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Thursday, June 30, 2022

William Grant Still, Summerland and Other Works, Zina Schiff, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Avlana Eisenberg


Maybe as we live we look at how there is a month for this and a month for that, and the rest of the year we hope people will still honor the importance of this and that? As I write these words it is Black Music Month. Well I approve. And happily because of the existence of such a month, we might get to hear music that otherwise we might not? Well the point is to appreciate whatever such things can spawn. For example today I am most happy to extol the virtues of a recent release celebrating the music of William Grant Still, one of the most worthy of 20th century Afro-American Classical composers.

So as I write these words this morning I continue to listen to this Still anthology of some four works, Summerland, Violin Suite, Pastorela, American Suite (Naxos 8.559867). It is competently and inspiringly brought to us here by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Avlana Eisenberg. Violinist Zina Schiff handles beautifully well the solo violin parts for the two works that call for the instrument in the spotlight.

And you listen perhaps as I did with a gradually growing appreciation for the inventive brilliance of the composer. This is not "Modernism" with a capital /M/. And it is not without some references to Afro-American music in the larger world of national music, but in many ways it is not overflowing with such things either. 

And in the end we do well if we do not insist someone like Still, clearly a truly talented composer in his day, if we do not insist he create music in some mold we would create for him. No, that will not do. Listen to this music, Listen a few times if you will. And if you expect nothing particular, you will doubtless come to appreciate this music. That is the way of our last 200 years. Expect nothing "ordinary," get everything! Heartily recommended.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Margaret Brouwer, Reactions, Songs and Chamber Music


We roll into the end of the month and I am happy to grapple with a disk by a living composer I have as yet missed. She is very musical, kind of Neo-Classically Modern in her attention to unfolding form and open harmonic and progressive sonance. I speak of Margaret Brouwer and her album of Songs and Chamber Music entitled Reactions (Naxos 559804).These are compositions penned recently, between 2005 and 2020--world premier recordings in fact.

It is music that occupies its own space, neither retrograde nor highly, overtly modernistic. It is music of some care and quality, some fine invention, responding to the musical world we occupy today without being enslaved to anything referentially. Ms. Brouwer goes her own way and we do not miss what she choses to leave out. We appreciate conversely what she gives to us in each instance;

The "Rhapsodie Sonata" from 2011, revised 2016, has a wonderfully alive viola part nicely handled by Eliesha Nelson and an equally, nicely  complexly conjugated piano part realized with grace and musicality by Shuai Wang. It is serious music, brimming over with crackling electricity and turbulence but post-Romantically rhapsodic, which is something rather rare in my listening experience. I find it very fetching and absorbing. Its 20 minutes makes the album worthy just for its happy presence, but there is more.

The more consists of two song cycles for mezzo-soprano or tenor and piano, complexly expressive and something to grow into surely as you listen. There is also a nicely evocative summer meditation for violin and piano, then there is a rather humorous encounter with the ever-present telephone robot menus one encounters all too often today--crafted partwise nicely in this work for narrator-violinist. All goes by and you feel the presence of musical eloquence that sounds thoroughly contemporary yet self-contained in its alternate dialogic invention. The performances are all one might hope for and help us to feel the music enter our listening selves.

I find I would love to hear more of her music, which is what of course I should be feeling if a new composer gets my positive attention. Listen to this one a bunch of times and I think you will understand how I feel and why.

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Living Earth Show and Danny Clay, Music for Hard Times


I do not need to tell you if you are reading this right now that the COVID Pandemic was one of the more unsettling times to live in. As I write these lines it is not entirely over either. Well during the heart of the lockdown composer Danny Clay and several cohorts began working on a substantial multi-part work meant to calm the jangled nerves of folks undergoing the Pandemic. It is a sort of acoustic, ambiently mesmerizing meditation he calls Music for Hard Times (Earthy Records CD). This CD as far as I know comprises volume 1. There is a shorter Volume 2 that at this point seems to be a brief cut available at Bandcamp as a download. I concentrate on the CD (Volume 1) here. The entirety was recorded at Danny's home and also the home of TLES on instruments and vocals in the thick of isolation.

The music means to heal in its own way, and indeed it does feel like that as I listen. It is in a kind of primal diatonic realm, with a kind of floating and slowly rolling series of musically spellbinding aural moments one after the other. There is nothing banal about it all, though such things  can rapidly become so in New Age-dom realms. The simple beauty is unforced, the diatonicism never condescending but rather genuinely lyrical.

I find the album indeed quite peaceful and pleasurable as well as aurally satisfying. Give it a listen!

