The Subliminal and the Sublime
Chris Dingman, vibraphone; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone; Fabian Almazan, piano; Ryan Ferreira, guitar; Linda Oh, bass; Justin Brown, drums
Excellent albums contain many magical moments, but there’s often one that is a clue that a particular recording will be a special experience for the listener. Just such a moment occurs early on Chris Dingman’s aptly named CD The Subliminal and the Sublime. After a few minutes of shimmering textures created on the vibraphone, saxophonist Loren Stillman enters with a crescendo into a held note that completely changes the demeanor of the proceedings. It is then that you know that this recording will not just be about its leader, but that it will be an ensemble affair, artfully arranged and indelibly well paced.
Dingman’s compositional style sits astride contemporary jazz and contemporary classical composition. Befitting a percussionist led endeavor, there are many moments that recall the minimalism and prolific polyrhythms of Steve Reich. And while Stillman is a standout, frequently engaging in duets with the vibraphonist, everyone on the recording gets a turn to shine. Both Fabian Almazan and Ryan Ferreira are sensitive accompanists, but their solo spots, particularly the pianist’s dexterous endeavors, are memorable. Linda Oh and Justin Brown create a fulsome groove that propels the proceedings. Occasionally, one worries that Brown may overwhelm the vibes with his prolific use of crash cymbal paired with bass drum. But the sections containing his most energetic playing are well-timed and he provides a consistently engaging foil for his fellow percussionist Dingman.
Both of the miniatures on the album, “Tectonic Plates” and “Plea,” are particularly charming and chockfull of interesting harmonies. These are offset by much more extended tunes. One is hard-pressed to name a favorite, but the intricate architecture of the album’s longest cut, “The Pinnacles,” allows us to hear both Dingman the composer and the sextet at his disposal at the height of their current powers. One can only imagine that the way forward for them all will be even more promising.
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At the Speed of Stillness
NMC Recordings CD NMC D202
Claire Booth, soprano; Lucy Schaufer, mezzo-soprano; Alexandra Wood, violin; Andrew Matthews-Owen, piano; Huw Watkins, piano; Aldeburgh World Symphony, Sir Mark Elder, conductor; Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Oliver Knussen, conductor
Charlotte Bray’s music displays steely determination and an expansively colorful textural palette. Her NMC portrait CD supplies an abundant view of these characteristics. The title work is particularly impressive; it is filled with piquant yet often spacious harmonies, frequent juxtapositions of orchestral groupings, and lithe pacing.
Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer approaches Fire Burning in Snow, settings of poems by Nicki Jackowska, with clear diction and an emotive presence. Likewise the players from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group give detailed precision to the work’s angular intervals and supply intensity to the nuanced dynamic shadings found in the accompaniment. Soprano Claire Booth, ably accompanied by Andrew Matthews-Owen, brings expressiveness and considerable beauty of tone to Songs from Yellow Leaves, settings of Caroline Thomas’s poetry.
Pianist Huw Watkins pulls double duty on the CD, deftly inhabiting the alternately shimmering, sprightly, and strenuous atmospheres of the solo work Oneroi. There are far more episodes possessing the latter demeanor in the piano concertino Replay. However, the variety of timbres found in the chamber ensemble’s accompaniment keeps the work from becoming overwrought. Explained in part by its title, the piece also contains considerable motivic repetition and development: an attractive addition to Bray’s arsenal of resources.
The two-part chamber concerto Caught in Treetops is similarly endowed with an enriched template of motives, ranging from repeated note flurries to widely spaced arcing lines. The work begins with a cadenza, introducing sterling soloist Alexandra Wood, a versatile and formidable violinist. Only gradually is the chamber ensemble invited in, filling the gaps with contrapuntal lines and forceful tutti. While Bray’s language remains primarily a chromatic one, Part Two of Caught in Treetops contains the addition of some beautiful, delicately announced harmonic verticals. The gentle close of the piece provides a perfectly enigmatic twist to the CD’s program, leaving one eager for more from this talented composer.
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Winter, Spring and Fall
From Seattle-based composer J.C. Combs and Cellar Door Records comes a new album, Winter, Spring and Fall, with three solo piano improvisations and two pieces that combine piano and electronics.
The first piece is Currents and this piece begins with a series of fast trills that roil and surge like a river in flood. Deep notes add a profound feeling and the playing is very controlled, keeping just the right tempo. The volume rises and falls and the texture is alive with swirling movement. The pitches also move gradually up and down – as a sort of rising and falling of an internal tide. The electronics are buried in the whirl of sound and only rise to prominence towards the end with a low oscillation that echoes the running flow of the piano. Currents is a mesmerizing listening experience that nicely evokes swiftly moving water.
