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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 dedicated in loving memory to his father.

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.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Civitas Ensemble, Jin Yin

Formed around a nucleus of Chicago-based instrumentalists, the Civitas Ensemble shows us what they are made of on Jin Yin (Cedille Records CDR 90000 193), a fascinating anthology of New Music by Contemporary Chinese composers.Three works are in their premiere performances, two are premieres for the arrangements made especially for the Civitas Ensemble. All are very worthwhile.

Ever since 2011 and the inception of the Civitas Ensemble, there has been an important nexus with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra via founding members Yuan-Qing Yu (Assistant Concertmaster of CSO), Kenneth Olsen (Assistant Principal Cello) J. Lawrie Bloom (CSO Bass Clarinet)--but also a general Chi-town nexus with additional locals, notably co-founding member Winston Choi who is head of the piano program at Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts. As the current recording attests the ensemble has a pronounced dedication to the international dimensions of New Music.

All five compositions have in common the bridging of two cultural musical traditions--that of the legacy of Chinese Classical and that of "Western" New Music as developed and practiced over the years, and of course coming into present-day developments . Each work invents that bridge for itself. No two creative solutions are alike and what stands out is how each has real originality, a pronounced lack of formulaic solutions, and how well the Civitas Ensemble takes on the implications of each work and does a supremely imaginative and fully musical job bringing the music to life.

Jin Ying, Chinese for "Golden Tone," was spearheaded by Civitas principal Yuang-Qing Yu. It is Civitas' second album to date. "Golden Tone" points to the search for musical clarity of expression and pronounced substance that the album surely succeeds in realizing.

The opener "Five Elements" brings to us Zhou Long's lively music in a new arrangement that features well emergent solo parts for Yihan Cheng on the pipa, Cynthia Yeh on percussion and Emma Gerstein on flute and piccolo. The elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth were considered in ancient Chinese philosophy to comprise the building blocks of life itself. Each element gets an evocative movement. Especially notable is the deliberate, long-formed first movement "Metal" and the exciting energy of "Fire" during movement four.

Next up is Chen Yi's "Night Thoughts," now rescored and rearranged especially for the Civitas Ensemble. It was inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem and reflects the contemplative mood of the poem--lonely and nostalgic, open, serene.

The premiere recording of Lu Pei's "Scenes Through Window" has an irresistible rhythmic drive and complex cyclings-through that build logically and satisfyingly. The second half of the work gives a more calm and lyrical spin to the proceedings. Well done!

Vivian Fung's "Bird Song" begins ornately with violin and piano waxing eloquently with the equivalent of a series of warbles. Things gradually get more robust, more mercurial and on it goes nicely, stirringly.

The album ends with the seven-movement "Emanations of Tara" by Yao Chen, featuring once again the virtuoso Yihan Chen on the pipa. The scoring is masterful and rather neo-Impressionistic in a classic Chinese way with its glowing luminescence, its mysterious depths and breadths.

There is much to appreciate in the melding of the exemplary lucidity of the Civitas Ensemble and the dynamic Chinese-Modern brilliance of the five composers involved. This is one of the finest such offerings I have heard, the very best in a long time. Strongly recommended.