Vicky Chow plays Ryan Francis (CD Review)

Ryan Francis

Works for Piano

Vicky Chow; piano

Tzadik CD 8080


Composer Ryan Francis (b. 1981) may have just turned thirty, but the Juilliard grad has already amassed a formidable hour plus of solo piano works. These compositions are featured on his recent Tzadik CD release. They are given energetic and laser-beam precise performances by pianist Vicky Chow, a similarly youthful artist best known for her work with the new music collective Bang on a Can All-Stars.


Chow is formidable in the Chopin inspired Consolations (2007), an imposing and hyperkinetic nocturne that features swirling cascades of overlapping accompaniment figures and hypnotic melodic figures. Another homage to the classical music canon, this time to musical “bird figures” referenced in Haruki Murakami’s book The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, is found in Francis’ similarly titled “Wind-up Bird Preludes” (2005). These works are more fragmentary, seeking to juxtapose birdcall motives rather than make them cohere. Thus, Mozart, Rossini, Schumann, and others are successively alluded to. All the while, the inevitable references to Messiaen cause this ornithologist—composer to serve as birdsong pater familias and master of ceremonies.


Even from the vantage point of an emerging composer just a little over a decade out of his teens, a work written when one is eighteen might be something to suppress rather than spotlight. But one is glad that Francis didn’t choose this route, preferring instead to include his set of aphoristic but abundantly attractive Moonlight Fantasy pieces on this CD. There’s a taste of Joseph Schwantner’s shimmering harmony alongside Francis’ already present penchant for brief contrasting sections, busily effusive rhythmic language, and authoritative dramatic contrasts.


Francis’ best work on the disc however, is a bit more recent and it is to date his most unconventionally constructed. In an updated version of Conlon Nancarrow’s punching of piano roles to create his studies, Francis worked away from the piano (not his usual writing practice) to create a set of Etudes (2008) using MIDI mapping. The results suggest that Francis should put himself outside his compositional comfort zones more frequently, as these are a dazzling group of pieces, incorporating facets of post-minimalism (“Loop”), electronica (“digital sustain”), and Stravinskyian ostinati mixed with Nancarrow-esque rhythmic canons (“Harlequin). What might Francis’ at this point conjectural but likely inevitable “Piano Works Volume 2” have in store for us? Judging by what one can hear in his music already, the sky’s the limit!

Ryan Francis: Works for piano performed by Vicky Chow by Vicky Chow

Happy Independence Day from Charles and Greta

My parents-in-law have a long tradition of enthusiastic photography. Greta the golden retriever is less than a year old, but she’s already an accomplished model.

To those readers in the United States, I’d like to wish you a safe and happy Independence Day. While there’s a lot of music played on this holiday that is arranged to be “broadly appealing,” Charles Ives was never one to compromise. “Fourth of July” (1904), from the Holidays Symphony, complexly layers a number of patriotic tunes, which move a different speeds and simultaneously appear in different keys.

No one will mistake this piece for John Philip Sousa anytime soon, but it’s Ives’ way of paying tribute to the complex and multifaceted portrait that he saw both as America in the modern age and as the epitome of the American dream. Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Chicago Symphony in the embedded video below.

Read This

Book Review

Listen to This

By Alex Ross

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 384 pp.

Published in 2007, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’ first book, was an engrossing and thoughtful survey of Twentieth Century music, equally useful as an introduction to neophytes and a refresher to specialists (he’s since tweaked the paperback edition to be even more comprehensive, including updated info and a “go-to” listening list). By “classical music” standards, the book was wildly successful, and Ross subsequently garnered a number of honors, including a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award and a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship. Its follow-up, Listen to This, doesn’t limit itself to contemporary concert music. Instead, it’s a wide-ranging survey of musical topics, including portrait essays of musicians as diverse as Radiohead, Marian Anderson, Sonic Youth, and Cecil Taylor, discussions of specific musical genres, and thought pieces on the state of music education, the record industry, and cultural consumption at home and abroad.

