Contemporary Operatic Portraiture, Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs



I’m not sure who started the trend of so-called”portrait operas” but they seem to be on the increase.  Tech Icon Steve Jobs now has a portrait opera as well as a biopic, numerous documentaries, and at least one good biography.  And who better than music techie Mason Bates to write the opera?

So here we have what appears to have been a beautifully staged premiere of said work in a definitive performance by the always innovative Santa Fe Opera.  Steve Jobs is an icon of the tech industry and the business world and people want to hear about him even if it is a romanticization.

Bates is ideally suited to the task and this is likely to get multiple performances.  Of course a video would be a more ideal document but probably prohibited by cost.  This is an eminently listenable work and the enthusiasm of this live audience serves to underscore this reviewer’s personal response to this performance.

There are eight roles (one role is silent), a large orchestra augmented but never overwhelmed by electronics.  The electronics also serves in a metaphorical way to paint a sonic picture of this tech hero.  It also helps remind us that we are in the 21st century in every way.

The cast includes Kelly Markgraf, Edward Parks, Saha Cooke, Wei Wu, Maria Kaganskaya, Johah Sorenson, Garrett Sorensen, Jessica E. Jones, ensemble soloists (I’m guessing that means, “choir”) consisting of Adelaide Boedecker, Adam Bonanni, Kristen Choi, Thaddeus Ennen, Andrew Maughan, Corrie Stallings, and Tyler Zimmerman with the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra marvelously held together by conductor Michael Christie.

Librettist Mark Campbell has an impressive resume and this is an admirable addition to an already impressive list of dramatic successes. Photos of the production in the wonderful booklet which contains the libretto and background information show some visually a creative production. Computer screen shots of Jobs’ various products serve as background and the staging appears to make a few nods to Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, its obvious progenitor.

Only time will tell the ultimate place this work will occupy historically but we can definitely enjoy this really entertaining piece.

Beethoven, Bartok, and Davidovsky with the Julliard Quartet


The Julliard Quartet is a hallowed name in classical music. This release reflecting its current generation of musicians is consistent with their practice of playing established classics alongside the modern. These are interesting choices of string quartets from the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

Many will likely speculate on the motivations for these choices but it is a typical set of choices for a Juilliard Quartet recital, an intelligent mix of standard repertoire, not the “usual suspects” or most popular but musically solid pieces. And, of course, there is their all important embrace of the modern.

The Beethoven and the Barton are lovely choices intelligently played but the real draw, at least for this reviewer is the Davidovsky. Mario Davidovsky (1934- ) is a major American composer who deserves more performances and documentation of his work. Fortunately Bridge Records has taken on this task.

He is best known for his “Synchronisms” series pairing electronics with various acoustic instruments. This won him a Pulitzer Prize. But his music sans electronics is just as substantial and this 2016 String Quartet, his sixth, provides ample evidence of that substance.

Near as I can tell this is only the second recording of any of his quartets but it is sufficiently intriguing to whet the appetite for the other 5.

As a recital disc this one is thoroughly enjoyable and it’s inclusion of the Davidovsky is gloriously consistent with the overall image of the hallowed name of the Juilliard Quartet.

Wilhelmina Smith Plays Contemporary Solo Cello Works


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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.

Music of a Forgotten Master: Daniel Wnukowski Plays Karl Rathaus


The displacements of war, genocide, and oppressive politics has condemned legions of composers and their music to languish in obscurity until resurrected by later generations. I recall Aaron Copland opining in an interview that there are likely more than a few masterpieces to be found from the years between the great wars (about 1918 to 1945). This album is a shining example which seems to validate Copland’s assertion. 

Karl Rathaus (1895-1954) was born in the eastern Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like many (primarily) Jewish composers. He emigrated to the United States to avoid the rising fascist regime. Not all such emigres were able to make a living in the Hollywood film industry and Rathaus labored in relative obscurity in the academy, namely Queens College.

Along comes the enterprising Polish-Canadian pianist Daniel Wnukowski whose knowledge of and affinity for Rathaus’ music brings us the present disc. This is virtuosic music that he seems born to play. The music seems to embody elements of Impressionism, Expressionism, Modernism (of the Rudhyar and Cowell variety), and doubtless others not immediately apparent to your humble reviewer.Wnukowski breathes life into these heretofore forgotten works.  

Certainly this is a genre disc that takes its place alongside Decca/London’s “Entartete Musik” and their ilk but it also stands out with a distinctive, powerful, and entertaining voice which serves to illuminate the folly and destructiveness of fascist politics.This is music that deserves serious attention and would likely enthralling a recital audience. 

This is a loving set of interpretations that will probably have listeners anxiously awaiting the next volume in this important series.That is definitely true for this reviewer. 

The Apotheosis of Lenny, a New Recording of “Mass”


Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The premier generated both controversy and paranoia (by Nixon and his crew) but the recording sold well.

This is by my count the fifth commercial recordings not counting the one DVD release. In addition there are numerous full performances available on YouTube. All have their individual highs and lows.

This work is in many ways the single work that embraces all the facets of a truly multifaceted composer. There is serious classical music passages, cheesy electronic music, excellent choral writing, showtunes, dancing, and, above all, political protest.

