Avner Dorman Concerti on Naxos

Avner Dorman
Mandolin Concerto; Piccolo Concerto; Concerto Grosso; Piano Concerto in A
Avi Avital, mandolin; Mindy Kaufman, piccolo;
Arnaud Sussmann, Lily Francis, violins; Eric Nowlin, viola;
Michal Korman, cello; Aya Hamada, harpsichord;
Eliran Avni, piano;
Metropolis Ensemble, conducted by Andrew Cyr.
Naxos American Classics CD 8.559620

On the second Naxos CD devoted to the music of  Avner Dorman, concerti take center stage. At first blush, the composer seems to display a palpable streak of traditionalism. Triadic language abounds in his works and he makes many tips of the hat to Baroque music and neoclassicism. But there’s much more beneath this attractive, if familiar, surface. Dorman is also interested in uncovering some of the undiscovered potential of the concerto, exploring its capacity for different narrative arcs and recasting the genre with some unusual protagonists.

Indeed, it was for a work with an unlikely soloist, the Mandolin Concerto, written in 2006 for Avi Avital, that the disc has received the most attention. Avital’s incisive and nuanced performance has garnered a Grammy nomination. The Mandolin Concerto itself is one of the most adventurous works Dorman has yet composed. Its explorations of many timbres, orchestral effects, and myriad shifts of tempo & demeanor make it a dazzlingly mercurial and potent essay.

There’s more on the CD to recommend as well. Metropolis Ensemble, with a passel of soloists in concertino tow, sparkle in the Concerto Grosso (2003). The work features virtuosic string writing and cinematic sweep. Indeed, here Dorman displays a fluency of orchestration that in places reminds one of John Corigliano, his teacher during doctoral studies at Juilliard.

One would be forgiven if they assumed going in that a Piccolo Concerto would be a piercing prospect and too limited a palette to work satisfactorily. I’m still not convinced that this is a genre that requires a plethora of options, but soloist Mindy Kaufman’s rendering of the Dorman concerto for the instrument reveals striking versatility. The piece itself combines jazzy rhythms, neo-Baroque signatures, and resonances of the pipes and whistles found in a variety of folk music traditions.

Written when he was just 20 years of age, Dorman’s Piano Concerto in A Major is a splashy technicolor work that embraces virtuosic showmanship, combining a prevailingly Neo-romantic aesthetic with occasional post-minimal ostinati. Pianist Eliran Avni captures the concerto’s spirit, performing its often dizzyingly paced passagework and cadenzas with pizzazz. While no one will mistake it for the mature voice found in the Mandolin Concerto, the youthful exuberance of the Piano Concerto is frequently charming.

Concerto in A – 1st Movement from Metropolis Ensemble on Vimeo.

Harold Meltzer on Naxos (CD review)

Meltzer on Naxos

Harold Meltzer

Brion / Sindbad / Exiles (Cygnus Ensemble, Peabody Trio, Sequitur, Shirley-Quirk, Baker, Hostetter)

Naxos CD 8.559660

After having a couple of pieces featured on compilation recordings that appeared on the Albany imprint (including the memorable work Virginal for Sequitur), composer Harold Meltzer’s first solo disc is on Naxos. Meltzer’s music combines an incisive sense of rhythm – he’s particularly thoughtful in setting the rhythms of speech – with a varied pitch palette that combines judicious but punctilious use of dissonance with lush, often haunting, moments of repose.

The Cygnus Ensemble makes a palpable delineation between these two musical approaches on their sharply etched recording of Brion (2008). This piece was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and one can hear why. It’s fastidious in its craftsmanship, yet abundantly imaginative. Centering around a bird call-based ritornello refrain, which easily moves between foreground and background presentation, its intricate design is just the type of work that’s tailor made for Cygnus’ modernist performance specialists. And Brion isn’t sparing in its technical demands either. Guitar flurries are matched by virtuosic flute passages in several bustling duos. But the ritornello supplants this with an eerily pastoral music suffused with chirping birds and, at the piece’s close, an intriguing, if somewhat uneasy, sense of harmonic closure.

On “Two Songs from Silas Marner,” soprano Elizabeth Farnum negotiates the high tessitura with grace, bringing delicate shading of dynamics to her characteristic pitch-perfect accuracy.

Both sprechstimme and monodrama have, not entirely unfairly, gotten a reputation for sounding carbon-dated at best and often mawkish when not well-deployed. While Sindbad may not entirely allay these misgivings, Meltzer’s aforementioned talent for word-setting and a passionate performance by baritone (here as speaker) John Shirley-Quirk make a case for this hybridized musical/dramatic form. It certainly helps that the speaker is accompanied by such colorful and multifaceted music.

Sequitur appears here too, accompanying baritone Richard Lalli in Exiles, a two-movement work featuring settings of Conrad Aiken and Hart Crane. Written in a kind of “bari-tenor” register (Exiles was originally composed for the tenor Paul Sperry), it could, in the hands of a lesser (or lower) baritone, seem a bit strained. But Lalli too negotiates the upper regions with a supple and, at times, surprisingly gentle approach. It well befits Exiles haunting lyricism and limber long-lined melodies.

All told, this disc is a very strong outing that begs for a sequel.

Guess what we’re watching in Minimalism class today?

Westminster Choir College just got the Naxos Video Library. While I think that it’s fair to say that NVL is still in its early stages of growth, it’s already proving to be a terrific teaching tool.

Lo and behold, one of the titles in the collection is the Staatsoper Stuttgart production of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha.

