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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Douglas Knehans, Edward Smaldone, Double Portrait


One follows a path in life ever. For those musical our path takes us through the music in our heads and the music made as part of the world we inhabit. I am glad as a music writer to be exposed to music I probably would not have otherwise come across, especially in today's world with the virtual holding sway. So I am happy to be able to report in on a Modern American chamber music set entitled Double Portrait  (Ablaze Records ar-00053 2-CDs). It devotes a CD each to the music of Douglas Knehans and Edward Smaldone, two composers whose music I have mentioned on these pages, two who complement one another as two highly inventive Modernists who gain clarity in this kind of musical gallery setting by being juxtaposed one to the other.

Each single-disk program  brings to us a vivid selection of works. The Douglas Knehans one begins straight off with a very dynamic and satisfyingly exciting "Bang" for sextet and electronics. It is music of movement, excellently segueing the electronics part with high organic instrumental colors of rather brilliant hue, wonderfully scored for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin and cello.

A haunting contrast follows with the stark and introspective "Temple" for solo flute. This all has High Modern eloquence, at an edge between tonality and the beyond with ultra-integrated syntax that has the logical sequentiality of the individually near inevitable.

"Lumen" for cello and piano continues the exploratory meditative mood of the work before. It reflects like golden light on a nighttime pond perhaps, showing something more by so doing than what might be otherwise there. The second movement reaches out in a concentric dialog that evinces thematic importance, a distinctive motility that makes beautiful aural sense of the instrumental pairing. The final movement returns to quietude and pondering, then a bit of determinational phraseology, of determined soundings.

The final "Falling Air" for sextet and Chinese sheng returns to a thicker texture, vibrantly outreaching in declamatory animation, then replacing it with longer tones in an open field. Knehans's wonderful way of casting ornate gestures and contrasting singing singleness in multitudes holds forth and stands out as a most fitting way to conclude.

The Smaldone disc opens with a very angular "Rituals: Sacred and Profane" for flute, cello and piano.

And then the violin calls forth to be later joined by infectiously dancing piano in a highly modern "Suite" that at times swings with a pretty mighty New Music arc.

The solo piano "Three Scenes from the Heartland" has a tonally advanced, somewhat jazzed rubato quality and alternately a pronounced rhythmic drive that is quite appealing.

The "Double Duo" of flute and clarinet and violin and cello proceeds in a very compelling set of interlocking twists and turns that makes an increasingly indelible impression on the musical memory.

So that makes up this lively and very musical Double Portrait. Each composer gives us state-of-the-art chamber modernisms that stand out and stay with you. The performances and recording quality are both very much excellent. This is music to savor, an irresistible set of works you will doubtless be glad to hear many times going forward. I know I will.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Connor Chee, Scenes From Dinetah

"Dinetah" is the Navajo Nation's name for itself. Navajo pianist Connor Chee's Scenes from Dinetah (Wild Saguaro Records) becomes comprehensible and welcome following that knowledge.  The album pairs twelve piano pieces with twelve brief preludes of poetic-descriptive Navajo texts conjoined in turn with succinct wooden flute and piano passages that flesh out the mood. The texts paint a particular scene, such as the first which translates from Navajo as "In the morning, I offer white corn pollen with my prayers." The prelude passages are atmospheric and they set the stage for the more substantial solo piano works themselves, which have a diatonic modality that relates back to traditional Navajo melodies indirectly.

While the music is quite peaceful, this is not to be confused with New Age music in that it is more substantial and more directed in its tonal melodic musicality. It is music that is quite lyrical and happily quite inventive while still retaining a Navajo feel to it. 

I found that once I got past the first listen the musical content began to differentiate itself so that there was no mistaking the contentful individuality of it all. It is not entirely expected and so all the better for it. I recommend this one for anybody seeking restful yet concentric  pianisms.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Euntaek Kim, CME Presents Russian Piano Volume 3, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff


Pianist Euntaek Kim makes his recording debut on the very recent album CME Presents Russian Piano Volume 3 (MSR Classics MS 1745). The program gives us three Early Modern Russian classics from the early years of the 20th century. Anyone who is into Expressionist Russian piano will no doubt know these works--Prokofiev's "Piano Sonata No. 2" (1912),  Scriabin's "Piano Sonata No. 8" (1913) and Rachmaninoff's "Piano Sonata No. 1" (1908). Kim gives them all bold new readings.

