This is another entry in an ongoing series of music for piano trio by the tried and true Lincoln Trio. In this fine release they play a delightful collection of five works (three are world premiere recordings) by living composers. This is their eighth Cedille release by my count. It is the second recording of piano trios from Chicago based composers, a follow up to their previous survey of early to mid-twentieth century piano trios, Trios from the City of Big Shoulders.
The five works presented here are but a sampling of the available repertoire from Chicago based composers. That said it is a fine sampling of the current state of the art and one would do well to explore more of the music of all these composers.
The first selection is the three movement, “city beautiful” (2021) by the American composer of Nigerian/American Heritage, Shawn E. Okpebholo (1981- ), a world premiere recording. The title is taken from that of the 19th century initiative that helped build the now familiar skyline which had been ravaged by the 1871 Chicago Fire.
Okpebholo is no stranger to this blog. His fine album of spiritual arrangements Steal Away (2016), and his contributions to Will Liverman’s album, “Dreams of a New Day” (2021) revealed his interest in and expertise with spirituals and art song. “city beautiful” by contrast is essentially three tone poems inspired by Chicago architecture, perhaps one of the city’s finest distinctions. The three movements, aqua, prairie, and burnham are effectively homages to architects Jeanne Gang (whose Aqua Tower is a most recent major addition to the famous skyline), Frank Lloyd Wright (whose Robie House is a classic example of the “prairie school” design), and Daniel Burnham (whose 19th century designs define the famously beautiful lakefront and the iconic Union Station).
Opkebholo’s idiom is basically tonal and could be characterized as post romantic. But regardless of how you categorize it the music is eminently listener friendly and a fine vehicle for the estimable Lincoln Trio. This is the work of a rapidly emerging composer with both substance and style. Keep his name on your radar. I expect to hear much more from this talented and prolific composer who currently holds a professorship at Wheaton College in that western suburb of Chicago.
Next is a two movement work by Augusta Read Thomas (1964- ) entitled, “…a circle around the sun” (2021). This work was a commission by the Children’s Memorial Foundation for the Amelia Piano Trio in honor of George D. Kennedy. Thomas has long been a fixture in Chicago’s music life where she was a composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony from 1997-2006. She is currently professor of music at the University of Chicago and a former professor at Northwestern University. Her work also tends toward the tonal idiom and this rather brief two movement work is a fine example of her writing for chamber ensemble.
“Soliloquy” (2003) by the truly fine, if still too little known, Shulamit Ran (1949- ), an Israeli born American composer. She was a student of the esteemed Ralph Shapey (1921-2002) to whom she dedicated her Pulitzer Prize winning Symphony (1990). The composer states in her liner notes that the origins of this work come from her opera “Dybbuk”. It is a pleasant piece perhaps less complex and more lyrical in sound than some of her larger works. Ran was professor of music at the University of Chicago from 1973 to her retirement in 2015.
Mischa Zupko (1971- ) contributes the briefest work to this collection. Clocking in at just under three minutes, “Fanfare 80” (2010) was written in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Music Institute of Chicago. The brevity here belies the complexities within this ear catching piece.
The album concludes with a substantial two movement work (just over 23 minutes), “Sanctuary” by Stacy Garrop (1969- ) is the work of another prolific composer whose work is, happily, getting much deserved recognition. The 2016 recording of her wonderful orchestral work was reviewed in these pages. Garrop’s work is invariably kinetic and deeply felt with a dramatic flair. Garrop was on the composition faculty of Roosevelt University in Chicago from 2000 to 2016 and is now a freelance composer.
The usual audiophile production (Bill Maylone, engineer) which characterizes Cedille releases is evident here. This is a fine sampling of music which is roughly representative of the musical riches producer James Ginsburg has mined from the “city beautiful”.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
I have always made my admiration clear regarding Chicago based Cedille Records. They release quality recordings of unusual but intelligent choices of repertoire. This recording continues that formula but here achieves what is likely to be seen as a landmark anthology (or at least sampling) of Art Song by Black Composers. It speaks on many levels, as poetry, as music, as a collaboration between an incredible baritone, an amazing pianist, in a beautifully recorded and produced album. I was left throughout with the feeling that this is a loving collaboration. It is an integrated collaboration between many people who worked well together. It is a beautiful document and a timely one.
Baritone Will Liverman, the young rising star baritone who is slated to perform at The Met in the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” scheduled for fall of 2021 is clearly at the heart of this production. His intelligent choice of repertoire is both pleasing and revelatory. (the poetry of the song texts are published in one of two booklets that come with this CD). And Liverman’s voice is an admirable instrument that he wields with power and nuance. His commission of fellow rising musical star, composer Shawn Okpebholo whose “Two Black Churches” receives its world premiere recording. The pianist who manages to navigate significant demands with confidence and artistry, is Paul Sanchez, an excellent pianist, composer, and a fine collaborator.
