Politics and Its Discontents: Sirius Quartet’s New World


siriusnewworld

ZOHO ZM 201908

This is a marvelous disc which functions well on several levels.  First it is a fine disc of new string quartet music played by wonderful musicians (who wrote most of the music here as well).  Second it is a disc of music which is designed to put forth sociopolitical reactions/opinions.  This Zoho label production succeeds quite well in these areas.

Starting with the lovely cover art by Aodán Collins, this Sirius Quartet album is their first full album since 2016.  It is, above all, a political statement, or rather, a series of political statements in the form of inventive compositions by these wonderfully talented musicians.  Each track is incredibly entertaining and each has a closely associated subtext of sorts reflecting a variety of sociopolitical issues.  The Sirius Quartet consists of Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; and Jeremy Harman, cello.

This disc contains ten works on ten tracks, each with an underlying political component.  All appear to have been written from 2016 to the present though the composition dates are not given explicitly.

The first work, Beside the Point, is by first violinist Fung Chern Hwei and it is a friendly scherzo-like piece which sets the tone for what is to come.  The composer describes this piece as his statement against discrimination and it is a plea for equality.  It is a relatively brief but very compelling work.

Next up is a track written by cellist Jeremy Harman called Currents.  It is another scherzo-like affair, slightly longer than the first piece and its political subtext is described by the composer as evoking currents of elements both dark and light whose powers affect us daily.  Another well-written and very exciting piece.

The eponymous New World, November 9, 2016 is essentially an angry lament in response to the election of Donald Trump as president on that date.  The work quotes judiciously and effectively from Dvorak and Shostakovich in the longest work here coming in at 10:16.  It relies on some extended techniques at times but is an essentially tonal work as are its companions on this disc.  This piece is also distinguished as having won the 2017 New York Philharmonic’s “New World Initiative” competition’s grand prize and it is acknowledged as the seed work which eventually spawned this entire album.

#Still by second violinist Gregor Huebner is perhaps the most gut wrenching piece here.  It’s based on the Abel Meeropol song, Strange Fruit (whose title refers to lynched bodies hanging from trees) iconically recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.  Sadly its themes remain painfully relevant today and this heartfelt plea for peace and equality is a strikingly powerful work with an adagio section which rivals the Barber Adagio in its beauty.

Huebner’s cover of the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby occupies the next track.  It is very much in keeping with the political theme of the album with the song’s words about a sad individual “buried along with her name”.  As such it is also one of the finest transcriptions/covers for string quartet that this reviewer has heard.  This is some seriously interesting writing which elevates this to a well crafted piece in it’s own right and not merely a “this string quartet plays…” generic piece.  Jazz inflections seem to invoke Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt at times and a few extended techniques remind us that we are listening in the 21st century.

More Than We Are by cellist Jeremy Harman is described as an “aspirational” composition which was written after the birth of the composer’s son, Silas.  It is an emotional piece, perhaps a paean to hope.

To a New Day by Fung Chern Hwei is, of all things, a celebration of hope for healing politics in the composer’s native country of Malaysia (politics outside of the US and Europe are important too after all).  May 9, 2018 was the date of an election whose result will hopefully heal political wounds and put that country on a more humane and progressive agenda.  There may be more specific references embedded in the music here but that must be left for listeners and musicologists to debate in the future.  It is another gorgeous example of good string quartet writing.

Hwei describes this next piece, “30th Night, Worshiping Heaven and Earth” as a “repurposed prayer”.  It is, he says, an “unapologetically Chinese/Malaysian piece” which uses a combination of Chinese folk melody and specific attention to language to suggest a subversive theme which seeks to encourage a humane approach from a traditionally oppressive government.  It is the only track with vocals.

The penultimate track is another brilliant arrangement (by Huebner) of a rock/pop song, Radio Head’s “Knives Out”.  The political content is expressed by reference to the song’s lyrics and also by musical references which are inserted throughout.  Again an experience of the cover genre that rises above the ordinary.

The album ends with an arrangement by Fung Chern Hwei of the late Stanley Myers’ lovely Cavatina from his score to “The Deer Hunter”.  Like the previous covers this one stands head and shoulders above the usual level of musical discourse for this genre.

