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Thursday, April 9, 2020

James Lentini, Through Time and Place, Bronislaw Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra, etc.

With the extraordinarily trying times we are living through we of course want to keep on with what we feel is most valuable in our lives as we can. And so my own survey of what New Music has been coming out keeps on. Today there is the music of James Lentini (b 1958) a US composer, guitarist and academic with a long career and a significant body of works.

A program of select Lentini orchestral works from 1994-2010 has been getting my listening ear in the last few weeks. Through Time and Place (Navona NV6273) covers some five ambitious and adventurous works for wind symphony, symphony orchestra and one for soprano, chorus and orchestra. As we come to expect from Navona, for this program the production values are uniformly high; performances range from the quite respectable to the very good. There are a fair number of organizations involved--the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra under Anthony Iannaccone, the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra under Ricardo Averbach, The Wayne State University Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Norah Duncan IV, The Wayne State University Wind Symphony under Douglas Bianchi and the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra under Jerzy Swoboda.

The music has a uniformly expressive demeanor that takes full advantage of the tonal nuances available in contemporary performing groups via nicely orchestrated and complex layering of interlocking sectional interplay. This is exemplary American Contemporary Modern with a harmonically involved tonality as rooted in American Central-Modernists such as William Schumann and other post-Copland compositional voices, and then perhaps a shade of the fanfare-like unfoldings of Edgard Varese. James Lentini holds his own by expressing a personal take on this style set. All five works have a pronounced dramatic and timbral tensileness that stand up under close scrutiny.

The "Three Sacred Meditations" (2000) for soprano Dana Lentini, chorus and orchestra is perhaps the most ambitious of the works along with the recent "Through Time and Place (Symphony No. 1)" (2010). Nonetheless there is well put-together, absorbing orchestral additions in "Sinfonia di Festa" (1996), the dramatically ravishing "Dreamscape" (1994) and the mysteriously moving wind symphony work "The Angel's Journey" (1998), the latter two certainly personal favorites and definite highlights of the program.

Anyone who likes to engage in exploring present-day orchestral Modernism in the USA will no doubt find this volume of definite interest. James Lentini has a voice that deserves a hearing. Bravo.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Bloch, Muczynski, Reger, 20th Century Music for Cello. Benjamin Whitcomb

Anyone who knows Bach's unaccompanied cello music knows how intricate and unforgettable it all is--especially after one has heard it a few times. For the serious listener it is an excellent embarkation point for further explorations into the cello repertoire. Assuming that, today we have an alternate journey through the unaccompanied zone with 20th Century Music for Cello (MSR Classics MS1587) as performed quite ably and perhaps even selflessly by Benjamin Whitcomb. It is a good selection of some three less-well-known works and even perhaps one simply not at all well-known solo cello work from last century.

It consists of the "Gallery--Cello Suite" (1966) by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), the "Cello Suite No. 2" (1915) by Max Reger (1873-1916) and lastly another "Cello Suite No. 2" (1957), this one by Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). You may not know some or perhaps even any of these works. Yet in this Whitcomb recital they stand out as things that supplement how you look at the unaccompanied cello possibilities, all owing something indirectly from Bach and also the 20th Century and its expanded sense of melodic-harmonic development. The works are post-Romantic without being avant exactly. They all share with Bach's unaccompanied cello works the Suite format--a grouping of interrelated brevities that manage to cohere as one gesture.

Whitcomb gives us a reading of these works which are marked for their rather unassuming straightforward approach. They are neither heart-on-the-sleeve molto-expressivo nor are they spun out with some carpet-making regularity. That is to say that they are attentive to the widest arcs of the musical syntax as well as the fine-meshed details. Whitcomb does not turn these into extroverted virtuoso vehicles so much as he produces a well balanced set of readings that allow the listener to gauge the works properly, assuming an unfamiliarity and/or an appetite for the compositional wholes--as wholes.

For me the Muczynski is the happy surprise, in that I did not know the work. Nonetheless all three pieces get a bold no-nonsense definition here. They are good to hear--probably regardless of the specifics of your general orientation to the contemporary. So take a listen if you will.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Ilari Kaila, Aizuri Quartet and Adrienne Kim, The Bells Bow Down

New Music in today's world as we know needn't follow slavishly some path marked out in, say, 1920. We may inevitably be tied to a rolling path from the past but we also put the movement into the trajectory by following what we hear today, individually and collectively. That certainly applies to Finnish-American composer Ilari Kaila (b 1978) and the album of his chamber music as performed by the Aizuri Quartet and Adrienne Kim, The Bells Bow Down (Innova 036).

Six works grace the album. And each one has a distinctive, personal character. There is a special sonance halfway between a sort of folkish diatonicism and some form of Radical Tonality. Gordon Kerry in the liners explains as aspect of the personal ways of the composer. "Much of his work is shaped by extra-musical stimulus: his grief for a lost friend, visual and aural images celebrating the natural world, a love of the (sometimes multilingual) punning title." And perhaps most importantly out of that impetus there is an originality of musical language that somewhat paradoxically sounds and feels natural, quasi-organic.