All three works have a certain Expressionist turbulence to them, with Scriabin working towards the end of his compositional life and of course Prokofiev and Rachmaninov at the beginning. It was a time of cataclysm in Russia socio-politically and all three composers reflect their times in these sonatas. The Prokofiev is perhaps the most outgoing masterpiece of the three, a work not quite paralleled let alone surpassed, even by Prokofiev himself. That is not to say that the other two works are inconsequential--far from it. And to get them all here together is to understand how there was a certain convergence of manner, of affect that was rather beyond a typical Romanticism and into something heavily wrought and complexly Russian at heart.

I've grown up over the years listening to various versions of these works and have come to appreciate the way pianists like Richter and select others have accentuated the virtuosi veneer of these works--played often enough at the higher levels pretty rapidly with the emphasis on a supercharged velocity. What is distinctive about Euntaek Kim's readings of these works is a slower, more exacting articulation that brings out most clearly the musical joining together of part with part. The Rachmaninov sounds more deliberate especially, still turbulent but also judiciously weighted towards a logical sequential spanning of the whole.

What is true of the Rachmaninov holds true for the Scriabin and Prokofiev as well. Happily as many times as I've heard performances of all three works Kim's more pondersome versions give new life to the music to my ears and all the better for it am I. Euntaek Kim breathes new life into these chestnuts. Bravo!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Lars Hannibal, [Blue], Compositions and Arrangements by Lars Hannibal


Some contemporary music has a timeless feel to it. That's certainly true of composer-guitarist Lars Hannibal's [Blue], Compositions and Arrangements by Lars Hannibal (OUR Recordings 8.226914). The program contains ten short compositions by Lars and then 8 Danish songs arranged for recorder and guitar, two by Carl Neilson plus others by lesser-known composers.

Four musical voices variously give us this music, principally Lars on classical guitar and Michala Petri on recorder, but then also three songs for guitar and recorder plus the lovely voice of Amalie Hannibal Petri and the cello of Agnete Hannibal Petri. Those songs are quite feelingful, with a sweetness that is in many ways a product of Amalie's almost Astrud Gilberto-like tenderness, and then just as much the idiomatically felicitous, the quite natural charm of the songs themselves.

The instrumental compositions and song arrangements have tonal resonance and guitar-recorder historicity that touch on almost Dowlandesque-through-to-classical-and-beyond guitar underpinnings without directly referencing so much as atmospherically paralleling such things.

The basic recorder-guitar format that occupies most of the album time excels thanks to the vibrancy of the compositions and the fine shadings of the two instrumentalists. That is true of the Hannibal pieces and then in slightly different ways of  the rearranged Danish songs--by Thorvald Aagaard, Thomas Laub, Carl Nielsen, Franz Gebauer, Oluf Ring, and C.E.F. Weyse. The music covers tonal territory that gives Lars and Michala new expressive possibilities and fleshes out the program further in happy ways.

There is a real place for this CD in your listening cycle I suspect. It you want a jolt of songful tonal fare that enhances your mood with subtlety and always with high musicality, well then here you go. I could easily scarf up an entire album of the songs with Amalie P. and quartet but the three here act as signposts showing the way through the substantial songful landscape while they punctuate the rest of the program which is very nice indeed. Recommended.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

John Harbison, Concertos for String Instruments, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose


John Harbison (b 1938) is a dean of Modern US composers with more than 300 distinguished and original works in his catalog. The vital Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose highlights his later period with some three Concertos for String Instruments (BMOP Sound  1074). We get a chance to drill down into some brilliance of presence in the 1988 "Concerto for Viola and Orchestra," the 2009 "Double Concerto for Violin, Violoncello and Orchestra" and the 2005 "Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra."

Later Harbison retains the high inventive and orchestrational acuteness of his earlier, more High Modernist work but then adds a somewhat Neo-Classical tang to it all. Through the entirety of this program he retains his own original voice, quite happily. This is as true of the overall body of work in the pas decades as it is of these works. The concerted dynamics of these present works however set them apart in their dialogic repartee, as one might expect.

