From the Simpsons to the Concert Hall,Classical Gems by Danny Elfman


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Danny Elfman (1953-) has had a varied and successful musical career working in diverse areas.  From his days as lead singer and songwriter for Oingo Boingo, he has cultivated his love of film music into a successful career having scored numerous films and television shows.

Now a great divide seems to exist between composers who score films and composers who compose for the concert hall.  Few have demonstrated the ability to be successful in both arenas.  Erich Wolfgang Korngold is a notable exception as is Aaron Copland.  Both men have succeeded rather famously in both film and classical concert hall music.  In fact John Williams, though known primarily as a film and television composer has written quite a bit for the concert hall as well.

Now here comes Danny Elfman, known best perhaps as the composer of the Simpsons them for the long running animated series.  He has gotten the bug to write for the concert hall and this recording presents two major works.  The first is his violin concerto “11/11)(2017) with soloist Sandy Cameron.  You can read the liner notes about the composer’s obsession with the number 11 or you can relax and enjoy a genuine violin concerto, not a reworking of themes as one might expect from a lesser composer.  The second is a nice addition to the chamber music repertoire, a piano quartet (2017).

The concerto is played by the wonderful Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of the esteemed John Mauceri.  Sandy Cameron is the soloist who handles the concertos four movements flawlessly and does justice to Elfman’s work.  It’s really a beautiful piece.  Only time will tell the work’s eventual place in history but we can certainly enjoy it for what it is, a good and entertaining violin concerto.

The Piano Quartet is played by the Philharmonic Piano Quartet Berlin which consists of Andreas Buschatz, violin ; Matthew Hunter, viola; Knut Weber, cello; and Marcus Groh, piano.  This five movement work would happily grace any chamber music recital.  It is in turn pithy, melodic, humorous, and serious.

This is stronger music than this reviewer had imagined would come from this composer’s pen.  I can’t say, “If you like his film scores you’ll like his music” but there are, perhaps inevitably, snippets of his film music style which work actually quite well.

Hee-Young Lim: French Cello Concertos


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Normally I don’t review a lot of popular best seller CDs or recordings of music written before 1900 (I like most all music but that I just don’t think I have much useful to say about it) but this one has the happy exception of including a 20th Century work and it is an example of truly thoughtful and creative programming.

This is the major label debut of Korean born cellist Hee-Young Lim.  She is, according to her website, currently professor of cello at Beijing Central Conservatory.  With this disc she demonstrates her facility with the technical aspects of her instrument as well as a gift for interpretation.  In addition she is known as an advocate of new music, hence the inclusion of the Milhaud Cello Concerto.

This is such a delightful disc combining two lesser heard major cello concertos with some tasty filler material.  But the real gem here is the too rarely heard Milhaud concerto of 1936.  Wow, what a great work!

The disc opens with a true classic, the Saint-Saens’ (1835-1921)  Cello Concerto No. 1 of 1872.  This is one of the great concertos for the instrument.  It is not heard with the frequency of say the Dvorak concerto but it is every bit as good and as challenging.  Ms. Lim handles this romantic gem with both ease and grace.

The second offering is a real rarity, the Cello Concerto (1877) of Èdouard Lalo (1823-1892).  It is not clear why this major work gets heard so rarely (Lalo’s work is way overdue for a reappraisal and some recordings).  It is a wonderful romantic era concerto and Lim handles it like the seasoned professional she is.

The highlight of this disc for me personally is the also rarely heard Cello Concerto No. 1 (1934) of Darius Milhaud (1892-1974).  It is one of two such works by the wonderfully prolific composer.  This work is surely recognizable for some modernist features (Lim seems quite comfortable with the more modern idiom here, a mark of a master it would seem).  Maybe a little dissonance here or there but this is basically a post-romantic work with appropriate nods toward some modernism.  The point is that it is an expressive work that deserves a place in the repertory.  Hopefully this recording will contribute to helping this music achieve its deserved place in history.  And of course there’s the eager anticipation of her recording the second Milhaud Concerto for Cello.

The disc ends with two short romantic bonbons, Jacques Offenbach’s “Les Larmes de Jacqueline” and the too rarely heard Meditation from Jules Massenet’s opera “Thais”.

Scott Yoo conducts the always competent London Symphony.  The useful and well written liner notes by James Inverne are so well researched and written I won’t complain about the microscopic typeface.  The sound is handled well by engineer Jin Choi at the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London town.

The multilingual program notes suggest that this disc looks forward to an international reputation for this fine young artist and it looks/sounds like that is what is happening here.  Let us welcome her to the international music community and look excitedly forward to hearing more from her.  Brava! Ms. Lim!

Double, Double: Three Double Concertos


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Let me begin with a confession.  The Brahms Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra is not my favorite Brahms concerto.  Think about it.  All his other concertos and certainly the symphonies get many live performances.  Not so with this double concerto.  Nonetheless it pretty much has served as THE model for this particular configuration of multiple soloist concerto.  That said we find ourselves confronted by this really delightful Sony release which effectively contains possibly the three finest examples of this genre (though it would be nice to include Lou Harrison’s double concerto).

The disc opens with a single movement concerto by the prolific German composer Wolfgang Rihm (1952- ).  This busy piece seems to be basically post-romantic in its harmonic language and more like a concerto grosso in terms of the more embedded solo materials.  It is a tour de force for both orchestra and soloists.  The classic three movement concerto format is abandoned in favor of one twenty minute allegro which contains a very large and interesting world of musical ideas.  Yes, there are some harsher sounding harmonies but this assertive music brings the listener along with its rush of ideas.

Next is the Brahms Concerto.  Now I am a Brahms fan and have tried to “get” this concerto for many years.  As beautiful as this performance is I still find the first movement way too long and ponderous.  The second movement is pleasant but not as memorable as I wish it were.  But if you make it through those two you are treated to a scherzo-like finale which is one of the finest things the composer wrote.

The disc concludes with another 21st century concerto.  This one is by the venerable John Harbison is an arresting and powerful piece.  Unlike the Rihm and even the Brahms Harbison relies upon a great deal of solo and duo material for the featured soloists with the orchestra participating when it is allowed.  This is a multiple movement piece with many moods.  It is a virtuosic venture for orchestra and soloists.

The performers in this recording, though not familiar names to this reviewer, are clearly world class performers who go fearlessly into new music and have mastered the old.  Jan Vogler is on cello and Mira Wang is on violin.  The orchestra is the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  They are up to the seemingly considerable challenges under the guidance of Peter Oundjian.  And the recording is lucid and warm.

 

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


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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


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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.