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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.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Cenk Ergun, Sonare & Celare, JACK Quartet

What is new in New Music? Judging by the albums I've covered in the last few weeks, it is still the case that anything goes and if it does so in good ways, we are all the better for it of course. This morning some advanced string quartet music in the High Modern mode--the ever-accomplished JACK Quartet give us an EP of the music of Cenk Ergun, Sonare & Celare (New Focus Recordings FCR238).

So what is this one all about? Turkish-born Cenk Ergun emerges from a protracted interaction with the JACK Quartet with a set of paired works that stand in important ways at polar opposites, Sonare loud, busy and dense followed by the more sparsely soft and celestial Celare.

Ergun's past involvement in electronic music production has had a large impact on how he composed Sonare and its ultimate performance by the JACK Quartet.  Some preliminary sketches of a few motives and repetitions were notated for the Jack Quartet. Their recorded performance of them formed the basis of a further set of notations, accomplished in part by splicing the results into new fragments, their subsequent further recorded performances  each created a new entity which was subjected to further dissecting and so forth, with successive generations of interactions leading ultimately to the results we hear.

That work is insistent, like some infernal machine, perhaps, going through its cycles. It is as much invigorating as it is unnerving, with the JACK Quartet in part because of the built-up interactions becoming something wholly other than a mere four-fold reader-interpreter of notations. They are something transcendent. The music most definitively jumps out at us in full dimensional ways.

Celare on the other hand is made up of air and light to Sonare's earth and density. As the promotional sheet that came with the CD points out, the work is built around "just intonation, Turkish modes, and early monophonic music." A most palatable sauce of sustained chords and microtonal movements forms the bulk of the work. It explores an effectively contrasting timbral-sonic universe of possibilities..

In the end the organic and the superorganic dramatically interact with automata and infernal machines? That may be fanciful but the JACK Quartet bring these two works into wonderfully lively existence as contrasting forces that Ergun has created and made dramatically memorable.

It is one of those advanced work complexes, one of the exceptional later avant creations that, as one listens frequently, becomes a completely unique and singular universe of sound. It stands on its own. Here is this!. Hear this.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Ensemble Made in Canada, Mosaique

As I write this the Pandemic has wrought huge changes around me and around the world. Many steps have been taken to try and slow down the outbreak. I keep up with the social distancing in my apartment and happily there still is plenty of New Music to write about, so I remain productive.

Today we consider Mosaique (Factor Canada 0 51497 14047 2) by Ensemble Made in Canada. It is a 14-work celebration of the vast diversity and beauty of the country-wide span of territory, with a piece for nearly every geographic-cultural niche. It was specially commissioned, premiered during the summer of 2018 and now takes the form of this recording so that we all might hear, rehear and generally appreciate the whole of it.

Ensemble Made in Canada is a most cohesive gathering of talent--a quartet featuring Angela Park on piano, Elissa Lee on violin, Sharon Wei on viola and Rachel Mercer on cello.

Andrew Downing's opening "Red River Fantasy" (for Manitoba) and Julie Doiron's "Blessed" (for New Brunswick) (arr. by Andrew Creegan) are the most striking thematically of  these many works, but then there is much else that is quite heartening. This is partly lyrical POMO fare, with some sounding more overtly Modern than others but all played very well and very worth hearing.

Rather than try and run down the salient points of all fourteen works instead I list the composers and regions that I have not mentioned yet: Richard Mascall (Ontario), Nicolas Gilbert (Quebec), William Rowson (Nova Scotia), Vivian Fung (Alberta), Barbara Croall (St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes), Samy Moussa (Nunavut), Kevin Lau (Yukon), Ana Sokolovic (British Columbia), David Braid (Northwest Territories), Nicole Lizee (Saskatchewan), Darren Sigesmund (Prince Edward Island) and Sarah Slean (Newfoundland). Needless to say, you might not be familiar with many of these composers and that is the point in some ways. Here indeed is very New Music specially produced in the last several years to give you a broad survey of the Canadian scene and so all the better for it.

Ensemble Made in Canada are a finely attuned, very talented chamber group who via this project have created a vivid moment on the Canadian New Music scene that gives us an important cross-section of new Canadian composers and the sheer wonder of Canadian locales as a complex matrix, a vast resource. Bravo. You should hear this.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Minimal Works, Alessandro Viale, Piano

From Italy we have pianist Alessandro Viale and his well-considered program of Minimal Works (KHA 018). As I have been listening it strikes me that Viale in his choice of some 16 short pieces does a fine job in summing up a disparate set of a.) some "doctrinaire" Minimal classics (by Glass, etc.) in the lyrical-melodic rather than mesmerizing mode, but also b.) brings in interesting related pieces by composers we might not ordinarily put into the Minimalist camp.

And at this perhaps somewhat late date for the timeline of such things, Viale's summing gives us the insight that thoughtful retrospectives allow. And like the best of this kind of hindsight review, there are expected classics and unexpected surprises.

In addition to the nine solo piano works, there are four pieces for violin and piano that bring in violinist Rebecca Raimondi, and then three piano duets adding Assunta Cavallari. The performances are uniformly warm without being sentimental, uniformly expressive and painstaking. With the variety of groupings and memorable works time passes quickly and nicely for the listener.

Not surprisingly John Cage's 3rd of his "Six Memories" for violin and piano reminds us that there exists a post-Satie, pared-down strain of his music that has a straightforward elemental Minimalist quality to it. Perhaps less expected is a minute-long Peter Maxwell Davies "Snow Cloud, Over Lochan" that has a similarly elemental haiku brevity and succinctness. Ligeti's "Musica ricercata: No. 7"  has a bracing, driving left-hand motif and a beautiful half-time right-hand melody that puts him too in his own, special Minimal place.

Nils Frahm's "Familiar" has an almost early Keith Jarrett-like whimsical lyricism. Lera Auerbach's "Prelude No. 15" for violin and piano has a mysterious liquidity rewarding to experience. The Matteo Sommacal duet "Forgotten Strains" is rather nocturnal, haunting. David Lang's violin-piano "Light Moving" has all his charm in microcosm. And the concluding, well known Arvo Part "Spiegel im Spiegel" has an appealing earthy treatment that ends up putting a smile to your face (if you are like me, anyway). There is more I could say about the other works included in this program but this should give you some idea what you'll find.

The fine performances and wide-ranging choices make this set far from ordinary or predictable. One is in the last instance filled with lyrical poetics and reminded that Minimalism looking back has covered a good deal of ground and given us a refreshing sea change that as we know has given the very later Modern voices something to react to, both against and toward. This collection I highly recommend. Viale gets it all very right.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Sandbox Percussion, And That One Too

A quartet known as Sandbox Percussion makes its debut this season with their album And That One Too (Coviello Contemporary COV91918). It consists of Jonny Allen, Victor Caccese, Ian David Rosenbaum and Terry Sweeney. Since their formation in 2011 their goal has been to establish long-term collaborative relationships with composers in order to further the possibilities of what can be done with percussion from both a technical and an expressive perspective.