Ross has been a music critic on the staff at the New Yorker since 1996. While most of these essays are culled from his writings there, Listen to This never strikes one merely as a “greatest hits” compilation.  Rather, the volume is structured to tease out several overarching concerns. One of them is the working musician. In one chapter, he demystifies the grueling touring schedule of chamber musicians, pointing out that even acclaimed groups such as the St. Lawrence String Quartet have to hustle to make a living in today’s economic climate. Far from being another “death of classical music story,” Ross argues for the relevancy of these touring ensembles that, despite these challenges, bring music of a very high level of artistry to locations far and wide, many of them off of the beaten path. Another topic is globalization’s affect on postmillennial music, which is explored in a particularly fascinating travel essay detailing a concert-filled trip to China and in a jaunt to Carnival in Brazil with Björk.

While there’s no mistaking Ross’ erudition, a trait that allows specialists to prefer his writings to those of some of his journalist colleagues with less musical knowledge, Listen to This is an approachable collection. One of the ways in which it speaks to a wide audience is with an eagerness to share in what Leonard Bernstein called “The Joy of Music.” Indeed, Ross is that rare writer on music who can share his enthusiasms for an artist’s work with unabashed honesty. But even when backstage with Radiohead or following Björk through the streets of Salvador, he defuses any notions of fanboy journalism – a trend that, alarmingly, has infiltrated all too many publications of late. Instead, Ross seeks to put a human face on artistic process, detailing the origins of Björk’s eclectic musical tastes and providing a foil for the singer’s exotic costumes and playful demeanor by detailing a studio session in which, while humane, she is exacting in eliciting musical details from collaborators. There’s an emotional openness, even vulnerability, which runs through a number of these essays. His eulogy of the exquisitely talented mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is one of the most affecting yet observant tributes to this recently departed artist (rereading it was made all the more poignant by the passing in April of her husband, the composer Peter Lieberson).

The state of music education is a frequent topic of discussion of late. Ross’ essay “The Crisis of Music Education” should be required reading for policy-makers, educators, and the parents of artistically motivated children alike. As one can tell by the title, it acknowledges the beleaguered state of arts and education funding; but Ross still provides several glimmers of hope for the future. He describes the unlikely and extraordinary flowering of a music program in the inner city at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey. Another urban success story is detailed in Providence, Rhode Island’s Community MusicWorks, a program run by the Providence String Quartet, a group of graduates from major conservatories who prefer giving back to staking a claim for fame and fortune. Ross even gets in on the education act himself: part of his book tour for Listen to This has featured a performance/discussion of bass lines throughout music history ranging from Purcellian grounds to Delta Blues walking lines: it’s also made for a cult YouTube hit, in which Ross is joined by the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson and ex-Battles composer Tyondai Braxton.

A staff position at the New Yorker provides a platform from which can wield considerable influence. Some of the essays collected here have already had undeniable impact. Ross has done a considerable amount to raise the stock of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, and his fascinating chapter on the composer’s works and working environments is another “must-read” excerpt. One wonders whether it’s mere coincidence that Providence String Quartet founder Sebastian Ruth received a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship. If Ross had a hand in this, more power to him: it’s nice to see a music critic on the side of the good guys!

Kronos remembers Gorecki

Some of Henryk Gorecki’s closest collaborators were the members of the Kronos Quartet. He composed all three of his string quartets for Kronos. As it happens, when the composer passed away yesterday, the group was in Poland. Late yesterday, David Harrington, Kronos’ first violinist, released the following statement:

“The three string quartets Henryk Górecki wrote for Kronos are a totally unique
body of work. With ‘Already it is Dusk’, Quasi Una Fantasia’ and ‘…songs are
sung’, Górecki extended a tradition that includes Bach and Beethoven, among
many others. When we rehearsed with Henryk, the experience was as close as
we have ever been to witnessing the raw, impassioned core in the heart of
Europe’s great invention: the string quartet. When he demonstrated phrases on
the piano for us I was always reminded of Beethoven: his fortes were shattering,
his pianissimos unfathomably inward. From us, he always wanted as much as
our bows could handle and more.

