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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Kinga Augustyn, Turning in Time, Modern Music for Violin Unaccompanied


The unaccompanied string solo work is, along with the string quartet, a locus where composer and performer can convene on the deepest levels, where seriousness of purpose does not generally run up against strong pressure to please large numbers of audiences. We generally look backwards to Johann Sebastian Bach as the lineal forefather of the bare-wires solo works for violin and cello (though he was not chronologically the first so much as the contentual "spiritual founder" so to speak). 

In the later eighteenth and early 20th centuries Paganini and Max Reger in different ways made their marks on the post-Bachian dialog of solo violin music. The Modern era found in the unaccompanied violin increasingly an aesthetic platform for deeply intimate expression and an art-for-art's sake ambition to forge a modern musical language both abstract and affective to varying degrees, concentrically and infectiously, if you will.

In this light masterful violinist Kinga Augustyn gives us a deeply focused program of Modern unaccompanied violin works on her new album Turning in Time (Centaur CRC 3836). It is a gathering of some six works covering the period from 1958 to 2018. It is a far ranging set of works that call upon the soloist to focus unceasingly, to embrace the ultimate balance point between lateral flow and vertical articulation.

So for example with Luciano Berio's exacting and dramatic "Sequenza VIII" (1976) Ms. Augustyn triumphs in the way she keeps the momentum, the unfolding of the intense line making as she also breezes through and eloquently configures the passages that with hairpin exactitude lay out sequences of multiple stops. We are drawn to key passages that track the music forward, then experience a relative repose before charging forward again.

The Polish compositional phenom Grazyna Bacewicz has been gathering a momentum of recognition in the past few decades and we see why on her 1958 "Sonata No. 2." There is a wonderful Eastern European Modernist logic to the advanced expanded tonality with both consonance and dissonance in the double stops and a remarkably fluid Politsh grace to the line weaving Ms. Augustyn realizes it all with poetic elan and, ultimately, heroic finesse with the rapid multi-stopped virtuoso passagework that jumps out at us towards the end.

A new voice on our horizon is felt and heard with Debra Kaye and her beautiful 2018 "Turning in Time." We feel as we listen at the other side of the Modern Classic juggernaut, having gleaned from dissonance and atonality how a return to key centers is tempered today with a full knowledge of what all possible chromatic combinations and intervals brings to us in potentia, the richness of freedom of possibility. And very appropriately Ms. Kaye gives us a pithy quotation from a Bach Chaconne that reminds us of how far we have come. What Ms. Kaye gives to us is rich yet spare. a giant redwood of potential before there is a leafing, so to say.

Isan Yun further reminds us of the roots when he opens with  a theme from Bach's "Art of the Fugue" and proceeds to extend it to a place beyond itself, nicely and with a gravitas that Kinga brings to us wonderfully well.

From there we bounce to a great Elliot Carter work in four parts and some choice Penderecki. All that mounts up no matter where you are in the program's solo legacy.--following the sequence laid out for us or hopping around as I was when I wrote this. 

The point is that the whole gives us more than the sum, but then it is a whole that feels just right in terms of our Modernity right now. Then again  it gives us a gorgeous snapshot of the warmth, brilliance and intelligence of Kinga Augustyn, a violinist very much at the forefront of today. Bravo!

Monday, February 22, 2021

Gina Biver, Fuse Ensemble, Nimbus, Colette Inez


You can never be sure where you will be until you get there. That's true of life of course but also of New Music. Take today's musical program featuring the music of Gina Biver, Fuse Ensemble plays Nimbus (Neuma 131). It surprises and pleases. It features vividly musical settings for the recitations of the poetry of Colette Inez, simultaneously narrative, insightful, paradoxically playful yet tragic, poetic. 

The CD jacket explains that this is "for electroacoustic chamber ensemble, voice and spoken word."  This electroacoustic ensemble is mostly various shifting instrumentation (some seven instrumentalists used in varying combinations) and some soundscaped effects. such as church bells and chant-hymn making, and importantly a recitation voice, sometimes filtered or briefly repeated, otherwise true-to-text and linear.

The music is tonal, Post-Minimal I guess you could say when it pulsates, otherwise nicely Contemporary in an expressive narrative way, playful and evocative to reflect and deflect the recitation.

