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Friday, July 3, 2015

Bang On A Can All-Stars, Field Recordings

The premise behind the Bang On A Can All-Stars album Field Recording (Cantaloupe CD & DVD) was simple. Each composer commissioned for the project was asked to select a pre-existing recording or create one anew and utilize it as a sort of found object to compose music around. The original tape and its permutations are played back and performed against by the Bang on a Can chamber ensemble according to the respective score the composer created.

The premises are simple but the music is far-ranging and very inventive. Source sounds vary widely, from traditional Irish folk singing to street singing, from John Cage reading from his diaries to gospel preaching, electro-acoustic sounds and much else as well. Each in its own way is a gem.

So we get works by Julia Wolfe, Florent Ghys, Michael Gordon, Christian Marclay, David Lang, Tyondal Braxton, Johann Johannsson, Todd Reynolds, Steve Reich, Bryce Dessner, Mira Calix and Anna Clyne.

The music draws from modern and postmodern, quasi-rock and folk modes with the panache and elan you expect from Bang On A Can adventures. A good deal of funding from listeners and institutions went into making this project a reality, and a good thing it is. There is an accompanying DVD with several of the compositions and visual elements. I was not able to watch it but I imagine it enhances the package.

Either way this is music of differences, inspired and played with grace and thrust by the All Stars.

Very highly recommended.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Wolfgang Rihm, Et Lux

There are composers out there today who get your attention ever so gradually over a period of time. Through the accident of place and convergence you only come to appreciate their stature after an ongoing period of exposure. Such a composer for me has been Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952). I've listened to and appreciated selected works but now with the release of Et Lux (ECM New Series 2404 4811585) I am fully illuminated.

The 2009 work is for vocal quartet (Huelgas Ensemble) and string quartet (Minguet Quartet) under the direction of Paul Van Nevel. The sung text consists of fragmented excerpts of the traditional Roman Requiem. The string quartet plays pianissimo, with mutes, the upper-ranged instruments bowed close to the fingerboard to create the sound of an ancient consort of viols.

The vocal parts combine early music styles with ultra-modern harmonic densities. The strings similarly give way at times to eruptions of the very contemporary both with and against the vocal group.

The hour-long work is a masterfully original example of the early-in-the-late aspect of contemporary music, not following Arvo Part in sound and substance, but creating a mysteriously engaging parallel soundscape that reflects Rihm's own sensibilities.

Rihm makes use of old church harmonic part writing as well as the fully dissonant and open possibilities of the modernism we still find central to the world we live in today.

The result is a music of remembrance and a sort of confrontation of the weight of our cultural heritage with the real totalities of the present.

In the end we are treated to a haunting work that brings us squarely to Rihm's brilliance. The performance is everything one would hope it to be. The recording has the ECM resonance one expects, which seems especially right for a work of this sort.

Thrilling music! This one is a must for those who follow the trends in new music and an enthralling listening experience as well. Wolfgang Rihm enchants our ears with a masterpiece.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Emily Doolittle, All Spring, Chamber Music, Seattle Chamber Players and Friends

Spring may be over here where I sit at my desk outside New York City. But the music of Emily Doolittle, specifically her album All Spring (Composers Concordance 0025) transcends season. Five works in the chamber mode get careful and effective performance by the Seattle Chamber Players and Friends.

I read on the press sheet that the album has an official street date of July 31st, 2015, so I am a bit early.

Nonetheless this is music worth waiting for, a set of works that all have a disarming charm, an organic, almost rustic sort of modern feel. She hails originally from Nova Scotia but now divides her time between Seattle and Glasgow. Her music has been performed to acclaim over North America and England.

All five works have the personal Doolittle stamp upon them. The music often has a whimsical quality, well paced, organically modern tonal, spun out with a cohesively inventive narrative sequentiality. Each work has a distinct identity.

