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Friday, January 29, 2016

Mason Bates, Mothership, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

Youngish composer Mason Bates (b. 1977) has a directly visceral approach to composing for orchestra that makes his music in-demand on concert stages throughout the world. The Boston Modern Orchestral Project under Gil Rose has recorded an anthology of Bates' works on the recent album Mothership (BMOP/sound 1045).

There are five works in all, written between 2006 and 2013, and all have something worthwhile to offer. They have not been previously recorded. The works have enjoyed a good number of performances and/or are breakthrough pieces for Bates. Either way they make for lively listening.

The title work was written (2010) as an opening kind of blockbuster that has a vibrantly fanfarish flourish, an electronica element in the sophisticated beats employed and solo parts for jazz luminary Jason Moran on electric piano and guzheng virtuoso Su Chang. There is a deft handling of orchestral forces in a kind of Quasi-Americana manner, a lyrical brightness that owes something to the lineage of Aaron Copland (at least as struck my ears) but made personal and present-day.

We get an electronica beat aspect and some reworked field recordings of katydids and locusts on the descriptively evocative "Rusty Air in Carolina" (2006) where the bright lyricism is even more pronounced.

Those two especially stay in my memory but there are treasures too in the other works to be heard in the collection: "Sea-Blue Circuity" (2010), "Attack Decay Sustain Release" (2013), and "Desert Transport" (2010), the latter of which combines a wonderful pastoral grandeur and depictiveness with a bit of Pima Indian song.

You can see how contemporary audiences respond readily to his music. It is tonal and very well put-together, it adds some ultra-contemporary popular elements in the beats to be heard, but most importantly the music breathes with a rather extraordinary earthiness and elan.

It is music to be experienced TODAY. It pleasures without pandering. It is accessible but filled with plenty of musical content. It is wonderfully orchestrated and it speaks a universal modern mainstream language. Like Copland perhaps, he has his ear to the popular world and can allude to it without directly taking it on, mostly. The anthology gives us another excellent example of what is going on out there. You could play it for your kids and they might take to it right away. But then grandma might find it interesting, too.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Rain Worthington, Dream Vapors, Selected Works for Orchestra

The blog has covered the music of composer Rain Worthington in a number of anthologies, but for the first time we encounter a full CD of her orchestral works, her inaugural offering, in Dream Vapors (Navona 6025), featuring variously the Czech Philharmonic under Robert Ian Winstin, the Moravian Philharmonic under Petr Vronsky, and the Russian Philharmonic under Ovidiu Marinescu. The orchestras all come to the music well prepared and give us fine readings.

Rain Worthington's music here makes characteristic use of chromaticism in a tonally rooted, expressively heightened modern mode. There are seven fairly short works represented, written between 2001 and 2013. There is a remarkable, inimitable stylistic unity to be heard throughout, filled with expressive feeling but not typically romantic, sprawling tonal landscapes that have a mysterious, searching quality.

For the record the works are as follows: "Shredding Glass" (2004), "Reversing Mirrors in the Quiet" (2012), "Tracing A Dream" (2009), "Fast Through Dark Winds" (2013), "Within A Dance" (2012), "Yet Still Night" (2001), and "Of Time Remembered" (2011). Each somehow captures an inner journey through a twilight world of moody sound colors, lingering on chromatic tonal sequences that expand linearly into dramatic fields of tonal encounters.

They are slightly akin to Swedish composer Alan Pettersson in their chromatic expressivity, yet not quite so dark, less bleak, and ultimately distinct. Both are prime examples of an expressively tonal edgy modernism, with Ms. Worthington working here in more compact structures that have their say and leave us, to make room for yet another tone poem.

She has the ability to state her compositional case to us directly, as it were, in absolutely concrete if mystical terms. She somehow makes clear to us how we experience the transitional, impermanent and ever shifting quality of a later modernist world. Perhaps I am reading into the music, but a sort of chromatic instability within a rooted quality most certainly comes at us as listeners and we respond.

The size of the orchestra ranges between smaller to more full, yet it is the impact of the composing in every case that stands out as full of dark, burnished color. She is a master of her own orchestral palette. Each work seems just right for the forces at hand.

To honor both her grandmother and her mother, Rain has directed that all her artist’s proceeds from the purchase of the Dream Vapors album be donated through PARMA Recordings to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund (a research 501(c)(3) public charity registered under the name, Alzheimer’s Disease Research Foundation).

Rain Worthington is a contemporary voice that demands to be heard. The present first collection establishes her as a unique orchestral exponent, an inspired artist saying something definite and compelling today.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Chinary Ung, Singing Inside Aura, Boston Modern Orchestral Project, Gil Rose

Cambodian-born composer Chinary Ung shows us in his latest collection of orchestral works, Singing Inside Aura (BMOP/sound 1044), that he is a major figure on the modern music scene. His childhood was spent absorbing the traditional music of his homeland, including the extensive vocalizations found in a small village setting of his original home. By the time he came to the United States to study under Chou Wen-chung, he had also thoroughly immersed himself in the study of western music.

The title composition "Singing Inside Aura" was composed in 2013. It features Susan Ung on viola and vocals, in a vocalization style Chinary Ung developed for her to in this case express the dual aspects of traditional Buddhism, the enlightenment that is heard and the enlightenment that is felt inside. It is a beautifully conceived and executed work that brilliantly combines the traditional and the modern orchestral in thoroughly integrated and personal ways.

