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Monday, August 31, 2020

Edward Smaldone, Once and Again

New Focus Recordings continues its vital series of Contemporary Modern  music with a volume of the music of Edward Smaldone, Once and Again (New Focus FCR258). The program focuses on five configurations in five compositions written between 1986 and 2014, all distinctively High Modern and showing great craftsmanship and consistent inventive knack. There is a twofold impetus behind this music as the press sheet that came with my copy discusses--that is, an aesthetic balance between "'classical' values of motivic and formal cohesion and development" as contrasted with "'modernist' values of capturing an improvisatory sensibility, asymmetry, and irregularity." A highly chromatic vocabulary, and irregular rhythmic-melodic articulation contrast with the sometimes use of dance rhythms and germinal motivic unfolding for a refreshing vivacity in-the-moment.

Two multi-movement vocal cycles grace the program and provide some key signposts to the musical direction. The declamatorily dramatic "Cantare di Amore" (2009) gives soprano Tony Arnold a chance to shine and gets memorable instrumental underpinning from harp and flute. The narrative flow of the five-part "Letters from Home" (2000/2007/2014) allows soprano Susan Narucki detailed expressive possibilities and gets very appealing instrumental underscoring for flute, clarinet and piano.

"Duke/Monk" (2011) pays tribute to two cornerstone Jazz brilliances with two very lively and expressive spaces for clarinet and piano. They melodically encompass a wide range of chromatic possibilities yet have a hovercraft steadiness around key centers that combine with a sort of soulful exuberance--which in turn works out and maintains a steady-state original expressivity.

The "Double Duo" (1987/2006) expands and extends a complex articulation of chromatic Modernist elevations for flute, clarinet, violin and cello--with eight minutes of complex and well weathered singularity..

The program ends with the chamber string orchestra work "Sinfonia." It is a delightfully thickened, ever varying multi-strand presentation of lasting interest and a great way to conclude.

To live with this music for a week or so is to increasingly open oneself to a series of musical dialogues that sound more and more articulate as one rehears, sound more and more right. Happily recommended.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Tarik O'Regan, All Thing Common, Robert Istad Conducts Pacific Chorale and Salastina

The choral music of Tarik O'Regan has something timeless about it, obliquely reaching back into sacred Western traditions as reference points yet making a joyfully contemporary noise of it all, not sounding like an Arvo Part so much as sharing an old-in-new synthetic view in its own way original and lyrical, Occident to quasi-Orient? West to East?

From the opening strains of the title work "All Things Common" (2017) we hear a rooted euphonious outreaching both highly lyrical and ultimately at key moments redolent with a spinning circularity and modality that marks it all as of our current time without sacrificing the linearity of sacred vocal tradition from the Gregorian period onward.

Seven works in all grace the program (Yarlung Records YAR02592), the centerpiece being the world premier recording of the specially commissioned "Facing West." All show how the Pacific Chorale and (as needed) the string quintet Salastina under conductor Robert Istad seem temperamentally suited in a near ideal way to the subtle lyric expression of the music.

The old-in-new aspect of O'Regan is especially prominent in the mass-chant evolution of "Magnificat & Nunc Dimitis: Variations for Choir" of 2001. From there the compositions move directionally away from such things to a tonal-rituality that is originally contentful  "The Ecstacies Above" (2006) has dramatic push and pull and works itself out intricately between choral and string voices. The musical syntax follows a motival sequence with variations around and upon it.

"I Listen to the Stillness of You" (2016) is a portion of "Mass Observation. " It sends us off with a beautifully melodic caress of lyrical sound.

The sum total of this inclusive O'Regan program is a significant mix of choral gems spanning the millennium to now. Each work stands out on its own and ultimately Istad and the Pacific Chorale paint a beautifully full picture of the composer and his lucid beauty of idea and form. I've listened countless times and each hearing opens out new vistas, so I have no doubt on this one. Enthusiastically recommended.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Harold Shapero, Orchestral Works, Vivian Choi, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

Our musical categories in the end are only a shorthand indicator of what a particular piece of music might sound like. So to say that Harold Shapero (1920-2013) was a Neo-Classical exponent it only indicates loosely that he had a formal affinity with the structural aspects of Mozart and Beethoven but that his Modernist slant to it was all his own. We hear that most productively on a new program, a mini-retrospective of his Orchestral Works (BMOP Sound 1072), as performed quite ably and effectively by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose, with Vivian Choi handling the solo piano parts in a masterly fashion.