Kaila after graduating from SUNY Stonybrook with a PhD in composition in 2011 taught at Columbia University and was in residence as a teaching artist with the New York Philharmonic. He is now stationed in Hong Kong where he is composer-in-residence at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The Aizuri Quartet and pianist Adrienne Kim play the music as if they were born to it and perhaps in the end they truly have been.

All six compositions are in their own way gems. The folk-fiddling traces of the quartet "Jouhet" (2017) gives us a beautiful sort of jolt. The opening archaic harmonic sequencing of the title work "The Bells Bow Down" (2006) for quartet and piano leads to a stunning piano expression that the quartet responds to and we revel in some of the most memorable music of all of it, dedicated to the memory of pianist Hanna Sarvala.

From there we have the varied but no less striking "Cameo" (2015 for flute, viola and piano, "Hum and Drum" (2017) for cello and piano, "Wisteria" (2003) for the string quartet, and not the least, the mesmerizing five-part piano work "Taonta" (2016).

As nearly all TV ads have it lately, "in trying times like these" bla bla bla. Truly though, this Ilani Kaila collection has the human touch, has some kind of hopeful quality to it, and reminds us if we need to be reminded that music has healing powers. So in that way it is most timely and most timeless at once. I do recommend this one strongly for the paradoxically rugged yet delicate lyricism. It bears up under repeated scrutiny and after a few listens seems like a friend. Kaila is a musical poet, a definite talent out there. This would I hope be as happy a discovery for you as it has been for me. Listen closely if you can. It's well worth your time.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Reza Vali, Longing, Chamber Music, Carpe Diem String Quartet

The traditional Persian musical heritage of composer Reza Vali forms a vital core for much of a recent volume devoted to his chamber music, Longing (MSR Classics 1738). It features the very sympathetic readings of the Carpe Diem Quartet, violinist Charles Wetherbee, pianist David Korevaar and for one piece, santoorist Dariush Saghafi. The program consists of five single or multiple movement works, all written within the past decade, all freshened essays in musical sound.

It is a perhaps obvious truth that on the one hand we have the Romantic tradition in the age of classical music that begins sometime in the 19th century and ends sometime in the 20th. But it is equally so that some other ages and other local traditional folk or folk-classical traditions may center on feelings in a Romantic way as well. That is certainly true of the Iranian-Persian Classical tradition as it has come down to us. It is the case in this Reza Vali program that a Persian world of feeling-expression presents itself in rewarding ways.

There is also a nod to Western Romanticism in the opening "Three Romantic Songs for Violin and Piano" (2011). It is a tribute to Brahms according to the liners and to me not the most attractive item in the program, but it does retain its freshness on repeated hearings so I'll leave it at that. It adds another dimension to the composer's output, so good for it. It is at any rate worth hearing.

The other four works deal more directly with transforming the composer's appreciation of Persian classical and folk roots into a Western Classical-Modern world, somewhat akin to what Hovhaness did so well with his own Armenian roots.

There are some remarkable works to be heard, with the tuning of the strings often enough in the specially untempered mideastern way and a pronounced Folk-Modern outlook. Start anywhere, but perhaps a good place is with the violin-piano "Love Drunk (Folk Songs, Set No. 16B)" and its special way. I recognize one of the songs as in a recorded version on an old Folkways album I have had for a long time. Start there to hear how Vali espouses a music not unmodern, not deliberately archaic so much as engaged in transforming influences from a very old tradition into something Modern Classical in an original way.

So you will hear in addition "Ashoob (Calligraphy No. 14)" in versions for santoor (a kind of hammered dulcimer important to Iranian tradition) and string quartet, and also for string quartet alone (2014).  Listen to "Raak (Calligraphy No. 15)" and "Ormavi (String Quartet No. 4)," both nicely played by the Carpe Diem String Quartet. Then listen to all of it again and you no doubt will begin to hear how it comes together with an original flair that is by no means a given but dependent on Reza Vali's sensibility and genuine talent.

I most certainly do recommend this one for those adventurous souls looking for a different take on the World-Classical nexus, those who love Persian Classical, and Modernists who would welcome another solution to today and yesterday, here and elsewhere sorts of things. Bravo.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Louis Valentine Johnson, Peace, with the Dos Almas String Quartet

Classical guitarist Louis Valentine Johnson teams up with the Dos Almas String Quartet for Peace (Dos Almas DA 2019), a collection of some timeless music mostly contemporary yet in the tradition of the Spanish guitar legacy. Three works get idiomatic, warm treatment--"The Peace Concerto" by Johnson himself, "Toccata, Evocation, & Fandango" by Mark A. Radice (arranged by Philip Rothman) and "Allegretto in B Minor, Opus 35, Number 22" by Fernando Sor (arranged by Johnson).

The highly sonorous possibilities of classical guitar and string quartet see three happy realizations that spring forward with lyrical consonances in the wider Spanish tradition.

Johnson's own "Peace Concerto" has a post-Aranquez beauty in its middle "Song of Peace" and elaborate interactions on the closing movement "The Question." The opening "Portraits" has a rugged thematic character. It is all quite pleasing and well worth the ear time.