To be more specific it all is a collaboration between Inez and Biver, with the poet reciting some, the composer others and some sung (beautifully) by soprano Tula Pisano. There are previously alluded to ambient recordings of sounds from Nerac, France (the locus of much of the drama). It centers around the poet's thoughts on the coming-to-be and early childhood memories of her very self. It  considers the circumstances of her coming to exist, born of an affair of her father a Roman Catholic Priest and her mother, "a young French scholar assigned to assist him."

It all flows together remarkably well, disarmingly unpretentiously, matter-of-factually, yet touchingly dramatic in its unique obversion of language and music that points nearly obliquely but most memorably and expressively. It its own fashion it has a stunning way about it. It makes me want to hear other works from Ms. Biver. And the poetry gains all the more by its recitation-music-presentation. Take a listen by all means. And grab a copy. Bravo.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

John Robertson, Symphonies No. 4 & 5, Meditation In Flanders Fields, Brataslava Symphony, Anthony Armore

Of the new in music there can be no end. And so we happily gain exposure to new work and try and open up to it all as we hold on to what we already know and revere at the same time, in other words, as we continue to revel in the past masters. 

I've been listening in this vein to an orchestral program from a composer I do not believe I have heard from until now, one John Robertson. His Symphonies No. 4 & 5 and Meditation in Flanders Field (Navona NV 6325) can be heard in the present recording, quite respectably played by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra under Anthony Armore.

Robertson was born and raised in New Zealand and came to Canada in 1967. He then subsequently studied at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. Like Ives before him he has made a career in insurance while composing as time has allowed. His output includes an opera and five symphonies, all of which, the liners inform us, have been recorded by Navona.

The present disk shows us a vibrant and lyrical Romanticism without the heavy baggage of derivation and perhaps in that way akin to Samuel Barber, in other words using the Romantic idiom to forward a personal vision.

Symphony No. 4 (2017) has a very winning way. We immediately take note thematically in the first movement to his effective use of winds, solo clarinet and horns. He straight off shows us a nice sense of orchestration and an ongoing linearity in the theme that keeps us listening. The second movement is Andante with a 6/8 waltz theme for oboe and strings that has mystery and moves on through to further developments that suggest a somewhat bucolic pastoralism and a good bit of magic. The final movement brings to us a bubbly and bright momentum and fittingly ends the work with a sort of folk dance meets orchestrally striking mood, putting the capping touch onto a decidedly good one to hear and have.

"Meditation in Flanders Fields" (2016) features a recitation of John McCrae's poetic thoughts and prayers, if you will, for the fallen soldiers of WWI resting for eternity in their Flanders burial ground. The orchestra heightens the thoughtful and evocative contrasts between nature and history, the human tragedy and the natural of the verse with orchestral depth in quietly, wistfullly singing strings and trumpet-horn call echoes of the martial world now forever gone.

The Symphony No. 5 (2018) continues the proceedings with a furtherance of thematic complexities and gradual unfolding. The endless melodic quality of the opening Allegro reminds us how the composer's inventive resourcefulness sets his music apart and gives us much to hear and rehear with satisfaction and interest. The work continues and brings a unveiling of orchestrational beauty that bears our attention well.

If you do not insist that all new music be devoted to the cutting edge of stylistic futures and welcome a further adventure into and rethinking of Tonal Romanticism this one will give you much to consider and delight in, I suspect. Recommended.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Steven Christopher Sacco, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Amalie Wyrick-Flax, David Oei


I have known nothing of composer Steven Christopher Sacco until now and the engaging EP of his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (American Composers Alliance). It is played with distinction by Amalie Wyrick-Flax on clarinet and David Oei on piano.

The Sonata is in four short movements. It has a tonal lyric bent but also a lot of character that gives it a Modern aura. The clarinet part welcomes an expressionist delivery which Amalie provides in good measure. The piano part has an equally essential presence and David excels in matching Amalie with a soaring sense of sensibility.

This music comes and goes in a flash yet it leaves an impression in the best sort of way. It belongs among the more impressive and original clarinet-piano outings of the present day. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Juan J.G. Escudero, Shapes of Inner Timespaces


From living composer Juan J.G. Escudero comes a rather remarkable album of electroacoustic works under the title Shapes of Inner Timespaces (Neuma 134). All told there are eight works included here, four free-standing and another four grouped under the "Shapes of Inner Timespaces" title theme.

