Professor Yeh has been assistant principal clarinet with the Chicago Symphony since 1977 when he was just 19. As a former Chicagoan I can recall that Yeh’s hiring seems to have marked a change in the more traditional image of an orchestral musician. In addition to being an inspiration to aspiring musicians of Asian heritage his media presence also drew interest from both listeners of Asian Heritage but also young listeners (I turned 21 when he was hired and was pleased to find an artist who communicated to me and my age group).
In addition to his duties with the CSO, he has actively supported music and music making in his adopted home town. It is his support for local composers that he showcases here. This disc features music by Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977), Stacy Garrop (1969- ), Leo Sowerby (1895-1968), Shulamit Ran (1949- ), Teresa Reilly (1976- ), and Robert Muczinski (1929-2010).
Alexander Tcherepnin, whose father Nikolai was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, and whose sons, Serge and Ivan, along with grandsons Sergei and Stephan are all highly accomplished composers comprise a multigenerational artistic dynasty of sorts. Russian born Alexander taught in Chicago thus qualifying him for inclusion in Cedille recordings’ mission to promote artists with a “second city” connection. He is well represented in recordings but is less present in the concert hall these days. His brief Sonata in one movement for clarinet and piano (1939) takes the first track on this fine chamber music release. It is a deservedly popular recital piece with a style that sounds a bit like Shostakovich, one of his contemporaries.
Stacy Garrop is a favorite of this reviewer. Her work has been reviewed elsewhere in this blog. She is a freelance composer of immense talent and skill. Her work is featured on at least 12 Cedille albums as well as other labels. Phoenix Rising (2016-18) was originally for alto saxophone (subsequent versions were made for flute and for violin) is presented here in a world premiere transcription for clarinet. As with all her music, Garrop shows herself to be a master of color and texture. She uses both traditional and extended techniques to achieve her compositional visions. These can be challenging for performers but the end result is always worth the effort. Garrop derives inspiration, as she frequently does, from world mythology. Here, of course, the familiar Phoenix bird that lives some 500 years and rises again from the ashes of its funeral pyre.
Leo Sowerby, long associated with Chicago as an organist, composer, and teacher, is represented here by his 1944 clarinet sonata (here in its world premiere recording). Written in the year which saw him win the Pulitzer Prize for music (for Canticle of the Sun), this sonata takes on near symphonic dimensions in its four movements. Sowerby is generally well represented on recordings (8 discs on Cedille alone). His lyrical writing is expressive and accessible and it is perhaps just a matter of time before someone orchestrates this work to present it as a concerto. At just a bit under 30 minutes, it is the largest work on this release.
Shulamit Ran, Israeli/American composer and pianist, student of the great Ralph Shapey, 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner (for her 1989-90 Symphony), Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago is represented on this recording by her Spirit for solo clarinet (2017). The work is dedicated to the composer’s friend, clarinetist Laura Flax (1952-2017). This is its world premiere recording. Ran’s music has gotten some recordings but her large and substantial orchestral works like the Symphony and a fine Concerto for Orchestra remain unavailable on recordings (even more egregious is the general lack of representation of her mentor, Ralph Shapey’s music). This solo clarinet work is a testament to her compositional talents. Here’s hoping we get to hear more.
Teresa Reilly is a clarinetist, composer, and life partner of Mr. Yeh. The Forgiveness Train (2020) is described as, in part, a response to the COVID epidemic (Yeh notes that much of this album is similarly inspired). The three movement work is essentially a sonata with a loosely poetical program. It is a lyrical work with nods to minimalism and jazz. This is the world premiere recording.
The disc concludes with the four movement Time Pieces for clarinet and piano (1983). This work (the second longest on the disc) is, like the Sowerby piece, substantially a concerto that waits an orchestrator for the piano part. Robert Muczinski, Chicago born composer studied under Alexander Tcherepnin whose music opens this release. The Opus 43 work was commissioned and premiered by former CSO principal clarinet Mitchell Lurie with Muczinski at the piano.
Mr. Yeh is, as always, a joy to hear. He is most ably supported by pianist Patrick Godon on piano (tracks 1, 4-7, and 12-15) and, of course by (more properly with) Teresa Reilly (tracks 9-11). This release, from the Art Institute depicted in (Chicago artist) Steve Shanabruch’s distinctive cover art to the composers represented, is pure Chicago in the best ways.
This release completes Sarah Cahill’s monumental survey of piano music written by women which saw its first two CD volumes last year.last year. This, the third volume titled “At Play”, follows the first two as seen below. This trilogy is not, of course, the last word, the end on the subject of piano works by women. There can be no last word but these selections are a reflection of Cahill’s perspective as a performer but also a producer/programmer whose scholarship and advocacy are well known and respected worldwide. These releases speak to women, certainly. But they also speak to audiences in general, producers, and fellow musicians. They comprise a careful sampling of some three hundred years of music which effectively demonstrates that “there’s gold in them thar hills” (after all Cahill is a Californian). Here’s hoping that this survey will help start a metaphorical gold rush to unearth the gold that can be found in this neglected music.
I recall my fascination with Cahill’s earlier commissioning project which resulted in her CD “A Sweeter Music” (2013). I recall attending a very preliminary recital at Mills College where she did brief run through of some of the compositions and spoke about the project. She later toured the music (sometimes with John Sanborn’s wonderful accompanying visuals, sometimes without). Little did Cahill know that she hit upon a genre of classical music dear to this listener’s heart, that of politically inflected classical music. As a result, my interest in her artistry and choices of repertoire escalated tremendously (I heard two of her Bay Area recitals of this music and reviewed the recording in the early incarnation of this very blog). So another project, this time supporting female composers, with even greater dimension than that earlier project has similarly grabbed my attention in this landmark collection of music by women composers which has largely been neglected by mainstream artists, producers, and programmers.
This trilogy of recordings hardly solves the egregious neglect of this music but it does contribute rather authoritatively to the canon (there is one now) of music by non-male composers. Cahill is not the first artist to do this, and there are multiple ongoing projects exploring the work of female composers, but this project deserves top billing as it casts a mighty wide net with its three volumes covering about 300 years (of neglect). These recordings of some 30 pieces are but a fraction of music by women composers in this pianist’s repertoire. But, more than simply righting wrongs, this is about celebrating a legacy of artists getting their due recognition. (The “bad idea” Biblical metaphor of hiding a lamp beneath a basket comes to mind). Just look, er, listen at/to what’s been under that basket!
This now completed trilogy doubtless will not mark the end of Cahill’s advocacy but it will stand as a major manifesto of sorts and will hopefully bring more performers and producers to be open to performing and recording them. Simply hearing these recordings exposes the listener to music of stunning substance selected by an artist whose curatorial radar is finely tuned and whose choices will speak definitively to listeners (and likely fellow performing artists) for years to come. (N.B. Listeners would do well to check out Cahill’s YouTube channel where one can find a gold mine of music which reflects the scope of her performances and advocacy, not just for women composers, but for an amazing range of artists.)
