The Apotheosis of Lenny, a New Recording of “Mass”


Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The premier generated both controversy and paranoia (by Nixon and his crew) but the recording sold well.

This is by my count the fifth commercial recordings not counting the one DVD release. In addition there are numerous full performances available on YouTube. All have their individual highs and lows.

This work is in many ways the single work that embraces all the facets of a truly multifaceted composer. There is serious classical music passages, cheesy electronic music, excellent choral writing, showtunes, dancing, and, above all, political protest.

This writer fell in love with the original Columbia vinyl boxed set on the mid seventies and that recording remains a critical reference point but the joy of multiple interpretations begins to show the depth and complexity of this work. It is, in this writer’s mind this composer’s song of the earth, struggling with all its complexities both beautiful ones and sad ugly realities.

The present release is very enjoyable but is marred at points by some clunky miking if the singers. No doubt this is due in part to the fact that this is a document taken from several live performances. That makes it difficult to hear the words at times.

Nezet-Seguin is strongest in his interpretation of the orchestral parts where he elevates the discourse effectively placing Bernstein alongside the great masters who he championed as a conductor. If his and the singers’ interpretation don’t swing the way Bernstein’s own did I would assert that it’s OK to hear those passages differently. Every serious interpretation is effectively a dialogue between composer, performers, and audience. And this one is moving.

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.

 

 

 

Bis Recordings Takes on Ben-Haim


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BIS 2398

Israeli composers are too little known so this album of the music of Paul Ben-Haim is particularly welcome.  BIS records is known for its quality recordings and its attention to neglected repertoire.  Hopefully this is only the first release and BIS will go on to record more of this man’s work as they have with so many other neglected masters.

Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich.  He moved to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1933 as the Nazis took power.  He has become known, for better or worse, as the Israeli Aaron Copland.  Indeed there are parallels between the two composers in terms of their embrace of mid-twentieth century romanticism and, to some degree, nationalism.  He worked as an assistant to Bruno Walter at one point.

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Portrait of Paul Ben-Haim from Wikipedia

A quick glance at Wikipedia will reveal that he mentored many composers including Ben Zion-Orgad, Zvi Avni, Eliahu Inbal, Henri Lazarof, Shulamit Ran, and Ami Maayani among many others.  Leonard Bernstein recorded Ben-Haim’s “Sweet Psalmist of Israel” and was supportive of the composer’s work.  He was very influential during his lifetime and the neglect of his work is hard to fathom.

Much of Ben-Haim’s work has been recorded to be sure but it tends to get little airplay and few concert performances.  As is true for many countries it is difficult to get music by Israeli composers in the United States (Is this true in other countries?).  This release from the Swedish based BIS records with its distribution network may be a partial remedy to that problem.

The Violin Concerto of 1960 is the big work here.  It has been recorded previously, most notably by the wonderful Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman.  It is filled out with his 1942 Evocation “Yizkor” for violin and orchestra and some chamber pieces, the Three Songs Without Words (1951) and Berceuse Sfaradite (1945) both for violin and piano.  In addition there is an arrangement for violin and piano of the composer’s well known Toccata (1943) for piano.  And in keeping with the violin theme the world premiere recording of his Three Studies (1981) for solo violin rounds out this wonderful survey of the composer’s work.

Itamar Zorman is the soloist and this, not his first release, is a major statement in his career.  Zorman previously released a violin and piano album with more conventional repertoire but this is his first release playing with an orchestra.  Having demonstrated his facility with the conventional repertoire he seems to be blazing a path beyond.

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Portrait of the Artist from his website

The album opens with the highly romantic Evocation “Yizkor” (1942) reflecting the composer’s style as developed in his native Germany.  The disc basically follows the order of composition except for the last two tracks.  This gives some sense of the composer’s evolution over his substantial career and the album includes the composer’s last work.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is ably conducted by Philippe Bach in the Evocation and the Concerto and Amy Yang is the very busy accompanist in the violin and piano pieces.  Mr. Zorman himself contributed the lucid liner notes.

Having just reviewed another fine album which included a Ben-Haim piece it was particularly delightful to receive this recording.  It brings this important music to a new generation of listeners.  Also toward that goal the following link will take the interested reader to a comprehensive list of the the recordings of this composer’s work.  The link is here.