Improvisation for Winter is an improvisation in a similar mode, with nice movement and a brisk tempo to start. After a sudden stop the pace becomes more leisurely, as if ambling along a sidewalk or street. Now faster and with more notes, as if in a blizzard – hard to see for all the swirling snow. A well-crafted bass line adds some drama. The tempo slows and the notes lighten as if there is a break in the storm – the feeling here turns more more thoughtful. After a few final swirling passages, Improvisation to Winter concludes.
Improvisation for Spring starts off with a series of identical solitary notes, soon joined by a second played in harmony. The beat continues, now with wistful chords. A nice bass line provides a strong color and adds to the pensive feeling. Now a more emphatic melody line in the upper register is heard, offset by powerful chords in the bass. The opening pattern of identical straight quarter notes is repeated but with more tension developed in the counterpoint. Some soft notes in the very high octave of the piano quietly end this piece.
Improvisation for Fall has a quiet, mysterious opening – like a question hanging in the air. The steady beat on a single note adds a measure of tension. Darker notes appear in the middle and lower registers that add to the taut feeling. This is a pleasingly atmospheric piece that feels a bit like Halloween. Towards the end it turns a bit more optimistic and glides gracefully to a stop.
The final track of the album is Elevator to the Moon and this is for electronics and piano. The electronics sounds open with low pitches, rumbling and a sort of metallic moan in a middle register. The piano can be heard in between with dark chords and nervous riffs that build the sense of tension – we are traveling to a different place. Two well struck piano notes jump out of the texture – as if startled – then all becomes slower and more subdued. The piano repeats the two note motif against the sustained and quiet electronic tones as the piece comes to a close.
This latest album by J.C. Combs expands the reach of his piano improvisations and reveals a judiciously chosen color palette that impeccably fits the mood of each season.
Winter, Spring and Fall is available for download here.
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Equinox / Alejandro Escuer / Onix Ensamble
Alejandro Escuer’s Mexico City-based quintet Onix Ensamble–Escuer, flute; Fernando Dominguez, clarinet; Edith Ruiz, piano; Abel Romero, violin; Edgardo Espinosa, cello–turns 20 this year at a time when just surviving in the new music world is a major achievement. I’ve followed their work since I wrote up two of their CDs for Classical Music Review. Those CDs contained the work of Latin American composers but Onix’s repertoire also encompasses the work of modernist masters like Bartok, Stravinsky, and Martinu. But we need to remember that Europe isn’t the only game in town though it never tires of trying to convince us that it is. Yet after two massively destructive world wars and endless colonial adventures which of course included Mexico, we have Equinox which proves that there’s lots more going on south of our mutual border than cartel killings, kidnappings, and disappearances. The four works here by two Mexicans, one Costa Rican, and one American are completely individual in style. They also bear out Garcia Lorca’s assertion that “all that has dark sounds has duende) ” which for him meant everything from Bach to cante jondo.
El Aguila Bicefala (Double-Headed Eagle) — 2005 — by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz ( b. 1964) is a prime example of her style which is characterized by quickly changing meters — 7/8; 8/8; 7/8; 8/8; 5/8 in the first 5 bars and is marked sempre ritmico e con vigore — with dramatically changing colors and virtuosic writing for the ensemble and each of the five players. It’s intricate but purposeful, subtle yet clear, even mysterious. Ortiz has always been a composer with a strikingly individual voice and this piece should bring new listeners to her work, and whet their appetite for more.
Musica para Cinco ( 2009) by Mexican composer Samuel Zyman ( b.1956 — ) sounds more indebted to Schoenberg’s 12-note method than to jazz despite Zyman’s program note where he stresses its “general jazz character”. He also seems to tip his hat to the Viennese master when he says his score is for the “Pierrot” line-up, which of course means Onix’s flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano. Musica para Cinco also has something of the feel of a Schoenberg march but it’s not doggedly insistent as so often with him, but vigorous, colorful and very imaginative with surprises at every turn, and Onix makes all of its facets shine.
Zachic 4 (2006) by Costa Rican composer Alejandro Cardona (b. 1959), which uses Aztec-like materials, is equally well-made, but sounds more instinctive, more extreme, and definitely more exciting, from its expansive floating in time opening song for alto flute, bass clarinet, cello and violin, through its successive three movement lay-out. The “static” opening of its third movement sounds a bit like “Farben” (Colors) from Schoenberg’s great and deeply influential Funf Orchesterstucke (1909). Its second movement is full of Stravinsky-like stamping rhythms, and there’s a rapid, wonderfully demented clarinet figure accentuated by the flute above, which gets reprised in the final movement.