This third volume is entitled, “At Play”. Like the previously released volumes, this collection gets a collective title that vaguely hints at the character of the music herein. The sequencing of the music is, like the previous two volumes, pretty much chronological. The essential program notes by Ms. Cahill (in all three volumes) provide just enough background to provide useful contexts for the listener. And you have to love the “Cahill and friends” photo galleries (on each volume) reflecting the deeply personal nature of this undertaking. That may sound hyperbolic but just listen to this music and feel the love, the passion, the connections, the sincerity, and the incisive playing. (Should I throw in a “Pied Piper” metaphor?) Listen and you’ll likely get hooked.
There are 16 tracks comprising nine works by nine female composers over nearly three centuries. Four of the nine works receive here receive their first (or first commercial) recordings. As noted earlier, the track sequence is chronological. (N.B. That makes 30 + works over the 3 CDs), a little less than half of the total commissions.
We begin with the last of 9 sonatas by Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836). Her lifespan covers the classical to the early romantic eras in western musical history but recordings of her music didn’t begin to appear until about 2006 when Jérôme Dorival published a biography of her. Listeners will likely find this music similar to that of Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven but with a level of virtuosic writing that anticipates Chopin and Liszt. This three movement sonata was published in 1811. This is apparently the second recording of this work as another new music champion, Nicolas Horvath, released a recording of all nine of these in 2021, further testament that time has come for this composer (and perhaps women composers in general).
Next is the Thème varié, Op. 98 (1895) by Cécile CHAMINADE (1857–1944). This late romantic composer is probably the only name with which most listeners may be acquainted. A recording of her Concertino for flute and orchestra (1902) continues to receive attention by classical broadcasters but most of her work remains very little known. Cahill makes a strong case for this music with her interpretation of this virtuosic early romantic styled work. She is far better known in her native France. It is time we see what the French have been hiding.
Grażyna BACEWICZ (1909–1969), represented here by her Scherzo (1934), has gotten recognition in her native Poland but has only fairly recently become known internationally. This early work, less modernist than her later work, has apparently been recorded before but is new to this reviewer’s ears. Bacewicz was a prolific composer and this fine piece, a virtuosic showpiece, is likely to encourage listeners to further explore her extensive catalog which includes Symphonies, Concertos for violin, viola, cello, and for piano, 7 string quartets, symphonies, operas, songs, and much more.
Now Cahill brings us into present time, featuring living composers, beginning with the music of Chinese-American composer Chen YI (b. 1953). Guessing (1989) is a small piano piece which incorporates a Chinese folk song in a set of variations.
This is the first commercial recording of this music. To be honest, I am not familiar with much of this composer’s work (nor most of them here) save for Oliveros and Wong) but this piece as with all the selections here are sufficiently intriguing to prompt listeners to explore further. That is the point of an anthology such as this, to spark curiosity, suggest another path for the journey. Mission accomplished.
Franghiz ALI-ZADEH (b. 1947), born in Azerbaijan, incorporates elements from her ethnic heritage into modern classical idioms. Music for Piano (1989/1997) utilizes Cagean-like preparations, in this case a glass beaded necklace laid across the strings. The resulting sound, evoking Alan Hovhaness and/or Henry Cowell at times, is intended to evoke that of the traditional Azerbaijani string instrument called “tar” (not a reference to the recent film). The composers use of different scales also seems to derive from folk models. The piece is in several sections delineated by dynamics and by register in which is, I believe, an ingenious use of register used to control when to allow for those prepared strings to sound. The piece is by a composer with a wide expressive pallete and the ability to use those methods judiciously toward her unique creative ends.
Next, in the briefest entry at just over 4 minutes, we get one piece from a set of commissions (all by women composers) Cahill made to honor the 100th birthday of American composer Ruth Crawford (1901-1953). Pauline OLIVEROS (1932–2016) submitted this work (her first notated composition since the 60s) which uses her own unique approach to indeterminate composition in Quintuplets Play Pen: Homage to Ruth Crawford (2001), here in its world premiere recording. Oliveros, who exerted a profound influence on a generation of composers, performers, and listeners via her work in electronic music and improvisation, but most powerfully via her “Deep Listening” concepts which effectively define the role of the listener as being a part of the compositional process.
Hannah KENDALL (b. 1984) is a black British composer whose three movement “On the Chequer’d Field Array’d” (2013) is based on the 1763 poem Caissa by Sir William Jones and depicts the three sections of a game of chess. The lengthy Elizabethan styled poem can easily be read as protofeminist given that the female chess piece heroically wins. Read it if you don’t believe me. And there are musical metaphors as well. It is these: mindplay, middlegame, and coda into which the work is divided. The music, like the poem is an intimate perspective which invites the reader (or hearer of the music) to create their own meanings here.
Aida SHIRAZI (b. 1987), an Iranian born composer, takes the performer inside the piano. Her blandly titled, “Albumblatt” (2017) belies her deep understanding of the piano and its possibilities. This is arguably the most avant garde (or modernist if you prefer) composition of the trilogy. Cahill’s choices reflect her eclectic approach to music programming.
In addition to a chronological approach, this trilogy is stylistically diverse. This music borrows from forbears such as John Cage and Morton Feldman as well as Henry Cowell. This meditative music only reveals itself fully to the focused listener. This is like an etude comprised of sounds you rarely hear (intentionally) from a piano. Played much of the time inside the piano but also at the keyboard more conventionally, the piece also demands close attention to dynamics (down to silence). Here is where the recordist’s art shines through. The subtleties of dynamics and the ability to capture the variety of harmonics evoked. Of course said performer had to accomplish rather large postural changes and do so silently if the performance adheres to the score, lol. And both are accomplished here in what sounds like a single take. This is a pretty great listen.
Regina HARRIS BAIOCCHI (b. 1956), a native Chicagoan poet and composer is given the last word with her, “Piano Poems” (2020). Last but not least by any means is a testament to Cahill’s singular but relevant choices as well as her advocacy of young composers as their stars begin to rise. This artist is new on my radar but one that will remain there. As both poet and composer, this young artist, commissioned by Cahill with a request that the music be about poetry, specifically by fellow (adopted) Chicagoans Gwendoline Brooks (one of this formerly Chicagoan reviewer’s personal faves) and Richard Wright.
The response was these 4 meditations on Brooks, Wright, and on the composer’s own poetical musings. The language here seemingly derives, appropriately, from 30s to 40s jazz of Ellington and Basie and a seemingly latter day version of that in the last two pieces describing the composer’s own literary utterances. Both virtuosic and apparently written by a composer very familiar with the instrument, a fitting and hopeful glimpse to the future.
Each of these discs contains at least one piece that reflects a deeper than average commitment by the performer. Cahill’s collaborative wok (with Dr. John DesMarteau) in the Agi Jambor sonata in volume I, her advocacy of Teresa Wong premiering the first performance of (She dances Naked…),the justly celebrated bay area artist’s selection on volume II. And her reaching out to Regina HARRIS BAIOCCHI for a commission (in volume III) all reflect another valued aspect of this performer.
The recording by Matt Carr is very listener friendly demonstrating serious skills at times in dealing with the many sonic challenges. This album and its two predecessors belong in any serious collector’s library. If the future is indeed female, then this is a fine soundtrack. Listeners, performers, Brava!!
This release appears to be as much about the musician as it is about the music. Ives’ second piano sonata has had numerous recordings since John Kirkpatrick’s landmark recording of 1948. It is a gargantuan work that requires formidable technical skills simply to play it and interpretive skills at a very high level. Here is a recording by an artist who certainly possesses the skill sets required.
