Ann Southam: “Soundings” on Irritable Hedgehog (CD Review)

Ann Southam

Soundings for a New Piano

R. Andrew Lee, piano

Irritable Hedgehog CD EP/DL

Canadian composer Ann Southam, who passed away in 2010 (Alex Ross and Tamara Bernstein eulogize her here), wrote in a number of genres. But her solo piano works are particularly distinctive. Written in 1986, Soundings for a New Piano is an evocative title. One can imagine many a contemporary composer doing similarly when confronted with a “fresh instrument:” trying out various post-tonal harmonies, arpeggiating them to test the piano’s tone, tuning, and voicing propensities.

As William Robin points out in his astute liner notes, Southam combines the minimal repetition of ascending and descending arpeggiations with a harmonic tendency characteristic in her later music: a single twelve tone row that she morphed into various guises throughout multiple works. Combining the regular rhythms of post-minimalism with a row that contains consonances leavened and savored, rather than eradicated, by widely spaced dissonances, Southam creates a polystylistic world that is singular, self-contained, and often quite lushly attired.

Pianist R. Andrew Lee is a sensitive interpreter who recognizes the detailed and delicate character of Soundings. He uses pedaling in an impressionist manner, with delicate blurring around the edges of the omnipresent verticals, to further give these harmonies an organic and interconnected ambience. At twenty-three minutes, Soundings doesn’t overstay its welcome. In fact, it may well whet the listener’s appetite for some of her more extended compositional excursions: Recommended.

Thursday: Pictures 2012 Concert at Montclair Art Museum

New Jersey Arts Collective is presenting their annual Pictures concert at the Montclair Art Museum on Thursday, May 24 (pre-concert talk at 6:45; show starts at 7:30). In response to a competition held earlier this Spring, high school and college age students submitted compositions for solo piano somehow inspired by the Philip Guston painting Untitled 142 (1979), which is part of MAM’s collection. The winning entries, as well as several “micro-commissions” of short works from area composers, will be performed on the concert by pianist Carl Patrick Bolleia. (Purchase tickets here).

NJAC was kind enough to program two new piano pieces by yours truly: the program notes are below.

Gloss on Guston is a brief piece for solo piano. After hearing a playthrough of the work, a colleague recently quipped, “You’ve fit all the notes of Feldman’s For Philip Guston into one minute!” Indeed, there are many more notes per bar in this piece than in Feldman’s lengthy meditation of contemplative pointillism on Guston’s artworks: with good reason. Feldman’s music regards earlier pieces by Guston – his program note indicates paintings from 1949 and 1950 were the impetus for his reliquary to his abstract expressionist painter friend. My work is a response to a late painting by Guston – Untitled #142 (1979) – which resides in the Montclair Art Museum’s collection. Its vivid colors and angular shapes suggest to me busy athleticism and even, at times, motoric gestures, as well as a taut formal design. It was composed in 2012 in response to a commission from New Jersey Arts Collective and receives its world premiere today.

Fiery Sunset is a coda to my previous commission from New Jersey Arts Collective and the Montclair Art Museum: Innesscapes, a piece composed in 2008 that responds to the museum’s extraordinary collection of pieces by New Jersey landscape painter George Inness. It is scored for clarinet, viola, and piano. The first two instruments play the piece’s first movement, while all three instruments participate in movements two and three. After hearing the premiere, in order to balance the work I wanted to add a movement, one in which the piano gets a solo turn.

Fiery Sunset may be played by itself or as part of Innesscapes as a whole. It responds to Inness’s painting Sunset and is dedicated to local composer George Walker as a small gift acknowledging his ninetieth birthday on June 27, 2012. It also receives its world premiere today.

Julia Holter: “In the Same Room” (Video)

On March 6th, Julia Holter is having a release party for her new release Ekstasis (out 3/8 on RVNG Intl.) at Le Poisson Rouge (show info here).

Check out the video for lead off track “In the Same Room” below.

Opening the show is Sequenza 21 friend and modern music pianist extraordinaire Sarah Cahill. Sarah’s performing a solo set entitled “The Mystical Tone,” -’exploring the work of composers who were inspired by Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, astrology, and Transcendentalism, among them Scriabin, Dane Rudhyar, Ruth Crawford, Henry Cowell, and Erik Satie.’ Indeed,that’s good curating:  its mystical tone will be an excellent complement to Julia Holter’s otherworldly out pop.

