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  March 22-29, 2004

Maurice Ohana

by David Salvage

Whenever I mention Maurice Ohana’s name to fellow composers or musicians, I learn they either haven’t heard any of his music or haven’t heard of him altogether. The utter lack of attention paid to this great French master in the United States must rank as one of the more significant scandals in contemporary music, and a retrospective of his work here is long, long overdue.  In the meantime, Naive’s recently released 2-CD set of Ohana’s choral music (#782171) offers a good opportunity to get to know this overlooked (and absolutely first-rate) composer.

 Ohana’s cultural roots are as complex as his music is eclectic.  Born in French Morocco to parents of Spanish/English decent, Ohana remained a British citizen until 1976 despite living in France for most of his life.  In 1932 he left for Paris to study architecture but soon abandoned his studies to pursue a career as a pianist.  While studying at the Schola Cantorum, he began to turn his attention to composition, and, after service in the British army during World War II, he turned to writing music full-time.  In 1947 he founded a composers circle called the “Groupe Zodiac” which foreswore all aesthetic dogma.  Even though the group had dissolved by the early 1950s, Ohana’s adversity to aesthetic programs and agendas left him on the margins of French musical culture for the rest of his life.  (In France, to not be affiliated with Boulez and IRCAM is to go against the grain of the establishment.) 

 Nonetheless, Ohana slowly gained notoriety throughout the 1950s, and, by the early 1960s, his mature compositional style had emerged.  Taking inspiration more from Mediterranean and Afro-Cuban folk-music traditions than from the Austro-German repertoire, he developed a style filled with residues of dance rhythms and colorful, pungent masses of sound.  (De Falla was an early influence as well.)  His generally homophonic textures evoked a primal, visceral atmosphere through an emphasis on percussion and wind instruments – relegating the normally prominent strings to the background.  Yet scintillating passages of aleatoric counterpoint (ala Lutoslawski) occur frequently, enlivening the music’s surface and creating startling juxtapositions of texture.  In this respect, Ohana’s sometimes abrupt changes of mood and section recall Stravinsky, and, indeed, his orchestral masterpiece, Livre des Prodiges (“Book of the Prodigies”), deliberately recalls The Rite of Spring. 


Office Des Oracles, etc.
Composer: Maurice Ohana
Conductor: Roland Hayrabedian
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Is Elliott Carter Too Hard For Detroit? When the Pacifica Quartet came to perform at the Chamber Music Society of Detroit this week, they were specifically asked not to perform the Elliott Carter quartet they had planned. Why? Fear of "alienating" subscribers. "Never mind that Carter's Fifth (1995) is a brilliant work in the composer's late style, muscular but communicative, full of spry dialogue and texture. Never mind that the Pacifica's reputation is based partly on its passionate advocacy of Carter. Never mind that removing Carter to placate a few reactionary patrons drives a stake through the heart of the society's artistic integrity and tightens the noose more securely around the future of classical music. If you do not play the music of today, to paraphrase composer Gunther Schuller, there will be no masterpieces for tomorrow." Detroit Free Press 03/18/04 

Larsen: Women Composers Making Progress When composer Libby Larsen started out, there weren't many women composers successfully making careers writing music. "After 30 years, it's 'like night and day.' The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers has 900 entries. There is now community, history, a consistent body of professional work and generations upon which to build. 'I can see the next one coming,' says Larsen knowingly. 'You need seven generations to make a big change. We can now, at least, find five'." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 03/16/04 

Orchestra of the Future? If there can be said to be a single American orchestra which has consistently been at the forefront of efforts to revitalize the classical music industry, the orchestra would have to be the San Francisco Symphony under music director Michael Tilson Thomas. From innovative recordings to fearless marketing techniques to an embrace of technological synergy, the SFS/MTT partnership may be providing a crucial example for other American ensembles to follow as the 19th-century art strives for relevance in the 21st. The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) 03/17/04 

Renaissance Painter Composed Music For His Painting A Renaissance scholar has discovered that the musical notes painted by Filippino Lippi in a famous 15th Century painting "Madonna and Child with Singing Angels is original music probably composed by the painter himself. "The first several notes of the composition are exactly the beginning notes of a popular Renaissance song, 'Fortuna Desperata.' After the first few notes, however, the piece does not resemble Fortuna." Discovery 03/16/04 

