My 2018 in the Arts


One of the Theater Organs at House on the Rock, Spring Green, WI, a really fun place to visit.


I’m skeptical about year end lists but I have enough people asking me that it would be impertinent to skip this task. I make no claims to having even listened to enough to make any definitive statements about the “best” but I have my own quirky criteria which I hope at least stirs interest. Here goes.

Let’s start with the most read reviews. Without a doubt the prize here goes to Tim Brady’s “Music for Large Ensemble”. This reviewer was enthralled by this recording by this Canadian musician whose work needs to be better known.

This little gem was sent to me by a producer friend and I liked it immediately. I knew none of these composers but I enjoyed the album tremendously. Don’t let the unusual name “Twiolins” stop you. This is some seriously good music making. It is my sleeper of the year.

Running close behind the Twiolins is the lovely album of post minimalist miniatures by the wonderful Anne Akiko Meyers. Frequently these named soloist albums of miniatures are targeted at a “light music” crowd. Well this isn’t light music but it is quite listenable and entertaining.


The creative programming and dedicated playing made this a popular review to New Music Buff readers. Definitely want to hear more from the Telegraph Quartet.

Another disc sent by my friend Joshua. This one is a DVD/CD combo of music by a composer whose existence was only revealed to me a couple of years ago. Marin includes a clever animated video which accompanies the title track.

I was fortunate enough to have been able to hear Terry Riley and Gloria Cheng in an all Terry Riley program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Both were in spectacular form and the audience was quite pleased.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include the fabulous 6 night series of concerts produced by Other Minds. This is why I am a rabid advocate of OM programs. More on that soon with OM 24 coming up.

And lastly I want to tell you about two more composers who are happily on my radar.

One of the joys of reviewing CDs is the discovery of new artists to follow. Harold Meltzer is now in that group for me. This basically tonal composer has a real feel for writing for the voice and has turned out some seriously interesting chamber music.

Another composer unknown to these ears. I bristle at the term “electroacoustic” because it sometimes means experimental or bad music. Not so here. Moe is fascinating. Definitely worth your time.

OK, gonna can the objectivity here to say that this is possibly the most underappreciated album I’ve heard this year. Combining a recording of the Debussy Preludes along with Schoenberg’s rarely heard “Hanging Gardens”, Webern’s Variations, and Berg’s Piano Sonata creates a picture of a moment in history when music moved from impressionism to expressionism. Jacob Greenberg is very much up to the task. Buy this one and listen, please. It’s wonderful.

Also beyond objectivity is this fascinating major opus by Kyle Gann. It didn’t get much recognition on my blog but it’s a major work that deserves your attention if you like modern music.

Well this is one of my favorite reviews in terms of the quality of my writing. The work is most wonderful as well. Though this review was actually published on December 31st I’m still including it in my 2018.

This is definitely cheating on my part but after that concert at Yerba Buena I can’t resist making folks aware of this wonderful set on the independent label, “Irritable Hedgehog”. Trust me, if you like Riley, you need this set.

I review relatively few books on this site but by far the most intriguing and important book that has made it across my desk to this blog is Gay Guerilla. The efforts of Mary Jane Leach, Renee Levine Packer, Luciano Chessa, and others are now helping to establish an understanding of this composer who died too young. Here’s looking forward to next year.

I know I have left out a great deal in this quirky year end selection but I hope that I have not offended anyone. Peace and music to all.

Harold Meltzer: Wonderful New Chamber Music on Bridge


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Bridge 9513

This is the second Harold Meltzer (1966- ) disc to come across my desk in the last two months or so.  This time he is heard on the venerable Bridge label which produces a great deal of quality recordings of new and recent music.  This one contains four works spread over 15 tracks and, like his previous CD, includes some vocal music alongside two chamber music pieces without voice.

Meltzer seems to be one of a generation of composers who have absorbed many of the vast styles and methods which flowered in the twentieth century.  He is not easy to categorize except as a composer.  There are in his music gestures and ideas that span neo-romanticism, minimalism, etc. but he has a distinctive and very affecting style.