Kukulcan II (2007), by American composer David Dzubay (b.1964) uses indigenous-sounding Aztec material – for his own expressive ends. Its textures are clean and open; and like many composers before him — Berlioz most famously in his Symphonie Fantastique — Dzubay uses the Latin chant Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) evocatively. His writing here is also generally more linear than the other three composers on Equinox , and he uses dramatic cut-offs, which keeps the audience, as in a film or stage score, on edge, expecting , wanting more.
Denibee, which is devoted to seven chamber works by Gabriela Ortiz, couldn’t be more different, and her distinctive voice is heard in each, the expressive range wide, yet classically contained.
From the mercurial 100 Watts ( 1998 ) which Ortiz revised in 2012 for 3 members of Onix — Escuer, flute; Fernando Dominguez, bass clarinet; Edith Ruiz, piano — and which they play spectacularly here; to the curling arabesques of Alejandrias Sonoras (2012) for Escuer’s solo flute; to Tres Toritos (2011) for three flutes with its three sharply contrasted movements, the second Tregua (Truce) is especially striking with Escuer’s flute line floating over a nearly motionless bass line provided by Mary-Elizabeth Thompson and Leonardo Bajarno..
The two vocal works —Tres Haikus (2012) — which aren’t really haiku because they’re not in 3 stanzas of 5-7-5 syllables each –,and Rio Bravo (2011) are more ambitious. The images in Maria Barnarda’s poem — El cielo es un piedra — are arresting — and Ortiz’s setting for mezzo Carla Lopez-Speziale and cellist Natalia Perez deepens its sense. Ortiz’s 2011 setting of Monica Sanchez Escuer’s poem Rio Bravo for Lopez-Speziale, Alejandro Escuer’s flute, and crystal glasses, evokes the psychological dislocation of the women in the poem trapped on both sides of the US/Mexico border. But Lopez-Speziale’s voice is miked too far back, and Escuer’s flute too closely. The floating ” dreamlike” sense of of the piece is there but it doesn’t get under your skin.
But fortunately there’s another version of Rio Bravo on Ortiz’s seven works Grammy -nominated CD Aroma Foliado with the LA-based Southwest Chamber Music,which does get under your skin. From the “simple ” fact of the substitution of Evan Hughes’ baritone for Lopez-Speziale’s mezzo, and the substitution of Lorenz Gamma’s violin for Escuer’s flute, which gives it a dark and deeply human urgency, Hughes’ singing sturdy and expressive, his sound beautifully supported and extended by Gamma’s violin, as if they were lovers, for what is love but the closing of distances between?
Aroma Foliado: Southwest Chamber Music
The string quartet Aroma Foliado, which Mainly Mozart commissioned in 2006 for Cuartetolatinoamerico, is easily the best piece on the CD, but not just because it’s written for the neurotic alone-in-my-room-I’m-a-genius-and-nobody-knows Western tradition — which is at its best a very pretty lie — but because it’s lyric, dramatic, always surprising but always completely logical. And though Ortiz in her program note calls it a “rondo”, which it is, it can also be heard as a series of variations on contrasted rhythms/textures. It’s learned — it quotes from Mozart’s String Quartet in D K.575 ( (1795) , and Bartok’s 1929 Quatet # 4 — not academic — sonorous, imaginative, and — “foliate “– as its title suggests–each idea springing from the leaves of the same tree.
The quartet here — Lorenz Gamma and Shalini Vijayan, violin; Jan Karlin, viola; and Peter Jacobson, cello — give a big-boned but very elegant performance.
Únicamente la verdad!
Ortiz’s Grammy-nominated opera Unicamenta La Verdad – La Autenica
Historia de Camelia La Taxana (2008 -2010) poses questions for which of course there are no answers. Did “La Texana”, who achieved fame through Los Tigres de Norte’s ” narco corrido Contrabanda y Traicion ” (Contraband and Betrayal ) really exist, and if she did did she drive her lover — several names are proposed– to commit suicide by putting his neck on the track in front of a train in the Mexico/US border town of Ciudad Juarez, which is sometimes called “the murder capital of the world’?” Opera has always trafficked in extreme situations and confused identities and Ortiz’s opera, to a libretto by her brother Ruben Ortiz Torres, which also questions how we make up our identities, as well as the role of the media in projecting them, is a perfect fit. Its seventy-five minute playing time goes by in a flash.
