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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ars Nova Copenhagen, Paul Hillier, "A Bridge of Dreams": Modern Choral Music from the Pacific Rim

Paul Hillier happens to be the world's premier choral conductor to my way of thinking. As principal conductor and musical director of the choral group Ars Nova Copenhagen he shows himself as champion of new music that has been heavily influenced by early and/or archaic musical forms, an important trend from the last half of the 20th century through to today. The new CD A Bridge of Dreams (Ars Nova 6.220597) puts Hillier and the marvelous choral group in a rather wondrous zone for a program of music that shows the influences of both the classical past and the East Pacific. Subtitled a cappella Music from the Pacific Rim, for this CD the idea is that all composers-works represented here have important multiple associations with the coastal Pacific. All the composers hail from Australia, New Zealand, California, or China, respectively, and all in some way or another address Eastern Pacific thematics.

Lou Harrison's Mass for Saint Cecilia's Day is a work from his later period (1983) utilizing transformations of Gregorian Chant, resituated in part within Chinese and Balinese tonality. Ann Boyd's enchanted A Bridge of Dreams is based on an anonymous Medieval Japanese Woman's text of the same name. Jack Body's Five Lullabies have a strong medieval polyphonic influence as well as traditional Chinese elements. Ross Edwards combines psalm texts with aboriginal bird names for Sacred Kingfisher Psalms. Finally Chinese composer Liu Sola gives us The Seafarer, a suite from his opera The Afterlife of Li Jiantong.

All of this music has an ambiant quality, thanks in part to the pieces themselves, to Paul Hillier's/Ars Nova's highly melifluous renditions, and to the very resonant recording space of St. Paul's Church, Copenhagen. There is a constancy that is both post- and pre- minimalist, interestingly. These are very beautiful works, beautifully done. There is timelessness conveyed in the music, a confluence of past, present, and, perhaps, future. Don't neglect this one. A Bridge of Dreams may find you spanning the length of one somnolescently. . . repeatedly.

Friday, November 25, 2011

John Carollo, Transcendence in the Age of War

John A. Carollo is an American composer that minds (and mines) modernist roots to forge an expressive personal style. I reviewed his Starry Nights on this blog last July 16, 2011. Now for a look at an earlier release, Transcendence in the Age of War (Navona 5817).

This one covers a wide spectrum of chamber and orchestral forms.

Carollo has a real knack for constructing melody/ensemble lines that have a modern ring to them and tend to soar expressively. This is quite true of the two short pieces for string orchestra, Desiderio and Let Thy Mind Be Still, which like Starry Night from the second album have a kind of Ivesian rootedness combined with a Carollian uniqueness. There is a denser, more active texture to String Quintet No. 1 for 10-String Guitar and String Quartet, but the inventive line knack is again at the forefront.

Fear of Angst for Flute, Cello and Piano has more chromatic expansiveness and a more expanded harmonic range for the first movement. It is also very well conceived. Movement two is quite beautiful, with striking pitch-timbre contrasts between flute and cello, the piano mediating somewhere at the center of the sound. The final movement has a more desolate quality, then some turbulent final bars.

The title piece, Transcendence in the Age of War for two pianos has a dense, restless, endlessly modulating quality appropriate to the subject matter.

So there we are. A very well played set of interesting compositions, some rather sublime, some rather edgy, all showing the inventive talents of John Carollo. If you can only get one of his two CDs, Starry Night would get my vote for its beautiful string pieces. Transcendence in the Age of War comes in a close second. Here is a composer of today that deserves your attention.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Harley Gaber, In Memoriam 2010

The mature Harley Gaber as composer favors long continuous sound matrixes of electro-acoustic poeticism. His The Winds Rise in the North from the seventies was an extraordinarily dissonant and intense piece that involved continuously modifying tone blocks of strings. I saw My Mother Ascending Mount Fuji (Innova) was a long-term project that used more consonant soundblocks and electro-acoustics combined with conventional instruments to create a mystical sort of rarified equivalent of high altitude in sound (see my review in the July 13th, 2010 posting of Gapplegate Music Review--

The new release In Memorium 2010 (Innova 243) was commissioned by Dan Epstein in memory of Nancy Epstein. It is an elegaic six-movement electro-acoustic tone poem of eerie beauty. There are the continuous sound blocks again, but the sonics are more drenched (to my ears) in the sounds one might hear in an underwater world (to Mt. Fuiji's air). It is a strangely intriguing, ever shifting world he creates, the musical equivalent of a set of memories recalled as if in a dream.