LA Opera In The Fast Lane "Los Angeles Opera is growing like a rambunctious weed. In 2004-5 there will be 100 performances, a 30 percent increase over this season. The budget of $48 million is up by a third over this season and double what it was when Plácido Domingo took over as general director five years ago. These numbers put Los Angeles in position to challenge San Francisco's longtime West Coast operatic primacy and to surpass, in terms of quantity if not necessarily quality, other worthy companies like those of Seattle and San Diego." The New York Times 03/16/04 

Opera - One Size No Longer Fits All? Covent Garden's rude brush-off of Deborah Voigt for being too big is a sign of a changing opera world, writes Joshua Kosman. "The resultant possibilities for mocking and excoriating this once- respected opera company are rife and fairly obvious (insert "the opera ain't over" joke of your choosing here). But this mini-scandal reveals some important shifts in the prevailing attitudes toward opera and the performing arts in general. Have we really reached the point where only the slim or the beautiful (the two terms are far from synonymous) need apply? Does artistic prowess now count for less than comeliness? Must every other consideration be subsumed to the visual?" San Francisco Chronicle 03/15/04 

Tower Records' New Lease On Life Tower Records emerged from bankruptcy court Monday. "Tower leaves bankruptcy protection with a far lighter debt load and a sunnier outlook. The music business seems to be coming back - CD sales nationwide are up 14 percent this year, according to Nielsen/SoundScan market research - and Tower's revenue has inched up since August, reversing a multiyear decline. Tower says 90 of its 93 stores make money." Sacramento Bee 03/16/04 

Small Orchestra Struggles, Part LXXVI "Plagued by poor ticket sales and high costs, the Long Island (NY) Philharmonic has canceled the last two concerts of its 25th anniversary season, its second cancellation within four months. What should have been a year of celebration has become a time of trial, with missed payroll deadlines and a $250,000 deficit in the orchestra's $2.1 million budget." Newsday (New York) 03/18/04 

Mr. Perlman Takes The NY Phil Itzhak Perlman makes his debut as conductor with the New York Philharmonic. "There are a few things to be said for Mr. Perlman as a conductor. Whatever the flaws in his conducting technique, his inherent musicality goes a long way in communicating what he wants. Clearly he is not doing this half-heartedly, as some soloists have." The New York Times 03/20/04 

A New Orchestra, And A Lot Of Russian Politics... Two years ago Vladimir Spivakov resigned (or was let go) as music director of the Russian National Orchestra. Within hours, Vladimir Putin heard about it and asked Spivakov to form a new orchestra. Many of Spivakov's former players joined him, and a new orchestra was born, and now ... The Guardian (UK) 03/18/04 

The Shostakovuch Question, Round 257 Time once again to play The Shostakovich Question. "The 'Shostakovich Question' is a debate is over the relationship between the composer and the triad of Stalinism, Mother Russia and Shostakovich's own deep humanism. It asks: why did Shostakovich remain in the USSR, while others like Stravinsky left? Was he obliged by a love of country to acknowledge, if not accept, the government? Or was his life torn between a public and private self? Indeed, was every musical phrase a thread woven through a tortured tapestry of dissent, a passionate but coded cry of opposition?" The Observer (UK) 03/14/04 

Last Week's News

Suddenly, Sissel
by Jerry Bowles

During the 1990s, I worked regularly with a Norwegian firm and spent many happy daysi in Oslo and Bergen and others parts of what is almost certainly the most civilized country on earth.  Inevitably, I was exposed to the country's most popular singer, Sissel Kyrkjebø, a beautiful young lady with a fetching smile and a Sarah Brightmanish voice, which is to say pleasant enough, without being especially challenging, although I must say her English is far more convincing than Brightman's.

Sissel is hardly a newcomer.  Her first Norwegian album was released in 1986 when she was only 15 and remains the best-selling local recording ever.  Her follow-up albums were also best-sellers in her home country and she began, little by little, to have some success in the European market outside of Scandinavia.  In 1994, she performed at the annual christmas concert in Vienna with Charles Aznavour and Placido Domingo.  She sang most of the songs on the "Titanic" songtrack, and although Celine Dion got the plum song, the album introduced her to the American audience.

Fortunately for Sissel, these are the days when the big record companies were beginning to recognize that there is a fortune to be made in releasing in the American market crossover pop arrangements of light classical songs by blind Italians or teenage girls from New Zealand and England.  Why not a gorgeous 32-year-old Norwegian?

