Josh Modney’s “Engage”, New Music for Violin Solo and Not Solo


modneyengage

New Focus FCR 211

This is an awesome undertaking.  I recall when pop musicians were cautioned that it may be unwise to release a so called “double album” for fear that their inspiration (or talent) may not be up to the task.  Well here comes Josh Modney violinist and Executive Director of the Wet Ink Ensemble , a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and a performer with the Mivos Quartet for eight years.  This 3 CD set is his solo violin debut album.  And what an album it is.  There is no lack of talent, skill, or imagination here.  This is essentially three faces of Josh Modney a sort of sonic CV.

The first disc features four tracks of music by contemporary composers for violin with soprano, piano, and/or electronics.  All four are fairly recent compositions:  Sam Pluta’s “Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit (2011), Taylor Brook’s “Vocalise” (2009), Kate Soper’s “Cipher” (2011), and Anthony Braxton’s “Composition No. 22” (1998).All of these are challenging for the musicians and none are easy listening but all demonstrate aspects of Modney’s skills as a musician

The second disc features J. S. Bach’s “Ciacona” or “Chaconne” (1720) from the second violin partita.  But this is not just another performance of this towering masterwork of the solo violin repertoire.  Modney has chosen to perform it in just intonation.  Now how’s that for versatile?

The effect is subtle and may even be lost on some listeners but fanciers of Bach and alternate tunings will likely find this to be anywhere from mildly interesting to revelatory.  It is a fine performance and it is interesting to hear it in just intonation and amazing to know that this performer has this uncommon skill of playing accurately in an alternate tuning on the violin.

Filling out the second disc is a piece by pianist Eric Wubbels, “the children of fire come looking for fire” (2012).  This is a very different piece and I’m not sure why it was paired with the Bach except that it fit the available space.  Wubbels contribution is a sort of electroacoustic collage.

The third (and last) disc is of solo violin compositions by Josh Modney.  Again we move into contemporary and experimental compositions which reflect Modney’s skill with the instrument as well as his insights into it’s potentials.  Again there are no echoes of Bach here but rather more of the experimental/avant garde/free jazz style which dominates this album.  The solo violin repertoire is not huge so it is reasonable to assume that these little gems will find a place there.

This is a lovely production with striking cover art and excellent sound.  If you like cutting edge violin music you will have a wonderful time with these discs.  And if you’re looking for a wildly skilled and imaginative musician check this set out and get ready to be wowed.

 

 

A Far Cry: Visions and Variations


farcryvisions

Crier Records CR 1801

This is the latest release by an ensemble whose debut CD was released some nine years ago.  Most recently this ensemble released a fine recording featuring Simone Dinnerstein playing piano concertos by J. S. Bach and Philip Glass.  This recording is focused on the virtuosity of this small string orchestra by focusing on some unusual but highly listenable pieces from the early twentieth century to the present.

The lovely cover art (by Bill Flynn) conjures images that evoke Picasso’s drawings of Igor Stravinsky conducting.  The album evokes a feeling of an early twentieth century salon and makes the most of this rather small ensemble which counts 20 musicians on this release.  The issue here seems to be quality musicianship exploring unusual but very listenable music.

The disc begins with the too little heard Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (1937) by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).  Bridge was one of Britten’s teachers and a fine composer as well.  This is the piece that first brought Britten international recognition but it is not frequently played or recorded as one might expect.   It is a very entertaining set of variations and one can only surmise that this ensemble will likely tackle some of Britten’s other early string orchestra pieces like the Simple Symphony (1934).

After that workout we are treated to another set of variations.  This time by one Ethan Wood, a violinist with the ensemble.  His contribution is a set of variations on the French song, “Ah vous dirais-je, Maman” (better known to some as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”).  This little fantasy is billed as “a folk tale for 18 players based on characters created by W. A. Mozart”.

And, finally, we have a lively transcription of Sergei Prokofiev’s ” Vision Fugitives” Op. 22.  Originally for piano, this string orchestra version is a unique but interesting idea.  The ensemble handles this complex music well and this version provides a perspective on these little miniatures that will produce discussion among fanciers of the original piano versions.

All in all this is basically a pretty conservative program stylistically but the intelligent choices of repertoire and the wonderful execution make this a stand out release with incredible potential that will leave listeners waiting for their next release.

