Transformations, Elizabeth Chang takes on mid-century masters


Albany Troy 1850

Albany Records has demonstrated a commitment to lesser known composers of the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps the term “neglected composers” is more accurate. This disc, headed by an artist new to these ears, Elizabeth Chang is an exciting release for folks who appreciate post-Schoenbergian music. That is a limited audience for sure but the sheer quality of the works of the composers represented should entice hungry minds.

Three composers are represented: Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Leon Kirchner (1919-2009), and Roger Sessions (1896-1985). Schoenberg is the only one adequately represented in recordings (if not in performances). The two American composers, Kirchner and Sessions, are both Pulitzer Prize winners and were respected as teachers as well as composers.

The recording opens with Kirchner’s Duo No.2 (2002) for violin and piano. I am familiar with Kirchner’s four string quartets, the third of which earned him his Pulitzer. His catalog of works is large and, sadly, most recordings are out of print. This late work compares favorably with the quartets. Clocking in at about 15 minutes, this work is decidedly very post-Schoenberg with an almost neo-romantic lyricism. The demands, met ably by the artists (Steven Beck, piano; Elizabeth Chang, violin), perform what is nearly a mini concerto.

The second piece, covering tracks 2-5, is the major standout here. Roger Sessions Sonata for Solo Violin (1953), can stand beside other twentieth century works in this genre such as Bela Bartok’s 1944 masterpiece. It has been recorded by Paul Zukofsky, Hyman Bress, Curtis Macomber, and, most recently, by Miranda Cuckson. While I have not heard any but Zukofsky’s rendition, it would seem that this performance is a welcome addition to the discography of this major masterpiece. I will leave it to the fine liner notes by David E. Schneider for more details on this rather complex work.

Sessions is given more exposure with a late work, the Duo for Violin and Cello (1978). The fact that this was found among the composer’s papers after his death with sketches for at least one more movement suggests that this was intended to be a much larger work. What does exist would make a fine companion to the (also too little performed) 1922 Maurice Ravel masterwork for this unusual combination of instruments.

The recording ends with Arnold Schoenberg’s Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment Op. 47 (1949). Both this and the previous work represent the last chamber music compositions by Sessions and Schoenberg. I am somewhat chagrined to admit that this is my first hearing of the Schoenberg piece. It is a thorny, almost pointillistic piece which is a very fine piece. and one that deserves more attention from this writer and

Even if this release may speak to a limited audience it is, nonetheless a significant and enjoyable contribution to the recorded legacy of this very significant western art music.

Meredith Monk and Eric Salzman, a Labor of Love


Labor Records LAB 7094

Labor Records LAB 7094

New music aficionados in the 1970s had access to quite a bit of new and unusual music on the Nonesuch label under the watchful eye of Theresa Sterne.  In fact, Salzman was among the wonderful producers along with people like Joshua Rifkin who put that label at the forefront of contemporary music releases.

Two most unusual dramatic pieces, The Nude Paper Sermon (1969) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1977) caught my ear (yes, I have them on vinyl).  I was looking to see if these had ever been reissued (they have) and ran across this disc containing music by Eric Salzman (who was involved in both of the aforementioned discs) and by Meredith Monk.

Eric Salzman

Eric Salzman

Eric Salzman (1933- ) is a composer, scholar, broadcaster, producer and theorist.  He studied at Columbia University(BA 1954) with Jack Beeson, Lionel Trilling, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky.  His graduate work at Princeton University (MFA 1956) was with Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, Edward T. Cone, Arthur Mendel, Oliver Strunk and Nino Pirotta.  A 1956-8 Fulbright fellowship allowed him to work with Goffredo Petrassi and at Darmstätdter Ferienkurse with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono.

He has written for various news media and wrote for the wonderful Stereo Review magazine from 1966.  His academic credits and publications are also highly regarded.  He was the music director at WBAI, a Pacifica Radio Station during the 60s and 70s.  In short he is a living treasure of American music.

 

His music, unfortunately, is less well-known I think than his writings but what little I have been able to hear of his work (you can hear excerpts of various pieces on his web site) has piqued my interest to seek out more.  He is uncompromisingly innovative and experimental which may put off the casual listener but has wonderful revelations to those who lend their ear.  This disc on Labor Records (who have also issued the aforementioned dramatic works) contains a new aural drama or radio drama if you prefer.

Now I doubt that anyone who actually seeks out a recording by the likes of Salzman and Monk will be put off by innovative and experimental ideas but these works are quite listener friendly and represent mature work by both artists.  This very welcome recording gives listeners an opportunity to hear the vibrant mature work of two clearly still vital living masters.

Salzman’s “Jukebox in the Tavern of Love” (2008) was written on commission from the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble and was performed in Brooklyn’s “Bargemusic” in 2009.  The libretto is by Valeria Vasileski and the action takes place in a New York bar during a power outage.  The cast of characters reminds this writer of any number of, “a man walks into a bar…” jokes.  We meet a nun, a Rabbi, a Broadway Dame, a poet, and a Con Ed worker all culled from the composer and librettists perceptions of the individuals that make up Western Wind.  And these characters comment on the subject of love in this re-visioning of the madrigal opera genre.

 

Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk

Meredith Monk (1942- ) is a dancer, composer, vocalist, choreographer, filmmaker and new music innovator in extended vocal techniques.  She is among the best known of the composers who comprised the loosely defined “downtown” new music scene in New York in the 1970s.  She graduated Sarah Lawrence College in 1964 having studied with Beverly Schmidt Blossom.  She is best known for her numerous recordings on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label.

Basket Rondo (2007), also written for the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, is vintage Monk.  The eight movements take the listener through a series of extended vocal sound worlds.  Monk’s work is always more evocative than literal and this work could suggest whatever the listener perceives or could simply be appreciated as musical expression. Her creative vision that underlies this piece involves a pre-industrial society singing a sort of work song.  Monk’s ability to export her extended vocal techniques through her workshops made it possible for her to write in her idiomatic style for singers not otherwise familiar with these techniques.

The piece is cast in eight movements  suggesting the “rondo” I suppose.  And I’m guessing the baskets represent the fruits of their labors.  But the important thing is that Monk’s re-visioning of medieval history in these dream like dance/vocal dramas succeeds in creating mesmerizing aural theater regardless of what plays in your head when you hear it.

The Grammy nominated Western Wind Vocal Ensemble (much of whose work is with Medieval and Renaissance music) has a well-deserved reputation as being among the finest small vocal ensembles working today.  This disc allows them to demonstrate their ability to move easily into the contemporary music world.  Their performances here are superb and a very welcome addition to the discography of these two composers.  I cannot think of anyone who could have written this music other than the present composers.  Here are two works by composers whose idiosyncratic methods have produced music that identifies them much as a thumb print identifies a check writer (or a criminal, for that matter, I suppose).  That is a mark of true mastery. And it would be a crime to miss hearing these works.