My 2019 in the Arts


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The amazing Stuart Dempster at a house 2015 house concert at Philip Gelb’s Sound and Savor.  

In many ways this has been a year of reckoning.  I kept my promise to myself to double down on writing this blog and have already reached more viewers than any previous year.  I am now averaging a little more than 1000 hits a month from (at last count) 192 countries and have written 74 pieces (compared to 48 last year).  I need to keep this up just to be able to stay in touch with similarly minded folks (thanks to all my readers).  Add to that the fact that a piece of music I wrote 15 years ago was tracked down by the enterprising Thorson and Thurber Duo.  They will provide me with my very first public performance this coming July in Denmark.  Please stop by if you can.  After having lost all my scores (since 1975) in a fire and subsequently the rest of my work on a stolen digital hard drive I had pretty much let go of that aspect of my life but now…well, maybe not.

Well one of my tasks (little nudges via email have been steadily coming in) is to create a year end “best of” list.  Keep in mind that my personal list is tempered by the fact that I have a day job which at times impinges on my ability to do much else such as my ability to attend concerts.  However I am pleased to say that I did get to 2 of the three Other Minds concerts this past year.  The first one featured all the music for string quartet and string trio by Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979).  The second one featured music by the same composer written for four pianos (with two tuned a quarter tone down).  Both of these concerts exceeded my expectations and brought to light an amazing cache of music which really deserves a wider audience.  These are major musical highlights for this listener this year.

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The Arditti Quartet acknowledging the applause at the Wyschnegradsky Concert.

Read the blog reviews for details but I must say that Other Minds continues to be a artistic and musical treasure.  Under the leadership of composer/producer/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian (who turns 75 in January) the organization is about to produce their 25th anniversary concert with a 4 day series beginning in April, 2020.  For my money its one of the reasons to be in the Bay Area if you love new music.  He is scheduled for a live interview on the actual day of his birthday, January 19th as a guest on his own series, The Nature of Music.  This series of live interviews (sometimes with performance material) with composers and sound artists he has hosted since 2016.

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Amirkhanian performing at OM 23 (2018)

Next I will share with you my most obvious metric, how many views my various blog posts got.  I have decided to share all those which received more than 100 views.

The winner for 2019 is:

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Linda Twine (unknown copyright)

Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know

A rather brief post written and published in February, 2018 for Black History Month.  It was entirely based on internet research and it got 59 views that year.  As of this writing in 2019 it has been seen 592 times.  I have no idea why this “went viral” as they say.  I just hope it serves only to her benefit.  Amazing musician.

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Fatu Duo

Charming little album of lesser known romantic violin and piano pieces played by a husband and wife duo.  This self produced album seems to have had little distribution but for some reason people are enjoying reading about it.  I only hope that the exposure will boost their sales.  This is a fun album.

The Three Black Countertenors

I’m guessing this is one of my “viral” posts.  I wrote it in 2014 and it continues to get escalating hits, 180 this year.  The title pretty much says it all.  First time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage.

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Jenny Q Chai

This concert was an all too brief presentation of some very interesting work.  Quite a pianist too.  File this artist’s name in your “pay attention” category.

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Heavenly Violin and Piano Music by Giya Kancheli 

Giya Kancheli (1935-2019), one of the artists we lost this year (I refuse to do that list).  If you don’t know his work you should. He wrote I think 7 Symphonies and various concertos, film scores, and other works.  He was sort of elected to the “Holy Minimalists” category but that only describes a portion of the man’s work.  Very pretty album actually.

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Because Isaac Schankler

This composer new to me, works with electronics, and maintains an entertaining presence on Twitter.  Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what to make of this music except to say I keep coming back to it.  Very leading edge material.

 

 

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Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s “Klang”

A very different music from that of Schankler listed just above.  But another recording to which I find myself returning.  Thanks to Mr. Eamonn Quinn for turning me on to this one.

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A New Voice for the Accordion

I pretty sure that Gene Pritsker can shoulder at least part of the blame for connecting me with this great new musician  The accordion has come a long way and this guy leads it gently forward.

 

 

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Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety in a new recording

Loved this one.  I had only listened to this work three or four times and probably not with adequate attention.  Hearing this performance was revelatory.  It’s a great work deserving of a place in the standard repertoire/

 

 

 

Black Classical Conductors

Written in 2013, just an occasional piece about black conductors for Black History Month.  It’s now been read over 2000 times.  It is my most read article.  It’s embarrassingly incomplete and in need of a great deal of recent history but that’s a whole ‘nother project.