Pianist Philip Bush has spent over twenty years playing, teaching and recording. He is well known in new music circles as a versatile and committed artist very familiar with Charles Ives’ music. Doubtless many have heard his work but his name is far better known among his peers than his listeners. Why? Well despite at least 24 releases his role as accompanist or ensemble member leaves his name recognition to his fellow artists and to fans who read credit listings on those recordings. This writer is reminded of another artist of a previous generation whose skills were unquestioned but his name less known. I’m talking about the wonderful Gerald Moore whose work as an accompanist graced many recordings of the 50s, 60s, and 70s where he worked alongside many different instrumentalists and singers. Moore’s charming album, “The Unashamed Accompanist” (1955) is a good humored tour of the hard work of the accompanist, the unsung hero. I don’t mean to suggest that Mr. Bush is an exact match for this analogy, but this album certainly puts him more in that soloist spotlight than any other he has done.
Despite many recordings of this masterpiece, ostensibly a landmark of American modernist composition, this work has yet to achieve the prominence it deserves in the recital hall. Bush’s performance along with his very clever inclusion of lesser known Ives contemporary, Marion Bauer’s Six Preludes for Piano, Op. 15 (1922) helps to provide context for the listener. Bauer was later the first American to study with Nadia Boulanger whose pedagogy would shape the careers of many of the great composers of the 20th century in many countries. The preludes are apparently included here as representing American music played more commonly in recitals of that time.
For a thorough summary and perspective on the Concord Sonata I have found Kyle Gann’s recent book on the subject to be illuminating. Ives himself felt the need to “explain himself” when he wrote a little book to be published concurrently with the sonata. Ives’ title for his book “Essays Before a Sonata” provide the inspiration for Gann’s subtitle (Essays After a Sonata). Ives’ near constant revisions add to the difficulties in even determining a final version of the score itself. The composer’s revisions and the partial recordings he did of the work add to the performer’s burden in the performance of the work. There’s even optional parts for flute (included in Bush’s recording played by Jennifer Parker-Harley) and for viola (not in Bush’s recording).
The Bauer preludes are far more conservative musically than the Ives of course but one could argue that nearly everything contemporary with the Concord Sonata sounds conservative by contrast. Bauer’s Op, 15 are relatively early works in her output. She lived and worked another 33 years after these little works which were apparently influenced by French Impressionism. There is no indication that Bauer and Ives ever met or discussed music but her work was the new music more commonly heard than that of the roughly concurrent work of Ives. The use of the stereopticon style slide on the album cover, a current technology of the time, also serves to provide a charming nostalgic reference to an era about to experience many rapid changes historically, technically, and conceptually in which the Concord becomes an American work analogous to The Rite of Spring (1913) as a signpost of the beginning of another era.
Despite the complexities, Bush’s reading of the Concord and the Bauer preludes are eminently listenable. That clarity is ultimately the value of this release. This recording is a wonderful opportunity to hear the artistry of a dedicated artist and academic. It helps make a case for the Concord to be recognized as an important work whose complexities are made clearer with each interpretation. Bravo, Professor Bush!
Let me start with a positive image from a brief photography trip which I managed this year. It was one of the highlights of what has been a difficult year for many of us. Weather, politics, COVID, itinerant employment issues, financial, and personal difficulties were an encumbrance but now stand in relief to the many positive aspects of 2022.
First, let me say that nothing musical fell into the category of “worst of” so fear not, what follows is essentially my “best of” from 2022. In my head I blame the aforementioned encumbrances for delays and sheer lack of production on my part. Whether that is the ultimate truth does not matter really so here, for better or worse, is my celebration of the positive experiences enumerated in this music blog in 2022.
My first post for the year struck a sad note. It was my personal tribute to a composer, A Belated Fan Letter: Homage to George Crumb described George Crumb, who had been one of my “gateway drugs”, so to speak, which helped put me on the exciting roads of new music upon with I continue to travel with great joy. Recordings of his complete works are still being released on the visionary Bridge Records.
Carolyn Shaw’s striking and much performed “In Manus Tuas” (on solo viola as well as solo cello) was originally written for Collins. Her selections on this album, including that Shaw work, suggest to this writer/listener that she has both vision and an encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially that written for her instrument. She will be among the major shapers of this repertoire via her vision as well as her interpretive talents. And Sono Luminus’ superb sonics certainly helps make this a great release.
I have followed the work of Sarah Cahill since her first solo CD (music of Ravel). Like Collins, she has been an artist who, by her intelligent selection of repertoire, serves as a guide to listeners (and musicians) as well. She has championed many composers as a pianist and as a broadcaster on her weekly KALW broadcasts. Her curation of concerts throughout the Bay Area, such as her solstice concerts at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes, have showcased a large variety of creative performers.
As she focuses her lens on women composers (neglected is implied) she embraces a stunning range of styles from the baroque era to the present and it seems as though she can play anything she chooses well. She is also collaborative with an amazing ability to discern the substance in the works she chooses to play. And she has discovered (or rescued?) much music from obscurity via scholarship and intelligent collaboration. Can’t wait for the next release. She is consistently interesting and relevant.
This album was sent to me by a friend. I knew the Ligeti pieces but heard them with new ears in this release and I was amazed by the Kodaly works too. Marcus Creed may not be as well known in the U.S. as he is across the pond but he should be.
This album was kindly sent to me for review by John Schneider of Microfest records. Read the review. Listen to this album. And watch for more from Chris Votek, another rising star in 2022.
Dan Lippel is one of the founders of the fabulous new music label, New Focus Recordings. Here he is acoustic, electric, conventional, and experimental but always interesting. Keep his name on your radar.
This is a gorgeously designed, very collectible art object. It is a beautiful hard cover, full color book which also contains a CD of a recording (from acetate masters) which had languished in the archives of the Eastman/Rochester Music School where Harry Partch gave this lucid lecture/performance in 1942. Mr. Schneider, who sent me the Votek release as well, fronts an ensemble called PARTCH which, in addition to performing Harry Partch ‘s work, is recording Partch’s complete works for David and Becky Starobin’s Bridge label. This one is both eye and ear candy to my ears.
Rescuing those acetate masters from obscurity is a major find that rises in significance (in the musical sense) almost to the level of the archeological discovery of Tut’s Tomb. Schneider is a musician, a composer, a radio broadcaster, and an archivist and now a sonic archeologist I suppose. He also sports a collection of authentic copies of Partch’s curious instruments which were built to play the microtonal scales required. Partch is a major American composer whose work is now gaining its rightful place among the best of American classical music.
I first discovered Mr. Susman’s work when I was asked to review a performance of another composer’s work. I heard one of his works played by the remarkable San Jose Chamber Orchestra on that same concert. Here we have another multi volume release of these lovely and significant piano works. The remarkable pianist (mentioned often in these pages) has contracted to record all 4 books of this sort of “Well Tempered Clavier” type gesture which effectively provides much insight to this composer. Nicolas Horvath, known for marathon concerts performing (and subsequently recording) all of Philip Glass’ piano music, among others. (We’re talking 15 hours or so. There is also a 35 hour live rendition of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” on you tube.) Who better to record these? The remaining three volumes are due some time this year. Who better to take on this post minimalist set of pieces? Can’t wait for the next volume.