The four works represented on the album sum up, according to Rosenbaum, this past nine years and the best and most transformative collaborations. Each work occupies its own world, its own space.

So there are highly melodic interlockings via pitched metallic objects on Andy Akiho's "Haiku 2." The music recalls the complex layering of Gamelan music and a bit of Steve Reich's contrapuntal additive matrices taken a step further.

David Crowell continues the momentum with his "Music for Percussion Quartet" (which adds Crowell on guitar). In the opening music for mallet instruments and drum set there is a very beautiful sequencing of irregular phrase lengths, then bowed vibraphones form enveloping, slowly unfolding passages, followed by a layered series of cascading mallet motives that take over for interesting movements in aural space. More bowed mallets give us a reflective conclusion. This work has definite atmospherics that stay in the listening mind nicely.

Amy Beth Kirsten follows with multi-part, uniquely captivating, ritualistically unfolding vocals and the quartet giving it all a beat and a percussive color veneer for her "she is a myth." The concluding part waxes lyrical and then ends while one might want some more! Well done.

The finale work is the longest of the segments with a three movement, nearly 30-minute Thomas Kotcheff work entitled "not only that one but that one & that too." Part I begins with some meandering yet insistent woodblocks (I believe) in an ensemble, then includes lower-pitched wooden mallets that create heightened, unfolding rhythmic interest and thematics. The momentum grows as the percussive instrumentation drills down to a kind of contrapuntal froth.

The second movement has subtly insistent, irregular unpitched soundings, then a single pitched bongo and tom-tom drum patterns, all played with a musicality that puts everything into place. The complexity grows and gathers a good deal of steam as the number of struck drums increases. The rhythmic interplay intensifies as the pulse becomes more underlined in complex ways.

The last movement involves a switch to small bell-like metallic instruments that work together in a confluence both delicate and introspective, then increasingly motile and driving in quiet ways.

The very end is a slightly mysterious yet musically satisfying suspension of both the work and the program at large, leaving one ready for more yet glad for the thoughtful whole.

The Sandbox Percussion debut fulfills its mission well. By the end one feels that one has re-created in a well evolved series of extended possibilities for percussion quartet. It is lively and absorbing fare and a most promising first album. Definitely recommended.

John J. Becker, Soundpieces 1-7, FLUX Quartet, etc.

John J. Becker (1886-1961) has been enshrouded in obscurity in our lifetime, even though he was a part of an early Modern US group of composers that were extraordinarily important in the development of the New Music movement. The "American Five" were known especially in the '20s and '30s of last century as the most dissonant and advanced voices on the American scene. It placed Becker in the illustrious company of Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell and Wallingford Reigger.

The good news right now is that we can hear in a new two-CD recording his all-important chamber series Soundpieces 1-7 (New World Records 80816-2).

The liners to the CDs give us context. Becker followed in part Charles Seeger's idea of a "dissonant counterpoint" where the goal was the opposite of a traditional, continual consonance. There were Neo-Classical elements to be heard and iconoclastic influences through personal friendships with Cowell and Ives, along with a Catholicism which gave him a conversant bond to church music form.

The seven Soundpieces were written between 1932 through 1949, with five hailing from the early to later '30s and the last two coming forth in 1942 and 1949. Nos. 2 and 4 are for string quartet, No. 1 for string quartet and piano, No. 3 for violin and piano, No. 5 for solo piano, No 7 for two pianos and No. 6 for flute and clarinet. All seem to revel in their advanced dissonance, with a structural flourish and rather extraordinary expressionism.

In the liners Kyle Gann discusses criticisms of Becker's music over the years, that his rhythmic sense is not always as lively as his harmo-melodic advances, that perhaps there is just too much dissonance in the end. Yet the Soundpieces are examples of his very best.

I find especially to my liking Soundpieces 3 (for string quartet, the engaging Scherzo most notably) and 4 (with lots of very engaging violin-piano interplay). The monolithic boldness of the solo piano Number 5 has a heroic grandeur that draws me in increasingly the more often I listen.

I for one am very happy to have this music to hear repeatedly. The performances are quite respectable, quite good. Kudos to the FLUX String Quartet and Conrad Harris (the latter for both his quartet and solo violin role, Joseph Kubera on piano with Adam Tendler on the two-piano work, for Margaret Lancaster on flute and Vasko Dukovski on clarinet. They go a considerable ways to make this music come alive and they are to be commended for it.

Anyone like me who takes great interest in the rise of 20th Century High Modernism will be glad to have these Becker works to discover and explore. There is a freshness, an almost naive faith in the liberating power of dissonance that is both touching and invigorating to hear, surely worthy of our consideration. Becker may not quite be another Charles Ives yet this music sounds nearly as pathblazing as it must have when it was first performed. Recommended for all New Music aficionados interested in the history of it all.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Sarah Slean, Music by Christos Hatzis, Symphony Nova Scotia, Bernhard Gueller

We humans are ever creating categories, local, international, contingent, "universal." "timeless," temporary. We are ever defending or undermining them, depending. And a new thing will then eventually come along and throw categories into confusion. When that happens, we take note.

Something like that comes to us in the form of a new CD that brings together two compositions by Christos Hatzis, featuring vocalist Sarah Slean and Symphony Nova Scotia under Bernhard Gueller (Centrediscs CMCCD27819). The music is so well-done that I can scarcely imagine not covering it. Yet is it something I might not ordinarily seek out, that all of my readers would not necessarily as a matter of course incorporate into their New Music listening? There is no simple answer because it is an unexpected twist to our categorical understanding.

Well, so what is it? Simply put it is Canadian composer Christos Hatzis's two interrelated symphonic song cycles Lamento and Ecstacy. It comes alive through the expressive presence of acclaimed vocalist Sarah Slean and the happy confluence of conductor Gueller and the Nova Scotia Symphony.

Lamento was the first of the two cycles. It came into being in 2012 as a kind of long rejoiner-tribute and/or commentary-exegesis on Purcell's beautiful "When I am Laid in Earth" from Dido and Aenaes--but also a wider meditation on loss, mental illness, suicide.

Its success for all concerned eventually made it a good idea for a second cycle with Slean and Nova Scotia. Ecstasy is the result, which features lyrics penned by Slean herself and a theme-mood in much happier territory, in a way the obverse of Lamento. 

