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.

Alexina Louie’s “Take the Dog Sled”, A Musical Iditarod for Inuit Throat Singers and Ensemble


Centrediscs CDCCD 28320

Ah, those sneaky Canadians. This disc was surreptitiously slipped in with another mailing of a disc sent for review. The sender, aware of my interest and admiration for Canadian art music sent me this little gem of a recording. It is a fine example of cultural incorporation (as opposed to the pejorative, “cultural appropriation”). It is about the celebration of “first nations” people and their culture rather than the exploitation of it.

“Take the Dog Sled” (2008) by Alexina Louie is in eight movements that clock in at 21:48 total time making this a sort of CD single. And I’m happy to say that this is a happy little musical journey much in the spirit of Leopold Mozart’s “Musikalische Schlittenfahrt” or (“Musical Sleigh Ride” in English), an unusual piece of program music from 1755 (the year before the birth of his ultimately more famous son, Wolfgang). In fact these two works might make for an interesting program heard back to back.

Alexina Louie (1949- ) is a justly much lauded Canadian composer. Her prolific output includes orchestral, chamber, solo music, and film scores. She is a living artistic treasure and the recipient of Canada’s highest civilian honor when she was named an “Officer of the Order of Canada” in 2005. This is just one of many awards and she continues to produce exciting music in a variety of genres and has demonstrated facility with electronics as well as conventional acoustic instruments.

But first a word about “throat singers”. Many people familiar with this term have probably heard the singing of Tibetan Monks who produce multiple tones via their ability to emphasize one or more of the natural overtones of the fundamental note they are singing. (The process is beyond this writer’s understanding of vocal physiology and, if you haven’t heard it, you probably can’t imagine it.) But the point of this is that there are different varieties of “throat singers” and, while I can’t tell you the specifics of what makes them different, the listener should be aware that the singers heard here do not sound like Tibetan Monks or Tuvan Throat Singers or David Hykes and his Harmonic Choir. Rather you will hear the Inuit style of throat singing.

The throat singers are featured in movements 2, 3, 5, 7, and 8. Movements 1, 4, and 6 are given solely to the seven piece chamber orchestra, the amazing Espirit Orchestra. All are conducted by the the wonderful conductor, educator, and advocate of Canadian composers, (and spouse of the composer) Alex Pauk. The singers Evie Mark and Akinise Sivuarapik are both natives of northern Quebec (“Nunavik” in their native language) and life long throat singers and their collaboration with Louie is a delightful accomplishment.

This piece was written in response to a commission from the fine conductor Kent Nagano in conjunction with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (where he was principal conductor at the time) for a performance in three towns (Inukjuak, Kangiqsujuak, and Kuujjuuaq) in far northern Quebec (Nunavik). Ms. Louie worked with the throat singers, listening to their songs, talking with them and, ultimately, choosing the songs which would become a part of this piece.

Not surprisingly these performances were well received and listeners are in for a treat with this recording. It does honor to first nations folk artistry and effectively includes them in the definition of music as a whole, incorporating traditions and instruments in the traditional classical sphere while still doing honor to the traditions from which they sprung. The music is accessible but never trite and reflects what appears to have been a respectful collaboration. One hopes that this will not be their last collaboration. You may or may not want to take a ride on a dog sled but give a listen and find the delight from which it draws.

Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Remote Together”


Redshift Records

I make reference to “Gabriel’s Oboe” (from the Morricone score to The Mission) in a slightly ironic way to introduce an album in which the artist, Dr. Catherine Lee is on a Mission of a different sort from that of Gabriel in the film. Lee’s mission is the liberation and expansion of the role of her chosen instrument(s).

While many instruments fit comfortably into a solo role such as keyboard instruments, violins, and cellos this is not the case with the oboe and it’s double reed relatives the oboe d’amore and the english horn (Lee is a master of all of these). Indeed many instruments which have populated orchestras and chamber groups for ages have seldom if ever stood on their own. In a phenomenon which I term, “refugees from the orchestra” there have been many instances in which artists have taken their instruments out of the context of those ensembles and began to establish a performing tradition and commission a repertoire suitable for such a venture. In fact there are two west coast musicians who are renowned for their work in liberating their respective instruments from orchestras and into their own domains: Bertram Turetzky (professor emeritus at UC San Diego literally wrote the book on expanded techniques for double bass) and Stuart Dempster (trombonist extraordinaire who also “wrote the book” on the modern trombone). Dr. Lee is poised to make a similar mark on the musical world.