Simone Dinnerstein: Bach and Glass


dinnerglass

It has been interesting to watch the progression of Philip Glass’ career.  From his driving amplified ensemble music that so entranced this writer to as near groupie status as he will ever be to the more mainstream orchestral work of his work since at least the 90s the fascination remains at some level.

The familiar arpeggios are still to be found along with basically diatonic harmony with occasional polytonal sections.  What is interesting about Glass’ third piano concerto is a sort of chamber romanticism.  A Far Cry is a small chamber orchestra ideally suited to works like the Bach first piano concerto. Though technically originally written for harpsichord pianists have successfully broken the taboo on strict adherence to using the harpsichord and have developed techniques to optimize the sound of the piano (which has very different qualities from a harpsichord).

Simone Dinnerstein is an artist who I first met (albeit virtually) on Facebook.  Her reading of the Goldberg Variations from a few years ago seemed to signal her entrance into the mainstream of performers.  The choice of works on this disc are a sort of characterization of her interests.  She is an accomplished Bach performer with, obviously, an interest in new music.  So pairing her as soloist with A Far Cry whose interests appear to be in a similar range was perfect.

The performance of the Bach G minor piano concerto (No.7) is as delightful as it gets.  Dinnerstein and the ensemble seem work together very well.  These intense little chamber orchestras seem to be proliferating and one could speculate on the economic and political reasons for that but what is more interesting is the commitment and intensity that these small ensembles can bring to music.

The Glass concerto has the feel of a sort of miniature romanticism.  This writer heard it as echoes of Brahms but on a far more intimate scale.  It is difficult to say whether this new work (or for that matter, the other two piano concertos) will become a regular part of the repertory but it is clear that Glass continues to have his champions both in musicians and listeners.

There is nothing groundbreaking here and that is not what is apparently intended.  What we get in this recording is a couple of dedicated and thoroughly enjoyable performances by clearly dedicated musicians.  This is not an original instruments or musicological discoveries type of album.  It is simply good music making.

If you are a fan of Philip Glass and/or Simone Dinnerstein you will want this disc.  But don’t forget to pay attention the this little chamber group.  They are superb and energetic musicians and this reviewer expects to be hearing more from them in the near future.  Maybe we will get a new set of Bach and/or Mozart concertos.  Here’s hoping.

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


stepanova

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!

 

Duo Stephanie and Saar: Bach Art of Fugue


duo bach

New Focus Recordings FCR 181

One of Bach’s last works (It is dated 1748) was thought for many years to have been a sort of academic thesis which was not meant for performance.  Even though it has received performances it is problematic in many ways for performers and listeners. it has spawned many different approaches to this score which specifies no instrumentation, no ordering to the separate movements, and leaves it’s last fugue tantalizingly incomplete.

There have been many orchestrations for ensembles ranging from various chamber groupings to full orchestra.  It has been done on harpsichord, organ and piano, organ, string quartet, brass ensemble, saxophone quartet to name a few.  In fact all of these approaches would seem perfectly appropriate and authentic within the context of baroque performance practice.  Undoubtedly we can expect more of this pluralistic approach to come to terms with Bach’s final utterance.

Sometimes the most salient characteristic of a recording of this work is about a new orchestration or some new scholarship, including yet another effort to complete the fugue which Bach left incomplete in the manuscript.  In this two disc recording the motivation seems to be simple clarity.  Duo Stephanie and Saar (pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia) perform the pieces on piano 4 hands, two pianos and solo piano as befits their artistic vision.  They order the pieces by playing the first 12 fugues (or contrapuncti, as Bach refers to them) followed by alternately performing the four canons in between the remaining fugues and ending with the Canon in Augmentation to create a sense of an arch of unity with increasing complexity followed by the comparatively simple postlude of the final canon.  As with many of the recordings Stephanie and Saar choose to leave the last fugue incomplete as Bach left it which is slightly jarring, leaving the sensation of having missed a step in the descent of a staircase but the final canon then does serve to bring the listener down gently.

Not until the minimalist movement would we see such a long focus on a single key (D minor), a potential deal breaker for a lesser composer.  However the lucidity of these performances and recordings allows the listener to focus on the beautiful intricacy of counterpoint that represents one of the pinnacles of western musical art.  Actually I have found that this recording works as well with focused listening as it does as background music where its energy sneaks in to your consciousness in a different but no less exhilarating way.  This is doubtless due to the quality of interpretation.