It is one of five works presented by the acclaimed Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose for this album. The works cover a vast space in time from Ung's 1970 "Anicca," the 1991 "Grand Spiral: Desert Flowers Bloom," the 1993 "Water Rings Overture," and finally the 1995 "Antiphonal Spirals." There are Cambodian scalular aspects that intertwine with modern classical expanded tonality in ways that work brilliantly well. Throughout Maestro Ung demonstrates vividly his strong sense of orchestral color.

The album in fact gives us a kind of mini-retrospective on the composer's development over time, with works that show on occasion traces of a Varese influence but most importantly a keen sense of how the dramatics of the spatial-tonal Cambodian sound worlds can fit together with a personal modernism in contemporary orchestral composing practice.

He manages via his gifted poetic talent to so thoroughly incorporate both strains into his own special musical inner sense as to be an absolute original. The meticulous sound staging of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose's conductorship and Susan Ung's very effective dual soundings of voice and viola make of this album something very special. It is a remarkable introduction to the music of a contemporary master, a one-of-a-kind creative force at his very best.

Anyone with an interest in modern orchestral music will find this album endlessly intriguing, I would think, as I most certainly have. Get a copy of this without fail if you can.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Jennifer Koh, Bach & Beyond, Part 2

The art of unaccompanied solo violin is very much one of the pinnacles of chamber achievements in the classical realm. Virtuoso Jennifer Koh gives us four such masterworks for the violinist on her own Bach and Beyond, Part 2 (Cedille 90000 154 2-CDs). It is listed at two-CDs for the price of one, so it's a good value as well as a fine listen. I have not heard Volume 1 as yet, but if it is like this one, it is very good, I would think.

We get for this volume J. S. Bach's Sonata No. 1 and Partita No. 1, done with expressive zest and detailed care. The "and Beyond" is Bela Bartok's "Sonata for Solo Violin" Sz. 117 and Kaija Saariaho's "Frises" for solo violin and violin-based electronics that are produced in the live playing.

All four works are first efforts for the solo violin from the composers involved. Koh intends the program to affirm the past-in-the-present and the present-in-the-past, how Bach's compositions are assumed and incorporated into the thinking of the 20th and 21st century composers working with the form, and in turn how timeless, even modern the Bach works sound to us, in their own way. And it is no mistake--Saariaho for example starts her work with the final D from the Chaconne of Bach's "Partita No. 2" and the music follows logically out of it, originally but intentionally so.

Jennifer helps all this along with readings and interpretations that are totally fresh and current, as much periodless Bach as not, readings that stress the universality of the music beyond the time he wrote in.

The Bartok and Saariaho are themselves "beyond," too. They are much more than simply "modern" in their inherent idiomatic writing for the violin, in their commonality of language in key ways to the Bach works. I would not want to put too fine a point on that, though, because of course there are distinguishing elements for each work, period, composer. You never really completely feel free of time and place, and that is all for the best.

Jennifer Koh has a stirring way about her. There is perfect technical prowess, but there is also an intimate understanding of the music and a personal approach that marks this Volume 2 as a significant statement, an artistic triumph.

Friday, January 22, 2016

J. S. Bach, Organ Works Vol. III, Robert Quinney

Not to be tasteless, but J. S. Bach and the expression "over my dead body" go well together, if not in the strict sense of the phrase. Bach is played and listened to in the age of mechanical reproduction, today, far more than he was in his lifetime. And of course that is not just because of modern media. His reputation has grown steadily from the time of his death until now, when we see him as a composer of incredible genius--not only the Baroque Era's leading light, but a composer for all times, all seasons.

We all know that, presumably. All who read here also no doubt know that some of his greatest works were for the solo organ, an instrument for which he was a renowned exponent even in his lifetime.

Robert Quinney, organist with the Sixteen, an early music group I have covered extensively on these pages, and also the Director of the choir of New College, Oxford, is a marvelous organist who happily for us all, is recording much of Bach's output. I have been listening to his Organ Works Vol. III (CORO Connections 16132).

Quinney gives us these works on the Metzler Organ at Trinity College, Cambridge, a superior instrument that sounds every bit as one might wish in the hands of Maestro Quinney. The sound is ravishing as is the recording quality.

Volume Three presents a beautiful mix of music associated with the Advent and Christmas seasons and some that are not. They flow together well no matter what time of year.

The works are as follows: the "Fantasia and Fugue in G minor" BWV 542, "Three preludes on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" BWV 659-661, the "Pastorella" BWV 590, the "Prelude and Fugue in C" BWV 547, the "Canonic Variations on Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her" BWV 769a, and the "Prelude and Fugue in G" BWV 541.

Some of these are masterpieces, none are in any sense minor, and Robert Quinney gives them all a crisply clear, detailed, spirited and supremely triumphant reading. I would say he is without doubt one of the great Bach organ exponents of our time, on the basis of this very worthy volume. The music speaks volumes to us in this modern era, if we only stop our infernal everyday fidgeting and listen.

And so I recommend this one to you very highly.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Patrick Castillo, The Quality of Mercy

Patrick Castillo, a New Yorker, a new compositional voice of note, gives us his debut recording in The Quality of Mercy (Innova 926). The album showcases two works for chamber group and mezzo-soprano (Abigail Fischer, a fine exponent here): "This is the hour of lead" and "The Quality of Mercy," with "Cirque," a short contrasting work for solo violin (Karen Kim) in between.

The moody works take advantage of the colors inherent in the ensemble--flute, string quartet or trio, percussion (including marimba), piano, plus clarinet and electronics on the title work.