As I wrote above, this music is exceptionally well done. The category breaking involves the injection of a "pop" element into the music. And it is not so much a today-top-40 sort of pop, it is closer to what in the later '60s were categorized as MOR (Middle of the Road), more like something Barbara Streisand might have done than, say, Joni Mitchell or even Carol King. And for that it is also a little closer to the sort of song one might hear on Broadway than on a Classic Rock radio outlet.

The lyrical content of these songs, especially the poetics of mental health in Lamento, puts them more squarely on the "Art Song" side of things. I must say I especially like the final "Despair" movement of Lamento, the one most beholden to Purcell.

Sarah Slean's performances are one-of-a-kind and I can scarcely imagine anyone coming close to her dramatically smashing way with these songs. By the same token the orchestral parts come very much alive with Gueller and the Nova Scotia Symphony. The orchestrations are quite lovely and do a great deal in setting off Ms. Slean's expression-rich readings.

Sometimes I wonder as an exercise in my own judgement whether I would (assuming a capability which is another matter) choose to write music in a certain way, here in this way. My answer in this case would be no--which is only to say that I do not feel entirely akin to this MOR-Classical meld. However I concede happily that there is a great deal of brilliance to be had in this music which transcends air-guitar visions of what I might dream of as my"own," so to say. Nonetheless if I do not exactly "speak" this language I do appreciate the music as exemplary.

It is rather remarkable fare in the end. Yet it is neither avant garde nor is it entirely capital /M/ Modern in some superadvanced way. You might say it is somewhat "old fashioned," even. Mahler meets MOR meets Christos Hatzis? Maybe. Yet it is that in unique ways that make it something one should pay attention to, for it is quite a two-fold achievement in often sublime ways. Bravo.

Recommended for those who self-select for the parameters sketched-out here. Give it your ears.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Scott L. Miller, Ghost Layers, TAK Plays Miller

According to my records, this is the fourth review article I have written on the music of Scott L. Miller (see the Gapplegate Music Review, 2015, and this blog, 2017 and 2018). His music lays out well to my ears. So now I am back with a new one to talk about, Ghost Layers, TAK Plays Miller (New Focus Recordings FCR253).

First a bit on the TAK Ensemble, who distinguish themselves markedly on this chamber program. It is ordinarily a quintet. For this program the four founding members hold sway--Laura Cocks (flute), Marina Kifferstein (violin), Charlotte Mundy (voice) and Ellery Trafford (percussion), augmented at various points in the program by Meghan Burke on cello, Tristan McKay on piano, and Joshua Rubin on clarinet. Collectively they tackle this advanced and difficult-to-play music with ease, with dash and even a heroically dynamic demeanor. TAK happily specialize in the Contemporary of yesterday and today through commissions, collaborations and dedicated New Music concertizing. A listen or two will no doubt convince you that they are near-ideal proponents of the music at hand, stars in today's Modern firmament.

So what, then, of that music? There are some five Miller chamber compositions featured, four of which combine instruments with electronic sound. The works exhibit Scott Miller's "eco-systemic" approach, where the music takes on something analogous to the function of ecosystems. This has to do with found environmental sounds, their analysis and then the establishment of paradigms within the musical structure of a given work.

So for example the opening work "Accretion" (2015) for flute, violin, clarinet/bass clarinet, cello, percussion and electronic sound has its initial basis in the composer's field recordings of waterfalls and ice floes, both subjected to spectral analysis which then provides data that figures in the instrumental and electronic components of the composition.

In the end what matters is that each work feels as a kind of natural organic entity where timbral choices and the interlaying of sounds have a feeling of inevitability without providing the listener with an obvious expected result acoustically or syntactically. Everything has an element of surprise yet gives the satisfaction of rich textural presence.

I will not try to run down each piece individually because the deep complexities and emergent form seem at this juncture better heard than subject to more words. The instrumental-electronic interfaces have a remarkable quality born out of the frisson of an exceptional collective grasp on the part of performers, electronic sounds that have a built-in logic and poetics in their interactive presence with acoustic instrumental sounds, and a totality that convinces, comes across as genuinely new, and makes for increasingly absorbing hearing the more one repeats the program.

All praise is due Scott Miller and TAK and company. This is a chamber program anyone with an interest in the latest Modernities should not miss. Outstanding music.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Richard Valitutto, Nocturnes & Lullabies

The tree falling in the woods idea holds true on the musical front, just as it always has. For New Music to exist in some validated or institutional sense there must be an audience of course. I hope I play some role in such things, originally as a consumer and physical presence on the scene, now as a writer, ever I hope also as a music-maker.

Today's selection exemplifies a good sort of "new" as a real contribution towards a special kind of solo piano music. Richard Valitutto is the pianist. The album goes by its title Nocturnes & Lullabies (New Focus Recordings FCR243). The label explains that this music concerns "themes of transitional states between light, dark, consciousness, and unconsciousness" or alternately-additionally night, sleep, and life/death  Further the eight solo works contained in the program (seven or which are premiere recordings) engage the pianist in his striving for a kind of "anti-virtuosity," or more specifically directs him away from the sort of note-weaving typical of conventional piano playing-writing and concerned more with experimental goals, of widening the palette of sound colors and techniques obtained in the act of piano performance.

This program nicely opens and expands the sort of poetic piano Modernism of sound color one might trace from Ives, Cowell, Cage and his colleagues to George Crumb and his reflective pianism. All eight of the works on this album espouse a poetry of sound that invites a kind of expansive introspection. Tone clusters, mesmeric and sometimes ritualistic repetitions, thunderously or flashingly rapid single-note rollings, percussive dampened extreme upper register repeats,  cavernous resonance and open sustains, inside-the-piano hand techniques, the enhanced use of aural space, the full syntactical recourse to all the available notes in all registers, an edgy Modern harmonic expansiveness that generally neither dogmatically favors consonance nor dissonance as a whole, those are some of the traits of the music at hand, all in the service of a thematic night of time and experience, of a nocturnal mood as we might look back upon it from John Field and especially Chopin onwards, only set free from typical cantabile stylings per se.

The full span of our Late Modern period comes into play in these works, from 1984 through 2015. Five of the eight works however are from the last decade.

The composers names may not be entirely familiar to you, yet the music shows us that each has a vision for the piano that intertwines as Richard Salitutto in effect curates wisely and judiciously, then performs each chosen work with a definite dedication and a dramatic musical proportionality. And so we are made aware of piano adventurousness from the likes of Nicholas Deyoe (two works included), Rebecca Saunders, Philip Cashian, Marc Sabat, Maura Capuzzo, Wolfgang von Schweinitz, and Linda Catlin Smith.

Heartily recommended for those wishing to remain fully versed in the most modern in solo piano music and for adventuresome souls in general. Well done!

