Nico Muhly: Choral Music on Decca

Nico Muhly
A Good Understanding
Los Angeles Master Chorale; Grant Gershon, conductor
Decca CD

Before he became a Juilliard graduate, a session musician for stars such as Jonsi and Philip Glass, and then a famous composer with a pile of prominent performances and a bright future with lots of commissions, Nico Muhly was first a boy soprano. A Good Understanding, his latest Decca CD, one of two on the imprint more or less released simultaneously, demonstrates a strong connection to these musical roots and the choral music tradition. He’s also fortunate to have found ardent and well-prepared advocates in the Los Angeles Master Chorale and its conductor Grant Gershon. It’s a winning combination.

Bright Mass with Canons is a surprising and fascinating juxtaposition of traditional and postmodern elements. Its Kyrie is a good example of this. Underneath soaring vocal counterpoint, which often embodies the Anglican sound world of composers such as Whitbourne and Bennett is an underpinning of nervously skittering organ licks. The Sanctus thickens the broth further, its dense organ chords eliciting intriguing polychords from the voices.

The mass, as well as the cinematically swept Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings which follow, attractively wed these varied elements into well-crafted works. The Christmas anthem Senex Puerum Portabat is equally imaginative. It starts with long stretches of moody sostenuto cluster chords, but these give way to jubilant singing as well as bright flourishes and ebullient sliding passages for brass ensemble.

The title track, with its long legato lines for the voice somewhat curiously punctuated by boisterous percussion and a busy organ part, feels a bit more diffusely ordered, but there are a lot of very attractive moments. The LA Children’s Chorus provides a supple and affecting rendition. Expecting the Main Things from You, a triptych of Whitman settings, employs a kaleidoscope of textures circulating through the music, including pitched percussion and a prominent solo violin part. Muhly seems to favor interruptive accompaniments, and perhaps is responding to the digressive nature of the source texts with effusive variety, but the piece never quite settles in. The use of a “morse code” vocal accompaniment adds a fragmentary quality to some of the music. But again, it features affecting moments of skillful writing for both voices and instruments.

Thus, while its second half is uneven, all told the CD contains some of Muhly’s best work to date.

The Kids are All Rite


Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Deutsche Grammophon CD

True, Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps is a watershed work. It serves as many a classical listener’s jumping off point when first exploring Twentieth Century repertoire. But can a work, no matter how seminal, have too many recordings? Can it get programmed so often on concerts that it loses its zing?

I have several recordings of the piece myself, but I’d begun to wonder in the past couple years whether the Rite was in danger of being overexposed. And I’m not the only one…

Enter young conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his even younger colleagues from the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Their version of the Rite is viscerally powerful, rhythmically muscular, and impressively wide in its dynamic range. After getting a bit burnt out by the piece and its attendant folklore, I’m refreshed by hearing Dudamel’s rendition.

In a clever programming touch, the Stravinsky is paired with Silvestre Revueltas’ La Noche de los Mayas. Originally a 1939 film score, a concert suite of the work was only fashioned some two decades after Revueltas’ death. Latin dance signatures and melodic inflections are offset by virtuosic percussion writing, including some cadenzas that help to make evident the musical kinship between Rite of Spring and La Noche de los Mayas.

The sociocultural resonances are obvious as well. It might seem gruesome to pair works based on their common interest in human sacrifice, but Rite restores the vitality and bite of early modernism’s interest in still-earlier primitivism.

RIAS Kammerchor: new Krenek CD

Ernst Krenek

Sechs Motetten nach Worten von Franz Kafka; Choral Works

RIAS Kammerchor; Hans-Christopher Rademann

Harmonia Mundi CD 902049

Ernst Krenek’s Lamentations of Jeremiah is a work that I admire a great deal. A pivotal 12-tone composition, it proved greatly influential to a number of American composers and, reputedly, Igor Stravinsky. Indeed, Krenek is one of the first to discuss the use of a rotation as a serial permutation; a technique that would prove valuable to Stravinsky during his own late spate of 12-tone works.

