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Friday, July 25, 2014

Lewis Spratlan, Apollo and Daphne Variations

Some music, every time you hear it you notice new things. That was and is true of Markus Reuter's Todmorten 513, reviewed here last month. And no wonder. The work is almost like a musical Rorschach test--you hear what's there but your mind selects from all of it each time, beautifully so.

Lewis Spratlan's three works on Apollo and Daphne Variations (BMOP Sound 1035) have been that way lately. But maybe it's me. I've been writing 13 blog reviews a week for years, and every week I get calls saying "we're gonna take your house unless you fill out all this paperwork", or, "You owe $14,000; would you like to pay by check?" and I am dead broke, trying to pay attention to the music for the batch of reviews coming up. Or, hey, no money for the electric bill, what are you gonna do? Must look for and apply for 20 jobs per week! And on and on! Not to whine. That I've managed to say something about the music regardless of the worst kind of life for this long is a minor miracle. But I digress and nobody really wants to hear that their reviewer is experiencing dire straits! I don't get paid to do anything, I have no income, but that's my problem. How much longer I can keep churning out reviews like this is anybody's guess. But sometimes I may take a few more listens in the middle of all the crises to get the music in my head. And not all music is self-evident! Nor should it be...

So, Lewis Spratlan. His music on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project album is packed with so much detail, there is so much there, that you keep noticing more to like as you go. The three works are multiplex stylistically but they hang together well in various ways.

There is "A Summer's Day" (2008), which fits well with what we in this hemisphere are experiencing right now, myself included. Each movement is descriptive of summer and its experiential moments, culminating in "Serene Evening, Soft Breezes, Crickets, a Distant Storm" (movement seven) and "A Starry Night" (movement eight). Beautifully descriptive orchestral writing and very copiously elegant event periodicity are very much what we get. Ives in thickness at times. Other times, something else altogether. But always contentful.

The "Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra" (2006) features Eliot Gattegno on soprano and tenor sax, well-played. It too has a periodic feel, with jazz inflections, rhapsodicity and modernity rubbing three hands together in fascinating episodic ways.

The title work, Apollo and Daphne Variations (1987) comes out of a disarmingly, deceptively simple waltz tune Spratlan put together in the context of discussing Schumann's alphabet motifs in a composition class. It grew into a full-blown and vary varied set of variations.

It's all good. Gil Rose conducts the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with verve and understanding and the orchestra responds accordingly, idiomatically.

You'll find a wealth of musical modernity and a lyrical tunefulness in these works. They stand out by taking form gradually and then implanting themselves in your musical memory, bit by bit. Emphatically.

I love the music! You may feel the same after some listens, even if you are having those 21st century traumas that beset many of us today. A sure antidote is at hand on the Apollo and Daphne Variations disk.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Peter Batchelor, Kaleidoscope

Not every modern electro-acoustic/electronic composition jumps out at you like a jack-in-the-box. Some works say what they want to say in slowly unwinding narratives, so you have to open up and concentrate over time to get what the composer intended.

That's how Peter Batchelor's series of works collectively known as Kaleidoscope (Pogus 21073-2) plays out--slowly. There are five segments in all, four in the "Kaleidoscope: Cycle" and one in "Kaleidoscope: Arcade". They were composed for eight-channel playback and the set comes with a DVD that allows for that (or for that matter 5:1). The CD gives you a two-channel version.

The various sections were composed between 2004 and 2013. It is a music of silence and sound, the sound being mainly unpitched event fragments with some recognizable but electronically transformed pitched elements entering into the segments at seemingly critical junctures.

It is music for the long-haul, long-formed unfoldings of abstract sound, some of it rather quiet, all of it less performative than discursive, a thoughtful conversation of sound between aurally transformed sound materials.

The multi-speaker DVD version brings out the discursive give-and-take of the music more dramatically, but the two-channel CD version brings it together in ways that remain comprehensible.

I won't say that this is my favorite electronic work this year. It is a work that I need to hear more. There is a particular complexity that does not readily avail itself to you without study, close listening in an undistracted environment.