And Ortiz marries an advanced yet approachable new music style with the rhythms and colors of the cumbia and the norteno (North Mexican) sound, like a contemporary Revueltas, with frequent cross-cutting between chorus, orchestra, and soloists which mirrors the constructed identity of “la Texana”. And all the Mexican singers — soprano Nieves Navarro as three Camelias — tenors Gerardo Reynoso and Jose Luis Ordonez, baritones Jose Adan Perez and Armando Gama, and American bass John Atkins, are superb. This is one of the strongest first operas I’ve ever encountered. Brilliant. Serious. Entertaining. And the 24 piece Ensamble ULV and 17 member ULV chorus — each instrument and voice separately miked with the finest brands at SONY in Mexico City–under the alert and passionate direction of Jose Arean, and Christian Gohmer, produce a clear and truly spectacular sound.
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ZOFO Plays Terry Riley
Sono Luminus Blu-ray/CD
Piano four hands duo Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi once again bring energy, virtuosity, and imagination to a composer’s work on their latest recording, a portrait of Terry Riley.
ZOFO arranged a few of the pieces on the album for four hands. Their rendition of “Half-Wolf Dances Mad in the Moonlight” is a powerfully incisive standout and “G Song” is supple and, given the breathlessly fast tempo, played with impressive rhythmic integrity. There is also a new piece on the CD, commissioned by the duo: the sprightly, syncopated, and surprisingly stylistically faithful Praying Mantis Rag.
The rest of the programmed pieces are from The Heaven Ladder, Books 5 & 7, collections commissioned by pianists Sarah Cahill and Gloria Cheng. The most expansive of these selections, “Cinco de Mayo,” is given a sterling rendition, filled with dynamic shadings, fleet passagework, and tightly knit exchanges.
Pointed up on the album is Riley’s versatility as a composer. While he can create churning ostinatos with the best of them, his connections to jazz, raga, and dance music of many varieties are just as prominently felt here as his status as an elder statesman of minimalism. Given their chameleon-like presence on previous recordings, ranging from Rite of Spring to Samuel Barber to David Lang, it is hardly surprising that ZOFO relishes in the eclecticism of the fare here. Recommended.
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Juan Pablo Contreras
Silencio en Juárez
Albany Records has released a new CD of chamber music by Juan Pablo Contreras – Silencio en Juárez – consisting of three new works and featuring two prizewinning compositions. The music of Juan Pablo Contreras has been widely performed in Mexico and reflects a contemporary Latin perspective on culture and events. This is most evident in the title piece of the CD, written in remembrance of 15 teenagers murdered at a birthday party in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican border town opposite El Paso, Texas.
Silencio en Juárez (2011) is scored for violin, clarinet, piano and unfolds in four movements starting with Madre Dolorosa. This begins with a quiet, mysterious opening in the strings and the violin in very high pitch, doubling the cello. A solemn piano chord sounds and the sad melody continues, invoking a mixture of sadness and menace. Now a warm, loving feeling for a few phrases is countered by more tense piano chords. The piece morphs into a definite feeling of anxiety, louder and more pronounced. The orchestration is very well crafted here – each instrument produces just the right effect and there is an abundance of sound coming from just four players. Madre Dolorosa has an uneasy and troubled feel – the perfect prelude.
Corrido, Movement II, is bouncy and raucous music – as if we have walked into a bar where the customers are pleasantly drunk. A send up of a familiar Mexican folk song, this movement is nevertheless very effectively written – a bit of comic relief – and no doubt meant to describe the birthday party that figures in the actual event. The ensemble here is excellent and while the music sounds offhand, it is precisely scored and played.
Movement III, Liturgia, has an entirely different tone. Dark and somber piano chords sound, like church bells tolling in the distance. A plaintive melody in the cello feels like a desperate prayer. A haunting clarinet solo is heard, and a graceful violin entrance adds a measure of sadness. A loud and dissonant tutti passage becomes a cry of mourning. The sorrowful violin returns accompanied by the dark, processional piano chords that slowly fade to silence.
La Injusticia, Movement IV, has a busy, strident feel, filled with complexity and detail. Staccato phrases in the clarinet and violin interweave among syncopated piano passages as if describing some needlessly complex process. Clamorous clarinet phrases mix in with slower stretches, but a distinct level of tension remains. A hurried feel to this at times – at 4:30 there is a more coherent and settled feel – but an overall sense of uneasiness is reinforced by the sudden ending. The music seems to be saying that justice delayed by never ending procedural issues is truly justice denied.