So, now, we have the new crossover sensation Sissel (Kyrkjebø has been dropped for obvious reasons) touring America during March, promoting her second English album, "My Heart," available at better CD stores everywhere, and doing the usual dumb American PR things like singing the American national anthem at a nationally-televised basketball game (and forgetting the words) which certainly won't affect European sales.

Let's hope she makes it big because she's pretty and nice and Norwegians are wonderful people and maybe the record company will take some of the profits and spend it on promoting contemporary composers.  Hey, everybody's got to make a living.

Previous Interviews/Profiles
Simon Rattle, Michael Gordon,Benjamin Lees, Scott Lindroth, David Felder, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Erkki-Sven Tüür,John Luther Adams, Brett Dean, Judith Lang Zaimont, Meyer Kupferman, Evan Chambers, Poul Ruders, Steven R. Gerber, Gloria Coates, Tobias Picker

Previous Articles/
Busoni The Visionary
The Composer of the Moment:  Mark-Anthony Turnage
Electronic Music
Voices: Henze at 75
Henze Meets Emenim
On Finding Kurtag
Charles Ruggles:  When Men Were Men
Ballet Mécanique
The Adams Chronicles

What's Recent
An Interview with Tobias Picker
Handmaid Tale's Debuts in English
Rautavaara Joins B&G 
Who's Afraid of Julia Wolfe
Derek Bermel's Soul Garden
 The Pianist: The Extraordinary 
True Story of Wladyslaw Szpilman
John Adams' Atomic Opera
A Bridge Not Far Enough
Turnage Signs With B&H
Sophie's Wrong Choice
Copland's Mexico
On Being Arvo
Rzewski Plays Rzewski
Praising Lee Hyla
David Lang's Passing Measures
Three Tales at BAM
Naxos at 15
On the Transmigration of Souls
Dead Man Walking
David Krakauer's The Year After
Steve Reich/Alan Pierson
Record companies, artists and publicists are invited to submit CDs to be considered for our Editor's Pick's of the month.  Send to: Jerry Bowles, Editor, Sequenza 21, 340 W. 57th Street, 12B, NY, NY 10019
             THIS WEEK'S PICKS 

 11 Studies for 11 Players: Piano Concerto
Composer:  Ned Rorem
Performer(s): , Lowenthal, Mester, Louisville Orchestra
First Edition

Rorem ages well and a recent spate of re-releases of his early chamber and orchestral works demonstrate that he is a good deal more than simply a master of art songs.  Like most of Rorem's work, 11 Studies is distinctly more European than American and recall Berio's marvelous Sequenzas. 

Piano Concerto. Concerto for two pianos. Piano Sonata
Composer:  Arthur Bliss
Performers: . Peter Donohoe, Martin Roscoe (pianos), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, David Lloyd-Jones (conductor). Naxos

The piano concerto is rip-snorting, full-blooded, heavy breathing romantism of the Rachmaninov variety played with over-the-top virtuosity by the nimble Peter Donohoe.  Listening to it makes you want to invade Russia.

Symphony No.1, 'Jeremiah'. Jubilee Games
Composer:  Leonard Bernstein
Performers: Helen Medlyn (mezzo), Nathan Gunn (baritone), New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, James Judd (conductor). Naxos 

Young Bernstein, filled with piss and vinegar and more musical ideas per page than any eight of his contemporaries.  A joy to listen to a genius in the process of finding his compositional voice.

Organ and Silence
Composer: Tom Johnson
Performer:  Wesley Roberts, organ

A collection of 28 organ pieces to be played separately or as a long recital A music concerned for, as the author writes in the disc notes, "… the importance of silence in music…". This work is conceived not "for organ" but, really, for "organ and silence", as the silence is a fundamental part of it, and it’s not possible to give it up. It’s an attempt, as the author explain " to permit as much silence as possible, without allowing the music to actually stop".

Tom Johnson is one of the masters of minimalism, but he combines this with rigorous logic. His work, free from false glitters, defines, better that any other one, the sense of a research the goes beyond the strict genre definitions, and become poetic application of original ideas.

