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.


 

Starkland Captures the Exploding Pianist: Kathleen Supové’s “Eye to Ivory”


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Kathleen Supové is one of a handful of new music pianists whose repertoire choices are such that anything she does is worthy of at least one listen and most frequently many more.  (She was previously reviewed on this blog for her wonderful The Debussy Effect album from 2017 on New Focus recordings.)  Starkland, analogously, is a label whose choices of both repertoire and artists is similarly reliable.  So it is with this most recent release.

Five composers are represented on 16 tracks.  All but one utilize some form of electronics (computer, sampler, etc.).  It is difficult to characterize the sort of choices Supové makes except to say that she leans toward the experimental but includes a variety of genres that run the gamut from minimalism to obtuse and complex experimentalism.  The issue here is not the genres but the quality of the performer’s choices and that is what makes this release so compelling.

The title track is by the still too little known Mary Ellen Childs (1957- ).  Eye to Ivory (2005) is a commission written for Supové is described in the brief but useful program notes as a composition focused on the sound densities of the various ranges of the keyboard and one which requires a variety of movements by the pianist (including sitting standing, etc.).  Obviously the visual component is not captured here but the sound clusters, no doubt analogous in some way with the movements, make for compelling listening.

Talkback IV (2010/12) by one Guy Barash, a composer new to this reviewer’s ears.  It is described as one of a series of pieces exploring the interaction between the piano and a computer in real time (i.e. the computer responds to what the piano is playing.  Barash does the real time digital processing.  Here is some of the edgy, perhaps even somewhat obtuse (to the casual listener I think) music where Supové and Starkland excel.  Its not easy listening but it is substantial enough to prompt this reviewer to bookmark the composer’s internet page (you should too).

It is with Rama Broom (2000) by Nick Didkovsky aka Dr. Nerve (1958- ) that we begin to hear a more intimate music making via the use of the performer’s voice speaking a text of her own composition. Written for this artist, the piece is an opportunity to showcase her dramatic abilities both as a writer and as a vocal performer.  There are algorithmic composition processes here but the music belies these complexities and what comes through is the drama in music, text, and performance.  Play this one on Halloween (that’s all I’m gonna say).

Also of 2000 vintage and continuing the intimate aspects of this album is the next selection, “In the Privacy of My Own Home” written by the Bang on a Can composer Randall Woolf.  He is also Supové’s husband and a composer of serious note.  If you haven’t yet encountered his work then you owe it to yourself to do so.

The intimacy of the work involves Woolf’s sampling of the pianist’s various types of laughter and playing the laughter on a sampling keyboard more or less simultaneously with the piano.  This twelve movement work has got to be this writer’s favorite of the group both for its melodic invention and the novel use of what is basically involuntary sounds made by or provoke from the pianist.  It’s like, “tickle me, I want to play piano” and it is a piece full of good humor and also deeply personal, even kind of sweet actually.  Will this be played by other artists using Supové’s sampled laugh or will they need to be tickled and sampled?  It is a delightful work.

Dafna Naphtali is yet another composer unfamiliar to this reviewer, also one with a fascinating, now bookmarked, internet page.  Her work Landmine (1999-2017) is another work written for Supové and another work involving real time interaction between a computer (which alters the timbre of the piano).  Its four movements are named with computer code (which adds a curious dimension especially to the tech challenged such as I).  And yes, this is probably one of the more obtuse and complex works but one which, with the curation of this artist, demands at least a listen or two.

Enjoy this album for its sonic beauties (Silas Brown’s mastering is always an event in itself) but also as a sort of advance guard suggesting the path of music yet to come.  It is in some ways similar to the CRI SD 288 recordings discs by the late Robert Helps from 1971 which helped guide this writer into the realms of new music.  It is a rich realm.

 

ICE Plays Music of Du Yun, a Powerful Collaboration


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New Focus/Tundra Recordings

This disc was this reviewer’s first hearing of music by the Chinese American composer Du Yun and OMG, as they say.  Just WOW on so many levels.  The ten tracks contain music written between 1999 and 2015.

It is truly a tour de force on many levels. No surprise that this artist has received so many accolades. This sampling of her work by the always interesting International Contemporary Ensemble released by the increasingly vital New Focus recordings (on their TUNDRA imprint).  There are no fewer than ten works on ten tracks.