Silencio en Juárez is masterfully written chamber music – it won the 2013 Brian M. Israel Prize – but more than that it is an honest attempt by the composer to deal with deeply troubling issues in contemporary society.
La más Remota Prehistoria is the second work on this CD and the title translates to ‘The Most Remote Prehistory’. The four short movements of this piece are based on a poem by Dario Carillo and performed by the Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Kyle Ritenauer. Juan Pablo Contreras sings the solo tenor part.
A somber bassoon solo followed by flute, strings and then voice open the first movement. There has a primal feel and a bit of wistfulness as the (translated) text begins: “Sense your warmth, it has become cold space disputed by the blue shadow, between the rock folds, and subtle inspiration with which I write.” This is sung in Spanish and it is as if we are hearing long dead fossils in the rock lamenting their fate. A sense of sadness and longing is nicely captured in the writing, orchestration and the smooth vocal line.
The second movement turns darker still giving off a bleak, melancholy feel. The measured tempo adds to the drama and the elegant expressiveness in the tenor line reinforces the sense of mourning. The third movement, however, is all motion and energy and the text here is about swirling torrents of sediment, adding to the prehistoric imagery. The final movement returns to the slow, sorrowfulness of the opening, but with a sense of resignation in the voice. Flute trills suggest birds – who might have evolved from the dinosaurs – and the piece concludes with passionate singing and a flute solo in the last few bars that is beautifully poignant.
Despite its unusual subject matter, La más Remota Prehistoria is a touching work that is artfully composed and orchestrated.
The final work on this CD is Angel Mestizo (2013), a concerto for harp and chamber orchestra that won the 2014 Arturo Marquez First Composition Contest. This work is in four movements and traces the adoption of the European harp as a cultural touchstone, starting from the Spanish conquest through the subsequent metamorphosis of Mexico into a dominantly mestizo society. The first movement, La Conquista, opens with sharp, percussive sounds that are full of energy and movement. The harp is heard in solo passages, bringing a calming interlude to the militaristic uproar and a short flute solo adds some soothing pastoral imagery. Rattling drums and bold horn calls trade back and forth with harp and flute, as if a battle is raging across the spacious landscape. A sudden flurry of syncopated rhythms concludes this movement.
The second movement, Veracruz, has a slow and lushly exotic feel with the clarinet, percussion and marimba giving the impression of a hot sun blazing overhead. The harp was first brought to Mexico by the Spanish to the port of Veracruz and there is a lingering sense of conquest and conflict in the music here, sharp at times, as in the first movement. The harp passages, especially lovely and empathetic in the final measures, seem to be trying to heal the divide between the indigenous people and their European conquerors.
Cadenza Criolla, movement III, follows and this opens with a series of strong harp arpeggios. The harp plays alone and there are bright passages but also the sense of a darker undercurrent spilling over from the opening movements. ‘Criolla’ is a term used to describe someone of Spanish ancestry born in Mexico. The latter half of Cadenza Criolla consists of snatches of a folk melody, signifying that the harp is being appropriated by the newly emerging society.
Movement IV, Son Jarocho concludes the work and as the harp cadenza finishes there is a sudden, lively outburst of contemporary folk music. This has a loud and festive feel, but is interspersed with occasional suggestions of the drums and militaristic music from movement I. The harp is heard in solo passages throughout, mostly hopeful and joyous, but also reflecting the sense of the tension that persists in this complex culture even hundreds of years after the the trauma of conquest.
Angel Mestizo is an ambitious work, taking in the history of Mexico and the evolution of its social order – using the harp as the musical focal point was a brilliant choice. The playing by the Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra and harpist Kristi Shade is superb. The scoring and orchestration – here and in all the pieces on this CD – are fully formed and mature beyond the years of the composer. The music of Juan Pablo Contreras would be a fine addition to the repertory of any American chamber orchestra seeking to connect with a contemporary Latin audience.
Silencio en Juárez is available from Albany Records and also by download at iTunes.
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Manhattan in Charcoal
Jacob Miller – Libretto
Manhattan in Charcoal is a newly released CD from Composers Concordance Records and distributed by Naxos. This is a chamber opera with the libretto written by the poet Jacob Miller and music composed by Gene Pritsker. The story is about “The life and loves of an artist in New York City in the early days of the 21st century who is struggling to find his way…” Manhattan in Charcoal is a powerfully dark work whose strength is equally derived from the poetry and the music.
