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.

Isang Yun: Sunrise Falling


PTC 5186-693

2018 marks the 100th birth anniversary of Korea’s best known composer, Isang Yun (1918-1995). His work has received many performances and recordings but he is not exactly a household name and live performances are still not very common.

Yun is well known for his having been kidnapped by the South Korean secret service from his home in Germany in 1967 due to alleged espionage. He remained a prisoner for two years and was subjected to torture and forced interrogations. It took intervention from the artistic community to secure his release and the petition included signatures of Igor Stravinsky, Herbert von Karajan, Luigi Dallapiccola, Hans Werner Henze, Heinz Holliger, Mauricio Kagel, Joseph Keilberth, Otto Klemperer, György Ligeti, Arne Mellnäs, Per Nørgård, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann. He was held for the better part of two years and never again returned to South Korea.

This fine 2 CD set is the first release in what this writer hopes will be a series of recordings of Yun’s major works. Dennis Russell Davies has demonstrated both knowledge and mastery of new and unusual repertoire as well as that of established works of the western canon. Despite many recordings of his work in the past those recordings were (and still are) notoriously difficult to find so this set is especially welcome.

Here Davies joins forces with the Bruckner Orchestra Linz and the talents of soloists Matt Haimovitz, Yumi Hwang-Williams, and Maki Namekawa to record a sampling of Yun’s works. In addition to the first (of three) Violin concerto (1981), the Cello concerto (1976), and a sampling of chamber works including Interludium in A (1982) for piano, Glisees (1970) for solo cello, Kontraste (1987) for solo violin, Gasa (1965) for violin and piano (probably the composer’s best known piece), and a short orchestral piece, Fanfare and Memorial (1979).

If you don’t know Yun’s work this is a fine place to start. If you already know his work you will want to hear these performances.  These are definitive and will set the standard for all that follows.

The concertos are somewhat thorny and dissonant but deeply substantive affairs that challenge both orchestra and soloist. Yun’s style draws more from modernist (think Darmstadt) than romanticism but he is capable of great beauty within that context.  In both concertos the soloists must deal with virtuosic challenges but each concerto provides a marvelous showcase for their skills.  Hearing them played by musicians of this caliber they are shown to be masterpieces of the genre.

The chamber music is similarly thorny at times but always interesting. This composer deserves to be better known and recordings like this with quality performances and recordings makes a great step in that direction. Yun was a prolific composer of pretty consistent quality so even a two disc retrospective such as this can only be a brief sampling.  The choices of what to record can’t avoid taking on a personal dimension. Intelligent choices of repertoire combined with defining performances such as these will send the listener on a quest to explore more of his work.

Collectif9: No Time for Chamber Music or Mahler Lite


Collectif9 based in Montreal bills themselves, aptly, as a “string band”. This is their second album and I haven’t heard the first but this one is a hoot!

Drawing on the age old practice of transcribing music for chamber groups which used to be common in taverns and such back in the 18th and 19th  centuries they create delightful riffs on the music they chose.  Here they chose Gustav Mahler. If the appellation of my title, “Mahler Lite” seems pejorative fear not.  This album is sheer delight.

There are 8 tracks drawing variously from the first, second, and fifth symphonies as well as Das Lied and the Wayfarer Songs.  The last track is a fantasy by Philip Hersant on themes of Mahler.  Nine musicians, all on bowed string instruments, do a marvelous job of evoking a big sound out of their ensemble.

Transcription is a true art and this is a shining example.  Anyone familiar with Mahler’s work will find a comforting familiarity in these pieces.  What struck this listener was their ability to evoke the orchestral instruments with some clever extended techniques.  Tympani, trumpets, trombones, tympani, etc. are all slyly and successfully implied in their playing.

While the liner notes don’t go into much technical detail they are all the average listener will need.  The charming thing here is the reproduction of the painting (apparently common in nurseries in Austria) which inspired the third movement of his first symphony.  If you don’t know the painting it depicts a bunch of animals carrying a dead hunter which, perhaps, they have killed.  And it is printed on the fold out liner notes.  Mahler uses Brother John (in a minor key) as a starting place for a set of variations with the intent of evoking this image.

The design by Kanelloscob.com deserves mention.  It deserves a closer look.  They manage to integrate a group photo, a track list, credits, commentary, and a large reproduction of that nursery art.  And they do it all with paper, no plastic to crack and become unusable.  It’s low key but a really beautiful production.

Collectif9 is John Corban, Yubin Kim, Robert Margaryam, and Elizabeth Skinner on violins; Xavier Lepage-Brault and Jennifer Thiessen on violas; Jérémie Cloutier and Andrea Stewart on celli; and Thibault Bertin-Maghit on double bass (who actually did these wonderful transcriptions).

