh to name a few.  All are amazing musicians but each seems to have been able to carve out an identifiable niche which sets them apart from each other and defines their various artistic missions.  Granted these are soft definitions in that they do not preclude them from playing anything they choose but it gives audiences a sort of general idea of what to expect when they do a program.

Liza Stepanova appears to have chose virtuosity as her signature.  She plays what sounds like fingerbreakingly difficult music with both ease and expressiveness.  Here she chooses to basically survey virtuosity from J. S. Bach to György  Ligeti.  In addition she has chosen to pair each composition with an analogous piece of visual art.

The pairing of music and visual art is as old as dirt and has always seemed to have an inherent validity.  Tone poems like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy’s Clair de Lune are familiar examples of music as a visual analog.  But music sometimes suggests pictures even if it was not the stated intent of the composer too.  Stepanova covers the visual territory from the representative to the abstract in this entertaining collection.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this recording is the pianist’s choice of music.  She does go with the familiar at times such as Debussy’s Goldfish but the majority of this disc contains music that is seldom heard by lesser known composers such as Maurice Ohana (1913-1992), Joaquin Turina (1882-1949), Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), and Lionel Feininger (1871-1956).  There are better known names such as Enrique Granados (1867–1916), Bohuslav Martinú and Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938).  And the most familiar names such as J. S. Bach (1885-1750), Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Claude Debussy (1862-1918), George Crumb (1929- ), and György Ligeti (1923-2006).

There are 13 tracks grouped into 4 visual art themes (A Spanish Room, Nature and Impressionism, Conversations Across Time, and Wagner, Infinity, and an Encore).  The only problem I have here is the photos of the art (which thankfully are included in the little booklet) are necessarily small and really don’t give the consumer the full intended effect.  One would do well to obtain some art books or some larger prints of these to gain the intended effect.

I won’t go into detail about each individual piece.  Suffice it to say that they are all technically challenging and intelligently chosen pieces.  This is a very entertaining program from this emerging artist.

This reviewer is given to speculation as to Stepanova’s next release.  Perhaps Sorabji with some Dada works?  Whatever it is will doubtless be as interesting and entertaining as this disc.  Brava, Ms. Stepanova!