The Ecstasy of Enjoyment: Sharon Isbin with the Pacifica Quartet


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Cedille CDR 9000 190

I was delighted to have had the opportunity to speak with guitarist Sharon Isbin (1956-) about this fine album.  She appeared to be in the midst of a queue of interviewers set up by her press corps but she came across as a confident, relaxed, and skilled interviewee and a gracious person with a palpable passion for music.  Listening to this latest release and having a more than passing interest in this fine musician it is a joy to see her getting recognition.

Originally from the Midwest, Isbin actually began her studies in Italy where her nuclear scientist father was working as a consultant.  Her studies in Varese, Italy began at age 9 with Aldo Minella.  She also counts among her teachers Andre Segovia, Alirio Diaz, and Oscar Ghiglia among her many teachers.

Most curiously she spent time studying Bach with none other than pianist Rosalyn Tureck during the time she was working on her landmark recording of the Bach Lute Suites.  Isbin stated, “I don’t play piano and Tureck doesn’t play guitar but I wanted her insights into the preparation of this music.”  Apparently this collaborative scholarship resulted in the publication (by G. Schirmer) of two of these suites originally written for lute.

As an academic, Isbin is all about research, fact checking, and collaboration and this clearly pays off as listeners will be delighted to find.  But she is also the founder of the Guitar Department at the venerable Julliard School, a department which this year celebrates 30 years hosting students from 20 countries and, this year, establishing a DMA in guitar performance.  Her first graduate, Australian guitarist Alberta Khoury, is the first recipient of this degree.

Asked about being THE musician to start the guitar department at Julliard she related that Segovia had proposed the idea some years ago and was rejected but that she was actually asked to start the department.  An example, perhaps, of the student transcending the teacher.

Isbin plays a great deal of guitar music but, unlike many in her field, she has shown interest and devotion to music of our time as well.  In fact she estimates having at least 80 scores and arrangements either commissioned by her or dedicated to her.  It was with her recording “American Landscapes” featuring concerti commissioned from Lukas Foss, John Corigliano, and Tan Dun that first brought this artist to this reviewer’s attention.  She is the recipient of three Grammys (and this album may very well earn her a fourth).

Regarding the present release, Isbin spoke of the process of preparation involved with this music.  The Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago and this was the connection (Cedille is a Chicago based, Chicago friendly label) that allowed her collaboration to appear of this fine record label.

She also spoke of the serendipitous discovery of finding that the composer’s granddaughter, Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco, actually lived near her in New York.  They began discussions and Isbin was able to view and work directly with the manuscript of the Quintet which opens the disc.  Asked about the fact that this very quintet had been recorded about a year ago by Jason Vieaux, Isbin replied that it was pure coincidence but that this piece was considered by the composer to be his finest work of chamber music.

The Italian composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) was born in Italy but was forced to flee the Nazis and was able, with the sponsorship of Jascha Heifetz (then a recently minted citizen himself), to come to the United States in 1939 just before the outbreak of WWII.  In fact, his family suffered a similar indignity in 1492 when they were forced from their native Spain when the Alhambra Edict forced the expulsion of Jews from the country.  The composer’s curious hyphenated name, according to Isbin, resulted when a dying friend who had no progeny asked that the composer somehow incorporate his name.  This is both sweetly romantic and evocative of the sensitivities of the man himself.

The Guitar Quintet Op. 143 (1950) is a grand romantic and virtuosic work that deserves to be heard.  It is difficult to imagine an audience not being thrilled by this music.  It is cast in four movements like a classical work (allegro, andante, scherzo, finale).  From the beginning the listener is carried along by beautiful melodies and clever collaborations between the strings and the guitar.  Isbin related that superscriptions on the score saying, “Souvenir of Spain” gave the idea for the title of this album.

This is followed by one of the most recognizable guitar concertos, the Concerto in D Major for guitar and strings by Antonio Vivaldi written about 1730.  The original is written for lute and Isbin uses an edition for guitar by Emilio Pujol with gorgeous ornamentation consistent with late baroque practice added by the present performer.  This performance is with guitar, violin, viola, and cello (no second violin) but manages to make a big sound.  This work is a personal favorite and, unlike the other works on the album, extremely well known and loved by this reviewer.  My baseline favorite recording of this piece will probably always be Julian Bream’s performance on this RCA recording but Isbin’s scholarship provides a fascinating perspective on this work.  So basically I now have two favorite recordings.