What first strikes one on listening is how gorgeous the sounds are. They are transformational and flowing, waterlogged wet and sometimes metallically plated for an ever evolving beauty, often pitched yet highly charged with atmosphere and vividly colored. It has the motional flow of Stockhausen's "Kontakt" yet very much on its own terms.

The liners from the album document the composer's sure sense of a mathematical  unfolding. The complexities of Escudero's descriptions defy easy summary. Yet they are well worth reading for insights into his working methods. So for example the first work, "Variations on the Bird and the Snow" (2014) takes life with an initial improvisatory recording and subsequent development via "geometric and algebraic processes,"  for the sound analogy to tiling. 

It is a kind of "random tiling ensemble," a "branched surface" imagined as a colored pattern, "where the cells with the same shape, color and orientation correspond to the same tile in a cellular complex." One hopes for insight as one listens and there is plenty to contemplate whether it all becomes clear or remains shrouded in mystery. The point is the experience, and it is a rich one as far as I am concerned.

What's nice is that, e.g., like Xenakis, the post-intuitional complexities that result are the reward for the deep structural transformations the sounds are subjected to. And that is true of each one of the pieces.

Living with this album for a week only confirms my first impression--that this is some of the finest electroacoustic music I have heard in a long time and that it makes me want to hear more! That's the kind of listening experience I hope for every time I listen to new New Music, but of course it can only be completely true of relatively few albums over time. This is one! Listen to it, do.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Michael Hersch, I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon

I write in spite of my inclination lately, for we live in somber times. I've heard news commentators in the last few weeks assert that we live within a mental health crisis, with long-term effects of pandemic and politics, and the accompanying stress of everyday life taking its toll. I myself am not joyously happy these days, though I maintain a balance anyway. Surely some folks in the headlines lately seem disturbed; their actions might best be explained by a chronic point of reference in ir-reality, not to mention a-sociality?

So is this a time to hear music on a decidedly down frame of reference? Not any less than it is always timely to take in a Shakespearian tragedy, for example. In such cases transcendence is the point. I've said such things here before. It is of course critical that the music be well done, or else why bother?

Today I offer you some thoughts about a great example of such a thing, I Hope We Get A Chance to Visit Soon (New Focus Recordings FCR 251)  by Michael Hersch. It is a 16 part dramatic narrative work for two sopranos (Ah Young Hong and Kiera Duffy) with a chamber orchestra (Musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Tito Munoz).

It is a live recording from the Aldeburgh Music Festival and most certainly is high quality sonically. Clocking in at a little over an hour the present performance of the work seems definitive.

The work reaffirms the importance these days of Michael Hersch as one of the leading living voices of US High Modernism. I've covered a fair amount of his music on these pages (type name in search box above for those).

This one looks at the gradually unfolding trauma of a woman who finds she has a tumor that turns out not to be benign. The two sopranos express the progression of the affliction both matter-of-factly and poetically. It follows on the heels of Hersch's "On the Threshold of Winter" (2012) based upon texts by poet Marin Sorescu, who died of cancer in 1996.  

The present work Hersch conceived of as a companion piece and comes to terms with the loss of a close friend, Mary Harris O'Reilly in 2009, also from cancer. The texts for "Hope" are based on letters O'Reilly wrote Hersch plus poetic fragments by Rebecca Elson.

The music and sung text follow the steady progress of the cancer in spite of medical interventions. In the liners Christopher Hailey notes the rather unprecedented aestheticizaton of cancer in both works and indeed it is not your usual dramatic focus. On the other hand the absolute sincerity of the treatment helps us in feeling this as an unforced memento mori of a dear friend, with the obvious care that went into setting these texts.

Perhaps only those who have lost friends or family in slow procession to the inexorable march of cancer can fully appreciate the nuances of this drama. The music is within Hersch's high expressionist syntax and we relate the musical structure understandably with the emotional turmoil of gradual loss. And yet we do it primarily in terms of the internal experience of the patient. We come to feel personally the endless struggle as she must have, and the music portrays it in elaborately stark terms, in a readily express manner you who know Hersch's ways are not surprised to hear.

This is sad music but as one might hope music that in its very artfulness adds both tribute and transcendence, and gives dignity to the long suffering progression it immerses itself within.

Is it the musical equivalent in a way to plunging in an ice-cold stream after spending time in a sweathouse? It may shock the sensibilities by its unstinting honesty, but it remains always the expression of a high art.

Just listen!

