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Music for Saxophone and Piano by Rueff, Anderson, Heiden, Davis, Feld

Kenneth Fischer, saxophone
Martha Thomas, piano

Aca Digital Recording

Surprising to think at this late date that the saxophone should still be looking for respectability as a solo classical instrument, at least in some circles. You would certainly have gotten an argument on that score from the late Kenneth Fischer (d. December 9, 2009) whose masterful, virtuosic performances on the present program make the strongest possible case for the instrument. Together with his frequent recital partner Martha Thomas, Fischer gives a veritable clinic in the extraordinary things that all his saxophones – alto, soprano, and Eb – can be made to do.

Chanson et Passepied by French composer Jeanine Rueff (b.1922) leads off the program in fine style with its charming, arching melody that is re-cast in dance time in the second half by changing the meter and tempo. It’s followed by the two Sonatas for Alto Saxophone and Piano by Tommy Joe Anderson (b.1947), both characterized by pithy expression and a wise economy of means. No. 1 is basically a serial composition based on the hexachord Eb-G-E-A-D-Bb. My favorite section of this rhythmically alert piece is the third, marked “Fast, with a jazzy feeling.” Sonata No. 2 is marked by confrontation between the two instruments, in which sax and piano react to each other’s points of contention, with some scope allowed for controlled aleatoric measures. (If you think I’m going to define “aleatoric,” you’re nuts: look it up!)

The oldest work on the program, and the one that most consistently has the “feel” of a modern classic, is the 1937 Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano by Bernhard Heiden (1910-2000). The composer studied with Paul Hindemith, and this was one of his first compositions after leaving Germany. The jaunty, bluesy mood of this music reminds us what a hotbed Berlin was for creative modernism in all the arts just prior to the rise of the Third Reich. Highly melodic and flavorfully dissonant, with its remote tone centers and richly chromatic melodies, this engaging work has a nice swing to it that Fischer and Thomas never fail to communicate.

I’m not nearly as fond of Declaration for Soprano Saxophone and Piano by William Davis (b.1948) with its strangulated sounds resulting from such compositional techniques as timbre alternation on a single note, quarter notes, and, especially, saxophone multiphonics. The latter can be very hard to listen to, particularly in the repeated references to the motif BACH (that is, Bb-A-C-B) that, in the context, sound more satirical than reverential. (Come to think of it, J.S. Bach, who was known in his day for his hot temper, once challenged a bassoonist to a swordfight for playing his instrument like a “nanny goat.” One shudders to think what he might have done to Davis, were he still living!) At least we can say that Fischer’s technique here is really impressive, and Thomas has some fine moments with inside-the-piano multiphonics. Still, one has to wonder what Davis had in mind with this 15-minute rhapsody in a single movement.

I’ve never warmed up to the music of Czech composer Jindrich Feld (1925-2007) whose unique way with 12-tone composition, used here in a non-conventional way that eschews the use of strict tone rows, other listeners have found engaging. His Élégie for Soprano Saxophone and Piano struck me, on the contrary, as rather hesitant in its terse expression. Still, I found four of six works on this program to be attractive and engaging, at least as Kenneth Fischer and Martha Thomas present them. At the end of the day, that’s not a bad average.

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The Complete Songs, Volumes I and II

The Florestan Recital Project

Florestan Records

“I found [composing with and for electronics] boring and predictable – speakers cannot stand up to acknowledge applause. In electronic music everything is fixed, permanently. I missed presenting a score to a creative performer with the hope that he would take the piece into his own personality.”

One of the unexpected pleasures of reviewing the songs of the late Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) was discovering his candid and engaging personality. That’s always a boon for the writer desperately in search of a “lead” to begin his review. Pinkham provides the critic numerous literary gems of that sort. In his long career he set his hand at it all: symphonies, cantatas, concertos, oratorios, and chamber music for a great variety of instrumental combinations, embracing means as diverse as medieval modes and plainchant, dodecaphony, serialism, and electronic music. One gets the feeling from listening to Volumes I and II of the Florestan Project’s Complete Songs project that song had a special significance for Pinkham, something to which he returned time and again over the years. It all fits in with his love of writing with a specific occasion and his love of contact with the singers and instrumentalists: “I have no unperformered music.”