The program  opener "Toccata, Evocation & Fandango" by Mark A Radice has a complementary Spanish-Neo-Classical  meditative air to it that the Fandango conclusion stirs up with a spirit that paints the guitar in the center of an expressive flourish that the quartet seconds nicely.

Sor's "Allegretto in B Minor" holds forth in short and sweet fashion to bring a palate cleanser of sorts before the centerpiece Concerto of Johnson's.

This is not music meant to stand on a contemporary cutting edge but it is memorable and that is what matters. Anyone who revels in the classical guitar will find in this program much to like, I think. The "Peace Concerto" will likely stay in your mind as the central linchpin, but regardless the music and performances hang together as one continually unified stylistic gesture. Johnson and company wax eloquently. In tough times like these the music helps brighten the mood and we do need that now very much. Kudos.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Meredith Monk, Memory Game, Vocal Ensemble and Bang On A Can All Stars

My first brush with Meredith Monk, as I may have mentioned before, was some time in the mid-70s when JCOA distributed her first album and I sent away for it for no other reason than I was exploring women avant artists and was open to something new. It was just her on vocals and ringing bowls, I guess they were. Her singsongy vocals and general unique way got my attention and I've been following her musical path ever since.

And now we have her latest, a nicely hewn chamber set in multiple parts entitled Memory Game (Canteloupe Music CA21153). It is a most interesting collaboration of Monk, her Vocal Ensemble and the Bang On A Can All Stars, the latter in this case an electric-acoustic chamber setting of some six instrumentalists, two doubling with their voices.

It is a gathering of some nine, mostly relatively short pieces from the past, ranging in time from 1983 (six), 1986 (one), 1996 (one) to 2006 (one). It hits me as I listen repeatedly that this in a way is Pop Art Music (in the Lichtensteinian sense). It owes something to the deliberately bright and sometimes irritating world of classical advertising jingles--especially from the '60s, a Brave New Age of products and processes, perhaps most vividly brought out in the piece "Tokyo Cha Cha." As the lyrics have it, "Let's cha cha me happy." It says it all by deliberately saying not much.

Like the classic Pop Art paintings, there is more than just some co-optation or appropriation. Like the best Pop Art was painterly, so Meredith's music is very "musical," filled with a personal style that too is at times NOT exactly pop-ish, and the catchy insistence of the music also places it of course into Bang On A Can territory--not unfamiliar as Minimal-oriented, setting aside all the problems with that term.

The lyrics are quirky, with snippets of what sounds Polynesian, what could be Yiddish, and other languages (Japanese?) interspersed with a deliberate, sometimes SpaceAge banality. The instrumental parts give the All Stars plenty to sink their fingers into (so to say) and the interplay of vocals and instrumentals is rather pristine in its deft combination of somewhat retro allusions and polyphonic complexities. The pieces are variously and nicely arranged for this ensemble by Monk herself, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, Ken Thomson, Allison Sniffin, and David Lang.

There was a point somewhere in my second listen that the music fell together in my head and it has stayed there. Perhaps like Warhol's art there is a deliberate surface to things and that gives you the principal interactive means to your listening ends. Once you situate yourself where the music is, just like on her very first album only of course further on, there you are in a unique place. The ensemble and arrangements make this particularly special. As we live in some very tough times this music can be a foil to a place beyond, before, and outside all of the moment.

You most certainly should give this music your attention if you want to know a newness. I cannot guarantee of course that you will love this program, but it is no different than ever in that way. We cannot know until we try something. This is surely among her very best.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Michael Gordon, Anonymous Man, The Crossing, Donald Nally

As I write this the COVID-19 lockdown is in effect for the state of New Jersey, USA. All non-essential business folks are working from home if they can, or otherwise shuttered up until further notice. The highway outside the modest apartment I live in is eerily silent. I cannot help but wonder, "How can music matter at a time like this?" One answer is that it matters no less if you are musical, and those less musical still have the need for it as human beings. We hope, anyway. And in fact other than live music gatherings it is one thing you can keep going with in spite of social distancing. (Not to take that lightly, since many make their livelihood by doing such.)  And so today I listen to a new recording by the superb vocal ensemble the Crossing with Donald Nally conducting.

It is a major work from a major composer in the so-called Minimalist camp, Michael Gordon. It is his a capella choral work Anonymous Man (Canteloupe Music CA21154). Michael wrote both the words and the music.. It is a personal reflection on home and homelessness, life and death, and being with and without. It has to do with living in his NYC neighborhood from the time it was a largely abandoned industrial zone through to its gentrification. It is about several homeless men who lived across from him there.

It has pulsating sections and others that gently overlap themselves within themselves. The mood is thoughtful. Time passes and backtracks. There is the inexorable, somehow.

The Crossing are the ideal group to make of this music something special. And they do. It is not music that is self-evident or predictable, even if you know Michael Gordon's music well. It is the opposite of banal, yet it expresses an experience of things filled with a sameness. It is filled with a ruminative facticity that perhaps fits perfectly the mood of current locked-down stasis within a jarring turn of things to pass.

The music haunts. It is not the expected. Bravo.