The recording  of Krenek’s Lamentations by RIAS Kammerchor (also on HM) was widely acclaimed as a near-flawless rendition of this famously challenging, dissonantly thorny a cappella work. Sechs Motetten is a worthy follow-up to the previous disc. It includes a wide range of Krenek’s shorter choral pieces, ranging in date of composition from 1923 to 1959. There is a disjunct, angular quality to the Kafka settings that seems to resonate well with the author’s legendarily terse and often tart prose. The RIAS singers perform with superlative control; one is particularly taken with the nuanced renderings of detailed dynamic shifts and articulations. Both sopranos and tenors negotiate an often high-lying tessitura with nary a flinch.

The CD also includes an arrangement of Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa; it isn’t realized with a particularly informed sense of period practice, but retains Monteverdi’s nimble rhythms and canny word inflections. Also winning is the Op. 132 Kantate von der Vergänglichkeit des Irdischen. It pits twelve-tone writing against free harmonic progressions, both post-tonal and pantonal, as well as effects: frequent glissandi and passages of sprechstimme. Caroline Stein performs the virtuosic soprano solo with dazzling runs and warm tone; pianist Philip Mayers is equally impressive in his own limpid filigrees. Five Prayers (Op. 97) demonstrates Krenek’s talent for finely knit contrapuntal writing. A bit less forbidding in harmonic language, the Prayers demonstrate a sumptuousness that is almost startling when heard in such close proximity to the Kafka Motetten. Thus, the disc provides an overall impression of the composer as he should rightly be remembered: as an adroit creator in a wide range of compositional styles.

Summer Course Description




Course Description

From the beginning of America’s history, its composers have displayed a remarkable capacity for experimentation, invention, and innovation. Early efforts by part-time composer Benjamin Franklin and Yankee tunesmith William Billings displayed ingenuity and a willingness to explore and expand the boundaries of received musical conventions.

This trend has continued to the present day, with notable practitioners continuing a path-finding tradition of innovative music-making. This course will discuss the contributions of a number of American innovators, including Gottschalk, Ives, Cowell, Crawford Seeger, Cage, Harrison, Nancarrow, Carter, Partch, Riley, Reich, and others. It will also evaluate reasons for America’s inventive spirit in the musical domain, including societal, cultural, political, and educational factors that have served to support or conversely to provoke and challenge composers in America.

Course Objectives

  1. To learn more about innovative American composers;
  2. To improve oral communication about music history and to work with others in a group;
  3. To apply independent research, critical thinking and writing skills to music history; and
  4. To improve skills at analyzing and evaluating information. (“Information Literacy”)

Required Texts

Cage Silence and other writings Wesleyan
Key and Rothe American Mavericks UC Press
Duckworth Talking Music Da Capo
Cox + Warner Audio Culture Continuum

Southam's Pond Life as compositional ecosystem

pondlife__Ann Southam

Pond Life

Centrediscs CMCCD 14109


On Pond Life, Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico presents a double disc dose of solo music by fellow Toronto resident, composer Ann Southam. Southam takes the image of a pond scene, with its Impressionist associations, to heart. Thus, the music emphasizes delicate shadings of harmony and soft dynamics in a group of placid, slowly evolving pieces.

The harmonic language of these pieces gravitates toward pandiatonicism. But Southam’s brand of harmony eschews a thoroughly straightforward trajectory. Often, she uses artfully placed “wrong notes” to dispel familiarity, sending a well-trod progression into unfamiliar territory. Indeed, the occasional judiciously-introduced dissonance acts like a raindrop disturbing the surface of a pond, creating a restructuring ripple effect.

Occasional moments of greater rhythmic activity, such as the considerably charming pair of “Fidget Creek” pieces, are welcome respites from the prevailing stillness. Petrowska Quilico is sensitive to the delicate balance of Southam’s compositional ecosystem, playing with assured pacing and nuanced phrasing.

Pond Life is a recording that, while primarily gentle on the surface, is consistently attention-grabbing.