Meltzer’s ability to write for the human voice and these songs put this reviewer in the mind of composers like Ned Rorem.  I’m not saying he exactly sounds like Rorem, just that he is as effective in his writing.  Stylistically there is at times an almost impressionist feel in these songs and, while the piano accompaniment is wonderful, they almost beg to be orchestrated.

There are two song cycles on this disc, the first setting poems of Ted Hughes (Bride of the Island, 2016) and the second setting poems by Ohio poet James Wright (Beautiful Ohio, 2010).  Tenor Paul Appleby had his work cut out for him and he delivers wonderful performances with a voice that is well suited to lieder but clearly with operatic ability as well.  Pianist Natalya Katyukova handles the intricate accompaniments with deceptive ease in these cycles.

There are two chamber works on this disc.  The first is Aqua (2011-12) which is inspired by the architecture of the so-called Aqua building in Chicago by architect Jeanne Gang.  In a city known for its fine architecture this 2007 building manages to stand out in its uniqueness.  Need I say that his piece suggests impressionism.  It’s string writing is complex with a vast mixture of effects that, under the interpretive skill of the Avalon String Quartet, suggest movement in much the way the building itself does.  This is genius, the ability to mix all these string techniques into a coherent whole.  It is a basically tonal work and it is seriously engaging but listener friendly in the end.  

The second chamber work is a piece written for the 50th anniversary of the death of legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler.  As it happens the Library of Congress, who commissioned the piece, owns Kreisler’s Guarneri violin and it is they who commissioned this work.  Miranda Cuckson does the honors on violin ably accompanied by the trustworthy Blair McMillen.  To be sure some of Kreisler’s style is used here but this work, “Kreisleriana” (2012) comes across as more than an homage, more a work informed by Kreisler.  It’s a really entertaining piece too.

Thanks in particular to Bridge Records for releasing this.  Bridge is one of those labels whose every release deserves at least a bit of attention.  This time I think they’ve found a fascinating voice in Meltzer’s works.  Now how about some orchestral work?

Gloria Cheng and Terry Riley Rock the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts


Ritorna vincitor!  I paraphrase from Verdi’s Aida but Charles Amirkhanian introduced this concert telling us that Other Minds held its first concert here 25 years ago.  Indeed this was a victorious return (though the first visit was also victorious)  featuring, as Amirkhanian correctly emphasized, musicians with a decidedly west coast aesthetic. In fact Mr. Riley was on the board of the nascent Other Minds organization founded under the loving and watchful eyes of Jim Newman (now president emeritus) and Charles Amirkhanian, executive and artistic director.

Charles Amirkhanian, 25 years later and going strong with Other Minds.

Gloria Cheng is a California native and is now professor of contemporary performance at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.  She is a Grammy winning artist and has, for many years now, been a champion of Terry Riley’s music among many others.  

Cheng deeply focused.

Terry Riley (1935- ) is also born and educated in the Golden State and is a world renowned composer and performer.  His 1964 piece, “In C” pretty much represents the beginning of the “minimalist” style and remains his most performed work.

Terry Riley at 84 still going strong as both composer and performer.

This was your reviewer’s first time hearing Ms. Cheng live and it is an experience not to be missed.  Cheng’s command of the piano and of the wide range of musical styles she demonstrated on this night was nothing short of stunning.  In particular her command of the varying styles that are Terry Riley including ragtime, barrel house, jazz, classical, modernism, virtuosic romanticism, etc.  In addition to that she demonstrated a truly profound command of the keyboard which left the audience so deeply enthralled that they (we) almost forgot to applaud.  

The concert began with Ms. Cheng’s performance of Riley’s early Two Pieces for Piano (1958-59).  Here she seemed to be channeling Pierre Boulez and that whole school of post-Darmstadt pointillism with an ever present sense of trying to maintain equality for each of the twelve tones used in these pieces.