Monday, March 9, 2020

Iris Trio, Homage and Inspiration, Works by Schumann, Kurtag, Mozart and Weiss

Inspiration from the classics, homage to their continued vitality for us. That is the central theme behind music from the considerably talented Iris Trio on their debut album, Homage and Inspiration (Coviello Classics COV92002). The program grew organically out of the trio's first appearances beginning in the Spring of 2013 when Christine Carter (clarinet), Molly Carr (viola) and Anna Petrova (piano) played their first concert as the Iris Trio at the German Consulate in New York. The program consisted of Robert Schumann's Marchenerzahlungen Op. 132 (Fairy Tales) and Gyorgy Kurtag's Hommage a R. Sch. Op. 15d, which paid tribute to Schumann with a Modern work utilizing the same instrumentation.

After that very first concert the Trio learned that the Mozartfest Wurzburg in Germany had commissioned Christof Weiss to write a new clarinet-viola-piano trio to pay homage to Mozart's "Kegelstatt" Trio K 498 with the identical instrumentation--the Drittes Klaviertrio fur Klarinette, Viola und Klavier "Gesprach unter Freunden." The threesome subsequently chosen to give the premier of that trio ended up being the Iris Trio and so in time all four works formed a double-pairing in an extended concert tour which culminated in this recording.

Add to that the additional aspect of it all--that Schumann in fact wrote the Marchenerzahlungen as a homage to Mozart and his Kegelstatt trio--and so we in fact here have a most extraordinary sequence of homages and inspirations.

The brilliant thematics of the program pull together the "classic" and the Modern with a continuity-commonality which nevertheless draws stylistic boundaries in that the "Modern" sounds more like the present than not--so that the homages and inspirations are real but not obviously quasi-quotational, instead subtle. That of course is how it should be. The compositional hand writes after having already moved on, so to speak.

The Weiss both temporally and stylistically place the most complex and virtuoso demands on the trio and they certainly and definitively rise to the occasion. Yet all four works in the end are performed with an articulate zeal that is as joyful in its expression as it is exacting in its execution. These are extraordinarily, mutually attuned practitioners that deserve our acclaim.  They take on the classic and the present-day with equal poise and authentic fluency. Bravo all concerned. A delightful offering in every way.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Vivaldi, Manchester Sonatas, Mark Fewer, Hank Knox

The very lively and out-ringing Canadian duo of Mark Fewer on violin and Hank Knox at the harpsichord give to us their impeccable and even exciting reading of Antonio Vivaldi's Manchester Sonatas (Leaf Music LM229 2-CDs), which rather incredibly were only made available to us in 1973 when they were found in a Manchester, England library. The complete Knox-Fewer recording fills two CDs with all twelve sonatas, each with four movements.

Vivaldi may have been more prolific as a composer than others and honestly at times some of it seems less indispensable than others. Happily The Manchester Sonatas do not belong to the less essential grouping. Each one has inventive drive and character that make them a welcome addition to Vivaldi at his best, lyrical or vital in turn, a joy to hear.

And part of that joy stems from just how good the Fewer-Knox Duo is at realizing this music. Mark Fewer plays without a vibrato, with a deeply, sweetly centered intonation and a straightforward musical energy that Hank Knox seconds with conviction. The harpsichord has the all-important role of realizing the harmonies and bass foundations of each movement and it is to his credit that nothing comes across as filler--but instead all sets up the musical stage so that Fewer's violin can come across with a vigorous robustness never sentimental but ever openly engaged and flourishing with animation.

The duo follow with this on the heels of their 2018 Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord  which I have not heard but suspect (if it's anything like this one) it is very good.

The completely centered readings give this recording a decided edge that is as delightful to hear as it is to study and learn from. Recommended without hesitation.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

David Felder, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux, Laura Aikin, Ethan Herschenfeld, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

The BMOP (Boston Modern Orchestra Project) comes through with another very worthy release, David Felder (b. 1953) and his most ambitious and dramatic Les Quatres Temps Cardinaux (BMOP Sound 1069). It is led by Gil Rose and scored for a 40-person orchestra, soprano (Laura Aikin), bass (Ethan Herschenfeld) and a part for 12-channel surround electronic music. The work was composed in 2013-14 and first performed in concert by BMOP with the identical soloists in this recording.

An important component of the work are poetic texts by Rene Daumal (Les Quatres Temps Cardinaux or The Four Cardinal Times), Robery Creeley and Dana Gioia on the experience of lived time. The texts are variously sung, recited, abstracted into sound and otherwise serve as meaning clues and word analogs to the overall expressive-Modernistic musical flow.

The vocal-orchestral-electronic mix has a glorious complexity and an ambitious foregrounding one hears less frequently nowadays but is no less the welcome for its rarity. The combination of the various iterations of the poetry combined with the highly voluble syntactical whole of words and sound-color lucidity-abundance makes for exceptional listening. It is music not afraid of reaching for the stars as it simultaneously explores the many human poetic-soulful aspects of living existence.

The 45-minute, 12-part unfolding of the work sequence dramatically arcs through meaning universes that reflect on how life feels as time lives through us all. I will leave the poetic-semantic particulars to the listening experience. Suffice to say there is a dramatic thoughtfulness to the whole that affords us deep meaning and a most artful fullness in the end.

The level of expression is consistently vibrant with the capital /a/ of Modern Musical Arts ever present. The many faceted whole of this work benefits greatly by excellent recorded sound and magnificent performances by Aikin and Herschenfeld, with precision dramatics by Rose and the BMOP that give all the character one might hope for to this music. The BMOP triumphs in ways one can applaud without hesitation.

Felder gives us a uniquely personal reflection in a work that wears the cloak of our present time in a manner one can only hope future generations will look back upon with approval. This is a milestone work in heartfully moving performance. Hear this by all means.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Barbora Kolarova, Imp in Impulse, Solo Violin by Le Boeuf, Francaix, Slavicky

The world of unaccompanied violin, viola or cello works might be seen as subject to some prime influences. Nowadays there is of course the enduring example of Bach and also that influence as channeled in more Modern ways by Reger and Hindemith. Then perhaps there is the more flashy virtuoso path of Paganini and perhaps also the conflation of tunefulness and virtuosity in Kreisler. There are no doubt other compositional influences as well but these particular ones come to me this morning as I write this..

These thoughts occur to me, that is, as I specifically listen to an album forthcoming very soon from Czech violinist Barbora Kolarova. It is an all-solo outing entitled Imp in Impulse (Furious Artisans FACD 6822).  She makes a strong showing of considerable virtuosity harnessed to a nicely overarching expressivity via three compositions that give us substantial fare to contemplate. The works show the general influences of all the above-mentioned composers to greater or lesser degrees while maintaining an original stance, all while Ms. Kolarova puts her own very personal stamp on the performances.