The first movement starts with The Village Feels Empty and the music evokes just the right atmosphere – a sustained trombone tone with a moving bass line underneath. Woodwinds and brass hold higher, dissonant tones, while a running piano scale is heard cutting through the texture. Now violins add a dark shadow, and the image of a rainy night in Manhattan is complete. The narrator – librettist Jacob Miller, perfectly cast – begins his story.
The story line of Manhattan in Charcoal is about a painter – the Artist – who is struggling to make an impression in the uptown galleries while at the same time maintaining a balanced relationship with his girlfriend Beatrice, who is jealous of his devotion to his art. The music in the opening scene reflects this tension, but dissolves into warm harmony when the Artist invites Beatrice to look outside the window. They sing “Art is everywhere, Beatrice – come look at the streets…” Later the Artist tries to assure Beatrice with the words: “But there is and has always, been only you.” – this is sung as a lovely duet and it seems as if Beatrice is almost convinced.
Meanwhile the Artist, always struggling for money, begins his latest work, ‘Manhattan in Charcoal’ – envisioned in paint at first, but later reduced to a more affordable charcoal and paper. Outsider Art opens Movement 2, and the music to describe this slowly unfolding process is heavy and complex as the Artist struggles to adapt to the unfamiliar technique. As the drawing nears completion, plans advance to show it in a gallery and when this occurs the Narrator describes the exhibition, backed by a wonderfully jazzy groove that projects success and sophistication.
A lively piece opens Movement 3 – Art Dealers Dance – and this captures the mundane and banal demands of those who simply want to make money from the success of an artist. Just the Way I Draw is all horns, woodwinds and brass – bouncy and light – the perfect allegory for the airy pronouncements by the critics. The Artist has gained some notoriety from ‘Manhattan in Charcoal’, but his sudden celebrity has attracted the attentions of another woman, and Beatrice senses a rival. This leads to the crisis and denouement of the opera. In the final scene the libretto and music are masterfully matched in a beautiful collage of woodwinds, voices and percussion that is very moving.
The lead singers in this recording – baritone Charles Coleman as the Artist, and soprano Lynn Norris, as Beatrice, give a skillful and precise reading of the sometimes angular and uneven phrases. The accompanying musicians provide a polished and well-balanced support, effectively evoking the many different moods that are woven through this work.
This opera is described in the liner notes as “… the life and loves of an artist in New York City in the early days of the 21st Century…”, but there is no plot device having to do with cell phones or email. Rather, Manhattan in Charcoal is the timeless story of artists and lovers, beautifully told here in poetry and music.
Manhattan in Charcoal will be released in May 2015 and the CD will be available from Naxos.
A short video featuring some of the music is here.
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Michael Vincent Waller
The South Shore
From XI Records comes The South Shore, a new double CD release by New York-based composer Michael Vincent Waller. Totaling some 138 minutes, The South Shore is the most comprehensive musical statement from Waller to date – his two previous albums of piano music were much less ambitious in scale. With a style that runs to miniatures and other smaller forms, The South Shore features a total of 31 tracks. This new collection includes a number of different instrumental ensembles that greatly add to the possibilities for new colors and texture. This is a definite enhancement and brings an added dimension to Waller’s carefully constructed pieces. Released in latter weeks of a difficult winter, hearing the warm and sunny pieces of this album is like a weekend in the south of France.
With such a profusion of music, here are some observations on selected tracks.
From disk 1, Atmosfera di Tempo, on track 2, is an example of how an ensemble of several instruments – in this case a string quartet – can give a greater sense of intimacy and empathy to the underlying structure. This piece begins with a repeating figure in the violin supported by the cello. The others join in, to create a warm, contented feeling with just a slight tinge of sadness that strings can bring out so well. The theme is repeated with variations, sometimes gentle and lush and at other times more insistent and stark. The subtle shadings and sensitivity evident in this piece are a credit to the four players.
Per La Madre e La Nonne on track 4 features a string trio, with a light, bright sound to open. The violin leads with a repeating melody with an effective counterpoint in the lower strings. Variations follow and the close ensemble adds to the sweet feeling in this piece. Written for the composer’s mother and grandmother, Per La Madre e La Nonne is sturdy enough to carry the emotions invested in it yet delicate enough to clearly render the finer details. Towards the end the cello carries the melody with the others in counterpoint, and this gives a somber, almost brooding feel. The ensemble here -by Pauline Kim-Harris, Daniel Panner and Christine Kim – is excellent.
Pasticcio per meno è piú, track 5, is a solo piano piece played with great sensitivity by Nicholas Horvath. A simple running melody above is supported by warm chords underneath and the feel of this is very impressionistic. The gentle touch on the keyboard nevertheless produces a wonderfully luminous sound and the overall effect is to be transported to a sunny day in the south of France. A variation at 4:00 has a more purposeful color, but Pasticcio per meno è piú concludes by reinstating the softer opening.