Volume I of the present series embraces settings of poems by such as A E Houseman, Emily Dickinson, and particularly James Wright (1927-1980), with whose poetry Pinkham’s music formed a close, personal correlative. Wright was influenced by both Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy, both of whom he resembled in the denseness and exuberance of his imagery. We find this quality particularly in Pinkham’s settings from The Green Wall and Where Love Has Gone, both sung here by Joe Dan Harper, accompanied by guitarist Jim Piorkowski in the former and pianist Anne Kissel Harper in the latter. I normally don’t like settings of free verse (which Frost once compared to playing tennis without the net) because they tend to result in too much sameness resulting from the heightened declamation that is inevitable when the composer doesn’t have meter or rhyme to relate to. These are more palatable than most, owing largely to the imagination residing in Wright’s images: “The kind of poetry I want is my love / who comes back with the rain. Oh, I / would love to lie down long days long, / the long / down slipping the gown from her / shoulders.”

The handful of Dickinson poems in Called Home require, and receive, more cadenced settings in keeping with the poet’s use of liturgical cadence and clipped expression: “Promise this – When you be Dying – / Some shall summon Me – / Mine belong your latest Sighing – / Mine – / to Belt your Eye – / Not with Coins – though they be Minted / From an Emperor’s Hand – / Be My Lips – the only Buckle – / Your low eyes demand.” And of course, Dickinson’s preoccupation with death finds expression in all five poems in the series, providing a rare degree of unity: “Some, too fragile for winter winds / The thoughtful grave encloses – / Tenderly tucking them in from frost / Before their feet are cold.”

Tenor Joe Dan Harper and baritone Aaron Engebreth alternate the vocal assignments in Volume II, which consist of settings of Psalms, other Scriptural Sources, and poems with religious significance in their imagery by such olden poets as Henry Vaughn, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Thomas Campion, George Wither and Sir Philip Sydney, with Emily Dickinson’s whimsical “Angels at Play” and the robust exuberance of Gerard Manley Hopkins thrown in for a change of pace: “Bring hither pearl, opal, sard; / Reck not what the poor have lost; / Upon Christ throw all away; / Know ye this is Easter Day.” The various Psalms, wisdom literature Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Letters of St. Paul and St. Ambrose in this Volume find perfect sound=sense correlation in Pinkham’s settings, which can be lyrical, meditative, or dramatic as the text requires. He captures to perfection the intimacy in so many of these texts. And the organ accompaniment by Heinrich Christensen is always sensitive to the mood and ambience of the song.

In short, the present 2-CD package is an ideal introduction to a composer who was to claim, “The single event that changed my life was a concert [at Andover] by the Trapp Family Singers in 1939, right after they had escaped from the Nazis. They had virginals, recorders, a gamba, and I had never heard anything like that in my life … Here, suddenly, I was hearing clarity, simplicity.” Coming at a time in history when the basic sound of western music, like it or not, was post-Wagnerian, it shaped Pinkham’s whole outlook on life and music.

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In Media Res / Roam / Double Violin Concerto / Synopses 1-15

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose
With Carla Kihlstedt, violin and voice; Colin Jacobsen, violin; Lisa Bielawa, soprano

BMOP Sound

Lisa Bielawa is a phenomenon. The perky San Francisco native who, judging from her booklet photo, appears to be very much on the sunny side of life, first gained fame as a singer, touring with the Philip Glass ensemble from 1992, although she had concurrently been a composer since her earliest years and had received several performances when she was in her teens.  She founded in 1997 the MATA Festival to promote the work of new composers, and began concentrating on her own compositions. Right from the beginning, she has shown a decided preference for the larger forms of music. Her dense, robust symphonic style is not at all what you would expect of a vocalist turned composer, although she does not ignore the lyrical element in her music.