"This is the hour of lead" comes to grips with death and loss and consequent feelings of anger, grief and acceptance. "The Quality of Mercy" deals with reconciliation.

Both are expressive, evocative and sometimes rather stoically restrained. The music is advanced tonal with stylistic variability in the musical events and their nature. There are occasional ostinatos at work but for the most part this music encompasses both high and post-modern tendencies in an original language that constitutes a very personal hybrid.

The five movement "lead" centers around an elaborate vocalise with surrounding interludes bringing out contrasting emotional states.

The title work makes use of elements of plainchant, "The Merchant of Venice," urban sound environments and birdsong for a full interaction of processed sounds with chamber ensemble colors. To make that connection more palpable the electronics principally arise in a live setting in response to the instruments.

"Cirque" is high-modernist abstract and breaks up the longer works well.

Castillo has a vibrant feel for complexes of sound that have a narrative quality, a poetic demeanor, a superior sense of dramatic color weaving that makes for some very moving chamber music.

It is a fine introduction to Patrick Castillo the composer. One only hopes we can be exposed to more of his work soon. In the meantime this is a ravishing performance of some very interesting and moody poetics. Bravo!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Mahler, Symphony No. 4, Debussy, Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun, Martingale Ensemble, Ken Selden, Chamber Versions

Mahler's 4th Symphony is not exactly like any other, though there are movements in his other early symphonies that have an Austrian and or Jewish folk flavor. Mahler wrote most of his music in his summer period, in between the demanding and often enough bitter climate of opera directorship. The idyllic environs that he and Alma occupied and the break from factional music strife seem no more telling that with his nostalgic, extraordinarily tuneful and bitter-sweet 4th. Like the other early symphonies, the music relates to the folk poetry of "Das Knaben Wunderhorn," which was also set to music by Mahler as a marvelous song cycle. The Martingale Ensemble under Ken Selden gives us a wondrous chamber version of the work, along with a similarly paired-down Debussy "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," all in a fetching 2011 release (MSR 1373) that I am just catching up with--and very appreciatively so.

As the liners remind us, the 4th is built around a single "Wunderhorn" poem about a child's vision of heaven. Mahler makes of it a magic carpet, weaving folk-like themes and other very Mahleresque passages into a totality that may well make for his most accessible large-scale work, but for reasons that have more to do with its singing melodic strains than any attempt to pander to regular folks. The orchestration of strings, wind, brass and such shows Mahler's total mastery of the modern orchestra and must be heard in a carefully impassioned reading to be fully appreciated. So then why a chamber version? If you remind yourself that such a version does not replace the original, but brings you a new appreciation on more intimate terms, something that can stand proudly alongside the full orchestra version, you are prepared for the Erwin Stein arrangement heard here.

The Martingale Ensemble flowers luxuriously under Ken Selden for the Mahler, the arrangement of which apparently was a part of Arnold Schoenberg's Viennese Society for Private Musical Performance. Began in 1917, the Society was a subscription only gathering of music lovers (critics excluded!) to expose to them the best of modern music. The music of the late romantics was performed by scaled-down chamber ensembles so that the audience could better grasp the structural affiliations such music had with the later modernists.

And so this lovely arrangement. The final movement puts a fitting capstone on it all, with the soprano part (here performed very nicely by Deanna Breiwick) telling us that "no music on earth can compare to ours (in heaven)". Well, you believe it after hearing Mahler's extra-earthly sounds. The single Wunderhorn poem on which the symphony is based, "Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life)" inspired Mahler to some of his earthiest yet also naively otherworldly music.

There may be no experience quite as telling as the full symphonic score played by a requisite number of musicians Mahler envisioned. But the chamber version, played marvelously well, has its own charms. Paired down to the bone, often without doubling of parts (statistically or otherwise) except understandably at times in the strings, you hear the music with a new clarity. It is an uncanny experience. This is "ethnic" music! Folk music! Yet it most certainly has that great developmental brilliance and grand sweep that Mahler is always all about too, and so it never really loses that connectedness of the full orchestra version.

The Debussy "Faun" does not quite provide you with the shock of recognition that Mahler's 4th does, but it is nicely revelatory nonetheless.

Ken Selden and the Martingale Ensemble outdo themselves with a very warm and vivid reading of the scores. It is a fabulous album! Those who know the originals like the back of their hands will be delighted and surprised with how well the music sounds, and how different, advanced, modern yet timeless those lines seem when expressed more as a series of nudes, as it were. Anyone who for whatever reason does not know the music will also respond to it I am sure. Beautiful!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Catherine Lee, Social Sounds

If the tides change constantly, fashions nearly as much, and political-historical events ebb and flow continually, there are some things with which we perforce ground our lives within us. One of those for many is music and the happy fact is that there is no shortage of it. New music and old music revisited abound, in a continual flow. It keeps me going through all seasons, a bitter cold dawn and its wonderfully colorful sunrise this morning being no exception.

A superior instrumentalist greets the sunrise for me, one Catherine Lee, an oboist of stature in an evocative program of new music for oboe solo, Social Sounds (Teal Creek Music 2035). There are five works by contemporary modern composers, one for oboe d'amore and tape, one for English horn, the rest for oboe proper.

Dr. Lee has a ravishing, declamatory tone and absolute control over her instrument, whether the work calls for extended techniques or less so. The modern extensions of tone production integrate themselves into conventional soundings on these works and Catherine negotiates them with ease, incorporating them into the fanfare-like extroversions and the more introspective passages with absolute musicality. Harmonics, alternate fingerings that lead to subtle shifts in timbre and microtonal differences, pitch bends, all are made an integral part of each compositional whole.