This has been one of those “How could I have missed this…” experiences.  There is a wealth of music here ranging in style from free jazz to modernism (think Darmstadt perhaps) to world music and they blend well the style of this major Chinese-American composer.

She is the recipient of numerous prizes (including a Pulitzer for her opera Angel’s Bone in 2017).  She is the regular recipient of commissions from the Fromm Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Opera America, and the Asian Cultural Council among others.  She is also a Guggenheim fellow.

The poetic, sometimes cryptic titles of her works and the liner notes are brief but succinct. The serious listener will want to know more about the composer and her wide ranging talents.  She writes for every genre and ensemble from opera to solo work and from intensely personal music to clever collaborations.

Add to this the fact that the performers are from the wonderful International Contemporary Ensemble (also known as “ICE”).  Anything they do is worth the adventurous listener’s attention and this album supports that contention most successfully.  The irony of  that acronym is hard to miss in the composer’s grant from the Carnegie Foundation’s “Great Immigrants” program.  Perhaps that can rescue the association of said acronym to art rather than regressive politics.

As usual with New Focus (the parent label of this TUNDRA release) the recording is lucid and does justice to the music.  The cover design alone is a striking portrait of the composer (another reason to lament the 12 x 12 format of LPs as a size standard).

It took this listener several listens to begin to grasp this music.  It is varied and sometimes complex but it is always compelling and seems to have depth and substance.  If you don’t know this composer this is a fine place to start and if you already know her work you will want to add this fine recording to your collection.

 

Lara Downes Celebrates Women and Love


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Though she has been performing and recording for a while now I first became aware of Lara Downes when I reviewed her truly excellent, America Again album in 2016.  Since then I have become aware of the incredible range of music which she has chosen to champion.  Her various projects have a distinctive Lara Downes fingerprint which establishes her brand in the music world.  She plays music from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with careful attention to women composers, minority composers, and a solid grounding in the more commonly heard recital works.

I jumped at the opportunity to see her play at the “Old First Concerts” in San Francisco later in 2016.  She played a friendly recital of mostly familiar classical works including the solo version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and some Schumann pieces and a couple of selections from the just released America Again album.  Having taken some piano lessons I have a bit of awareness of how difficult this music can be but, as the title of my concert review suggested, Downes elevates the music such that it magically comes alive in ways that fledgling or average pianists can only dream.  The notes are the same but she makes them sing and watching her play is reminiscent of an Olympic athlete.  Don’t stand too close, lol.

It is her love of the 19th century romantic piano literature and her mission to highlight female artists that are the motivation behind this recent release.  Clara Schumann turned 200 years old in September, 2019 and this release is a gift to her and an affirmation of a musical romance of grand romantic dimensions.  The album features Schumann’s masterful Concerto as well as a selection of solo pieces by Clara and Robert.

Downes’ own words from her informative website:

I’m the first of three sisters, and I grew up in a house full of girls and women. My sisters and I made music together, put on plays, shared our clothes and secrets, and navigated together the unpredictable waters of our inconstant childhood. We were a pack. The world of women has always been my home. But the world of my music – of my piano teachers and their teachers, the Great Pianists and Great Composers – was a world of male lineage and legacy. Except for Clara Schumann. When I read about her early  life – such a serious, dark-eyed little girl – I found something of myself. I played her music as soon as I could get my hands around it. As I grew up, the themes of her life resonated in my own:  a struggle for independence; a defiant romance, the work/family conflicts of the artist’s life… As my life unfolds, as a musician, a woman, a mother – I wonder at her accomplishments, her choices, her joys and her heartaches.

This beautifully recorded disc (at Skywalker Ranch’s fine studios) opens grandly with a rendition of Schumann’s grand showpiece piano concerto which was written at the behest of Clara and dedicated to her.  She performs with the venerable San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under music director Martin West.  I don’t know other versions of this concerto well enough to make comparisons but it is clearly a piece she knows and loves and the concerto is a tribute to both Robert and Clara.  Her encouragement and collaborative suggestions technically make the piece speak well for both composers (Robert, who was an accomplished pianist, damaged his hand utilizing a mechanical stretching device and couldn’t play well anymore).