Of the three composers represented here, Jean Francaix (1912-1997) is the most familiar (to me). His "Theme with 8 Variations for Solo Violin" (1980) is the midpoint in the program and has in its eight variational movements the kinetic virtuosity of Paganini and Ravel with a pronounced inventive abstraction that sets it into later last century decidedly. Kolarova handles it all heroically, as she does the entire program.

Pascal Le Boeuf's title piece "Imp in Impulse" heads off the program with a premier recording of the five movements that have memorably thematic and figurational impact, a kind of spontaneity the name of the work implies and some decided freshness that repeated hearings only serve to underscore. It was composed especially for Ms. Kolarova by the American Le Boeuf and seems to dovetail remarkably well with the violinist's adventurous musical personality.

The title refers to philosopher Paul A. Lees' phrase (Imp in Impulse) that personifies the human tendency to monitor and act on a need to avoid mistakes--which brings a two-edged sword to our actions, because we can resolve errors but we can also cause them by being too quick to act. The music reacts to and plays upon that paradox in winning ways if one listens for it.

The final "Partita for Solo Violin" gives us some extraordinarily complex, expressive and difficult-to-play ecstatics of sound from Moravian Klement Slavicky (1910-1999). It manages to pay homage to Bach's solo violin Partitas as it travels originally and independently forward to present-day Modern territory.

Barbora Kolarova should receive well deserved acclaim for this fine album. It has all the drama and excitement one might hope for in a solo violin recital. The music surely warrants our full attention. Bravo!

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Tesla Quartet, Alexander Fiterstein, Joy & Desolation, Chamber Works by Mozart, Finzi, Corigliano, Heredia

Something now hundreds of years back and the date was 1789, more exactly 231 years ago now,  Mozart so admired the clarinet playing of Anton Stadler that he sat down and wrote him the iconic "Clarinet Quintet" in A major, K581. Its expressive power was of course enormous. So much so that one might well date and attribute at least in part the continuing power of this particular chamber configuration (clarinet plus string quartet) from that work's influence and continued currency.

Perhaps nowhere can you feel that more intently than with a present-day clarinet quintet of special strength--the Tesla String Quartet plus clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein. They create a winning program that starts with the Mozart work and then jumps to some 20th and 21st century quintets of palpable interest, all on the recent Joy & Desolation (Orchid Classics ORC100106).

Throughout the many varied developments in the four works presented on the album it becomes plain as one listens that the Tesla Quartet and Fiterstein are in their element, that they manage through a pronounced mutual chemistry and affinity for the music at hand to create a considerable magic.

From the point of view of the dedicated listener the magic of the very familiar in a special reading is one thing while the magic as introduced in an unfamiliar work another. And so it is for me after a near lifetime of listening to the Mozart in recordings of various versions, hearing it played so proudly and boldly here gives additional truth to the work's greatness.

That same matter-of-fact expressive presence carries over to the rest of the program too, though of course for me hearing these other works is a new opening on the chamber possibilities of our current era, and so an experience of a slightly different order.

So the clarinet brilliance and the string deepness continue most naturally with stylistic extensions into the Modern of just yesterday and also today.

And as we travel through the program in this way we come very pleasurably upon English 20th century original Gerard Finzi (1901-1956) and his eloquently homespun, feelingful "Five Bagatelles" in its Christian Alexander arrangement for clarinet and quartet (the original scoring was for clarinet and piano). The liners note how both Mozart and Finzi draw out of the clarinet a special full, multi-register sound presence that Fitenstein brings out nicely. And of course that works well thanks to the heroically upstanding blend the strings achieve with the singular clarinet voice throughout.

John Corigliano's "Soliloquy" turns the mood to something somber, overtly expressive and Modernistic in touching ways while Carolina Heredia (b. 1981) continues and extends the overall feel compellingly for the program finale,  her "Ius in Bello.".

The performances take us on unbroken voyages of vivid color and succinctly moving aural poetry. The end result is a near-ideal mix of insightful timbral compositional shadings and some ravishing realizations. Strongly recommended.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Mark John Mcencroe, Musical Images for Chamber Orchestra, Reflections and Recollections Vol. 2, Janacek Philharmonic, Anthony Armore

When covering the newest of the New Music along with the more "classic" staples of Modernity and sometimes neglected works from earlier Modern eras, it seems wise to me to keep an open mind. Every new album is a new universe of possibilities. Why pre-judge something when the deep listening will tell you what you need to know?

With that attitude I sometimes surprise myself with what I end up engaging with. Today's example seems apt. It is Australian composer Mark John Mcencroe and his album Musical Images for Chamber Orchestra, Reflections & Recollections, Vol. 2 (Navona NV6269). This is not the first review of his music on these pages. Type his name in the search box for another.

The album's music grew out of the first two volumes of Mcencroe's piano pieces. In his words they are "a reflective look over the passage of events, impressions, and feelings experienced throughout my life to date." Conductor and friend Anthony Armore heard them and suggested that they would sound well realized for a small chamber orchestra. Accordingly the composer asked his colleague and friend Mark J. Saliba to do this. The result is the present volume.

Each one of the 11 pieces that comprise this set is a kind of pastoral, ultra-diatonic expression, often enough through-composed, homespun, a super-lyrical presence. It is meant to please and set a scene such as does a lyrical movie soundtrack or for that matter a tone poem by Delius. New Age, Elevator Music, Sweet Music of the big band era, slow movements of classic works from the Baroque era onwards, programmatic lyricism perhaps since Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony," naive folkish descriptive music such as you might hear in parts of Copland's "Appalachian Spring" or some Impressionistic, sonic nature-description from Ravel or Debussy? All this and a number of other things besides are something to do with this music though Mcencroe avoids a vapidity that might be associated with the more "popular" idiomatic characteristics of some of these diverse genre subsets at the same time as he does not sound imitative so much as charmingly untransformed, naive in his own way.

Nothing is deliberately banal, nor does anything appear to be ambitiously stepping forward as a stylistic statement. It is the continuously unwinding diatonic lyricism that marks this set of music off as both distinct from Satie's "Furniture Music" and yet spinning its own web of continuously present sameness of intent. Cage's Satie tribute piano set "Cheap Imitation" with its irony comes to mind in how it captures a style yet by being determinately generic (only more than that as well) drives down to some essence that transcends imitation.

So, then, is this a trend? Is this part of a new "school" of New Music? I do not think so. By setting out simply to do what this music does it strays from some processual path of musical evolution and instead offers a reflection of visceral consonential pleasure. And for that it pleases if you accept the terms by which it expresses itself. Or it can if you but leave itself to its own reflections as resounding in your ears.

This is music not of the future but rather music that has determination to pass us as it looks at its own past. It is no more nor less than itself. The orchestrations and performances are just so. First listen to a part of this and, well, if you like it that is what it is. If not, not.