It is in its own way an electro-acoustic near-masterpiece of our times. Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Maki Ishii Live; Ryan Scott with Esprit Orchestra; Alex Pauk, Conductor

The Japanese composers of the 20th century who did the most, to my mind, to bring together modern classical orchestral music and traditional Japanese music: Takemitsu, Mayuzumi and Maki Ishii. It is to the latter that we turn today, in a live performance of three of his gems by Ryan Scott, percussion, with Esprit Orchestra under Alex Pauk. Maki Ishii Live (Innova 809) is a well-captured performance first aired on Canada's CBC Radio. Three Ishii percussion concerti are represented. They have some very intricate solo percussion parts which Scott plays from memory.

So it's not just that Ryan Scott has memorized the parts, of course; he plays them with musicality and fire. The orchestra sounds well too. These are works that belong to the later period of Ishii's output when he was especially concerned with incorporating traditional Japanese elements. "Saidoko (Demon)" was completed in 1989, "Concertante for Marimba," 1988, and "South-Fire-Summer" in 1992. All three have an intensive dynamic between percussion virtuosity & fire, and orchestral luminosity. They are excellent examples of Ishii's mature style and are played here with brightness, hard-edged thrust and a mastery of tone-color blending.

This is one of those recordings that SOUNDS great. There is presence and a sound staging that translate well to the speakers-in-a-room world of home listening. First-rate music, first-rate performance, first-rate audio quality.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Duo Gazzana, "Five Pieces" by Silvestrov plus Music by Takemitsu, Hindemith, and Janacek

The Italian sisters Natascia (violin) and Raffaella (piano) Gazzana turn in a rather stunning debut on Five Pieces (ECM New Series B0014656-02). They tackle Takemitsu's "Distance de fee", Hindemith's 1935 "Sonata in E", Janacek's "Sonata", and Valentin Silvestrov's "Five Pieces" (2004).

Takemitsu's work was written when he was under a marked Messiaen influence but it has a strongly poetic quality that Duo Gazzana brings out nicely. The Hindemith has the harmonic movement, sometimes quiet grandeur and motor drive typical of the composer at his best. The Janacek is a work of some passion, rolling dramatics and east-meets-modern sensibility. The duo does not overemphasize the dramatic-romantic element and instead gives a well-balanced reading. Silvestrov's "Five Pieces" compares favorably with the rest of the program, in turns tender, gently propulsive, and largo-istically expressive.

The combination of Manfred Eichner's full-depth production and the sensitive, lyrically ravishing phrasings of Duo Gazzana make for a rather heady, subtly absorbing program. These are some wonderful works and they get an especially moving performance at the hands of the sister duo.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Orchestra, Baltic Portraits

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra visit five greater- or lesser-known contemporary composers from the Baltic region and five corresponding orchestral works on Baltic Portraits (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Media 946). Paavo Jarvi conducts his way through the works with a good feel for orchestral detail and a full-fledged sense of the whole of each work.

Arvo Part's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" is the one work many will have probably heard in one or more versions. CSO gives us a full, heart-felt reading that veers more to the side of warmth rather than elevator-shaft spookiness.

Two major symphonies act as bookends to the program. Aulis Sallinen's Symphony No. 8 has a sort of contemporary saga quality, with a wealth of melodically inventive passages that engage with a narrative quality. There is a boldness of rhythmic dynamics and a neo-post-romantic discursive unfolding. Lepo Sumera's Symphony No. 6 has contrasting blocks of mysterioso pianissimo orchestral murmurs bumping against more agitated, complex sound bursts.

