From the Simpsons to the Concert Hall,Classical Gems by Danny Elfman


Album Art

Danny Elfman (1953-) has had a varied and successful musical career working in diverse areas.  From his days as lead singer and songwriter for Oingo Boingo, he has cultivated his love of film music into a successful career having scored numerous films and television shows.

Now a great divide seems to exist between composers who score films and composers who compose for the concert hall.  Few have demonstrated the ability to be successful in both arenas.  Erich Wolfgang Korngold is a notable exception as is Aaron Copland.  Both men have succeeded rather famously in both film and classical concert hall music.  In fact John Williams, though known primarily as a film and television composer has written quite a bit for the concert hall as well.

Now here comes Danny Elfman, known best perhaps as the composer of the Simpsons them for the long running animated series.  He has gotten the bug to write for the concert hall and this recording presents two major works.  The first is his violin concerto “11/11)(2017) with soloist Sandy Cameron.  You can read the liner notes about the composer’s obsession with the number 11 or you can relax and enjoy a genuine violin concerto, not a reworking of themes as one might expect from a lesser composer.  The second is a nice addition to the chamber music repertoire, a piano quartet (2017).

The concerto is played by the wonderful Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of the esteemed John Mauceri.  Sandy Cameron is the soloist who handles the concertos four movements flawlessly and does justice to Elfman’s work.  It’s really a beautiful piece.  Only time will tell the work’s eventual place in history but we can certainly enjoy it for what it is, a good and entertaining violin concerto.

The Piano Quartet is played by the Philharmonic Piano Quartet Berlin which consists of Andreas Buschatz, violin ; Matthew Hunter, viola; Knut Weber, cello; and Marcus Groh, piano.  This five movement work would happily grace any chamber music recital.  It is in turn pithy, melodic, humorous, and serious.

This is stronger music than this reviewer had imagined would come from this composer’s pen.  I can’t say, “If you like his film scores you’ll like his music” but there are, perhaps inevitably, snippets of his film music style which work actually quite well.

Heavenly Violin and Piano Music by Giya Kancheli


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For this reviewer, my relationship with the music of Giya Kancheli (1935- ) began with the symphonies (I think there’s seven now) with the character of some outrageous dynamic contrasts such that they spawned warning levels on the package containing the CD.  It was only after that, when ECM began to release the “holy minimalist” type works, that I first heard those.

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Frederic Bednarz

 

Now comes Canadian violinist Frederic Bednarz  who, along with pianist Natsuki Hiratsuka and bandoneon player Jonathan Goldman have recorded some incredibly lovely chamber music which has not been previously released or widely distributed.  

 

Well its hard to say why these have not been widely heard because they are just beautiful.  These are miniatures, all clock in at less than 4 minutes but all have a certain charm that relies neither on the dynamic range or the “holy minimalist” meme.  These are simply delightful neo-romantic pieces that could not fail to charm a recital audience.

Bednarz clearly knows and loves these little gems.  His playing is both sincere and, I think, definitive.  In this album he shows this lesser known aspect of the composer’s work.  Certainly there have been releases of Kancheli’s chamber orchestra pieces and a string quartet but this is the first recording this reviewer has heard of the violin and piano (and bandoneon) music.

Doubtless there are musical and musicological aspects to this music which escape the average listener (this one included) so no attempt will be made here to analyze these works.  Bednarz provides concise but useful liner notes in the gatefold cover to the CD.

Once again our neighbors to the north have scaled the metaphorical art barrier between our adjacent countries to bring this delightful music to light.  It is a welcome addition to the Kancheli discography and a delight in your CD player.  Whether as calm background or for intense listening this disc is a gem.

N.B. As of this writing the physical disc does not appear to be available from Amazon but it is available through the usual streaming services.  If you can get the physical disc it is worth it for the notes though.

 

 

William Susman’s Scatter My Ashes


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I first encountered the composer William Susman (1960- ) when one of his works appeared on a program which included a solo cello and electronics piece by Vivian Fung.  This solo electroacoustic piece, the work I was initially asked to review, was nestled in the middle of an interesting program by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.  I chose to review the entire concert which was a fascinating selection of new music.  William Susman’s “In a State of Patterns” (2018) struck me immediately as interesting post-minimalist work.

