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Friday, March 22, 2019

Lei Liang, A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

Chinese-born composer Lei Liang brings to us a completely lucid sensibility and a most articulate and evocative syntax. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project album of three recent works shows us glowingly the vitality of his invention. A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams (BMOP Sound 1061) gives us the title work recently (2017) commissioned by BMOP, plus his "Xiaoxiang, Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra" (2009, rev. 2014), and "Five Seasons" (2010, rev. 2014).

Liang came to the US in 1990 as a young man, in time moving from a concentration on piano to composition, and finding his voice through studies at New England Conservatory and eventually a PhD from Harvard University.

While involving himself in his compositional studies he found himself reconnecting with Chinese culture, lifeways and traditions which then in turn informed his music. Columbia's Chou Wen Chung he acknowledges as an inspiration.

The music to be heard in this program before us shows us a vivid Modernism, a lively pictorial imagination and a landscape artist's sense of panorama and open skies. And the influence of traditional Chinese music too can be heard, in the most tangible ways on "Five Seasons" which features a concerted solo part for the pipa, played dramatically and effectively by Gao Hong. Then too Chien-Kwan Lin's alto sax on "Xiaoxiang" has a spatial-temporal feel that feels at times rather Chinese.

It is on the title work "A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams" that we hear the current culmination of Liang's musical vision. It is sound-color-centric (and so too is traditional Chinese music you might say), carving a vibrant language from the various ways of sounding the instruments of the orchestra and soloists, as applicable. A concern with the natural landscape reminds us of the legacy of Chinese poetry and painting. The music recalls in its very own Chinese-informed way the innovations in sound clustering that later High Modernism perfected, which for those attending to it still stays with us as a part of conceptional and orchestrational color practice today.  Lei Liang has the acute ability to build sound structures and expressions that revisit the orchestra in those terms and then give it all a personal and culturally rooted stamp of identity.

One can learn a great deal from reading the liners to this album. I leave that to you.

The music itself gives us a true contribution to the "new" in New Music. Lei Liang speaks with his own voice, his own orchestral poetics, very much Modern, very much Chinese in its essence, and masterful in utterance. Highly recommended. BMOP comes through with another gem.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Ziboukle Martinaityte, In Search of Lost Beauty...

Is programmatic music back? Yes and no. It may not be so literal anymore. Not like Richard Strauss where the violin might mean so-and-so and the horns such-and-such. But there is a literary patina that envelops some of New Music today. And it serves to poeticize our listening mind when it works well. I have zero complaints on that front with Ziboukle Martinaityte's In Search of Beauty... (Starkland ST-231).

Martinaityte's programmatic intent is loosely poetic. One rainy day she went past the Notre Dame Cathedral and had a kind of epiphany when the puddles reflected aspects of the cathedral in multiple bits, showing a different reality, a different beauty not otherwise available to her. This is interesting especially to me because I noted something similar here the other day in the rain puddles reflecting the vertically upstanding trunks of trees as I went on a walk in the morning. It is a coincidence but then a mindfulness I was also experiencing.

What counts ultimately is the ravishingly evocative nature of the music. It has ten parts and lasts 70 minutes. There is a singularly refracted soundscape to be heard that does not remain the same ever. It sustains with near-drone continuity yet has punctuations that break through the blanketing sounds. An arpeggiated violin line starts midstream and develops intermittently over time. And the sustains evolve into a rolling dialog between the three instrumentalists responsible. There is a poignant sonic artistry to be enjoyed in FortVio via piano, violin and cello. There are electronics too at times and they serve to sustain us further. They give us more sustenance, if you will.

The liners map out the composer's world better than I can so I quote from them here. "An hour-long sequence of audiovisual novellas on the elusive subject of beauty - an attempt to recreate the experience in which time is slowed down in order to transport us into an alternate dimension where the commonly apprehended reality is inverted into the otherworldly mystique of reflection and shadows."

So the whole concept behind it all has a richness of meaning. And the music fully lives up to the promise of the poetry behind it. That is saying something. It is one of the best ambient forays I have heard lately. It passes by Minimalism to become "free" from the need to stick to sameness. Instead sameness and difference intermingle without a sense of rulebreaking or transgression. There is Radical Tonality that comes closer to Non-Western World Drone than typical of New Music today, yet does not adhere rigidly to itself either. It is a betwixt-and-between thing that as it remains hovering above possibility refuses to become everyday-ordinary, which is the composer's point, her vision.