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Blue Violet Records

Blue Violet Duo

So glad this disc got a little exposure.  Its gorgeous.  This disc of jazz influenced classical Americana unearths some real musical gems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shakuhachi Ecstasy 

OK, I meet this guy at a vegan underground restaurant (whose proprietor is noted Shakuhachi player, Philip Gelb).  A little casual conversation, a few vegan courses (Phil can seriously cook), and whaddya know?  About a month or so later he sends me this gorgeous self produced set of him playing shakuhachi…but the upshot is that this is the distillation of the artist’s sensibilities filtering his very personal take on the world via his instrument.  It has collectible written all over it and that is as much due to the music itself as to the integrated graphics and packaging.  You really have to see and hear this trilogy.  It got over 100 hits.  Thanks to Cornelius Boots and Philip Gelb (musical and culinary concierge).

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That’s it.  Everything else (300 plus articles total with 74 from this year) got less than 100 views.

 

Personal Favorites

It was a great year for recordings and I listened to more than I did last year.  Some may have noticed some experimentation with writing style and length of review here.  The problem is that the very nature of my interest is the new and unknown so I have to do the research and have to share at least some of that to hopefully provide some context to potential consumers that will ignite the idea, “gotta check that out” without then boring them to death.

For this last section I will provide the reader with a list in reverse order of the publication of my reviews of CD and streaming releases that prompt this listener to seek out another listen and hopefully draw birds of a feather to listen as well.

 

Keep yer ears peeled.  This young accordion virtuoso is an artist to watch.  This was also one of my most read review articles.  This guy is making the future of the instrument.  Stay tuned.

 

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This artist continues to draw my attention in wonderful ways.  Her scope of repertoire ranges hundreds of years and she brings heretofore unknown or lesser known gems to a grateful listening audience.  Blues Dialogues is a fine example.  It is also reflective of the larger vision of the Chicago based Cedille label.

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I found myself really taken by this solo debut album by American Contemporary Ensemble (ACME) director Clarice Jensen.  In particular her collaboration with La Monte Young student Michael Harrison puts this solo cello (with electronics) debut in a class all its own, This independent release is worth your time.

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This album of string chamber music arrangements of Mahler is utterly charming.  No Time for Chamber Music is a seriously conceived and played homage.

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Canadian composer Frank Horvat’s major string quartet opus is a modern classic of political classical music.  It is a tribute to 35 Thai activists who lost their lives in the execution of their work.  His method of translating their names into a purely musical language has created a haunting and beautiful musical work which is a monument to human rights.

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Donut Robot is a playful but seriously executed album.  The kitschy cover art belies a really entertaining set of short pieces commissioned for this duet of saxophone and bassoon.  Really wonderful album.

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It has been my contention that anything released on the Starkland label requires the intelligent listener’s attention.  This release is a fine example which supports that contention.  Unlike most such releases this one was performed and recorded in Lithuania by the composer.  Leave it to the new music bloodhound, producer Tom Steenland to find it.  In Search of Lost Beauty is a major new work by a composer who deserves our attention.

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My favorite big label release.  This new Cello Concerto from conductor/composer Esa-Peka Salonen restores my faith that all the great music has been written and that all new music is only getting attention from independent labels.  Granted, Sony is mostly mainstream and “safe” but banking on the superstar talent of soloist Yo-Yo Ma they have done great service to new music with this release.  Not easy listening but deeply substantive.

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This release typifies the best of Chicago based Cedille records’ vision. Under the guidance of producer James Ginsburg, this local label blazes important paths in the documentation of great music.  “W” is a disc of classical orchestra pieces written by women and conducted by the newly appointed woman conductor, Mei-Ann Chen.  She succeeds the late great Paul Freeman who founded Chicago’s great “second orchestra”, the Chicago Sinfonietta.  Ginsburg taps into Chicago’s progressive political spirit (I guess its still there) to promote quality music, far beyond the old philosophy of “dead white men” as the only acceptable arbiters of culture.  Bravo to Mr Ginsburg who launched Cedille Records 30 years ago while he was a student at the University of Chicago.

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Become Desert will forever be in my memory as the disc that finally got me hooked on John Luther Adams.  Yes, I had been aware of his work and even purchased and listened to albums like Dream in White on White and Songbirdsongs.  I heard the broadcast of the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean.  I liked his music, but this recording was a quantum change experience that leads me to seek out (eventually) pretty much anything he has done.  Gorgeous music beautifully performed and recorded.

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OK, I’m a sucker for political classical.  But Freedom and Faith just does such a great job of advancing progressive political ideas in both social and musical ways.  This is a clever reimagining of the performance possibilities of the string quartet and a showcase for music in support of progressive political ideas.

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Michala Petri is the reigning virtuoso on the recorder.  Combine that with the always substantial production chops of Lars Hannibal and American Recorder Concertos becomes a landmark recording.  Very listenable and substantive music.