He developed a closeness to Leonard Bernstein while attending Harvard, and also studied with an impressive cast of greats--Piston, Hindemith, Copland and Stravinsky, He especially emphasized later in life how important to him was the influence and inspiration of the great Nadia Boulanger.

And so we get an excellent sampling of some five Shapero works in all. There is a very stately, majestic quality to the "Sinfonia in D Minor" (1948), the "Credo for Orchestra" (1959) and a similar framework as a launching pad for the multi-movement "Partita in C for Piano and Small Orchestra" (1960). The Partita covers a good deal of ground in ways distinctive and un-derivative. The musical syntax has a logic and elegance that carries the listening self over a great span of related possibilities and intrinsically fascinating terrain. In the process there are vivid orchestrational shades that blend well together and keep the ears focused and interested.

The Jazz-situated "On Green Mountain for Jazz Ensemble" (1957) is a breath of fresh air, a memorably upbeat paean that holds together well no matter how many listens.

The concluding "Serenade in D for String Orchestra" (1945) has lyrical strength and playful inventiveness with something of a folk-like expressiveness that gives us a heartening send-off. Shapero manages to create a serenade that convincingly updates a singing Mozartian earthiness while belonging thoroughly to the contemporary world he most definitely participated in.

In the end this is a valuable exploration of a composer we need to recognize and rehear. Rose and BMOP give us ideal readings of these five worthy pieces. I highly recommend this one for anyone interested in 20th century US Modern orchestral. It is a delight!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Pacifica Quartet, Contemporary Voices, Shulamit Ran, Jennifer Higdon, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Under the sun there will always be new music, or at least we hope. No matter the difficulty of the times and challenges we all face. So today we contemplate such a thing, a recent program of three landmark chamber works of true substance and style, all by women composers. It's the Pacifica Quartet and their CD entitled Contemporary Voices (Cedille Records 90000 196). Interestingly all three composers on the program are Pulitizer Prize winners. Most regular readers of this blogspace will be familiar with the names--Shulamit Ran, Jennifer Higdon and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. And no doubt you've heard at least some of the music. 

As it so happens these are cornerstone contributions to the Modern American chamber scene. Each work brims over with originality and composer-craft brilliance. Whether you contemplate Ran's "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory--String Quartet No. 3" (in its world premiere recording)  Higdon's "Voices" Quartet, or Zwilich's "Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet" (with the lovely addition of Otis Murphy on alto saxophone), there is a wealth of excellent music that does not stand pat but rather unceasingly moves things forward without a set formula or a predictable outcome.

Shulamit Ran got to know and appreciate the Pacifica Quartet while they were in residence at the University of Chicago, 1999-2016. Shulamit in that period was actively a professor of composition there (she is now Professor Emeritus). "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory--String Quartet No 3" was written expressively for the quartet. It centers around paying homage to artists who created during the Holocaust, especially the painter Felix Nussbaum, who was martyred at Auschwitz in 1944. The four movements explore deeply somber beholdings, bleak memories. survival of the artworks as transcendance and a refusal to go down without an urgently creative flourish. The music has tenderness, tensile strength and dissonance as appropriate and tributary complexities of form.

Jennifer Higdon's three movement "Voices" has a great deal of breathtaking Modernist animation it its opening "Blitz" movement, introspective expressionist interest in its inner "Soft Enlacing" movement, 
And  in its finale movement "Grace" there is a very moving constancy of heightened emotive and aural vibrancy.

The presence of Otis Murphy on alto saxophone and the singularity of his part on Ellen Taafe Zwilich's "Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet" makes for a lively contrast in the program. The three movements work together in variously exciting ways to underpin a sometimes jazz-inflicted and always extraordinarily interesting series of musical discourses dialogic and endlessly fascinating.