Next up is the only piece on the album where the Pacifica Quartet plays without guitar.  Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) is more or less a contemporary of Castelnuovo-Tedesco.  Offered here is Oración del Torero Op. 34 (1925).  Curiously this work was written originally for four lutes or string quartet.  Only the quartet version seems to get much play though the lute version might be interesting as well.  This work, which translates into English as “Bullfighter’s Prayer” is essentially a miniature tone poem whose drama takes on almost cinematic dimensions in its just over 7 minutes.  The Pacifica Quartet does a potent job of delivering an engaging performance.  The Pacifica consists of Simin Ganatra, first violin; Austin Hartman, second violin; Mark Holloway, viola; and Brandon Vamos, cello.  They are based at Indiana University.

Last and certainly not least is another major Quintet by an Italian composer, Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805).  His dates make him a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, though he was born in Italy, many of his productive years were spent in Spain where he enjoyed royal patronage.  He was a prolific composer who has experienced a significant interest in the 20th century.

He wrote no less than 9 Quintets for guitar and string quartet and this one, in D Major G. 448 dates from about 1798 and is the best known of his works for this combination.  It has the rather unusual attribute of having a percussionist (one Eduardo Leandro) improvise on castanets and tambourine in the last movement, fandango.

The work is cast in three movements (pastorale, allegro, grave assai-fandango) and will remind the listener of Haydn, Mozart, and/or early Beethoven.  The music is both familiar and very entertaining.  The castanets do not appear to be included in the original score and one can find recordings without them but they really rock that last movement.

This is another triumph for Ms. Isbin and a feather in the caps of the Pacifica Quartet.  It is sonically spectacular album as well having employed the producer/engineer team of Judith Sherman and Bill Maylone.  They achieve a lucid and warm sound field with an appropriately dry resonance that makes for an intimate listening experience which reveals the details the musicians coax from the score.  Get this one, you’ll play it often.

 

 

 

American Romantics from the Manhattan School



Robert Sirota (1949- ) is an American composer.  A native New Yorker, his earliest compositional training began at the Juilliard School; he received his bachelor’s degree in piano and composition from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Wood and Richard Hoffman. A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship allowed him to study and concertize in Paris, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Returning to America, Sirota earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, studying with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner.

Before becoming Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995, Sirota served as Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music. From 2005-2012, he was the President of Manhattan School of Music, where he was also a member of the School’s composition faculty.

Robert Sirota (from website)

Prior to encountering this disc this reviewer had not encountered Sirota’s work and, frankly, didn’t expect American Romanticism to flow from the Manhattan School.  That’s not intended as a critique of the Manhattan School which seems to be more interested in the compositional direction of composers like Morton Feldman and faculty member Nils Vigeland is a huge Feldman supporter.

But no matter.  We have a disc of purportedly “romantic” music with an American theme.  The disc begins with Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96.  It dates from 1893, the same year as his 9th Symphony.  It is debatable as to how “American” these works are.  Dvorak was enamored of negro spirituals and his melodies, while not directly quoting, do seem to capture some of the spirit of these musics.  

Not having heard the piece in some years I was grateful to find it still as interesting as ever.  It’s not up there with Beethoven’s or Brahms maybe but there is much to enjoy in this particular piece and it is given her a loving  performance.  This piece has earned a deserved place in the repertoire.

Next up is the main point of this album, Robert Sirota’s Second String Quartet subtitled, “American Romantic”.  It is an episodic piece which takes the listener to various places and, like the Dvorak, uses no direct quotes but manages to capture a certain spirit or Zeitgeist with each of its four movements.  His harmonic language seems to be that of some slightly extended tonality but unquestionably romantic.  His use of motives seem to trigger memories of familiar tunes.  Each movement is focused on a different physical place and time of day.

Sirota’s American Pilgrimage begins in the first movement, Morning: Waldo County, Maine with broad strokes using motives that suggest or are fragments of familiar tunes.  He moves in the second movement to Midday: Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the awful church shooting from a few years ago.  This pizzicato dominant movement continues the suggestive use of motives and has moments of searing sadness and pain.  His program is not explicit but this is protest music as well as music of sadness.

The third movement, Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico sort of takes the place of a scherzo.  Despite his basically tonal palette the composer makes strategic use of dissonances for color and effect.  This movement is actually more contemplative with a few moments of more kinetic writing.  He ends with the fourth movement Evening: Manhattan, the most extensive movement.  It opens with a whirlwind like theme and moves quickly (given that it is evening).  As with most classical quartets he uses fourth movement to do a bit of summing up, echoes of what has gone before mix with new material.

Finally we get to hear the string quartet version of probably the most famous piece of American Romanticism, the lovely (if overplayed) Adagio for strings from Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet.  It’s not clear why the entire quartet was not included but this piece does a nice job of putting a programmatic cap on this satisfying little chamber music program.

Sirota’s idiosyncratic use of melodic fragments and basically tonal idiom are intriguing enough that alert listeners are likely to seek out more of his music.  The Sirota is clearly the reason to buy this album but, as a program, the other pieces frame it well and this CD is a very satisfying experience.