So there is a modeling of the idea of the extra-normal reality represented by the puddle images as felt in the unraveling of the music itself. Not a sense of coming apart, though. Rather there is a sense of refraction, of reflective sound shapes unveiling. It is a music of Color Fields, not quite Frankenthaler-esque but really there is a sort of affinity there if you look for it.

It is some remarkable music that stands out as difference, as difference in sameness.

I do recommend this quite definitely. It is neither here nor there and that makes it a special sort of "where." Listen!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Schoenberg, Piano Music and his 17 Fragments, Yoko Hiroto

The piano music of Arnold Schoenberg is foundational in conveying his ideas about pitch relations and clustering. It too is meant to be expressive and filled with timbral, sonaric explorations that allow a poetic selection, a making the piano sound in various ways. The liner notes to pianist Yoko Hiroto's Schoenberg Piano Music and His 17 Fragments (Navona NV6214) remind us, and most importantly so too do Ms. Hiroto's performances on the recording. If we should think in these terms now it is in part because Schoenberg's twelve-tone approach was after all not the change in music for all-time that some thought it was to become. And Schoenberg's music like all after him that explored dodecaphonic possibilities needs to be heard as music instead of science or advancement, like Ars Nova is no longer so much "nova" to us any longer, though it is certainly "ars."

So we have on this disk three series of Klavierstucke, the three of Op. 11, the five of Op. 23, and the two of Op. 33. Then the 17 Fragments, which show once again a miniaturist framework but also reveal Schoenberg working on ideas without necessarily thinking of their dissemination at that moment?

The fragments include some fascinating Brahmsian attempts and a chromatic insurgence as we might expect, with some contrapuntal writing, a full range and dynamics. There is the movement from one style-state to another as we know, but these details are new to me anyway and musically quite interesting. There is a surprising influence of Prokofiev in one fragment. All the fragments give us Schoenberg "thinking out loud" musically, pursuing possibilities that he does or does not make much use of in completed works. They add another dimension and supplement the three published collections of pieces we hear in this program. And we get a fuller picture of his surety along with his hesitation.

Yoko Hirota makes all of this music come alive with a sensitive sympathy and understanding. One must listen intently and more than once if this music is to get inside your understanding. And once you do that you appreciate the music itself and Ms. Hirota's way with all of it. The Fragments are a revelation and make the program especially attractive.

Happily recommended.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Muzio Clementi, Keyboard Sonatas, Sandro De Palma

Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) may not be remembered with the full spotlight like Mozart or Beethoven, yet he certainly deserves the attention he is getting more of these days. We have another volume of his Keyboard Sonatas (Naxos 8.573880), this time under the very capable piano auspices of Sandro De Palma. This volume is as entrancing as any of them with a nicely chosen divide between the elemental twinkle-twinkle sing-songy earlier works--Op. 1, No. 3 (1771) and Op. 8, No. 2 (1784)--and the near-Romantic poetically gravitas later period--Op. 50, No. 3 "Didone abbandonata" (1821) and Op. 50 No. 2 (1821).

The sweep of inventive pianism is increasingly engaging as one listens over time. There is music box simplicity contrasted by deeper darker mystery in the later works. The symphonies turned out to be some substantial fare on the MHS double record that came out years ago. Perhaps we can hear new versions of them. And Naxos (see previous posting) is doing a bit of the chamber music too. Perhaps the piano music is the most charming and flowing of all his music and this volume gives us a sample that need not fill 50 CDs to make its statement, though if Naxos gets all of the sonatas done it will fill more than a few at any rate.

Sandro De Palma plays the sonatas with a bravura and an alternating tenderness that helps us along considerably in assessing and smiling over what there is to hear on these four gemful essays and our subsequent assays. It is a happy meeting of composer and performer and we the listeners most surely are the benefactors. Clementi is never out of ideas and the musical ideation is on a high level no matter how basic or involved the inventions.

I must recommend this strongly. It is something to bring you a little joy I would hope. I am smiling myself as I listen again.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Gerhard & Mompou, Complete Music for Solo Guitar, Marco Ramelli

There are programs that are so delightful that you take to them straight away and it is happy-time from then on. It may be spring but that is not sufficient to explain why I have in this way taken to Marco Ramelli's Gerhard & Mompou: Complete Music for Solo Guitar (Brilliant 95679). It's the quality of the music and the performances.

