Sarah Cahill’s “The Future is Female” Volume 2: The Dance


First Hand Records FHR 132

The fanciful subtitle of this release, “The Dance” is a follow up to the first volume titled, “In Nature” (a third volume titled, “At Play” is due out in March, 2023). These vague titles are fanciful and more connotative than specific. They seem to reflect the nature of the project and the nature of Sarah Cahill‘s style of conceptualizing what must be an overwhelming undertaking, Beginning with the simple concept of female composers (the term “neglected” would be redundant here) Cahill has produced a sweeping survey ranging from the baroque era (the earliest piece so far in this anthology is from 1687) to the present and her survey seems to know few geographical boundaries in this representative survey of keyboard music. Of course we are talking about basically the paradigm of western classical music but non-western influences are of course included via the composers’ individual talents. Many of these works were presented in Cahill’s fine YouTube series which can give listeners further clues to the pianist’s varied interests.

The cover art (which I had described as “drab” in the first review) now seems to aptly reflect the struggle for equality and now nicely represents this project in an iconic way with the same monochrome cover photo on each of the three volumes and a primary color panel with the disc title. Green for Volume I, Yellow for Volume II (I’m guessing “red” for Vol III?). This survey is shaping up to be an influential as well as hugely entertaining anthology.

What struck this listener is Cahill’s facility with both technique and interpretation of a mighty diverse set of pieces. Known primarily for her work with music written after 1950, she demonstrates in these recordings an impressive command of baroque, classical, romantic, and modern idioms. I have never heard her play Bach but I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to hear her do the Goldberg Variations.

This was particularly striking in her reading of the keyboard suite that opens this release. This is apparently not the first recording of Elisabeth JACQUET DE LA GUERRE‘s (1665-1729) Suite no. 1 in d minor (the complete suites for harpsichord were recorded by harpsichordist Carol Cerasi in 1998) but Cahill seems to channel the spirits of the pioneering efforts of Wanda Landowska and Rosalyn Tureck whose abilities to play harpsichord music effectively on the modern piano helped set the standard for this practice in the twentieth century and beyond. This late French baroque suite is a thoroughly engaging way to draw the listener in. With echoes of Bach and Couperin this virtually unknown composer is seriously engaging and substantive. This recording includes five (of nine) movements of the suite. One hopes to hear more of this woman’s music and Cahill is very much up to the task of providing a definitive performance.

With the next track we hear the music of Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896), better known as the wife of Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Clara was in fact a highly accomplished virtuoso and composer whose works are only now getting the recognition they deserve. The piece chosen here is her Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann Op. 20. These seven variations were a gift for her husband on his 43rd birthday in 1853. Sadly it was to be the last birthday he would celebrate with his family. Robert Schumann was infamously institutionalized in 1854 and died in 1856. The work has all the splendor of high romanticism with the virtuosity associated with the great composer/pianists (Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Rubinstein, et al). And, as with the previous piece, Cahill seems very at home in her reading of this wonderful set of variations.

Germaine TAILLEFERE (1892-1983) is next up with her three movement partita of 1957. The title “Partita” suggests a connection with the baroque suite which opens this collection. The connection is one of form, not harmony or melody. The three movements here are “Perpetuum Mobile”, “Notturno”, and “Allegramente”. Taillefere, who is perhaps best known for her lively Harp Concertino of 1927, was the only female member of France’s celebrated “Les Six” (the other members were, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Arthur Honneger, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc). This largely neoclassical group of composers developed their styles in the shadow of Debussy and Ravel. Cahill’s first album was a fine reading of Ravel’s piano music and she is very much in her element with this delightful three movement work which echoes Ravel to some degree,

Zenobia POWELL PERRY (1908-2004) is the first composer in this collection to be born in the twentieth century. She was a black composer/conductor/pianist and teacher. Her work appeared before in this blog in coverage of her opera “Tarawa House” which was given a revival in Modesto, CA in 2014. Her “Rhapsody” (1960) is in a sort of Neo-romantic style with some challenging virtuosity required. This is a fine introduction to her work which deserves serious reassessment and more performances. Musicologist Jeannie Gayle Pool continues to publish, preserve, and advocate for this neglected American artist. Pool maintains the website for this composer and is a useful, informative site,

Madeleine DRING (1923-1977), a British composer/pianist, a new name to this writer, is characterized by her use of popular and jazz idioms. Cahill here plays two (of five) movements of her “Color Suite” (1963). This whets the listener’s appetite for more of this interesting composer whose work was well known during her career but whose star has dimmed since her passing. Dring is one of many women composers of that era whose work, though influential, has not been incorporated into the repertory of contemporary classical musicians.

Betsy JOLAS (1926- ), a French born American composer whose career has included work as a composer, pianist, and teacher. No stranger to the Bay Area, Jolas taught at UC Berkeley and Mills College as well as Harvard and Yale. The listener accessible nature of her music belies the innovation and complexities it contains. Though she has been recognized throughout her career her work is due for a new reckoning. Her brief “Tango Si” (1984) is entertaining and sufficiently compelling to spark interest in her work going forward.

Elena KATS-CHERNIN (1957- ) hails from Uzbekistan and migrated to Australia where she studied at the New South Wales Conservatorium and subsequently with Helmut Lachenmann in Germany. Kats-Chernin has been a prolific composer and is now perhaps mid-career and, happily, pretty well known. “Peggy’s Rag” (1996) is one of a set of several rags written between 1995 and 1999. This work is dedicated to Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), another artist, another female composer deserving of a revival.

