Transformations, Elizabeth Chang takes on mid-century masters


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Albany Records has demonstrated a commitment to lesser known composers of the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps the term “neglected composers” is more accurate. This disc, headed by an artist new to these ears, Elizabeth Chang is an exciting release for folks who appreciate post-Schoenbergian music. That is a limited audience for sure but the sheer quality of the works of the composers represented should entice hungry minds.

Three composers are represented: Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Leon Kirchner (1919-2009), and Roger Sessions (1896-1985). Schoenberg is the only one adequately represented in recordings (if not in performances). The two American composers, Kirchner and Sessions, are both Pulitzer Prize winners and were respected as teachers as well as composers.

The recording opens with Kirchner’s Duo No.2 (2002) for violin and piano. I am familiar with Kirchner’s four string quartets, the third of which earned him his Pulitzer. His catalog of works is large and, sadly, most recordings are out of print. This late work compares favorably with the quartets. Clocking in at about 15 minutes, this work is decidedly very post-Schoenberg with an almost neo-romantic lyricism. The demands, met ably by the artists (Steven Beck, piano; Elizabeth Chang, violin), perform what is nearly a mini concerto.

The second piece, covering tracks 2-5, is the major standout here. Roger Sessions Sonata for Solo Violin (1953), can stand beside other twentieth century works in this genre such as Bela Bartok’s 1944 masterpiece. It has been recorded by Paul Zukofsky, Hyman Bress, Curtis Macomber, and, most recently, by Miranda Cuckson. While I have not heard any but Zukofsky’s rendition, it would seem that this performance is a welcome addition to the discography of this major masterpiece. I will leave it to the fine liner notes by David E. Schneider for more details on this rather complex work.

Sessions is given more exposure with a late work, the Duo for Violin and Cello (1978). The fact that this was found among the composer’s papers after his death with sketches for at least one more movement suggests that this was intended to be a much larger work. What does exist would make a fine companion to the (also too little performed) 1922 Maurice Ravel masterwork for this unusual combination of instruments.

The recording ends with Arnold Schoenberg’s Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment Op. 47 (1949). Both this and the previous work represent the last chamber music compositions by Sessions and Schoenberg. I am somewhat chagrined to admit that this is my first hearing of the Schoenberg piece. It is a thorny, almost pointillistic piece which is a very fine piece. and one that deserves more attention from this writer and

Even if this release may speak to a limited audience it is, nonetheless a significant and enjoyable contribution to the recorded legacy of this very significant western art music.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell in Santa Barbara


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Shot of the stage of Hahn Hall at Santa Barbara’s historic Music Academy of the West (Photo by author)

The beautiful and acoustically excellent Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara was the venue for a powerful chamber music concert on Saturday, January 25th.  The not too common combination of violin and cello played respectively by violinist extraordinaire Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the equally matched musicianship of cellist Jay Campbell delighted a near full house with a carefully chosen set of pieces from the 642 CE to the present.  Who knew that there was so much music for this combination of instruments and that it would be so marvelously engaging?

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Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell in Massachusetts (Photo from Patricia’s web site)

This concert was part of the UC Santa Barbara’s always excellent Arts and Lectures series.  Kopatchinskaja was clearly the big name on the marquee for this event but Campbell was clearly a match both in skill and enthusiasm for this night’s event.

A slight change in the program was announced at the beginning which, if this reviewer heard correctly placed a piece originally slated for the second half of the program in the number two slot on the first half.

The concert opened with an anonymous “Alleluia” from a collection of works only recently (the past 50 years or so) deciphered by scholars.  The slow melismatic voice lines transcribed here for these string instruments was played with the sort of approximate intonation common to so called “period performances” which attempt to provide as much as possible some sense of how the music may have sounded in its time.  It was a slow piece rich in harmonics and reverent in execution.

The next piece, a clearly modern piece from the look of the oversized score on the music stand, was (again if this reviewer heard this correctly) by Hungarian composer Márton Illés (1975- ).  It was the world premiere of “Én-kör III”, a piece that brought us nearly 1500 years forward and evoked the modernist sound world of Darmstadt and the sort of modernism that dominated the 1950s in Europe.  It was a challenging piece for both listeners and players involving special techniques of playing that doubtless made for a fascinating looking score.  On sheer virtuosity and powerful performance alone the piece was well received.  It is complex music that doubtless benefits from repeated hearings and this premiere suggests that that will be the case.  The interested listener would do well to explore the web site of this fascinating composer whose name and music was new to this writer’s ears.

Next up, music by another modernist composer, the German, Jörg Widmann (1973- ).  Two selections (numbers 21 and 24) from his 24 duos for violin and cello (2008) were also of the Darmstadt style modernism mentioned earlier.  The Valse Bavaroise (Bavarian Waltz) had echoes of the 19th century Viennese traditions while the Toccatina all’inglese which followed it was a finger busting virtuosic showpiece, another audience pleaser actually.

Then, as if to cleanse our aural pallets the duo played Orlando Gibbons’ (1583-1625) Fantasia a 2, No. 4 for two “viols”.  As in the opening piece these are transcriptions since the violin and cello as we know them today did not exist.  This little instrumental miniature was a charming and relaxing interlude.

The final piece on the first half of this concert was the too seldom heard Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).  This again set the mood to virtuosic modernism.  Even people in the audience familiar with Ravel’s better known works were astounded at the modern sound.  According to the program notes this work was written in the shadow of both the death of his esteemed fellow French luminary Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and the end of the First World War (also 1918).  Indeed there were angry dissonances to be heard but this four movement sonata remains an astounding work and this performance was a powerful and forceful reading conveying the respect that this masterpiece deserves.  It is filled with both jazz influences as well as gypsy music (no doubt dear to the Moldovan born Kopatchinskaja).  And were it not for the visual cues that only two instruments were actually playing one might guess that there were certainly more.  At this point we all needed an intermission just to breathe.

The second half of the concert consisted of (with one exception) music from the region of Kopatchinskaja’s birth.  The Romanian born Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) produced a great deal of music in the high modernism and experimental traditions but the work which opened the second half of this concert was an early work “Dhipli Zyia” (1951) which sounded much like the work of (also Romanian born) Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945) with whom Xenakis had familiarity and, apparently, affection.

The program continued without the punctuation of applause into the 14th century with a work by the French composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca.1300-1377), his Ballade 4.  This is apparently originally a vocal work and was played in transcription for tonight’s soloists.

Again without the transition signal of applause the duo launched into another work which, like the Xenakis, is atypical of his largely modernist oeuvre.  György Ligeti (1923-2006) is perhaps best know for his music’s (unapproved) inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  The work played on this night was “Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg” (1982).  Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1985) was among the earliest Swedish modernist composers and this work was written on the occasion of his 90th birthday.  The piece echoed Ligeti’s affection for the aforementioned Bela Bartok and folk tunes predominated this brief but lovely score.

The duo launched with little pause into a piece by Bartok’s contemporary Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967).  His “Duo for Violin and Cello” Op. 7 (1914) sounded almost like a model for the later Ravel piece heard at the conclusion of the first half of the concert.  This three movement work is unusual in this composer’s catalog in that it is more aggressively modern than much of his more folk inflected pieces (Bartok and Kodaly were early pioneers in ethnomusicology and they collected and recorded a great deal of folk music from the region of Hungary, Romania, etc.)  It was a fantastic finale which garnered the artists an enthusiastic standing ovation.  The smiling and obviously satisfied performers received the traditional bouquets of flowers and returned for a brief little piece (didn’t catch the name) which was a little token of thanks to the equally satisfied and smiling audience.

Douglas Boyce New and Exciting Chamber Music


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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