David Toub’s Ataraxia, a unique compositional vision


ataraxia

World Edition 0029

David Toub is a composer whose name is known to perhaps relatively few right now but whose star is clearly rising.  Born on the east coast he studied at Mannes College and at Julliard with Bruce Adolphe and others but his musical education reached maturity when he was studying at the University of Chicago and running the contemporary music programming at the college radio station.  While he had written some twelve tone and freely atonal music it was his encounter with a 1979 WKCR broadcast of Einstein on the Beach that changed his compositional vision.  The musics of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and protominimalist Morton Feldman would henceforth infuse his style.

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David Toub

He is also what I have termed a composer with a day job.  Like Charles Ives (who sold insurance) and Alexander Borodin (who was a chemist, physician and surgeon) he makes his livelihood in the decidedly non-musical world of gynecologic surgery.  Another analog for people like David would have to be William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician whose place in American letters is assured by his poetry and novels.

I personally discovered David’s music via his website where one can find a great deal of his scores and (very helpful) sound files of many of his works.  It is definitely worth your time to browse these scores and sounds if only to get an idea of the scope of the composer’s visions.  By his own admission his music resembles that of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Morton Feldman but perhaps it is more accurate to say that one may be reminded of these composers since his music is anything but derivative.

Some of his music has been championed by the fabulous Monacan pianist Nicolas Horvath whose You Tube Channel is a feast for new music aficionados.  In fact Horvath’s reading of “for four” (2012) can be heard and seen there.  David also has a You Tube Channel with some live performances that are well worth your time.

Many of David’s scores do fit the more conventional (ca. 20 min) time frame of most concert music but some of his most interesting scores lean toward the extended time frames common to Morton Feldman’s late work (in the liner notes he refers to a recent piano piece which lasts four hours).  These require a bit more concentration and multiple hearings to be able to perceive the compositional unity but, having done that, I can tell you that my time was well spent.

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Stephane Ginsburgh (from the pianist’s web page)

Stephane Ginsburgh is a Belgian new music pianist whose repertoire traverses some of the work of Morton Feldman as well as Frederic Rzewski and others.  He, along with Alessandra Celetti and Louis Goldstein were the dedicatees of the “quartet for piano”.   Having been already familiar with Toub’s work I was pleased to find that Mr. Ginsburg’s interpretive skills both do justice and provide insight to these scores which on paper (or in a PDF file) are difficult to grasp.  In fact these performances are mesmerizing.

“quartet for piano” (2010) comes in at 46:48 and the second track “for four” (2012) comes in at 22:58 but the timings are ultimately superfluous once the listener allows themselves to be taken by the collaborative adventure of this composer and performer.  I don’t think I can do justice speaking of the structure of this music except to say that, in this listener, it was like listening to the slow ringing changes of Zen Temple bells in a distant dream.  I have had the opportunity to play this CD without distraction a few times and each time found it transporting with the music taking on almost symphonic dimensions despite it’s outward simplicity.

This is a crowd funded effort in which I was a willing participant.  The lovely graphic design is by faberludens utilizing detail from a mysterious photograph by Richard Friedman (long time host of Music from Other Minds) and provides an apt visual metaphor for the music therein.  The conversation between the composer and Udo Moll dominate the liner notes and provide very useful insights to the origins and intents behind the composer’s work.

The sonorous piano is a Bösendorfer 225 and the recording was done by Daniel Léon with mastering by Reinhard Kobialka.  CD production curated by Udo Moll on Maria de Alvear’s World Edition label.  Soon to be available on iTunes and Amazon.

The other supporters named include: Maria de Alvear, Sergio Cervetti, Carson Cooman, Chris Creighton, Kathie Elliott, Paul Epstein, Sue Fischer, Alex Freeman, Richard Friedman, Stephane Ginsburgh, Louie Goldstein, Matthew Greenbaum, Hazem Hallak, Barnabas Helmajer, Christian Hertzog, Robert Kass, Harry Kwan, Steve Layton, Connie Lindenbaum, Richard Malkin, Shadi Mallak, Leah Mayes, Kirk McElhearn, Juhani Nuorvala, Rebecca Pechefsky, Lou Poulain, John Prokop, Simon Rackham, David Reppert, Larry Roche, Larry Rocke, Dave Seidel, Kel Smith, Beth Sussman, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, Samuel Vriezen, and Ann Wheeler.  The composer also includes his family, Debbie Bernstein, Arielle Toub and Isaac Toub for their emotional support and (in his typical self-effacing humor) “tolerance” of what he calls his “odd compositional habit”.  As habits go this one appears to be a winner.