Yolanda Kondonassis is about as household a name that you can find among harpists. These five minute (more or less) pieces are a significant addition to the solo harp repertoire. They are forward looking works for her instrument. Very interesting work, excellently performed.
I remain in awe at the curatorial and historically aware work of this truly fine pianist. Greenberg helped me grasp the historical context of the Second Viennese School in a new way with his earlier release “Book of the Hanging Gardens”. In that release he played all the Debussy Preludes along with Schoenberg’s pre twelve tone song cycle, Webern’s Variations, and the Berg Sonata which helped this listener to better grasp the historical context of this music. This small collection of works written for him reflects a collaborative and visionary ethic akin to that of Sarah Cahill’s. Keep an ear out for this guy.
I have received some good natured teasing about the fact that this, one of my longer reviews, is of a 15 minute piece of music. But this act of musical archeology by the bay area’s Kate Stenberg (who is a regular collaborator with Sarah Cahill BTW) has made the first recording of this little work. It’s Webernian duration belies a style very much in character with this beloved composer’s other work. My review was as much about the music and the recording as it was about the dedication of Stenberg to new music. This release is from Other Minds, another shining example of advocacy of new music and collaboration among composers and performers. Get it. Listen to it. And don’t miss a chance to hear Stenberg live performances or to hear anything Harrison has written.
The Chicago based Cedille label is one of my favorite classical music labels. Producer James Ginsburg has a golden ear and Cedille is the finest Chicago based classical label since the justly fabled Mercury records. All their releases deserve attention but this two disc set of little known works for String Trio written between the world wars is a feast of substantive, if slightly conservative, voices. This one is a great listen and, trust me, none of this music is in your collection.
While circumstances conspired to limit my attendance to only one of the three days of OM 26, I would be loathe to leave this world class music festival off my “best of” list. My first published blog of 2023 was of the 30th anniversary celebration which showcased Marc-Andre Hamelin’s stunning reading of Charles Ives’ massive Concord Sonata. Anything OM does deserves your attention but the roughly annual festival continues to present composers and performers from around the world. Not to be missed.
Another exciting release of Cahill’s visionary series. Like the previous volume (and the aforementioned Cedille release) the consumer will suffer no unnecessary duplications if the music herein. Fascinating and expertly done. This set (the third volume due this year) is a testament to Cahill’s encyclopedic knowledge of piano music as well as her collaborative nature and, of course, her skills as a pianist.
I’m cheating a bit here since I wasn’t able to complete my review until 2023 but this Starkland disc was released in 2022 and definitely earns its place in my “best of” list. This rising star is another one to watch. Starkland, run by the dynamic Tom Steenland is one of those labels that reliably finds interesting and substantive new music. This one is no exception. It goes a long way to alleviating my skepticism of the electroacoustic genre.
And, in order to be fair I must cheat equitably. Charles Amirkhanian kindly sent me this exciting and excellent DVD of his collaboration with his partner in life and in artistic crimes, Carol Law. My more extensive review will appear shortly but this was a major release in 2022. Amirkhanian spends far less time promoting and performing his own unique compositions so this is an especially welcome release.
Last but not least of my best of 2022 is this wonderful Neuma release which, when I began my research to write a cogent and informed review, left me stunned at how little I actually knew about composer David Tudor and the astounding dimensions of this unusual piece that evolves with every performance. After gathering a whole ton of data I finally decided that I could not write a comprehensive review without more research so I settled on a tasteful (I hope) summary with the expectation that I will write a larger piece on Tudor and his work. The review will be out very shortly. This is an amazing and significant release.
Happy 2023 to all my readers and thanks to those who kept reading my blog during more fallow times. I have many blogs currently in preparation that I look forward to sharing in the months to come. Peace, health, and music to all.
Hanzhi Wang with her Pigini concert accordion (publicity photo from the internet)
On the first day of February, on a sunny day in Santa Barbara, rising star Hanzhi Wang presented a solo recital in Hahn Hall at the matinee hour of 4PM. Despite the beautiful weather a substantial crowd gathered for this event which was part of the always notable UCSB Arts and Lectures series.
This young performer only recently came to this writer’s musical radar a few months ago. Subsequent research revealed her to be a marvelously accomplished musician. She earned her Bachelor’s degree at the China Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and her Master’s degree at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen as a student of Geir Draugsvoll. First Prize Winner of the 2017 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, Ms. Wang’s debut opened the Young Concert Artists Series in New York in The Peter Marino Concert at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, and her Washington, DC debut opened the 40th Anniversary Young Concert Artists Series at the Kennedy Center.
Her interesting and rather eclectic program was artfully designed to showcase her strengths. One of those strengths is certainly her ability to communicate with her audience both is her brief but lovely introductions to her performances using a microphone kept near her seat as well as in her radiant persona which communicates a humility and pleasant affability. Of course the most important communication to be heard on this afternoon would be the musical.
She began with a couple of Bach pieces which, like most of his keyboard music, can be done equally well on harpsichord, piano, and now, accordion. It is here that she showed her virtuosity and interpretive skills which reflected an obvious affection for the material. Though scheduled to perform the famous Chaconne she chose instead to present these shorter, entertaining pieces.
Her Pigini concert accordion echoed the pleats in the skirt of her tasteful outfit well suited to a recitalist performing these essential works of the western musical canon. She followed these with three keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)(K. 9, 159, and 146). This writer first encountered these little gems (the composer wrote over 500 of them) in the landmark recording Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos in the 1970s and they are a delight on any concert program (though not programmed often enough). She handled these challengingly virtuosic works with seeming ease expertly adding dynamics to define these works to create a wonderfully entertaining concert experience.
Wang followed these with three pieces by another late baroque master, French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). “L’ Egiptienne”, “La Livri”, and “Le Rappel des oiseau”. Her obvious affection for these works have subsequently sent this listener to seek out more of Rameau’s works. These works on the first half of the program were all characterized by her lovely playing, making a strong case for the role of this nineteenth century folk instrument’s role in the playing of classical music.
After a brief intermission Ms. Wang offered a twentieth century work by the late, great Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). Though not originally for the accordion the composer did utilize this instrument in some of his works. Russian composers at least since Tchaikovsky have utilized the accordion to stunning effect. And this performance was another demonstration of this young musician’s easy virtuosity and insight offering up these brief pieces inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s novel, “Dead Souls”. The music is filled with both humor and passion with echoes of the dead souls (in Schnittke’s trademark “polytsylism”) of prior Russian composers.
The soloist’s clear understanding of the modern idiom was made very clear and one need only look to Wang’s website to see that her repertory ranges across 400 years of the western musical canon. One wonders if there is anything she can’t play well.
Her last scheduled pieces came from the late nineteenth century by a composer which Wang humorously noted eschewed the accordion, Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). The Norwegian nationalist’s famed Holberg Suite (originally for string orchestra) sounded pleasantly familiar on Wang’s instrument.
After an enthusiastic standing ovation Ms. Wang presented three more pieces, two by the late Argentinian Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) and a piece by German composer and piano virtuoso, Moritz Moszkovsky (1854-1925). These were like gifts to the audience which further demonstrated her facility with the tango inflected Piazzola and the playful, though difficult, pianism of Moszkowski.
