Fantasy: Ursula Oppens (et al) Play the World Premieres of Five Major Works by Laura Kaminsky


Cedille CDR 90000 202

Laura Kaminsky (1956- ) is a native New Yorker and has plied her trade there for some time. So how does she wind up on a label so intimately dedicated to Chicago music and musicians? Well, the answer is simple, Ursula Oppens. Oppens (a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) is also a New Yorker but her 14 year tenure as Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University (1994-2008) certainly qualifies her as a valued Chicago artist. Realistically she is a highly accomplished and world renowned musician with an admirable history of supporting new music through her many definitive performances and recordings. With the exception of Fantasy, all the music here was commissioned by and/or written for Ursula Oppens, (Reckoning written for Oppens and Lowenthal destined for this recording).

This very welcome disc features three major works: Piano Quintet (2018), Fantasy (2010), and Piano Concerto (2011). as well as Reckoning: Five Miniatures for America (2019), a set of miniatures for piano four hands. As noted on the back cover, all are world premiere recordings. And these are very fine, actually definitive recordings. The Quintet, Fantasy, and Reckoning were all recorded at Brooklyn College, the concerto at Arizona State University. All were produced by the wonderful Judith Sherman and mastering was done by the equally wonderful Bill Maylone.

While Kaminsky works in a largely tonal post-modern idiom, this is not populist music, rather it is music by an accomplished composer who works well within such a medium. Her work is compelling and intriguing as well as entertaining.

Let’s start with the Piano Quintet. This medium is strongly associated with the romantic era. Piano Quintets by the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms largely define the genre and there are many lesser known examples which were produced well into the early 20th century. The genre seems to be enjoying a re-emergence and even modernists like Elliott Carter and Iannis Xenakis have penned masterworks in this form.

Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet is very much in the classical/romantic style. It is cast in three movements some of which reflect the variety of influences in her compositional palette. Her compositional skills allow her to evoke pretty much whatever emotion she chooses. Her style shows influences and echoes from classical forms, jazz, pop, minimalism all integrated into a largely tonal/post romantic style which easily engages listeners and manages to be highly expressive. The three movements are generally modeled on classical forms but Kaminsky manages to personalize her wide stylistic gestures and create a work that is celebratory rather than derivative. That said this piece is quite a ride for the listener as well as a significant addition to the repertory.

The Fantasy is a large and challenging work which ventures through a variety of styles and moods. This is a big work whose pianism reminds this writer of Rzewski and his rather Lisztian virtuosity. It might as easily be called, “rhapsody” for its rapid transitions of mood and style. Oppens manages to give form to this complex piece that does not appear to be easily interpreted by any but the best musicians.

The five miniatures that comprise Reckoning are brief but powerful statements written for Oppens and her sometime collaborator, Jerome Lowenthal, another highly skilled artist whose collaboration on a previous Cedille release, the Rzewski “People United” variations. These two are a good match of technical skills as well as interpretive ability.

The concerto is the big work here. Cedille saves the best for last notwithstanding the preceding masterful compositions. Here in a large orchestral piece with piano, Kaminsky demonstrates even more clearly her facility with instrumental colors which she uses to great effect in this grand concerto.

It is a piano concerto very much in the tradition of the classical soloist/orchestra which features the pianistic skills of the soloist. The orchestral “accompaniment”, if one can even call it by that name, derives more from the grand romantic tradition utilizing a large orchestra to which is given the role of coordinating with the pianist. But here the orchestra is given technical challenges nearly equal to the solo piano part. This is as grand as a Brahms concerto with the orchestra given a great deal to do and for the listener to enjoy. In addition to the nearly athletic, fingerbusting piano part, there are delightful passages in the orchestral playing that sort of sneak up on and charm the listener.

Kaminsky’s Piano Concerto was reportedly inspired by visual images of sunlit rivers in New York City and St. Petersburg, Russia. Oppens gave the world premiere with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic led by its artistic director Jeffery Meyer. On this world-premiere recording, Meyer, who is also director of orchestras at Arizona State University, conducts the ASU Symphony Orchestra and, like Oppens, meets a very challenging task with both grace and insight.

Kaminsky is a solid, disciplined composer who produces music of substance which intelligently engages audiences. This is a fine introduction to her work or a fine addition to an already established collection of her music. Her music was unknown to this writer’s ears before hearing this album and now leaves me wanting to explore more of the work of this fine American composer.