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Mr. Susman read my review and rather promptly sent me this 2014 CD on his Belarca label.  It contains four of his works from 1992-2010 and is a fine sampling of his work.  All works are here performed by the Octet Ensemble which includes: Alan Ferber, trombone; Mike Gurfield, trumpet; Melissa Hughes, vocals; Elaine Kwon, piano; Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass; Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone; Greg Zuber, drums and percussion; and William Susman, electric piano.

There are four pieces on 12 tracks.  The disc begins with Camille (2010), a very listenable post-minimal chamber work.  It is followed by a melancholy song cycle, Scatter My Ashes (2009) on poems by the composer’s sister Sue Susman.

The third piece is a wonderful piano concerto.  There are not a lot of convincing concertos in the minimalist genre but this one is a candidate for being a poster child.  It is for piano with chamber ensemble.  Here the composer goes not for the finger busting virtuosity that seems to be the current vogue but rather he evokes a latter day Mozart with more technically modest but highly entertaining music that communicates directly.  Curiously (is this a carry over from the Steve Reich and/or The Philip Glass Ensemble?) he uses a wordless vocal (Hughes) as a part of the instrumental texture.  Elaine Kwon handles the featured keyboard part.  It works very well.

He ends with an arrangement for OCTET of Moving in to an Empty Space (1992, arr 2010), another setting of his sister’s lovely poetry.  Again he evokes the somber but it is more in the nature of exorcising the demons of sadness much like the mission of the poet.

 

Jane Antonia Cornish, Post Modern Calm


At first listen I thought I might have put an Arvo Part album. The familiar calming sounds of what sounds like “holy minimalism” seemed to be coming at me. But who is this young British composer? Well, let me tell you, you need to pay attention to this one.

While the Arvo Part comparison is apt it only describes a small part of this composer’s range. She does seem to fit some sort of incarnation of “minimalist” by virtue of her use of repetition, silences, etc. At times her music leans sweetly toward the romantic but this is hardly light fare. The music evokes a sort of timelessness and calm but there are moments of tension and sadness as well.

Jane-Antonia-Cornish (1)

From the composer’s web site.

Jane Antonia Cornish (1975- ) is a British composer and, looking at her education and training she appears to come almost out of nowhere. Her music clearly draws on aspects of minimalism but her teachers are not the “usual suspects”. Like a lot of people from her generation she seems to draw on a rather comprehensive training in the ever expanding language of new music and uses what works for her. (Doubtless she is quite capable of writing thorny serial music should she find that useful to her expression.)  She currently lives and works in New York City.  Her web page can be found here.

Cornish is originally from London, England and she studied composition with Dr. Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music, and completed her master’s degree at the Royal College of Music. She is a recipient of the Edward Hecht Composition Prize, the RNCM Composition Prize and the Associated Board Prize for the Most Outstanding Scholar of the Year. Cornish was also made a Major Scholar of the RNCM.  She is also the recipient of a 2005 BAFTA award for her film and television work.

This emerging composer has been quite prolific.  The present album is her third and she has also done film scores.  Her style seems to be influenced by the post minimalist/holy minimalist school but with a touch of melancholy.  Of course it will be necessary to hear more of her work to get a good overall impression but that will be a labor of love.  This is really listenable.

This is chamber music, violin, cellos, piano but what a big and warm sound!  I liked this album immediately and subsequent listenings have failed to diminish my enthusiasm.  This is engaging and substantive music that has enough depth that allows the listener to get past the pretty surface to the complexities and subtleties that lie beneath the surface.

The musicians include: Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, Caitlin Sullivan, Claire Bryant, Hamilton Berry, cellos; Anna Elashvili, violin; Vicky Chow, piano.  All are fined dedicated musicians and they seem to be enjoying themselves here.  You would be doing yourself a favor to got to their respective web sites (linked from here) to see the breadth of these fine young musicians’ activities and interests.  

Thank you Innova for the wisdom of recording this composer’s works (Innova has also released her albums Continuum, and Silence).  And thank you for sharing your artistic talents Ms. Cornish.