“Górecki represented a totally independent voice. He only listened inward.
There was no amount of pressure that ever pulled him away from his ideals. He
was known for his cancellations, as even the Pope discovered. Kronos waited 12
years for a piece that was so personal he couldn’t let it out of his sight until the
right moment mysteriously arrived. And I always loved him more for that
devotion to his muse.

“I learned that Henryk was a skilled furniture maker known for his beautiful
chairs. I once asked him if he would consider making me a chair. He said,
‘David, you can have the chair or you can have String Quartet #4. You choose.’ I
chose String Quartet #4. But it looks like I will have to wait.

“There is no one who can replace Henryk Górecki in the world of music. Many
others have created beautiful, passionate, even exalted music. But Henryk found
a way forward and beyond, through thickets of styles and fashions, that
resonates of the single human being in communion with the power of the
Universe. I miss him immensely.”

David Harrington
November 12, 2010
Wroclaw, Poland

RIP Henryk Gorecki (1933-2010)

Polish composer Henryk Gorecki died today at the age of 76. Gorecki was one of Poland’s most prominent musical figures and, along with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and Englishman John Tavener, is widely credited with popularizing the “spiritual minimalism” strain of Postmodern era European music.

He is perhaps best known for his Symphony no. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976). Fifteen years after its premiere, a Nonesuch CD recording of the work, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw and conducted by David Zinman, became a best-seller in 1992, breaking into the mainstream charts in the UK and dominating US classical sales during that year.

While the composer has denied a direct program for the work, it’s frequently been linked with the experiences of the Polish people under German occupation during the Second World War; in particular, with the Holocaust. Below is a video excerpt of the symphony performed at Auschwitz, from a film commemorating victims of genocide during WWII.

Hilary Hahn CD review

Higdon and Tchaikovsky: Violin Concertos
Hilary Hahn; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra;Vasily Petrenko
Deutsche Gramophon

It’s pleasing to see mainstream media picking up the story of Hilary Hahn’s recent recording of Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto. Like her previous pairing of Schoenberg with Sibelius,  Hahn presents something new to most classical audiences alongside a “warhorse,” the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. She plays both superlatively; I wouldn’t want to have to choose which performance to prefer.

Far from seeming like an odd pairing, the two concertos complement each other wonderfully. Higdon has a compositional voice that doesn’t eschew contemporary orchestration – witness the brash percussion in the Violin Concerto’s first movement. But at the same time she makes numerous connections to the Romantic concerto tradition in her sense of phrasing and the unabashed lyricism of much of the work. But this is no mere “Neoromanticism:” Higdon gives us the real thing, with guts and, often, gravitas. Thus, it’s an excellent choice to pair with Tchaikovsky.

I’m particularly fond of the Higdon concerto’s pastoral, poignant second movement, which not only evinces a supple contemporary Romanticism, but also reminds me in places of a Twentieth Century American composer: Aaron Copland. Also, its passages for the woodwinds are just spectacular. And the final movement is a winning showcase for both the orchestra and its soloist: it fits Hahn perfectly.

One hopes that, someday, we’ll be seeing future recordings where the Higdon concerto is the repertoire work paired with a piece of “new music:” it’s not hard to imagine!

Ryuichi Sakamoto: “Silk Endroll” (Video)

I’m looking forward to interviewing Ryuichi Sakamoto on Wednesday for Signal to Noise Magazine. His latest US release is a double CD featuring two albums: Playing the Piano and Out of Noise. The former is a collection of “self-covers,” featuring Sakamoto revising some of his most famous earlier pieces, many of them from film scores, for solo piano. The process of distillation and refinement has resulted in fascinating and fresh-sounding performances.

Out of Noise on the other hand, is a collection of a dozen new pieces. Here, Sakamoto explores an atmospheric and multi-hued sound palette, and enlists a host of noteworthy collaborators: among them Keigo Ayomada, Karen Filskov, Fretwork, Christian Fennesz, and Skúli Sverrisson.

Thus, the interview occurs at a timely crossroads, and will be a chance to ask Sakamoto about a broad range of music, from his earliest compositions to his current creative process. It will appear in the Winter issue.