League of Composers/ISCM: Concert Review

Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM. Photo credit: Ron Gordon
Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM. Photo credit: Ron Gordon

Wednesday night was the debut of the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM “” an improbable eighty-five years after the organization’s founding. As Jerry pointed out earlier, the NY Times included strangely sweeping and sadly misinformed coverage leading up to the concert. However, this did little to dissuade an enthusiastic audience from attending the performance. They were treated to quite an evening. Below are a few highlights:

-Lou Karchin: An excellent choice as conductor. Lou did a fine job leading the orchestra in a varied and challenging program.

-Musicians: Anyone acquainted with new music in New York was apt to recognize a number of the area’s finest participating. It showed.

-John Schaeffer: Despite appearing a bit rumpled onstage, the radio host lent star power, a sense of flow, and good-natured humor to the proceedings. His interviews with composers before each of their pieces were played combined user-friendly setups of the music with questions designed to let the audience get to know a bit about each composer’s approach and personality.

-Elliott Carter: Having one of the venerable co-chairs of League of Composers/ISCM’s represented on the concert was a classy move. The evening included a stunning performance of In the Distances of Sleep, Carter’s first settings of Wallace Stevens for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra. Soloist Kate Lindsey shined in these songs at the Tanglewood Carterfest last summer. If anything, her performance here was even more lovely; assured, nuanced, and tremendously attentive to every detail of diction and dynamic.   Schaeffer interviewed Carter before the performance. In response to a query about his continued productivity, Carter replied, “I’ve become fanatic about it. I don’t have any jobs to do any more. I can sit in a room and write music all day, and there’s nothing that pleases me more!”


-Gharra: Christopher Dietz’s sheepish admission that he knew little about ISCM prior to winning their composition competition(!) demonstrated that the organization still needs to do more to get out the word during this time of revitalization and re-branding. Still, Dietz’s captivating music is likely to have made the audience forget the gaffe rather quickly. He came up with the title (meaning “desert storm”) after composing the piece – with the help of Google and in consultation with an Egyptian-American cab driver. But Gharra’s strikingly dramatic formal design and fluidly varied pitch language – which encompassed everything from extended minor-key passages to supple microtonal bends – was worthy of the appellation.


-Alvin Singleton’s After Choice was simpler in design, but eloquently so. A string orchestra piece, it consisted of intertwining arco melodies and pizzicati, often in two-part counterpoint or – even starker – played in unisons or octaves. Written in homage to jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins, it didn’t feature anything so overt as jazz inflections. Rather, Singleton based the piece on string parts from a previous orchestral work that Jenkins had admired.


-Julia Wolfe’s The Vermeer Room is filled with beautifully sculpted, imaginatively scored verticals. The harmonic language and orchestration proved quite persuasive. I’m not sure I ‘grok’ the piece’s pacing just yet; I want to give it a second hearing before weighing in.


-Charles Wuorinen’s Synaxis featured four soloists in a sinfonia concertante that draws on the Orpheus myths as loose touchstones, Schaeffer was eager for Wuorinen to more precisely describe the connections between musical and extramusical inspiration; but the composer made it clear that this was no piece of program music.   Instead, the audience was treated to a showcase for four superlative soloists: oboist Robert Ingliss, clarinetist Alan Kay, French horn-player Patrick Pridemore, and double bassist Timothy Cobb. Cast in four movements, Synaxis gave each a chance to play with abundant virtuosity. The bass part displayed particular flair, and required more than a bit of courage: jaunty leaps, high-lying passages, and fleet bowed flurries. With its combination of careful ensemble coordination and bravura showmanship, Synaxis seemed an apt – and appropriately ambitious – way to end the 85th season of League of Composers/ISCM. Let’s hope for more orchestra concerts during their 86th year!

Happy 201st half-birthday Elliott

Seems like just yesterday Kay and I were celebrating Carter’s 100th birthday at a conference in Paris.



But today is Elliott Carter’s half birthday. My feeling is that anyone who hits the century mark should celebrate the half birthdays with equal enthusiasm!

