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Thursday, July 9, 2020

Edward Cowie, Clarinet Concerto No. 2, Concerto for Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Howard Williams, Alan Hacker

It falls upon me as a reviewer to listen to a lot of music by composers not all that well known at present.The ones that interest me tend to get covered, naturally. Today is another good example. Edward Cowie (b. 1943) brings to us some important works on a recent CD.

The program begins with Clarinet Concerto No. 2 (1979-80) featuring Alan Hacker sounding wonderful on the solo instrument, and then the Concerto for Orchestra (1981-82) (Metier MSV 92108). The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Howard Williams do the performance honors, and they sound very convincing in their role. That in part comes out of the composer's timely receipt of the 1984 Grenada Composer-Conductor Award which involved extensive access to the orchestra and a finely gauged experiencing of hearing in depth how a full-throated orchestra could shade sounds. The results can be heard in this recording made some 30 years ago and now finally commercially released as a CD for us to appreciate.


Cowie studied with Alexander Goehr. The "Concerto for Orchestra" is dedicated to him. The two works on the program find Cowie in a lucid Modernist Dodecaphonic mode.  This 1979-82 period was mainstream to the 12 tone orchestral work. Yet he does not just feed us generic things, not at all. Both works are marked by an acute sense of sonarity and a sure orchestrational ability. And so too the composer's involvement with thinking about the movement of bodies of water in nature is an animating factor, partly as a result of his involvement with and appreciation of sailing at the time.  The "flow" of the music in important ways has a natural quality of such forces in the world and nicely so.

Cowie's "Clarinet Concerto No. 2" turns out to be up there among the handful of really worthy such works from the later 20th century. The continuous orchestral-solo interplay makes for excellent dramatic dialog and a superior harmonic-melodic advancement and expressive daring.

The "Concerto for Orchestra" stands out for its continuous sectional lucidity, its ultra-Modern inventive expression and extraordinary group interplay.

Bravo to all concerned!

Monday, July 6, 2020

William Walton & Constant Lambert, Facades, James Geer, Andrew West, Ronald Woodley

An unexpected twist in repertoire, interesting composer pairings--those sorts of things can be refreshing and worthwhile. Today we have such a case--a disk of piano music and song by the likes of William Walton (1902-83) and Constant Lambert (1905-51) on the recent Facades (SOMM CD0614). What makes this program enjoyable and winning is the way the musical examples set each other off and so too the performances convince nicely. And it is especially notable for how the Constant Lambert music is of a very creative and inventive bent, keeping up with Walton's works in all senses.

Clusters of works alternate in ways that keep you interested. And we feel a certain astonishment (or I do anyway) as we hear the playful brilliance of Lambert, beginning with his piano duet "Trois pieces negres, pour les touches blanches." Immediately thereafter we get reaffirmation in something perhaps not-all-that-well-known but very worthy, something by William Walton, such as in this case the songs "The Winds," "Daphne," and "Tritons."

So the program alternates Lambert to Walton and back, piano duets to songs and back, culminating in Lambert's somewhat neglected piano duet arrangement of two Suites from Walton's "Facade," bringing all full circle, by ending in an expression of the natural synonymy and friendship of the two composers in a fitting collaboration.

In the process we get almost lighthearted expressions with very modern tangy spans that bristle with intelligence and wit. Tenor James Geer along with pianists Andrew West and Ronald Woodley make of it all a joyous thing. There is a wry quality to much of it, yet heartfully serious it is nonetheless.

Listen to Lambert's various "Songs of Li Po" and get the drift, the rather rare drift of it all, nature in the natural sequence of tones that nevertheless keep us guessing, culture in the expressive significance of it all, how it hangs together as art,  definitely as art. It is all crisply current, contemporary without calling attention to its originality that is nonetheless ever there. And that is a definite something very good indeed.

Check this one out, do! Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Eric Nathan, The Space of A Door, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

Consider this broad swatch of orchestral and chamber orchestral compositions on a new program of works performed with care and true musicality by the acclaimed Boston Modern Music Project under Gil Rose (BMOP Sound 1071). In the process of listening we come ear-to-ear with composer Eric Nathan (b. 1983), decidedly a new voice to be reckoned with from today's Modern US New Music scene. On it we are treated to some six works (seven if you count a multiple version as two items) spanning the period from his student days to recent times, 2008-2016.

Nathan studied with Steven Stucky, to whom he dedicates "The Space of a Door."  Eric currently holds down the position of Assistant Professor of Music (composition and theory) at Brown University and also enjoys a position as a Composer-in-Residence with the New England Philharmonic.

"Paestum for Orchestra" and the alternate "Paestum for Sinfonietta" (both from 2013) bookend the program and give us a kaleidoscope of alternately circling and linear oscillations in a poetically orchestrated matrix.

