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Friday, December 8, 2017

John Turner, Christmas Card Carols, Intimate Voices, Christopher Stokes

If you are a music devotee like I am, the Christmas (Holiday) Season has its ups and downs. If you think about it, there are maybe 30 carols and songs that get recycled every year in all sorts of ways. And now in the States from before Black Friday on there are increasing numbers of TV commercials that make use of the music in annoying or less annoying ways. Regardless, the sheer repetition of any number of them might start to give you brain hemorrhages or other states that have nothing to do with visions of sugar plums. Admittedly there are many songs I can hear year after year in the right versions, but over time I also have welcomed new fare, such as holiday oriented jazz, folk songs, music from other national traditions, repertoire from the Middle Ages and the entire catalog of Christmas classical possibilities.

So in that way I welcomed in the mail recently something totally new, namely John Turner's Christmas Card Carols (Divine Art 25161). Most happily it features the strikingly sonorous vocal ensemble Intimate Voices under Christopher Stokes. They sound positively angelic here.

The premise for John Turner was to compose some 23 new carols, essentially based on familiar texts, some going back centuries. So for example we get an altogether different musical treatment of "Away in a Manger," new yet somehow fittingly related in overall melodic thrust.

The music has a bit of contemporary harmonic spice to liven up our holiday listening punch. Yet what hits me is that the music remains strikingly in the carol tradition, sophisticated choral songs that supplement the usual diet of chestnuts (on the open fire or cracked) with well written and tuneful works that do not relate to the many popular songs that have entered the pantheon in the last 100 years. Instead these are timeless, a kind of alternate to the 400 years of Christmas season gems, as if in some parallel December season on another unknown continent a group of Euro-American-based settlers there grew another body of traditional songs.

It is welcome addition, a rich broadening of available carols, written today but with pronounced early-music-and-beyond glow suffusing the whole. The caveat to all this is that you the listener cannot casually throw this on the player and expect instant recognition. This is New Music and so you are expected to spend some time and get to know it all. It takes a little, quite pleasant work to put this music into your holiday listening block. Once you give the album a few preliminary auditions, the music will I hope seem to fit in nicely as a refreshing alternative to 50 versions of "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night."

Anyone of Classical choral bent will find this album refreshing and substantial. And until this music becomes part of the commercial onslaught of would-be advert jingles it is yours and yours alone to hear when you choose. It will be a while before Wal-Mart starts piping this music into their stores, if ever.

Warmly recommended as a beautifully performed set of brand new yet ageless carols! Give it your ears if it sounds like something you would get wrapped up in like a surprise gift under the tree. Your listening mind will be a new present to yourself!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Gyorgy Kurtag, Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir, Grammy Nomination Repost

I almost never do something like I am doing here. That is, I never repost an earlier posting without some exceptional reason. It so happens that this recording has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium this year. I strongly endorse this set as an exceptional contender. I hope it wins for all the reasons set down below.

I was tangentially a part of a Facebook thread yesterday. Implied was a question: Who listens to New Music these days? One answer is that they are generally the same audience who listens to classical music in general. Often enough that is true in the concert setting, given that a contemporary work may be a part of a program along with older classics. In the matter of those who purchase New Music recordings, it still can apply. However, there also is a group of listeners who respond more exclusively to the new and avant but do not necessarily collect and get into the earlier classical music. They are a smaller group. They may listen to advanced jazz, rock, and/or world more than Bach. This blog caters to both and manages to get a respectable readership out of the two camps. I of course appreciate the patronage.

When it is a matter of today's offering, either group might be well served by the contents. It is an important release from a composer who has gotten attention over the years as a major figure in the New Music, Gyorgy Kurtag.  Today we have a worthwhile compilation of three-CDs: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM New Series 2505-07).

It is an all-encompassing collection of compositions by the Hungarian high modernist, nicely recorded and very well performed by soloists, guests, the Asko/Schonberg Ensemble and the Netherlands Radio Choir under the guidance of conductor Reinbert de Leeuw.