Lee’s previous album reviewed here, “Social Sounds” (2013) focused on music by Canadian composers. The present album (released May, 2021) parallels the tenor of these crazy pandemic times in both title and content. Recorded mostly in 2019 it arguably has some prescience the way good art tends to achieve. Here she includes composers whose milieu includes northern California and the Pacific Northwest in addition to Canada. The six compositions represented here touch on many mythological and actual beings from whom the artists derive their inspiration. Dr. Lee was apparently pleased with my review of her first solo disc graciously sent me a copy of this new effort.

Hurricane Ridge

Now for the last 18 months I have been on a travel contract living and working near Tacoma, Washington. My tenure in my “day job” has run pretty much concurrently with the rise of the pandemic and its attendant restrictions. As a result I had not explored this beautiful area of the world until recently. I decided to remedy this by taking a car trip to explore a bit of the Olympic Peninsula, the westernmost portion of the lower 48 states, and I took this CD along to provide a soundtrack for my trip. This journey of two days took me around and through parts of the Olympic National Park and through various tribal lands where native peoples have lived for thousands of years. Throughout the drive I let the disc play repeatedly and found it curiously satisfying as a soundtrack for the images I saw through my windshield (I did not bring music along on my hikes). Metaphorically Lee accompanied me on this journey.

Mount Olympus, WA

This disc also appears to derive inspiration from several musical mythologies and persons which are also associated with the regions which span from the San Francisco Bay Area north into the Oregon, Washington, and Canada. John Cage, Pauline Oliveros (Lee holds a certification in Oliveros’ “Deep Listening” techniques), Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, spectralists (Wyschnedgradsky, Haba, Radulescu, etc.), Morton Feldman, Raymond Murray Schaeffer, Henry Brant and professor Lee who shares one of her own compositions much as she did on the first disc. There are six tracks containing six compositions which, though of different character, share a connection via the historical and mythological dimensions that comprise their roots. This is more about drones than rhythmic complexity and about images more than linear narratives.

The recording begins with the only actual solo composition, Jordan Nobles‘ “Nocturne” (2013). This is in fact a realization of a composition for a “spatialized” chamber group in which the instruments play “self paced melodies”. This track is a somber Cagean etude realized from this material for solo oboe. Spatial dynamics are the realm of both Raymond Murray Schaeffer as well as Henry Brant.

The second track is by the only composer on this recording with whom I have some familiarity, Dana Reason, a pianist and sound artist with roots in (the now mythological) Mills College and who is also certified in Oliveros’ “Deep Listening”. It is Pauline Oliveros whose spirit presides in this work. Her “Chanson de Fleurs: Eleanor of Aquitaine” (2017) is a sort of sonic narrative for oboe and soundscape evoking the mythology of the medieval French Queen. This is music that skirts the boundaries between didacticism and program music. It evokes images of the archetype of the eternal feminine. It is a lush and evocative work that brought images to this listener’s mind.

Taylor Brook‘s “Alluvium” (2017) is for oboe d’amore, a slightly lower pitched version of the modern oboe which was popular in the baroque era. It includes an electronic accompaniment and plays on the tuning problems common to these woodwind instruments. The recorded tape is the foil against which the soloist plays and deals with the tuning issues which in turn results in spectral harmonies which are rich and beautiful.

Julian Snow‘s “Red Eyes, Green Lion’s Teeth, Golden Heads” (2017) is also for oboe d’amore and recorded sounds. Here is a piece which ostensibly evokes the sprites and devas of “the flies and dandelions” of the composer’s back yard. Snow seems to channel the world music explorations of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison in spirit.

Matt Carlson‘s “Chiasmus” (2018) for English Horn and Synthesizer attempts to metaphorically use the literary device of Chiasmus (a type of repetition for emphasis like “all for one and one for all”). This piece is, at 14:20, the longest piece on the disc. It consists of several short movements utilizing a minimalist dearth of materials to create variation structures. It is virtually a concerto whose virtuosic demands are interpretive rather than technical. It is a highly engaging piece that gave this listener joy in both passive and active listening. He seems to channel musical deities like Morton Feldman and Alan Hovhaness, a lovely experience.