Friday, February 21, 2020

APNM, Volume One, Chamber Music, Volume Two, Computer + Electronic Music

The APNM (Association for the Promotion of New Music) provides the New Music community out there with an invaluable boost. It came into being in 1975 thanks to Jacques-Louis Monod "as a community of American composers with the purpose of sharing common musical values and creating a network of professional support. APNM fosters the compositional creativity of its members by offering performances of their music, publication services, and promotional visibility."

Accordingly they have recently released a well conceived anthology of some 14 works in a double CD set entitled Music from the APNM Volume One, Chamber Music and Volume Two, Computer + Electronic Music (New Focus Recordings FCR248).

There is quite a bit of good music to be heard, all in a more or less High Modern vein, that is to say music of a certain level of abstraction, traditionally untraditional without necessarily being dodecaphonic or atonal (although that not being "prohibited" either), that creates an aural color field via unusual instrumental combinations, electronic timbral niceties and expressive fullness. Each is a world unto itself.

The anthology starts out with two works combining traditional Chinese or Korean and conventional Western instruments in intriguing ways, with Stephen Dydo's "Wind Chimes" (2012) for pipa and guitar followed by Laurie San Martin's "Elective Affinities" (2010) for gayageum and string quartet. Both thoroughly bridge the East-West gap with contentual affinity and a sort of middle ground between the ultra-new and the considered tradition.

A very dynamic and rather exciting solo piano work follows, Tom James' "Odd Numbers" (2015). It has a rolling sort of unfolding that is acrobatic in its kinetic force and articulate in its nimble juggling of melodic and harmonic elements.

A nicely inventive midi-based sound color sampling follows with Elaine Barkin's "Faygele's Footsteps" (2007). Color contrasts work together to create a kind of mosaic that is both intriguing and musically satisfying. One hears adroit juxtapositions of Gamelan tones intertwining with Western instruments and electronically enhanced complexes. It is a pleasure to hear.

A chamber confluence of definite interest follows in Sheree Clement's 2009 "Round Trip Ticket: A Theme with Variations for Seven Players." One revels in dynamic chains of figuration that unwind in tableaux of sectional timbral juxtapositions. Well done!

And then follows the final work of the first volume, Joseph Hudson's 2010 "Starry Night" for piano and electronic sounds, which paves the way for the second volume and its computer-electronic emphasis. Hudson creates a kind of majesty of sequencing and a superior melding of the acoustics of the piano with the related electronic transformations that accompany and complete the aural soundscape.

The Computer + Electronic Music volume that follows keeps up the momentum with eight works of interest, six comprising "fixed audio media," or in other words the more traditional electronic studio mode, and two with live interactive electronics.

The works are generally oriented towards pitched timbral spectrums (as opposed to noise-based timbres) of fascinating novelty and high levels of musical interest--and show off in this way a kind of continuity with the classic American School of electronics made most famous at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studios at the peak of the High Modern Era--especially in the '60s.  

Each of the eight works on Volume Two weaves its own magic, and each has a nicely constructed complexity and timbral brilliance that marks it out in the listening mind as more than memorable, special, each a little milestone of Modernist tone painting.

There are also few poignant interactions between conventional instruments and their live electronic transformations, such as Carl Bettendorf's 2012 viola and electronics "Souvenir."

The remainder are for electronics in a studio compositional context and they cover a period from 1995 through 2017. A lengthy description of each is probably not necessary. Suffice to say that they are some of the most interesting works I have heard in recent years. 

You may not know the composers but you no doubt should by listening closely to this entire volume. Hats off to Arthur Kreiger, Joel Gressel, Adam Vidiksis, Maurice Wright, Carl Bettendorf, Jeffrey Hall, Samuel Wells and Hubert Howe.

The judicial selection of worthy recent works by artists we might not otherwise come to know forms a tribute to the discernment of the APNM and its trustees. This is an essential anthology of the New Music Moderns currently coming up today. If it is any indication, and it no doubt is, we are most assuredly not lacking talented new voices to take us into the future. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Barbara Harbach, Orchestral Music V, Expressions for Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, David Angus

The prolific Barbara Harbach has a good number of releases of her music on MSR Records, among other labels. Her latest, Orchestral Music V, Expressions for Orchestra (MSR Classics MS-1672), has caught my ear in good ways and so I report in on it for you.

The first thing you might notice on hearing the program is how the music comes alive thanks to the very fine performances of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under David Angus. So of course one does not have to imagine what the music would sound like in a proper rendering because that is very much the case in this recording.

All four works have substance and girth, each with multiple movements and around 10 to 20 minutes play time. None outstays its welcome but has its say and says it well. Ms. Harbach orchestrates with a flair and a nice sense of the totality in a more or less classicist way. She has a distinctive use of the xylophone on  parts of "Suite Luther" and "Early American Scandal," employing it colorfully to state some primary melodic parts. And then too winds and brass nicely balance strings throughout. She has a subtle way. She clearly knows what she is after and gets it.

"Suite Luther" grounds itself on the iconic Luther hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," weaving it into the musical proceedings throughout the five varied movements, creating various contexts for its restating, reharmonizations, rhythmic extensions, and weaving counter motifs and variations with skill and expressive logic. Like all four works this one is firmly tonal but decidedly Contemporary, more Neo-Classical than Post-Romantic, though not in the more obvious ways, happily. The musical syntax flows readily and communicatively.

At times her use of folksy and otherwise recognizable stylistic thematic materials makes her in my mind a kind of present-day Aaron Copland-like figure. Listen especially to her "Early American Scandals" in this light and I think you'll happily see this. And it all sounds straightforwardly fresh and non-derivatively original

"Arabesque Noir" gives us an ornate and nicely lyrical presence with a contrapuntal movement that is a pleasure to hear. "Early American Scandal" has vibrant contrapuntal life as well and a clear-cut lyrical freshness on top of the pronouncedly old-rural folksiness.

The "Recitative and Aria" has a just-so quality and sends us off with well-turned brevity. It pays tribute to actor Edwin Booth (1833-1893), one of the most admired Hamlets of his era.

This is not deliberately "advanced garde" music so much as it is an unassuming and open expression that seems to flow naturally and assuredly flows copiously from Barbara Harbach's fertile musical mind. What matters in the end of course centers around the works themselves. They hold much interest even after hearing a good number of times as I have done this past week.

Barbara Harbach shows off some genuine talent here. This is one good showing and I do not hesitate to recommend it to you if you are someone who wants to be abreast of what is happening right now, or simply wants to hear good music.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Heare Ensemble, Vox, Music of George Crumb, Narong Prangcharoen, Stacy Garrop, Carter Pann

Vox (Innova 040) allows our ears to bask in Modern Chamber Music of a less abstract sort, with a nod to evocative meaning. The Heare Ensemble give us warm and vivacious readings of mostly multi-movement works that hang together well as a kind of expressive whole.