The recording of  the numerous works on this set was a labor of love. De Leeuw has performed each of these a number of times in the last twenty years. The master recordings for the set took shape from March 2013 through July 2016. Gyorgy and Marta Kurtag were intimately involved both before and after each session. Their detailed evaluation of each result sometimes led to De Leeuw's re-recording of some of the music, both sections and an entire re-performance as deemed necessary.

The results met the full approval of the Kurtags and so the music stands as a benchmark for performances to come. Only a thorough personal immersion in the recordings make that plain. Kurtag is not a composer easily categorized. The reasons for that are not hard to find. His music covers a wide swath of possibilities, both in a high modernist and near-tonal realm that ever bestirs in new configurations, dramatic ebbs and flows, sheer power or reflective unwindings.

The wealth of works cover a long span between 1959 and 2011. Most fall somewhere in the middle years. Not all include the choir. The ones that do show a natural feel for musico-vocal-instrumental declamation. The purely instrumental works are filled with color and a shifting focus on ongoing event structures.

Some eleven works make up the totality of the program. I come away from the set with a strong attraction to the music and a feeling that we are in the presence of a living master of true importance. A work-by-work breakdown of what is present might have a tedious quality for the lightening engage-and-move-on readership here on the net. There is just too much and because of the original quality of Kurtag's music it would take many paragraphs to do justice to what we get. Instead, I will say that this set underscores the unvarying quality of Kurtag's music, as it sets you on a riveting journey through the thickets, the broad panoramas, the high mountain peaks and peaceful valleys of what makes Kurtag so absorbing and worthwhile.

Spend time with this set and I suspect you will, like I have, get a distinct tingle of satisfaction. Highly recommended.

Three Free Radicals, Travelogue, Scott L. Miller, Mart Soo

One of the signs that a CD is beyond categorization is when I have listened to it numerous times and I still can imagine posting a review of it on any of my three music blogs. Three Free Radicals and their album Travelogue (Improtest Records CD011) most definitely qualifies. It is a series of pieces put together by Scott L. Miller on the Kyrna Electronic Music System and Mart Soo on electric guitar and electronics.

A very distinguishing factor in this eight-work program is the acute sense of sound design that Scott and Mart bring to every excursion. I have followed Scott L. Miller in this wise happily and in tandem with Mart Soo there is a pronounced sonic sense that makes every track stunning and notable. Improvisation is an element in the creation of the music, quite apparently. And with the guitar and electronics mix you sense elements that quite arguably attach the music to Ambient Post-Psychedelic Avant, Improv and New Music-Electronic Music realms. So there are elements that have some connection to Fripp and Eno ambiances, or the free ensembles of Stockhausen, Musica Electronica Viva and in the end a significant originality and an acute fuzzy logic of means.

One feels often throughout an extraordinary binary mix of processed guitar sounds and either vividly contrasting or intermingling electronics.

The result is more spatio-tapestry oriented than formal, and that fits with the idea that the music does not fit comfortably into a rigid genre classification.

The more I listen, the more this music speaks to me. It hangs together as well as any New Music-Electronics excursion I have had the pleasure to hear this year. To my mind Scott L. Miller is a true force on the avant-ambient scene and Mart Soo makes equal sonic sense on this very attractively spacey offering. The sounds are ever golden and ever evocative.

Highly recommended no matter where you stand on present-day modern matters. Give this music a chance and you will be transported, beamed into realms you can drift within beautifully.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

David Del Tredici, Child Alice

American composer David Del Tredici (b 1937) went from a Modernist to a founding Neo-Romanticist of the present-day beginning in 1980, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for the first part of Child Alice, which he completed with a second part and so put it in its final form in 1981. Soprano Courtenay Budd, conductor Gil Rose and the accomplished Boston Modern Orchestra Project give us a dramatic and rousing reading of the entire opus on their recent recording (BMOP Sound 1056).

