Mariel Roberts’ Cartography: New Cello Music


This is another of those releases that is functionally a business card if you will. By that I mean that I’m finding a fair amount of solo instrumental discs (some with electronics, like this one, some not) in which the artist demonstrates their skill with their instrument but, more importantly, their familiarity and facility with the segment of the repertoire they embrace.  Actually this is the second such album from this artist, the previous (yet unheard by this listener) having been released in 2012.

Mariel Roberts is one of those New York based musicians whose milieu puts her in contact with the cutting edge (at least in New York) of modern composition.  Roberts has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician across four continents, most notably as a member of the Mivos Quartet, Wet Ink Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Bang on a Can All Stars, and Ensemble Signal. Her skills and her talent seem boundless.

Here she features four rather large works for cello, solo, with piano, and/or with electronics.  The composers featured include: George Lewis, Eric Wubbels, David Brynjar Franzson, and a collaborative work she wrote with Cenk Ergun.  Not the usual suspects but a panoply of interesting and creative composers.

Rather than attempt any analysis of the works presented here let me just say that all require a high level of virtuosity. An essential aspect of this virtuosity is whatever coordination is required of the soloist interacting with electronics. The lack of detailed liner notes make it difficult to know the nature of this interaction but one can certainly enjoy the resulting performance even without those details.

This is NOT easy listening by any means but it is a tasty sampling of some truly creative music for the right ears. Multiple listenings will be needed but the listener will be rewarded for their effort.

 

Other Minds 24 Revives the Quartets of Ivan Wyschnegradsky in San Francisco


I admit to some trepidation as I proceeded to the beautiful War Memorial Opera House in downtown San Francisco.  While I had heard of this composer, Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979), it was only through one work which was contained on a disc with other microtonal works by John Cage and Harry Partch performed variously by Joshua Pierce, Dorothy Jonas, and Johnny Reinhard (among others).  And microtonal music can be tedious in some hands.

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This helpful sign in the elevator directed concert goers to the 4th floor recital room known as the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater

Adding to the sense of obscurity, the concert was in a small chamber music hall on the fourth floor.  Other events ran concurrently on this night.  The hall was nearly filled to its capacity of just under 300 people most of whom I would guess have never heard of this composer.  But they likely had heard of the Arditti Quartet and clearly put their trust in the amazing ear and mind of executive and artistic director Charles Amirkhanian to deliver a satisfying musical experience which he does most reliably.  This concert was no exception.

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The stage awaits the performers with that OM logo projected on the floor.

The Arditti Quartet was formed in 1974 and quickly became known as one of the finest interpreters of contemporary string quartet music.  Their repertoire is vast and they do not shy away from technical difficulty or other artistic challenges.  In fact they had recorded the Wyschnegradsky Quartets but, sadly, that recording is out of print.  Even more interesting is the fact that tonight’s performance constitutes U.S. premieres for all the works on this concert except for the Haas Quartet (included at the suggestion of Mr. Arditti to fill out the program).  Another astonishing fact shared by Amirkhanian is that this is the only time that the quartet has been asked to play this music in concert.  There are plans to release those recordings in the near future pending negotiations with record companies.

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Amirkhanian reminded the audience to silence those pesky cell phones.

Mention needs to be made of the talents of OM’s graphic designer (and stage manager among other duties), Mark Abramson.  His work on this and last year’s program booklets take things to a new level of excellence.  The program notes by Charles Amirkhanian, Randall Wong, and Blaine Todd are both lucid and comprehensive (a very necessary thing in dealing with new and obscure music).  And the photos of the composer and the performers along with some of the composer’s own art work make this another true collector’s item.  Previous programs were certainly well done but this is a step up.

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The Arditti Quartet

I chose to just listen and to read the notes later rather than get caught up in details.  Indeed that was a good choice.  Wyschnegradsky’s approach to the use of microtones seems more focused on the possibilities of extending melodic language than the harmonic and my understanding of complex harmony is admittedly limited anyway.  Of course the harmony is necessarily different than the western models of the 18th and 19th centuries but the music, at least in the hands of such talented interpreter’s such as the Arditti speaks rather directly to the listener.