The Heare Ensemble distinguish themselves throughout as an eloquent trio comprising Jennie Oh Brown on flutes, Jennifer Blyth on piano and Kurt Fowler on cello.

The album celebrates George Crumb's 90th birthday with a mindful yet ebullient performance of his classic 1971 tribute to Humpback whale song, "Vox Balaenae." The three players are to be masked in performance, their instruments electrified. The Heare Ensemble first performed the work together during their student days at Eastman. Since then they have played it in concert more than 25 times. It is both a sign of their affinity for the music and a bellwether of their intimate mastery of the Crumb style. Along with his "Makrokosmos" series for piano and several other chamber works "Vox Balaenae" is sublime Crumb and a fitting way to celebrate his 90th. Happy birthday, George!

Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen has a well-considered de facto kind of response to the work with his "Bencharong" trio in five movements. It follows the creation sequence of the Thai pottery of that name--which is a rather precarious production with three to eight successive glaze firings, each with a different color. Only after the sequence of stages are properly overcome is the vessel completed. One false move in any of the stages and the pot is discarded. The music has that "making it all count" immediacy to it.

Crumb's love of Appalachian folk song and his generally melodic vibrancy are celebrated in the final two works, Stacy Garrop's "Silver Dagger," which is an effectively lovely reworking of such a folk song, and the Carter Pann "Melodies for Robert," which sports out-front, engaging melodics commissioned by the family of Robert Vincent Jones in memoriam.

And so ends a program literally brimming over with meaningful music. The Crumb work revels in benchmark poignancy; the three accompanying works stand out as worthwhile and worthy counterparts in this high-watermark program. The Heare Ensemble triumphs. The music wins the day from beginning to end. Hear this, by all means. It reminds us how central Crumb remains in our time, and happily how his legacy is very alive.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Shih-Hui Chen, Silvergrass & Other Orchestral Works

The liner notes to today's album rightly call this music "intercultural composition." And so it is. Chinese composer Shih-Hui Chen (b. 1962) comes out with five intricate, moving and fascinating examples rather deftly combining Chinese and Western Modern Classical elements on Silvergrass & Other Orchestral Works (New World Records 80807-2).

Ms. Chen has a remarkable creative talent in her ability to combine both style-sets and in the process give us a musical result most definitely greatly more than a mere totaling sum of the parts. There is a Chinese traditional concern with space and spaciousness and a special arsenal of timbrally bright instrumental techniques (mainly for the Chinese solo instruments when utilized in a quasi-concerted mode). And then there is a Western Modern concern with melodic-harmonic sophistication and motion-centered layering as we have come to progressively experience it in the past 100 years. And that in coexistence with at times some diatonic-pentatonic melodic elements as befits Chinese Classical tradition.

The four-movement title work "Silvergrass for Cello and Chamber Orchestra" (2016) forms the centerpiece of the program with its mysterious chamber orchestra panorama and concentrically expressive solo cello part. It is perhaps on first listen less overtly Chinese than the others but nonetheless has resonance in its timeless poetic outlook. And it is in fact a nod to Taiwanese Opera in its sonic foundations.

On the other end of the spectrum is the opening work "Fantasia on the Theme of Guanglingsan for Zheng and Chinese Orchestra" (2014), where the instrumental timbres are more or less wholly Chinese yet the unfolding has a linear logic not unfamiliar to Western New Music.

The give and take of the two contrasting dimensional approaches undergo creative transformation and make for excellent music throughout the program, which in addition includes "A Plea to Lady Chang'e for Nanguan Pipa and Chamber Orchestra" (2014), "Fantasia on the Theme of Plum Blossoms for String Orchestra" (2011) and the "Concerto for Pipa and Chamber Orchestra" (2002).

Kudos to Hsin-Fang Hsu on zheng, Mei-Hui Wei on Nanguan pipa, Wu Man on pipa, and Wen-Sinn Yang on cello. Compliments as well for fine contributions by the Little Giant Chinese Orchestra under Chih-Sheng Chen, Loop 38 under Jerry Hou, and the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra under Yao-Yu Wu.

Each of the five works covers important ground. Space and time discourage a full discussion of each. Another highlight however is the innovative work "A Plea to Lady Chang'e for Nanguan Pipa and Chamber Orchestra." It begins by considering a well-known work in the southern Chinese Nanguan repertoire and in effect recomposes the entire piece--including vocals and the Nanguan pipa parts--into New Music terms.The undertaking is of course very ambitious but what matters is that the result breathes and expresses in lively fashion the double impetus for its creation. It all works, in short, in engaging and memorable ways.

You could say that about the entire program. Meticulously detailed and spirited performances and rather breathtaking compositional maneuvers make it all new and heartening. This is music of real merit, thoroughly path-breaking and intrinsically worthwhile as a serious foray to widen the intercultural boundaries of New Music today. Recommended, surely.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Ben Verdery, Scenes from Ellis Island, New Guitar Music

Composer-guitarist Ben Verdery writes guitar music that is rather remarkably idiomatic, music that lays out on the strings well. If you did not already know he was a guitarist (since he plays on the album at hand) you could tell from the music. I mean on his album Scenes from Ellis Island (Panoramic Recordings PAN14), which features six of his guitar-centered works, with the composer on mostly nylon stringed classical guitar (but also baritone and steel string for one work).

It is work that evokes both musical and extra-musical associations and does so with a sense of eclectic encompass. Listeners would not mistake this music for something historical, older. It is thoroughly of our time without necessarily being rabidly "Modern." For that it is thoroughly Contemporary. There are "Progressive" elements, a nod to Popular Culture (in vocalist's beat box rhythms on "From Aristotle") a kind of ethnic vocal panorama (in "Scenes from Ellis Island") and some very nicely hewn guitar lines, some fascinating inventions for one or two guitars, vocals, and in one case, cello (the latter on the title work).

Ben Verdery in the liners talks of the varying inspirations for the works on the album. The opening "What He Said" (with Simon Powis on second guitar) utilizes call-and-response and musically portrays Verdery's inspired love of Gospel Music.

"Now and Ever" centers on the minor second interval, accentuated by a special tuning. The interval for the composer represents the struggle and sorrow of those suffering repression.

The four-part "From Aristotle" features a co-composed collaboration with mixed vocalist Mark Martin (with beat box, Tuvan overtone singing, East Indian rhythms, synchronized vocal-guitar lines and a "baroque/gospel guitar lament") both making musical equivalencies to several texts by Aristotle.

"the rain falls equally on all things" was initially inspired by Schubert's "Nachtstuck."

"Scenes from Ellis Island" followed from the composer's visit to the historic site and his feelings on encountering evidence of the bold and brave process of immigration, of those "yearning to breathe free" as the iconic poem about Lady Liberty has it.