Roam (2001), one of the earlier works on this program, already reveals Bielawa’s gift for perusasive, moody orchestration and her passionate love of literature. The inspiration in this case was a quote from Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin: “I roam above the sea, / I wait for the right weather, / I beckon to the sails of ships. / … / When shall I start on my free course?” In keeping with the verse, which has more to say about the inner state of the speaker than it is a tone picture of the sea, Bielawa focuses on the tension between the exhileration of freedom, like a ship moving freely on the sea, and the danger that freedom entails.

Double Violin Concerto (2008) was dedicated “to Colin, Carla, Gill, and BMOP” and reflects Bielawa’s close personal and professional relations to three key figures in the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (see above). It represents a further step beyond Roam in its great melodic and tonal warmth. After the contrapuntal solemnity of the opening movement, “Portico,” we are in for a surprise in “Song,” as violinist Kihlstedt sings an English translation of a passge from Gorthe’s Faust accompanied by her own scordatura violin and Jacobsen’s deft arpeggios in support of the vocal line. The text is appropriate, too, a tribute to the transformative power of the imagination: “Leave the great world, let it run riot, / And let us stay where it is quiet. / It’s something that has long been done, / To fashion little worlds within the bigger one.” Jacobsen takes the center stage in the final movement, Play with a Play,” which begins in deeply moving music inspired by Gregorian settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, grows more intense, and almost imperceptibly metamorphoses into, first, a stately dance episode, and then an evocation of gypsy fiddling with an improvided cadenza.

Bielawa herself is the vocalist in Unfinish’d, Sent (2000), inspired by a line from Richard III in which the protagonist excuses his evil proclivities by blaming them it on his physical deformity: “Unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.” In the first half of the piece, which is all orchestra, a gesture struggles mightily to no avail, to coalesce into a melody. When the singer enters with an eery setting of Shaespeare’s verse, it reinforces the sense of something (such as a work of music?) striving to be born. Sound echoes sense again in an unsettling, rhythmically-recast, quote from Vivaldi’s Winter, emphasizing the play’s opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer.”

Lisa Bielawa saves the best for last on CD1. Titled In Media Res, the 2009 work is perhaps the most exacting of all genres, the concerto for orchestra. Bielawa wrote it to commemorate her tenure with BMOP and her friendships with its members. She based it, in turn, on her 15 Synopses, pithy, aphoristic pieces lasting on the average about five minutes that typically develop out of small kernels and crystallize to give a distinct impression of the personality and prowess of each musical artist. The individual Synopses are further distinguished with whimsical 6-word titles, such as “In The Eye Of The Beholder,” “It Takes One To Know One,” “No-No-No, Put That Down” and “Two days after you left, I,” further underscoring the orchestral concerto genre itself as a species of serious play. (The 15 Synopses are collected together on CD2, which, at 68:45, cannot exactly be considered an “extra” on this program.)

What Bielawa did, amazingly, was to fashion her Concerto for Orchestra (which truly deserves the name: it is not by any means a pastiche) by assembling the various Synopses like a skilled lapidary into a very impressive and solidly cohesive whole that is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. Like the major work of symphonic music that it is, it ranges over all the emotions, from rising excitement mounting to terror at the very opening, to sadness, pensiveness, hope, and even joyous affirmation. Add the glowing, luminous orchestration, revealing a composer who understands well the range and expressive capability of every instrument, and you have a concerto for orchestra that will stand up with the most distinguished achievements in this genre of the past hundred years. Seriously, I urge every aficionado of 20/21 music to give full attention to this rising star.

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Visions de l’Amen

Marilyn Nonken, Piano I
Sarah Rothenberg, Piano II

Bridge

In the spring of 1943, in the midst of the German occupation of Paris, Olivier Messiaen, assisted by his teenaged student Yvonne Loriod, presented a most unusual duo-piano recital. The times being what they were, there were undoubtedly a few Vichy collaborationists in the audience, taking down notes, alert to detect any evidence of sedition or rebellion (which might have been expected of one who had been conscripted in the Army of the Republic and spent some time in a POW camp following the downfall of France). If so, they were disappointed. For Messiaen’s music, as heard in Visions de l’Amen, already existed on a supernal plane that was totally alien to the fascist mind that can only believe in the realities it can compel other people to accept. And Messiaen was that rarest of creatures, one who would continually seek the spiritual truth and transcendant beauty in the dogmas of the Catholic faith.