Of course the music is the main point and that is the best reason to buy this disc.  Who knows? Maybe we’ll start seeing/hearing chamber groups like this in our coffee shops. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Nakedeye Ensemble: A Fine New Music Group Pays Homage to Past and Future


nakedeye

Starkland

It was only a few days after receiving this CD that I received a visit from a friend similarly interested in new music.  Shortly after that visit I discovered that the CD was missing.  My friend confessed to having taken it immediately when I asked but I already knew why he had taken it and why I might have done the same thing.  After all it’s a Starkland CD and this new performing ensemble have chosen for this, their debut recording, to do an arrangement of one of the finest pieces of political classical music ever.  It is their clever interpretation/homage of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971) that provoked my friend’s larceny and laid bare my own moral weakness.  How could anyone resist that? (I told him took keep it and bought myself a new copy).

Nakedeye Ensemble was founded in 2011 with the intent of performing new music.  They were founded in Philadelphia

Curiously, of the six compositions featured on this release, three are “sociopolitical” and the other three I suppose come closer to a category like “absolute music”, the notion that music can be just about music.  While all art is a victim (or product) of its sociopolitical, geographical, and economic context one can at least say that there is a continuum in which some music actually depends on those contexts in a greater degree.  Sociopolitical music is a pet obsession with your humble reviewer.

The disc begins innocently enough with a fine rendition of Sextet (2010) by Jonathan Russell (1979).  This is a pleasant post-minimal work with rock influences and provides a gentle introduction to an apparently carefully constructed playlist designed to demonstrate some of the range of skills possessed by this group.  The influence of Steve Reich is present and functions almost like a framework for the post minimal music that emerges.  Another generation puts its stamp on this genre which is now older than anyone in this ensemble.

With the second track we get to one of those political pieces and to the second oldest composer represented.  Zack Browning‘s Decade of the Dragon (2015) was written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 50th anniversary of its beginning.  Browning (1957- ) is professor emeritus at the University of Illinois and the director of the Salvatore Martirano Composition Award (Sal was also no stranger to politics).

Decade of the Dragon sounds like a post-modern sort of tone poem, evoking through musical quotation and development of original themes, the composer’s memories of the travesties that permeated those years formative to his development much as they were to your reviewer’s and doubtless many whom I imagine to be an ideal target audience for this music (and all the music on this disc actually).  And there is a sort of painful irony to hearing the artistic expressions of these sad historical events played (very effectively) by an ensemble for whom the events are solely history.

Rusty Banks‘ (1974-  ) “Surface Tensions” (2015) is another playful post-minimalist essay which is not afraid of a little experimentation.  Banks is among the younger composers here but this little sampling of his work suggests we will be hearing much more from his pen.

Randal Woolf  (1959) is a name which will likely be more familiar to listeners as he is a seasoned member of the so called “downtown” musicians.  He applies his considerable compositional skills to a politically infused work, “Punching the Clock” (2015).

There is a dedication and respect communicated by these musicians for their art, the artists whose work they interpret, and for the history that inspired some of them.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the last track, Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).

This piece has been done by many ensembles over the years but the only recording other than Rzewski’s original on Opus One records is one by the Hungarian ensemble “Amadinda”.  The text is spoken clearly, dramatically, and effectively and in English, albeit with a charming Hungarian accent.  There are also various lovely and interesting readings to be found on You Tube (including an uncharacteristically hesitant reading by rapper/actor Mos Def) but the arrangement by resident composer Richard Belcastro does a stunning (Am I too old to say “reboot”?) or reworking of the original.

Using different voices, intonations, and inflections this arrangement uses the voices in a sort of pointillistic counterpoint with voices having solos, sometimes answering each other, sometimes together.  Ranging from plain speech to whispers to various different vocal inflections this arrangement sort of democratizes the voices and creates a scenario in which the listener could envision their own voice and struggles.

The music here is great all the way through but the special joy of this release is the discovery of these youthful artists whose insights belie their age and whose technical skills suggest that Nakedeye can now take their place (alongside Eighth Blackbird, ICE,  Alarm Will Sound, Band on a Can All Stars, etc.)  Definitely a group that bears watching/listening.

