300 Years of Virtuosity, Liza Stepanova’s Tones and Colors


Concert Artist Guild CAG 120

This is the solo piano debut of this talented and incredibly virtuosic artist.  This hard working pianist can be heard on a previous CD (After a Dream) with the Lysander Piano Trio.  Her web site can provide a good idea of the range of solo, chamber, and orchestral music in her repertory.

This CD is a good example of creating a brand, a practice which seems to be the current rage especially among artists who specialize in new music.  I have previously commented on the brands of pianists like Sarah Cahill, Kathleen Supové, Nicolas Horvath, and Stephane Ginsburgh to name a few.  All are amazing musicians but each seems to have been able to carve out an identifiable niche which sets them apart from each other and defines their various artistic missions.  Granted these are soft definitions in that they do not preclude them from playing anything they choose but it gives audiences a sort of general idea of what to expect when they do a program.

Liza Stepanova appears to have chose virtuosity as her signature.  She plays what sounds like fingerbreakingly difficult music with both ease and expressiveness.  Here she chooses to basically survey virtuosity from J. S. Bach to György  Ligeti.  In addition she has chosen to pair each composition with an analogous piece of visual art.

The pairing of music and visual art is as old as dirt and has always seemed to have an inherent validity.  Tone poems like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy’s Clair de Lune are familiar examples of music as a visual analog.  But music sometimes suggests pictures even if it was not the stated intent of the composer too.  Stepanova covers the visual territory from the representative to the abstract in this entertaining collection.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this recording is the pianist’s choice of music.  She does go with the familiar at times such as Debussy’s Goldfish but the majority of this disc contains music that is seldom heard by lesser known composers such as Maurice Ohana (1913-1992), Joaquin Turina (1882-1949), Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), and Lionel Feininger (1871-1956).  There are better known names such as Enrique Granados (1867–1916), Bohuslav Martinú and Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938).  And the most familiar names such as J. S. Bach (1885-1750), Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Claude Debussy (1862-1918), George Crumb (1929- ), and György Ligeti (1923-2006).

There are 13 tracks grouped into 4 visual art themes (A Spanish Room, Nature and Impressionism, Conversations Across Time, and Wagner, Infinity, and an Encore).  The only problem I have here is the photos of the art (which thankfully are included in the little booklet) are necessarily small and really don’t give the consumer the full intended effect.  One would do well to obtain some art books or some larger prints of these to gain the intended effect.

I won’t go into detail about each individual piece.  Suffice it to say that they are all technically challenging and intelligently chosen pieces.  This is a very entertaining program from this emerging artist.

This reviewer is given to speculation as to Stepanova’s next release.  Perhaps Sorabji with some Dada works?  Whatever it is will doubtless be as interesting and entertaining as this disc.  Brava, Ms. Stepanova!


When Politics and the Arts Clash, OM 22

Isang Yun (1917-1995)

The relationship between politics and music is complex and varied.  There are many instances of clashes between these two disciplines from the politics of state and church sponsored music to its repression by those same institutions.

After centuries of Catholic church sponsored music a decision was made in 1903 to repress the performance of anything but Gregorian chant and any instruments except for the ubiquitous organ.  The reasons for this decree have been discussed but the end result was less work for musicians.

More recently the Nazi “degenerate art” concepts and the later proscriptions on “formalist music” in Soviet Russia similarly put artists and musicians out of work.  In fact many were jailed or killed.  Shostakovich and Prokofiev were high profile musicians who endured bans on performances of their music based ostensibly on claims that it brought (or potentially brought) harm to the state’s political visions.

Even more recently the blacklist created by Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes perpetrated a similar assault on actors, directors and writers like Dalton Trumbo (recently dramatized in the excellent film Trumbo with Bryan Cranston leading the fine cast).  This sad chapter of history did not completely end until the 1970s and only recently have efforts succeeded in restoring suppressed screen credits to these films.  Many lives were destroyed or irreparably harmed.  One hopes, of course, that such travesties will not be repeated but the recent efforts to eliminate the NEA suggest that such struggles remain with us.

On February 18th Other Minds will present a centennial celebration of two composers’ births.  Lou Harrison certainly expressed some political themes in some of his music but did not incur state sponsored political wrath.  Unfortunately this was not the case with the other honoree of Other Minds’ 22nd season.