This writer fell in love with the original Columbia vinyl boxed set on the mid seventies and that recording remains a critical reference point but the joy of multiple interpretations begins to show the depth and complexity of this work. It is, in this writer’s mind this composer’s song of the earth, struggling with all its complexities both beautiful ones and sad ugly realities.

The present release is very enjoyable but is marred at points by some clunky miking if the singers. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that this is a document taken from several live performances. That makes it difficult to hear the words at times.

Nezet-Seguin is strongest in his interpretation of the orchestral parts where he elevates the discourse effectively placing Bernstein alongside the great masters who he championed as a conductor. If his and the singers’ interpretation don’t swing the way Bernstein’s own did I would assert that it’s OK to hear those passages differently. Every serious interpretation is effectively a dialogue between composer, performers, and audience. And this one is moving.

A Bernstein Masterpiece Deserves More Hearings


This is a spectacular recording of an unjustly lesser known Bernstein masterpiece. It doesn’t have the familiar Broadway inflections found in much of his work but it is a solidly serious symphony/concerto which demonstrates an aspect of the composer’s wide range of compositional ability.

Bernstein wrote only three symphonies (the third and last written in 1963 in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy) but all deserve attention and this may very well be the best of the three. Is is the only one without a vocal part.

In many ways it is similar to his “Plato’s Symposium” (1945) in that it has an obligato solo part but is not identified as a Concerto. That said, the solo part is substantial and the fine pianist Krystian Zimmerman needed to come to terms with this spectacular work. It is indeed not a Concerto. The piano solo is more like a character in dialogue with the instruments of the orchestra, an analogy for the events of Auden’s Pulitzer Prize winning long poem of 1947 from which it gets its title. It was dedicated to Bernstein’s teacher Serge Koussevitsky who conducted the premiere with the composer at the piano.

Simon Rattle clearly has a grasp of Bernstein’s early symphonic style (he also gets jazz and later Bernstein more readily than most European conductors. I must admit only a passing familiarity with this work but this recording has definitely rekindled my interest and it will likely have that effect on subsequent listeners.

Beautiful performance and recording. Seek this one out. You won’t be disappointed.

Perpetulum, a Double Album from Third Coast Percussion is a Triumph


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Third Coast Percussion is one of Chicago’s finest musical exports along with groups like Eighth Blackbird and doubtless others with whom I have less familiarity.  Their deservedly Grammy winning album of music by Steve Reich was reviewed here.  All percussion ensembles are somewhat the rage these days judging by the amount of such albums that come my way.  Percussion instruments are common in eastern cultures but only really made its way into western ensembles in a big way in the last 100 years or so largely due to composers like John Cage and Lou Harrison studying music of other cultures and writing new music for both existing and newly invented percussion instruments.

Percussion is like the junk drawer of the orchestra in that any instrument which does not fit into the categories of strings, winds, or brass is handled by the percussionist.  The taxi horns in Gershwin’s American in Paris are a good example.  However what we have here is an ensemble entirely comprised of percussion instruments with some seriously virtuosic players here performing music written for them.

This two CD set from Orange Mountain Music contains five works by five composers.  The first CD is dedicated to the largest work on this release, “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” by ensemble member David Skidmore.  It is, at about 35 minutes, the longest piece in this collection and is virtually a symphony for percussion and electronics.  It is in seven movements, each with a cryptic title no doubt related to the musical content.  It is an engaging work of some complexity with fascinating writing for percussion instruments. Multiple close listens will reward you with details not immediately apparent and reveal some of the structure of this large work.

The second CD begins with a shorter work by ensemble member Peter Martin called “Bend”.  It has the characteristics of an orchestral work using largely pitched percussion.  It presents themes, develops them, and has a detectable harmonic structure.  It is a showpiece for the musicians but it does communicate with the listener.

Next up is Philip Glass in his first all percussion work, “Perpetulum” (2018) has four movements and clocks in at about 25 minutes.  This is music by a seasoned composer, not the experimental music of his earlier years (which hooked this listener) but rather a recognizable and comfortably familiar style with some really nice writing for percussion.  Glass has frequently used percussion of various sorts in his works but this is the first thing he has written entirely for percussion ensemble.  It is an audience pleaser and a challenge to the musicians.

This is followed by a work by another member of the group Robert Dillon.  “Ordering-Instincts” (2018) is cast in one movement it is a relatively brief (7min approx) piece which successfully challenges the players and entertains the audience.  It also seems to provide a nice segue to the final cut.

The disc concludes with a major percussion work by British minimalist Gavin Bryars.  “The Other Side of the River” (2018) is a commission by Third Coast Percussion and is a valuable addition to Bryars gentle, pensive oeuvre.  For this listener this piece is the highlight of this collection.  Bryars is at his best in his meditative mood.  Sinking of the Titanic and Farewell to Philosophy come to mind as similarly relaxing and thoughtful.  This is a big piece and well worth the journey of listening.

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Bryars at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, 2016 (Creative Commons license by Allan J. Cronin)

This CD set is a massive undertaking and a fine production illustrating the range of compositional interests of Third Coast Percussion as well as their own compositional chops.  It is also a great sounding recording.  Very well done.