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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GLASS BOX: Music by Philip Glass. 10 CD Nonesuch. (Sony Classical; Orange Mountain Music; Virgin, Shandar)
Philip Glass piano, keyboards,: The Philip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman, keyboards, music director; Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra; Vienna Radio Symphony; Bruckner Orchester Linz; American Composers Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies, conductor, various vocal soloists; New York City Opera Orchestra, Christopher Keene. conductor, various vocal soloists; English Chamber Orchestra, Michael Riesman, Harry Rabinowitz, conductors; various film studio orchestras with members of The PGE and The Western Wind Vocal Ensemble;conducted by Michael Riesman; Kronos Quartet – David Harrington; John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Joan Jeanrenaud, cello; Lyric Quartet.
Philip Glass is so ubiquitous and successful that’s it’s easy to take him for granted and stop listening. Sure, he repeats, uses arpeggios, broken chords, minor modes/keys, and his style is instantly identifiable and frequently copied. But he’s always been interested in re-inventing himself and he’s changed the rules of his game by putting himself into unknown situations with other artists, or forms, and sometimes both at once. The fruits of several seminal collaborations with theatre director Robert Wilson — -EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH (1975), and film director Godfrey Reggio — KOYAANISQATSI (1983) are in this with essays and appreciations 40 year retrospective set. But there’s a kicker. Glass frequently works with visual artists, or artists from theatre or film, but the CD only format can’t show how his music works with images. Yet it does show how arresting his music is as sound, and those who think he hasn’t changed, developed, or matured are in for a shock or a revelation.
The early works (1969- 70) on the eponymously titled disc one were shocking to some and a revelation to others when first performed. Glass threw the academic rule book out the window, but kept what he learned from Nadia Boulanger – the music of the classic masters was both logical and inevitable — and that sense of inevitable logic certainly drives these works here. The carefully added lines in MUSIC IN SIMILAR MOTION (1969) are like a mural you have to walk with in order to see, and its development is just as planned as the nearly hour long 1970 MUSIC WITH CHANGING PARTS – 45 minutes here – in which Glass let his musicians play and sing pitches they heard in its intricate overlapping parts which I think reflects his rarely remarked on before India encounter with the rhythmic patterning of Moroccan ritual music where drones and simple shifting counts – there are frequent contrasts between 2 and 3 and multiples thereof – become the building blocks for something very complex.
These early works grew in complexity as Glass’ musical language developed , but their complexity has nothing to do with the serial method in vogue when they were written. That was tied to the dialectical view of history as a kind of conflict resolution process, which starts as thesis, moves on to antithesis, and culminates in synthesis. These pieces function outside of history, or rather within their own idea of history and time.
Glass decided to confront that subject head on in the massive yet ingeniously varied MUSIC IN 12 PARTS (1971-74) [ disc two ] which is, in some almost dialectical way the culmination of his minimalist period. Or as Glass told me ” My idea was to write a piece that was like a catalog, a kind of grand compendium of all the ideas I had worked out”¦ and I tried to find ways of linking an overall harmonic structure to an overall rhythmic structure to produce a kind of (laughs) unified field theory of music. ” Time and how it’s perceived is a large part of what it’s about, and Glass has many ways of expanding our sense of it here. Producers Robert Hurwitz, Kurt Munkacsi, and Michael Riesman have chosen parts VII to X so that the listener can experience them as a sequence of developing units and not just bleeding chunks. There’s a lot of variety in Glass’ sometimes circumscribed approach – a full range of contrapuntal devices and rhythms as well as surprising but perfectly logical changes of direction and texture. But you can’t hear the unwritten undertones and overtones which emerge from the overlapping lines, volume, and acoustic properties of the room where it’s played live. And a rare complete performance by the PGE at San Francisco’s Davies Hall 16 Feb 2009 will certainly bring these out. Orange Mountain Music – — has also released a PGE live at Rovereto, Italy, 2006 set of 12 PARTS, which is as thrilling and cogent as this studio one though the tempos are markedly slower in several places.
Glass’ 5 hour ” opera ” with Robert Wilson EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH (1975) – [ disc three ] – is paradoxically more elaborate and simpler than 12 PARTS, as befits a work tailored for and responsive to the exigencies of stage action. These excerpts give a good sense of its shape as well as its intimate – all 5 Knee Plays – and spectacular dimensions – Train 1 and the concluding Spaceship scene. The incisiveness and elegance of the playing and singing defines the character of the piece as I imagine it to be when encountered live – all space, light, movement, décor – aligned with Glass’ strongly varied harmonic and rhythmic densities, though I miss the seat of your pants rawness of the PGE’s Tomato LP . Still it’s wonderful to hear the Prologue from Act V ( Rome Section ) of Wilson’s originally for the 1984 LA Olympics the CIVIL wars (1983) — a beautiful, imaginative, and tremendously moving score with killer bass clarinet solos, which Dennis Russell Davies and his American Composers Orchestra play with heart and soul. But there’s not a note from the Wilson/ Glass – Rumi poems MONSTERS OF GRACE (1997) , which is on OMM.