The shorter works help provide variety and set off the longer pieces well. Erkki-Sven Tuur's "Fireflower" has post-impressionist shimmer and very evocative sound-sculpturing. Esa-Pekka Salonen (more known of course at this point for his conducting) provides in "Gambit" a sure-footed orchestral conception with soundscaped tone-painting that make for one of the more intriguing pieces on the program.

All-in-all Jarvi and the CSO do well in presenting us with quite respectable performances of works that deserve the hearing they get. I suspect that none of these versions are definitive at this point, but they do reveal a most interesting set of sonic experiences I feel I am the better for hearing. Worth a listen!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Jason Vieaux Plays Piazzolla

Guitarist Jason Vieaux, bandoneanist Julien Labro and the chamber orchestra A Far Cry make beautiful music together on their recent recording of the music of Piazzolla (Azica 71270). It's a nice program of three works for varying lineups. Las 4 estaciones portenas (The 4 Seasons of Buenos Aires) (arranged by Labro for guitar, accordion and chamber orchestra) brings the full force into play for an elegant dip into Piazzolla's inimitable brightly colored tango palatte. The bandoneon gets the lion's share of the melodic pie until the fourth movement, when Jason Vieaux also holds forth overtly, but the whole work is a delight and the orchestral parts have genuine dash.

The Concerto for Guitar and Bandoneon, "Hommage a Liege" begins with some worthy guitar parts, played elgantly by Mr. Vieaux. Bandoneon and orchestra join guitar in the charming second movement, where the guitar work again shines brightly. Piazzolla's melodic fluidity is at a very high point, as it is throughout. The final movement launches a very fetching tango that allows the orchestra to hold forth along with the soloists.

The final Histoire du Tango (History of the Tango) (arr. for accordion and guitar) has some suitably jaunty passagework for both the principal soloists. It's an interesting suite that brings out some very translucent playing from Vieaux and characteristic accordion melodising, not without virtuoso brilliance from both players.

I cannot imagine anyone interested in Piazzolla not reveling in this one. The guitar work is brilliantly sonic, the bandoneon shines, and the orchestra glows in some typically infectious music from the master of "new tango." Guitar-lovers will find Vieaux at the peak of his considerable expressive powers. This is some great feather-light music that will no doubt cheer you up, so do not expect anything ponderously heavy. Unless you are determined to feel morose or you hate the tango, do not hesitate! Enjoy.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Martin Bresnick, "Caprichos Enfaticos" for Piano and Percussion Quartet

The 30-minute work Caprichos Enfaticos: Los Disastres de la Guerra (Cantaloupe 21075) is a meditation on the famed anti-war etchings of Francisco Goya. DVD projections of the Goya imagery are to be introduced in the course of a live performance of the eight movements of this work. Pianist/keyboardist Lisa Moore and So Percussion as a quartet give us a stirring performance, sans projections, of course. But though this may be somewhat programmatic music, it is music to hear, first and foremost, so the lack of visual correspondence is not a major factor.

There is an episodic, literary quality to the work which reminds me a little of some of George Crumb's chamber music. For example, there is a movement where the drums pound out the rhythmic ostinato from Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War," but it becomes disjointed and disrupted as the piano interjects expressive chordal rejoiners as if to represent the forces that do not directly engage in the battles, those who perhaps do not whole heartedly approve of the carnage, or perhaps the victims?

It is well performed and well staged for the CD medium. Ms. Moore plays spiritedly and the rhythmic versus a-rhythmic elements balance nicely in her hands. She doubles on a harmonium in the later movements and gives out with a kind of earthy chorale folksiness. Similary the So Percussion Quartet provides a commanding performance of their part.

It is music as sound painting, a sort of "Pictures at an Exhibition" narrative style transposed to the post-modernist present. It is a work of power and a meditation on war and its horrors. If the music does not quite convey the macabre imagery and indignant disgust of the Goya etchings, I suppose we should not expect a literal correspondence.

