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


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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.

 

The Postcard Sessions, Saxophone and Piano


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It has always seemed to me that the saxophone has had a difficult time integrating into the mainstream of classical performance.  Since its invention by Adolphe Sax in the mid 19th century this family of instruments has amassed a somewhat limited solo repertoire and has only really made it as an orchestral instrument in the twentieth century.  The subsequent adoption of these instruments at the forefront of jazz and pop has forever changed the perception of this hybrid woodwind/reed/brass instrument which, for those who segregate musical genres, complicates matters even more.

It is the twentieth century that this album represents and it is the classical voice, not jazz or pop which speaks here.  This intelligently chosen set of pieces is like a little tour of the saxophone and piano literature representing some of the best of the early to mid twentieth century repertoire.  If that makes it a niche market then so be it, it is a lovely niche.

Now Robert Schumann (1810-1856), whose work opens this disc, is hardly a twentieth century composer but these transcriptions by Frederick Hemke (long time saxophonist of the Chicago Symphony and a highly respected teacher) are definitely contemporary and work well for saxophone and piano.  Drei Romanzen Op. 94  (1849) are originally for oboe and piano.

Tracks 4 and 11 contain pieces by Astor Piazolla (1921-1992), the Argentinian composer best known for his work with the tango forms.  Here we have two film music excerpts in apparent transcriptions.

There are four other sets of pieces on this recording by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958), Jean Francaix (1912-1987), Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) and Paule Maurice (1910-1967). The Vaughn Williams Folk Song Suite is originally for cello and piano and is vintage Vaughn Williams at his English folk song best.  The Ibert and the Francaix are suites of the sort of nervous, jazz inflected music that characterized an era between the wars.  Paule Maurice is a new name to this listener and the artists are to be commended for their part in saving her work from obscurity.

The Aeolian Song by Warren Benson (1924-2008) is probably one of the best known (and deservedly so) pieces on this disc.  This is actually the slow movement of a concertino for saxophone and orchestra but has become a sort of recital classic in its incarnation for saxophone and piano.

The Harrington/Loewen Duo are based in Canada and that may be their only flaw.  The curious but annoying lack of attention to the musicians who are our neighbors to the north is certainly mitigated to some degree by this release.  It is a lovely recital and the musicians are both committed and creative.  One hopes for another volume of recital pieces to follow this delightful release.

Lara Downes Making Magic at Noon in San Francisco


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Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco

A much needed light rain fell as I ventured out to hear Lara Downes play at the noontime concert series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood.  I had just recently reviewed this artist’s new CD release (here) and I jumped at the opportunity to hear her live.

The trip from my home in Alameda to this venue, a distance of some 15 miles took me almost two hours.  Construction rules right now.  In the course of the concert Ms. Downes commented that it took her 45 minutes to get there from her hotel in San Francisco (no doubt less than 2 miles).

Being familiar with this trip I managed to arrive at about 12:15PM.  When I arrived I was a bit surprised to find a service in progress so I sat quietly observing this beautiful little church.  Though raised Catholic I haven’t ventured into a church in some years.  The experience did place a sort of spiritual context on my concert experience.

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Priest saying mass at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

The service ended a little after 12:30 and, after some of the congregants left I moved closer to the front.  Technicians moved the piano in place and Ms. Downes was introduced.

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Downes intensely focused as she plays Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces

She chose to open with Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Op. 12 Fantasy Pieces Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 (1837).  I have but a passing knowledge of Schumann’s music.  It is highly virtuosic romanticism. Beautiful melodies, classical harmonies with just a dash of dissonance and a very high level of technical difficulty which characterizes these pieces.  Downes played them with confidence and ease seemingly casting a spell as she did.  She played the set without interruption and received much deserved applause from the somewhat sparse audience of perhaps 50 or so people.

She followed with a selection from her upcoming release America Again, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s (1875-1912) setting of the spiritual Deep River Op. 59 No. 10 (1905), one of a set of 24 so-called “Negro Melodies”. Coleridge-Taylor was a black British composer of the late 19th century sometimes referred to as the “African Mahler”.  This setting, very much in the same spirit as the Schumann was pretty much what one might have expected had Schumann encountered black spirituals.  This selection added again to the spiritual dimension.  Deep River is a majestic and celebratory piece which, like the Schumann, was well received.

Downes deviated from the printed program to play another selection from that forthcoming album, Morton Gould’s (1913-1996) American Caprice.  This short piece was a delightful foray into jazz reminding us of Gould’s connections with his contemporaries like Aaron Copland and George Gershwin.  Gould is a composer whose work deserves more attention and this listener is grateful to the artist for bringing this little masterpiece back into the light.

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Downes making Rhapsody in Blue sound anew.

In some ways this functioned like a precursor to the next piece on the program, Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924) in the composer’s arrangement for solo piano. Downes, whose speaking was as comfortable and natural as her playing, asked the audience to try to hear this oh so familiar piece with new ears.  Indeed her fluid and dynamic playing put her own stamp on this popular gem and demonstrated again her seasoned virtuosity.  She played the work with passion but also with ease and confidence.

The ample applause and standing ovation brought her back for a wonderful encore.  It was Gershwin again for sure but this time in an amazing arrangement by Nina Simone (1933-2003) whose spirit seemed to be channeled by Downes.  “I loves you Porgy” from Porgy and Bess is featured on her new CD and it brought the afternoon to a very pleasing close.

I took the opportunity to meet and thank Ms. Downes who was, in turn, gracious and pleasant.  I went back out to the ordinary world charmed and invigorated and that is what I had hoped for.