Three of Glass’ 5 collaborations with Reggio – KOYAANISQATSI (1983) , POWAQQATSI (1987) – [ disc 6 ], and ANIMA MUNDI (1999) [disc 10] are here. KOYAANISQATSI is revered for its fits like a glove marriage of image and sound – the slow moving lines and suspended harmonies in “Organic” and the unsettling altered chords in “Resource” are perfect musical analogues as well as stand alone pieces as are al the others — while Glass’ absorption of world music instruments into his own idiom in POWAQQATSI is striking, but much less known, largely because its distributor, Cannon Films, was going bankrupt when it was released. But the last installment in Reggio’s QATSI trilogy, NAQOYQATSI (2002), with its intricate textures and demanding but perfectly apt writing for cellist Yo Yo Ma – it’s on SONY Classical – sadly didn’t make the cut. But the good news is that all 3 QATSI films have gotten a new lease on life by being performed live with the PGE.
Glass’ orchestra only and orchestra with voices writing , which appears throughout his 8 symphonies. has grown by leaps and bounds. The strings only – violin 1 and 2, violas, cellos, double basses – Symphony # 3 (1995) [ disc nine ] is full of timbral contrasts despite its white on white sound which Stravinsky and Herrmann also exploited in APOLLO (1927) and PSYCHO (1960), and the third movement’s quick assymetrical metres — 7 /8 , 9/8 “¦ are virtuosic and thrilling. The complex rhythmic and harmonic writing for every choir approach of Symphony # 8 (2005), which Dennis Russell Davies and his Bruckner Orchester Linz premiered at BAM on their first US tour in 2005, and play here, is extremely original and subtle. The 8 themes which begin the first movement are closely related yet legible, the second movement passacaglia ventures into strange harmonic waters ala Boulanger’s teacher, Faure, and the third and final one, with its sense of deep and inevitable sorrow, never fails to bring me to tears, whether at BAM, or at home.
Chamber music speaks from the mind and heart , and Glass’ string quartets are clearly letters from home. # 4 (Buczak) (1987) [ disc seven ] , which was commissioned by Geoffrey Hendricks as a memorial to his young artist lover Brian Buczak, who died of AIDS, has an alternately ecstatic, and otherworldly character – the suspended in time middle slow movement – while the first movement’s sostenuto chords seem to frame a kind of narrative of Buczak, Hendricks and Glass together – they were friends – in a continuously evolving present, which extends to the third and final movement, too. Lots of the writing in # 5 (1991) , with its frequent metric shifts , mercurial changes of texture, and the headlong dive of its chromatic scales in 17/8, at a very fast tempo, is openly virtuosic, and Glass told me he asked David Harrington and Kronos to play it as one thought, which they do, with accuracy and point, in all 3 quartets here. Four of the 10 Etudes for Piano (1994), which Glass wrote for Davies to play, and which Glass does here, are very personal, idiosyncratic and non-didactic additions to this form which Chopin and Debussy enlarged so beautifully before him.
Glass’ use of the orchestra in his Gandhi opera SATYAGRAHA (1979 [ disc five ] is not unlike that of Debussy in PELLEAS Et MELISANDE (1893-1902) , where the orchestra disappears into the music, and being invisible in this way becomes more deeply felt. His wind and string – with one synthesizer – writing evokes a completely unique sound in which the voices seem to flower from the orchestra and vice versa. Tenor Douglas Perry’s Gandhi – he virtually owned the role till Richard Croft sang it at The Met this spring – gives a mellifluous and touching performance, though the miking of alto Rhonda Liss’ Mrs. Alexander, while dramatic alright, is too far forward harsh. But Christopher Keene, sadly dead from AIDS, leads a cogent performance with the New York City Opera Chorus, and his singers in Act III’s extremely exposed sextet make it seem easy as pie.
The text and performance style of Glass’ opera about the heretic king AKHNATEN (1983) [ disc eight ] aim, like the in Sanskrit SATYAGRAHA, at divorcing and /or mirroring action(s) from words. The voice – countertenor Paul Esswood sings the pharaoh – is set within an umbrous ( no violins as in KOYAANISQATSI ) yet continuously shifting orchestral frame, and musical time and scale once again take center stage, in Davies and the Stuttgart State Opera and Chorus’ vigorous and deeply atmospheric account of this monumental yet very personal score.
You get a touch but only a touch of Glass’ wide-ranging efforts in moving pictures – other than his for Reggio — in disc ten, Filmworks, though Nonesuch’s PHLILIP ON FILM gives a better introduction and in depth survey of his work in this form. Still disc four has excerpts from his odd yet enchanting score, ETOLIE POLAIRE , for Francois de Menil and Barbara Rose’s 1977 doc MARK DI SUVERO, SCULPTOR. My favorite has always been ” Are Years What? ( for Marianne Moore ) ” for flute and soprano and tenor saxophone – Dickie Landry , with its startling and refreshing “break ” – rest — midstream. Disc ten is strangely unsastisfying – we don’t get bleeding chunks, but chunks nevertheless of scores both famous and obscure. But who could ever think, much less see Glass’ 1994 opera based on Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film LA BELLE ET LA BETE, as anything but new music wedded to the work of this way too gifted – who could ever pigeonhole Cocteau? -and deeply influential artist? Glass apparently identifies with him – both were outsiders even when they appeared to be movers and shakers within their own time – and Glass’ time is decidedly ours. But anyone curious about his recent film, concert, and theatre work should check out Orange Mountain Music’s catalog – as well as Nonesuch’s , which give a close-up view of this straightforward, extremely important, yet deeply elusive artist.
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