 

Blue Violet Duo: American Souvenirs


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Blue Violet Records



This release actually makes a nice companion to the just recently reviewed Rachel Barton-Pine album. Both feature the classic chamber music combo of violin and piano and both bring life to American music that has languished for want of skilled and interested performers.  Let’s consider this release to be another selection in celebration of Women’s History Month.  Of course the only women here are the performers.  Alas no women made it into the mix this time.  But this is, after all, only their first release.
The Blue Violet Duo is just what is needed here.  These young artists make their recording debut with this fine selection of mid-twentieth to early twenty first century American music for violin and piano.  Included here are less familiar names such as Norman Dello Joio, Paul Schoenfeld, William Bolcom, and John Adams (if you know any names here you know this last one).  All are highly accomplished composers who work in basically a tonal language incorporating elements of blues and jazz.  Kate Carter plays violin and Louise Chan handles the keyboard in this interesting selection of lesser known but really entertaining and substantive music.  
The earliest work is the Variations and Capriccio (1948) by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008). It sets the tone for this album of jazz influenced violin and piano music.  The two movements go through a variety of moods and demand a high level of virtuosity.
Next up is the wonderful Second Violin Sonata (1978) by William Bolcom (1938- ) who is known as much as a ragtime composer as well as classical.  His embrace of so called vernacular music is characteristic of much of his work. Carter and Chan appear to have a solid grasp of vernacular styles which they incorporate seamlessly as though they belonged (which, of course they do).John Adams (1947- ) is represented by his playful, Road Movies (1995). Adams’ take on pop and vernacular musical is somehow different and the listener will realize that one of the joys here is hearing the way in which these composers respond to their encounters with popular musics.  Adams also demands much of his musicians in terms of technical expertise but his music here always remains playful.
For the last selection Paul Schoenfeld (1947- ) was chosen and he is one that deserves more attention.  Like Adams he works as a classical composer who incorporates other styles into his work. Four Souvenirs (1990) makes a fitting finale to this collection.The real joy here is having such fine renditions of lesser known repertoire.  On hearing these pieces listeners will likely want to hear them again.  The hope is that these pieces will become more regularly performed.  The Blue Violet Duo has given this repertoire a boost in that direction.  Brava!

 

Jennifer Koh and Kaija Saariaho, a Glorious Collaboration


Cedille

The arrestingly beautiful portrait that graces the cover of this album should be enough of  a cover to judge this release favorably. Just the presence of these two women suggests that you’re in for some serious music making. Add to that the fact that this is one of those impeccable Cedille releases and you know that you, the listener, will not be disappointed. Here is another offering for Women’s History Month (even though the disc was released in November, 2018).

Kaija Saariaho (1952- ) is possibly the hottest composer to come out of Finland since Sibelius. Her career has steadily grown and she has written for chamber ensemble, stage, and orchestra. It is somehow satisfying to have this little portrait of her work. (This reviewer’s first encounter with the composer was in 1987 when the Kronos Quartet premiered her Nymphea for string quartet and electronics.) Five works are selected here and, if you don’t know this composer’s work, think Debussy, Takemitsu, and their ilk. No electronics on this disc though. Her work is a unique expression and pretty much listener friendly whether or not she uses electronics.

There are four chamber music pieces and a nice new performance of her masterful violin concerto, “Graal Théâtre”. Saariaho is so prolific such that one can only do a sort of “snapshot” selection of her work on a single CD. A decent retrospective would likely require several more discs.

Jennifer Koh is without doubt one of the finest violinists working today, especially in contemporary music. She even broke ground in one of the coolest blind castings in contemporary performance playing Einstein in Glass’ opera, “Einstein on the Beach”. For those who are unfamiliar the role of Einstein requires a violinist wearing a wig who plays some mighty difficult violin music at different points during the opera. This writer heard her in performance of this role at the revival in Berkeley a few years ago and it is a mark of Koh’s expertise that she made the role her own. Her range (which includes more conventional repertoire like Mozart, Tchaikovsky, etc.) is simply astounding and her technical ability puts her in competition for an ever growing list of commissions and other works she has added to her repertoire.