"Omaggio a Gesualdo"  (2013, rev. 2017) follows, with expressive string lines that give out with a present-day and imaginative equivalent to Gesualdo's poignant laments.

The title work "The Space of a Door" (2016) gives us some lyrical, dramatic and haunting music orchestrated vibrantly. As with the program as a whole this is in an expanded-tonality that has the spicy tang of a Modern palette without abandoning key centers. It evolves melodic-harmonically with a crescendo of expression that subsequently subsides into a reflective exploratory affirmation of a mystery. The music was inspired by the Providence Athenaeum built in 1836 and borrows from the opening motif of Brahm's Second Symphony! Beyond that it lives and breathes with its very own creative momentum.

"Timbered Bells" (2011) begins with an almost Varesian fanfare that dramatically extends into aural space effectively. It is a rather explosive showcase of orchestral expression, nice to hear.

"Missing Words I" (2014) most evocatively illustrates active verbal imagery in three short movements (Railway-Illusion-Motion, Autumn-Foliage-Strike-Fun, and Fingertips-Dance). It is music of great character and animation, both fun and rewarding to hear.

Finally there is "Icarus Dreamt" (2008), the earliest of the works represented. It is a gem of animation and dimensional musical action.

One comes away from this album as one often does with the Boston Modern Musical Project series, with the feeling that one has been in the presence of music that deserves to be more well-known, certainly. It is a good listen, an excellent program for anyone interested in the music of today. Bravo!




Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Eighth Blackbird, Singing in the Dead of Night, New Chamber Music

As always, music changes over time. Wake up one day and things are different. That is the case with the New Music ensemble Eighth Blackbird and their recent compilation of Minimal Post-Minimal works entitled Singing in the Dead of Night (Cedille CDR 90000 195). It is a series of world premiere recordings of new works by three composers well known for their innovative music, associated often enough with Bang On A Can and/or the central contemporary Minimalist contingency. This new offering reflects a changed all-over tendency with a modified take on repetition. The most obvious feature of the program is that on the whole things do not repeat as serially as they have in classic Minimalism. There is repetition but it is more integrated into the overall syntax of the harmonic-melodic spectrum of a work.

The Eighth Blackbird sextet collaborate with the composers for this three-work program meant to be played together in the order given. The ensemble excels in performing such music as one of the very finest of New Music chamber groups out there today. Each of the titles are taken from the Beatles song lyrics for "Blackbird" and subsequently tie meaningfully into the Eighth Blackbird's essential relation to the musical sequence.

Michael Gordon has not been one to be easily pinned down to a steadfast niche. So on his "The Light of the Dark" there are patterns that continue throughout, rhythmic complexities and layers of instrumental functions that grow and evolve organically without necessarily entering a hypnotic mesmeric mode. The lead violin part and its counterpart contrast against the cello motif to work well with each other and serve also to set up various musical punctuation events that pepper the work throughout. Eventually strings and piano swap roles and the variational continuity keeps all interesting.

David Lang's "These Broken Wings" in three parts recurs in between the other works for a certain dramatic flair. The final movement "learn to fly" has a rocking riff-like motif that the whole ensemble enacts with gusto. It relates to the opening first part in that there are familial motifs with the first movement being complexely quasi-polyrhythmic yet as driving as the finale.The middle part "passacaille" has reflective openness that breaks up with percussive outbursts. The melody line grows more noteful yet still gradual. It contrasts well with the outer movements.

Julia Wolfe's "Singing in the Dead of Night" evolves into a hard-edged, edgy brittle-supple sound with nicely ebullient string bowing and percussive blocks of dissonant piano punctuating it all. It hangs together well and evolves with increasing dramatic energy as it morphs into an airborn-like conclusion.

In the end the composers and ensemble create this five-part sequence as something over and above each individual work. The virtuoso abilities of the ensemble commingle with the broad vision of the three composers to create a cooperative whole that never becomes tiresome, wears well over time and creates a complexity far above the individual components taken singly.

It is a distinctive forward step in the New Modern-Post Era. It emerges without undue effort, naturally and without pretense. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Aaron Jay Kernis, Color Wheel, Symphony No. 4 "Chromelodeon," Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero

I've gladly covered the music of Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) on these pages (type his name in the search box for additional reviews), yet nonetheless hearing the new one by Gian Carlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony (Naxos 8.559838) is bringing a specially renewed sense of the bliss of orchestral High Modernity. Specifically this album brings to us the single movement Color Wheel (2001) and the multi-movement Symphony No. 4 "Chromelodeon"  (2018).

There is a commanding sense of orchestral color that is matched by an ever-burgeoning inventive continuousness in both works. Variational considerations mark both works nicely, as does a sure sense of balance and poise.

