Music of a Forgotten Master: Daniel Wnukowski Plays Karl Rathaus


The displacements of war, genocide, and oppressive politics has condemned legions of composers and their music to languish in obscurity until resurrected by later generations. I recall Aaron Copland opining in an interview that there are likely more than a few masterpieces to be found from the years between the great wars (about 1918 to 1945). This album is a shining example which seems to validate Copland’s assertion. 

Karl Rathaus (1895-1954) was born in the eastern Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like many (primarily) Jewish composers. He emigrated to the United States to avoid the rising fascist regime. Not all such emigres were able to make a living in the Hollywood film industry and Rathaus labored in relative obscurity in the academy, namely Queens College.

Along comes the enterprising Polish-Canadian pianist Daniel Wnukowski whose knowledge of and affinity for Rathaus’ music brings us the present disc. This is virtuosic music that he seems born to play. The music seems to embody elements of Impressionism, Expressionism, Modernism (of the Rudhyar and Cowell variety), and doubtless others not immediately apparent to your humble reviewer.Wnukowski breathes life into these heretofore forgotten works.  

Certainly this is a genre disc that takes its place alongside Decca/London’s “Entartete Musik” and their ilk but it also stands out with a distinctive, powerful, and entertaining voice which serves to illuminate the folly and destructiveness of fascist politics.This is music that deserves serious attention and would likely enthralling a recital audience. 

This is a loving set of interpretations that will probably have listeners anxiously awaiting the next volume in this important series.That is definitely true for this reviewer. 

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.

The Shostakovich Fourth, the Symphony That Almost Wasn’t


Shostakovich dealt with a great deal of adversity as a result of wars, the revolution, and Stalinism. That is sad but it makes for some really amazing stories. So it is with this symphony.

It was composed in 1936 and would mark the entry of more post-romantic elements into the composer’s work which gives it a Mahler-like cast at times. Unfortunately the politics resulted in the composer withdrawing the symphony. During WWII the score was lost and reconstructed from surviving orchestral parts and the present two piano transcription by the composer. The world premiere occurred in 1961 under Kiril Kondrashin.

It is the two piano “reduction” which is featured here. Reduction refers to the transcription of the piece for two pianos but the grand symphonic nature shines through with amazing lucidity. Of course this is as much due to the skill of the transcription but also of the artists. If you have never heard a great transcription this will amaze you.

Davies and Namekawa have established quite a name for themselves as a duo piano team. Davies, the long established conductor and his life partner Namekawa, herself a dazzling pianist have collaborated for some time now as a duo and this recording is testament to what they can do. Here they joyfully share their interests and insights on this masterpiece. Even if you have and know the orchestral version you will want to hear this.

There are three movements here. The outer movements are long extended compositions with a small(but amazing) interlude in between. This is not the Shostakovich of the famed 5th symphony. Rather it is a sort of transitional piece between the student work of the first symphony and the social realism of the second and third symphonies. While deeply intelligent the work has no intended program and one could almost pass this off stylistically as a lost Mahler work.

Fear not, though, the composer’s fingerprint is here. After all this is his 4th essay in the symphony genre. Unfortunately a perfect storm of politics conspired to almost destroy this work. Fortunately both this reduction and the reconstruction make the work available. It is especially curious for the Shostakovich enthusiast to listen to this work and imagine the care that must have been taken to avoid being associated with non state-approved music. It’s a good example of how politics places additional meaning on a piece of music that originally had none.

The recordings is lucid and is due for release on February 8th. One added sort of irony. The work is scheduled for its west coast premiere in San Francisco on February 10th.

When Politics and the Arts Clash, OM 22


Isang Yun (1917-1995)


The relationship between politics and music is complex and varied.  There are many instances of clashes between these two disciplines from the politics of state and church sponsored music to its repression by those same institutions.

After centuries of Catholic church sponsored music a decision was made in 1903 to repress the performance of anything but Gregorian chant and any instruments except for the ubiquitous organ.  The reasons for this decree have been discussed but the end result was less work for musicians.