In 1967 Korean composer Isang Yun was kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers and taken to South Korea to face accusations of collaboration with the communist government of North Korea.  He was held for two years and was subjected to interrogation and torture based on information later acknowledged to have been fabricated.  Even so South Korea declined to allow the ailing composer’s request to visit his hometown in 1994.  He died the following year in his adoptive home in Berlin, Germany.

A petition signed by over 200 artists including composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Ligeti and conductors Otto Klemperer and Joseph Keilberth among the many was sent to the South Korean government in protest.  A fine recent article by K. J. Noh, Republic of Terror, Republic of Torture puts the incident in larger political context. It is a lesson sadly relevant even now in our politically turbulent times.

The concert will feature works from various points in his career, both before and after the aforementioned incident.  It is a fine opportunity to hear the work of this too little known 20th century master.  Conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies knew and worked with both Harrison and Isang.  It is so fitting that he will participate along with his wife, justly famed new music pianist Maki Namekawa, in this tribute to the the late composer.  This can’t right the wrongs but what better way to honor a composer than by performing his music?

The performance is at 7:30 PM at the historic Mission Dolores Basilica at 3321 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114.  Tickets available (only $20) at Brown Paper Tickets.

Maybe Music Remains Forever, A New Martin Bresnick Disc


This latest release from Starkland adds significantly to the discography of the Yale based composer Martin Bresnick.   Born in 1946 in the Bronx, New York, he studied at  the University of Hartford (B.A., 1967), Stanford (M.A., 1968; DMA, 1972) where he studied with electronic music pioneer John Chowning and Györgi Ligeti.  He also studied with Gottfried von Einem in Vienna (1969-70).   He has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Stanford University  and Yale where he is now a professor of composition.  Bresnick is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been the recipient of numerous prizes and awards.  His wife is the wonderful new music pianist Lisa Moore whose work with Bang on a Can as well as her solo efforts have made many valuable additions to new music recordings.


Composer Martin Bresnick

I had heard of Bresnick but had not yet sampled his music so the opportunity to review this disc prompted me to follow-up on my long-planned intent to investigate the work of this American composer.  Not wanting to judge him just from this disc alone, I obtained  for comparison the CRI recording which contains his second and third string quartets and a couple of other chamber pieces for strings which range from 1973 to 1994 in their composition dates.  As I listened to both that disc and the one which is the subject of this review I found myself increasingly intrigued with this unique musical voice.

As it turns out the unsuspecting consumer may have already been exposed to this man’s work in one of several film scores including two of the Cadillac Desert  series, The Day After Trinity and an Academy Award nominated short from 1975, Arthur and Lillie.  The most recent film score listed on his site was for The Botany of Desire, after Michael Pollan’s best-selling book on human interactions with food.   I must confess that I don’t really recall the music from these films but I will be listening closely next time I screen them.

The CRI disc consists of Bresnick’s earlier works for strings.  It is an enjoyable if more an academic musical experience.  But the present disc, Prayers Remain Forever consists of more recent compositions ranging from the 2010 Going Home to the 2012 Ishi‘s Song.  These are much freer compositions concerned more with expression than form.  David Lang, who wrote the liner notes on the inside of the gatefold, describes them as being “deeper and more personal.”

A look at Bresnick’s starting places for these pieces gives a clue as to their nature.  The composer, writing in the booklet that comes with the disc, cites Kafka, Goya, Ishi (the last of the Yahi-Yani Indian tribe), mortality, religion and his own emotional response to having visited his ancestral home in Belarus.  All in all a somber, elegiac set of pieces that deal with deeply personal emotions and memories.

Tracks 1, 3, 5 and 6 were recorded at the Morse Recital Hall, Sprague Hall at Yale University by Eugene Kimball.  Tracks 2 and 4 were recorded at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT by Nick Lloyd who also mastered this disc.