All in all an immensely satisfying album.  Kudos to Grammy winning producer and writer (he wrote the wonderful liner notes here) Kabir Seghal and, of course, to the musicianship of this fine ensemble of composer/musicians.  Art continues to struggle in these uncertain times but its struggle can bring forth some amazing creativity and this one sounds like a winner.

 

 

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.

Black Conductors, a belated addendum


Due to the popularity of my earlier black conductors article I was feeling the need to expand this piece a bit.  Again this is by no means comprehensive and I welcome comments, additions and corrections.

 

The original article was just an occasional piece, far from comprehensive so I have decided to add a few names.  First the black conductors who are no longer with us:

 

Charles-Richard Lambert (d. 1862)- Born in New York (no date given), settled in New Orleans and was a music teacher and conductor for the Philharmonic Society (the first non-theater orchestra in New Orleans).  He died in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Edmond Dédé (1827-1903) Born in New Orléans, he moved to Europe to study music and settled in France where he had a career as a conductor and composer.

Edmond Dede

Edmond Dede

William Grant Still photographed by Carl van Vechten

William Grant Still photographed by Carl van Vechten

 

William Grant Still  (1895-1978)- In addition to being a major American composer and the first black composer to have a symphony played by a major symphony orchestra to have an opera premiered by a major company (Troubled Island, written in 1939 was premiered by the New York City Opera in 1949), the first black composer to have an opera broadcast on television (Bayou Legend, 1941, not performed until 1974 and broadcast 1976 by the Mississippi Educational Television Authority) he was also the first black conductor to conduct a major American orchestra in the deep south  (New Orleans Philharmonic, 1955)

Calvin E. Simmons

Calvin E. Simmons

 

Calvin E. Simmons (1950-1982) The first black conductor to be appointed conductor of a major American orchestra (Philadelphia Orchestra).  He died in a canoeing accident near Lake George in New York.  The Calvin Simmons theater at the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland, CA is named in his honor.

 

 

 

And now to those who remain on the earthly plane:

 

-Thomas Jefferson Anderson (1928- ) Better known perhaps as a composer is an educator he is also an accomplished conductor, educator and orchestrator.  He is well-known for his orchestration of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha (unfortunately this has yet to be recorded).

 

-Leslie B. Dunner (1956- )Born in New York City, he attended the Eastman School of Music, Queen’s College and received a Master’s Degree in 1979 from the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.  He was the first American (of any color apparently) to win the Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Competition in 1986.  Currently a conductor for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, Mr. Dunner has conducted the Chicago Symphony, the Grant Park Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, L A Philharmonic and many others world-wide.

 

Leslie B. Dunner

Leslie B. Dunner

 

William Eddins

William Eddins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

William Eddins (1964- ) Both a pianist and a conductor, Eddins was a founding member of the New World Symphony in Miami, FL and is currently the principal conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra since 2005.  He regularly performs music by 20th and 21st Century composers and host a podcast called Classical Connections.

 

 

 

-Robert Keith McFerrin, Jr. (1950- ) Better known as “Bobby McFerrin” is a ten time Grammy award winner.  He is also a popular guest conductor with orchestras such as the San Francisco Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, Israel Philharmonic and many others.

Bobby Mc Ferrin in 2011

Bobby Mc Ferrin in 2011

 

As I said this is hardly comprehensive but these omissions have bothered me more each time I see that the original post has been read again.  Hopefully this will assuage my guilt and provide useful information.

 

Black Classical Conductors (Black Classical Part Two)


James Anderson De Preist(1936-2013)

James Anderson De Preist
(1936-2013)

The recent passing of conductor James DePreist is a great loss to the world of classical music. I first encountered this man’s work when I bought a New World CD containing music by Milton Babbitt (Relata I), David Diamond (Symphony No. 5) and Vincent Persichetti (Night Dances). All performances are by the Julliard Orchestra under three different conductors of music by three different composers of about the same generation of east coast American Composers. De Priest conducts the Night Dances piece. He had studied under Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory.

De Preist had a fondness and a feel for contemporary music. Among his fifty some recordings (no reliable discography is available online just yet) he recorded music by Paul Creston, George Walker, Gunther Schuller, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Easley Blackwood, Aulis Sallinen, Giya Kancheli, Alfred Schnittke, William Walton, Nicholas Flagello and Joseph Schwantner among other more familiar names as well.