Nothing flashy here, no overblown musicological perspectives, just strong playing by artists who clearly know and love this music.  The Art of Fugue is not the easiest of Bach’s works to appreciate.  Indeed it took this listener many years and multiple different recordings to finally grasp the depth of the work.  And while it may not have been intended for performance per se this recording does a good job of finding the unity in these contrapuntal etudes which are effectively a summing up of the techniques of the high baroque era.  Stephanie and Saar take us on a wonderful journey, one you will want to take many times.

Words Fail and Music Succeeds: Violinist Yevgeny Kutik


Marquis 774718147721

Politics requires words and indeed fails at times but music very much succeeds in this fine recording.  This charming collection organized loosely around songs without words is the third album by this emerging artist.

The music is largely 20th to 21st century (if you count the date of the transcriptions) but the sound and mood of the album ranges from the romanticism of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, the post-romantic Mahler, to the neo-classicism of Prokofiev and a dash of modernism from Messiaen, Gandolfi, Andres, and Auerbach.  No words, no politics, just some really beautiful music.

There are 14 tracks of which the Mendelssohn and the Mahler will be the most familiar to listeners.  What is interesting here is a certain unity in these seemingly disparate works which range over nearly 200 years of compositional invention.  In fact this recital program strongly resembles in spirit the justly popular programs of Jascha Heifetz and his acolytes.  That is to say that this is at heart a romantic recital program sure to please any aficionado of the violin and piano genre.

Two of the tracks, those by Michael Gandolfi and Lera Auerbach are for solo violin.  The unaccompanied violin repertoire best represented by J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas is a relatively small one and one fraught with difficulties for composers as well as performers.  Fear not though, these pieces are well wrought and represent significant contributions to the solo violin literature.

The Gandolfi (1956- ) Arioso doloroso/Ecstatico (2016) was commissioned by Mr. Kutik and this is the world premiere recording.  The composer utilizes a basically romantic sounding style with clear references to Bach at moments to create a very satisfying piece imbued with depth but eminently listenable.  Gandolfi’s eclectic oeuvre is by itself worthy of further exploration.

Lera Auerbach’s (1973- ) T’Filah (2015) is a reverent (though not excessively somber) prayer written in memory of the victims of the Nazi holocaust.  Auerbach shares some Russian roots with the soloist and this brief composition will leave most listeners wanting to hear more from this fine and prolific composer.

Timo Andrés (1985- ) plays the piano on the eponymous track Words fail (2015), the second of the two works commissioned by Kutik and premiered on this disc.  He is a skilled composer using a wide variety of compositional and instrumental techniques (which he mentions in his liner notes) to create a sort of modern song without words that fits so well in this program.  Andrés is certainly among the rising stars both as composer and performer.

One should definitely pay attention to the fine work of Kutik’s accompanist John Novacek whose precision and interpretive skill so well compliment the soloist.  The art of the accompanist shines very clearly here.

Overall a great recital disc from a soloist from whom we will doubtless continue to hear great things.

Discovering and Preserving a Legacy: Tod Dockstader: From the Archives


dockarch

Starkland ST-226

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that this disc is a major and important release.  The history of music includes a fair amount of instances in which a second look at a particular composer who had been neglected yields a rediscovery which places said composer to their proper place in history.  Such was the case with Mendelssohn famously rediscovering Bach and Sir Thomas Beecham championing the works of Hector Berlioz. Conductor Robert Craft brought the work of Anton Webern to a larger audience with his recording of the complete works back in the 1950s and, more recently, Michael Tilson Thomas did a similar favor for the work of Carl Ruggles.  Of course not every musico-archaeological effort yields great results but the present release would appear to be auspiciously positioned to bring delight to listeners as well as place its composer in a more appropriately prominent place in the history books.  Now we are treated to a previously unknown cache of musical treasures from such a master, the digital equivalent of discovering Tut’s tomb.  It is an amazing disc on many levels.