The uninitiated might have been put off by these early pre-minimalist works that are not generally the sound image conjured by the composer’s name.  Rather they represent Riley’s grasp of and subsequent working through of this material that preceded the compositional insights that characterize his mature style.  As a serious fan of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a useful source for a metaphor.  On this 50th anniversary of  that film’s debut it seems that Riley, like astronaut David Bowman, steps through the star gate and is transformed beyond even his own wild and creative imagination.

By all appearances this audience seemed to be well-prepared and, as the young man who won the little drawing at intermission stated (I’m paraphrasing), Terry Riley’s concerts are always a good bet.  While  there may have been people who knew less it is clear that no one was less than entertained and many, this writer included, were positively delighted.

The next work, “The Walrus In Memoriam” (1991 rev. 1994) was originally commissioned for Aki Takahashi, one of several pieces based on Beatles tunes, this one a sort of elegy for John Lennon (1940-1980).  The CD is well worth seeking for its creative music and Takahashi is always worth hearing.

As if building to a climax, Cheng really put her performance into high gear with the next set of pieces from 1994 entitled, “The Heaven Ladder Book Seven”.  Don’t get me wrong, she was focused and in fine form for those first three pieces but when she sat down to perform the Heaven Ladder pieces one could feel an intensity such that the audience seemed hypnotized, paying attention to Cheng’s every gesture.  Despite a few stifled coughs (no doubt residue from our recent awful fires here) the audience was laser focused on this performer as she made Riley’s charming pieces come alive.

Intermission was an opportunity to stretch our legs and breathe again knowing that when we returned we would be hearing both Cheng and Riley.  It was a gathering of like minds for the most part and many people validated some of my perceptions that Cheng had transfixed the audience.  

During intermission there was more talk about the upcoming Other Minds 24 with programs scheduled on March 23rd and June 15 and 16.  More on that in future blogs.  And now on to the second half of the concert.

Terry Riley’s energy belies his age.  Riley will turn 84 in June and continues to compose, perform and travel extensively.  And when he sits down at the piano he is magical.

Riley opened with “Simply M” (2007) written in honor of the late Margaret Lyon, a longtime chair of the Mills College Music Department and one of the people who brought Terry Riley there to teach composition.  She had previously presided over teaching tenures by Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud.

The music had a quasi-improvisational feel (like much of Riley’s music) but channeled classical composers along with ragtime, jazz, ragas, and Riley’s usual eclectic mix of styles.  It was a free flowing piece going through abrupt changes in character at different points but the piece seems to rely on some basic classical composition techniques which function as a sort of scaffolding or mold into which the composer pours his creative ideas.  The piece was highly virtuosic but gave off a charming hypnotic flow.

He acknowledged the appreciative applause and moved right into the second piece on this half, “Requiem for Wally” (1997).  This piece is written as a memorial for Riley’s ragtime piano mentor, Wally Rose.  In the very useful notes, Riley states that he combines elements of ragtime with the Hindustani Raga Nat Bhairav.  In this piece we got to hear Riley’s distinctive tenor trained in raga singing by the late Pandit Pran Nath.  It is this ability to combine and synthesize various musics into a coherent style which this audience clearly knows well, Terry Riley.

Following these performances Riley left the stage and came back joined by Gloria Cheng again for the newest music of this evening, “Cheng Tiger Growl Roar” (2018).  It is, by the composer’s description, a four movement suite.  Like much of Riley’s music, it involves both notated and improvised material.  

Riley’s musical training has always involved a great deal of improvisation and that is true in this work.  Cheng, a classically trained pianist, mentions feeling challenged by Riley’s music as it asks her to move out of her comfort zone as an artist.  Well, except for Cheng mentioning this in her notes, there was no evidence of discomfort on the part of either artist.  They played as though they had always played together and their playing was ecstatic suggesting the depth of both artists’ grasp of the material and the affection they shared performing this piece for piano four hands.

Composer Terry Riley warmly greets fellow pianist Gloria Cheng at the end of a wonderful evening of Riley’s piano music from the last 50 years.