The works are given dramatic, rhapsodically lyrical realizations without fail. We are treated to "Still" (2006) by Dorothy Chang, "Rafales" (2007) by Jerome Blais, "Plainsong" (2004) for English Horn by Tawnie Olson, "Social sounds from whales at night" (2007) by Emily Doolittle (whose music we have encountered here before--type her name in the search box above) for oboe d'amore and tape (providing us with some extraordinary whale soundings--sequenced and somewhat transformed if I am not mistaken--to accompany fittingly the instrumental part), and "A Tiny Dance" (2008) by Catherine Lee.

The scores allow varying degrees of improvisation on the part of the performer. Catherine's experience in classical-modern and free-improvisatory settings serves her well. She is a founding member of the Blue Box Ensemble and forms half of the Catherine Lee + Matt Hannafin Duo. Her doctoral dissertation centered around 18th century virtuoso performers and their interactions with audiences and heightened her interest in the role of improvisation. McGill University (Montreal) awarded her a Doctorate for her work there.

The compositions have thematic underpinnings. Dorothy Chang's work was inspired by "Red-Black," a painting by Lawrence Calcagno that hangs in the Empire State Plaza, Albany. Jerome Blais was inspired by the many variations of wind he experienced when he moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Tawnie Olson's piece treats structural aspects of plainchant types performed in the Night Office. Emily Doolittle crafts an evocative soundscape around night sounds whales communicate with. It was originally for soprano and tape but Ms. Doolittle adapted the vocal part for oboe d'amore at Catherine's request. It bears the transition quite well! Dr. Lee wrote "A Tiny Dance" for two dancers who designed their dance patterns around performing in a restricted space with a number of natural and man-made obstacles. It was performed as part of the dance piece "Wet?" at Ten Tiny Dances Waterfront Project in Portland, Oregon.

The beautiful artistry of Catherine Lee ultimately breathes vital life into the music. It is music to beguile and uplift the spirits. It is modern yet lyrical. It is a stunning feather in Ms. Lee's very musical hat. Recommended strongly for double-reed enthusiasts and modernists of all stripes.

Monday, January 18, 2016

If, Bwana, Thirty, Al Margolis

If, Bwana is the music of avant composer Al Margolis. The 3-CD set Thirty (Pogus 21080-2) gives us a kind of contemporary retrospective on his music, more than three hours worth. The compositions are varied, firmly in the musique concrete camp as far as procedures, in that conventional instruments make up the sound sources, in various degrees of recognisability, and then are subjected to various electroacoustic manipulations. The set marks 30 years of If, Bwana releases with recent compositions, and was first released as a set of CD-Rs in the beginning of 2014. It has seen the light in cassette format and now comes at you as a collection of three manufactured CDs.

Thickly textured drone complexes unwind in ever differing ways throughout the set. Other pieces treat instrumental or vocal sources as collaged wholes that have a linear feel. Still others lie somewhere between the two poles. There is a center core of cohesiveness for each of the 13 works here on the set. You might say that Margolis is closer to the visual arts "minimalist" ethos than composers who have been so dubbed in our lifetime. That is to say that his music has seriality but at the same time restricts the elements utilized more radically than the trance-and-after minimalists out there today.

Some of the musical participants who bring their sounds into the Margolis transformative sweep here include the vocals of Chloe Roe, Thomas Buckner and Lisa Barnard Kelly. On the instrumental front there is Jason Kao Hwang on violins and violas, Robert Dick and Jerome Bourdellon on flutes, Leslie Ross on bassoon, plus Steve Roe and Kevin Geraghty on guitars.

A blow-by-blow description of each work would only give you a more detailed idea of the musical universes Margolis inhabits, but would not get you any closer to how the music feels as you hear it. There is a heightened avant attention to the possibilities of natural sound in microcosm and macrocosm and their various possible degrees of transformation.

Suffice to say that Margolis is a new music electro-acoustic original and has been doing seminal music now as If, Bwana for 32 years. This three CD set for the price of two gives you a full listen to what makes him original and at the same time fascinates you with a wide spectrum of soundscapes that play upon your aural imagination like strong gusts of air play upon a wind harp. The music is ever fertile, conceptually alive and each with its special abstract aural tale to tell.

If, Bwana acolytes will jump at this, but so should anyone who wants to explore a different outlook on electroacoustic music in the avant firmament of possibilities.

Happy listening!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Frederic Rzewski, The People United Will Never Be Defeated, Ursula Oppens, 40th Anniversary Recording

The People United Will Never Be Defeated, Frederic Rzewski's landmark set of 36 variations on Sergio Ortega's Chilean protest song, enjoyed its 40th anniversary last year with a new recording by its first exponent and greatest champion, Ursula Oppens (Cedille 900000 158). Included on the album is also the premiere recording of Rzewski's "Four Hands," featuring Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal.

Rzewski's "People" was one of the 1970's most striking piano masterpieces. If nothing else, it was one of the bellwether works in the new multi-stylistic worlds that eventually would come to be thought of as "post-modernism." But it surely is much more than that. It put Frederic on the map in a big way and rightfully so, for it is incredible in its whirlwind kaleidoscope of variational inventions, an explosion of brilliant virtuoso pianism that takes us through endless modulations, permutations, changes in mood and direction that enthrall the listener from first to last. The variations run the gamut from a clangorous ultra-romanticism to the edge of modernity and back.