Nel Nome di Gesú on track 10 opens with a powerful series of strong, chant-like passages repeated by Christine Kim’s cello. The organ line by Carson Cooman adds an expansive component and the result is a feeling of the monumental combined with a comforting sense of familiarity. It is like sitting in a strange church but feeling as if at home. The second movement of this piece is track 11 and the cello, with darker tones plays the melody below the organ, now registered with a lovely flute sound. There is a plaintive, almost mournful feel to this that is nonetheless very beautiful. Both movements of Nel Nome di Gesú are well balanced and quietly touching.
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In the Sea of Ionia
Southern California composer Daniel Lentz has a new CD of piano music, titled In the Sea of Ionia, recently released by Cold Blue Music. Los Angeles pianist Aron Kallay performs all four pieces on this album, totaling over an hour of accessible and inviting music.
The opening track is 51 Nocturnes and this begins with a series of descending chords and a light melody that immediately puts the listener at ease. Arpeggios in the bass appear, accompanied by a simple melody that seems to float above. Now stronger chords are heard in the middle registers with counterpoint below. The simple melody returns briefly, turning gently to introspection. By 4:20 there is a darker feel but this soon turns lighter again. 51 Nocturnes proceeds in this way with short bursts of different colors and textures; sometimes dramatic, sometimes mysterious, sometimes energetic but always returning to a warm, inward-looking sensibility. The playing of Aron Kallay has just the right touch for each of the many moods here and he sustains the last chord of the piece for exactly the right amount of time.
The second track is Pacific Coast Highway and this opens with an intriguing series of steady rhythms played against each other, suggesting the flow of traffic along an open highway. Some lovely harmonies are heard as the different melody lines interact. In one section there is a stronger feel, like the surf pounding on the beach – a feature that actually occurs along some sections of the roadway. A strong sense of motion and journey are evident in Pacific Coast Highway and this piece nicely evokes the iconic Southern California experience.
Dorchester Tropes follows, a work that was commissioned by Dr. Richard Marcus, a resident of Dorchester, Massachusetts thus giving the Santa Barbara-based Lentz the opportunity for an extended visit and some New England inspiration. The piece consists of four movements, the first of which is titled Messatossec. This has a dramatic opening that turns delicate with some lovely textures and tones. There is a pleasant feel to this, with a definite sense of home and place.
Ponkapoag Bog is the second movement and opens with a quiet, pleasing melody that soon gives way to a faster, more animated section providing a lively contrast. A precisely played syncopation adds to the sense of lightness and joy between the more peaceful stretches. Strong chords and a low rumbling texture appear as well, but the piece always circles back to the inviting and welcoming.
Moswetuset, the third movement, begins with a series of arpeggios underneath a relaxing melody. This is appealing music, drawing the listener into its circle of light and warmth. At 2:30 the notes are falling like a series of spring raindrops, full of optimism. A somewhat more dramatic sound follows with strong chords, as if watching a late afternoon sunset. The tempo slows and the piece tapers off to a settled finish.
The final movement of Dorchester Tropes is Pocapawnet and this has a a series of forceful chords heard in an almost dance-like rhythm. The syncopated melody bounces happily along until a smoother, more elegant section appears, followed by more syncopation. There is a sense of expressiveness and joy that comes through both the playing and the notes.
The final piece on the CD is the title track, In the Sea of Ionia. This has a gentle, languid opening that turns suddenly rapid, full of movement with syncopated lines weaving joyfully back and forth. The slow, drifting feeling soon returns, like a lazy summer day at the beach. Now faster again, with a happy, energetic feel – good control in the playing here. As with 51 Nocturnes, In the Sea of Ionia oscillates between purposeful intensity and leisurely relaxation. Sometimes it evokes a soft summer rain or a quiet, reflective moment and at other times it is a joyful gallop The harmonies and rhythms compliment each other nicely in each of the various sections and the playing is both accurate and heartfelt. The final three minutes feel like a dash headlong down to the sea, and this is wonderfully played by Aron Kallay.
This CD is a lovely collection of accessible and engaging music that draws the listener in with welcoming sounds.
In the Sea of Ionia (CB0042) is available from Cold Blue Music.