The music was presented chronologically in order of the years these pieces were composed (String Quartet No.1, 1923-4, rev. 1953-4), (String Quartet No. 2, 1930-1), (String Quartet No. 3, 1945, rev. 1958-9), and (Composition for string quartet, 1960, rev. 1966-70) completed the first half of the program.  There was surprisingly little in the way of dissonance and the quartet played with a palpable intensity and concentration creating very convincing performances.

 

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Blaine Todd holds the OM bag (a Carol Law design) as Amirkhanian picks two raffle winners after intermission.

The second half began with Wyschnegradsky’s last composition, a String Trio (1978-9).  Incomplete at the time of his death the trio was revised completed by Claude Ballif.  Again what one hears is not what you might expect from microtonality.  The composer has realized a uniquely effective way to use microtones.  Hearing this survey makes the composer’s vision clear and places him in the company of such as Alois Hába (1893-1973), Harry Partch (1901-1974), and Ben Johnston (1926- ) to name a few.  

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The Arditti Quartet sans second violin Asot Sarkissjian on stage to play the Wyschnegradsky Trio

The revelation for this listener was hearing a good sampling of the composer’s vision and a creative way to use microtones unlike any other composer really.  And it became clear too why Charles chose to revive this unique voice in the musical world.  This is beautiful music.

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As mentioned earlier Mr. Arditti had remarked that the Wyschnegradsky Quartet and Trio music would not quite fill an evening and he suggested they play the Second String Quartet (of about 6 now I believe) by Austrian born composer Georg Friedrich Haas (1953- ).  It was the only work which was not a U.S. premiere.

Arditti’s ear for programming was finely as tuned as ever and this quartet provided a very satisfying finale to the evening filled with wonderful discoveries.  While this particular quartet uses some microtones the style is denser and more dissonant overall than the preceding music.  This is not to say that it was not entertaining, rather it is illustrative of the rich possibilities of microtonal composition.  The Arditti again shows itself to be at the forefront of the finest interpreters of the modern string quartet and clearly Haas is a name worth knowing as well.  Bravo!

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The musicians acknowledge the standing ovation and warm applause

Save the dates June 15 and 16 for the last two concerts in this year’s Other Minds 24 program.

Jennifer Koh and Kaija Saariaho, a Glorious Collaboration


Cedille

The arrestingly beautiful portrait that graces the cover of this album should be enough of  a cover to judge this release favorably. Just the presence of these two women suggests that you’re in for some serious music making. Add to that the fact that this is one of those impeccable Cedille releases and you know that you, the listener, will not be disappointed. Here is another offering for Women’s History Month (even though the disc was released in November, 2018).

Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) is possibly the hottest composer to come out of Finland since Sibelius. Her career has steadily grown and she has written for chamber ensemble, stage, and orchestra. It is somehow satisfying to have this little portrait of her work. (This reviewer’s first encounter with the composer was in 1987 when the Kronos Quartet premiered her Nymphea for string quartet and electronics.) Five works are selected here and, if you don’t know this composer’s work, think Debussy, Takemitsu, and their ilk. No electronics on this disc though. Her work is a unique expression and pretty much listener friendly whether or not she uses electronics.

There are four chamber music pieces and a nice new performance of her masterful violin concerto, “Graal Théâtre”. Saariaho is so prolific such that one can only do a sort of “snapshot” selection of her work on a single CD. A decent retrospective would likely require several more discs.

Jennifer Koh is without doubt one of the finest violinists working today, especially in contemporary music. She even broke ground in one of the coolest blind castings in contemporary performance playing Einstein in Glass’ opera, “Einstein on the Beach”. For those who are unfamiliar the role of Einstein requires a violinist wearing a wig who plays some mighty difficult violin music at different points during the opera. This writer heard her in performance of this role at the revival in Berkeley a few years ago and it is a mark of Koh’s expertise that she made the role her own. Her range (which includes more conventional repertoire like Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc.) is simply astounding and her technical ability puts her in competition for an ever growing list of commissions and other works she has added to her repertoire.