This recording is nearly as much the accomplishment of Starkland Records’ producer Tom Steenland as it is of the composer Tod Dockstader (1932-2015).  Starkland’s  first two releases were CD reissues of the composer’s four Owl Records albums from the mid-1960s. It was the musicological acumen of Steenland whose love for those albums that helped provide motivation for him to found Starkland Records and promote this important electronic composer to proper historical recognition.  Dockstader was, in turn, inspired by the very positive response to those reissues to end his thirty year hiatus and return to composing.  He subsequently released the three volumes of Aerial (2005-6) on Sub Rosa and two collaborations with David Lee Myers (whose thumbprint is to be found on the present recording as well), Pond (2004) and Bijou (2005).

As if all that weren’t quite enough a new chapter dawned shortly after Dockstader died in 2015.  He left behind his archive of tapes and record releases and something more.  Justin Brierly, a radio host, was a fan of Dockstader’s music and wanted to interview him for his show.  He contacted Tom Steenland who was able to put him in touch and he was able to visit and interview the composer on several occasions.  The composer’s daughter, Tina Dockstader Kinard, gave Brierly the computer tower containing work files which had been saved on that hard drive over the years. There were thousands of files in various stages of completion, some just sample files, some duplicates, but many complete or nearly complete compositions that had not been heard since they were created.  Brierly sorted through these and sent some 50 files to Tom Steenland who carefully selected 15 tracks for the present release.

Tod Dockstader was a composer with a day job, that is he worked as a film and sound editor and took advantage of his access to what would have been prohibitively expensive equipment at the time to create his own brand of electronic music.  Sadly Vladimir Ussachevsky denied him access to the Columbia-Princeton Studios back in 1961.

Stylistically he holds much in common with his antecedents Edgar Varese, Pierre Henry, Louis and Bebe Barron, Pierre Schaeffer as well as contemporaries such as Morton Subotnick and Andrew Rudin. His albums from the 1960s of course utilized the tape splicing techniques and analog equipment of the time.  Some of the music from his Eight Electronic Pieces (1961) album was selected (as were some of Andrew Rudin’s electronic compositions) for inclusion in the soundtrack for Frederico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969).

When he returned to composing in the late 1990s studios were digitally driven and computers ruled. He reportedly had little difficulty learning and using computers for his later works. Despite the change from analog to digital media however Dockstader’s style remained extremely consistent, a clear and unique voice in the musical landscape.

Prior to this release it had been thought that his last word musically was the three volume Aerial series of 2005-6.  Now Starkland presents this lovingly selected cache of the composer’s most recent works.  He had effectively stopped composing in 2008 wrestling with the ravages of dementia but did listen and comment at times with Brierly during his visits on some of these files and, fittingly, enjoyed the fruits of his own labors to the very end of his life in 2015.  There’s no doubt more of a story to be told there for sure and here’s hoping that we may soon see a comprehensive biographical and musical assessment of his work.

For the wonderful liner notes Steenland recruited Geeta Dayal,  a San Francisco based writer whose writings on music can be accessed from her website and are well worth your time to investigate.  She comes with quite a pedigree as a writer on the subject of electronic music both old and new.  Her liner notes are both authoritative and good reading.  She would be my vote for a Dockstader biographer.

The exact intentions of the compositional process cannot be determined (Dockstader left no notes about these files) but it seems clear that these are all late period pieces.  They are all dated between 2005 and 2008.  The titles of these pieces were made based in part on the computer file names for the pieces which had not gotten their final naming by the composer.  One can only imagine the labor of love involved in Brierly’s and Steenland’s distillation of these final 15 tracks but the end result is a very satisfying collection consistent in quality to previous releases and a worthy representation of his last works (though this reviewer is given to hopeful wonder that a volume II might emerge in the near future).  At any rate Dockstader’s legacy is now secure and no doubt there will be much research done on his work made easier now by the dedicated sleuthing of these producers.

The first track, Super Choral (2007) contains some collaboration with David Lee Myers as mentioned earlier and it is used with his permission.  I won’t try to describe the rest of these pieces except to say that they seem to be a worthwhile contribution to the art of electronic music, are excellently crafted and eminently listenable.

The liner notes with their studio porn images of Dockstader’s beloved Ampex machines are tastefully mixed with images of the composer and his family.  The mastering was done by the wonderful Silas Brown and is about as good as it gets.  I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to the composer’s legacy than this and I can’t imagine this not being nominated for a Grammy.  Bravo gentlemen!

Release is scheduled for November 18th.  You can pre-order both the download and the physical disc on Amazon.