Composer: Lee Hyla
Conductor: Gil Rose
Performer: Laura Frautschi, Tim Smith
 New World Records

A rare opportunity to hear several of the major symphonic works of a true American original.  Hyla happily mingles expressionistic, complex contemporary atonal idioms with elements of avant-garde jazz, and rock and garage band with results that cannot be anticipated.

His  honking, strongly articulated rhythms mask  an inner beauty that almost always seems ready to burst into radiant sunshine. 

The three works on this disc—Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Orchestra (1988), Trans (1996), and the Violin Concerto (2001)—show Hyla at peak form, with stunning performances by Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.


Mein Herz Brennt
Composer: Torsten Rasch
Performer(s): Rene Pape, Katharina Thalbach, Dresdner Sinfoniker
Deutsche Grammophon

The best part of this odd little exercise is the sensational baritone Rene Pape, who sings these re-set songs by the German punk rock group, Rammstein, as if they were written by Mahler, on a good day.

Four Psalms, Emerson
Composer:  John Harbison
Performers:  The Cantata Singers & Ensemble
New World Records

This is the first recording of one of John Harbison’s most important works, Four Psalms, which was commissioned to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.  The composer describes Four Psalms as follows: "[It] opens with a prelude for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, a prayer composed by Amemar in 454 A.D., which states the major themes of the piece, both musical and philosophical … There follow four psalms, in Hebrew, alternating with the voices, in English, of people now living. The psalm settings employ fully developed forms—march, antiphon, passacaglia, and aria—suggested by the majesty and mystery of the Hebrew language. In contrast, the contemporary voices are set within brief inventions, their form echoing the momentary illuminations granted to those reflecting upon their own time." The other work, Emerson, is an a cappella setting of an extract from Emerson’s philosophical prose.  Stunning performances and a must-have disk.

Homage to Haydn / Triumph of St Joan
Composer:  Norman Dello Joio
Performer(s):   Slatkin, Louisville Orch
First Edition 

American composer Norman Dello Joio turned 91 in January and this re-issue of two of his significant works shows that his music  is wearing well.  Perhaps, a little too neo-classic or "accessible" for some modern sensibilities, Dello Joio's unique  compositional fusion of American popular music, jazz, Italian opera and the liturgical music of the Catholic church has an elegance that transcends the label of easy listening. Two wonderful works by Dello Joio are featured on this First Edition release: the stirring, widely acclaimed Louisville Orchestra commission, Triumph of St. Joan Symphony, which debuted with Martha Graham as dance soloist, and his Homage to Haydn, an jubilant tribute that reflects Dello Joio’s studies with Paul Hindemith.

Black Earth
Composer: Fazýl Say
Conductor: Muhai Tang, Eliahu Inbal
Performer: Fazil Say, Laurent Korcia

The Turkish pianist Fazýl Say has built a formidable reputation for himself through a string of first-rate recordings  of Mozart, Bach, Gershwin and Stravinsky.  This time around,  Say demonstrates that he is also a composer of considerable talent.  The title piece, Black Earth for solo piano, is  based on a Turkish folksong, in which Say, evoking the saz, a Turkish traditional instrument, simultaneously plays the keys and the strings inside the piano, producing an otherworldly sound. Say's compositions are hardly classical--more like Keith Jarrett with a dynamite hook-- but these are daring and exciting performances.

American Angels
Performer(s): Anonymous 4
Harmonia Mundi Franc 

Anonymous 4 turns from the medieval repertoire to explore the roots of American sacred music. Developed in Toni Morrison’s Atelier program at Princeton in spring 2003, American Angels includes songs of redemption and glory from the time of the American Revolution to the present day: 18th-century psalm settings from rural New England, 19th-century shape-note and camp revival songs from the rural South, and some of the nation’s best-loved gospel songs. Drawing from collections including “The Southern Harmony,” and “The Sacred Harp,” - the album explores the beauty and power of early American sacred music and the relatively obscure form of a cappella choral singing known as Sacred Harp.

Violin Concerto
Composer: Khachaturian,
Performer(s): Mihaela Martin, Kuchar, Nat'l So Ukraine

It takes a lot of virtuosity to keep Khachaturian's demanding Violin Concerto afloat and the Romanian violinist, Mihaela Martin, does a masterful job.  Her version is less daring, say, than that of, David Oistrakh, to whom the piece is dedicated, but she skillfully navigates the bristling outer movements and pours her soul into the elegaic central movement.  Among recent versions this holds it own with the very best. 