On this CD we get to hear Koh in the intimate settings of chamber music where the skills of listening to others is so critical as the individual voices weave their parts though the texture. While Saariaho is basically a well trained modernist romanticism and perhaps impressionism still remain a part of her palette. Joining Koh in the chamber pieces are: Nicholas Hodges, piano; Hsin Yun Huang, viola; Wilhelmina Smith, cello; Anssi Karttunen, cello;

Of course the big showpiece here is the violin concerto from 1994. This large scale work is actually as lucid and detailed as her chamber music, albeit with a larger range of sounds. It is a masterful composition and this appears to be the second recording it has received though apparently the first recording of the version with reduced orchestra played by the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble conducted by Conner Gray Covington (another reason to want this album). I wasn’t able to locate the other recording with Gidon Kremer but it is a good sign when you have more than one top soloist recording your work. Brava Ms. Koh and Ms. Saariaho! This is a collaboration blessed by the Gods. Saariaho x Koh = bliss.

Post Holy Minimalism? New Music from Lithuania


Starkland ST-231

All ready for Women’s History Month is this fine offering which features a fine young woman composer from Lithuania. It comes on the radar of Starkland Records and, happily now, to a new listening audience.

I sincerely hope that no one takes umbrage at my off handed categorization of this music as related to minimalism but I’m not sure what else to call it. This 70 minute work is divided into 10 sections which have poetic titles. It is scored for piano, violin, cello, and electronic sound. It comes from an area of the world (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) where individual national identities have long been overshadowed by the annexation of the former USSR. In the last 20 years a style related to minimalism has emerged as a characteristic style from this region (primarily in the work of Arvo Part). Some of that is here but this music is at least a generation removed and has evolved its own identity at the hands of this new composer.

In an unusual (though not unprecedented) move this album was recorded and produced entirely by the composer in Lithuania. In addition some of her fine color photography is featured in the liner notes (which are mostly by the composer). The production values are very much consistent with the high quality one expects from the Starkland label. In addition it must be noted that this is the simplest and sanest packaging now being used for CDs. None of that fragile plastic and still a functional storage sleeve.

So the next question (also common with Starkland releases) is: Who is
Žibuoklė Martinaitytė ? Well she is one of the emerging generation of composers from Lithuania. That, along with her having studied with Bronius Kutavičius (I actually started his Wikipedia article many years ago but his and other articles on new Lithuanian composers is limited still) suggested to me that she may be of the branch of minimalism which hails from this part of the world (i.e. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). Wrong, but not entirely.

Like a lot of emerging composers we have here an artist fully schooled in a very wide range of musical techniques and possibilities. On first listen one hears elements of drone, ambient, minimalism, extended instrumental techniques, and mysterious but effective use of electronics with this small chamber ensemble. The effect is frequently almost orchestral but also capable of great stillness and silence.

In the liner notes by the composer she speaks of being inspired by her observations whilst visiting Notre Dame in Paris. She speaks of a rather impressionistic notion of hidden or lost beauty. So I guess that throws impressionism into the mix. The composition does have metaphorical devices which do suggest the emerging of ideas and themes from an initial chaos or, to use Ives term, a “silence of the druids”. One must get to the 4th track to really get a sense that there is actually a piano trio on this recording. Very effective actually and then it fades back into the chaos and then the silence.

The album opens with silence into which a drone gradually makes itself known. These meanderings take the listener on a journey which is essentially the artists sonic vision as she walked through and around the iconic cathedral. The listener doesn’t even hear really more conventional musical sounds until about track 4 and concepts like melody and harmony take on a different meaning in this context. It is a large arc of a composition that embraces both chamber and orchestral textures as it tells its sonic tale of the composer’s visions and returns to the chaos of the unfocused mind at the end.