The audience, with their laser focus still intact, came out of their trance to share their warm applause.  What a transcendent evening!  What amazing artists!

Tim Brady: Music for Large Ensemble


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Starkland ST-230

Two years ago Starkland released Instruments of Happiness which was this writer’s introduction to this artist.  As a result I traversed the wall of artistic apartheid and ordered more of his work through the Canadian Music Centre.  This is an important and well organized site for anyone interested in Canadian classical artists.  (Hint: there are a lot of good composers up that way.)

Tim Brady (1956- ) is a Canadian composer and musician who is best known for his work with multiple guitar ensembles (from 4 to 200).  Of course knowledgeable listeners will logically place him in the category of “composers who write for lots of guitars” category.  Rhys Chatham and the late Glenn Branca come to mind as probably the best known in this genre.  What is important is that, in the same way that Branca sounds very different from Chatham, Brady has his own sound developed over years of playing and composing.  In addition to his compositions for guitar ensembles he writes for more traditional classical ensembles including chamber music, concerti and symphonies.

This latest release to storm the bastion of artistic apartheid known as the US/Canadian border is Brady’s second release on an American label and it appears to be a quantum leap.  Here we get to hear Brady’s chops in handling a large orchestra.  He can no longer fit only into the category of “composers who write for lots of guitars”.  The two works on this disc are Desír (2016-17), a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra and Songs About Symphony No. 7 (2016-17).  Both works were written for the Victoriaville Festival.  Both reflect his development as a composer.  And that is why you want this disc.

The concerto Desír is in a pretty standard three movement format.  This is not his first concerto for the instrument.  Perusing his substantial list of works one finds two other concerti for electric guitar and ensemble.  It is Brady’s principal instrument and one he clearly knows from it’s acoustic components to all its electric extensions.  What is a revelation for this listener is hearing how skilled Brady is at writing for traditional classical instruments as well.  At one time the electric guitar was pretty much anathema in the classical world but Brady and his ilk have pretty much made it into simply another addition to the orchestra by creating a large and fascinating repertoire.

Desír presents a challenge for both orchestra and soloist but manages to be both contemporary and eminently listenable.  Brady’s palette is basically tonal with nods to rock and minimalism as well as references to the larger classical world.  And it is the larger classical world with which Brady is concerned in the second work on the album, Songs About Symphony No. 7.  No, this is not about Brady’s 7th (it looks like he is on his 8th, going on 9th symphonies himself) this is about Dmitri Shostakovitch’s 7th and its first performance in Leningrad on August 9, 1942.  It was the Leningrad premiere and it took place in the midst of the actual siege of Leningrad.

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Poet Douglas Burnet Smith

The text is by one Douglas Burnet Smith (1949-), a Canadian poet.  His text reflects the thoughts and impressions of various people in reaction to the Leningrad premiere of this major work.  This work demonstrates Brady’s extreme facility for vocal writing.  A quick perusal of Brady’s works list confirms that he has produced operatic works before and his skill in this area is unquestionable.

This piece is essentially an orchestral song cycle and can be favorably compared to works such as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony.  The major difference is that the text of this work is clearly anti-war.  The various characters describe the horrors of war from their various perspectives and what holds these commentaries together is that they all make reference to the performance which took place in the midst of the awful siege of Leningrad.  The “Bradyworks Large Ensemble is ably conducted by Cristian Gort.  This is complex music but he manages to make it all work as a listenable whole.

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Cristian Gort

Shostakovitch’s work, despite it’s lack of vocal settings, is clearly an anti-war piece and, like many of his works, is concerned with social justice and human rights.  Brady’s work uses that historical performance as a context to share the various characters’ impressions in a sort of kaleidoscopic fashion and his writing here is stunningly good (meaning both text and music).  The two soloists, soprano Sarah Albu and baritone Vincent Ranallo, are clearly up to the task from spoken word to full blown operatic power.  It is not clear if the arts can affect social justice but this is one damn good try.