The first piece on the disc, Going Home-Vysoke, My Jerusalem (2010) is scored for oboe, violin, viola and cello.  It was inspired by the composer’s experiences having visited the ancestral home of his family.  He speaks of remembering the stories he heard from his grandparents of the “alte heym” (Yiddish for old home) and the suffering they endured, the murder of his great grandparents, the destruction of the town.  Bresnick, who is himself a trained oboe player, weaves a beautiful, though painful, picture here.  This could conceivably be a film score to the images that are in the composer’s memories.  It is, for this writer the most poignant and personal of the pieces on this recording.  It is beautifully played by an ensemble who call themselves “Double Entendre” with Christa Robinson, oboe; Caleb Burhans, violin; John Pickford, viola and Brian Snow, cello.

Ishi (ca. 1860-1916)

Ishi (ca. 1860-1916)

The second track, Ishi’s Song, was inspired by an actual recording of Ishi, thought to have been the last of his tribe of Yahi-Yani Indians of Northern California.  Ishi lived out his life at the University of California at Berkeley under the care of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and remains a beloved figure to many especially in the San Francisco  bay area .  Ishi recorded a song he that he had been taught and it is this song that forms the basis (or cantus firmus according to the composer) of this piece for singing pianist.  Lisa Moore is no stranger to the repertoire for speaking or singing pianist having recorded Frederic Rzewski’s masterful De Profundis (1992).  Her talents are put to good use here in this virtuosic set of variations on the haunting tune.

Kafka at the age of five

Kafka at the age of five (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Josephine, the Singer (2011) is perhaps the most unusual piece here.  It is inspired by the Kafka story of the same name which is about a mouse that can sing.  This piece is a significant contribution to the solo violin repertoire.  It is an expressive piece in a single movement which is played with an easy sense of virtuosity and expression by violinist Sarita Kwok.

Strange Devotion (2010) is a lyrical piano piece sensitively played by Lisa Moore.  Bresnick’s inspiration, according to his notes in the accompanying booklet, state that he is here depicting a one scene from Goya’s horrific set of etchings, Disasters of War in which a donkey pulls a cart holding a coffin as people kneel by the roadside while it passes.  The “strange devotion” to which he refers is the devotion to religion.  The mood here is not one of cynicism it is more like a lament.

A Message from the Emperor (2010) is another piece based on Kafka.  This piece is scored for two speaking percussionists who play marimba, vibraphone and small tuned drums.  This little narrative follows in the same basic tradition as the speaking pianist piece.  The musicians speak sometimes separately, sometimes together coordinating their substantial duties on their instruments as well.  The story tells of an important message that, as is characteristic in Kafka’s absurdist world, can never actually be communicated.  It’s not clear if this (or, for that matter, the other tracks on this disc)  is intended as political protest music but the analogies are certainly there if the listener chooses to apply them..


Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)

The last work here is inspired by “Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever”, a poem by famed Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000).  One  line of the poem, “Tombstones crumble” provides the inspiration for the appropriately somber cover art while  the music at hand, Prayers Remain Forever (2011) chooses perhaps a more optimistic line from the poem.  Again we have a deeply felt emotional expression here expertly interpreted by TwoSense  (Lisa Moore, piano and Ashley Bathgate, cello).


Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever

I saw in the street on a summer evening
I saw a woman writing words
On a paper spread on a locked wooden door,
She folded it and slipped it between the door and the doorpost
And went off.

I didn’t see her face or the face of the man
Who will read the writing and not the words.

On my desk lies a rock with the inscription “Amen,”
Piece of a tombstone, remnant of a Jewish graveyard
Ruined a thousand years ago in the city of my birth.

One word, “Amen” carved deep in the stone,
Hard and final, Amen to all that was and will not return,
Soft Amen: chanting like a prayer,
Amen, Amen, may it be His will.

Tombstones crumble, words come and go, words are forgotten,
The lips that uttered them turn to dust,
Tongues die like people, other tongues come to life,
Gods in the sky change, gods come and go,
Prayers remain forever.

(found on http://jpbaird.com/2013/11/)

Perhaps these non-literal musical expressions here can be said to be poetic and, like the prayers of Amichai’s poem may even last forever.  At least that seems to be the optimistic point Bresnick seems to make here.  This is a beautiful recording with talented and dedicated musicians that will continue to make it to my playlists.  And I am now compelled to seek out more by this wonderful composer.