This young woman is indeed a rising star who belongs on your radar.
I was delighted to have had the opportunity to speak with guitarist Sharon Isbin (1956-) about this fine album. She appeared to be in the midst of a queue of interviewers set up by her press corps but she came across as a confident, relaxed, and skilled interviewee and a gracious person with a palpable passion for music. Listening to this latest release and having a more than passing interest in this fine musician it is a joy to see her getting recognition.
Originally from the Midwest, Isbin actually began her studies in Italy where her nuclear scientist father was working as a consultant. Her studies in Varese, Italy began at age 9 with Aldo Minella. She also counts among her teachers Andre Segovia, Alirio Diaz, and Oscar Ghiglia among her many teachers.
Most curiously she spent time studying Bach with none other than pianist Rosalyn Tureck during the time she was working on her landmark recording of the Bach Lute Suites. Isbin stated, “I don’t play piano and Tureck doesn’t play guitar but I wanted her insights into the preparation of this music.” Apparently this collaborative scholarship resulted in the publication (by G. Schirmer) of two of these suites originally written for lute.
As an academic, Isbin is all about research, fact checking, and collaboration and this clearly pays off as listeners will be delighted to find. But she is also the founder of the Guitar Department at the venerable Julliard School, a department which this year celebrates 30 years hosting students from 20 countries and, this year, establishing a DMA in guitar performance. Her first graduate, Australian guitarist Alberta Khoury, is the first recipient of this degree.
Asked about being THE musician to start the guitar department at Julliard she related that Segovia had proposed the idea some years ago and was rejected but that she was actually asked to start the department. An example, perhaps, of the student transcending the teacher.
Isbin plays a great deal of guitar music but, unlike many in her field, she has shown interest and devotion to music of our time as well. In fact she estimates having at least 80 scores and arrangements either commissioned by her or dedicated to her. It was with her recording “American Landscapes” featuring concerti commissioned from Lukas Foss, John Corigliano, and Tan Dun that first brought this artist to this reviewer’s attention. She is the recipient of three Grammys (and this album may very well earn her a fourth).
Regarding the present release, Isbin spoke of the process of preparation involved with this music. The Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago and this was the connection (Cedille is a Chicago based, Chicago friendly label) that allowed her collaboration to appear of this fine record label.
She also spoke of the serendipitous discovery of finding that the composer’s granddaughter, Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco, actually lived near her in New York. They began discussions and Isbin was able to view and work directly with the manuscript of the Quintet which opens the disc. Asked about the fact that this very quintet had been recorded about a year ago by Jason Vieaux, Isbin replied that it was pure coincidence but that this piece was considered by the composer to be his finest work of chamber music.
The Italian composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) was born in Italy but was forced to flee the Nazis and was able, with the sponsorship of Jascha Heifetz (then a recently minted citizen himself), to come to the United States in 1939 just before the outbreak of WWII. In fact, his family suffered a similar indignity in 1492 when they were forced from their native Spain when the Alhambra Edict forced the expulsion of Jews from the country. The composer’s curious hyphenated name, according to Isbin, resulted when a dying friend who had no progeny asked that the composer somehow incorporate his name. This is both sweetly romantic and evocative of the sensitivities of the man himself.
The Guitar Quintet Op. 143 (1950) is a grand romantic and virtuosic work that deserves to be heard. It is difficult to imagine an audience not being thrilled by this music. It is cast in four movements like a classical work (allegro, andante, scherzo, finale). From the beginning the listener is carried along by beautiful melodies and clever collaborations between the strings and the guitar. Isbin related that superscriptions on the score saying, “Souvenir of Spain” gave the idea for the title of this album.
This is followed by one of the most recognizable guitar concertos, the Concerto in D Major for guitar and strings by Antonio Vivaldi written about 1730. The original is written for lute and Isbin uses an edition for guitar by Emilio Pujol with gorgeous ornamentation consistent with late baroque practice added by the present performer. This performance is with guitar, violin, viola, and cello (no second violin) but manages to make a big sound. This work is a personal favorite and, unlike the other works on the album, extremely well known and loved by this reviewer. My baseline favorite recording of this piece will probably always be Julian Bream’s performance on this RCA recording but Isbin’s scholarship provides a fascinating perspective on this work. So basically I now have two favorite recordings.
Next up is the only piece on the album where the Pacifica Quartet plays without guitar. Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) is more or less a contemporary of Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Offered here is Oración del Torero Op. 34 (1925). Curiously this work was written originally for four lutes or string quartet. Only the quartet version seems to get much play though the lute version might be interesting as well. This work, which translates into English as “Bullfighter’s Prayer” is essentially a miniature tone poem whose drama takes on almost cinematic dimensions in its just over 7 minutes. The Pacifica Quartet does a potent job of delivering an engaging performance. The Pacifica consists of Simin Ganatra, first violin; Austin Hartman, second violin; Mark Holloway, viola; and Brandon Vamos, cello. They are based at Indiana University.
Last and certainly not least is another major Quintet by an Italian composer, Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805). His dates make him a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, though he was born in Italy, many of his productive years were spent in Spain where he enjoyed royal patronage. He was a prolific composer who has experienced a significant interest in the 20th century.
He wrote no less than 9 Quintets for guitar and string quartet and this one, in D Major G. 448 dates from about 1798 and is the best known of his works for this combination. It has the rather unusual attribute of having a percussionist (one Eduardo Leandro) improvise on castanets and tambourine in the last movement, fandango.
The work is cast in three movements (pastorale, allegro, grave assai-fandango) and will remind the listener of Haydn, Mozart, and/or early Beethoven. The music is both familiar and very entertaining. The castanets do not appear to be included in the original score and one can find recordings without them but they really rock that last movement.
This is another triumph for Ms. Isbin and a feather in the caps of the Pacifica Quartet. It is sonically spectacular album as well having employed the producer/engineer team of Judith Sherman and Bill Maylone. They achieve a lucid and warm sound field with an appropriately dry resonance that makes for an intimate listening experience which reveals the details the musicians coax from the score. Get this one, you’ll play it often.
Since her debut in the mid 1970s Michala Petri has proven herself as one of the great masters of the recorder. The recorder is an instrument which, until the 20th century was pretty much only heard in music written before 1750 or so. Many previous masters such as David Munrow and Franz Brüggen restricted their playing to early music. Petri has certainly broken that mold. She has mastered baroque, renaissance and contemporary music for her instrument as her recent releases demonstrate. And her skills as a musician have only grown stronger and more convincing.
This disc is her celebration of American music for the recorder. We hear four 21st century concerti for the recorder. Composers include Roberto Sierra (1953- ), Steven Stucky (1949-2016), Anthony Newman (1941- ), and (a new name to this reviewer) Sean Hickey (1970- ). These are fine compositions but they are basically mainstream sort of neo-romantic/neo-classical/neo-baroque works. These are all finely crafted compositions but nothing here is experimental. Despite the names all are basically concerti which highlight the interplay between soloist and ensemble. Therein lies the joy.