Thursday, June 23, 2022

John-Henry Crawford, Corazon, The Music of Latin America, Music for Cello, Guitar and Piano


The longer we might live, we who hold music dear, the more there might be if we but open up to it. So today I am appreciating an album by cellist John-Henry Crawford entitled Corazon: The Music of Latin America (Orchid Classics ORC100198). The title says it all, As cellist Crawford tells us in the liners, it all came about when he came to Mexico to compete in the Carlos Prieto Cello Competition in 2019 and won first prize. His time in Mexico for the initial competition and then return visits for performances kindled a love in the cellist for Latin Ameican music and culture.

The album at hand is the fruit of this budding affection for such things, a kind of musical tour through Argentina, Cuba, Brazil and Mexico, covering some 140 years of compositional lyricism and vitality. It centers around Crawford's cello readings of some true gems accompanied quite ably and spiritedly by pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion and guitarist Jiji. Manual Ponce's Sonata for Cello and Piano is the centerpiece of it all and surrounding it are some brilliantly crafted lyrical miniatures by composers we all need to appreciate it seems to me.

So Ponce comes our way through the aforementioned Sonata, the very beautiful and well known "Estralita" in the version here as arranged and made famous by Heifetz and further modified for guitar accompaniment by Jiji. Another Ponce miniature graces the program and we appreciate that as we also get more gems by the likes of Leo Brouwer, Villa-Lobos, Carlos Quastavino, Egberto Gismonti, and Astor Piazzolla. The Corazon theme applies as much to the repertoire as to Maestro Crawford's engaging affection and devotion to the musical finery we are happy to be inundated with from start to finish.

Maestro Crawford burnishes his sound with a warming glow that suits well the warmth and lovingly insistent lyricism of the entire program. It is excellently played and a font of vibrancy throughout. Heartily recommended for a most engaging romp through Latin American masterpieces. Bravo!

Victor Herbiet, Airs Dances


If you have a sort of broad understanding of  music lifeways and/or folkways you will remember Victor Herbert (1859-1924) as the composer of some well-known operettas and Tin Pan Alley popular songs. But as I get older I can sometimes not see things clearly. So when I got a new CD of the music of Victor Herbiet I misread it, then  proceeded to do a review of "Herbert." No wonder he sounded so fresh!

So thankfully the label just sent me a message that I got it wrong.

It hit me on first listen as music simultaneously in the "vernacular" and yet Neo-Classically well honed. Most of these are short miniatures of definite interest. "Troika" for example has a modern tang and a dance-redolent infectiousness. Beyond that intriguing beginning we have a Herbiet tango, a sonatina for spring, A "Trois Valses-Caprices" for alto saxophone, a three movement Sonata for alto and piano, and on from there.

The performances are very good and the music itself fits in indirectly with the inside-outside jazz influenced Classical compositions of the past 100 years and so all the better for that.

I did not know precisely what to expect when I first put this on, but after a good number of listens I am glad to get to know the music. Now that I know WHO it is it makes perfect sense and sounds good and worth hearing no matter what you know or do not! Recommended.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Pathos Trio, When Dark Sounds Collide, New Music for Percussion and Piano


As Hamlet most famously said to Horatio, "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." When I first started listening seriously to Modern Classical music, it was more or less a commonplace that what the composer had to say about his outlook on the music was critical in understanding the music you would hear. I was fascinated by such things and for music of that period it still can be a central part of it all. Imagine John Cage works in the absence of what he meant by it. At the time it was central and his role as musical conceptualist is still a huge part of his importance. On the other hand once you know something of that you still need to appreciate the music as music, and at least to me this has an importance that ultimately transcends at least in part the scaffolding he created around it.

As time has gone by the Modernist music we hear from our current time frame assumes a conceptualism that does not always need spelling out at this point, just as, for example, Classical period music did not have to spell out sonata form assumptions for every work that had some relation to it. It was not something that needed direct reference, and at the time composers generally assumed it and the result was what mattered. The same perhaps with counterpoint. Someone might have heard with pleasure, say, 100 of Bach's Cantatas without necessarily knowing a thing about some of the principals he proceeded by when composing. Similarly you can read Moby Dick in the original English quite profitably without necessarily being able to spell out the grammatical underpinnings that Melville had absorbed and took for granted.

All that gets us to today's music, an album entitled When Dark Sounds Collide: New Music for Percussion and Piano (Panorama/New Focus Recordings PAN24). This by the very capable and dynamic Pathos Trio for two percussion and piano. When you turn to the liner notes, there is helpful information--that the five compositions on the program were commissioned by the trio as nicely conceived collaborations of composer and instrumentalists to realize "Dark Sounds" that sought to "combine aesthetics of contemporary classical music with the ensemble's interest in dark, heavy, dense sounds drawn from other genres of music such as alternative rock, cathedral music, minimalist music, electronic synth-wave and more." So there are indeed some conceptual underpinnings to this music, and it is surely good to understand what this is all about, but there is not all that much about the underlying ideas that could be considered "rigorous" or in other words the unfolding of the music as you listen requires attention but is not explicitly musico-grammatical or mathematically sonorous in some deep way. It is music that unfolds with rhythmic, melodic and harmonic logic that is a part of the musical logic of our musical world today. And there too is a pronounced attention to color sonority that is readily understood in the hearing of it.