Lara Downes Celebrates Women and Love


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Though she has been performing and recording for a while now I first became aware of Lara Downes when I reviewed her truly excellent, America Again album in 2016.  Since then I have become aware of the incredible range of music which she has chosen to champion.  Her various projects have a distinctive Lara Downes fingerprint which establishes her brand in the music world.  She plays music from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with careful attention to women composers, minority composers, and a solid grounding in the more commonly heard recital works.

I jumped at the opportunity to see her play at the “Old First Concerts” in San Francisco later in 2016.  She played a friendly recital of mostly familiar classical works including the solo version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and some Schumann pieces and a couple of selections from the just released America Again album.  Having taken some piano lessons I have a bit of awareness of how difficult this music can be but, as the title of my concert review suggested, Downes elevates the music such that it magically comes alive in ways that fledgling or average pianists can only dream.  The notes are the same but she makes them sing and watching her play is reminiscent of an Olympic athlete.  Don’t stand too close, lol.

It is her love of the 19th century romantic piano literature and her mission to highlight female artists that are the motivation behind this recent release.  Clara Schumann turned 200 years old in September, 2019 and this release is a gift to her and an affirmation of a musical romance of grand romantic dimensions.  The album features Schumann’s masterful Concerto as well as a selection of solo pieces by Clara and Robert.

Downes’ own words from her informative website:

I’m the first of three sisters, and I grew up in a house full of girls and women. My sisters and I made music together, put on plays, shared our clothes and secrets, and navigated together the unpredictable waters of our inconstant childhood. We were a pack. The world of women has always been my home. But the world of my music – of my piano teachers and their teachers, the Great Pianists and Great Composers – was a world of male lineage and legacy. Except for Clara Schumann. When I read about her early  life – such a serious, dark-eyed little girl – I found something of myself. I played her music as soon as I could get my hands around it. As I grew up, the themes of her life resonated in my own:  a struggle for independence; a defiant romance, the work/family conflicts of the artist’s life… As my life unfolds, as a musician, a woman, a mother – I wonder at her accomplishments, her choices, her joys and her heartaches.

This beautifully recorded disc (at Skywalker Ranch’s fine studios) opens grandly with a rendition of Schumann’s grand showpiece piano concerto which was written at the behest of Clara and dedicated to her.  She performs with the venerable San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under music director Martin West.  I don’t know other versions of this concerto well enough to make comparisons but it is clearly a piece she knows and loves and the concerto is a tribute to both Robert and Clara.  Her encouragement and collaborative suggestions technically make the piece speak well for both composers (Robert, who was an accomplished pianist, damaged his hand utilizing a mechanical stretching device and couldn’t play well anymore).

She follows this with some early solo piano pieces by Clara Schumann and a set of early works by Robert.  The style and level of compositional expertise is similar in both of their writing and Downes brings them lovingly, magically to life.  One only hopes that this will be but the first volume of more recordings of Clara’s work.  According to her website she has some mighty fascinating projects planned for completion in 2020, designated as “The Year of the Woman”, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in this country.

As it is also an election year seeing more women than ever before in politics, literature, and music 2020 can’t avoid being an auspicious event and Downes will make her mark most decisively.  Meanwhile we can enjoy this first installment in anticipation of exciting developments and releases ahead.  Brava, Ms. Downes.  We’re watching and listening.

 

Notes From the Underground, A major new recording of Anthony Davis’ orchestral music


Album cover

Album cover

In March, 2014 the Boston Modern Orchestra Project released Notes From the Underground, a major retrospective recording of the composer’s work for large ensembles.  The recording includes Notes from the Underground (1988) a two movement work for orchestra, You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007) a concerto for clarinet and contra-alto clarinet and Kurzweil processor and a new recording of the piano concerto Wayang No. 5 (1984) with the composer as soloist.  The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is conducted by Gil Rose.

There are liner notes by the composer and also by the great musician/composer/historian George Lewis (and a frequent musical collaborator with Davis).  The notes are relatively brief but contain a wealth of information and provide useful insights into both the musical processes and the sociopolitical forces that drive Davis’ music.  Davis describes his compositional processes and Lewis, a frequent musical collaborator,  places the music in historic and sociopolitical contexts.

Only the Wayang No. 5 has had a previous recording.  It was one of the two works included on the Gramavision release which included the equally engaging Violin Concerto “Maps” (1988) written for and performed by violinist Shem Guibbory.  The concerto reflects Davis’ interest in jazz as well as his study of gamelan music from whence comes the title “Wayang”. Davis has written a series of compositions for various combinations of instruments titled sequentially Wayang No. 1, No. 2, etc.  The term refers to the shadow puppet theater of  Bali which are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra, an ensemble largely of tuned gongs and other percussion instruments.  Davis studied gamelan music and wrote six compositions (so far) titled Wayang of which the fifth is the piano concerto on this recording.