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Jordan Dykstra, The Arrow of Time

To read all of Proust, to look into representations of time, to experience Bergman's Seventh Seal  is to alter the way you experience life, or at least that's so to me. Now it is time for me to add Jordan Dykstra's The Arrow of Time (New World 80823-2), a CD that's been out for a few months but has caught my attention definitively in the last week.

It consists of five varied but nearly cinematic works, culminating in the title work. Jordan Dykstra, the liners tell us, has been on the music scene for 15 years, classical, improv, avant garde, etc. The music we hear on this new program proceeds with both deliberation and openness, with conventional chamber ensembles and/or electroacoustics. And I am so glad I have this to hear again.

There is a timeless timefulness to this music, which oftimes involves successive layers of sustain with changing timbral colors, gradual unfoldings that have a wordless narrative quality, yet they "mean" without saying, brightly so.

Layering of sustains are paramount in the opening "Fathom Peaks Unseen" (2015/16) (for 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass and crotales), also the ensuing "Ghosting No. 3" (2017) (for two violas, vibes, synthesizer and reed organ), then also "Orbits" (2016/17) (for viola, sine tones and chen).  

Throughout, the music forms and unforms as drones, harmonies, and sheer sound space. All has the abstraction of meaning more so than the sheer materiality of things. As the music continually builds and shifts, we experience a kind of cognitive motion within self as a kind of analog to the aural experience. Or anyway I feel that listening.

By the time we get to "In the Snow" (2018) (for violin, viola and cello) the sustains are slow moving with brief silences that mark out a periodicity, and so bring us to a post-hypnotic way of experiencing it all. Then comes a mid-section where glisses are added starkly at the beginning of each sustain for contrast. They disappear after a time for the feeling of a making bare again, perhaps roughly standing for the white bareness of an increasingly gathering snow cover?

"The Arrow of Time" (2019) finale puts us down in a new place as it builds with piano, siren, drumbeats and "fixed media playback," into a very narrative-formed unfolding that seems almost Bergman-like in its evocative quality, complete with an unrelenting pulse that evolves into the tick of an ancient clock that in turn evolves and gets reinforcement via complementary contrast sounds. As you listen it feels like time is inexorably there and makes itself felt with real aural force, moment to moment. Bravo to this one! It is unforgettable in its own way.

After a few hearings I gradually came to find deep form and meaning in it all. Jordan Dykstra chimes in with real importance. And he manages to hit home whatever he does here. Is this the music of the future? Who knows, but it certainly captures a recent feeling, a place where we are as it so all happens. And part of the point is the "so all happens" feeling of this music. Hurrah!

Monday, February 1, 2021

Carolyn Surrick & Ronn McFarlane, Fermi's Paradox, Music for Lute and Viola da Gamba


Fermi's Paradox is all about how we do not have evidence of other intelligent life elsewhere even though the promising conditions in some sectors of the Universe would seem to indicate that we should have already found at least some traces of it. Why is that? 

The lute and viola da gamba album Fermi's Paradox (Sono Luminus DSL-92244) is a musical rumination on this conundrum, the entire album named after the magical opening piece lutenist Ronn McFarlane composed for the album. It's one of his three Folk-Early-Neo-Lyric song-like items he performs on the album with Carolyn Surrick on viola da gamba. They are excellent players both and well attendant upon one another's presences for these and some gem-like settings of old English Folk ditties, some Early Music pearls and some otherwise well-healed arrangements of other melodic excellences throughout.

The contrast and flow of the repertoire makes for a continually high listener interest level that's to the gallantry of the performances and beautify of the parts working together.

So we get gigs, jigs, reels and wonderful feels out of such fare as the traditional Irish "She Moved Through the Fair," the English classic "John Barleycorn," the traditional Swedish "Sjungar-Lars Visa" to name a representative few, then Early Music savories by the likes of Dowland, Marin Marais, Hassler, Bach, Telemann, and then present-day surprises like Duane Allman's "Little Martha," plus staples like "Ave Maria," "Amazing Grace," etc.

It is the refusal to stay put in one definite period or genre that makes this of a somewhat surprising appeal, and by that I mean it surprises because everything hangs together even though one would not expect to combine and sequence them all in quite this way.  McFarlane is a marvelous lutenist, as subtle as he is accomplished and Ms. Surrick makes a perfectly vivid contrast with her own supreme musicality. 

Get this one for the sheer pleasure of it.