More recently the Nazi “degenerate art” concepts and the later proscriptions on “formalist music” in Soviet Russia similarly put artists and musicians out of work.  In fact many were jailed or killed.  Shostakovich and Prokofiev were high profile musicians who endured bans on performances of their music based ostensibly on claims that it brought (or potentially brought) harm to the state’s political visions.

Even more recently the blacklist created by Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes perpetrated a similar assault on actors, directors and writers like Dalton Trumbo (recently dramatized in the excellent film Trumbo with Bryan Cranston leading the fine cast).  This sad chapter of history did not completely end until the 1970s and only recently have efforts succeeded in restoring suppressed screen credits to these films.  Many lives were destroyed or irreparably harmed.  One hopes, of course, that such travesties will not be repeated but the recent efforts to eliminate the NEA suggest that such struggles remain with us.

On February 18th Other Minds will present a centennial celebration of two composers’ births.  Lou Harrison certainly expressed some political themes in some of his music but did not incur state sponsored political wrath.  Unfortunately this was not the case with the other honoree of Other Minds’ 22nd season.

In 1967 Korean composer Isang Yun was kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers and taken to South Korea to face accusations of collaboration with the communist government of North Korea.  He was held for two years and was subjected to interrogation and torture based on information later acknowledged to have been fabricated.  Even so South Korea declined to allow the ailing composer’s request to visit his hometown in 1994.  He died the following year in his adoptive home in Berlin, Germany.

A petition signed by over 200 artists including composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Ligeti and conductors Otto Klemperer and Joseph Keilberth among the many was sent to the South Korean government in protest.  A fine recent article by K. J. Noh, Republic of Terror, Republic of Torture puts the incident in larger political context. It is a lesson sadly relevant even now in our politically turbulent times.

The concert will feature works from various points in his career, both before and after the aforementioned incident.  It is a fine opportunity to hear the work of this too little known 20th century master.  Conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies knew and worked with both Harrison and Isang.  It is so fitting that he will participate along with his wife, justly famed new music pianist Maki Namekawa, in this tribute to the the late composer.  This can’t right the wrongs but what better way to honor a composer than by performing his music?

The performance is at 7:30 PM at the historic Mission Dolores Basilica at 3321 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114.  Tickets available (only $20) at Brown Paper Tickets.

February 18th, Mark Your Calendars: Other Minds 22, A Must Hear


OMDI1Harrison

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

The American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Korean composer Isang Yun (1917-1995) turn 100 this year and Other Minds 22 has a wonderful celebration that is not to be missed.  On February 18th at 7:30 PM in the beautiful, historic Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco’s famed Mission District.  This is actually only the first of two concerts which will comprise the Other Minds season 22 which is subtitled, “Pacific Rim Centennials”.  It is curated by Charles Amirkhanian, the reliable arbiter of modern musical tastes in the Bay Area and beyond.  (The second concert, scheduled for May 20, will be an all Lou Harrison concert closer to the composer’s May 14th birthday.)

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Yun Isang (1917-1995)

Harrison is well known to new music aficionados, especially on the west coast for his compositions as well as his scholarship and teaching.  His extensive catalog contains symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other such traditional classical forms as well as some of the finest of what we now call “world music” featuring instruments from non-western cultures including the Indonesian gamelan.  He is also the man responsible for the preparation and premiere of Charles Ives’ Third Symphony in 1946 which was subsequently awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Yun is perhaps less of a household name but is known for his many finely crafted compositions in the modern western classical tradition and, later, incorporating instruments and techniques from his native Korea.  He was infamously kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers in 1967 and taken from his Berlin home to South Korea where he was held and tortured due to allegations (later proven fabricated) of collaboration with North Korea.  Over two hundred composers and other artists signed a petition for his release.  After several years he was returned to his adopted home in Berlin in 1969 where he continued to compose prolifically and teach until his death in 1995.

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                              Dennis Russell Davies (from the American Composers Orchestra site)

This celebratory and memorial concert will feature world renowned artists including Grammy Award winning conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies who knew and collaborated with both Harrison and Isang.  Other artists will include pianist Maki Namekawa, violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams, percussionist William Winant (with his percussion group), and the Other Minds Ensemble.