I am appreciating all three here for their idiomatic string expression but the Bass Viol Concerto stands out for me as especially memorable. Edwin Barker does a fine job as the bass soloist. The sonority is enhanced by a tuning in fifths instead of fourths. The same performance excellence also applies throughout the program to Marcus Thompson on viola, Emily Bruskin on violin and Julia Bruskin on cello.

In the end we experience three centerpiece expressi0ons of Late Modernity played with care and proper artistry. It is another BMOP winner and a major addition to the Harbison discography. Grab this by all means if you are so inclined.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Liza Stepanova, E Pluribus Unum, New Piano Music


Piano master Liza Stepanova pays homage to present-day American immigrant composers in her very winning CD E Pluribus Unum (Navona NV6300). The project was in response to changing attitudes and the at-times disturbing policies prevailing in the US in the last several years. Liza underscores the contributions made by immigrants to the health and welfare of the nation by centering her program on a select and fascinating set of Modern solo piano works by composers who have migrated to the USA. These are not "big names" so much as recent voices, stars in the night sky we can start to recognize, so to speak.

There are some nine evocative this-century Modern solo piano works, all reflecting the time and the lead-up to the time, so having some influence from the world about us of course, some slight ethnicity in whatever way we can experience it, not always in some overtly obvious way. Everything was written between 2000 and 2017 and sound that way, in that they are not as directed backwards as forwards. 

The music is hearteningly well played and definitely something substantial and ultra-pianistic so that everything keeps sounding more and more "special" if you give it half a chance. By the time you are done you appreciate the composers involved, whether it be Lera Auerbach, Kamran Ince, Chaya Czernowin, Reinaldo Moya, Anna Clyne, Eun Young Lee, Badie Khaleghian, Pablo Ortiz, and Gabriela Lena Frank.

The music is less Modernist abstraction and more in line with evocative dramatics, sound color poetry that owes more to Crumb and perhaps Messiaen, the lyrical side of Cage, an aspect here and there of Morton Feldman, a lingering waft of Impressionist expression, yet for all that a decided step forward in original content. 

Clearly Ms. Stepanova has taken to these works and has found definitive performance pathways.  This is music of importance and depth, played brilliantly. It is something the New Music follower should not miss, truly. Kudos!

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Eric Heilner, Modern Sounds in Classical Music


Who is Eric Heilner? A look on his website biography is most instructive. His father was Irwin Heilner, who studied with Roger Sessions and Nadia Boulanger and was a member of Aaron Copland's Young Composer's Group. Eric grew up in a Classical Music household. Piano lessons and hearing the Door's "Light My Fire" when it came out combined and he played a good deal of rock without becoming world famous exactly. although he opened for some legendary artists. He in time entered a  non-musical career, a common thing out there and indeed my experience as well.

In the 2000s the music bug bit him again and to make a long story short he began composing and rediscovered and extended his immersion in the classical greats. He studied at Julliard and the rest, the result is what you hear on this CD, Modern Sounds in Classical Music (self released).

We are treated to some six compositions in all. The style is Tonal Modern in a way that suggests a freely eclectic non-dogmatic openness, with an "ear-to-the-ground" response to a lifetime of musical experience.

From the first memorable strains of "Short Story for Viola & Piano" we hear an expressiveness and a dynamic that shows a pan-musical influence that incorporates Rock, Romantic, New Music, the underlying presence of Classical Era roots  and a sort of songfulness that perhaps comes with a vast musical hearing-playing that occurs in a full life?

"Bounce #3" puts a semi-metallic Rock guitar sound in touch with rocking piano, floating minimalesque winds and sometimes strident strings. It is a nice change from the typical these days. That is true of the program as a whole.

Another example "SQrt - Season 1 Episode 1" is a string quartet movement that clusters with two others for lively listening. This is music that breaks any pre-set mold and does so inventively..

If you are open to anything really musical in the New Music world and do not set your categories to hard and fast ones you will find this music a happy adventure I suspect. I am sympathetic to the "later in life" rediscovery of Mr. Heilner--since I too have a somewhat similar trajectory. He is no Folk Art Grandma Moses and perhaps that is for the best, There might be some "outsider" art connection one might make on listening though, regardless. And who says there has to be some unbreakable set of rules for what New Music must be? Eric Heilner has a natural talent and we are the better for hearing his music I would certainly say. Recommended.