Ursula Oppens' original recorded version in 1979 was an occasion. It was Grammy nominated for good reason, as it was an ideal expression in Oppens' hands. Other versions have followed, most all worthwhile on any number of levels, but Ms. Oppens' version has remained the benchmark by which the others were measured.

The 40th anniversary performance-recording scales the heights triumphantly. If anything Ursula outdoes herself in a deeply expressive, tumultuous and tender reading that stands before us as the highest sort of achievement. Her performance is nothing short of breathtaking.

The addition of the new, briefly succinct "Four Hands" is an added bonus portrait of the composer today, with four compact movements that show wit and expressive complexity. When heard in sequence they form a nicely flowing coda to the variations.

Couple all this with state-of-the-art modern recorded sublimity and you have an irresistible offering. Whether you have the Rzewski variations or not this album literally glows with pianistic brilliance. If you want to get a handle on Rzewski and '70s new modernism this is an album to have, surely. Kudos!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Fifth House Ensemble, Excelsior

A world-class chamber ensemble dedicated to new music is undoubtedly key to the artistic life of a city and to the general dissemination of new works across the planet. The Chicago-centered Fifth House Ensemble is just such an outfit, and an exceptional one at that.

They show what they can do with four ultra-contemporary modern/postmodern works on the recent album Excelsior (Cedille 90000 148). All are tonal and exhibit marked tendencies toward the musical zone that occupies a position beyond minimalism or at a new phase of it, depending. All of the composers are younger than I am, so in my own relative sense I think of them as "young." The music in each case has something that sticks in the memory with originality. And Fifth House gives them each a beautiful reading.

Alex Shapiro's "Perpetual Spark" (2011) brings us some fascinating rapid ostinato figurations in the piano that are taken up by the winds and strings as through-composed counterlines are consequently taken up and developed by the rest of the chamber group. A rhapsodic but unusual waltz-like interlude intervenes in the middle section. The piece returns to the ostinato lines for a satisfying conclusion. Shapiro's work was originally written for solo piano. The chamber version for piano, string and flute/piccolo was prepared especially for Fifth House. It suits them well.

"Air" (2012) by Jesse Limbacher has rapidity, periodicity and repose as perhaps a mildly windy day might. Multi-velocity segments run up against each other as the wind players whisper, click the keys of their instruments and employ playing-singing modes to create a whirl of colors and textures.

The five part "Red River" (2007) by Mason Bates gives us a contrasting depictive series of tonal vignettes combining instruments and electronics. It follows the Red or Colorado River through its winding trajectory from its source in the Continental Divide, through to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and the California Desert. The music in lively and affective ways captures the movements of the water past its multi-faceted landscapes, and its enchainment and perhaps overuse at the Hoover Dam and in California. The music enchants.

At 30 minutes, the title work "Excelsior" (2012) by Caleb Burhans is the most involved and most ambitious of the four pieces performed here. It uses multimedia and vivid musical pictorialism to dwell on the US Air Force's testing of high altitude parachute jumping in the 1960 project Excelsior, when Joseph Kittinger successfully dropped some 102,800 feet to land safely on the earth's surface. The music is radically minimalist and fluidly lyrical in the magic of its inexorable motion and the continual sounding of a complex modern chorale-like melody with ornamental and dramatic interjections, both mysteriously contemplative and affirmatively visceral. The music switches gears with a slightly more rapid figure first articulated by the violin and developed dreamily with counterlines in the ethereal vocal and finely crafted chamber parts.

The third section brings in the violin again to articulate a steady-state quasi-fiddle multiple stop figure that the ensemble builds around gracefully and contentfully. And onward it goes in its ever descending trajectory. Vocal and horn ride atop the ever eddying swirl with a sort of triumphant flourish. Burhans has that knack of using simple diatonic means to create inventive, non-banal results and enchanting panoramas.

As with the other works this is tonal music of the newest sort, informed by the best of the minimalist works but treating ostinatos as backdrops for varational counterlines and lyrical expressions that may also be long-form cyclical or not, but always with a linear unfolding in mind.

And so ends a most rewarding program of new and interesting works played with ultra-musical subtlety and rejuvenating clarity. This is I think rather essential listening for the newest in the new tonal music being spawned today. It rewards your concentration with sounds that refresh and renew the possibilities in a most artful way. Lend this album your ears, definitely.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Karen Gottlieb, Music for Harp, By Bay Area Composers

We owe the prominence of the harp in chamber music these days to various factors. The romantic era featured it often enough as an integral part of orchestral works and modern composers have turned to it more frequently for its special color and capabilities.

World-class virtuoso harpist Karen Gottlieb treats us to a program of modern-era music for harp and various chamber combinations. She has spent a good deal of time in the San Francisco Bay Area playing the local modern's music, and consequently she falls naturally into this recital of mid-to-late 20th century Frisco-associated composers. Her father was a prominent ethnomusicologist and her mother an architect. As she grew up there was a continual flow through her home of visiting artists and musicians--from Hindemith to Ravi Shankar. The adventurous music of modern and world scope was something she learned about and embraced early-on, apparently. The repertoire she so aptly addresses on Music for Harp (Innova 927) reflects her roots and makes the music she plays a part of her personal heritage. Hence there is a conviction to what she does, a depth.