"Color Wheel" gives us twenty-some-odd minutes of brightly shimmering concerted dazzle and depth for orchestra. It bursts forward like a rapidly soaring bird. The music has endless energy and expanded harmonic declamation one gladly surrenders to with a sense of surprising inevitability. Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony play this music like they were born to it.

The "Chromelodeon" Symphony traverses three poetic mood movements, "Out of Silence" searching, exploring, questioning, "Thorn Rose. Weep Freedom (After Handel)" delightfully melancholy and rethought, and "Fanfare Chromelodia" mysterious, dramatic, brooding, then mercuric. It is masterful fare, brilliantly expansive, in the advanced Modernist tradition yet independently expressive of an original sensibility. You might sense a poetic affinity with Ives and Messiaen, but not in any imitative way. It is that good.

Anyone who loves music that is "ahead" in the most interesting senses will find in this volume a source of considerable interest. Kernis deserves your attention, especially this one! Highly recommended.



Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Morton Feldman, Coptic Light, String Quartet and Orchestra, Arditti Quartet, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Michael Boder, Emilio Pomarico

The more Morton Feldman (1926-1987) performances that become available, the more I am convinced of his central importance to the 20th Century and beyond. Take for example a recent album of two later works Coptic Light (1986) and String Quartet and Orchestra (1973) (Capriccio C5378). The music is performed with insight and intelligence by the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Boder for the former and Emilio Pomarico for the latter, plus the fine Arditti outfit as the string quartet. The works are most definitely seminal.

The two compositions contrast well and set each other off. "String Quartet and Orchestra" is introspective and exploratory. "Coptic Light" is like a sounded dream, with repeating motifs that have an expanded harmonic horizon and are not about the repetition so much as they encapsulate a horizontal movement through a gorgeously mysterious dreamscape that stands so far ahead of what some others might have been doing in 1986 that it virtually stands alone.

The liners suggest that there was a turning point at the close of WWII and the question posed then was whether to choose between Stravinsky or Schoenberg. The US Avant School centered around John Cage--including Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Earl Brown--significantly followed neither as the liners insightfully point out, instead carving their own path, the implications of which we are still uncovering and exploring. As much as each of these composers still seems vital to our current world, Morton Feldman nevertheless stands somewhat alone as an original within the original stance, an unmistakable voice and personality within the school.

Both works are scored for a very full orchestra and Feldman's vivid sound color orchestrations take full advantage to create some extraordinary sonic landscapes.  In regard to this Feldman significantly cited Sibelius's contention that unlike the piano, the orchestra "has no pedal." Feldman went on to assert that Coptic Light creates that pedal. It does. As his last finished work it has a stunningly climactic quality in relation to the oeuvre as a whole, yet the String Quartet and Orchestra work included here makes its own case for music of an unforgettable sort, so that the two in tandem are especially rewarding.

This is some of the most beautiful "Modern" music there is out there. Do not hesitate to get this one if you want to know what that sounds like. Wonderful!

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

William Chapman Nyaho, Kete, Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora

The big wide world out there ever creates music and we are fortunate to live in times when it is possible to explore regions and repertoire we might have not known of a century ago. Some of that we can consider today with the album entitled Kete: Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora (MSR Classics MS 1708), as nicely played by pianist William Chapman Nyaho.

On it we are treated to some 32 piano miniatures, all compiled and published in 2007 by the pianist as the first two volumes of the anthology Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora by Oxford University Press.

We get to hear some lively music from such African composers as Isak Roux from South Africa, Nkeiru Okoye, Joshua Uzoigwe Akin Euba and Christian Onyeji  from Nigeria, Kwabena Nketia and Robert Kwami from Ghana, Halim El-Dabh from Egypt, Andre Bangambula Vindu  from the Congo, Laurindo Almeida from Brazil, Amadeo Roldan Y Gardes from Cuba, Eleanor Alberga from Jamaica, Alain-Pierre Pradel from Guadeloupe, Eleanor Alberga from Jamaica, Robert Nathaniel Dett from Canada/USA, and Ulysses Kay, Hale Smith, Florence Price, Valerie Capers, Wallace Cheatham and John Wesley Work III from the USA.

One as expected will hear some heightened rhythmic excitement and energy, including here and there elements of call and response. There are local influences at play throughout, local Jazz in the South African pieces, perhaps a little Highlife in the West African works, and understandably some Ragtime. Spirituals and Jazz shadings in the USA.

There is plenty to appreciate in the collection, not a great deal of conventional virtuoso display so much as down-to-earth rootedness and brightly energetic engagements. Maestro Nyaho plays all with spirit and commitment. Anyone with an interest in World and African strains in the classical repertoire will appreciate this, as will anyone who simply likes good music.