Wayang No. V is the earliest composition on the disc and consists of four movements.  Opening-Dance begins with an improvisatory section with the pianist playing over unresolved harmonies in the orchestra which then leads to the main section of the movement which is characterized by ostinati in the orchestra as well as on the piano.  There is a seamless transition to the second movement Undine, a slow movement with an impressionistic feel.  March also begins without pause from the previous movement.  It is a scherzo like piece where the polyrhythmic structures are quite clear.   The finale, Keçak, a reference to the monkey chant in the ritual enactment of a scene from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara help Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana.  It begins with a long solo piano introduction followed  by a sort of dialog between the piano and several percussion instruments.  Davis demonstrates his virtuosity here in writing that is indebted as much to gamelan as it is to jazz and modernism from Schoenberg to Bartok, Stravinsky, Hans Werner Henze and Thelonius Monk.

This is a concerto that is more concerned more with expression than empty virtuosity though the piano part could hardly be called easy.  I am amazed that there have been no pianists who have added this wonderful piece to their repertory.  It is a very entertaining piece of music making.

The title track is the orchestral composition, Notes from the Underground (1988).  It is a two movement work dedicated to the writer Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), best known for his National Book Award winning novel The Invisible Man (1952).   The title evokes Dostoevsky’s existential 1864 novel as well as Ellison’s collection of essays, Shadow and Act (1964). The composer describes it as a “riff” on Duke Ellington’s Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937).  It is, to this listener, a grand set of orchestral variations.

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first movement, Shadow, is described by the composer as one that introduces fragments which will be heard in the second movement.  It features a prominent solo for the percussionist.  The second movement, Act is the longer of the two and is described as being written in ten steps with an elaborate polyrhythmic structures described in more detail in the accompanying notes. The writing here probably comes as close to minimalist or process music as anything the composer has done.  It is not minimalism per se  but it is perhaps proto-minimalist techniques whose roots are at least partly in jazz as musicologist Robert Fink suggests.   It produces a ritualistic and meditative feel to this richly orchestrated, reverent and mysterious sounding piece.   It is a fitting tribute to a great American man of letters as well as to the great composer Duke Ellington.

The concerto, You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007) is the most recent as well as the most overtly political piece on the album and it is a gem.  It is written for clarinet doubling alto clarinet and a Kurzweil synthesizer/sampler and orchestra.  Longtime collaborator, the wonderful J. D. Parran  plays the clarinets winding his way through a balanced hybrid of styles including bebop, modern classical and free jazz styles comprising rhythmic complexity and multiphonics.  One could hardly imagine a soloist better suited for this music.  Earl Howard plays the Kurzweil which intones sampled speech of words from the Miranda Rights which are supposed to be presented at the time of an arrest.  Here they are presented strategically in poetic dialogue with the music controlled by the keyboard player.

Here again the individual movements have their own titles poetically referencing the issues which the composer attempts to invoke in this piece. He says in his notes, “I tried to approach ‘silence’ as, rather than John Cage’s apolitical world of ‘white privilege’, a much more dangerous place.”  The first, Interrogation, is intended to evoke the clarinet as being interrogated by the orchestra.  The second, Loss  features an improvised duet between the Kurzweil and the clarinet.  It ends with an homage to Charles Mingus, a major influence on Davis.  The third, Incarceration includes more text from the Miranda and the Kurzweil processes both the words and the clarinet solo.   And finally, Dance of the Other, intending to evoke the fantasy and the feeling of otherness and presumably alienation.

It is a concerto in the classical sense of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra and it seamlessly blends various classical and jazz harmonies and techniques which challenge the expertise of the soloist.  All the while it clearly presents a political context which meditates on the inhumanities and inequalities inherent in our “correctional” system and in our society as a whole.  As political music it lies within a grand tradition taking a place beside earlier masterpieces of that genre like Henze’s Essay on Pigs (1968) and Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).  And as a concerto it is a challenge to the soloist and a delight to the listener.

This is a wonderful disc, well recorded and performed.  It presents some amazing and substantial music by one of the living treasures of American composers.  Anthony Davis has had a long and influential presence on the American music scene in his jazz performances as well as his chamber and orchestral music.  His operas like X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), Amistad(1997 ) and the more recent Wakonda’s Dream (2007) have been performed to critical acclaim. Hopefully this recording will introduce people to this composer’s works and remind those already familiar with the power and depth of Davis’ music.  Bravo to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for bringing this music to the listening public.  I hope the major orchestras and theaters and recording companies are paying attention so we can hear more from this still too little known composer.

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