There are to be heard five tonal-domain compositions by four modern composers associated with the Bay Area. The album is bookended by two Lou Harrison works, the most iconoclastic, world-oriented composer of his time and place. The first, the 1940 Suite for Cello and Harp finds us in a sound world not yet fully matured but nonetheless filled with the lyrical, folk-inflected genius in a five-part suite idiomatically suited for the two instruments. Dan Reiter aptly seconds Ms. Gottlieb on cello for a performance of sensitive warmth.

Harrison's later (1967-77) period masterpiece "Music for Harp and Percussion" gives us the fully bloomed composer in one of his most productive periods. The combination of Karen's harp and the twin percussion voices of William Winant and Daniel Kennedy triumph with a fully alive version of the seven-part suite. It shows off Ms. Gottlieb as an expressive and fully resonant proponent of harp finesse and dynamics. And the quasi-ethnic, quasi-archaic uniqueness of mature Harrison never sounded better.

Dan Reiter's Sonata for Flute and Harp (1982) has a kind of neo-impressionist lyricism that is brought out beautifully by Tod Brody and Ms. Gottlieb. And Wayne Peterson's "Colloquy for Flute and Harp" (1999) has that resonance as well, with a slightly more expanded melodic modernism. Both works are quite engaging.

Karen's harp version of John Cage's mysterious "In A Landscape" (1949) brings out its wonderful vibrancy at the hands of a master.

So all told we have a rather wonderful set of music on this album. Karen Gottlieb has a sure and deft sense of her instrument and brings out its many timbral and spatial wonders with these heartening set of works. Anyone who loves the harp and/or lyrical modernism will not fail to appreciate this one!

Very recommended for its angelic presence!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Stacy Garrop, Mythology Symphony

Chicago-based composer Stacy Garrop is in focus on today's program of her orchestral works written between 1999 and 2013, Mythology Symphony (Cedille 90000 160). The music is quite respectably performed by the CCPA Symphony Orchestra under Alondra de la Parra and Markand Thakar. We get the title work (2007-2013) in its world premiere recording, plus "Thunderwalker" (1999) and "Shadow" (2001).

The main event is the five-movement symphony, each movement themed upon a myth involving a woman or women. The music has an eclectic advanced tonal-modern quality, with dynamic orchestration and an expansive thematic flourish. It was written in stages over six years in response to a number of commissions, each producing one or more movements. They center around the story of Medusa, Penelope in waiting for her husband Odysseus, the Sirens, the Three Sisters of Fate, and Pandora. Each movement has loosely programmatic elements and moods that correspond to the narratives involved. And so we have a spectrum of orchestral events ranging from the gentle and serene to the dynamic and turbulent. We ultimately are treated to a work of contrasts, of depth and expressive girth.

"Thunderwalker" summons and depicts in three movements a sky-dwelling thunder god "whose footsteps fall loudly upon the clouds."

"Shadow" came out of Ms. Garrop's stay with the Yaddo artist colony located in Saratoga Springs, NY. The artists and photographers and the snapshots she herself took at the site become the impetus for the work, as bits of light and color transpose into counterpoint, changing texture and intersections of sound blocks.

The program shows us a composer of promise, filled with lucid musical ideas and a sure sense of the orchestral forces at hand. The music alternates between modern and tonally expressive, while remaining consistently eventful and scintillating. The "Mythology Symphony" is the most accomplished of the three. The other two works add to our appreciation of her development and are a good listen in themselves.


Monday, January 11, 2016

Thomas Lyng Poulsen, Letters to Posterity, Heitor Villa-Lobos, The Solo Guitar Works

Heitor Villa-Lobos once said he thought of his music as letters written to posterity without expecting an answer. And appropriately guitarist Thomas Lyng Poulsen has entitled his recent two-CD set of Villa-Lobos guitar works as Letters to Posterity (CVM 002).

The program consists of Villa-Lobos' major works for solo guitar: The "Preludes," the "Etudes," his "Suite Populaire Bresilienne," "Valse Concerto No. 2," and his "Choro No. 1."

Thomas Lyng Poulsen has an abundance of technique which he puts to good use throughout, but perhaps most importantly he gives us a very musical reading of these wonderful works. There is expressiveness, a lyrical quality that includes a bit of rubato and a kind of lingering over the poignant aspects of the works. So the "Etudes," for example, show technical flourish but also a tenderness not always present when the music has a horserace-hurtling-to-the-finish-line freneticism.

This may not be how Segovia played the music. It is more matter-of-fact modern, with technique harnessed to the significant form of each piece, highlighting the hugely inventive and touching brilliance of the composer in a kind of directly lyrical sense.

It is for that reason a program that wears well, bringing out the nuances of the music so that you find yourself enmeshed in all its subtle and dynamic details, in the sheer visceral sonics of Villa-Lobos' intimate love of the classical guitar and its capabilities.

And so I recommend this to you without hesitation. These are essential works in Villa-Lobos' cannon and so too they are essential works for the modern guitar as we have come to understand it. Bravo.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, Slattepiano

I have gladly covered recently on these pages several albums by Norwegian pianist Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, all relating in various ways to folk music and its conjunction with classical music (type her name in the search box above to access those reviews). Today a new release that brings Ingfrid even closer to folk sources. The album is called Slattepiano (LAB 004). "Slatte" derives from the verb sla, which in Old Norse means to beat, hit, strike or pluck. Slatte is the term for folk music in the region, primarily played by the Hardanger fiddle. I learn this from the helpful liner notes.