The beautifully packaged CD (you gotta buy the CD) consists of 19 tracks representing 8 composers. The recording is billed as “Songs by Black Composers” but one can hardly miss the justly sad or angry tone of the texts and this was recorded July 22-24 of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and amidst social unrest over the epidemic of modern day lynchings. (2020 was also the year that Anthony Davis won the Pulitzer Prize for his protest opera, “The Central Park Five”) The moving rendition (“put together”, as Liverman quips in the liner notes) of Richard Farina’s 1964 song is played and sung by Liverman connecting this release with the tradition of protest music of another era. The struggle continues.
Before discussing the music I must supply a disclaimer of sorts. My working knowledge of art song in general is fairly limited and my knowledge of black art songs even more so. I know none of this music and have only in the last year or so came to know of the work of Shawn Okpebholo. I had read about the historical significance of Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh and Margaret Bonds but have heard little of their music.
In about 61 minutes listeners are given a survey, a sampling of art song by black composers ranging from Burleigh (who studied with Antonin Dvorak) to Okpebholo whose compositional talents continue to get much deserved recognition. It is a learned sampling of a huge repertory that deserves attention.
The opening song is I Dream a World (2017) by Damien Sneed (1979- ). This setting of the Langston Hughes (1901-1967) poem strikes a somber but cautiously optimistic note. It is followed by “Five Songs of Laurence Hope” (1915) by Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949). The name Laurence Hope is the pseudonym of Adela Florence Nicolson (1865-1904), a British poet who spent much of her life in British India where she developed an interest in the culture of the land. Fascination with the literature and culture of India was strongly in evidence in the early twentieth century. These five songs are reminiscent of Debussy and the impressionists and is but a small sampling of Burleigh’s art song output.
Harrison Leslie Adams’ (1932- ) setting of his own lyrics in “Amazing Grace” is yet another iteration of the abolitionist song. Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972) is represented by her “Three Dream Portraits” (1959), a song cycle on Langston Hughes poems. Bonds’ style put this listener in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs though notably darker. This cycle is contemporary with the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Next is “Riding to Town” (1943) by Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) who chose to reach back to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) for his text. Dunbar was for the 19th century what Langston Hughes would be for the early to mid twentieth century.
“Two Black Churches” (2017) is the work commissioned by Liverman for this recording. It is a setting of two poems and one of the musical highlights here. The first, “Ballad of Birmingham” to a text by Dudley Randall (1914-2000) is a contemporary reaction to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls. The second song, “The Rain” to a text by the Poet laureate of Charleston, poet and musician Marcus Amaker (1976- ). It is about the Charleston Church shooting of 2015 at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal in which a lone gunman killed nine people. Okpebholo is modernist but accessible and these settings are among the most devastating and powerful statements on this recording.
“Mortal Storm” Op. 29 (1969) is a song cycle by one Robert Owens (1925-2017). It is a powerful cycle set to Langston Hughes poems. Owens left the United States in 1968-9 in response to the racial violence and moved to Europe where he had studied music under the GI Bill from 1946-1957. Owens died in Munich having never returned to the land of his birth. This work deserves to be better known and thanks is due to Liverman and his associates for bringing this sad masterpiece to contemporary listeners.
The album concludes with Mr. Liverman’s arrangement of “Birmingham Sunday”, a 1964 song by writer and composer Richard Farina (1937-1966). Liverman plays and sings on this final track which is an homage to a previous generation of song writers and protestors as well as a reminder that that generation’s work in Civil Rights is hardly complete. The song was notably used by Spike Lee in his elegiac film, “Four Little Girls” (1997).
The lucid and detailed program notes by Dr. Louise Toppin are a welcome addition to this production and help to provide a context. The design by Bark Design ties this little gem together. This one has Grammy and “collector’s item” written all over it.
I managed to squeeze a delightful brunch meeting with my busy friend and colleague Bill Doggett on New Years Day. It was there at a favorite Oakland cafe that we discussed many topics and Bill gave me a copy of this beautiful CD by a young black composer whose work is entirely new to me.
Shawn Opkebholo (1981- )
Shawn Okpebholo (1981- ) was born in Lexington, Kentucky. He earned his B.A. in music at Asbury College and his M.M. and D.M.A. degrees at the Unniversity of Cincinatti. Doctor. Okpebholo is currently on faculty at Wheaton College in Illinois.
The present disc is Opkebholo’s first CD dedicated entirely to his own compositions and is the composer’s “reimagining” of spirituals. Drawing on the folk tradition of spirituals, worksongs, etc. as well as classical art song traditions he fashions his personal take on these much loved melodies.
I do feel compelled to mention the beauty of the photography and album design. Greg Halvorsen Schreck took the pictures and Jeremy Botts did the overall design. Powerful stuff.
In a slight deviation from the classic voice and piano arrangements the composer chose to score this little cycle for baritone, mezzo-soprano, viola and flue along with piano. For this writer this was an interesting and suitably entertaining choice.
The violist is Dorthy White Opkebholo and is the composer’s wife. She is an accomplished musician in her own right.
The flute is played by Caen Thomason-Redus.
This is a beautiful recording of these loving arrangements of spirituals which can occupy that place in the literature populated by the likes of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs. A must for art song and folk song fans and a great opportunity to hear some fine musicians at the beginnings of what is hoped to be long and successful careers.