Project W: The Chicago Sinfonietta Gloriously Features Women Composers (conductor too)


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The attention paid to women composers remains much less than it should be but releases like this latest on Cedille features the Chicago Sinfonietta (Chicago’s second professional orchestra established in 1987 and sporting programs distinctly different from that of the Chicago Symphony) are incrementally correcting that error.  Here for your listening pleasure is a disc with five world premieres, all by female composers, and a world class orchestra conducted by a female conductor, Mei-Ann Chen.  (They also boast that on average the Sinfonietta is 47% women.  Is there an orchestra that can match that?).

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Florence Price 

With the exception of Florence Price (1887-1953) all are living composers on this release.  The others (who were commissioned by the Sinfonietta to write these pieces) include Clarice Assad (1978- ), Jessie Montgomery (1981- ), Reena Esmail (1983- ), and Jennifer Higdon (1962- ).  Montgomery and Esmail are new names to this reviewer.  Assad and Higdon are generally well known and very accomplished.  Higdon is the second woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in music (the first was Ellen Taafe Zwilich) and Florence Price is enjoying something of a posthumous revival with recent recordings of several of her larger works and the recent discovery of some of her scores long thought lost.

This disc is pretty much representative of Cedille’s mission to record new music and a selection of older music featuring largely Chicago musicians.  This label has done great service in promoting the music of women and other minority groups and has exposed the record buying/listening public to musical gems that otherwise would languish in that minority wasteland of music which remains unperformed due to sociopolitical rather than aesthetic reasons.

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Mei-Ann Chen

This is one of their finest releases.  It is a nice survey of 20/21st century women composers (just a small sampling but an intelligent one) from the early twentieth century to the present.  The works are given definitive readings by a fine ensemble and a clearly accomplished insightful conductor.

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The late great Paul Freeman (from Chicago Symphony web site)

The disc opens with music which serves both the theme of presenting women composers and the desire to do honor to the Chicago Sinfonietta’s founding conductor, the late Dr. Paul Freeman.  His advocacy of the music of black composers began with the groundbreaking Columbia release (now Sony) of music by black composers and continued the series on Cedille (African Heritage Symphonic Series: CDR 90000 055, CDR 90000 061, CDR 90000 066 followed by the Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson disc CDR 90000 087).  The disc opens with a set of piano pieces by Ms. Price (Dances in the Canebreaks, 1952) which were orchestrated by no less than the dean of Black American composers, William Grant Still.  These three friendly, light hearted dances will remind listeners of the sort of fare that characterized the jazz inflected classical idioms of the time, a tradition which also gave birth to Rhapsody in Blue.

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Clarice Assad (from composer’s web site)

Next up is Sin Fronteras (2017) by the Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad.  She comes from the well known musical family which includes her father, guitarist and composer Sergio Assad.  Her work has a tinge of Aaron Copland and works well as a follow up to the opening track.  She, like Still, seems to have an impressive command of the orchestra which she handles with tremendous skill in this overall light hearted piece.

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Jessie Montgomery (from the composer’s web site)

 

Jessie Montgomery (1981- ) is a new name to this reviewer but a look at her well organized web page reveals an astoundingly accomplished young musician.  Her Coincident Dreams (2017) follows in the American traditions of including folk music in her compositions.  Here her material includes non-American folk musics blended into a lucid listenable score that marks her as a musician worth watching.

As with Assad we hear a composer who is comfortable with the sprawling pallet of the modern orchestra where she manages to make the best use of her materials in an entertaining orchestral work.

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Reena Esmail (from composer’s web site)

 

 

Reena Esmail (1983- ) is another name new to this reviewer.  She is the only artist here to have two works on this CD.  The first is a traditional Hindustani piece called Charukeshi Bandish in which she sings the vocal part.  Like many of the composers here she draws on her own cultural heritage and has managed to incorporate these traditions into her more (western) classically oriented works.  In fact she does so in the next track with #metoo (2017), a piece in which she expresses both solidarity and rage at the mistreatment of women worldwide.  Here’s some uncomfortable activism for the concert hall whose time is certainly due.

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Jennifer Higdon (NYT photo) 

The disc concludes with perhaps the best known living American woman composer, Jennifer Higdon.  In addition to being a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music, Higdon is a prolific composer whose work has been heard in concert and opera houses world wide.  Her post-romantic style has made her work popular in concert halls and the depth of her musical invention continues to amaze.  Her five movement “Dance Card” (2017) harkens back to the lighthearted dance music which opened this recording.  But it is tinged with a depth of emotion which reflects not only her personal vision but her solidarity with women world wide, people who would not need a special feature release but for their gender and racial differences which have marginalized them historically.  This release goes a long way to shifting that trend. It’s a gorgeous record.

Holes in the Sky, Lara Downes Channels the Collective Artistry of the Feminine


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Sony/Portrait

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.

 

 

 

Emanuele Arciuli, Defining a Genre: Walk in Beauty


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Innova 255

This 2 CD set virtually defines a genre.  Following in the traditions of such notable compilations as Robert Helps’ “New Music for the Piano”, Alan Feinberg’s wonderful series of discs on Argo records among many others we see Arciuli displaying his grasp of music in the tradition of the gentle musical anthropology found in the music and scholarship of Peter Garland.  The album’s title comes from Garland’s lovely multiple movement Walk in Beauty (1992) released on New World records in the 1990s.  The present collection is both nostalgic and forward looking reminding us of great past efforts and introducing us to new work.  It is a look at a loosely defined style of mostly late 20th century American piano music through the lens of a non-American artist.