Having listened to Instruments of Happiness and a few more of Brady’s Canadian CDs it is fascinating to hear his development as a composer.  It is not clear if he has reached his peak but he is certainly up there showing no signs of anything but the progress of a major artist.  Bravo, Mr. Brady!  Keep it coming.

Jacob Greenberg Putting Debussy in Context


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New Focus FCR 192

Well it’s been 100 years since Claude Debussy (1862-1918) left the earthly plane and anniversaries are good times for a re-evaluation.  Usually this just means issuing recordings of a given composers works, mostly the composer’s most popular.   Jacob Greenberg has chosen to record Debussy’s Preludes for Piano Books I and II (1909-1913).  But that alone seems a bit pedestrian so he adds in Alban Berg’s (1885-1935) Op. 1 Piano Sonata (1909), Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) masterful Variations for Piano (1936), and Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874-1951) “Book of the Hanging Gardens” Op. 15 (1908-9) as well as a few additional Debussy pieces.  Greenberg is a sort of refugee from the International Contemporary Ensemble.  For this recording he also conscripts the fine soprano (and fellow ICE refugee) Tony Arnold.  These two have already amassed quite a few recordings of repertory from this era.

This mix provides a context for the listener which shows where the Preludes fit historically and demonstrates some of the similarities in sound between these early 20th Century works.  We hear music written between 1908 and 1936 by four composers.  Hearing these works together gives the listener a sense of how some of the best “contemporary” compositions of this brief era sounded.  Indeed there are similarities here and one can see the emerging style which would become known as “expressionism”.  It is clearer how this emerged from Debussy and Ravel’s “impressionism” when you hear related works from the same era.

This reviewer had not been familiar with Schoenberg’s “Book of the Hanging Gardens”.  It is one of the less performed of his works.  These songs have a militantly atonal sound. Vocalist extraordinaire Tony Arnold puts real muscle into her reading of these songs.  The disc is worth acquiring for her performance alone.

In some ways this cycle appears to have been Schoenberg’s “Tristan und Isolde” meaning that he had stretched the limits of tonality and, unlike Wagner, he chose to develop a method which would ensure that there is no tonal center in his music.  He developed his method of 12 tone composition and rolled out his first example of this new method in 1925.

What is striking is that this Schoenberg song cycle dates from pretty much the same time as the Debussy Preludes and Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata.  One gets a sense of some of the tensions involved here.  Try to imagine being in the audience and hearing the wide stylistic differences between these two works and realizing that they are essentially from the same era.  Add in the much later Variations by Webern and one gets a sense of how far music could go, stylistically, based on Schoenberg’s methods.

Obviously the Debussy Preludes are the main focus here and these are acknowledged as classics of the repertoire.  They are most ably performed here but what struck this listener the most was the sound of those preludes in the context of the other pieces here which were part of that same 30 year span.  One can begin to hear perhaps some affinity between the Debussy and the later thornier harmonies and rhythms that typify the expressionistic style which would dominate much of the mid-twentieth century.

This is a fabulously entertaining recording and a sort of music history lesson as well.  Greenberg is a strong and assertive musician with an obvious feel for these pieces.  His choice of repertoire makes this a particularly good choice for the listener who is just beginning to explore this musical era and an eye-opening program for the seasoned listener.  Great set.

Missa Charles Darwin: The Chicken or the Egg?


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This is one unusual disc, not specifically due to the musical content actually but rather its back story.  Gregory W. Brown is a composer with a significant body of work to his credit.  He also happens to be the younger brother of author Dan Brown.  Yes, THAT Dan Brown, of DaVinci Code fame.

Now, at first glance, one notices that the CD states, “as featured in the Novel ORIGIN by Dan Brown.”  This reviewer’s initial assumption was that this music was written subsequent to the novel as a sort of “tie in”.  Well the fact is that the music preceded the 2017 book by some six years and was heard by the author who then incorporated it (initially unbeknownst to the composer) into a chapter of his novel, ORIGIN.