The 2004 "All Spring" song cycle based on the poetry of Rae Crossman has an open poeticism which soprano Maria Mannisto brings out nicely. The duo "Col" (2002/2014) for marimba and violin has a diatonic matter-of-factness and charm. "Why the Parrot Repeats Human Words" (2005) is a narrative based on a Thai folktale with chamber accompaniment. Though I generally do not respond to extensive narrative works I found the chamber music surrounding it compelling.

"Four Songs About Water" (2000) portrays water in four different states with corresponding descriptive music for a nine-member chamber ensemble. So we get effectively contrasting movements depicting "Running Water," "Salt Water," "Frozen Water" and "Rain Water." It is fascinating, nicely crafted and innovative.

"Falling Still" (2001/2009) has as its inspiration the song of a blackbird singing in the early morning rain. The music has a gentle pastoral quality, lyrical and flowing.

If you were to try and pin the ancestry of this music to the influence of forebears you might as I did think of the chamber neo-classic phase of Igor Stravinsky, but that mostly in the pacing, not the tones themselves. Nonetheless Emily Doolittle stands on her own ground, rather delightfully so.

Recommended listening.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki Conductus funebris, etc., The Sixteen, Eamonn Dougan

The early music and baroque composers of Poland generally have not gotten the attention they merit in our modern era. Part of that has to do with historical upheavals, no doubt, but the rest seems serendipitous. Acclaimed early music group the Sixteen are doing their part to expose us to choral music from that time and place. They recently came out with a third CD in the series, in this case the music of "the Polish Handel" as he was called in his day, one Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (1665-1734).

Gorczycki gets our attention as the Sixteen perform three substantial works and a few brief additions. Conductus funebris, Litaniae de Providentia Divina, Missa Rorate caeli (CORO 16130) partake alternatingly in "stile antico" and "stile moderno" with varying degrees of contrapuntal density accordingly.

Both a cappella and choir-instrumental sacred works get the usual brilliant Sixteen stamp of excellence. As expected the ensemble comes through with wonderfully authentic and rousing versions of the music, with the sort of sweet yet somber timbral richness that brings out the period in all its specificity.

Gorczycki strikes one as a skillfully inventive composer throughout, with a discerning sense of line and part. He is a genuine lyrical force. The performances are as near ideal as one could imagine, pristine, sonically alive, fully worthy of the quality of the compositions.

A beautiful recording, highly recommended.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Zhou Long, Chen Yi, Symphony "Humen 1839," New Zealand Symphony, Darrell Ang

There are a number of Chinese composers active today who are talented and original. A good example is Zhou Long (b. 1953), who is featured on a recent CD of orchestral works. The central work is Symphony "Humen 1839" (Naxos 8.570611) which he co-wrote in 2009 with composer Chen Yi (b. 1953). It commemorates the 1839 seizing and burning of 1000 tons of opium amassed by British traders. The action set off the First Opium Wars with the British. The work has rhythmic vitality, a very contemporary orchestral sound that is spiced with motifs that have a vaguely traditional Chinese feel to them, along with inventive tonal and extra-tonal modern dynamics. The music is descriptively evocative, at times turbulent, other times reflective. It stands on its own as orchestral music of today with its own original cast.

Two additional Long works complete the program. The first, "The Rhyme of Taigu" (2003) features three Japanese Taiko drummers, clarinet, violin and cello. Like the Symphony it also has passages that are highly rhythmic.

The program concludes with Long's "The Enlightened" (2005), which concerns itself with contemporary world struggles and the possibility of achieving peace and understanding in the universe via harmony and balance in personal everyday life. This goal and its attainment is in accordance with ancient Chinese philosophy. The work tries to capture this all via sound-episode narrative. It has a mysterious quality in the opening, then goes on to depict episodes of tension and release with vivid orchestrational expression that makes use of space and contrast in ways somewhat suggestive of ancient Asian music, yet with a very modern result.