The disc begins with Roberto Sierra (1953- ) wrote his “Prelude, Habanera, and Perpetual Motion (2016) as an expansion of an earlier recorder and guitar piece but, obviously, with a great deal of expansion and orchestration. Despite its colorful title the work is basically a concerto and a fine one at that. Petri here performs with the Tivoli Copenhagen Philharmonic under Alexander Shelley. From Sierra’s web page there is a link to a video of the premiere here. Sierra, born in Puerto Rico, affirms his skills as a composer in this exciting work.
Next up is music of the late Steven Stucky (1949-2016) sadly known almost as much for his recent demise as for his compositions. However Petri’s performance of his “Etudes” (2000) for recorder and orchestra goes a long way to affirming some of the gravity of the talent we lost and the wonderful legacy he left. The Danish National Symphony under Lan Shui do a fine job of handling the complex orchestral accompaniment and Petri shines as always. This concerto is in three movements titled: Scales, Glides, and Arpeggios respectively.
Anthony Newman (1941- ) is a name that must be familiar to classical recording buyers in the late 1970s into the 1980s when Newman’s exciting recordings of Bach dominated record sales. It is no wonder that he composed an essentially neo-baroque concerto pitting the recorder against an ensemble consisting of a harpsichord (deliciously played by Newman) and a string quartet (in this case the Nordic String Quartet). Clearly a more suitable sized ensemble that might have been used in the 18th century. This is the only piece on this album that is actually called a concerto by its composer. Concerto for recorder, harpsichord, and strings (2016) in four movements (Toccata, Devil’s Dance, Lament, and Furie) shows this performer, musicologist, and composer at the height of his powers in this lovingly crafted work.
Last (and certainly not least as the cliché goes) least is by a composer unfamiliar to this reviewer, Sean Hickey (1970- ) is also the youngest composer here. His A Pacifying Weapon (2015) is subtitled, “Concerto for Recorder, Winds, Brass, Percussion and Harp” which tells you about the rather gargantuan dimensions of his work. While not representing a specific “program” the work is the only one on this CD that espouses some political content. The title reflects the composer’s desire to use this concerto to represent some of his response to “current events”. The three movements are simply numbered 1, 2, and 3. I can only begin to imagine the problems of balancing the little recorder against such a huge and loud ensemble but the Royal Danish Academy of Music under conductor Jean Thorel are clearly up to the task.
Hickey originally hails from Detroit and is now based in New York. A quick perusal of his web page suggests that listeners like your humble reviewer have much to hear from this up and coming young composer.
All these are world premiere recordings which show Michala Petri at the height of her powers. Indeed she is an international treasure whose instrumental skills and her range of repertory continue to amaze and entertain her audience. The recording under Lars Hannibal’s direction is, as usual, lucid and very listenable. Joshua Cheeks liner notes save this writer a great deal of research time and pretty much answered all this listener’s questions.
Happy listening all. This recording has it going on at many levels.
Lara Downes has proven herself as a virtuoso pianist in solo, chamber, and with orchestra. She has demonstrated facility with standard repertoire as well as an intelligent selection of contemporary composers. In this sort of mid-career place she has begun releasing a more personal kind of album of which this is the third incarnation. The “series’ to which I refer is the perception of this reviewer, not one defined as such by Ms. Downes but stick with me. Her previous releases have been organized on one level or another on themes just like most album of any stripe. The difference is a more sociopolitical focus.
One look at the eclectic musical choices here and one sees Downes sharing her spotlight with kindred spirits (composers and performers both) while her themes take on more socially conscious ideas. The first of these was America Again (2016) which is a beautiful collection of short piano pieces predominantly though not exclusively by black composers. It is a very personal choice of repertoire reflecting her profound knowledge of the repertoire as well as the neglect of black composers. The second was Lenny (2018), a tribute to Leonard Bernstein. It includes a marvelously varied group of guest artists and, much as Lenny did, blurs the line between the “classical” and the “vernacular”. It was a love song to a cherished artist (this writer included in the cherishing).
She does something similar here in this album whose title is taken, appropriately enough, from Georgia O’Keefe, “I want real things, live people to take hold of, to see, and talk to, music that makes holes in the sky, I want to love as hard as I can.” In the essay that opens the program booklet Downes speaks briefly of her relationship with women in general and women as composers and as performers.
The album opens with a 1949 piece by Florence Price, a black American composer much of whose whose work has recently been rediscovered and recorded. Her work was also featured on the America Again album. This is a mid-century romantic piece for solo piano.
The second track, and the one that hooked this listener big time is this recording of Judy Collins early song, Albatross (1966) which appeared on her album Wildflowers which in turn provided some of the design elements of the album. The liner notes to the present album also note this connection.
In place of detailed liner notes there is a fascinating conversation between two of the women involved with this album, Lara Downes and Judy Collins. A lovely black and white portrait is included in the liner notes. Their discussion centers primarily on the Albatross song but also touches on the nature of political activism in which Downes laments not being active in marches. Collins tells her (and this writer agrees wholeheartedly) she belongs at the piano. Indeed her activism, though of a gentler nature, gets ideas out most effectively utilizing her incredible talents as a pianist, historian, and fellow musician.
Rather than go through an analysis of each of these pieces I am simply going to provide a track list. It appears that this album is designed to be heard and contemplated as a sonic document first and as a research project at a later time (one hopes for more detail at some point because these are interesting pieces).
1. Memory Mist (1949) by Florence Price
2. Albatross (1967) by Judy Collins
3. A Tale of Living Water (2010) by Clarice Assad
4. Dream Variation with Rhiannon Giddens (1959) by Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes
5. Ellis Island with Simone Dinnerstein (1981) by Meredith Monk
6. Don’t Explain with Leyla McCalla (1944) by Billie Holiday
7. Willow Weep for Me (1932) by Ann Ronel (arr. by Hyungin Choi)
8. Venus Projection (1990) by Paula Kimper
9. Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women (2005) by Paola Prestini
10. Farther from The Heart with Hila Pittman (2016) by Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles
11. Favorite Color (1965) by Joni Mitchell (arr. by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum)
12. Noises of Gratitude (2017) by Jennifer Higdon
13. Arroyo, Mi Niña with Mogos Herrera (2018) trad. arr. by Lara Downes
14. Music Pink and Blue (2018) by Elena Ruehr
15. Idyll (1946) by Hazel Scott
16. Blue Piece with Rachel Barton Pine (2010) by Libby Larsen
17. Bloom (2018) by Marika Takeuchi
18. Just for a Thrill with Alicia Hall Moran (1936) by Lil Hardin-Armstrong (arr. by Hyungin Choi)
19. Agwani (Doves) (2009) by Mary Kouyoumdjian
20. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (2014) by Georgia Stitt
21. Rainbow (n.d.) by Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston (arr. by Laura Karpman)
22. All the Pretty Little Horses with Ifetayo Ali-Landing and The Girls of Musicality (Trad. arr. by Lara Downes and Laura Karpman)
In these 22 tracks all the music is by women composers and, most charmingly a selection of women performers who appear as sort of cameos on different tracks. The music ranges from the mid-twentieth century to the present and embraces a variety of genres (classical, folk, blues, etc.). The end result is a charming and very intimate document but also one which is somehow gently subversive as it presents the best in musical and performance quality as an acknowledgement of the accomplishments of women in general, (to paraphrase Ms. O’Keefe) making music as hard as they can.