It turns out that ALL the guitar music by the Catalonian composers Federico Mompou (1893-1987) and Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970) fit comfortably on a single CD with room for a couple of short items by Emilio Pujol (1886-1980). And it is remarkable how idiomatic, how harmo-melodically folksy yet Modern the music is. Both composers sound very comfortable with and inspired by the classical guitar's capabilities.

Marco Ramelli gives us expressive beauty of tone and concentrated subtlety that seem perfectly right for this music. He does not attempt to steal the show so much as he realizes the composers' aims beautifully. And that makes sense for these works are meant not to awe with technique but to harness it to the ends of striking and chiming the immediacy of the "musical hours." We feel the time passing as if we sat alongside an old grandfather clock. Yet that feeling is not in the least tedious. It is made the more deep by the richness of melodic invention to be heard.

Nocturnal atmospherics, infectious dance-like ditties and deep meditations bounce along together nicely. The nine-part Gerhard "For Whom the Bell Tolls" ruminates on the Donne-Hemingway words and has a darkly thoughtful pull to it. Ramelli lends his revision hand to the suite and it all sounds quite well. Perhaps it is the most "Modern" of all the works here. But in any event it is all a really "authentic" thing, this music. So you just let it go by and appreciate the passing.

Ramelli for the program utilizes throughout a 1931 guitar fashioned by Barcelona's exemplary luthier, Francisco Simplicio. The instrument sounds just right for the music and it is recorded well to boot.

This album glows, it is music at least some of us (me for example) have missed, yet it is so well-played that it is worth catching whether you know this music or not. Highly recommended. A guitar must-hear for sure.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Michael Jon Fink, Celesta

In one of the latest Cold Blue releases we get some remarkably resonant music for celesta. It is a program of dream-like sequences, 12 pieces in all by Michael Jon Fink. The album is simply entitled Celesta (Cold Blue Music CB0053). The music is all of a piece, wistfully in a Radical Tonality zone, yet too one feels the ghosts of Erik Satie and the John Cage of "Cheap Imitation" and perhaps of Morton Feldman too, but never directly, instead rather as the kind of nocturnal ambiance that, hmm, I suppose might ultimately go back to Chopin at times.

What makes it "radical" is the nearly intentless melodic form.Yet there is periodicity and elemental song form at times too, like a music box lullaby, like the stuffed animal my friend had when we were both probably three-years old? Music boxes and celestas have common tone colors of course and perhaps the wind-up boxes of childhood one recalls involuntarily when one hears the instrument.

Yet it seems that Michael Jon Fink is aware of all that on some level and captures what the celesta was meant to sound like with music that is not unlike music-box Satie, perhaps. It is captivating, almost childlike, moving and a catalyst to a Brown Study steady state. Recommended for sure.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Cimarosa, L'Impresario in Angustie, Farsa per musica, Soloists, Orchestra Bruno Maderna di Forli, Aldo Salvagno

Sometimes we do not know what we want until we get it? So when the name comes up of Dominic Cimarosa (1749-1801), I know I should listen more to...something more of his, but what? Brilliant Records gave me a good answer in a new recording of his opera buffa L'Impresario in Angustie (Brilliant 95746). It is the original one-act work nicely disposed, clearly sounded, performed with some zest and fit onto a single CD.

The liners summarize the reception-performance history nicely. Fourteen years of opera writing preceded L'Impresario, by my count no less than 11 works. So then sometime around 1786 L'Impresario saw its premiere with some of the most prominent opera buffa stars of the day in principal roles. The plot centers around a sort of play-within-a-play (cf., Hamlet, 200 Motels) about an opera impresario and his attempts to stage an opera with comic antics a result. It was a great success, resoundingly received and performed all over Europe. No less a personage than Goethe was an admirer.

In 1791 a revised version translated into German by Goethe himself was staged. A two-act version came into being in 1793 but the new music was not by Cimarosa. But in the meantime Cimarosa wrote in 1792 Gli orazi e i curiazi, which the liners inform us is considered his masterpiece (and of course that reminds me how much there is yet to learn).

After a century of neglect L'Impresario was revived in the 1930s with stagings in Turin and at Teatro alla Scala in Milan. And now we have this fine performance on CD with convincing soloists and the Orchestra Bruno Maderna di Forli, all under conductor Aldo Salvagno.

After a few listens the music has come alive for me and I am happy to say that everything brings me a good amount of pleasure on this disk. The Brilliant price makes this an attractive offering too. Happily recommended. It is a good thing, for both widened appreciation of the period and the joy of engaging music well performed.