Give Kaleidoscope that attention and you will begin to feel its importance. That is saying something. Whether this is "great" or only extraordinarily interesting (which is enough) I have not decided. Time is necessary! Give a listen and decide for yourself.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Patricia Morehead, Brass Rail Blues

On March 16, 2012 I reviewed favorably Patricia Morehead's Good News Falls Gently on these pages. Today we have her second album, a collection of mostly songs entitled Brass Rail Blues (Navona 5953). It is music of a gestural modernism that works within an advanced harmonic palette that approaches atonality but generally stays within key centers one way or another.

The works for voice and instruments are situated within a chamber setting. "Alaskan Songs" features mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley plus clarinet and piano, "Three French Songs" has Bentley again with piano accompaniment, "Sempre un Giorno Nuovo" spotlights soprano Alicia Berneche with piano, "Two Movements from Tryptich" gives us Susanna Phillips in the soprano role plus string quartet, and "The Wonderful Musician" encores Julia Bentley with the CUBE Chamber Orchestra. The latter is a work of real modernist power. The pieces in song form have an edgy quality and well-conceived phrasing sequences that convey the emotive impact of the texts.

Interspersed throughout the program are several instrumental works: "The Edible Flute" for flute and piano, and "Just Before the Rain" for mandolin, cello and clarinet. The latter I particularly like for its lively sound color contrasts between the instruments.

These are works of substance. Patricia Morehead has a sure sense of instrumentation, a flair for vocal writing and text setting, and a modern expressionism that wears well with repetitive auditions.

"Brass Rail Blues" from Tryptich has an Americana favor, bluesy yet straying nicely into modern harmonic territory.

There is much to like in this program. Patricia Morehead gives us more reasons why she is a composer of today, someone to follow with interest. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Christopher Roberts, Last Cicada Singing, New Music for Solo Qin

What is possible in today's music is nearly endless. So today we have one possibility of many, a good idea realized with virtually every nuance you might expect in such an encounter. It is the interaction of a composer-musician of the West with a Chinese stringed instrument that goes back to antiquity, namely the Chinese instrument known as the qin.

The qin is something akin to the Japanese koto, for a quick analogy. Its sound, when combining different techniques--the harmonics, sounded notes and slides, has a feel perhaps more intimate than its Japanese counterpart.

So what we have is Christopher Roberts in a 30-minute recital of his new music for the solo qin. It uses the alteration of sound and brief silences as does traditional Chinese music for the instrument but the musical content has more to do with western "radical tonality", new music with a key center but otherwise a unique postmodern take on how tonality can play out.

All this on the Cold Blue EP CD Last Cicada Singing (CB0034). Like traditional Chinese music for the instrument which uses gestural phrasing to convey nature as an art form, the title piece especially but all the works presented here make direct reference to such concerns. The entire album has a meditative cast that manages to convey nature in its unassuming presence as felt by the solitary maker of musical sounds.

The album is filled with a kind of quiet luminosity hard to resist for those used to concentrated listening. It is not perhaps what you expect of Western new music, but that in itself is of significance.

Christopher Roberts gives us a rarefied glimpse of music-in-being that may well become a favorite for when you are in the mood to get inside the quietude of nature. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 21, 2014

John Garth, Accompanied Keyboard Sonatas, The Avison Ensemble, Gary Cooper

Can you imagine being composer John Garth (1721-1810), organizing a bi-weekly series of concerts in Durham city, England, where he achieve some modest fame as composer and cellist? When he wrote his Unaccompanied Keyboard Sonatas, op. 2 & op. 4 (Divine Art 2-CDs 25115), he of course hoped for good performances, a good turnout and a favorable reception. But could he have hoped, some nearly 300 years later, that someone such and you or I would get a chance to hear the sonatas again in recorded form? Could he scarcely imagine some such possibility or had he no thoughts of all of the possibility of posterity? I have no answer to this question yet here I sit at my computer typing these lines in 2014, listening to the very music he wrote back then.