 

 

Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler 6th on BIS


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I have heard varying opinions on the conducting skills of Osmo Vänskä.  He is the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2003 and, prior to that, a conductor of the wonderful Lahti Symphony Orchestra.  I very favorably reviewed his Kullervo disc from last year.

The Mahler 6th and, I suppose, with pretty much any Mahler there are many critiques of the music and the performances.  So many complexities with tempo, handling the massive orchestra to bring out one nuance or another, order of movements, etc.  One thing is for certain, no Mahler aficionado will be satisfied with only one recording of each of his works.  There appear to be no definitive recordings agreed upon by all.  By contrast most people seem satisfied with perhaps Herbert von Karajan’s interpretation of the Beethoven Symphonies as being at least a good starting point.

One must recall that Mahler’s music was not well appreciated for a number of years.  Though he gave performances of all his major works interest in them faded rather quickly after his death in 1911.  Performances did occur but critics generally regarded Mahler’s music as dismissable efforts calling it “conductor’s music”.  It wasn’t until Leonard Bernstein began earnestly performing these works that the current cult of Mahler actually took root.

I preface my review with these comments to say that I enjoyed this disc immensely with its gorgeous sonics (as always with BIS).  Vänskä produces a lucid performance which differs from many in tempo choices and such but seems, to this reviewer’s ears, to do justice to this large and masterful work.  In the end the experience is one of a valid performance (he places the slow movement as second) which provides another view of this complex work.  And part of the cult of Mahler, it seems, is the need to own multiple performances.

This may not be the only Mahler Sixth you will want to own but it is definitely worth hearing, preferably on a good sound system.

Lara Downes’ Bernstein Tribute


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Lara Downes is one of the finest pianists working today.  Her virtuosity and interpretive skills are well established.  She is well versed in the standard repertoire of classical piano music but has chosen to blaze her own unique path in her recorded legacy.  Here she pays homage in her own unique manner with help from some interesting fellow musicians.

The album consists of 29 tracks none of which lasts more than 4 minutes.  Many are by Bernstein including a generous selection of his Anniversaries, each dedicated to a particular person. Some were written in celebration, some in memoriam. Time marches on and we now celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lenny’s birth. So, of course, all these tracks are in memoriam now. In addition to the all too seldom heard Anniversaries there are a few song transcriptions and a nice selection of Anniversary like pieces contributed for this album by a delightful selection of composers including John Corigliano, Lukas Foss, Michael Abels, Ned Rorem, Ricky Ian Gordon, Eleanor Sandresky, Shulamit Ran, Stephen Schwartz, Marc Blitzstein, Theo Bleckmann, and Craig Urquhart.

This album is (thankfully) not a greatest hits collection but rather, as it’s subtitle says, an intimate tribute by people who were affected by Bernstein in one way or another. Bernstein cut a wide swath of influence embracing new music, mastering the established western classical canon, and embracing jazz, blues, and musical theater much like Ms. Downes actually.

Most of the album is solo piano where Downes casts a loving and magical spell. A few judiciously chosen tracks feature banjo virtuoso Rhiannon Giddens, baritone Thomas Hampton, and two musicians unknown to this writer, Javier Morales-Martinez and Kevin “K.D.” Olusola.

My first listen to this album was an uninterrupted one while driving South from San Francisco. The impression was one of Bernstein’s multiple voices being present seamlessly in every track. Only later reading the liner notes did I become aware that some tracks were written by others.

This is an intimate celebration in honor of a musician who touched so many lives.  Many of the artists on this recording knew Bernstein to some degree but the point here is that Bernstein’s art is so pervasive that few can say they have not been touched by it to some degree.  This listener was brought to nostalgic tears a few times.