Meredith MONK (1942- ) has long been one of this reviewer’s favorite “downtown” composers whose initial musical ventures were first heard in her New York SOHO loft. She, along with other rising stars, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Phill Klein, Rhys Chatham, etc., are now the historically recognized mavericks who’s creative ideas formed in contrast to the power elite of the “uptown” composers heard commonly at Lincoln Center.

Monk was initially trained as a dancer and that has been evident in most of her output. But she is perhaps best known for her exploration of extended vocal techniques (which she also teaches). It is fitting that her “St. Petersburg Waltz” (1997) is included in this dance themed installment of music by women composers. Despite being an “east coast” composer initially, Monk has achieved international recognition and has a particularly large following in the Bay Area. No surprise then that our pianist guide in this journey has a long standing familiarity with Monk’s work. Cahill demonstrates her grasp of Monk’s minimalist inflected style most admirably and, as in the preceding tracks, leaves the listener wanting more.

Gabriela ORTIZ (1964) is a Mexican composer. Born in Mexico, trained in England, and now teaching in Mexico. Her light shines brightly even in the glare of the heavily politicized immigration issues that dominate the media and is another in a long line of world class composers from that underrated country. Ortiz, in addition to her academic appointments, has produced a large number of works in multiple formats from piano and chamber music, to orchestral, dance, and opera. Her work draws in part on the folk music traditions she absorbed in her childhood and she has amassed a significant number of international commissions and recordings.

Ortiz is also an accomplished pianist and the work chosen here is “Preludio y Estudio No. 3″(2011), one of four two part compositions. Cahill’s brief but useful notes provide the listener with her personal insights to the underlying complexities that drive this music. The incorporation of folk and non-classical elements has been embraced by composers for hundreds of years and Ortiz succeeds in incorporating such elements into her personal style,. As with all of these works, Cahill produces interpretations that, if not absolutely definitive (there are always detractors) stand as a challenge to subsequent interpreters, a necessary element in such a grand project.

This volume ends with the most recently composed work by the youngest composer of the lot, Theresa WONG (1976- ). Wong, a graduate of Mills College, is cherished performer in the Bay Area and beyond, As both composer and performer she has maintained an active schedule and has produced a great deal of music documented in a large and growing discography. Her collaborations have included many of the established Bay Area artistic royalty (including Ms. Cahill, of course).

“She Dances Naked Under the Palm Trees” (2019) is a composition for which the backstory (provided in Cahill’s notes) is particularly useful for the listener. It is the incorporation of extramusical ideas and musical. quotation that drive the drama here to some extent.. The music certainly stands on its own but the addition of the technical insights will send the listener back for repeated hearings and the music will guide the listener to seek more of the work of this wonderful artist whose star continues to rise.

The last disc in this landmark anthology (due next year) will ultimately contain only a portion of the approximately 70 pieces which Cahill has chosen. Like her previous anthology (of politically influenced music) “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013, the limitations of time and money prevent a more complete vision of said anthologist but there is more than enough to provoke further interest by listeners and artists and isn’t that the point?

Recurrence: New Icelandic Orchestral Music


“Well I’ve never been to Iceland, but I really like the music.”  Please excuse the Hoyt Axton paraphrase but this music brings joy to this listener’s heart.

Wow!  Even as a writer with an avowed fondness for music from the Nordic regions I am pleased to say that I am just stunned at this recording.  This is all new music written in the last few years by Icelandic composers and performed by the Iceland Symphony which seems well prepared to handle these large works.

These seven tracks document five works by living composers and, I dare say, rising stars in the classical orchestral realm as well.  Only one of these composers is likely to ring a bell in all but a few listeners and that is Anna Thorvaldsdottir, probably the best known musician from Iceland since Björk.  And it is worth noting that three of the five works are by female composers.

There is a consistency in the large orchestral sounds from these composers that provide a unity for the listener and a challenge for the recording engineers.  In fact this is ideal to show off the sonic facility of the Sono Luminus label and the skills of producer Dan Merceruio and recording engineer Daniel Shores.  This is the sort of album that stereo salons use to show off the range of their amps and speakers.  It is indeed thrilling to hear and the better your sound system, the more exciting this will be.  Those blessed with Blue Ray Audio capability will doubtless get the best sound of all.  Both standard CD and Blue Ray Audio discs are included in this package.

In order of appearance the composers are: Thurídur Jónsdóttir (1967- ), Hlynur Vilmarsson, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (1980- ), Daniel Bjarnason (1979- ), and Anna Thorvaldsdottir (1977- ).  Bjarnason is also the very capable conductor of the Iceland Symphony in this recording.

The music, Flow and Fusion, bd, Aequora, Emergence (three movements), and Dreaming are not given composition dates but are presumably recent compositions by these young artists.  There are liner notes which are useful to the listener but the main point here seems to be the glorious sound.  One hears influence and/or homage to some of the great sonic experimenters of the late 1950s and 60s like Penderecki, Xenakis, Lutoslawski and probably some Icelandic composers whose works have yet to be heard outside of Iceland.

The album has the notation below the title of “ISO Project 1” so here’s hoping that there will be at least a second volume and that we be given the opportunity to hear more from the rich musical landscape of Iceland.  Bravo!  Brava!  Keep it coming.

 

Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


laradownes

Sono Luminus DSL-92207

The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.