 

 

 

Michala Petri Goes Brazilian


OUR Recordings 6.220618

Since her debut in 1969 at the tender age of 11 Danish born recorder virtuoso Michala Petri has been one of the finest masters of the recorder.  This ancient instrument, a forerunner of the flute, has existed since the Middle Ages and has amassed a huge repertoire and Petri seems to have demonstrated mastery over all of it and has been an advocate and promoter of new music for her instrument as well.  She has inspired composers to write new works for her and she continues to entertain audiences and has assembled an ever growing discography of startling range and diversity.  Nearly single handed she has managed to honor past repertoire and firmly ensconce this instrument in the 21st century.

In this release, produced by Lars Hannibal (himself a fine guitarist and frequent Petri collaborator) Petri takes on the music of Brazil and, despite the fact that recorders have seldom found their way into the music of this geographic region, she delivers a convincing and hugely entertaining program on this disc.  Along with Marilyn Mazur on percussion and Daniel Murray on guitar the listener is given an entertaining cross section of Brazilian music ranging from the more classically oriented work of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) and Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934) to the smooth jazz/pop sounds of Antonio Carlos Jobim (1925-1994) and Egberto Gismonti (1947- ).  In between are included works by the album’s guitarist Daniel Murray (1981- ) and a few names unfamiliar to this reviewer including Paulo Porto Alegre (1953- ), Paulo Bellinati (1950- ), Hermeto Pascoal (1936- ), and Antonio Ribero (1971- ).

There is a remarkable unity in this Danish production which stems from a meeting between producer Lars Hannibal and Daniel Murray in Vienna in 2014.  Hannibal’s ear found a kindred spirit whose musicality is a good match for that of Petri.  And like a good chef he added the delicate and necessary spice of the tastefully understated (but extraordinary) percussionist Marilyn Mazur to create a unique trio that sounds as though they’ve played together for years.  Here’s hoping that they’ve secretly recorded enough material for a second album.

All the tracks appear to be transcriptions though the transcriber is not named (I’m guessing they’re collaborative).  What’s nice is that there is nothing artificial or uncomfortable about these arrangements.  The overall impression left is that of a skilled ensemble and listeners encountering the original forms of these works might well assume those to be the transcriptions.  So convincing are these performances.

One last thing.  The sound.  This super audio CD release was engineered by Mikkel Nymand and Preben Iwan and the sound is fabulous.  I don’t have a machine that can read the super audio tracks on this hybrid disc but what I can hear is a lucid recording which embraces the subtleties of this unique ensemble.  Enjoy!

Kristjan Järvi Celebrates Steve Reich’s 80th


Kristjan Järvi (1972- ) is the youngest son of justly famed conductor Neeme Järvi.  He is also a frequent collaborator with the talented and ubiquitous Gene Pritsker among others.  This double CD represents a portion of his concerts in celebration of Reich’s 80th birthday.  There are apparently recordings available on the streaming service Medici TV of several other Reich works including the Three Movements for Orchestra (1983) and Desert Music (1986).  All these stemmed from a residency (2013-2014) that Reich enjoyed with the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony and Chorus.

This 80th birthday tribute gives us yet another opportunity to hear another generation (other than Reich’s) interpreting this music.  For years only Reich and his ensemble had access to his scores but this is not the case with his orchestral and choral works.  Some may still consider Reich to be a difficult or experimental composer and this has limited the programming (and no doubt the commissioning) of music for such larger ensembles.  It is delightful to hear how other musicians respond to and interpret Reich’s music.  

In fact Reich’s music for larger ensembles is definitely worth hearing and hearing in different interpretations.  This set gives us the world premieres of beefed up orchestrations of You Are and Daniel Variations.  This writer looks forward to the orchestral version of Tehillim (1981) as well.  

This handsome two disc set includes the early Clapping Music (1971), Duet (1993), The Four Sections (1987), You Are Variations (2004),  and Daniel Variations (2006).  It is not a greatest hits compilation.  Rather it is a personal survey by a wonderful young musician.  Kristian Järvi is a conductor, composer and new music raconteur who is at the beginnings of a very promising career.  This album is a love song if you will.  Järvi clearly understands and loves this music and the opportunity to record these works, especially perhaps the intimate Clapping Music with the participation of the composer.

The Four Sections is tantamount to being a concerto for orchestra and is among this reviewer’s favorites among Reich’s works.  It has received too few performances and to date only two recordings.  This is the first live recording and gives insight into the amazing competence of both conductor and orchestra.  The 1993 Duet for Two Violins and String Orchestra is Reich’s homage to a musician of a generation preceding his, the wonderful violinist, conductor, and pedagogue, Yehudi Menuhin on his 80th birthday.  Soloists Andreas Hartmann and Waltraut Wachter handle this all too brief piece with skill and insight.  