This is, by my count, the third Tim Brady CD released by Starkland. The other two, Instruments of Happiness and Music for Large Ensemble, represent only a small portion of his output and I highly recommend exploring his other releases. You can find a listing on his web page here. Since being introduced to Brady’s work in the Instruments of Happiness album I have purchased and enjoyed several of his earlier CDs. Initially one necessarily wants to lump Brady in with the massed guitar masters such as Glenn Branca, Jeffrey Lohn, and Rhys Chatham. That’s a fine starting point but as one listens to Brady’s work it becomes clear that he has his own vision and that vision is shared with like minded artists. Some of those like minded artists are on this fine CD.
In some ways this is a sequel or a volume two to the Instruments of Happiness CD of 2016. Despite this being chamber music with only four musicians the nature of electric guitars is to make a bigger sound. It is always interesting to see how different artists work with a given ensemble configuration and that is the real thrill here. One track features Brady’s music and the other tracks feature Scott Godin, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell , and Emily Hall. All are individual creations commissioned for this quartet. The liner notes are definitely useful but there is much to be gleaned from the ‘composers’ web sites as well, trust me.
The disc contains six works on 10 tracks and, like the earlier Instruments of Happiness release on Starkland, this is an interesting and revelatory sampling of the marvelous invention of these composers and the amazing range and utility of the electric guitar. If anyone questions the place of electric guitars in classical music this is a fine example of some of the potential and a teaser for the future as well. The vision is more like that of a string quartet (another ensemble that has managed to establish itself) seeking innovative composers for some portable music making.
Familiarity with the composers mentioned earlier (Branca, Lohn, Chatham) will provide the listener with a context but the work here is seemingly almost unrelated to their work excepting that they used electric guitars. This is a new generation of composers to whom, electric guitars were a given, not a new invention and whose use, increasingly ubiquitous in classical music, is simply one of their compositional options.
And now the music. The album opens with an homage to the late British composer Steve Martland (1959-2013) whose rhythmic, driving music resembles that of Michael Nyman but closer to a rock aesthetic. Martlandia (2016) by Scott Godin engages the listener (and will likely send him/her in search of Steve Martland CDs) with its long tone meditative beginning that acts like a slow introduction to a symphony of the classical era and then moves into faster quasi-minimalist sections that remind this listener favorably of some of Steve Reich’s work. This is practically a miniature symphony. It is an engaging piece and a loving tribute to the late composer.
Equal and Opposite Reaction (2016) is Mr. Brady’s submission to the album. It also opens with a slow section and then goes into the manic virtuosity that is typical of Brady’s work. I’m not saying he can’t write a decent slow movement, he can and does, but much of his work moves rather quickly and with a variety of guitar techniques in his expanded palette of sounds. Like all the works here the harmonic language is largely tonal and the development of thematic material owes much to classical compositional techniques though his rhythmic choices owe something to rock and jazz.
Jordan Nobles’ Deep Field (2016) is a tribute the the iconic Hubble Telescope. (If you haven’t seen at least one photo from Hubble’s catalog then you may have been in suspended animation for the last 20 years.) Suffice it to say that the Hubble’s images have inspired a great deal of artists and this is yet another example. This is one of the more meditative pieces on the album at its opening but, like the other pieces there are several contiguous sections.
Reflets de Francesca Woodman (2017) by Maxime McKinley is another homage. This time the subject is an American photographer Francesca Stern Woodman (1958-1981) who took her own life in 1981 and left a posthumous legacy. Aptly this is one of the more somber and disturbing tracks on the album. I’m sorry to say I don’t know her work but this tribute certainly sparks interest.
Going with that melancholy theme is the next track, Gordon Fitzell’s Bomb Crater Garden (2016) is the most avant garde sounding track (as well as the longest at 11:16) and the most exquisitely disturbing in its post apocalyptic vision. The piece has optional narration and video but the music gives the listener a pretty good idea of what those images and ideas are. So much for happiness.
Finally we have The Happiness Handbook (2016) by Emily Hall. Like Brady’s flexibly peopled ensemble of the same name the theme of happiness comes to the fore once again. As explained in the liner notes the notion of guitars as instruments associated with happiness is the concern. There are five movements varied in style that make this piece function like a little symphony. It is a celebration of the plethora of techniques and compositional possibilities of this modern guitar ensemble and will leave the astute listener ultimately in a happy place.
I believe the composer himself sent me this disc. I was not familiar with this composer/musician prior to receiving this but, a quick search on Amazon revealed several albums by this artist. Cissell‘s web page validates my initial impression of an artist who will not easily fit in a category. That is to say that this music wears several hats.
There is nothing experimental or difficult about this CD nor is it exactly pop or easy listening. It is a rather personal recording. Indeed the composer plays most of the parts and the concept is entirely his own. Not having heard Cissell’s other recordings it is difficult to say whether this most recent one is a continuation of a style or a departure. What is clear is that this music is easy to listen to but difficult to market efficiently.
This entirely self composed and produced album consists of 13 tracks ranging from 2 to 5 minutes or so in length. The instrumentation consists of mandolin, electric bass, strings, and electronics and all are performed by the composer. He identifies the track, “Follies” as being most appropriate for classical radio and the track, “Serf Shop” for pop/alternative radio. It is lovely material with some folk leanings as well as classical leanings. Cissell has classical training and that comes across in his writing but suffice it to say that his influences are eclectic and wide ranging. He clearly is well trained in his ability to write effectively for these instruments and hearing this work makes one wonder what his more classically oriented work sounds like.
If this disc has languished for longer than it should have in my “to be reviewed” queue then blame it in part on the reviewer’s organizational strategy but also on the difficulty pigeon holing such a release. There is little doubt that most who hear this album will find it entertaining but it is not clear how easy it will be for fans to find such a release unless they are searching for this specific composer.
In reviewing “classical” recordings one can rely on the “sounds like” strategy to provide listeners with some idea of what to expect. That does not seem to work here. The music is very listenable but it is not strictly classical and not exactly pop so while it is a very good disc I’m not sure how easily it will find an appreciative audience.
This reviewer will pay attention to this composer and looks forward to hearing his more classically oriented work as well. Kudos, Mr. Cissell.
I have found it strange that the few articles I have written (and, full disclosure, I’m a white guy) on black musicians seem to have placed me in the position of being one of apparently a limited number of writers/bloggers who pay attention to the topic. Happily these articles have gained an audience. The rather simple piece I wrote on black conductors, a little essay composed in honor of Black History Month, remains by far one of my most read articles.
The vicissitudes of race and racism are such that we need to say, “black lives matter” because even the most cursory examination of statistics shows that they seem to matter far less than lives with other racial identities. The same is true with music and musicians.. There are organizations dedicated to the promotion of black musicians because they remain far less well represented.
It is in this spirit that I am writing this little sketch to highlight a black musician who does not have a Wikipedia page or even a personal web page that I have been able to find. You can find her easily with a Google search but you will find some of the same segregation of which I spoke. One finds her on the “Broadway Black” website which does a fine job of promoting her and her work. And what fine work it is.