This puts this work in the realm of the earlier release (also on Starkland) of Ingram Marshall’s Alcatraz (1982) and Eberbach (1985). Eberbach was later released with its originally intended photographic component along with Alcatraz on a recent DVD on Starkland. And Mr Marshall provides some insight and reassurance in his liner notes for In Search of Lost Beauty. He affirmed for this listener that one needs to listen more than once to perceive the beauty found herein.

Recorded and produced entirely in Lithuania the artists include Indre Baikstyte, piano; Ingrida Rupaite-Petrikiene, violin, and Povilas Jacunskas, cello. The recording, done in Lithuania was mastered by the always reliable Silas Brown back here in the United States assures the quality listeners have come to expect from this fine independent record label.

Political Classical: Frank Horvat’s “For Those Who Died Trying”


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Atma ACD2 2788

Frank Horvat (1974- )is a Canadian composer and musician with a profound interest in social justice and human rights.  In this 35 movement string quartet he is concerned with memorializing the lives of 35 activists who died while furthering the cause of human rights.  This work is made even more compelling by including photos from a photo essay of the subjects taken by Luke Duggleby, a Thai-based photographer and journalist.

Without a doubt this is a shining example of what I have termed, “Political Classical”, a genre of protest music which seems to have emerged in the twentieth century.  This work takes its place now with Frederic Rzewski’s Pueblo Unido Variations, and works by composers like Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze, and countless others who have chosen to use their expertise in the classical genre to write works analogous to the folk protest music which is perhaps better known to the listening public.

With songs one has the words which can directly or indirectly evoke the particular issue being addressed.  But, other than a dedication in the program notes, how does one imbue their music with the intended meaning for a given protest work.  Well, Mr. Horvat has chosen to utilize only the letters from these victims’ names to form the musical material for each portrait.  That is he uses the letters which correspond to musical notes.  Most famously this practice is known through the B, A, C, H (corresponding in German notation as B flat, A, C, B) theme which is the basis for Bach’s Art of Fugue.

By itself this can be a bland and meaningless exercise but Horvat manages to work within this carefully limited framework to create 35 very convincing portraits of these Human Rights Heroes.  The 35 movements are relatively brief and put this listener in the mind of composers who have  succeeded quite well with such a format such as Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison.  Both of these composers and the man in discussion here work in a basically tonal framework with a balanced and judicious use of dissonance.  What is curious is how he seems to succeed in evoking these people purely through sound.

In comes the Mivos Quartet whose job it is to make sense of the composer’s intentions and breath life into the notes on the page.  This New York based string quartet consists of Olivia de Prato, violin; Maya Bennardo, violin; Victor Lowrie Tafoya, viola; and Tyler J. Borden, cello.  And let’s just say they are up to the task.  Each movement takes on its individual character but retains a larger connection to the work as a whole.  Perhaps this is also a metaphor for the nature of individuality as part of the larger concept of humanity and why each perspective is vital to our collective survival.

Before I wax too philosophical let me just say that, at least in terms of this recording, this is a document of classical string quartet which also serves as a memorial to the victims it references and, hopefully, as a sort of wake up call to those who, for whatever reason, are unaware of these atrocities.  Ultimately, I suppose, the goal is the amelioration of inhumane practices.  But until then we may find comfort in the beauty which this composer has brought to this work.  This would seem to be a stab at acknowledgement of sacrifice in the name of human rights seeking justice but, for now, we must settle for beauty even if it brings tears which are a mix of both sadness and joy.

Clarice Jensen Solo Debut Album


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Miasmah Records MIA041 

Another refugee from one of those new music groups comes forth with a debut album.  This time it is cellist Clarice Jensen who also serves as artistic director of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME).  And what amazes this listener is the sheer diversity one can find in solo cello recordings.

This recording focuses on the special tunings by La Monte Young student Michael Harrison who has carved his own unique compositional style as well as some interesting work by the late Johan Johannson and by the soloist herself.  