The second disc contains studio recordings of the large orchestra versions of two very personal works.  These recordings alone are adequate reason to purchase this set.  Reich has gained much from tapping his Jewish heritage (musical, linguistic, and literary) in service of his art.  Both of these pieces feature texts from a variety of sources including the Bible, Hasidic aphorisms, the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein among others.  In both works the texts determine to some degree the rhythmic choices of the music. 

You Are Variations is a four movement orchestral/choral work which sets a different aphorism in each movement.  It is among the composer’s more personal works and includes quotations from Wittgenstein (the subject of Reich’s undergraduate studies) along with Biblical and Talmudic texts in a beautiful existential meditation.

Daniel Variations is a powerful overtly political work written in response to the tragic murder of journalist Daniel Pearl who was beheaded by extremists in Pakistan in 2002. It is a deeply felt and very pained work which expresses the tragedy and creatively makes a link with the Book of Daniel as well as Pearl’s own words.  Reich is no stranger to political protest on his music and this is among his finest in that genre.

If you don’t know Reich’s music this is not a bad place to start.  If you are already a fan (as I’ve been for years) you will want this set to round out your collection.  

February 18th, Mark Your Calendars: Other Minds 22, A Must Hear


OMDI1Harrison

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

The American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Korean composer Isang Yun (1917-1995) turn 100 this year and Other Minds 22 has a wonderful celebration that is not to be missed.  On February 18th at 7:30 PM in the beautiful, historic Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco’s famed Mission District.  This is actually only the first of two concerts which will comprise the Other Minds season 22 which is subtitled, “Pacific Rim Centennials”.  It is curated by Charles Amirkhanian, the reliable arbiter of modern musical tastes in the Bay Area and beyond.  (The second concert, scheduled for May 20, will be an all Lou Harrison concert closer to the composer’s May 14th birthday.)

yun_isang

Yun Isang (1917-1995)

Harrison is well known to new music aficionados, especially on the west coast for his compositions as well as his scholarship and teaching.  His extensive catalog contains symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other such traditional classical forms as well as some of the finest of what we now call “world music” featuring instruments from non-western cultures including the Indonesian gamelan.  He is also the man responsible for the preparation and premiere of Charles Ives’ Third Symphony in 1946 which was subsequently awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Yun is perhaps less of a household name but is known for his many finely crafted compositions in the modern western classical tradition and, later, incorporating instruments and techniques from his native Korea.  He was infamously kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers in 1967 and taken from his Berlin home to South Korea where he was held and tortured due to allegations (later proven fabricated) of collaboration with North Korea.  Over two hundred composers and other artists signed a petition for his release.  After several years he was returned to his adopted home in Berlin in 1969 where he continued to compose prolifically and teach until his death in 1995.

dennis-russell-davies

                              Dennis Russell Davies (from the American Composers Orchestra site)

This celebratory and memorial concert will feature world renowned artists including Grammy Award winning conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies who knew and collaborated with both Harrison and Isang.  Other artists will include pianist Maki Namekawa, violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams, percussionist William Winant (with his percussion group), and the Other Minds Ensemble.

The program is slated to consist of:

Sonata No. 3 for Piano

(1938, Lou Harrison)

Dennis Russell Davies

Kontraste I for Solo Violin

(1987, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams

Gasa, for Violin & Piano

(1963, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Grand Duo for Violin and Piano (excerpts)

(1988, Lou Harrison)

IIII. Air
II. Stampede

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Intermission

Canticle No. 3

(1941, Lou Harrison)

William Winant Percussion Group
Joanna Martin, ocarina
Brian Baumbusch, guitar
Dan Kennedy, Loren Mach, Ben Paysen, William Winant, Nick Woodbury, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Interludium A

(1982, Isang Yun)

Maki Namekawa, piano

Suite for Violin, Piano & Small Orchestra

(1951, Lou Harrison)

I. Overture
II. Elegy
III. First Gamelan
IIII. Aria
V. Second Gamelan
VI. Chorale

Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin
Maki Namekawa, piano
The Other Minds Ensemble:
Joanna Martin and Janet Woodhans, flute
Kyle Bruckman, oboe
Meredith Clark, harp
Evelyn Davis, celesta
Andrew Jamieson, tack piano
Emil Miland and Crystal Pascucci, cello
Scott Padden, bass
William Winant, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Other Minds is also co-sponsoring (with the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive) a screening of the 2015 German television produced film, Isang Yun: In Between North and South Korea on February 19th (4:15PM) at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.  Dennis Russell Davies and composer Charles Boone will also be present to discuss the film.

If you do know these composers you probably already have your tickets but if you don’t know them you owe it to yourself to check out these performances.