In keeping with Downes’ eclectic style this is an unusual selection of pieces, most by Bernstein but all imbued with his spirit, a combination of classical sensibilities with a real feel for jazz, blues and the American musical theater.  This disc contains most, if not all of Bernstein’s “Anniversaries”, short piano pieces written variously in honor of or in memory of many of his friends.  Other pieces are by contemporaries of Bernstein and some were written for this recording.  Add to that a few interludes such as Thomas Hampson coming in to sing, “A Simple Song” from Bernstein’s “Mass”, K.D. Olusola riffing on the familiar “Something’s Coming” which opens the disc, Javier Morales-Martinez spicing up “Cool” from “West Side Story” with his clarinet and Rhiannon Giddens sounding so pretty on the track of that title.

This is a love fest and it, appropriately, covers generations much as Lenny affected so many generations whether through his wonderful work as a conductor or his classic musicals and operas that are indeed the American grain incarnate.  And Lenny was also a teacher to children and to adults.  From the Young Peoples Concerts to the Harvard Norton Lectures he thought deeply and taught and stimulated ideas.  Generations have been forever changed by him.

The bulk of this recording depends on Lara Downes amazing virtuosity bringing these brief little poems to life most convincingly and almost magically.  She clearly has a real feel for this music.  This is mostly not the familiar Bernstein that everyone knows.  It is a portrait such as listeners familiar with Downes’ work will recognize, eclectic, intelligent, sometimes nostalgic, a little obscure, frequently virtuosic, and ultimately satisfying.  The disc lists the performers as, “Lara Downes and friends” and that is the feeling of not just the performers but also of the composers whose heartfelt contributions fit so well in this eclectic mix.

This disc represents Downes’ debut on Sony and the only thing this writer can say to that is, “What took them so long?”  Brava!  And cheers to Lenny on his 100th.

A Brassy 75th Birthday Celebration for John Corigliano


Cedille CDR 90000 169

John Corigliano (1938- ) is one of America’s finest composers.  He is to classical music in New York what Woody Allen is to the movies.  Corigliano is musical royalty.  His father was concertmaster under Leonard Bernstein among others (in fact he apparently worked as assistant to the producer on several of the Young Peoples’ Concerts).  His own accomplishments musically are many including a the very first Grawemeyer Award for his first symphony and a Pulitzer Prize for his second.  One could hardly find another musician as deserving of being honored.

From the very New Yorker style cover art this album affirms this composer’s iconic status.  But the artists here are good Chicago Brass players.  As a native born Chicagoan I have become accustomed to assuming that one can find some of the world’s finest brass players there and this album lays testament to that.  Gaudete Brass is an ensemble that definitely deserves your attention.

This is a fine tribute album featuring mostly world premieres but also some nice transcriptions.  This is effective though not overwhelmingly modern music for brass.  It is intended as and functions very well as entertainment and, from the sound of it, is also fun to play.

The original works are welcome as are the transcriptions of Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances. by the long time Chicago musician/conductor Cliff Colnot.  (One transcription is by the composer).  There are a total of three Corigliano pieces here and 13 by others.  One can only imagine the joy the composer will feel on hearing these tributes and the joy that any number of brass players will experience hearing this fine album.  As usual the Cedille recording is lucid giving a clear sound image of some truly fine musicianship.

The pieces here are good middle of the road compositions which pose challenges on the players but manage to be entertaining and nothing here sounds like an academic exercise.  Rather this disc is about celebration exactly as it purports.  Very enjoyable disc.

Samuel Barber in Perspective, A New Documentary


It is surprising that this first ever documentary on American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) comes some 36 years after his passing.  This two time Pulitzer Prize winner whose now ubiquitous Adagio for strings was first championed by Arturo Toscanini was much lauded and performed during his lifetime.  His two grand operas (Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra) were performed at the Metropolitan Opera and his increasingly popular Violin Concerto was first recorded by Isaac Stern with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

Barber’s music is a personal favorite of this writer.  This mid-century neo-romantic master is gaining greater recognition through an increasing number of performances and recordings so this release would seem to be a timely one.  

Filmmaker H. Paul Moon will be screening an discussing the film ahead of its March 23rd release on disc.  The screening will be at the Jarvis Conservatory at 1711 Main Street in Napa, CA at 7 PM on Friday, February 10. It will be preceded by a performance of the justly famed Adagio for Strings in its original form for string quartet.

The trailer is available for viewing at the website noted above and the site contains further info about rental and purchase.