From the Muskogee Phoenix, 11/10/2007, we have this information about Linda Twine:
Twine, a native of Muskogee, OK, graduated from Oklahoma City University in 1966, with a bachelor of arts degree in music. There, she studied piano with the esteemed Dr. Clarence Burg and Professor Nancy Apgar. After graduating from OCU, Twine studied at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where she earned a master’s degree, and made New York her home. She began her musical career in New York, teaching music in public school by day and accompanying classical and jazz artists at night. At one of these engagements, she was asked if she would like to substitute for the keyboardist of the Tony Award winning Broadway hit, “The Wiz.” Her positive response began a long career in Broadway musicals from keyboard substitute to assistant conductor of Broadway orchestras. In 1981, to conductor when Lena Horne asked her to conduct her one-woman hit, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” This garnered Twine the respect of her peers and as a much sought-after Broadway musical conductor. In addition to “The Wiz” and “Lena Horne,” Twine’s Broadway credits include, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Big River” (the score composed by Oklahoman Roger Miller), “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “Frog and Toad,” “Caroline or Change,” “Purlie,” and the current “The Color Purple,” starring Fantasia. Not only a distinguished conductor, Twine is also a composer and arranger. She composed “Changed My Name,” a cantata inspired by slave women Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, and written for two actresses, four soloists, and a chorus. Her popular spiritual arrangements are published by Hinshaw. As a producer, instrumental and vocal arranger, her work can be seen and heard in the books and CDs of the Silver Burdett Publishing company, which are used by many public schools in the United States. Community commitment and involvement have also marked Twine’s outstanding career. She has arranged and composed for the renowned Boys Choir of Harlem, and she served for 14 years as minister of music for St. James Presbyterian Church of New York. Among her many awards and honors is the “Personal Best Award for Achievement and the Pursuit of Excellence,” for her role as a writer and arranger for the Boys Choir of Harlem, her artistic achievements in the world of Musical Theatre, and her concern for humanity. Twine, a proud Oklahoman, is the granddaughter of William Henry Twine, a pioneer lawyer who made a homestead claim in the 1891 Sac and Fox Run, and along with G.W.F. Sawner and E.I. Saddler established the first black law partnership in Oklahoma Territory.
So here, in honor of Black History Month, I wish to present this fine musician whose art deserves the world’s attention. Take note please.
I recall excitedly taking a class in college in the late 70s which dealt with post 1950 composition. The professor emphasized that the reigning characteristic of this music is “pluralism”, that is to say that anything goes and one gets less useful information from labels like, “classical”, “baroque”, “romantic”, “post-romantic”, “post-modern”, etc. There is no question that this maxim remains very true and we now are seeing composers well-versed in virtually every technique known to the world of composition.
This album is a fine example of such pluralism. Seeing names such as Elliott Sharp and Gareth Davis one might expect something of the “free jazz” genre and that would not necessarily be an inaccurate description. But it would fail to capture the wonderful writing for Ensemble Resonanz by the eclectic (yes, pluralistic too) Elliott Sharp. As a composer Sharp draws on late twentieth century modern/post-modern compositional techniques along with a fair amount of his own creative innovations gleaned from his own experimentation and, no doubt, from his exposure to the wildly creative milieu of the Downtown New York scene of the 80s and 90s.
The result is like listening to shades of Penderecki and Xenakis as they wrote in the late 1950s though the 70s. This is far more homage than derivation however and the achievement here is how well the soloists on guitar and bass clarinet fit into the work as a whole. They fit remarkably well.
This could easily be called “Symphony for Ensemble with Obligatto Guitar and Bass Clarinet” or even Concerto if you like. The point is that Sharp is an engaging composer whose works are very substantial. From his beginnings on the New York Downtown scene with its mix of jazz, experimental and classical he has continued to explore and grow as a composer and that is what ultimately makes this release so compelling.
The musicianship here from Ensemble Resonanz, Sharp and Davis is of the first order and there is a certain sense of a tight fit such that, whatever may be improvised here sounds as though it were carefully written into this large orchestral fabric. This is a powerful piece of music and repeated listenings will doubtless reveal more and more depth. This is a very engaging piece.
Sharp is clearly evolving and growing as a composer and still hasn’t lost his marvelous collaborative and improvisatorial abilities. This is a major work and a lovely recording.
Dane Rousay is a San Antonio based percussionist and this is the first of several planned releases. This is a solo effort largely with drum kit and perhaps a couple of enhancements or additional percussive hardware. There are 8 rather brief tracks on this album, all of an experimental nature and all very well recorded.
One small disclaimer: I generally don’t review download only releases but Mr. Rousay was persistent and kind in his requests for a review. Another aspect is that there appears to be an increase in this purely digital release format and to ignore that in favor of a demand for a physical product would likely be missing an opportunity to hear some good work.
Despite the brevity there is much for the ear. The percussion seems to be closely miked and that is apparently the point here. Each track is like a mini-etude or experiment which will presumably be used as material for other work. Whether this is jazz, free jazz, new music, classical, etc. is actually beside the point. The point appears to be the sound itself.
There are no liner notes and little in the way of explanation to be found even on the composer’s web site. (That’s not necessarily a negative thing either.) It is not clear if this music is improvised or composed or if there is any predetermined structure and there appears to be no intended connection between each of the tracks. Most of the work is mallets or sticks of some sort hitting the targeted percussive surface though he does make use of extended techniques such as rubbing the mallets across the surface creating rich harmonics in the manner of the spectralists.
After multiple listens this reviewer is left with the impression of having visited the artist’s studio for a rather personal tour of some of his working ideas. If you are a percussionist or a fan of percussion music this album will doubtless interest you. It is not easy listening but it does appear to be a very personal exploration of this artist’s techniques and ideas.
I am looking forward to more from this interesting and seemingly uncompromising artist.
Ken Thomson is one of the rapidly rising stars of the New York music scene and beyond. His involvement with his group Slow/Fast which includes Ken Thomson, Russ Johnson, Nir Felder, Adam Armstrong and Fred Kennedy as well as Bang on a Can and others in the new music/new jazz community demonstrates his level of drive. Thomson is a saxophone player and a composer.
The present album showcases his talents as a composer and are different than what I had expected from a musician with roots in free jazz and with saxophone as his principal instrument. This is a set of two suites in the classical manner, a collection of movements. They do not appear to have any direct influence from jazz but rather they are quite clearly in a classical new music vein.
The first, Restless (2014) is a four movement piece for cello and piano. It could have been called a sonata for all its complexity and development. It is a lyrical and very listenable piece which is restless at times (though I think the title actually suggests multiple meanings) and loaded with fascinating musical ideas. The writing for both the cello and the piano are apparently technically challenging but both are handled very well by Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Karl Larson (piano). This disc is worth the price if only for the fantastic musicianship of these performers.
Ashley Bathgate (cellist) and Karl Larson (pianist) (Photo by Gabriel Gomez, all rights reserved)
The three movement suite, Me vs. (2012) is a pianistic tour de force that makes great use of various pianistic effects involving judicious use of the sustain pedal and the creation of after image type effects which allow the harmonics to vibrate on strings not struck by the keys. Again the nod to a basic three movement classical piano sonata with a complex first movement followed by a lyrical slow movement and a spritely virtuosic finale which resembles a moto perpetuo.
More about the internal dialogue that went on in the composer’s head is available in his commentary but this music doesn’t really require much explanation. It is pretty clear and very effective music. This is simply a wonderful recording of some fascinating new music.