The final conjuring on this disc is by Catherine Lee who presents “Silkys” (2020) a meditation for oboe and environmental sounds, a collaboration with sound artist Juniana Lanning. This is a meditation on the life of the domestic silk moth, again a soundscape rather than a narrative. Dr. Lee’s fascination with the natural world is also reflected in the cover art which is the artist’s own photomicrograph of the exoskeleton of a bombyx mori.

This is a subtle but widely embracing collection of music seems to be a logical next installment in Professor Lee’s mission to lead her tribe of double reeds to a new vision appropriate to the new century. Brava! Long live Catherine’s Oboe.

Art and the Reclamation of History: Akropolis Reed Quintet’s “Ghost Light”


New Focus FCR-292

Let me say that this disc represents one of the most integrated releases that I have seen/heard. This has the gravitas of a well conceived and executed prog rock concept album (remember those?). This young group of musicians from Detroit present themselves in a photo in the accompanying booklet in casual dress flouting the old fashioned traditions of playing in tuxes much as another creative chamber ensemble (The Kronos Quartet) did many years ago. The Akropolis Reed Quintet is a group of instruments not commonly known (I’ve never heard of any repertoire for this combination of instruments, any musicians/musicologists want to chime in here?) in classical chamber ensembles. Whereas the Kronos began work a with a long held standard ensemble comprising two violins, a viola and a cello, the classical string quartet which can easily trace a long standing tradition going back to Haydn and very much alive today, the Akropolis consists of oboe (Tim Gocklin), clarinet (Kari Landry), saxophone (Matt Landry), bass clarinet (Andrew Koeppe), and bassoon (Ryan Reynolds), an unheard of combo. Its history begins here.

Illustrator Ashton Springer

Unfamiliar music by an unfamiliar group of reed instruments doesn’t exactly shout, “Buy me, listen to me”, but the prospective listener need not fear. The program here consists of all new music for this ensemble. There are no competitors, at least for now. But all this music in truly excellent performances/recordings along with remarkably integrated collaboration with visual artist, British artist and illustrator Ashton Springer, and poet/writer Marsha Music combines in an apparent attempt to reclaim the artistic history that, in the days of the booming automotive industry and the success of Motown Recordings made Detroit a creative center known round the world. Ms. Music (a nom de plume for Marsha Battle Philpot), a Detroit native, is in many ways the heart of this album. Her father was a producer for Motown and her poetic reflections on local history infuses the album with a certain authenticity. The poet states she was “born in a record store”. Indeed it was the Joe’s Records which appears in Ashton’s album cover art to which she refers (metaphorically of course)

Ghost Light brings a variety of things into focus in this paean to Detroit, the home of these artists whose work very organically includes promotion of the arts in local schools and other venues. In works generally focused on themes of birth, death, and rebirth this album tells a sad story of lost history, of razed black neighborhoods, of fond memories, of a once thriving economy now struggling but fully embracing pride of place while seeking resolution of (and forgiveness?) for past injustices while looking optimistically to a better future.

Poet Marsha Music

The art work itself is a nostalgic example of fine cover art which successfully reflects the content and the character of the music contained within. The illustrations which so beautifully attract the eye to the cover are continued in the accompanying booklet which provides concise notes which place the music in the context of the composers’ various intent and processes as well as the nearly cinematic efforts made to represent the intended content of each piece. Though neither the poet nor the illustrator are known to this writer it is reasonable to assume that we will see/hear from them again. That would be my wish.

This is the fourth album by this prize winning chamber group which was formed in 2009 at the University of Michigan. It contains five musical compositions and three poems (which precede movements I, II, and IV of the final work). All the music, as noted above is generally on themes of life, death, and rebirth as well as “ghosts” of the past.

The first work by the only composer here that was known previously to this writer is “Rites for the Afterlife” (2018) by the amazing Stacy Garrop whose facility with melodic invention and subtle use of tone colors permeated her exciting Mythology Symphony. The four movements are roughly analogous to the classical sonata forms with a longer more complex first movement followed by a slow movement, a scherzo-like movement, and a finale which ties them all together. Here she titles her movements: I. Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead, II. Passage Through the Netherworld, III. The Hall of Judgement, and IV. The Field of Reeds. The composer provides a scenario which is recounted in the booklet. Let me say that her tone painting is that of a true master and I advise listeners to collect anything she releases. You will not be disappointed.

Second is “Kinds of Light” (2018) by Michael Gilbertson. This piece, in four brief movements attempting to metaphorically treat each instrument as a pigment. The movements: I. Flicker, II. Twilight, III. Fluorescence, and IV. Ultraviolet utilize timbres and combinations of timbres to represent the visuals implied by the titles. This is probably the most “experimental” of the pieces here but the experiment engages rather than repels.