Garland’s interest in Native American myths and music inform his post minimalist ethic and the additional pieces chosen for this two disc set reflect similar artistic sensibilities.  Emanuele Arciuli is an Italian pianist whose interests range from the Second Viennese School to the unique compositions of Thelonius Monk.  He also has a strong interest in classical music from Native American traditions which puts him very much in sync with Garland’s work as well.  Here he has chosen music which he clearly understands and which appear to have deep meaning for him.

There are 28 tracks on 2 discs representing 13 composers.  Five of these composers are explicitly affiliated with their respective Native American traditions and the remaining eight composers take their inspiration at least in part from the rich music and/or mythology of those cultures.  The bottom line here is that these are carefully and lovingly chosen works which open a window on one fine musician’s perception of a certain Western/Native American/New American style which, at worst, holds up a mirror and, whether we like it or not, it tells us something about who we are and from whence we came.

Connor Chee‘s “Navajo Vocable No. 9” opens the album and sets the tone.  This is one of a series of piano pieces by this fascinating composer/pianist whose star is deservedly rising.  His work celebrates Navajo culture and is informed as well by his training in traditional western art music.

This is followed by Peter Garland‘s “Walk in Beauty”.  This piece is representative of Garland’s post-minimalist, impressionistic style.  It was previously recorded so wonderfully by Aki Takahashi on the eponymously titled New World Records album from the early 1990s.

Garland’s music is fairly well documented but deserves a wider audience. (Curiously he does not have a dedicated web site.)  His scholarship and promotion of new music also serve to place him very highly among this countries finest artists and scholars.  In addition to his compositional output he is known for his Soundings Press publications and his papers are now held by the University of Texas at Austin.

Kyle Gann is, similarly, a scholar and a prolific composer.  He has for many years demonstrated a keen interest in Native American myths in his diverse and creative output.  Gann is here represented by his “Earth Preserving Chant”.

Michael Daugherty is known for his incorporation of pop culture in his work and has been recognized with no fewer than three Grammy Awards.  His work is rooted in pop Americana and “Buffalo Dance” is his homage to Native Americana.  And if his homage seems a bit P.T. Barnum at times, that too is Americana.

John Luther Adams, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for his orchestral work, Become Ocean, is a prolific composer who derives much of his inspiration from the mythology of Alaskan natives.  Adams spent many of his creative years in Alaska working with ecological projects as well as musical ones.  “Tukiliit” is representative of this work and pays homage to Native American/First Nation peoples.

Raven Chacon is an emerging composer who has produced a great deal of work though little appears to be available on recordings.  “Nilchi Shada’ji Nalaghali” (Winds that turn on the side from the Sun) is an electroacoustic work serves as a little sample of this artist’s work and its inclusion in this fine collection alone suggests that the remainder of his work deserves to be explored.

Martin Bresnick is an honored member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters and his work is fortunately well known.  The present piece, “Ishii’s Song” is a reference to an American Indian, the last of his tribe who lived out his life under the protection and scrutiny of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber at the University of California Berkeley.  His spirit still seems to linger in the Bay Area and this piece is a sort of homage to him.

This set contains two works by Louis W. Ballard (1931-2007) who was a Native American composer that composed classical concert music.  His work is steeped in Native American mythology and deserves to be better known.  Leave it to a non-American to point out this deficit.  Arciuli makes a strong case for listeners and for other musicians to embrace this neglected artist.  Disc Two track 2 contains the “Osage Variation” and Disc two tracks 13-16 contain his “Four American Indian Piano Preludes”.

Jennifer Higdon is a star already very much risen on the musical scene and she is here represented by a substantial piano piece called “Secret and Glass Gardens”.  Higdon, also a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, is one of those composers who manages to be friendly and accessible as well as modern.  Arciuli seems to perceive similarities in her vision that make this work fit in convincingly in this collection.  Hers is seemingly a similar romanticism and nostalgia and Arciuli has convinced at least this listener of the kinship of this piece in the vision of this collection.

Arciuli introduces another composer unknown to this reviewer, Peter Gilbert.  This young composer with an impressive resume is the co-director of the composition program at the University of New Mexico.  The offering here is his set of four “Intermezzi” for piano.

The inclusion of Carl Ruggles‘ “Evocations-Four Chants for Piano” seem at first to be a strange choice but following the Gilbert Intermezzi one gets the impression that the Americana that is Ruggles is a part of the provenance of this collection.  Ruggles coarse and famously racist attitudes hardly fit with the generally romantic vision of this collection but Americana as perceived by a non-American need not edit the unsavory from the overall picture.  The music is what this is about and these are indeed masterful little essays and a part of the American grain.

Another new name is given a brief appearance in the “Testament of Atom” by Brent Michael Davids.   This young composer’s clever website lists a plethora of works whose titles resemble many of the pieces on these discs.  Again we must trust the artist that his inclusion of this work is representative of his vision of this version of Americana.

For his concluding track Arciuli does a wonderful thing by including the work of Talib Rasul Hakim (1940-1988), another too little known American composer.  Born Stephen Alexander Chambers, he changed his name in 1973 when he converted to Sufism, a spiritual sect of Islam.  The music, “Sound Gone”, is a fitting finale to this beautiful, challenging, and ultimately inclusive collection of Americana.  Bravo, Mr. Arciuli and thank you for the gift of showing us some of the best of how we Americans look to you.

 

 

Maybe Music Remains Forever, A New Martin Bresnick Disc


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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.

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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..

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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.