The Shaman: Spectacular New Canadian Orchestral Music


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I don’t know what it is about political borders and the arts but there must be some kind of walls up that prevent musical immigration from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, etc.  In short there is a strong Eurocentric/American flavor to the classical music distributed here.

 

One of the issues with which the large colonial countries such as the United States and Canada grappled was the tendency for all their composers to sound like second rate European composers.  With the dawn of the 20th Century there was the obligatory attention to folksong but that is also arguably Eurocentric…not bad, mind you, just leaving out the Native Americans or, using the elegant Canadian term, First Peoples.

Eventually both the U.S. and Canada began to pay attention to indigenous traditions of the peoples they had conquered.  One suspects that an appreciation of the social and spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples also encouraged a different view of the very landscapes.  In Canada the composer most closely associated with the post Eurocentric traditions would have to be Raymond Murray Schafer whose incorporation of the vast landscapes of his country embraced it musically and dramatically in a way that no one had previously.

So along comes this disc from composer Vincent Ho (1975- ) born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  He was educated variously at Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music, a Bachelor of Music from the University of Calgary, an MM from the University of Toronto, and a DMA from the University of Southern California.  His mentors have included Allan Bell, David Eagle, Christos Hatzis, Walter Buczynski, and Stephen Hartke. In 1997, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Schola Cantorum Summer Composition Program in Paris, where he received further training in analysis, composition, counterpoint, and harmony, supervised by David Diamond, Philip Lasser, and Narcis Bonet.

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Vincent Ho

 

Impressive credentials for sure but this album demonstrates the very impressive work of a composer who would seem to be poised to take on the mantle of the next generation of artists working to create music that represents the entire country in this generation.  This is a man with formidable skills in writing for large ensembles.  No doubt his facility with writing music allows him to create convincingly for any size ensemble.  A quick look at the composer’s catalog of works inspired the mini polemic with which this review begins.  How can so much wonderful music go unnoticed south of the border here in the U.S.?  (End rant.)

Finally to the disc at hand.  This is a beautifully recorded live concert of two major works by Mr. Ho, “The Shaman” (2011) and Arctic Symphony (2010).  Both are for large orchestra and inhabit a very listenable realm melodically and harmonically.  That is NOT to say that these are ordinary or simple works.  In fact they clearly embody the work of a well trained and thoughtful artist.  This is exciting music and the audience response at the end of each work was highly approving.

Your reviewer heard the Carnegie Hall broadcast of The Shaman and jumped at the opportunity to review this disc.  Dame Evelyn Glennie is reason enough to pay attention.  This (essentially) Concerto for Percussion was written for her and she is ostensibly the shaman of the work’s title.  Her performance is simply spellbinding.  The piece has three numbered movements and an interlude.  I will leave it to the program note readers to plumb the additional depths of meaning embodied in the concerto but I will tell you that if you are not enthralled by the “fire dance” finale you may very well be dead.

The Arctic Symphony is another animal.  It is a programmatic work inspired by the composer’s experience on a research vessel, the Amundsen, exploring various arctic regions and describing the different areas of research being done.  There are environmental themes here for sure and also an incorporation of Inuit songs transcribed by the composer and sonic evocations of various aspects of the composer’s experience of the journey (wind, silence, the strange sounds of uncertain causes that one apparently hears in these nether regions.  The five movements fit pretty comfortably into the basic classical forms that comprise symphonies.  There are chorales, variations, a nice scherzo in the Amundsen (3rd movement).  It is, like the concerto, a very entertaining and exciting piece.

The Winnipeg Symphony and it’s talented conductor, Alexander Mickelthwate must be mentioned for their skill at holding this complex music together.  In both works they provided readings that were both accurate and stimulating.  One can’t imagine any audience failing to enjoy this music.

One can’t help but wonder about the confluences between the work of Mr. Ho and that of John Luther Adams.  Both deal with arctic landscapes and both express environmental concerns.  Well I invite listeners to do their part in eliminating the weird musical apartheid that appears to exist by buying this album.  It is excellent.

Oh, No! Not Another Minimalist! Lubomyr Melnyk, Fastest Fingers in the West, Makes Major Label Debut


I first encountered the music of this undeservedly obscure but unique composer/pianist in the late 1980s with the purchase of a double vinyl album of his “Lund-St. Petri Symphony” a work for solo piano which is stylistically one of the tributaries of minimalism.  Melnyk was born in Germany of Ukrainian descent and now lives and works in Canada.  I began this article for inclusion in my series about minimalist composers (the designation of “minimalist” is imposed by the author and is not necessarily the identity embraced by the artist).  In addition to providing a sketch of the artist I am pleased to be able to review this major label release.