He was the nephew of Marian Anderson and cared for her in his home in Portland, Oregon until her death in 1993. De Preist was the conductor of the Oregon Symphony and served as it’s music director from 1980 until 1993. He conducted nearly all of the world’s major orchestras and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2005.

His passing this February, Black History Month in the United States, got me thinking about the legacy of black classical conductors. There have been a few luminaries that also deserve attention and I will attempt a short survey a few of those whose art has touched my own life.

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman (1936- ), now retired, was the founder and music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, an alternative orchestra to the Chicago Symphony which played a distinctly different program from them introducing a great deal of new music by young composers along with an unusual selection of older music and some classical warhorses. His 9 LP survey recorded 1974 to 1979 and released by Columbia Records in 1986 of music by black composers is a landmark set of recordings surveying music by black composers from various countries with some emphasis on American Composers. He followed this in 2003 with 3 CDs of music by black composers on Chicago based Cedille records and has continued to give exposure to these unjustly neglected artists. Along with his promotion of black composers Freeman has recorded a great deal of 20th century music by other unjustly neglected masters such as Leo Sowerby, Meyer Kupferman, Bohuslav Martinu, Tibor Serly, Robert Lombardo, William Neil, Richard Felciano to name a few. He recorded a delightful complete set of Mozart Piano Concertos with frequent collaborator, pianist Derek Han (the set was incorporated into the Complete Works of Mozart released on the Brilliant Classics label).

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan who I recall as having been the assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony from 1986 to 1990 under both George Solti and Daniel Barenboim. I had the pleasure of hearing him conduct the Chicago Symphony’s fine training ensemble, The Civic Orchestra, on several occasions.

Currently he is the music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, a post he has held since 1990. In that time he has done much to strengthen the orchestras standing artistically and financially and he has forged alliances with the Oakland Youth Orchestra and the Oakland Symphony Chorus.

Unfortunately Morgan has made few recordings but his choice of repertoire and championing of new music continues to endear him to critics and to bay area audiences.

Thomas Wilkins (1956- )

Thomas Wilkins (1956- )

In 2011 Thomas Wilkins became the first black conductor appointed to the Boston Symphony (a city historically resistant to integration in the 1960s). He is the conductor of that city’s youth orchestra.

He was appointed music director of the Omaha Symphony in 2005 and has held appointments with the Richmond Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and the Florida Orchestra.

Henry Lewis (1932-1996)

Henry Lewis (1932-1996)

California born Henry Lewis was the first black musician to join a major symphony orchestra when, at the age of 16, he joined the double bass section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He became the first African-American to lead a major symphony orchestra when Zubin Mehta appointed him assistant conductor of that same Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1961, a post he held until 1965. He is credited with founding the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra as well

Lewis is probably better known in the media for having been married to soprano Marilyn Horne from 1960-1979.

Carl Van Vechten's portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis in 1961

Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.

Horne credits Lewis with her early development as a singer.

Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)

Charles Dean Dixon
(1915-1976)

Dean Dixon, as he was known, was born in Harlem and studied at Julliard and Columbia University. He formed his own orchestra when racial bias prevented him from working in most settings and in 1941 gave a concert at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt who in 1939 famously arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she had been prevented by racial bias (and the Daughters of the American Revolution) from singing in any concert venue in Washington D.C.

While he did guest conduct the NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadephia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony he left the United States in 1949 to further his career in overseas. He conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra during 1950-51, was principal conductor of the Gothenberg Symphony from 1953-60 (by popular demand), the HR Sinfonieorchester in Frankfurt from 1961-74, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1964-67.

Dixon returned to the United States and had various guest conducting engagements with major orchestras. And he conducted the Mexico City Orchestra during the 1968 Olympics. His legacy includes quite a few recordings made in the 1950s, some of standard repertoire, but some of American music like that of Randall Thompson, Leo Sowerby and fellow black American William Grant Still among many others. These were some of the first recordings I ever heard of much of that repertoire.

He, like those who followed him, did a great deal to promote the music of Americans and of the 20th Century in general. And his recordings are an important part of his legacy that remains largely untapped (though Naxos historical has reissued some on CD, bless their hearts). The racial bias he encountered is our American legacy. Dixon once defined three phases of his career by the way he was described. First he was the “black American conductor”. Then he was the “American conductor” and, finally he simply, “the conductor Dean Dixon.”