ISCM agrees with me. Last night, the debut of the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM — an improbable eighty-five years after the organization’s founding — included a stunning performance of In the Distances of Sleep, Carter’s first settings of Wallace Stevens for mezzo and small orchestra. Soloist Kate Lindsey shined in these songs at the Tanglewood Carterfest last summer. If anything, her performance here was even more lovely; assured, nuanced, and tremendously attentive to every detail of diction and dynamic.

WNYC’s John Schaeffer interviewed Carter before the performance. In response to a query about his continued productivity, Carter replied, “I’ve become fanatic about it. I don’t have any jobs to do any more. I can sit in a room and write music all day, and there’s nothing that pleases me more!”

Should  Providence be so kind, I’d be glad to say the same when I turn 100 1/2!

Wolfgang … Amadeus … Phoenix!?!


Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix





Phoenix has been creating music since the mid-nineties and made their debut recording in 2000; but Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their fourth LP, displays them at their best to date. The release’s powerful, intricate modern pop may not resemble either of the classical composers it references – Mozart in its title and Liszt on the song “Lisztomania;” the video for the latter was even filmed at Bayreuth! But the audacity and exuberance of these gestures to such luminous predecessors, in their own way, ring true.



Certainly, synth pop signatures remain a fixture of Phoenix’s sound, as is abundantly evident on songs like the aforementioned “Lisztomania” and “1901;” “Rome” is even more New Wave-inflected than is their usual wont. But on “Love Like a Sunset, Pt. 1,” the group strays into solidly art rock territory, creating a memorable, occasionally prog-influenced, instrumental. The piece is a synthetic tone poem that is considerably attractive. When its short coda, “Love Like a Sunset, Pt. 2,” reintroduces Thomas Mars’ vocals, the effect is dislocating; the music seems to have traveled so far away from the single-ready fare one’s already heard him sing.



Range, subtlety, memorable tunes, and name-dropping Franz and Wolfie in Richard’s playground; what’s not to like?


Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Rated PG for …


Steven Ricks

Mild Violence

Bridge Records CD 9256


The term “Mild Violence,” a PG Rating on a video game box, inspired the title for a 2005 chamber work on Steven Ricks’ Bridge recital CD. Performed by the New York New Music Ensemble with characteristic élan, the piece features explosive percussive utterances, juxtaposing moments of pointillism with quirky ostinato and shimmering splashes of harmonic color. While one ‘gets’ the tongue in cheek humor, the music is anything but mild; Indeed; it’s stirring stuff!


Ricks runs the electronic music studio at Brigham Young University in Utah. Two works for chamber groups and electronics are included here. “Boundless Light” is a meditation on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Featuring shakuhachi-styled effects and vigorous electronic interjections; one is reminded of Davidovsky and Krieger here. It’s excellently rendered by Carlton Vickers. “American Dreamscapes” features the most thrilling moment on the CD – a swelling crescendo of electronics that introduces an ensemble tutti of considerable fervor. The piece features alto saxophonist John Sampen; who impresses with all manner of playing – including copious bends, microtones, and altissimo notes.


The Talujon Percussion Quartet performs “Dividing Time;” the piece’s background deals with the Divisions of time at the beginning of creation.Cleverly, Ricks uses overlapping polyrhythms to illustrate this inspirational focus, accumulating a rhythmic canvass of considerable flexibility and coloristic variety.


Curtis Macombcer is the “go-to guy” for violin-electronics pieces. “Beyond the Zero,” based on Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” contains sudden outbursts of fury, uncommon to the Synchronisms. But after an early focus on ‘effects’ – an explosive musical illustration of the V2 rocket from Pynchon’s novel, Macomber is given a great deal of angular electroacoustic interplay of the high modernist variety – his bread and butter. The piece is an excellent addition the solo plus electronics repertoire.


The CD closes with “Haiku,” a tenderly evocative piece for percussion and electronics. Spoken poetry is interwoven with prayer bowls and tam-tams, creating and ethereal, Eastern-influenced soundscape. Its inclusion is fortuitous; it allows us a full length glimpse at a talented composer of considerable versatility.

Steven Ricks