Both Maestro Murphy and the Pacifica Quartet play as if they were born to this music, which they certainly are in their idiomatically superlative talent and their insight into this most latest of Modernisms. Three local women composers of utmost eloquence carry forth on this disk. The results are most happy indeed. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Elgar, Violin Concerto, Stenhammer, Two Sentimental Romances, Triin Ruubel, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Jarvi

The music of Edward Elgar (1857-1934) covers a good deal of ground. Of course there is a lot more depth and structured flow than one hears in his "Pomp and Circumstances" music, and though he flourished in England in the Victorian period, his music is considerably more complicated and wide-ranging in its moodiness and expressiveness than that term "Victorian" might imply. If he indeed is in many ways the father of the English Modern Renaissance of composers it is primarily for his consistent excellence than necessarily  for a definitive set of stylistic roots, though  there is an aspect aspect of that which one might trace through what followed, even if the subsequent developments were perhaps more overtly innovative for the times than that they were extraordinarily beholden to him.

A major work that I have previously heard far too little is his Violin Concerto. Violinist Triin Ruubel, conductor Neeme Jarvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra  (SCCD016) give us a detailed and vibrant reading of the Concerto plus a bonus from Swedish Romantic Wilhelm Stenhammer (1871-1927) and his Two Sentimental Romances.

The three movement Elgar has a fertile thematic abundance, a genuine solo violin personality and orchestral-orchestrational luxuriance that has a deeply Romantic cast yet as we come to expect of much of Elgar's orchestral oeuvre a distinctive originality unique to the English master and at least for me with an added enlivenment not at first easy to put into words. There are in the developmental sections especially a particular working out, almost a sturm und drang conflicting of motifs put in poetic tonal terms. There is a weightiness to Elgar that is not the weightiness of a Wagner nor a Bruckner, rather a Romanticism transcendent and highly personal.

Elgar completed the work in 1910. The three movements on the current recording clock in at nearly 50 minutes for one of his longest works and for its devilishly complex solo part one of the most demanding of such works. The long and winding road that the music takes requires a patient concentration from the listener but pays off with a rather labyrinthine epic fullness with which it is surely gratifying to become familiar and intimate.

Triin Ruubel's performance here is ecstatically lyrical and consistently moving. Her interactions with the ever shifting orchestral carpeting so deftly and poetically provided by Maestro Jarvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra is something very special, subtle yet impassioned, extraordinarily well-paced and endlessly fascinating to experience.

The contrastingly brief ten minutes of Wilhelm Stenhammer's "Two Sentimental Romances" gives us a lyrical breath of fresh air after the Mandarin complexities of the Elgar. It may not precisely change your view of the later Romantic possibilities for violin and orchestra, but it is quite uplifting and appealing regardless.

The performances are top-notch and the music pretty essential. Most definitely recommended.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Alexander Woods, Refractions, Music for Violin and Piano by Asplund, Dvorak, Mozart, Thornock

Violinist Alexander Wood shows us his versatility and prowess on the recent four-work program Refraction: Music for Violin and Piano (MSR Classics 1689). He has his considerable way with a memorable Classical work (Mozart's "Violin Sonata No. 26"), a somewhat neglected 19th century Romantic gem (Dvorak's "Four Romantic Pieces") and two Contemporary Modern works of note (Christian Asplund's "One Eternal Round" and Neil Thornock's "A Crust of Azure").

Alexander gets some beautiful piano support and artistry by Rex Woods. Note too that Aubrey Smith Woods plays a nicely forward second violin on "One Eternal Round."

Regardless of the period and province of the four works, Alexander Woods shows us just how beautiful his tone is, sweetly singing but differentiated from a Heifetz by its relative extroversion and kinetic robustness. That is just to say of course that Heifetz is another kind of beautiful.

On Mozart's "Violin Sonata No. 26" we get some very impeccable phrasing (from the violin and the piano). I am not that familiar with this sonata but no matter because the performance is really celestial. The Andantino (second movement) has a touching tenderness about it that helps put this forward as high above the norm.

Neil Thornock (b. 1977) gives us a very sophisticated and dynamic "A Crust of Azure" for violin and piano. The violin part makes considerable demands on Alexander yet he comes through with power, sweetness and a rather formidable sense of dash. There is an exotically Eastern caste to the music often enough, perhaps slightly Slavic, Gypsy-Romanian, all with a definite Modern twist to the tonality. It is a finely crafted and inspired work played to a "tee."

The violin duet "One Eternal Round" by Christian Asplund gives us a quasi-Minimal concentrism that is moving to experience; and then the Dvorak has a real presence in this reading, once again with that Eastern European flourish that Alexander handles so deftly.

Alexander Woods is a world-class talent, brilliant to hear and rehear. The program does not flag, keeps uncovering new accomplishments in writing and playing! I recommend this one gladly.