“Firing Squad” (2018?) by Niloufar Nourbakhsh. If I’m reading those liner notes correctly, the performance of this work is accomplished with the ensemble playing with a recording of themselves playing the work. This is the most overtly political of the works represented here in its intense single movement.

“Seed to Snag” (2018) by Theo Chandler is cast in three movements: I. Sprout, II. Stretch, and III. Sow. Here is a metaphoric evocation of the cycle of life from birth to death utilizing baroque musical structures.

The album concludes with “Homage to Paradise Valley” by Jeff Scott. This is the largest work here clocking in at over 30 minutes including the poetry. Its four movements attempt to describe forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit. The movements are titled: I. Ghosts of black Bottom, II. Hastings Street blues, III. Roho Pumzika Kwa Amani, and IV. Paradise Theater Jump. Movements I, II, and IV are preceded by Detroit poet Marsha Music reading from her work. The beautiful title of the third movement is a phrase in Swahili which translates as, “Spirits, Rest Peacefully”. The other movements channel the ghosts of these nearly forgotten neighborhoods and that third movement invites those ghosts to a place of rest and the peace of knowing that they will not be forgotten.

I’ve placed links throughout this article so that readers can find more detail about the composers and other artists involved. All of the artists involved here deserve at least a second look if not more. Kudos to all who were involved in this project.

Monk and the Memories


Cantaloupe CA21153

Like many innovative young artists in New York City in the early 60s Meredith Monk had to train musicians to work with her unusual vocal methods. Her first album, Key (1971), was the first time her vocal art began to be dispersed outside the intimate, neo-bohemian loft space where the album was recorded. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1964 Monk moved to Manhattan where she and many other young, creative experimental musicians populated what became known as the “downtown scene” or SOHO. Many musicians worked with her over the years including composer/cellist Robert Een, Pianist Anthony De Mare both of whom incorporated their extended vocal techniques learned in the loft of the master herself.

Bang on a Can was formed from a very similar aesthetic (that of providing an alternative to the “uptown scene” which generally refers to the “establishment” or “mainstream” of classical music epitomized by Julliard and Lincoln Center. Founded in 1987, Bang on a Can and their subsequent touring group, Bang on a Can All Stars (begun in 1992) can be said to be another generation’s effort to achieve what Monk and the many musicians who followed such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young, among many others whose musical vision stood in contrast to the established uptown, more academic leanings.

It was Bang on a Can’s transcription of Brian Eno’s famous studio produced album (no live musicians), “Music for Airports” that demonstrated their ability to revision some of the work of their forebears and bring it into the concert hall. This is pretty much what we see here in this loving collaboration/tribute to one of New York’s finest composer/performers from the early downtown/SOHO era.

Monk began her artistic life as a dancer and dance/choreography remains an essential part of her artistic vision. 2014-2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Meredith Monk as a performer. “–M—EM–O-R—Y —-G-A—-ME—” (2020) is a wonderful production which sits somewhere between a “greatest hits” record and that of another generation’s reverent celebration of a unique artist. Bang on a Can shares the duties of transcription and performing with Monk and her ensemble. Most of Monk’s work involves (generally) one to five musicians (playing minimalist style music) onstage but here we see an expansion into a larger ensemble not unlike her collaborations which resulted in one of her largest works, the masterful “Atlas” (1993) produced by the Houston Opera. (Would that a new recording of Atlas may eventually come from such a collaboration).

back cover

So what we have here is a combination of transcription, performance, but most importantly a respectful sharing out of a mutual educational experience between Monk’s ensemble and that of BOC. There are nine tracks comprising nine distinct compositions from Monk’s oeuvre. BOC composers provided transcriptions of “Spaceship” (Michael Gordon), “Memory Song” (Julia Wolfe), “Downfall” (Ken Thomson), “Totentanz” and “Double Fiesta” (David Lang). The other tracks appear in transcriptions by members of Monk’s ensemble: “Gamemaster’s Song” and “Migration” (Monk), “Waltz in 5s” (Monk and Sniffin), and “Tokyo Cha Cha” (Sniffin).