Simone Dinnerstein plays Bach and Schubert (CD Review)

Something Almost Being Said

Works by J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert

Simone Dinnerstein, piano

Sony Classical CD

Simone Dinnerstein sometimes serves as the Bach pianist antipode of the late Glenn Gould. Where Gould set the pace for Bach playing at an often prestissimo, sometimes frantic, clip, Dinnerstein often seems willing to exult in elegant turns of phrase and luxuriate in legato lines, requiring a more stately pace. This observation is not meant to suggest that Dinnerstein isn’t capable of her own moments of presto-infused abandon, as one can hear on Something Almost Being Said in the sprightly movements of Bach Partitas Nos. 1 and 2. But these are balanced by cantabile sections that accentuate breaths between phrases. As the Sony CD’s title suggests, Dinnerstein seeks to emulate the phrasing of vocalists and extol the melodic suavity of both J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert. This goal is never achieved through mannered playing or fussily implemented rubato. Rather, Dinnerstein successfully captures the elusive fluidity that tempo fluctuations require in order to seem organic.

Schubert is represented by the four Op. 90 Impromptus, pieces in which the composer provides seamless linear trajectories of his own. Dinnerstein makes the widely contrasting dynamics and the more bravura passages of these works stand out in stark contrast to their effusively shimmering legato passages. Notably, her traversal of the famously challenging chestnut, No. 3 in G-flat Major, is spellbinding. While instrumental music can, at best, provide us with unspoken communication that is “almost said,” metaphorically at least this recording “speaks” volumes. Recommended.

Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 (CD Review)

Randy Newman

The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2

Nonesuch CD

Randy Newman has gained acclaim for his Hollywood film scores, which deploy full orchestrations alongside his singing and piano-playing. His studio albums have featured similar instrumental line-ups, something that’s given his pop a classy sheen that’s served as something of an ironic foil for the ofttimes biting satire of his lyrics. It’s refreshing to hear the songs from Newman’s pop canon in a stripped down setting: you’ll hardly miss the strings!

In this, the second Nonesuch release on which Newman performs his best known songs solo, with only a grand piano for company, one learns or is reminded of, several things about the artist at this stage of his career. First, he’s still a mighty fine piano player, shuffling through mid tempo rags and drawing forth imaginative voicings in a style that may at times sound deceptively simple, but is anything but simplistic. A supple sense of timing is omnipresent, and Newman’s use of articulation and a wide dynamic range help to remind one of the instruments featured in the original recordings of these songs. Newman’s voice has always been a distinctive one; expressive rather than “pretty.” And if it’s lost a fair amount of the limited lilt it had when he was younger, and if a few high notes strain more than they used to, it’s still remarkable to hear the characters his singing calls forth, and the way that he can inhabit a song.

This CD’s been in the stereo quite a bit this summer. And one of the marks of its durability is the amount of times tracks have been repeated to get a second listen to a particularly fetching rendition. Those who suggest that Newman’s songbook has too many similar-sounding entries need to listen more carefully; there’s a lot going on above those shuffles; both musical and lyrical nuances. Hearing him perform the songs in this intimate setting underscores their vitality.

Marilyn Nonken talks about Feldman Festival

Pianist Marilyn Nonken is performing Triadic Memories on June 4 in Philadelphia as part of “American Sublime,” a festival devoted to the works of Morton Feldman. Marilyn was kind enough to tell us a bit about working on Feldman’s music, as well as some of her other upcoming projects.

-What were your early encounters with Feldman’s music like?

I can’t remember my first live Feldman experience as a listener. One of the first works I remember hearing was FOR SAMUEL BECKETT. My first experience playing Feldman was with Ensemble 21, when we performed VIOLIN VIOLA CELLO PIANO, which was just a transformative experience for me, as a chamber player. After that experience, I very much wanted to find a solo work of his to perform and possibly record.

Listening to Feldman is special because there is that great luxury of time. It can take, in TRIADIC MEMORIES for example, maybe a half-an-hour or forty-five minutes to get acclimated to the environment of the work, and to become familiar with the kinds of things that happen in that special environment. In each of his pieces, I think, there’s an extended period where the materials introduce themselves, so to say.It’s not dynamic in the sense of something happening right away, or a conflict being presented, or a big question being asked — and so I feel it’s best to not aggressively try and “figure out” what is happening.

- Which pieces by Feldman have you performed?

