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.

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!

“Aphorism” (Soundcloud demo)




With just a day to spare, I managed to get an entry into Hilary Hahn’s Encore Contest.
Below is a Soundcloud embed of a midi demo of “Aphorism,” a brief duo for violin and piano. I like creating miniatures – and love that Hilary is running this contest – so this was doubly fun to write.


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.

2/1: Beiser and Ziegler Tango at LPR

Cellist Maya Beiser and pianist Pablo Ziegler appear at Le Poisson Rouge on Wednesday, February 1st at 7:30 (doors open at 6:30). They are performing Canyengue, the Soul of Tango, a program that features the works of Astor Piazzolla.

From 1978-’88, Ziegler was a member of Piazzolla’s band. His arrangements for cello and piano translate Piazzolla’s compositions, such as Libertango and Adíos Nonino, to a more intimate medium, but retain the genre’s vibrant spirit. The duo will also perform several pieces by Ziegler, and Beiser will take a solo turn, performing Osvaldo Golijov’s Mariel.

Below, hear a stream from File Under ?’s Tumblr page of the duo playing Fuga Y Misterio, a somewhat lesser known piece by Piazzolla, arranged by Ziegler.

“Fuga Y Misterio”

Le Poisson Rouge is located at 158 Bleecker Street (between Thompson and Sullivan), in the West Village, NYC.  Tickets are $15, available through the club’s website, www.lepoissonrouge.com, or call 212/505-FISH (3474).

Guest post: Andy Lee on Ann Southam’s Valedictory CD

Please welcome a new contributor to Sequenza 21: Andy Lee: pianist, academic, and writer.

Returnings

Eve Egoyan, Piano

Works by Ann Southam

Centrediscs CMCCD 17211

As musicians we are trained to listen with a critical ear, to automatically dissect, analyze, and evaluate each musical performance we encounter. Knowing that one will have to write about a musical experience brings all this training to the forefront, or at least it should. That didn’t happen for me—at least not initially.

My problem, if you can call it that, was that Ann Southam’s piano music was so beautiful and Eve Egoyan’s interpretation so exquisite, that I didn’t want to listen critically; I wanted to lose myself, disengage my analytical mind, and simply enjoy. In time I was able to cobble together notes for this review, but even after several hearings I must say that this desire to become lost in the music remains ever-present. What follows is my evaluation, such as it is, but if I haven’t yet convinced you to purchase this recording, I’m not sure that anything else I could write will.

Returnings represents perhaps the last musical statement of the phenomenal Canadian composer Ann Southam (1937-2010). She chose the pieces and their ordering for this CD in the last year of her life, and the album also includes the last two pieces she wrote, Returnings I and Returnings II: A Meditation. These pieces, along with Qualities of Consonance (1998) and In Retrospect (2004), were all written for the Eve Egoyan. (I might also add that the image on the cover is original artwork by Southam.)

The CD works marvelously as a whole, to the extent that you might find yourself hard-pressed not to consider this one single composition. Each of these four pieces seems to grapple with its own internal conflict: consonance and dissonance, minimalism and dodecaphony, or restraint and restlessness. What makes this conflict work, and what draws the listener, is that these conflicts never resolve. Southam merely presents these seemingly disparate ideas one against another and lets them be, never allowing one to dominate, and to great effect.

The second piece on the album, In Retrospect, is very reminiscent of a later work (also recorded by Egoyan), Simple Lines of Enquiry (2007). A single twelve-tone row is presented across the keyboard in small sections, and with generous use of the damper pedal, these tones are allowed to interact with one another and slowly build into chords. The pacing and balance of tone that Egoyan provides is spot on. The delicacy of her interpretation tells you that this is a pianist listening intently to every single sound she creates, and that each note is placed in a precise moment in time.

The third track is Qualities of Consonance, by far the most overtly virtuosic work on the CD. It is grounded in serene chords and ostinati, but is frequently interrupted by rapid passagework. Here, the conflict is seems to be presented by two separate pianists, as Egoyan contrasts these two elements extremely well. While her sensitive touch has been well noted in other recordings, here we are given a taste of her technical prowess and adept articulation. Yet this is never virtuosity for its own sake, as each gesture is executed with a clear sense of line.

That said, if there is any weakness on this CD, it is this piece. Despite the Egoyan’s exuberance of the difficult passages, I felt like there was more room for rubato and dynamic contrast in some of the lines of the more serene sections. Likewise, from a compositional standpoint Qualities of Consonance lacks the cohesion of so much of Southam’s other music, making it feel disjointed at times. That said, this remains a remarkable CD, and looking for weaknesses is a bit like deciding which is your least favorite 20-year-old scotch.

The first and last pieces on the album, Returnings I and II, are quite similar to one another. Here, the conflict is between a gentle rolling bass ostinato supporting consonant chords and another twelve-tone row. The row is presented at the outset of both pieces before the ostinato enters, at which point the notes of the row are presented between chords of the right hand. The effect is marvelous, as at times the row adds depth to the harmony and at other times clashes against it. Again, this conflict is never resolved, but allowed to play itself out, and the overall effect becomes one of great calm despite the dissonances that arise.

This sense of calm pervades all four pieces, and I cannot but help think of Southam’s passing when I listen to this CD. Her ability to find beauty in the unresolved dissonance and to allow things to be as they are seems like a beautiful metaphor for life. La vita è bella, and without caveat. It saddens me to think that this will be the last collaboration between two such talented artists, but as Egoyan writes, “each time I perform her music, Ann returns as a radiant resonance, with us, forever.”

I’ve no doubt that many more Southam recordings will be produced in the coming years, but as this contains her last compositions, performed by the pianist for whom they were written, I cannot help but feel a sense of finality when the album ends. I will listen often to this truly beautiful CD, and each time raise my glass to Ann. May she rest in peace.

-Andy Lee