Monk’s ensemble in this recording consists of Meredith Monk, Theo Bleckmann, Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin, and guest artist Michael Cerveris. The Bang on a Can All Stars include Ashley Bathgate, cello and voice; Robert Black, electric and acoustic bass; Vicky Chow, piano, keyboard, and melodica; David Cossin, percussion; Mark Stewart, electric guitar, banjo, and voice; and Ken Thomson, clarinets and saxophones. The expansion of the ensemble adds favorably to the sound (as it did in Atlas) and the transcriptions enhance the music (as was the case in “Music for Airports”).

The 2012 collaboration produced by Monk’s House Foundation deserves mention here because it is a crowd sourced two CD production of covers by a variety of artists paying homage to Monk’s work. It is not clear if this release had any influence over the Memory Game album but it does speak to the influence of the artist.

The House Foundation for the Arts
ASIN : B00A1JCY1I

Fans of Meredith Monk and her various music/dance/theater works will find a comforting familiarity in these performances of music which, at one time were the leading edge of the new and experimental, now become familiar and, more importantly, embraced by another generation who clearly took the time to look, listen, and understand the work of this now acknowledged American Master. Those unfamiliar will find this a great introduction to Monk’s legacy.

Though chosen from a variety of compositions which date from 1983 to 2006, this selection comes together in a satisfying unity. The very tasteful album design is itself an homage to the look of Monk’s ECM recordings (under Manfred Eicher’s direction) who released the majority of her work. Kudos to the production team of David Cossin and Rob Friedman whose work here is among the finest of Bang on a Can Allstars’ recordings and a very satisfying addition to Monk’s discography. The little liner notes booklet includes an essay by the composer as well as a copy of the lyrics to “Migration” and “Memory Song”, just enough to inform and not overwhelm the casual listener. This is one fantastic release.

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby in San Francisco, 2016 Other Minds

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger, a Reacquaintance


First let me say that the title of this blog and its contents is presented as both apology and explanation. It is an apology for the intervening 12 months during which this blog was on unplanned hiatus. Indeed the ongoing requests for reviews were certainly a factor in getting this venture up and running once again and I am grateful for the persistence of musicians and their representatives. It is also a brief explanation of some of the reasons this has happened. Nothing here should be construed as being a lament or request for assistance of any kind (except for encouraging more readers). This blog post is also intended as an announcement that there is much more to come.

2020 was a year which one which has been a long and strange time for most of us. I took on an extended contract in February, 2020 which required me to move to Tacoma where I pursue my “day job” of working as a registered nurse. My place of employment is a state psychiatric facility and my first few months were consumed with training and other pre-employment hurdles. While I enjoy my work I found the transition to a city far from home and the learning process of dealing with this facility and its clientele impacted me in ways I could not predict. Add to that the overwhelming onset of the Covid 19 pandemic began to eclipse and alter so many things.

Clyde

To ease my transition going approximately 1000 miles from home I brought my little 12 year old Maltese dog, Clyde along for the adventure. This wound up being a most pleasant learning experience about the meaning of “emotional support animal”. He continues to do his job.

As it was most practical, I chose to drive to my new assignment so I packed the car with clothing, a few books, a kindle, a computer, and a small flock of CDs for the drive time. Traveling long distances is a wonderful opportunity to listen to lengthy or multiple pieces of music. Of course this is best appreciated in the long freeway segments between towns that dominated my itinerary.

My listening program consisted of (in no particular order): Ives- Concord Sonata played by Rene Eckhardt, Alvin Curran- Crystal Psalms, the two disc Chicago Blues album by AACM, Charlie Haden- Not in Our Name, several private recordings of music by Primous Fountain, Daniel Bjarnason- Collider, several private recordings of music by David Toub, Peter Maxwell-Davies- Symphony No. 1, Wilfred Josephs- Requiem, and occasional forays to sample the local broadcast spectrum (ew). An eclectic program to be sure, one which benefits from solitude from other homo sapiens. My little companion took the passenger seat and easily accessed the little cup of water in the console, happy regardless of the music selections. It was a satisfying listening experience augmented by some truly eye candy vistas (I did bring my camera but…driving.)

It was jolting to see the post fire-ravaged sections of forest that dotted the landscape in this journey but it remains visually stunning if not in the most beautiful way. It was about 22 hours of leisurely drive time calculated to give me a couple of days to find my residence and figure out my daily driving route. My little companion and I ensconced ourselves in an Extended Stay America hotel arranged by my contract agent.

