Dan Visconti’s Lonesome Roads (CD Review)

Dan Visconti
Lonesome Roads
Scharoun Ensemble Berlin; Horszowski Trio
Bridge Records CD

 

Lonesome Roads is Dan Visconti’s first solo disc.  Just thirty, the composer certainly has lots of talent and relishes the challenges posed by projects inspired by disparate musical styles. In particular, Visconti loves to combine American traditional music with various strains of concert music. When his postmodern magpie approach works, as it abundantly does on the title piece, a seven-movement suite at turns rhapsodic, folksy and hypermodern, the results are affecting. Similarly, Low Country Haze mixes clarinet in Coplandesque Americana mode with flute rasps and bends, punctuating percussion, and neo-romantic string swoons.

 

Elsewhere, there’s some inconsistency. While the individual sound schemes are the most adventurous assayed by the composer, the juxtapositions found in Fractured Jams feel forced, and the results, particularly in the closing ragtime movement, underwhelm. “Remembrances,” a post-romantic piano ballad, in places is overly sentimental; even schmaltzy. Black Bend, a piece for amplified string quintet that’s a showcase for the first violin, is even more problematic. It is an object lesson for one of the challenges facing polystylistic creatives: if you transplant a highly identifiable element into another medium, it may not work out well. So, all emerging crossover composers repeat after me: bluesy box riffs and Berlin-based string ensembles do not, based on the evidence supplied here, appear to mix well. If the accompaniment doesn’t swing it doesn’t matter how fiery the fiddle hoedown is down front.

 

Like Black Bend’s tale of two dissimilar demeanors, one sizzling and another mawkish, the Lonesome Roads CD leaves a decidedly mixed impression of Visconti’s work.

 

 

No one’s being put to sleep by this rendition!

J.S. Bach

Goldberg Variations

Takae Ohnishi

Bridge Records CD 9357

The legend about the Goldberg Variations, that they were played to a nobleman by Bach’s student Goldberg as a cure for his insomnia, has long been dismissed. But another, more recent, legend about the piece has in some circles taken hold: that no new recording can compare to the incredible corpus of renditions already available. When it comes to an imposing and varied work such as this set – an aria and thirty variations, a third of them canonic – my feeling is: the more versions, the merrier.

And one certainly can’t help but be glad that artists are still committing their own interpretations of the Goldberg Variations to disc when hearing the new Bridge recording of the work by harpsichordist Takae Ohnishi. It is fleet fingered but not in the hyperactive fashion of Glenn Gould’s recordings, clarion in its brilliance, detailed in its delineations of counterpoint, canons, and other linear details, and, above all, varied in its articulative and timbral details in a way that never makes one miss the dynamic gradations of the modern piano.  If a nobleman had commissioned this piece to cure his insomnia or keep him company during it, he would have likely preferred to remain nocturnal with Ohnishi at the keys!

Thursday: Alabama Symphony at Spring for Music

Tonight, the Alabama Symphony, conducted by Justin Brown, appears at Carnegie Hall as part of Spring for Music, a week long celebration of out-of-town orchestras with adventurous programming aesthetics. Many of them are making their Carnegie Hall debuts; all of them are bringing programs of interest and demonstrating that, despite the oft-reported economic vicissitudes in the world of classical music, there remains a tremendous vitality of orchestral music making throughout North America.

Quattro Mani

In addition to a repertory standby, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the ASO presents two New York premieres of pieces they commissioned: Avner Dorman’s Astrolatry and Paul Lansky’s Shapeshifters. The latter work is a double piano concerto for the duo Quattro Mani.

The same forces recently recorded it, as well as two other pieces by Lansky, for Bridge . The disc, titled Imaginary Islands, shows off Lansky’s music at its most colorful, filled with virtuosic passages for the soloists and formidably propulsive post-minimal writing for the orchestra. The composer’s take on minimal figuration is a fascinating marriage of an “enhanced” harmonic palette, one evocative of Messiaen as often as it is of Adams, with crackling ostinati and pileups of syncopation.

The recording demonstrates how far the ASO has come in a relatively short period of time: less than twenty years ago (in 1993), the orchestra had declared bankruptcy and its future was very much in doubt. The musicians and Brown, who soon departs from his position as their music director, should be proud of the successes the ASO has enjoyed in recent years. The standard of playing has risen, the orchestra’s programming has included a number of new works including several commissions, and they have been featured on several recording projects. This week’s visit to Carnegie Hall: a well-deserved victory lap!

Carter Giveaway #2: CDs and signed photos!

Courtesy of Boosey and Hawkes, Bridge Records, and Naxos Records, we have another special giveaway that will benefit those not able to attend Elliott Carter’s 103rd birthday party on Thursday in New York.

We’re giving away two signed CDs of “Music of Elliott Carter: volume 5” (Bridge 9128), and two of String Quartets Nos. 2, 3 and 4 (featuring the Pacifica Quartet; Naxos 8.559363), along with a signed 8×10 photo to accompany each.

Once again, I’ll be selecting the winners via a random drawing. If you’re interested, send me an email at: S21managingeditor@gmail.com. The contest will be open until noon on Thursday.

The Six Realms by Peter Lieberson

Peter Lieberson. Photo credit: Becky Starobin

Peter Lieberson’s record label, Bridge Records, has been kind enough to share some of his music with us: an excerpt from The Six Realms, one of his later and larger works and a piece that has an explicitly Buddhist programmatic element.

Here is movement 5, performed by cellist Michaela Fukacova, the Odense Symphony Orchestra, and conducted by Justin Brown. The recording is from Bridge 9178, The Music of Peter Lieberson.