The five composers each give the trio a series of musical poeticisms that are performed with great sympathy and dedication. And in the end we come to appreciate the compositional inventiveness of Evan Chapman, Alison Jung-Fei Jiang, Alyssa Weinberg, Finola Merivale, Alan Hankers. If one wished to delve deeply into what acoustico-philosophic assumptions are behind the music, one could no doubt say much about that. But the modern day listener does not necessarily need those things to be explicit in some descriptive way, and proscriptively there is much less entailed than might be the case in, say, Webern in his prime. So that is fine, and everything that has come before this music might be assumed but again a full listening may not need to think of such things.

Now I must say that this is music that pleases me for its boldness and its sonic eloquence. You might want to try a listen. If you are like me you will find this a kind of comfortable, home based  musical intelligence that feels right and keeps you listening.

Friday, June 10, 2022

The Sonic Arts Ensemble, Live from the Multiverse, Collective Improvisations in A Modern Classical Zone


There may be more than one way to look at things in our present-day music spheres, and all the better for that, as we can ill afford a tendency to dismiss various trends of New Music based on some dogma. I try always not to get myself boxed into a set of expectations. And happily.there comes music now and again that defies what might be typical of a period. Today I am glad to talk about such an album--namely the Sonic Arts Ensemble and their album Live from the Multiverse (Ravello RR 8065).

It is a most interesting presentation of one compositional vehicle and then some four collective improvisations, accomplished with some advanced audio technology that fascilitates a kind of multi-artist live but musically and audio-wise a sophisticated kind of ultra-quasi-Zoom for simultaneous group performances.

And then of course what natters is the music itself. Marc Ainger on guitar and laptop and some 14 additional musicians--both ensemble members and special guests, form different size ensembles for each work.

The results are very fascinating sound color, extended technique and an electronically sophisticated series of improvisations that cluster in various ways, sprawling in a more New Music orientation than a Avant Jazz one--so think of the heritage of such groups as MEV and Il Grupo, AMM etc. This gathering is especially sensitive to one another--there is a pronounced and very captivating series of ambient music panoramas, a wide scope of soundscapes of character and poetic substance.

The more one listens the more one finds oneself drawn into the vortex of sound and style. It takes a few listens but in the end one feels that one is in the presence of the truly new! Highly recommended.`

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Aznavoorian Duo, Gems from Armenia, Ani and Marta Aznavoorian


Those who know and love Armenian music like I do no doubt have an aural picture in their minds of what to expect. Part of that has to do with the highly developed and special minor or otherwise distinctly diatonic tonality that has prevailed so happily in the music. There is a new anthology of classical music just out entitled Gems from Armenia (Cedille CDR 90000 209), which consists of some 15 Armenian works for cello and piano, played convincingly and sensitively by the Aznavoorian Duo (Ani, cello, Marta, piano).

It all comes to the listener as a kind of cornucopia of possibilities, beginning with the well-known Komitas Vartabed (1869-1955) and four of his beautifully rhapsodic miniatures. Then follows two short but evocative pieces by perhaps the most well known Armenian composer of our modern times, Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). It includes "Yerevan," which I suspect any avid music lover will recognize. The cello-piano version sings and soars thanks to the Aznavoorian passion and lilt, so to speak.

The program continues on without the least bit of flagging, so we get works by three more Soviet era composers--Arno Babajanian, Avet Terterian, and Alexander Arutiunian, then works by two present-day living Armenian composers, Serouj Kradjian and Vache Sharafyan. The final item is a specially commissioned work by living American composer Peter Boyer, on the iconic Armenian landmark "Mount Ararat."

All of the works feel like a logical sequence going from the rooted to the refreshing of the aural memory with a wealth of music that should appeal to all who love Armenian or for that matter the world of Asian-Indo classical in the recent past and in the present.

The Aznavoorian Duo make their debut appearance recording here auspiciously. It is a lively and lovely program of melodic and harmonic jewels. There are neo-Romantic elements at times and some in a Modern Neo-Classicist vein, but all have elements of Armenian musical tendencies that are realized with a dedicated devotion by the Aznavoorians. 

It is a happy addition to your Armenian collection or for that matter an excellent introduction to Armenian chamber Classical as a Modern whole. Very recommended.