In the main this music gives us some extraordinary well constructed, inspired and for that matter well played guitar works. Anyone who looks for such things in the New Music realm should find this one especially nice, I would hope. Recommended.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Kirk O'Riordan, Autumn Winds, Holly Roadfeldt, Ann Moss, Peter Dutilly

There are compositional avenues that have begun opening up since somewhere in the later '70s-early '80s of last century. It is a post-Minimalist tonal lyricism that owes something to the examples of Arvo Part, the John Cage of "Cheap Imitation" (his Satie tribute), George Crumb, perhaps the example of later Morton Feldman, and other things besides, not to omit influential Minimalists like Riley and Reich.

It is music that generally eschews complex harmonic modulation for sometimes an almost chant-like ritual steady-state. Repetition may be present but it is not the primary vehicle of musical syntax so much as there is a linear logic of that sometimes as combined with an overarching variational sequencing.The more ritualistic of this style has been dubbed Radical Tonality and the Cold Blue label has been an outstanding exponent of that byway, but there are less cosmically oriented works out there too that nonetheless show off a direct tonal lyricism as well. Today we have a composer in the latter "camp," and four exemplary chamber configuration examples.

I speak of Kirk O'Riordan and his Autumn Winds (Ravello RR8029). Featured are a series of somewhat interlocking, mutually illuminating, recently composed (2012-2016) works, two for soprano Ann Moss and pianist Holly Roadfeldt--the song cycle "Four Beautiful Songs" (with Peter Dutilly on viola) and the vocal-instrumental sequence "Autumn Winds," then the purely instrumental contrasts in "Prayer Stones" (for Roadfelt and Peter Dutilly on viola), and "Beautiful Nightmares" for piano (Roadfelt) alone.

"Nightmares" is the more harmonically complex, at times more dense and therefore the more overtly "Modern" sounding of the lot. But like the others there are tonal sequences that set the music apart as not of the "variations on variations" sort of approach. There are sectionalities and a deliberate quality one comes to recognize and appreciate on repeated listens.

The viola-piano "Prayer Stones" is quite contemplative, lyrical, "quietly spiritual" as Holly Roadfelt notes on the liners. The music breaks into a number of meditative gestures and has a beauty that in effect haunts the listening self when heard with deep concentration.

"Autumn Wind" sets 15 haiku by the revered poet Matsuo Basho. There is a musical equivalency to the spare suchness of the words that enchants nicely.

Finally the soprano-viola-piano "Four Beautiful Songs" sets the poetic texts of O'Riordan's close friend Lee Upton. It is all about beauty as experienced from multiple personal angles, including as Roadfelt notes "the wonder, the conflict, the joy and the turbulence" of it all. The music has tensile strength and contrasting episodic originality.

That in effect is this album in a nutshell. It is a program notable for its fine, idiomatic performances by all concerned. Compositionally it seems on first blush simple at heart but as one listens the details both flesh themselves out and freshen the listening mind so that it all seems increasingly evergreen  and more complex than at first might be thought. Recommended for those New Music enthusiasts and acolytes who find a lyrical turn welcome. O'Riordan brings us much to contemplate and appreciate.


Thursday, February 6, 2020

Will Liverman, Jonathan King, Whither Must I Wander

Baritone Will Liverman and pianist Jonathan King join together for a program of mostly 20th century songs about the varying dimensions of wanderlust, the urge to travel in search of transformation. Whither Must I Wander (Odradek ODRC389) bounds between points in a varied palette of musical narrative that each paint a poetic picture in words and tone.

The first thing one experiences on hearing this program is the sheer burnished beauty and heroism of Will Liverman's baritone. His voice is impeccably musical, nicely declamatory, dramatically present, powerful and rather sublimely booming forth no matter what the song. Pianist Jonathan King seconds Liverman with a pianism that is poetic and, yes, heroic in its own way as well.

The two together give us most distinctive readings of lively works, each track giving vent to a story-song that comes to terms with a varying personal mandate to wander.

With Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Songs of Travel" the narrator in nine interrelated songs grasps the freedom and independence of voyaging forth onto the open road and contrasts it with the contrasting allurements of love and home.

James Frederick Keel (1871-1954) follows with three songs on the lure of the seagoing life, "Three Salt-Water Ballads." Herbert Howells (1892-1983) on "King David" weaves a magic about a restlessness underpinning to wandering while showing some of his own original harmonic twists and turns. Aaron Copland's adaptation of the old folk hymn "Gather at the River" brings out the spiritual dimensions of going forth, while the compelling traditional seafaring folk song (arranged in 2000 by Steven Mark Kohn) "Ten Thousand Miles Away" sings obliquely of the longing to migrate home at last to one's life love.

For the final songs we get memorable treatment of Nikolai Medtner's 1905 "Wanderer's Night Song" and Robert Schumann's 1840 "Mendnacht," both with lyric invention and vivid content.

So ends a lively and moving program. It is none of it Modern in some advanced sense so much as it is highly engaging in the tandem of harmonic-melodic excellence and the singular theme effectively unwound by the very talented twosome. Liverman seems born to such lieder and with the brightly sensitive Jonathan King creates some definite magic. The Vaughan Williams has in its own way a definitive aura about it and the rest of the songs stand out with ringing musicality. Bravo!

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Sonora Winds, From Shadow to Light, 20th Century Music for Winds from Poland

Six 20th Century Polish Composers contribute well-crafted and often inspired wind music as the talented and disciplined Sonora Winds step forward for the album From Darkness to Light (MSR Classics MS1702).

We are treated to some fine Lutoslawski and five compositions by lesser known but worthy 20th Century Polish voices. All-in-all there are three Trios for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon--by Witold Lutoslawski (1945), Antoni Szalowski (1937), and Wladyslaw Walentynowicz (1952). Then for flute, clarinet and bassoon there is Wawrzyntec Zulawski's 1950 "Aria con Variazioni" and Janina Garscia's 1967 "Tema con Variazioni." Finally there is the one wind quartet in Tadeusz Baird's "Divertimento" for Flute, Clarinet, Oboe and Bassoon (1956).

Perhaps the Lutoslawski is a tad more Modern than the rest, and it is excellent listening, but throughout there is no drop off in quality. There is in fact a thoughtful articulateness in a highly engaging Neo-Classical mode for the whole of the music.

And kudos to the Sonora Winds (Bethany Gonella, flute, Stuart Sutter, oboe, Anastasiya Nyzkodub, clarinet, and Marta Troicki, bassoon) for a uniformly detailed and expressive sonance from first to last.

It should be a boon to all who follow Polish Modernists and wind chamber music. The music has a down-to-earth accessibility that should have general appeal as well. Nicely done! Sonora is a definite phenomena and the repertoire is a most pleasant surprise.