VIOLIN VIOLA CELLO PIANO, EXTENSIONS 1, THE VIOLA IN MY LIFE, INTERSECTION 2, PALAIS DE MARI, and TRIADIC MEMORIES –

- What do you think Feldman meant by titling a piece Triadic Memories?

Feldman’s piano music is all about decay, what he would refer to as a kind of receding landscape …. For me, that sense of resonance and the dying of the sound is perhaps the most important part of the piece. His harmonies are gorgeous, very lush and evocative — but as beautiful as they are, more of the piece is spend listening to them fade.

- When did you record Triadic Memories for Mode? Has your performance of the work changed over time?

I believe this is 2004, recorded perhaps summer 2003. I’m sure my performance has changed — although not drastically. In terms of timing and rhythmic precision, I believe it’s very consistent with the recorded version. I’m still convinced by that “magic” (for me) tempo and the specificity of the rhythms, and the way I first conceived of articulating them. But I do feel that I’ve become more sensitive to the harmonic nuances of the work, as I’ve become more familiar with it over the years —  the way I voice things, and the way I anticipate the decay, I think, has become more personal.

- While they’re not often showy, Feldman’s pieces make significant demands of their own on performers. Can you tell us a bit about those, and how you prepare to perform Triadic Memories in concert?

I feel these works are very virtuosic, despite the fact that they’re not fast and full of passagework. There’s a moment-to-moment control that Feldman requires, in terms of dynamic and timbre and attack, which requires a tremendous amount of physical and mental preparation. To be that attuned to the smallest nuances, and physically in total control, for such a significant span w/o any real “recess” requires a special kind of concentration. For me, there is no substitute for playing the work — in real time, w/o interruption, — daily for at least a week or two before the concert. There is always detail-work to be done (specificity of rhythms, defining colors, making certain that the surface of the work is somehow “flawless” and w/o rupture — but doing everything sequentially, in tempo, is always a test.

- After Triadic Memories, what are some of your upcoming projects?

I’m very excited to be working again with the fabulous pianist Sarah Rothenberg on a four-hand Kurtag program, combining (as the composer himself has done) Kurtag’s JATEKOK with his Bach transcriptions, presented as a concert program on an upright piano. Sarah and I had a fantastic time working on Messiaen’s VISIONS DE L’AMEN, touring and recording it, and this is a very different and intimate kind of project —  I’m also preparing for a recording of American spectralist composer Joshua Fineberg’s complete solo piano music, which will appear on CD with Hugues Dufourt’s recent ERLKONIG — a follow-up to my complete Murail disc. It will feature a new work written for me by Joshua, amd I am very much looking forward to touring with that, as a complete program in itself. And just after this Festival, I’m recording Elizabeth Hoffman’s “organum let open,” a beautiful work she wrote for me last year, based on texts of theatre artist George Hunka. It’s wonderful to be doing such recent music, and inspiring to be working with such talented composers.

Hauschka: “The Key” (Video)

Hauschka
Salon des Amateurs
Fat Cat CD

Hauschka’s latest recording, Salon des Amateurs, continues his path of prepared piano explorations. But it includes additional layers of instruments, with a host of collaborators that includes John Convertino and Joey Burns (Calexico), and occasional Sequenza 21 blogger (and world famous violinist) Hilary Hahn.

Likewise, much has been made of its allusions to electronica and even dance music (the album is named after a club in Hauschka’s hometown Düsseldorf). But rather than seeming out of place, this becomes yet another facet of the musical landscape of Salon des Amateurs; playfully integrated with imaginative wit.


Rzewski plays his magnum opus (Video)




Reading the news this AM was sobering and affecting. Scenes of brutality unfolding in Egypt’s struggle for democracy, and concurrent acts of bravery from protestors struggling for basic human rights, are replacing those of peaceful protest. It appears that the struggle for change in Egypt will be harder than many around the world had hoped. I’m reminded me of how fortunate I am to live in a country where I can speak freely, assemble peacefully, and have the right to vote. No matter how the crisis in Egypt ultimately is resolved, I earnestly wish that the same opportunities will be afforded to the Egyptian people.

In light of the recent events in the Middle East, my thoughts turned to politically engaged music. I couldn’t help but hear Frederic Rzewski’s imposing series of variations on The People Who are United Will Never Be Defeated, a Chilean song, as a piece that remains equally relevant today.

Here is an excerpt of the work, performed by the composer in 2007.