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?

Flash with Substance, Cameron Carpenter Takes on Rachmaninoff and Poulenc


carpenterrachpag

Sony 8898590822

Cameron Carpenter (1981- ) is a spectacular musician and showman.  But don’t let his showmanship fool you.  He is a brilliant and disciplined musician and arranger and belongs to a tradition of flashy virtuosos.  He is also not the first organist to have and use a portable organ either.  Prior to Carpenter people “of a certain age” (your reviewer qualifies) may remember one Virgil Fox (1912-1980) whose musicianship and showmanship delighted audiences of an earlier era.  He too sometimes worked with a portable organ.  In fact he did a show at, of all venues, The Fillmore East with his Rodgers Touring Organ.  This storied home to late 60s rock and rollers included a light show with Fox’s performance of Bach et al.

Another keyboard genius who took on a little flash at one time is Anthony Newman (1941- ) whose enthusiastic and authoritative presentations opened a whole new generation to music of Bach and others as well as introducing them to the organ and harpsichord.  Newman, also a composer of note continues to be a valued concert performer and interested listeners are encouraged to check out his website for more details about this man’s recordings and compositions.

One can’t look at Carpenter with his mod haircuts and stylish clothing without thinking of another wonderful flashy virtuoso, Nigel Kennedy (1956- ), a wonderful violinist with a powerful style and stage presence.  Once again the presence belies the genius just beneath the flash.  Surprisingly he does not have his own web page so I linked to his Wikipedia page.  The Guardian and at Warner Classics also maintain pages on him.  C’mon Nigel, get someone to set up a page for you, dude.

All this is just to put Mr. Carpenter in context (as much for myself as my readers).  So on to the main purpose of this review, the disc.  I don’t know off hand how many discs he has released so far but this one is a fine place to start if you don’t already know this musician’s work.  It includes his work as organist solo and with orchestra, and as arranger in the opening work, Rachmaninoff’s wonderful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1943).  Originally, of course, the work is for Piano and Orchestra and is a piano concerto in all but name.  (And the disc is indexed so you can choose each variation separately if you wish.)

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Carpenter posing with his touring instrument

Cameron’s arrangement is effective and entertaining.  I will not give up my love for the original but this arrangement does what a good arrangement should by providing insight to the music.  I can only imagine the difficulties encountered trying to make this piece playable on an organ and balancing the sound with the orchestra.  Fortunately Cameron has a valuable partner in crime here.  The Konzerthausorchester Berlin is led by the brilliant conductor Christoph Eschenbach.  And he uses his portable touring organ which sounds as good as any I’ve heard.  They sound fabulous together and the recording is top notch.

How do you follow the Rachmaninoff?  Well, how about the Francis Poulenc Organ Concerto (1934-8)?  Yes, this concerto for Organ, Strings, and Tympani may be a discovery for many folks.  It is a piece which hooks the listener from the very beginning with a crashing fortissimo chord from the organ.  It goes on to an almost baroque sounding development with modern harmonies throughout.  It is a fitting companion on this disc to the opening piece.

And, finally, the final allegro from the Organ Symphony No. 1 Op. 14 (1898-99) by Louis Vierne (1870-1937) who was the organist at Notre Dame in Paris from 1900 to 1937.  Vierne (who wrote six grand symphonies for solo organ) studied with another grand master of the organ Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937).  He wrote ten organ symphonies and a host of other music as well.  Also worthy of note is the fact that the man who first performed the Poulenc concerto was another grand organist/composer named Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) who was Vierne’s assistant at Notre Dame for a time.

If you like organ music you will love this album.  And if you like flashy virtuosos then by all means check out Carpenter’s website and YouTube channels.  Enjoy, and play it loudly.

Finding Angels, Energetic Eclecticism from Howard Hersh


Angels and Watermarks

Angels and Watermarks

Howard Hersh (1940- ) studied music and earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Stanford University.  He is a California native and he succeeded Charles Amirkhanian as music director at KPFA.  His Pony Concerto (2005), Braided River Nights (2004) and Sonata for Violin and Percussion with String Bass obligato (2000) were released on Albany Records in 2007 and his Dancing at the Pink House (2006) is available as a free download on Bandcamp.

I had not been familiar with Mr. Hersh’s music when I agreed to review this disc but I found that liked it immediately and it made my  list of favorite releases for 2014. The  featured piece here is the Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments (2008) and it is a tour de force.  Hersh writes in a tonal idiom that sounds to this reviewer’s ears like a mix of Conlon Nancarrow and Francis Poulenc.  This concerto is virtuosic in the extreme but not the empty virtuosity of the romantic composer pianists (Anton Rubinstein bores me to tears).  This work in three movements sounds very difficult to play but manages to remain playful and entertaining, never taking itself too seriously.  Pianist Brenda Tom does a fantastic job (she must have fingers of steel) and is very ably supported by the small ensemble conducted by Barbara Day Turner.  Rapid attacks, scales and arpeggios keep the soloist very busy and the ensemble clearly listens and collaborates in what is an electrifying performance.

The other pieces on the disc are a sort of strange contrast to the concerto.  First is a suite for harpsichord, Angels and Watermarks (2004) was composed during Hersh’s residency at the Djerassi Arts Center.  The piece is in five movements and is a significant contribution to the contemporary literature for that instrument.  Cast in the manner of a baroque suite, each movement plays on familiar forms.  The first movement is a ponderous prelude which is followed by a playful moto perpetuo, a gentle lullaby, then a spectacular jazz inflected toccata and finally a sort of non-literal recapitulation of the prelude.  Again we are treated to the dynamic keyboard work of Brenda Tom who executes each movement flawlessly and with great expressiveness.

The final work on the disc is Dream (2012)  which the composer (who wrote the liner notes) says is his exploration of how to incorporate tonal harmony in his work.  It is a soft, slow meandering piece in which he manages to make his explorations into a beautiful and restful work.  Brenda Tom is the dedicatee of both this and the harpsichord suite and she demonstrates her ability to work with soft expressive textures.

All in all a great CD which will delight any new music fan.  It is available from CD Baby and Amazon.  Highly recommended.