As one of my students mentioned in class yesterday, seeing the visual component is an important aspect of studying anyone’s operas. But it’s particularly key to understanding Glass’ theatre works: their interdisciplinary nature and their play with our perceptions of time, monumentality, and spectacle. I’m looking forward to discussing Satyagraha with them after we’ve viewed some of it.

Due to their recent production of the work, the Metropolitan Opera has some very helpful resources online, including the synopsis and libretto for the opera here.

Here’s a snippet of the Stuttgart production that someone posted on YouTube.


Here’s what the NY Times had to say about the Met production.

Cautious Optimism – Ambitious Pragmatism: An Interview with Klaus Heymann

Naxos Records’ founder and CEO Klaus Heymann meets me in a café, downstairs in the midtown hotel where he’s staying in Manhattan. Heymann is on a trip to the US in which he’s doing press meetings and presentations in New York, followed by meetings with the Naxos America team at their base of operations in Franklin, Tennessee. Then he’s off to the West Coast for still more meetings. Finally, he gets to go back to his home in Hong Kong. When I remark about the seemingly whirlwind nature of the trip, Heymann says, “International travel is expensive these days. It’s best to take care of all the business I can in a single trip.”

But while Heymann is averse to wasting money on the jet-setting model of yesterday’s record labels, he’s certainly willing to invest the label’s resources where it counts: on the music! The imprint has a catalog of nearly 4000 titles, boasting both tremendous depth of repertoire and many fine performances. And it’s growing continuously. When I suggest that we discuss the projects in the offing, Heymann brings out a list of recordings that is jaw dropping in its comprehensiveness. Of course, I ask first about the area dearest to my heart (and most germane to my writing beat).

“Let’s see, the American Classics series: we have 73 titles ‘in the pipeline,’” says Heymann.

The list of American recordings on the way includes a number of famous figures: Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Richard Danielpour, and Michael Torke among them. But there are a number of projects by composers who, while they may be discussed on Sequenza 21, certainly aren’t yet household names: Paul Moravec, Roberto Sierra, David Post, and too many others to recount here.

I notice a couple of Sequenza 21’s contributors on the list too: Judith Lang Zaimont and Lawrence Dillon. There’s a significant commitment to diversity. Women composers such as Zaimont and Jennifer Higdon and conductors such as Jo Ann Falletta and Maren Alsop feature prominently in Naxos’ future plans, as do artists from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. And Heymann doesn’t seem to have a style agenda: Naxos presents both Uptown and Downtown composers and seemingly everything in between. I’m particularly excited to hear about a forthcoming recording by the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble (including Elliott Carter’s Tintinnabuli!).

Is there a composer who’s conspicuous in his absence? “No more John Adams for a while,” says Heymann. Seeing my eyes widen, he continues, ”He made some very disparaging comments about Naxos in an interview … budget label … mediocre performances. It was very hurtful to a number of people at the label who’ve advocated for his music.”

This is the first I’ve heard of the interview, which I later find online in Newsweek. Given that Naxos’ recently released a fine recording of Nixon in China, the ingratitude is stunning. (In trying to reach Adams for comment, I’m told that he’s on “media blackout” while finishing a commission).

In addition to our appetite-whetting discussion of upcoming recordings, Heymann enthuses about a variety of methods for delivering music to consumers. On the day of our meeting, he’s is also booked to demonstrate Naxos’ first Blu-ray audio recordings. The initial run of ten titles is slated for release in Fall 2010. They include a recording of a contemporary American work: John Corigliano’s Circus Maximus.

Heymann says, “When we recorded Circus Maximus, I promised John that we would release it in surround – that’s how it was meant to be heard! SACD seems to be a declining format, so we waited … and now will release it on Blu-ray.”

While Naxos has remained committed to releasing recordings via physical media – CD, DVD, Blu-ray – they are also continuing to diversify their collection, providing a plethora of format offerings for the digital age, from conventional MP3s to streaming services such as Naxos Audio Library and Naxos Radio.

“I’m very interested in the technology side of things,” says Heymann. “When the iPod first came out, I was certain early on that it would be a transitional device – that streaming would be the wave of the future. And as the technology improves, we’re streaming better and better quality audio online.  Sales of our streaming services are improving while downloads seem to be stagnating. Of course, no one knows what the future will bring, so we’re remaining flexible. We’ve even recently released a recording on a USB stick: five hours of Chopin. The packaging looks like a CD jewel case, but the stick delivers higher quality audio – and more of it – than a conventional CD.”

The Audio Library is available through my university, and I’ve found it to be an invaluable resource in the classroom. It doesn’t just contain Naxos’ recordings; there are over 200 labels represented. I mention wishing that so many of the historic recordings in its database weren’t barred in the US.

“Me too,” says Heymann ruefully. “But that’s something to take up with your congressman; the laws in America are restrictive in that regard.”

Naxos has recently added a Video Library. It currently has around 400 titles. “There are more to come,” says Heymann. “It won’t have 44,000 titles like the Audio Library does, but our near term goal is to get it up to around a thousand. In addition to operas, we’re planning to include educational programs and plays.”

Despite the myriad challenges facing the record industry, Naxos seems to be a flexible player poised to take classical music into the future. Heymann says, ““People talk about piracy and illegal downloading: both of which are indeed problems. But seeing the amount of young people who are studying classical music, I remain optimistic about music’s future.”

He continues, “We don’t make a lot of money on most of our recordings. Things like The Best of Chopin sell well. But then consider most of the recordings in the American Classics series; we don’t release them because they’re lucrative, but because it’s important to do so. Naxos has created a catalog that I’m proud of – one that‘s now an intrinsic part of the classical music landscape.”