Piano Concerti Nos. 1 & 2
Piano Concerto No. 2
Marc-André Hamelin (piano), 
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton

Marc-Andre Hamelin makes child's play of these two very different piano masterpieces of Shostakovich.  Fabulously accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony, led by Andrew Litton,  Hamelin provides not simply his usual technical brillance but also a feeling for the material that sounds--to this listener--definitive.  The Shchedrin concerto, though less well-known, is no less enjoyable. 

Composer: Luigi Dallapiccola
Conductor: Ernest Bour
Radio France

 Dallapiccola's final masterpiece, the opera Ulisse, which premiered in Berlin in 1968, recounts the voyage both of Homer’s hero and of mankind's search  for eternal truths.  Recorded in 1975, a few months after the composer's death, this performance is the culmination of a lifetime of meditation and musical discipline by one of the great humanists of the 20th century arts.

Early and Unknown Piano Works
Composer:  Morton Feldman
Performer(s): Debora Petrina
OgreOgress Productions

Previously unrecorded pieces from the early 40s reveal Feldman during the period he studied with Wallingford Riegger.  No real surprises here but no klunkers either.  His  composition style borrows 12-tone techniques and atonality but deploys them within more traditional neo-classic structures. 


Guitar Concertos & Solos
Composer:  Poul Ruders
Performer:  David Starobin, guitar

The long and intimate collaboration between Poul Ruders, the brilliant composer, and David Starobin, the splendid guitarist, (who also happens to be David Starobin, the successful record executive--co-founder of Bridge Records)--has led to some of the most challenging and original compositions in the modern guitar repertory.  Consider this a kind of "greatest hits" for the modern classical guitar.

Symphonies 1 & 7
Composer:  Aulis Sallinen
Performer:  Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Ari Rasilainen

Another great Finnish composer, ho hum, but Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935) is, with Rautavaara, the latest proof that small countries can produce big composers.  There are hints of Sibelius, of course,  but Sallinen is a unique voice that speaks directly.  His work is tonal and completely devoid  of the modern  medievalism that characters much north of the Arctic Circle music. 

String Quartets 1 & 3
Composer:  Frank Bridge
Performers:. Maggini String Quartet

Frank Bridge is a bit of a lost horse in the English stable of composers that includes such giants as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and, his student, Benjamin Britten.  But he shouldn't be. No. 1, written in 1901, is a mature, fully realized work; No. 3, composed in 1927 is one of the pilars of 20th century chamber music.  As always, the Maggini play magnificiently and the recording is first rate.

Le Villi
Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Marco Guidarini
Performer: Melanie Diener, Ludovic Tezier, et al. Radio France Chorus, French Radio Philharmonic Orchestra

Just listening to young Puccini's first opera (as opposed to seeing it staged and sung), you notice immediately that the big sweeping melodies, the ingenious "hooks" are already there. Naive has also issued a Radio France recording of Puccini’s second opera, Edgar, written five years after Le Villi.   In this more ambitious and complicated work, Puccini develops his technique using a score that merges stirring arias and ensembles. 

Emerson Concerto / Symphony 1
Composer:  Charles Ives
Performers:  Alan Feinberg (piano), National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, James Sinclair (conductor)

Ives sketched the Emerson Concerto in 1907 but never fully finished it, although he used portions in other works.  David G. Porter, a noted Ives scholar, was  able to create a performing version which was premiered in 1998 by Alan Feinberg, the pianist on this premiere recording.  The piece is extremely demanding, often abrasive, and demands exceptional  virtuosity.  Symphony No. 1 is fetching, but not as charateristic, of the great American maverick that followed.

Piano Concertos 2 & 3
Composer: Einojuhani Rautavaara
Performers: Laura Mikkola (piano), Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra, Eri Klas (conductor)

The Finnish composer Rautavaara has enjoyed enormous success in recent years with his unique blend of northern lights impressionism and romanticism  served up in an aura of modernity. His Cantus Articus is immensely popular, conjuring up associations of Messiean, although the latter is a much more important composer.   The Third Piano Concerto from 1998 is forceful, drawings on  the Russian school of pianism, although it not technically flashy until the finale.  The Second, composed nine years earlier, is more traditional and  Laura Mikkola, already on disc with a highly regarded account of the First Concerto, again provides an outstanding performance.

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