So what we have here is a sort of “tie in” but, more importantly an inspiration in part for the work which now incorporates it.  This reviewer has only read a brief summary of the elder Brown’s novel, enough to understand that one of the themes in the complex web of the story includes characters who are against organized religion.  This Missa Charles Darwin (2011), structured in the classical (or should I say, ecclesiastical) manner but incorporates texts from Charles Darwin’s writings into the conventional Latin texts.

Like his brother Dan, Gregory feels free to incorporate things heretical.  The fight between the Holy Roman Catholic Church and supporters of Darwin’s theories is well known and indeed ongoing.  By incorporating Darwin’s words amongst the ecclesiastical proclamations and adorations of the mass texts Brown creates a sort of philosophical critique to both provoke thought and entertain.

His choice to utilize a vocal quartet and his harmonic choices gives this work the ambiance of medieval and renaissance mass settings.  The younger of the Brown brothers utilizes a mix of past, distant past and present to create a sort of philosophical fiction not entirely unlike the techniques in Dan Brown’s novels.  The music is very listenable and never trivial.  It simultaneously transports the listener to the mystical feeling of an unnamed Cathedral in the 14th or 15th Century as well as to the 19th/early 20th Century science v. religion squabbles that plague us still.

Comment must be made about the beautiful presentation of this recording.  It is a box containing the CD and cards containing both art work and texts.  Included is a nice a photo of the two brothers.

Not having yet read the novel it is difficult to say with certainty what impact the music ultimately has on the experience but, like soundtracks that enhance the experience of a given film, this finely crafted music can only add to the experience.  Of course both novel and music will be able to stand alone on their individual merits.

This writer is given to wonder if further collaborations between these two may happen and the next Robert Langdon story might be heard in an opera house.  Go for it guys!

 

 

Louisville Orchestra Reboot on CD: All In


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The Louisville Orchestra was established in 1937 and its history has been wonderfully told in a 2010 documentary entitled, Music Makes a City.  Since their founding they released about 150 LPs containing new and interesting music not available anywhere else.  Many of those recordings have become available on the Albany CD label but the orchestra hasn’t released a new recording in about 30 years.

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Teddy Abrams

Along comes new music director, composer, clarinetist Teddy Abrams and now we are graced with a new recording on the Decca Gold label.  Now for a reboot this release is somewhat conservative in it’s musical choices but that’s not to say it isn’t interesing.  This recording, released also in commemoration of the orchestra’s 80th season, reflects a sincere effort to draw younger audiences to the concert hall.

This auspicious release contains as its opening Abrams’ Unified Field, a finely crafted four movement work that channels the late Aaron Copland and his ilk.  It’s style is inflected with elements of jazz and other so called “vernacular” music but it incorporates those styles in much the way that Copland and his contmporaries incorporated folk song as well as jazz/pop rhythms. It is virtually a symphony in its dimensions and is highly entertaining while remaining seriously classical and very finely crafted.  The year of it’s composition is not specified in the notes this writer received but best guess is that it is of recent vintage in this talented composer’s oeuvre.

This is followed, curiously, by three torch songs, one by the able soloist Storm Large, one by Cole Porter, and one by Teddy Abrams.  The stylistic unity of these three songs is striking and Storm Large (who is known for her work with Pink Martini) is a convincing chanteuse.

These are followed by another American masterpiece, the Clarinet Concerto (1948) by Aaron Copland.  Originally written (and subsequently recorded by) Benny Goodman, the concerto is definitely in the repertoire but receives far too few hearings in concert.  This writer had not heard the concerto in many years and was struck both by its quality and by the convincing performance recorded here.  Abrams takes the solo role and the orchestra is conducted with assurance by one Jason Seber.

Abrams’ reading is as convincing and authentic as any and this is a delightful way to close this wonderful recording.  Here’s hoping that this release will be the restart of Louisvilled great recorded legacy and that Abrams tenure as conductor will breath new life into an orchestra which has become a venerable part of America’s cultural history.