And so, quite logically, Slattepiano is Ingfrid's adaptation of the traditional fiddle music to the pianoforte. Quite interestingly the 17 traditional slatte pieces are the same ones Grieg arranged as his opus 72, the "Norwegian Peasant Dances". Ingfrid's goal was to get to the core of each piece as she adapts them to the piano and its very different set of possibilities. I have not heard the Grieg lately but what Ms. Nyhus does seems much more faithful to the intricacies of Hardanger fiddle playing in the hands of a very accomplished player.

And so we get music that lays out differently on the piano from what it would be in the hands of a superior folk fiddler. The very ornate and elaborate articulations of each piece are taken much into consideration and Ms. Nyhus "pianizes" these so that the results are in the end quite pianistic, but complex and rhythmically/phrasingly most unusual for piano music as we ordinarily encounter it.

The performances-adaptations are wondrously detailed, bravura, invigorating, like a plunge into an icy cold stream. To take a rough analogy, the bends, glides and ornamentation of Afro-American blues vocalists and guitarists have over the years developed into a special piano style that has developed pianistic means, grace notes and such, to make the expressions of blues language translate pianistically. Ms. Nyhus has developed a comparable pianistic language to capture musically the elaborate double-stops, trills and embellishments of fully developed traditional Hardanger fiddle virtuosos.

The results are beautiful and rather startling in Ingfrid's capable hands. In the end it all sounds radically modern in the "radical tonality" sense. The music captures the essence of the Norwegian fiddle style to the needs and talents of Ingfrid's piano brilliance, but in so doing gives us a music that sounds like no other piano music I've heard.

It is a very absorbing album, quite fascinating and satisfying on all accounts. You need to hear this one! Ms. Nyhus is a phenomenon!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Douglas Anderson, Chamber Symphonies 2, 3 & 4

In the present-day world of contemporary composers, the genre categories can be much more fluid than they may have been in the past. So, for example, we have Douglas Anderson and his album Chamber Symphonies 2, 3 & 4 (Ravello 7923). Douglas defines "symphony" in the liner notes to the present recording as "a large work touching on a variety of musical issues, but with an underlying cohesion that pulls all the diverse ideas together by the end." And indeed that follows in these examples.

But what perhaps is slightly startling is the size of the chamber ensembles called upon to perform the works. They are quite small. No. 2 requires flute, clarinet, violin and cello; No. 3 involves flute, viola and cello; and No. 4 is a piano trio with violin, cello and piano. Once you adjust to the intimate ensembles entailed, you are ready to sit back and experience the works. They are well worth your time.

The composer describes his first chamber symphony as a student work. And so having the second through the forth chamber symphony in one volume brings us up to date with his principal efforts in this medium.

This is modern music in a sort of neo-classical mode, extensions of the Viennese School and perhaps also in line with middle-period Stravinsky, but only as a rough indicator of the trajectory and structure of the works, not fully atonal but not harmonically based in a traditional sense, either. They are filled with invention and do indeed hold together nicely.

These were written on request from ensembles that Anderson knew as colleagues and friends, who were familiar with his music. They were written in 1989, 2001 and 2011, respectively. Each was written around the melodies and harmonies idiomatic for the instruments involved, creating tone rows a la Schoenberg and subjecting them to various processes. Anderson favors row "disordering," or treatment as kinds of scales which are then modified via harmonic and serial means. There is consequentially a wider range of melodic phrase choice which allows the composer to build aesthetic sequential syntaxes that give him maximum flexibility. As a result the music does not sound especially "serialist," but more intuitive-organic, if that makes sense.

What in the end matters for us is the impact the music makes on us as listeners. And it is that which stands out. This is music of vitality and charm, a lyrical quality and long, intrinsically interesting melodic part writing.

The performances are excellent.

Douglas Anderson manages to create works that make a nod to the early modernist period yet sound thoroughly current and original. They are invigorating and yes, coherent in the best ways.

I recommend this volume strongly.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Yann Tiersen, Pour Amelie, Piano Music, Jeroen Van Veen

Yann Tiersen (b 1970) writes pleasing music for solo piano. I base that on Jeroen Van Veen's 2-CD set Pour Amelie (Brilliant Classics 95129). By pleasing I mean it in the general sense. The set presents 45 mostly very short works. They are minimalist and lyrically liquidian, with a feel that reflects an affinity with Philip Glass, but perhaps also Satie and Chopin in their flowing modes. The liners refer to this as "French nostalgic music," and at times you do hear echoes of cafe pop from years ago.

Tiersen came to prominence with his soundtrack music for Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film "Amelie" and a bit of that is included in this program. Some of it SOUNDS like movie soundtrack fare, indeed. Short, new romantic in its emotionality, no doubt reinforcing the mood of the film. I have decidedly mixed feelings about it all. And that has nothing to do with Van Veen's performances, which seem to me exactly what is called for.

Some have a quasi-banality to them that borders on new age music, but then there are pieces that add a twist of melodic-harmonic inventiveness and have something distinctively good about them. But the rest are perhaps understandably "popular" in the sense that the average listener gets a soothing, no worries ambiance that can either be minded or more or less ignored, like what "easy listening" music was for my parents' generation, a comfy chair kind of unity of gentle affect.

When the music works it can be that and well wrought. Complex modulations or heightened mood contrasts are not the order of the day, though. Once you get used to the way the music is to proceed, you settle in and, to me, get maybe one in three pieces or perhaps two that have something captivating. The rest is patently inoffensive but perhaps also bland.