What it is certainly bears hearing. Martin Bresnick writes music that stands out, that speaks with a grammar and syntax much his own. At this juncture in our history the subject matter is as timely as ever.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ensemble Adventure, "Octandre": Six Composers Write Chamber Pieces Inspired By Varese's Masterpiece

An unusual recording on tap today: the chamber Ensemble Adventure performs (Ars Musici 232211) Edgar Varese's modern masterpiece Octandre, followed by compositions in the spirit of Varese composed by six contemporary composers: Diego Luzuriaga, Thomas Bruttger, Coriun Aharonian, Mariano Etkin, Graciela Paraskevaidis, and Rolf Riehm. I am not familiar with these composers, but what they do and how Ensemble Adventure realizes them in performance is an experience that brings a kind of enlightenment coupled with pleasure. Varese is (was) not a composer given to writing music that espouses conventional western harmony, of course. In his music structures are fundamental to the makeup of a particular composition, especially with "Octandre". How those structures relate to one another is the important thing, like a set of related buildings in a city block. The movement in and out of pitch centers or tonality is not really relevant. It is music of an architectural sort, and a wonderful thing for the development of modernity.

The six composers represented here take the structural, architectural idea of Varese's "Octandre" and run with it, to each his or her own. So you hear "Octandre" performed with a kind of lingering care, then you hear the six compositions that bear tributary resemblance to that work.

The performances are excellent, the music very stimulating, and the recording bright. It's a great idea, greatly realized. Those who love the high modernism of Varese will find this CD a real treat.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Jason Kao Hwang, Spontaneous River: "Symphony of Souls"

Jason Kao Hwang is not afraid to do something new. Improvising violinist, composer, conductor, he's formed Spontaneous River, an orchestra of improvising artists. There are currently 38 string players. Jason on solo violin plus 14 violinists, including Sarah Bernstein; five violists; five cellists, including Daniel Levin and Tomas Ulrich; six contrabassists, including Michael Bisio and Ken Filiano; seven guitarists, including Dom Minasi and James Keepnews; plus Andrew Drury at the drums, making a total of 39 instrumentalists. The point is that these are some of the most actively interesting and accomplished string improvisers on the New York scene.

They join together to play Maestro Hwang's 11 movement composition Symphony of Souls (Mulatta 022). I am deliberately posting this review on my modern classical site because I think it's important that this work be heard by new jazz improv conoisseurs but also those who follow and appreciate contemporary classical works from the present day. I believe that both groups with their overlaps can well appreciate what is going on in this music, given repeated listens and concentrated attention.

What then of the music? It has composed modern orchestral sections; it has some flat-out ultra-modern jazz orchestralities, it has opportunities for the collective aggregate of musicians to improvise together freely in various combinations, and it has passages where the written and the improvised work together in contrasting and synthesizing ways.

The sum total musical impression the work makes in this recording is of a free adventure, a virtually limitless but conceptually consistent exploration of the various possibilities such an ensemble presents. There are open improvisational sections where the entrances and exits and the nature of those musically are guided by Hwang's conductions. The personal stamp of the improvisers' styles are an important part of the sound. Since I am quite familiar with some of these players I can recognize their improvisatory input. But even those I am not that familiar with help tailor the total sound for a rather unprecedented result. This piece performed by another group of improvisors would have the same sign posts but the results in the way the signposts are made to sound and the manner of the collective improvised sections would undoubedly sound different. From performance to performance even with the same group there would be variations in the total effect. And that's good!

There are cadenza-like improvisations from Jason Hwang, atmospheric string writing of tonal clusters and chorale-like blocks of sound that float as if in space, rhythmically driven ostinatoes, bluesy lines with various improvisations coming into play, complex color-texture sound events with particular improvisers soloing over them, pure improvisatory excursions with a great deal of atmospheric ambiance, rocking density, lovely cacaphonies of multi-expressions in a free zone, tutti motives that emerge from primal chaos, quiet passages of great beauty, pizzicato deluges of cascading pitches, smaller groupings of various improvisers providing a moment of interesting contrast, moments when drummer Andrew Drury shines forth, suspending soundclouds of complexely textured tones. . . .

In short this is complex, engaging music that covers much ground. It fills the interstices between new improvisatory music, modern jazz and avant orchestral-compositional practices. And it does so in ways that enthrall, excite, agitate and make tranquil, intrigue and overwhelm, and open up passages to new soundworlds.