The planning I had done was pretty good actually. We arrived as I had planned where my companion immediately began his ambassadorial responsibilities by attempting to meet (and charm) all who crossed his path. All signs suggested a smooth transition.

However the unpredictable reared its presence in a variety of forms including licensure delays (not the fault of Washington State), subsequent training delays, a camera in need of repair, a failed hard drive, a rather challenging work environment (this state facility is long term and functions largely as a forensic facility dealing with illness too severe for the jail system), and the onset of the Covid lockdown as well as an actual Covid infection (which I survived with minor consequences and have since been vaccinated). All these did not occur at once but I’m just summarizing. Most of these events could neither be foreseen or prevented but they presented challenges.

One of the most curious effects on my psyche was an extended period of time when I lost my ability to focus on many things other than the job. I had brought a box of CDs for review fully expecting that I would be able to continue my blogging with my readers getting no clue as to the chaos of the writer’s mind. As a Rabbi once told me, “Man plans, God laughs”, a less than comforting chestnut of wisdom which applies as it doubtless will again. So why worry?

Mount Ranier as seen from my hotel window.

My lack of ability to focus manifested in an inability to read for leisure (one can partly blame the toxic writing habits that plague “orientation materials” for numbing my brain) but also in a seemingly selective ability to hold my attention on the musical genres that had been my soundtrack on the trip to get here. I found myself craving jazz and blues and in a serendipitous gesture of fate I was more than pleased to find that my local broadcast options included two NPR stations, one of which (KNKX), plays a masterfully curated selection of jazz and blues most of the day excepting news breaks. That music continues to soothe my soul but I’m happy to say my focus seems to have returned to its accustomed wider spectrum of genres.

From Cahill’s web page.

I lament the fact that I have missed the opportunity to write about the “Year of the Woman” in 2020 during the actual year but the impact of the sundry musical celebrations and creations will continue to resonate and the cause will continue to deserve attention. One of the few new music events which grabbed my resistant attention was the series that Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill produced on YouTube. The series on women composers features short works (2-8 minutes) played in the artist’s Berkeley home. It is a virtual manifesto collecting a variety of too little known solo piano works by women (here’s hoping there’s an album in the offing). Of course the listener shouldn’t stop with the women composers. Cahill’s site offers of wealth of lesser known male composers interpreted with the same passion.

Linda Twine from Google Images.

I quite reasonably expected a sharp decline in readership given that my last blog post was published on March 7, 2020. There was initially at least a 50% fall off in readership but I was delighted to find that I ended the year with about 9300 hits, only about 4000 less than the previous year. A large part of that readership sought out my articles on black musicians and composers. Now, I focus on new music and just about any music which I think deserves an audience so the inclusion of black musicians is, of course, a given. So it seems particularly apt that I am returning to the blogosphere during black history month. This small portion of my output has driven more than its share of traffic to this site. The article on composer/director/producer Linda Twine was written in 2018 and has gotten well over 1500 views. I hope that means her star continues to rise. Other older articles, some written for Black History Month, also performed remarkably well. Indeed this can certainly be attributed in part to the Black Lives Matter movement and the continuing civil rights struggles in our purportedly “Post-Racial” era.

The blogger with composer Anthony Davis at a house concert in 2018

I was particularly pleased when composer Anthony Davis (whose work I have long admired) was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for his opera The Central Park Five. Like much of Davis’ work this opera is focused on civil rights issues such as, in this case, the miscarriage of justice against five black men falsely accused of a rape in Central Park. At least I got to say this during Black History Month.

I continue to reside in Tacoma where it is only a twenty minute drive to work. I have become accustomed to my daily duties and have found a surprisingly warm welcome for me and my skill set. I truly enjoy my day job.

We are still firmly in the time of Covid, in the time of serious social unrest, now transitioning with excessive drama to a new president as the world seemingly plunges toward fascism, hate, and economic disaster. But musicians have risen most heroically to the challenges of their art, performers trying to maintain a presence during a time in which live performances are severely restricted for public health reasons. But there are now fascinating concerts online, wonderful new music being released and I need to get back to talking about that.

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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Starkland ST- 233

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.

 

Project W: The Chicago Sinfonietta Gloriously Features Women Composers (conductor too)


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Cedille CDR 90000 185

The attention paid to women composers remains much less than it should be but releases like this latest on Cedille features the Chicago Sinfonietta (Chicago’s second professional orchestra established in 1987 and sporting programs distinctly different from that of the Chicago Symphony) are incrementally correcting that error.  Here for your listening pleasure is a disc with five world premieres, all by female composers, and a world class orchestra conducted by a female conductor, Mei-Ann Chen.  (They also boast that on average the Sinfonietta is 47% women.  Is there an orchestra that can match that?).