I will admit that in my first few auditions of this fine recording I resisted the all-pervasive centrality of the sequential motif that Del Tredici returns to frequently. It seemed at first a little undistinguished. With further listens I began to appreciate more and more his variational, developmental treatment of the subject and the sheer creative power of his expressive thrust. At first too, the great strength of Courtenay Budd's performance seemed a little overwhelming. Perhaps both factors intruded into a mood I was in? I suspect this because the work and performance in time became more and more intriguing to me, and so too my mood had accommodated  itself increasingly toward the spell of the work, which turned out to be considerable. This was no mere Wonderland, but instead a complex reaction to the complexities of the Alice story origins.

To backtrack, Child Alice centers around Lewis Carroll's rowing expeditions with the young Alice Pleasance Liddell and her sisters Lorina Charlotte and Edith on summer afternoons. In the course of those excursions Lewis invented a series of tales to enthrall the young women. They later took final form in the Alice in Wonderland stories that have remained classics for us ever since they came out.

Child Alice on one level evokes the pastoral charm of summer on the water as inspiration, but then also in the inner states of the girls and their narrator. It sets up a sort of dichotomy of receptive youth versus youth-within-bittersweet-age and forms a kind of shifting mood that is neither one thing nor another.

All this forms the backdrop for the experience of the music itself, which has as its basis the text of a preface poem to one of the stories--about those rowing expeditions as the precondition of the marvelous fanciful story narratives as filtered through the glowing haze of remembrance. Each part builds around a contrasting setting of the text and includes some fascinating interludes for orchestra alone.

What stands out in the end for me is Del Tredeci's sure hand in utilizing the orchestra's many sonic resources as a sort of framing of the vocal narrative. The complexities of the mood come through especially by the way the composer makes of the orchestra an inner psychological commentary vehicle.

So also the Neo-Romanticism we experience in the work is not entirely a return to an earlier way of composing. It is filtered and fractured by the experience of modernity both in musical language terms as well as the complications of living within a modern world with all that entails. So the "through the looking glass" element is not just of Carroll recalling happier summer days past, it is also perhaps Del Tredici's experienced and bitter-sweet view of a tonality that cannot but exist in a post-purity of how we cannot quite recapture a pre-post-wars, pre-Freudian innocence about life and the music within it, about the stories we tell children.

My impressions may be slightly fanciful themselves. Child Alice in its expressive potencies invites such feelings. The strength of the work stems from its all-but-simple simplicity, its inability to return to an earlier state in all its pristineness, its existence in a sort of musical recapture from memory as one recalls childhood through the lens of maturity.

So at the last Child Alice derives its power from the loss of its subject. It exists on the happy surfaces of the water as well as the ambiguous depths of lost experience within recall. And in that way the music succeeds beautifully by its charmingly faded, outmoded yet wayward return. The music has power and depth that hit me only in time. Performances are near ideal. Any serious listener should find much to contemplate and appreciate if she-he gives this music a chance to work its way within the listening self, you.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Michael Kurek, The Sea Knows

Anyone who loves the harp no doubt knows and loves its use in modern Impressionist classics, where it can create an ambiance that we continue to embrace. Living composer Michael Kubek has absorbed that sound and made of it something contemporary-tonal on his CD The Sea Knows (Navona 6111).

A collection of five Kurek works, the album includes harp on three of the five. It is not the primary focus of the music per se, though indeed an ambient beauty and liquidity associated with the harp is an ongoing feature of the program throughout.

Ever lyrical without precisely straying into the blatently Neo-Romantic, Kurek gives to us five evocative works, each varying the mood in part by contrasting instrumentation and in part by thematic rhapsodic variational thrust.

There is a descriptive plasticity to the three chamber works centered around the harp, played nicely by Rita Costanzi or Soledad Yaya. "Moon Canticle" for harp alone implies a night sky in its affective presence. "Serenade for Violincello and Harp" and "Sonata for Viola and Harp" flesh out the ambiance with longer formed pensive lyricism.