There are 4 tracks: 
bc by Clarice Jensen and Jóhann Jóhannsson
Cello Constellations by Michael Harrison 
For this from that will be filled (a) by Clarice Jensen
For this from that will be filled (b) by Clarice Jensen

While there are consistencies between the sound world of these pieces they have their own identity.  Johansson’s work opens the disc and sets the tone for all that comes after.  This is not simply a cellist with a set of cool effects pedals.  Rather this is a soloist seeking to become one with her instrument (which includes the electronics).

Michael Harrison’s work is heard too infrequently.  The former student of La Monte Young carries on the tradition of exploring new tunings in a manner one might expect of the next generation of this practice.  Harrison (no relation to Lou) creates dream like worlds with the psychological  effects of these tunings and this work is a stunning example.

Jensen plays the two parts of the title track, “For this from that will be fulfilled”.  Multiple generations beyond the kitschy “one man band” novelty concept, Jensen’s playing must be a mesmerizing live experience.  This track was originally designed to accompany visuals by one Jonathan Turner who did the striking photography of the album’s cover.

The review copy lacked liner notes (a personal bugaboo) and the press release and notes on the soloist’s site and that of Bandcamp also tell precious little.  Fortunately this is music which speaks pretty directly and can easily be  enjoyed with no knowledge of whence it came.  Just sit back, relax, and enjoy.  Jensen’s playing is magical.

Jensen in performance (photo from web site)

Harold Meltzer New Chamber Music


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Open G Records

I was delighted to receive this disc directly from the composer.  I had not been familiar with Harold Meltzer‘s (1966- ) work so this would be my introduction.  The disc contains two works, a Piano Quartet (2016) and a song cycle, Variations on a Summer Day (2012-2016).  Both are functional titles which tell the listener little about what to expect in terms of style.  I was even more delighted when he kindly sent me some PDF scores of these pieces.

The Piano Quartet might be described as post minimal I suppose but the salient characteristic of this piece is that it is exciting and quite listenable.  It is also quite a workout for the musicians.  In fact this piece seems to embody a variety of styles which give it a friendly romantic gloss at times.  This is a fine addition to the Piano Quartet repertoire.

The musicians that do such justice to this composition are: Boston Chamber Music Society: Harumi Rhodes, violin, Dimitri Murrath, viola, Ramen Ramakrishnan, violoncello, and Max Levinson, piano.  All are kept quite busy and seems to be enjoying themselves.  I can’t imagine this not playing well to the average chamber music audience.

The song cycle, “Variations on a Summer Day” sets poetry by Wallace Stevens and Meltzer’s compositional style seems to be a good fit for Stevens’ poetic style.  This work is stylistically very similar to the Piano Quartet with hints of minimalism within a larger somewhat romantic style.  It is scored for chamber orchestra with soprano solo.  Actually the orchestra is Ensemble Sequitur, a group founded in part by the composer and clearly dedicated to the performance of new music.  The members of this group include: Abigail Fischer, soprano, Jayce Ogren, conductor, Tara O’Connor and Barry Crawford, flutes, Alan Kay and Vicente Alexim, clarinets, Margaret Kampmeier, piano, Miranda Cuckson and Andrea Schultz, violins, Daniel Panner, viola, Greg Hesselink, violoncello.

The poem is by the sometimes obtuse American poet Wallace Stevens.  Maybe “obtuse” is the wrong word but Stevens is not the easiest read.  What is interesting is how well this composer’s style fits this poetic utterance.  This is a lovely song cycle that puts this writer in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs and Barber’s Hermit Songs and perhaps his Knoxville Summer of 1915.  There is an air of romantic nostalgia in this tonal and passionate setting.

Stevens’ poetry has been inspiring American composers for some years.  Works like Roger Reynolds’ “The Emperor of Ice CreamThe Emperor of Ice Cream“(1961-2) demonstrate an effective avant garde setting of another of his works.  It is fascinating to hear how different composers utilize the poet’s work.  The present cycle is a beautiful setting which presents a challenge to the musicians which is met quite successfully here.