The program is slated to consist of:

Sonata No. 3 for Piano

(1938, Lou Harrison)

Dennis Russell Davies

Kontraste I for Solo Violin

(1987, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams

Gasa, for Violin & Piano

(1963, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Grand Duo for Violin and Piano (excerpts)

(1988, Lou Harrison)

IIII. Air
II. Stampede

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Intermission

Canticle No. 3

(1941, Lou Harrison)

William Winant Percussion Group
Joanna Martin, ocarina
Brian Baumbusch, guitar
Dan Kennedy, Loren Mach, Ben Paysen, William Winant, Nick Woodbury, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Interludium A

(1982, Isang Yun)

Maki Namekawa, piano

Suite for Violin, Piano & Small Orchestra

(1951, Lou Harrison)

I. Overture
II. Elegy
III. First Gamelan
IIII. Aria
V. Second Gamelan
VI. Chorale

Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin
Maki Namekawa, piano
The Other Minds Ensemble:
Joanna Martin and Janet Woodhans, flute
Kyle Bruckman, oboe
Meredith Clark, harp
Evelyn Davis, celesta
Andrew Jamieson, tack piano
Emil Miland and Crystal Pascucci, cello
Scott Padden, bass
William Winant, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Other Minds is also co-sponsoring (with the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive) a screening of the 2015 German television produced film, Isang Yun: In Between North and South Korea on February 19th (4:15PM) at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.  Dennis Russell Davies and composer Charles Boone will also be present to discuss the film.

If you do know these composers you probably already have your tickets but if you don’t know them you owe it to yourself to check out these performances.

 

Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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Sono Luminus DSL-92207

The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.

Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch über Schweine)


German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) left Germany in 1953 because of his dissatisfaction with German intolerance of both his leftist politics and his homosexuality. He settled in Italy where he lived with his partner and had a long, prolific career composing music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, theater, soloists and film. Much of his music was an expression of his politics.

The “Versuch über Schweine”or in English, “Essay on Pigs” of 1968 is scored for woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, “beat organ” and electric guitar with vocal soloist. It was created at one of the composers most overtly political periods which included the Sixth Symphony (1969), El Cimarrón (1969-70) and Das Floss Der Medusa (1968). Indeed there was much political conflict in the world at this time.   The musicians have a challenging instrumental score to interpret but this is no ordinary vocal part as it calls for the extended vocal techniques of the singer for whom it was written. Henze was reportedly very impressed with having heard the Rolling Stones and this encounter appears to have influenced his musical sound as well.

As near as I can determine the work was performed only once on February 14, 1969 with Roy Hart and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer and subsequently recorded with those forces. The vocalist in the Deutsche Gramophone recording is Roy Hart as well and he appears to be an early practitioner of what we now call ‘extended vocal techniques’. He precedes the likes of Cathy Berberian, Diamanda Galas, Julius Eastman, Joan La Barbara and Meredith Monk. Monk’s students like Robert Een, Andrea Goodman and Anthony De Mare (among others) also carry on the tradition but I know of no one who has attempted this piece since Hart.

English: Photo of Gaston Salvatore

English: Photo of Gaston Salvatore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Essay on Pigs is a setting of poetry by Chilean poet Gaston Salvatore (1941-  ) who collaborated with Henze on several works. The music reflects the angry and sometimes hysterical tone of the poetry making this anything but easy listening.

I recall a musicologist, Dr. Richard Norton, who had corresponded with Henze, playing this piece in its entirety (some 20+ minutes) during one of his classes (at the University of Illinois Chicago in the mid-seventies). I always felt that was a sort of revolutionary act to do that. From what I recall I think I was probably the only person in the class who was already familiar with the work. The reaction of confusion or stunned silence from my fellow students was what one would expect from anyone who had not heard the piece before.

I have been unable to find any critical reviews or reports of audience reactions to performances but this is a piece that has the potential to clear a room or provoke anger.  It must have been quite a show. The piece certainly deserves a revival and I think it is a very significant piece of political music whose expressionism reflects well the issues of the times.  The problem is finding a vocalist to navigate this highly unique and unusual piece..  Any takers?

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