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John Luther Adams
The Wind in High Places
Cold Blue Music has released The Wind in High Places, a new CD of string music by 2014 Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Luther Adams. The album consists of three pieces: The Wind in High Places, a 3-movement work performed by the JACK Quartet, Canticles of the Sky, a 4-movement piece for four cello choirs as performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble and Dream of the Canyon Wren, by the JACK Quartet.
The first movement of The Wind in High Places is titled Above Sunset Pass and this begins with high, needle-like violin tones riding above sustained lower pitches. There is the feel of wind whistling through rocks in remote isolation. Sunset Pass, Alaska is, in fact, one of the most isolated places in North America; a low point in the Brooks Range that opens onto the Arctic Coastal Plain deep in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The overwhelming sense of removal from civilization in this place might produce a certain intimidation, but that is not what we hear in this music. The initial feeling of a vast remoteness is gradually replaced by a warm, introspective sense of place that is both welcoming and intimate. The harmonies are ruggedly beautiful and precisely played by the JACK Quartet, especially the very highest pitches that are the most evocative. Above Sunset Pass, with its pastoral sensuality and primal harmonies offers the listener an invitation to dwell in this wild place on its own terms.
Maclaren Summit follows and this has a busier feel with a series of fast, sharp passages in the higher registers, like snow swirling along a ridge line. There is an ethereal feel from the continuous motion in the violins, pleasantly complimented by a slightly more rugged texture in the lower strings. This feels like more mountainous terrain and is almost pointillist in its depiction of the snowy landscape. The playing here is very delicate and has just the right touch, as if the air itself is moving the strings. With its roiling and crisscrossing passages, Maclaren Summit manages to evoke the intensity of a snow squall without any of the menace.
Looking Toward Hope is the third and final movement of The Wind in High Places and this begins with a low, steady cello, now mixed with higher sustained tones. This has a craggy feel, like looking at a rugged mountain face. The texture is rich and warm throughout, evoking a feeling of grandeur. All three movements of The Wind in High Places offer the listener a peaceful alternative to the adversarial and often politicized relationship with nature that we moderns have inherited from a problematic past.
The four movements of Canticles of the Sky follow, as performed by four cello choirs – some 48 players – all members of the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble directed by Hans Jørgen Jensen. Sky with Four Suns is the first of these and begins with warm, deep tones in the bottom registers, building up on thirds and fifths. Lovely harmonies rise up like a cathedral tower, beautiful and lush, with a bright upper line arcing overhead. The feeling is a bit like that sense of the mystical one hears when an orchestra is tuning. The notes rise in volume and pitch, with a powerful fulness of texture, and then slowly decrescendo back to the lower tones and a peaceful finish.
Sky with Four Moons is next and this movement opens on a single sustained high tone, soon joined by lower pitches, almost as an inversion of the first movement. The volume swells as the piece progresses and a deep rugged sound is heard as the tones reach the lower registers. The pitches reascend, becoming quieter at the finish. This movement has a slightly more remote and distant feel, as a quiet night sky might appear.
Sky with Nameless Colors follows, again opening on a sustained high note with tones added in close harmony above and below. This develops a thicker feeling, especially as the pitches settle in at the bottom. As the piece progresses the texture thins out to a somewhat brighter feel as it ends quietly on a single note.
The final movement of Canticles of the Sky is Sky with Endless Stars and this begins with a low, deep tone that builds upward in a dark harmony. There is a somber feel to this, like a dirge played very slowly on a pipe organ. The volume builds as tones are added, rising upward to a higher, brighter register that brings out a feeling of expansiveness. As with the other movements this concludes by way of decrescendo and a thinning out of the harmonies to a single tone.
The final track on the CD is Dream of the Canyon Wren as performed by the JACK Quartet and this has a more surreal quality than the previous pieces. This opens with a series of low repeating figures in the cello that are followed by similar passages in the violins. The sound is suggestive of a series of dreamlike bird calls. Silences follow, and then a flurry of fast figures in the higher registers that devolve into lower, slower echoes. This pattern continues, slowing to a low, gauzy wash before concluding on one last high-pitched burst. Dream of the Canyon Wren is perhaps the most abstract of the works on this CD and the playing by the JACK Quartet is meticulously precise.
The music of The Wind in High Places precedes Become Ocean, the 2013 symphonic work that won Adams the Pulitzer last year. But this album of string music is cut from the same cloth, perfectly expressing the gentle sensibilities that inform a highly sympathetic view of nature. In a recent Facebook posting John Luther Adams wrote: “That’s been my lifelong obsession… Place as Music. And Music as Place.” The Wind in High Places is compelling evidence of just how completely he has succeeded.
The Wind in High Places (CB0041) is available from Cold Blue Music.
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