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Sony

Ilirion marks this composer/pianist’s big label debut and this is a fitting recognition for this long established composer, pianist and teacher.  Lubomyr Melnyk (1948- ) has been performing since the 1970s and has released over 20 albums.  His web site is in need of updating and here’s hoping that this release will help provide the impetus for that and for the greater distribution of this artist’s work.

Below is the description of Melnyk’s music from his web site:

Melnyk’s Continuous Music is based on the principle of a continuous® and unbroken line of sound from the piano — this is created by generating a constant flow of rapid (at times EXTREMELY rapid) notes, usually with the pedal sustained non-stop. The notes can be either in the form of patterns or as broken chords that are spread over the keyboard. To accomplish this requires a special technique, one that usually takes years to master — this technique is the very basis of the meditative and metaphysical® aspects within the music and the art of the piano.
Moreover, in his earlier works, Melnyk devoted much attention to the overtones which the piano generates, but in his more recent works, Melnyk has become more and more involved with the melodic potential of this music.
Melnyk’s earlier music was generally classified as Minimalism®, although Melnyk strongly refutes that term, preferring to call his music MAXIMALism®, since the player has to generate so many, many notes to create these Fourth Dimensions of Sound®.
Because his piano music is so difficult and requires a dedicated re-learning® of the instrument, no other pianists in the world (so far) have tackled his larger works — and so, his recordings are truly collector’s items (both as LP-s and CD-s).
He has however recorded extensively for the CBC in Canada, as well as various European stations. He has performed and given lecture-recitals across Canada and in Europe. 

I’m not sure how useful this explanation will be to listeners but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the composer has attempted to establish a system explaining his work. However one does not need to be deeply familiar with the underlying theory to appreciate the music.  One does not need to understand Schoenberg’s twelve tone theories or Anthony Braxton’s far out ideas to appreciate their music.  One doesn’t even need to understand the basics of western classical harmony to appreciate Mozart, for that matter but such knowledge can contribute to appreciation.  I certainly lay no claim to understanding this man’s music and I am not aware of any musicologists or critics who have written anything analyzing Melnyk’s work but I find his music compelling and worth wider attention.

Rather than attempting a comprehensive review of Melnyk’s output (and risking muddying the field) I am simply going to recommend a couple of discs which I have found particularly interesting and may help put this latest release in useful perspective.  The disc which is intended to provide a sort of exposition of his work is KMH.

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The other disc, and the one which I have admired most, is the Lund St. Petri Symphony.  I bought it as a two disc vinyl album and it does not appear to be easily available now but it is well worth seeking (and maybe Sony will consider re-releasing it).

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The present release on Sony contains 5 tracks:

Beyond Romance is the first and longest track on the disc (16:12) and is certainly representative of his work.  The composer’s brief notes describe this work only as a grand romantic piece.  It perhaps has echoes of Liszt but certainly with at least an echo of minimalism.

Solitude No. 1 is a much briefer piece (7:36) and is a live improvisation by the composer recorded in the Netherlands.

Sunset (3:49) is the briefest on the disc and is an impressionistic description of its title.

Cloud No. 81 (16:02) is a far more extended impressionistic essay with more harmonic variety than the other tracks.

The title piece, Ilirion (14:12) is another extended essay more akin to the first track.

These discs range from interesting to enthralling for this reviewer and the limited descriptions contained in this release do little to guide the listener.  So I guess I can only say, “Please listen”.

Tracks 1, 3, and 4 were recorded at Clearlight Studios in Winnipeg, Canada.  Track 2 is a live recording from Tilburg, Netherlands and the last track is described as being an archive recording from also from Tilburg.  All were recorded between 2012 and 2015.

The rather sparse liner notes are by one Charles Bettle who is described as a “long time friend and admirer” of Melnyk’s work.  The even sparser notes on the music are by the composer.  The beautiful photography is by Alexandra Kawka.

It is difficult to say why this artist remains as marginally known but, as I have asserted before, artists from Canada get strangely little notice here and Mr. Melnyk does not appear to be a very good publicist.  I hope that this endorsement by Sony results in more releases and, more importantly, in more good studio recordings of his work.  It is unique and highly recommended to aficionados of piano music and minimalism.