John Garth was no CPE Bach, certainly, yet there is a period flavored freshness and vivacity to these works, as nicely performed by the Avison Ensemble with Gary Cooper as keyboard soloist on the harpsichord, early fortepiano and organ.

He is chiefly known for these works, the cello concertos and a few similar pieces, much of it available on Divine Arts as played by this ensemble.

What it certainly does is opens you up to the lesser-known English composers of the era. John Garth was no slouch. On these sonatas the keyboard part is far more the out front, virtuoso vehicle for Garth's ideas. The two violins and cello that form a part of the music have the role chiefly of reinforcing the accompaniment figures and seconding the solo melodic line. This is more rococo and jaunty than deeply contrapuntal or gravitas. That was the age and he excelled at the rather happy extroversion of his times.

The individual tang of early pianoforte instruments, harpsichord and organ help individualize each sonata and give it character. The ensemble plays these pieces with enthusiasm, an infectious sort. I found myself listening with pleasure each time.

Anglophiles of the music of this period will respond readily. But I suspect anyone with an interest and appreciation for the earlier forms will feel positively about the program and its performance. Good show!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Haydn, Scottish Airs, Piano Trio, Werner Gura

If I were Joseph Haydn, and of course I am not, one of the toughest assignments would be to set very periodistic folk songs to music in my own way. Why hard? Because there is such an a-b regularity to some of them that I would be hard put to add as much in the way of nuance as I could, basically transcending the rather rigorously symmetrical melodic structures of the songs as something beyond a straightjacket to my natural inclinations for development.

He faced something like that in his settings of Scottish Airs (Harmonia Mundi 902144), available in a nice rendition by Werner Gura and the piano trio of Christoph Berner, Julia Schroder and Roel Dieltiens.

Perhaps Haydn welcomed the challenge late in his career (when these were created) because in essence all the subtlety of Haydn meets face-to-face with a ruddy-cheeked folk hardiness and both come out winners. The accompaniment to the straightforward vocal parts alternates between a earthy archaic quality and a worked-over sublimity that ultimately gives us a kind of friendly two-headed hydra.

There is spirit and sublimity at times in these settings. All of it strikes a note thanks to the formidable vocal dramatics of Werner Gura and the well-turned, lovingly wrought piano trio performances.

As a bonus and a refreshing break from the song form we also get an excellent Piano Trio in C Major Hob XV:27, the three movements coming in alternation between songs for maximum contrast.

This may not be something indispensable to your collection, but it is exceedingly lovely and well performed. And Haydn devoted his considerable inventive skills to make it all rather ravishing. Recommended.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Daniel Lentz, Point Conception

We turn today once again to our off-and-on survey of releases on the Cold Blue label, which specializes in modern minimalism and radical tonality. Daniel Lentz and his two-work multipiano offering Point Conception (Cold Blue CB0028) is what is at hand.

Lentz will be known by many as one of the best of the second wave of minimalists. He comes through with flying colors on this one. The title work (1979) is the main event, with Arlene Dunlap realizing the nine piano parts. Each part calls for octave figures, which when played together gives you a kind of canonic sonics that has the flamboyance of a romantic piano concerto cadenza fragment as viewed under an aural microscope, evolving into masses of modulating, harmonically shifting clusters of sound that convey a kind of elation, and more a feeling of constant motion than repetition. The work builds to a rousing climax and one is left with a feeling of satisfaction at the originality, the flow of the work, the excitement generated.

"Nightbreaker" (1990) follows, a shorter work for four pianos realized by Bryan Pezzone. It combines octaves, arpeggiations and cascading figures that modulate fairly rapidly. There are contrasting punctuation sections that break the flow and give you pause. It is a work of brightness and waterfall-like expressiveness.

That in essence is what Point Conception holds in store for you. It is music to stimulate and delight. There are spectacular sonics to be heard here--a kind of multi-piano emblazonment, a heaven of keys and emboldened sounds.

It will appeal to those who love the piano and seek something different. It will appeal to those who want a break from their usual fare. Recommended!