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Florence Price 

With the exception of Florence Price (1887-1953) all are living composers on this release.  The others (who were commissioned by the Sinfonietta to write these pieces) include Clarice Assad (1978- ), Jessie Montgomery (1981- ), Reena Esmail (1983- ), and Jennifer Higdon (1962- ).  Montgomery and Esmail are new names to this reviewer.  Assad and Higdon are generally well known and very accomplished.  Higdon is the second woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in music (the first was Ellen Taafe Zwilich) and Florence Price is enjoying something of a posthumous revival with recent recordings of several of her larger works and the recent discovery of some of her scores long thought lost.

This disc is pretty much representative of Cedille’s mission to record new music and a selection of older music featuring largely Chicago musicians.  This label has done great service in promoting the music of women and other minority groups and has exposed the record buying/listening public to musical gems that otherwise would languish in that minority wasteland of music which remains unperformed due to sociopolitical rather than aesthetic reasons.

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Mei-Ann Chen

This is one of their finest releases.  It is a nice survey of 20/21st century women composers (just a small sampling but an intelligent one) from the early twentieth century to the present.  The works are given definitive readings by a fine ensemble and a clearly accomplished insightful conductor.

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The late great Paul Freeman (from Chicago Symphony web site)

The disc opens with music which serves both the theme of presenting women composers and the desire to do honor to the Chicago Sinfonietta’s founding conductor, the late Dr. Paul Freeman.  His advocacy of the music of black composers began with the groundbreaking Columbia release (now Sony) of music by black composers and continued the series on Cedille (African Heritage Symphonic Series: CDR 90000 055, CDR 90000 061, CDR 90000 066 followed by the Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson disc CDR 90000 087).  The disc opens with a set of piano pieces by Ms. Price (Dances in the Canebreaks, 1952) which were orchestrated by no less than the dean of Black American composers, William Grant Still.  These three friendly, light hearted dances will remind listeners of the sort of fare that characterized the jazz inflected classical idioms of the time, a tradition which also gave birth to Rhapsody in Blue.

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Clarice Assad (from composer’s web site)

Next up is Sin Fronteras (2017) by the Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad.  She comes from the well known musical family which includes her father, guitarist and composer Sergio Assad.  Her work has a tinge of Aaron Copland and works well as a follow up to the opening track.  She, like Still, seems to have an impressive command of the orchestra which she handles with tremendous skill in this overall light hearted piece.

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Jessie Montgomery (from the composer’s web site)

 

Jessie Montgomery (1981- ) is a new name to this reviewer but a look at her well organized web page reveals an astoundingly accomplished young musician.  Her Coincident Dreams (2017) follows in the American traditions of including folk music in her compositions.  Here her material includes non-American folk musics blended into a lucid listenable score that marks her as a musician worth watching.

As with Assad we hear a composer who is comfortable with the sprawling pallet of the modern orchestra where she manages to make the best use of her materials in an entertaining orchestral work.

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Reena Esmail (from composer’s web site)

 

 

Reena Esmail (1983- ) is another name new to this reviewer.  She is the only artist here to have two works on this CD.  The first is a traditional Hindustani piece called Charukeshi Bandish in which she sings the vocal part.  Like many of the composers here she draws on her own cultural heritage and has managed to incorporate these traditions into her more (western) classically oriented works.  In fact she does so in the next track with #metoo (2017), a piece in which she expresses both solidarity and rage at the mistreatment of women worldwide.  Here’s some uncomfortable activism for the concert hall whose time is certainly due.

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Jennifer Higdon (NYT photo) 

The disc concludes with perhaps the best known living American woman composer, Jennifer Higdon.  In addition to being a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music, Higdon is a prolific composer whose work has been heard in concert and opera houses world wide.  Her post-romantic style has made her work popular in concert halls and the depth of her musical invention continues to amaze.  Her five movement “Dance Card” (2017) harkens back to the lighthearted dance music which opened this recording.  But it is tinged with a depth of emotion which reflects not only her personal vision but her solidarity with women world wide, people who would not need a special feature release but for their gender and racial differences which have marginalized them historically.  This release goes a long way to shifting that trend. It’s a gorgeous record.