It is the sort of music that takes time to assimilate and appreciate. It is, I believe, a milestone in the improvisatory-compositional nexuses we see coming together in this new century. The exceptional talents and sensitivities of Spontaneous River make that so, as does the imaginative and executional excellence of Jason Kao Hwang. Let there be more of this! In the meantime, do not miss this music if you want to have a feeling for, and appreciation of what's going on in the current decade!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Azerbaijani Piano Concertos, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Soloists

The modern concert music of Azerbaijan does not often find its way to the west. There was a recent Naxos disk of the music of Amirov (see my review posting of April 9, 2010 at gapplegatemusicreview. and a few others, but not much else that I know of.

So the present release Azerbaijani Piano Concertos (Naxos 8.572666) is most welcome. It's the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky, with alternating piano soloists F. Badalbeyli and M. Adigezalzade, working their way through two full concertos and three shorter pieces.

The music reflects the cultural influences to be felt in the region in the 20th and 21st centuries. Much of it has an appealing minor tonality that is part of the heritage of eastern/mideastern traditional music, but there is also a Tchaikovskian-Rachmaninovian strain to be heard and in some pieces the influences of early modernity. Amirov and Nazirova's "Concerto After Arabian Themes" (1957) has much of the romantic-meets-mid-eastern flavor alluded to above. Adigezalov's Concerto No. 4 (1994) continues in that vein with a bit more modern elements. The three shorter, single-movement works are pleasing, with Guliyev's "Gaytagi" (1958/1980) generating the most excitement.

It is a collection of music that doesn't hit home as world-class singularity. It does give you an interesting view of what some Azerbaijani composers have been doing. And the performances are good. Those who like a little exoticism will find it here.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Andras Schiff Plays Robert Schumann's Piano Music on "Geistervariationen"

Robert Schumann is not a modern composer, obviously. But I include this recording on the blog today because it involves high-romantic pianism played with the sort of renewed attention to the notes and phrasing that sounds modern. Pianist Andras Schiff plays some of Schumann's most ambitious and moving solo piano works on Geistervariationen (ECM New Series 2-CDs B0016115-02) in such a way that you hear clearly the phrasing and fully realized note values that Schumann intended. Truth be told, I have heard many performances of these works where the sustain pedal and an overarching dash of passion make up for lack of precision. Andras Schiff brings the MUSIC to our ears minus the overwrought expression, though his playing does not lack warmth and drive, and with the keen architectural attention to detail that allows us to hear the melodic-harmonic brilliance of the music.

It's a double CD with plenty of room for many of Schumann's best works, "Papillons," the C Major Fantasy, the Opus 11 Piano Sonata, Kinderszenen, Waldszenen and his final work, the Geistervariationem.

Andras Schiff is a remarkable pianist. Listening to this set, it is as if you are hearing these pieces for the first time. Highly recommended--even for those who are not confirmed Schumann-lovers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Toshio Hosokawa, "Landscapes," for Chamber Orchestra and Sho

The Munich Chamber Orchestra under Alexander Liebreich and Mayumi Miyata on the Japanese mouth organ, the sho, tackle four compelling Toshio Hosokawa compositions spanning the last two decades on Landscapes (ECM New Series B0016073-02). "Cloud and Light" (2008), "Sakura fur Otto Tomek" (2008) "Ceremonial Dance" (2000), and "Landscape V" (1993), are given lingeringly detailed interpretations.

Hosokawa's music combines the long sounds of Japanese ancient ceremonial Gagaku music and other traditional forms with the modern sound-coloristic, soundscape approaches that are an important aspect of contemporary concert music. It all works convincingly and movingly on Landscapes. Based on this program Hosokowa stands alongside Takemitsu, Mayuzumi and Ishii as an important modern Japanese composer who works with tradition in innovative ways.

It is music to contemplate, linger over, revel in. It is a very excellent example of the vital compatibility of tradition and modernism in the contemporary music world. Hosokawa shows us as he puts forward this series of tone-essays that, under the masterfully sensitive baton of Alexander Liebreich, his music is one of the most convincing new developments in modern concert music in this decade. By all means give it a listen!