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I have admired and sought the music of Harry Partch since I first heard that excerpt from Castor and Pollux on the little 7 inch promotional LP that came packaged with my copy of Switched on Bach.  Now this third volume in the encyclopedic survey of the composer’s work on Bridge Records not only documents but updates, clarifies and, in this case, unearths a previously unknown work by the master.  Sonata Dementia is a profoundly important entry into the late composer’s discography.  I owe PARTCH director, the composer/guitarist John Schneider a sort of apology.  I had the pleasure of interviewing him about this album and the planned future recordings of Partch’s music but that has not yet been completed.  You will see it in 2020 well before the elections.

The aforementioned Shakuhachi Trilogy is a revelatory collection which continues to occupy my thoughts and my CD player.

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Gil Rose, David Krakauer, klezmer and the inventive compositional talent of Mathew Rosenblum have made this album a personal favorite.  Lament/Witches Sabbath is a must hear album.

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Another Cedille disc makes the cut here, Souvenirs of Spain and Italy.  The only actual Chicago connection is that the fine Pacifica Quartet had been in residence at the University of Chicago.  But what a fine disc this is!  The musicianship and scholarship are astounding.  Guitar soloist Sharon Isbin celebrates the 30th anniversary of her founding the department of guitar studies at Julliard, a feat that stands in parallel with the 30th anniversary of the founding of Cedille records.  This great disc resurrects a major chamber work by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and presents a definitive program of chamber music for guitar and string quartet.  This one has Grammy written all over it.

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This New Focus recording was my personal introduction to the music of Du Yun and I’m still reeling.  What substance!  What force! Dinosaur Scar is quite an experience.

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Another Starkland release, this album of music by the great new music pianist is a personal vision of the pianist and the creators of this forward looking repertoire.  Eye to Ivory is a release containing music by several composers and championed most ably by Kathleen Supové.

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Chicago born Jennifer Koh is one of the finest and most forward looking performers working today.  Limitless is a collaboration between a curious but fascinating bunch of composers who have written music that demands and receives serious collaboration from this open minded ambassador for good music no matter how new it is.  And Cedille scores another must hear.

Many recordings remain to be reviewed and some will bleed over into the new year so don’t imagine for a second that this list is comprehensive.  It is just a personal list I wished to share. Happy listening and reading to all.

Jason Vieaux with the Escher Quartet


 

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Though this album was actually released a few months before the Sharon Isbin recording containing, purely by chance, two of the same guitar quintets is perhaps an indicator that these quintets are making their way into the active performing repertoire.  I’m not really interested in the differences between the two recordings but I am interested in hearing two of the finest guitarists working today finding the two works on their respective radars at more or less the same time.

The present disc with Jason Vieaux (whose fine work has been reviewed elsewhere in this blog) and the Escher Quartet begins (as Isbin’s does) with the inconceivably little known masterpiece, the Guitar Quintet Op. 148 (1950) of Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968).  The composer’s style sounds pretty much mid-century post romantic with a wealth of Spanish references.  The high romanticism of the quintet format (compare Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Brahms and Schumann’s Piano Quintets) is well served here in an incredibly engaging work which makes significant demands on the musicians but is musically very transparent to the listener.  It is a wonder that this piece is not better known and, for that matter, that the rest of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s output is not being explored in a big way.

The second work here also deserves more hearings.  Aaron Jay Kernis’ (1960- ) 100 Greatest Dance Hits is another piece which can be described as post romantic and audience friendly.  Kernis uses some extended techniques like using the instruments percussively at times but its basically a consonant melodic experience.  It’s scoring for guitar and string quartet keep the listener in basically the same sound world and, except for Kernis’ curious titlings, this is a guitar quintet in all but name.  And the use of dance forms is a tradition that goes back at least the baroque era.  Like the opening work, it is cast in four movements.

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) is a prolific Italian composer who spent a great deal of creative life in Spain and, as a result, has incorporated Spanish rhythms and idioms into his work.  This contemporary of Mozart and Haydn shares a similar late classical style.  The last work here is another four movement Guitar Quintet (1793), the fourth of nine he wrote and probably the best known.  The only difference between this rendition and the one by Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet is the absence of castanets in the fandango last movement.  In fact that may be one of the hooks for completists who want to hear what it sounds like in its original version (both work very well).

The performances are all full of enthusiasm and seemingly easy virtuosity that one expects from musicians of this caliber.  If you are stumped as to which one of these to get I think the only reasonable answer is, of course, both.

 

 

The Ecstasy of Enjoyment: Sharon Isbin with the Pacifica Quartet


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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.