"Savannah Shadows" for violin, viola and cello concentrated on string sonance for extended moodiness. The title work "The Sea Knows" caps off the program with an ambitious and somewhat more spicey rhapsodism for a full string orchestra (Vanderbilt Strings under Robin Fountain) and solo cello (Ovidu Marinescu, who also is on the Serenade). It is here we can especially hear Kurek's professed affinity with Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Vaughan WIlliams and the like without detecting any imitation per se.

In all this is an descriptively ambient program that is modern in its overall thrust, yet affectively tonal in its vocabulary and eloquence. It will please a larger audience, perhaps, than one might ordinarily be attracted to New Music, yet it is involved and musical enough to keep the more demanding listener satisfied. Bravo.

Friday, December 1, 2017

George Lewis, Assemblage, Ensemble Dal Niente

Some of the greatest jazz luminaries turned at times to so-called classical, long-form ideas. James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington come immediately to mind. In the improvised world of avant jazz since 1960 distinctions can become blurred, as I have addressed through many examples on my Gapplegate Music Blog, on my Gapplegate Guitar and Bass Blog, and at times on these pages. "The Skies of America" by Ornette Coleman of course stands out as a milestone of such confluences. There are some very important trends on the purely improvisational front as well. I speak of those things in greater depth in other posts.

Regardless of the many ways to look at and hear music of a modern sort, one thing stands clear in my mind. That is, that composer-trombonist George Lewis has been making some extraordinary New Music over the years. He is a marvel, an innovative and lucid composer of great importance.

Last February 27th I reviewed his fine album "The Will to Adorn." I return today to take a look at another set of his compositions, Assemblage (New World 80792-2), featuring the talented chamber Ensemble Dal Niente.

The avant jazz of the present era is many things. One of the aspects is its vocabulary of phrasing, of sound color, of playing and silence. Undoubtedly a key to it is the extension of the Afro-American musical vocabulary inherent in traditional forms. Yet it is true also that there is chalk-talk venn diagrammatic commonalities between its vocabulary and that of classical avant high modernism. If you asked George Lewis himself I have no doubt he would (and does) have much to say in this regard about his music in whatever form it takes. His modern classical compositional stance does create common ground between Afro-jazz expression and long-form new music of high modern provenance.

Most importantly he carves out his own personal expressions on this shifting turf with great brilliance, I would say. This is nowhere more true than on the four Lewis compositions featured on this program.

In all of it the elemental musical gestures of bowing, drumming (percussing), blowing, plucking, in togetherness or alone, with spaces of tacit presence, and the infinity of confluences are very much the building blocks used to constructing the music itself. How could it not be so? Yet it is George Lewis' expressive joining together of the elements that sets him apart yet makes him an integral part too of the music of right now.

So the album's program of chamber works for the ensembles of six, seven, nine or two instrumentalists presents itself to us in ways that bring us a new and personal take on what can be. If there are key centers they are not so crucial as is the full unfolding of a universe of organized sound color and the testificatory push of each work.

Each of the pieces makes its way forward as a distinct entity. Thanks to the inventive fullness of the Lewis expression we have a special world of sound for "Mnemosis" (2012) for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano, percussion; "Hexis" (2013) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion; "The Mangle of Practice" (2014) for violin and piano; and "Assemblage" (2013) for flute, clarinet, saxophone, violin, viola, cello, harp, piano, percussion. Each has an organic being that stands alongside the others as a unique realization of the Lewis imagination.

The performances are outstanding, or at least impress me as fully living and excitingly fluid. I suspect Maestro Lewis was satisfied with the realizations, which at this point is what matters.

For us, the listener, there is much to hear and absorb. Each new immersion in the program reveals a fuller universe of sound, a greater understanding and appreciation of what is there.

Assemblage reaffirms the true stature and importance of George Lewis the modern-day composer. Those who expect New Music to BE new will gravitate happily to this release. It is very much a music of TODAY and excellent fare that all should listen to carefully and ultimately, if you are like me, joyfully!