Soul of Brazil, Alma Brasileira, Villa-Lobos Piano Music, Martha Marchena


All, or most all of us who explore Modern Classical have listened to the piano music of Heitor Villa-Lobos at least some over the years, depending in part on how old you are, with age accentuating the probability of such things. I have come away from it with a feeling that the opus has much to appreciate about it but also that the piano music stands virtually alone in that there are lyrical reflections and harmonic-rhythmic stridencies not entirely relatable to the rest of the Villa-Lobos repertoire. With a new volume devoted to selected piano works as played by Martha Machena, we get another opportunity to consider some choice pieces. All this on the CD entitled Soul of Brasil: Alma Brasileira (MSR Classics MS 1764).

Martha Marchena, a pianist of Cuban abstraction, did her doctoral thesis on Villa-Llobos. It is clear from this recording that she is very sympatico with his brilliant musical inventions. As we hear the nicely chosen variety of works presented here, we of course hear moments where the folkloric Brazilian music roots are very much out front. Yet there are reworkings in this music and a stance towards the piano that go a considerable distance into the poetic piano arts for their own sake. So there can be thoughtful expressive rubato and clangorously striking dynamics. Of course no matter the configuration Villa-Lobos nearly always has a musical agenda a good deal more complex at times than a facile sort of Nationalism would suggest.

Still, for example as you hear Ms. Marchena's boldly energetic foray into the "Jungle Festival" movement of his "Ciclo Brasileiro," it is the direct allusion to folk roots that delights the senses as it gives us a most lovely Villa-Lobos approach to folk transformation. And in the end there is ever some perhaps more subtle references to his country's musical ways. Perhaps  it is the way Villa-Lobos applies his brilliance to the piano as a virtuoso and inimitable musical vehicle that stands out in these works.

The five pieces presented here ("Alma Brasileiros," "Rudepoema," "Valso Da Dor," "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4" and the "Ciclo Brasileiro") stand out in the hands of Martha Marchena as music well worth reconsideration as some gems of the earlier Modern era. At the same time they reassure us that Ms. Marchena is just the artist to pull off the complexities and turbulent lyricism the piano cycles can express so nicely.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

James Kallembach, Antigone: The Writings of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Movement, Lorelei Ensemble


James Kallembach occupies original New Music space with his Antigone: The Writings of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Movement  (New Focus Recordings FCR 33), featuring a chamber chorus of some eight female vocalists as a choral totality and then also with soloist parts, and so too with the chamber instrumental poeticisms of a cello quartet, all brought forth as a whole for this work by the Lorelei Ensemble directed by Beth Willer. They are a fine, detailed and accomplished set of performers who have a distinct feel for this music and give us spirited and exacting readings.

The work has an exploratory, declamatory tonal feel to it with close harmonies in the vocals punctuated by instrumental timbral poignancies by way of the cello quartet. It was commissioned by the Lorelei Ensemble and Carson Cooman, premiering in 2017. It gains a kind of structural backbone via the Greek play Antigone, but then focuses too on considering the writing of Sofie Scholl, a key member of the White Rose Movement--an underground resistance  opposing the Nazis in the Germany of WWII, and based at the University of Munich. The work is in multiple movements, with lyrics in part culled from the anti-Nazi pamphlets distributed by the White Rose participants and then further text-song melding--Scholl's expressive  texts fusing with the classicism of Antigone. It appreciates it goes without saying the courage of Ms. Scholl, who was executed by the Nazis in Germany, 1943. And at the same time it explores the lyric, poetic expressivity of her writings as a whole.

It winds introspectively, contemplatively through the vignettes from Antigone and the contrasting vocal treatment of Ms. Scholl's texts.

It is alternately tender, somber, classically retrospective and reflective gaining a timeless quality which nevertheless has a judicious contemporary feel to it and a movement away from any vestiges of Romanticism, yet nonetheless as the press sheet notes he flourishes as he seeks to consider that past within the present, particularly processual as a vivid dialog--and in so doing has an almost Classicist facticity. And that for me works well since the subject matter comes to terms with a heroic refusal that can become all the more poignant when looking upon it in insightful yet Apollonian terms.

All of that comes to bear on your listening experience, leaving you perhaps with a sort of even-handed heroics that underscores a kind of quiet resistance of the morally virtuous in time, looking back while  laying out nicely, with a careful and intensive performance suchness, a thereness that rightly insists on its need to express itself.

I recommend this one for its powerful relevance to time and history as we live it. It is beautiful yet terse music, completely self-sufficient as a contemporary insistence, and leaving in the end a deep impression of alternate aesthetic reality, heroic and nonplussed moral uprightness.

If you are reading this in June 2022, the album is out on the 17th. You can preorder on Bandcamp.