She follows this with some early solo piano pieces by Clara Schumann and a set of early works by Robert.  The style and level of compositional expertise is similar in both of their writing and Downes brings them lovingly, magically to life.  One only hopes that this will be but the first volume of more recordings of Clara’s work.  According to her website she has some mighty fascinating projects planned for completion in 2020, designated as “The Year of the Woman”, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in this country.

As it is also an election year seeing more women than ever before in politics, literature, and music 2020 can’t avoid being an auspicious event and Downes will make her mark most decisively.  Meanwhile we can enjoy this first installment in anticipation of exciting developments and releases ahead.  Brava, Ms. Downes.  We’re watching and listening.

 

Wilhelmina Smith Plays Contemporary Solo Cello Works


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Ondine

The selection of repertoire suggests that this release is targeted Stan audience which enjoys contemporary solo cello music.  No pairing with earlier established warhorses such as Brahms Cello Sonatas, and no electronics either.  Just a highly skilled musician and her incredible technique navigating these relatively recent examples of this genre from two acknowledged living masters, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho.  It is a daring and unusual program for cellist Wilhelmina Smith but it works as a dazzling display of her skills.

Salonen is, of course, one of the best known composer conductors working today.  This reviewer’s only other exposure to Salonen’s work thus far has been the gorgeous Cello Concerto reviewed here.  No question that this is a name worthy of your attention.

And if you enjoy new music you will be familiar with Kaija Saariaho (1952- ).  Since she first burst on the scene in the early 1980s she has produced one success after another in pretty much all genres.  Like Salonen she is Finnish by birth but has taken her rightful place as an internationally renowned composer.

The performances are virtuosic and deeply felt. The complex range of sounds evoked are rich and stunning.  Highly recommended.

American Neoromantics: Higdon, Barber, and Harlin


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Two contemporary world premieres paired with Samuel Barber’s masterful First Symphony make this disc a delicious sampling of neoromanticism in American music.

The standout here, and the main reason to buy this disc is the glorious Jennifer Higdon Harp Concerto (2017).  Higdon, the third woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (by my count) is clearly schooled in a wide variety of compositional techniques which she uses judiciously.  She is unabashedly a romantic but her sound is hardly retro.  She, like many well trained and talented composers, uses her many skills and techniques judiciously.  Nothing experimental here, just good writing for both orchestra and soloist.

Higdon’s concerto is cast in four movements and grabs the listener’s interest immediately.  Using her gift for writing melody and effective use of extended harmonies she crafts a truly great concerto for the instrument.  It is bright, playful, and engaging.  Her writing for the harp (and Kondonassis’ seemingly easy grasp of astounding virtuosity and lyricism) work well with the orchestral writing making a very satisfying listening experience.

The soloist, Yolanda Kondonassis, is a familiar name to fans of harp music.  Her many albums demonstrate a range of interests and skills that keep her name in the public eye/ear.  Her recording of the Ginastera concerto was reviewed previously on this blog here.  Listeners are advised to explore her web site for more exciting and listenable music.

The second piece, Samuel Barber‘s First Symphony Op. 9 (1936) is an acknowledged masterpiece of the mid-century American neoromantic tradition.  Barber’s music hearkened back to the romanticism of the late 19th century at a time that also saw the birth of a great deal of post-Schoenberg modernism.  Some of the similarities between Barber’s work and Higdon’s is doubtless the reason for the inclusion of this too little heard masterwork.  It is cast in one movement and makes wonderful use of a large orchestral palette.

This is followed by the second world premiere on the disc by one Patrick Harlin, a name unfamiliar to this reviewer but one with, apparently, a similar aesthetic and some serious skills as a composer/orchestrator.  Rapture (2016-7) certainly shares some of the sonic fingerprint of the previous two pieces and raises the specter of another talented composer emerging into the light of said American Rapture.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is clearly up to the task as is conductor, Ward Stare who is another rising star you’ll want to keep on your collector’s radar.  His grasp of conducting and insight into this music suggests he will continue to surprise and please audiences.

The recording on Cleveland based Azica records is well recorded and all the music supports repeated listenings where the attractive surface of the music gives way to more detail.  All in all a CD that fans of Jennifer Higdon, Yolanda Kondonassis, and American Romanticism will want to own.