On this CD we get to hear Koh in the intimate settings of chamber music where the skills of listening to others is so critical as the individual voices weave their parts though the texture. While Saariaho is basically a well trained modernist romanticism and perhaps impressionism still remain a part of her palette. Joining Koh in the chamber pieces are: Nicholas Hodges, piano; Hsin Yun Huang, viola; Wilhelmina Smith, cello; Anssi Karttunen, cello;

Of course the big showpiece here is the violin concerto from 1994. This large scale work is actually as lucid and detailed as her chamber music, albeit with a larger range of sounds. It is a masterful composition and this appears to be the second recording it has received though apparently the first recording of the version with reduced orchestra played by the Curtis 20/21 Ensemble conducted by Conner Gray Covington (another reason to want this album). I wasn’t able to locate the other recording with Gidon Kremer but it is a good sign when you have more than one top soloist recording your work. Brava Ms. Koh and Ms. Saariaho! This is a collaboration blessed by the Gods. Saariaho x Koh = bliss.

Post Holy Minimalism? New Music from Lithuania


Starkland ST-231

All ready for Women’s History Month is this fine offering which features a fine young woman composer from Lithuania. It comes on the radar of Starkland Records and, happily now, to a new listening audience.

I sincerely hope that no one takes umbrage at my off handed categorization of this music as related to minimalism but I’m not sure what else to call it. This 70 minute work is divided into 10 sections which have poetic titles. It is scored for piano, violin, cello, and electronic sound. It comes from an area of the world (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) where individual national identities have long been overshadowed by the annexation of the former USSR. In the last 20 years a style related to minimalism has emerged as a characteristic style from this region (primarily in the work of Arvo Part). Some of that is here but this music is at least a generation removed and has evolved its own identity at the hands of this new composer.

In an unusual (though not unprecedented) move this album was recorded and produced entirely by the composer in Lithuania. In addition some of her fine color photography is featured in the liner notes (which are mostly by the composer). The production values are very much consistent with the high quality one expects from the Starkland label. In addition it must be noted that this is the simplest and sanest packaging now being used for CDs. None of that fragile plastic and still a functional storage sleeve.

So the next question (also common with Starkland releases) is: Who is
Žibuoklė Martinaitytė ? Well she is one of the emerging generation of composers from Lithuania. That, along with her having studied with Bronius Kutavičius (I actually started his Wikipedia article many years ago but his and other articles on new Lithuanian composers is limited still) suggested to me that she may be of the branch of minimalism which hails from this part of the world (i.e. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). Wrong, but not entirely.

Like a lot of emerging composers we have here an artist fully schooled in a very wide range of musical techniques and possibilities. On first listen one hears elements of drone, ambient, minimalism, extended instrumental techniques, and mysterious but effective use of electronics with this small chamber ensemble. The effect is frequently almost orchestral but also capable of great stillness and silence.

In the liner notes by the composer she speaks of being inspired by her observations whilst visiting Notre Dame in Paris. She speaks of a rather impressionistic notion of hidden or lost beauty. So I guess that throws impressionism into the mix. The composition does have metaphorical devices which do suggest the emerging of ideas and themes from an initial chaos or, to use Ives term, a “silence of the druids”. One must get to the 4th track to really get a sense that there is actually a piano trio on this recording. Very effective actually and then it fades back into the chaos and then the silence.

The album opens with silence into which a drone gradually makes itself known. These meanderings take the listener on a journey which is essentially the artists sonic vision as she walked through and around the iconic cathedral. The listener doesn’t even hear really more conventional musical sounds until about track 4 and concepts like melody and harmony take on a different meaning in this context. It is a large arc of a composition that embraces both chamber and orchestral textures as it tells its sonic tale of the composer’s visions and returns to the chaos of the unfocused mind at the end.

This puts this work in the realm of the earlier release (also on Starkland) of Ingram Marshall’s Alcatraz (1982) and Eberbach (1985). Eberbach was later released with its originally intended photographic component along with Alcatraz on a recent DVD on Starkland. And Mr Marshall provides some insight and reassurance in his liner notes for In Search of Lost Beauty. He affirmed for this listener that one needs to listen more than once to perceive the beauty found herein.

Recorded and produced entirely in Lithuania the artists include Indre Baikstyte, piano; Ingrida Rupaite-Petrikiene, violin, and Povilas Jacunskas, cello. The recording, done in Lithuania was mastered by the always reliable Silas Brown back here in the United States assures the quality listeners have come to expect from this fine independent record label.