In the end we hear some very provocative and original music that may not quite reach the level of seminal masterpieces but nonetheless maintains interest through an expressive mastery of the orchestral colors available. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Darrell Ang does a respectable job bring these works to life. Long and Yi give us music well worth hearing, world-class orchestral music that goes its own way and reflects a melding of Asian and contemporary elements both convincing and at times quite exciting.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Penderecki, Magnificat, Kadisz, Warsaw Philharmonic, Antoni Wit

Krzysztof Penderecki electrified the high-modernist new music world in the '60s with his highly dynamic orchestral and choral music. He created works often based upon historical or religious subject matter which helped concretize the meaning behind the turbulent sound worlds, in works such as "Utrenja" (The Entombment of Christ) and "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima."

Then in the later '70s his music made an abrupt turn into tonality and neo-romanticism and to my knowledge never turned back. I have spent less time with his later works. I am not so familiar with the whole of them so I have no informed opinion, other than to note that there is no falling off in craftsmanship and inspiration in what I have managed to hear.

There is a new CD of two contrasting choral-orchestral works from the earlier and later periods by soloists, massed choirs and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, all under Antoni Witt. It juxtaposes the earlier with the later in Magnificat and Kadisz (Naxos 8.572697), the former from 1973-74, the latter from 2009.

"Magnificat" has avant elements in place but mostly with a slightly less dense demeanor than some of the earlier choral works. There also is reference to historic church music styles that you hear from time to time. It is a long ambitious work for bass soloist (Wojtek Gierlach), a seven-member male vocal ensemble, the Warsaw Boys' Choir, the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and the Warsaw Philharmonic.

I don't recall hearing this work in earlier versions so I cannot comment on how this performance stacks up. It is a difficult work that Maestro Wit and company manage to bring to us in vivid fashion. The complexities are such that you must listen carefully and more than once to absorb. It may not have quite the visceral-aural kick of Penderecki's "Passion" or "Utrenja" but it is dynamic and engrossing nonetheless.

The 2009 "Kadisz" has a dramatic continuity with the "Magnificat," only less in the expanded tonality and sound color realm. It was written to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the horrific liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Lodz. Understandably it is very somber and dark. Soprano Olga Pasichnyk as soloist is quite effective, as is Alberto Mizrahi in the tenor role. The Warsaw Philharmonic Male Choir and the Warsaw Philharmonic create a moving tapestry of lament and protest fitting to the dark history of genocide that the music laments.

This is Penderecki in very good form, performed with sympathy and insight. I cannot say that "Magnificat" would be my first choice for a representative work of his first period, but the music is quite worthwhile and stands on its own. "Kadisz" seems a quite fitting example of his later work.

The music is well done in any event. It is a worthy addition to understanding Penderecki and his oeuvre. I am glad I can listen more to this one in the future. It is not music to grasp easily or take lightly. And that in itself is saying a good deal. Hear this one and ponder.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Quatuor Danel, New Sounds from Manchester, Music for String Quartet

From Manchester, England we have the Quatuor Danel playing five very modernist string quartets on New Sounds from Manchester (Metier 28546). The composers are all living exponents of uncompromising new music, musical personages rather unknown, at least to me, but all showing a fine sense of craftsmanship and dramatic flair.

The program consists of Camden Reeves (b. 1974) with "Fireworks Physonect Siphonophore (String Quartet No. 1)" and "Dactylozooid Complex (String Quartet No. 2)," Richard Whalley (b. 1974) with his "Interlocking Melodies," John Casken (b. 1949) and his "Choses en moi," and finally Philip Grange (b. 1956) and "Ghosts of Great Violence."

Quatour Danel handles it all with an excellent feel for contemporary modernism and fine musicianship.

None of the works are mundane or routine. They all are of a uniformly advanced nature and mesh together for a consistently rewarding listen.

Quatuor Danel have been together since 1991; in 2005 they became the quartet-in-residency at the University of Manchester, where they remain. Their playing is exemplary on this disk and the Manchester composers represented are in every way worthy of the quartet's talented way.