And so the music goes. It will appeal to folks with jangled nerves who want something soothing. The rest of us will find things to like, surely, but things also to feel indifference towards. I could be wrong. Minimalism as it takes this sort of approach is perhaps nearing the end of its days as a serious music. The best of it develops or has rhythmic vitality and a mesmerizing way about it. Tiersen has gone the route that Glass sometimes falls into--that is, sometimes settles for simple ostinatos with a easily understood attractiveness. Tiersen at his least interesting here has that tendency. But then there will be something more substantial that breaks out and gets your attention.

So whether you should have this set depends on how much minimalism you require. There are definite moments here but otherwise I would not call this essential listening.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Ensemble Intercontemporain, Bartok, Ligeti, Matthias Pintscher

For today's post there is the famed Ensemble Intercontemporain under Mattias Pintscher performing high modern Hungarian gems by the likes of Bartok and Ligeti (Alpha Classics 217 2-CDs). The first CD covers Bartok's monumental chamber works, "Contrasts" for clarinet, violin and piano, and the "Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion." They are breathtakingly performed by Jerome Comte on clarinet, Diego Tosi on violin, Sebastien Vichard on piano for the former work; Gilles Durot and Samuel Favre appear on percussion, and Vichard plus Dimitri Vassilakis on pianos for the latter.

The Bartok masterworks come to us in definitive performances, exciting, bold and idiomatic. I have never heard them done better.

The second disk covers later masterworks by Gyorgy Ligeti, namely his concertos for piano, cello and violin with orchestra, respectively. The exacting Ensemble Intercontemporain, which Boulez after all founded and honed to a precision vehicle of expression, do not fail to realize these three revolutionary works with all the drama and power of which they are capable. They are demanding pieces that call for the very best modern practitioners. Ensemble Intercontemporain do not fail.

The Piano Concerto has a rhythmic dynamism in the opening and closing movements especially taken on by the piano, and a fiendishly whirlwind part which is seconded and contrasted by the orchestra with great effect. Hideki Nagano handles the twist and turns of the solo part with great energy and exactitude, then handles the sometimes more delicate later movements with subtlety and impeccable phrasing. This is music that shows off Ligeti's brilliance and sense of color as it demands the same from the performers. It is a wondrous pairing on all counts.

The Cello Concerto is a bit more brief--two short movements. It begins in near silence, mysteriously, with cello and hushed orchestra appearing as if out of a mist, calling for a somber lyricism that builds, ebbs and creates atmospheric landscapes. Pierre Strauch handles the subdued solo part with a singing singularity, then awakens in the final movement to a more turbulent expression that breaks out of the quietude with pointed energy and finesse.

Jeanne-Marie Conquer has a great deal more business to take care of in the solo part for the Violin Concerto. It is a tumbling virtuoso and at times extraordinarily expressive part that the orchestra punctuates with that incredible Ligetian feel for orchestral color and texture. Heightened modernist drama is the substance of the concerto and Conquer sounds wonderful.

So that is in essence what you get with this significant double-CD offering. Masterpieces performed with sympathy, power and presence. Ensemble Intercontemporain are at their best, which means that the Bartok and Ligeti works get performances that are landmark. Anyone who wants to understand the development of high modernism and wishes to hear some major twentieth century examples in definitive performances, seek no further. Every work is a revelation and we are very lucky to have such a superb ensemble to give us the experience of the music on such a high plane.

Totally recommended!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Ingrid Andsnes, 33 +1, Beethoven, Hagen

To begin the new year of posts we have pianist Ingrid Andsnes giving us a very spirited reading of Beethoven's "Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli" plus the "Diabelli Candenza," recently written to precede the final movement of the variations by Lars Peter Hagen. The album is appropriately titled 33 + 1 (SIMAX Classics 1350). It was Beethoven's last work for the piano, written just after he finished the final "Piano Sonata No. 32" in 1822. It is a beautiful set of variations with all the brilliance and subtlety of his late period, as most will no doubt know.

The "Diabelli Cadenza" by Lars Petter Hagen calls for use of the e-bow on the piano strings, which creates a sustained, bowed effect with long tones that sound almost synthesized until you realize that these are the piano strings themselves. The cadenza concludes with some long chords. It is a subtle intrusion of the modern, a poignant break in the action that gives us pause, and really the opposite of a typical cadenza in that it withholds the virtuoso element altogether to give the listener an introspective inner moment before the final variation appears as if in a rematerialization of Beethoven and we are all-the-more mindful of the last minutes of brilliance. So the Cadenza sets us up with an unexpected five minutes before we reach our destination.

Is it absolutely a necessary part of everything? Certainly not. But then it does expand our listening consciousness and give us an interjection of a new tonal present.

If that was all there was to this album I'd probably not covered it. But it is an added plus to a masterful rendering of the Beethoven. Every variation is carefully sculpted and given a truly heroic-eroica reading. There is a warm, controlled passion without the sort of Liztian bombast or overuse of rubato that would make of the music more later romantic. Instead there is drama, dynamic excitement and attention to all the voicings.

Ingrid is Norwegian, the sister of pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. She most certainly makes a wonderful impression with the "Diabelli Variations." It is one of the very best performances to be had out there, articulate in every detail, very much true to our vision of late Beethoven as the brilliant yet controlled expressionist, as much a classicist in balance as a romantic in clearing a new path nearly single-handedly. And the Cadenza is a nice added touch that breaks up the music and makes you pause.

Bravo to Ms. Andsnes! Highly recommended.