The Six Realms V. The Human Realm

The Six Realms for Cello and Orchestra (2000)

Program Note:

In addition to silk and other precious goods, the Silk Road helped disseminate Buddhism, one of its earliest, and most valuable, cultural exports. For almost thirty years, Peter Lieberson has been a devout Buddhist, having studied with the great Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist master he met in 1974. Says Lieberson, “Buddhism’s appeal to me in the early 1970s was that it was not a religion in the conventional Western sense. Buddhism did not posit the existence of any external deity or savior or, for that matter, an individual personal ego…The basic message of the great Buddhist masters was: Be brave enough to experience existence without dogma or beliefs of any kind.”

Lieberson left New York City in 1976 for Boulder, Colorado, to absorb the Tibetan master’s wisdom, especially the concepts, experiences, and views of the Shambhala tradition as presented by Trungpa in his book Shambhala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior. “I went to a Buddhist seminary where I studied intensively for three months,” Lieberson has said. “When I started writing music again, my style had changed…There was less sense of struggle…the horizon expanded. It’s as if you had tunnel vision, and then you have panoramic vision. Studying Buddhism also affected my approach to composing [in that] I understand there’s a kind of journey that’s made.” After completing his studies, Lieberson directed Shambhala Training, a meditation and cultural program, for a number of years, both in Boston and in Halifax, all the while building an international reputation as a composer. Observed writer Victoria Roth in 1989: “Since Lieberson’s commitment to Buddhism is intensely personal, it is not reflected in compositions that sound ‘Eastern’.” Lieberson has devoted his time exclusively to composition since 1994. Although his musical language has not changed greatly, most of his works now deal with Buddhist subjects or concepts. It is a philosophy as life-giving for Lieberson as air itself.

At the request of Yo-Yo Ma, who had played in the 1992 premiere of King Gesar, Lieberson conceived a concerto for amplified cello and orchestra, entitled The Six Realms, that outlines a key Buddhist teaching: that differing states of mind and emotions color our view of the world and shape human experience. This philosophy is reflected in the piece’s formal structure (see diagram below); each of the concerto’s six continuous sections represents a different state of being.

The Six Realms is structured as follows:

1. The Sorrow of the World (introduction)
2. The Hell Realm (aggression: acute, self-perpetuating anger at the world and ourselves)
3. The Hungry Ghost Realm (passion: the need to possess or continually consume; we are never satisfied because we can never get enough)
4. The Animal Realm (ignorance: an obsessive need to control or to find security)
5. The Human Realm (passion: the desire for something better, and a lessening of self-absorption, allows for the possibility of our becoming dignified humans who long for liberation from these six realms of existence. It is only from this realm that we are able to move on to achieve Enlightenment: the right way to view, and interact with, the world.)
6. The God Realm (ignorance: blissful self-absorption of our godlike powers, until doubt sets in and shatters our confidence) and The Jealous God Realm (aggression: extreme paranoia and competitive drive; we never trust anyone or their motives)

Put simply, Buddhists believe that humans cycle back and forth, endlessly, through these six states, experiencing the concomitant afflictions that attach themselves to each level. In Lieberson’s Six Realms, the cello soloist acts as emotional protagonist and the orchestra’s “guide” — a cousin to the Romantic concerto’s “hero” — leading all of us from realm to realm until we finally are able to liberate ourselves from this misery-inducing cycle. By simply letting go of the neurotic attachments in our lives, we become fully aware of our self-destructive behavioral and thought patterns, thereby achieving spiritual fulfillment as the realms collapse upon themselves. Counterbalancing this concerto’s Eastern philosophy is Lieberson’s Western, modernist musical language. Although not programmatic, the piece’s subtle use of musical imagery allows the listener without any previous knowledge of Buddhist tenets to grasp its depiction of universal human experiences.

RIP Peter Lieberson (1946-2011)

We’re saddened to learn from David Starobin of the passing of composer Peter Lieberson in Israel, due to complications from Lymphoma. He had been battling the disease since 2006 and for a time it had been in remission. But in late 2010, Lieberson travelled to Israel to seek treatment for a recurrence of the cancer.

Alex Ross has posted a touching remembrance on The Rest is Noise.

Lieberson’s music was an extraordinary mixture of disparate strands of influences. It encompassed  an intuitive post-tonal vocabulary, rooted in dodecaphonic training but also capable of lush verticals and, particularly in his vocal music, supple lyricism and sweeping melodies. In later years, his interest in meditation and Zen Buddhism contributed another layer of resonances and an intriguingly metaphysical counterweight to some of the modernist tendencies of his oeuvre.

Among the many honors he attained was the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize, which he won in 2008 for Neruda Songs. Although he was a finalist for the award on multiple occasions, the Pulitzer Prize eluded him. Back in 2004, I suggested that this injustice made him the “Pulitzer’s Susan Lucci.”

Of course, during this sad time, one can’t help but think of the passing of Lieberson’s late wife, the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, also of cancer. Lieberson wrote a number of memorable pieces for her, including the aforementioned Neruda Songs. If there’s a signature example to use when we advocate for our government to continue to fund medical research, I’d offer this one up: two brilliant creators in the prime of life laid low so cruelly. Both had so much yet to offer. It’s a tragedy that we’re bereft of their artistry and humanity far too soon.

Movies go to the Opera

Poul Ruders has composed an opera based on Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark. The work will be premiered by the Royal Danish Opera next week (on 9/5). You can check out a teaser video below.

Dancer in the Dark is one of several recent operas based on films; but there are countless films yet to be adapted for the operatic stage. Which films would you like to see re-imagined as an opera?