Concerning “dogma”, which refers to any religious doctrine or belief that is not open to disputation (a notion that leaves a bad odor for many people), it needs to be said that Messiaen continually sought the mystical reality behind those dogmas. Without the existence of that reality, to someone like Messiaen, dogma is meaningless because it would then just boil down to the statement: “You must believe this because those of us who know what is good for you, say so.” Messiaen sought, and found, the spiritual realities he craved in his faith, and it informed his music almost from his eartliest beginnings as a composer.

One other thing you need to know about Messiaen is that he heard the most basic elements of music – such as color, harmony, rhythm, pitch, and time – in a markedly different way than the great majority of us do. With the assistance of Yvonne Loriod, his artistic collaborator, inspiration, and his eventually his wife, he explored new and breathtaking avenues in all these respects over a course of fifty years, until his death in 1992. Of Loriod, who herself died just recently on 17 May, 2010, he paid the highest tribute to her formidable piano technique: “I am able to allow myself the greatest eccentricities because to her anything is possible.”

On the present Bridge recording, Sarah Rothenberg, distinguished American pianist who studied Messiaen’s music in Paris with Loriod, and Marilyn Nonken, who has already established a reputation as a champion of modern music, give an enthusiastic and supernally skilled interpretation of what is certainly one of the greatest works of the modern era. There are seven movements in Visions de l’Amen, and they reflect aspects of the eternal Amen (“So Be It”) like facets of light show its component colors. They are: 1) Amen of Creation, 2) Amen of the Stars, the Planets, and the Rings of Saturn, 3) Amen of the Agony of Jesus, 4) Amen of Desire, 5) Amen of the Angels, the Saints, and Bird Songs, 6) Amen of Judgement, and 7) Amen of the Consummation. Unity is provided by the “Theme of the Creation, heard first in (1) and at various key points throughout the score, emphasizing the overall purpose and design of “L’Amen” itself. “Desire” in (4) refers to spiritual striving, expressed in themes representing deep tenderness and infinite patience, and “a paroxysm of thirst” (Messiaen), in the sense that the angel called the prophet Daniel “man of desire.“ The bird songs in (5) reflect Messiaen’s abiding interest in nature’s singers – here the Thrush, Chaffinch, and Blackcap – as voicing the purest praise to the Amen of Creation. As ornithologist and musician, he heard their songs with an unusual degree of sensitivity and incorporated them in his music to the end of his life.

The physical demands of Messiaen’s music must surely have required Rothenberg and Nonken to posses something of the technical skills and keen sensitivity to each other’s performance of a present-day Messian and Loriod. The composer’s pulsations, polyrhythms, and sudden changes of register, brilliant, scintillating rhythms and colors, culminate in the final movement as coruscating facets of light like “the whole rainbow of precious stones mentioned in the Apocalypse, sounding, jarring, dancing, coloring and perfuming the light of life” (Messiaen). (“Perfuming?” You’ve got me there, pal! But then, a mystic would understand these things.) Captured in beautiful, glorious-sounding detail by producer Judith Sherman and engineer Andrew Bradley, this has to be one of the very finest recordings of 2010. To those who might think it short measure at 48:53, I would say in closing that (a) what would you possibly program with Visions de l’Amen as a filler? And (b) you will probably want to audition this incredible music again once you’ve heard it, so that 49 minutes will soon become 98, then 147, and so on (Amen).

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The Voice Inside / How Swift the Hours / Cassandra’s Songs / Kaea

Madeleine Pierard, mezzo-soprano; Vesa-Matti Leppänen, violin; Michael Kirgan, trumpet; David Bremner, trombone
James Judd conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Naxos

Lyell Creswell (b.1944), Wellington, NZ native who now considers Edinburgh home base, shows a decided interest in furthering the scope of activity of four instruments (trumpet, trombone, violin, and voice) in works that reveal his range of interests as a composer. The Voice Inside, based on the striking and incisive verse of contemporary Scottish poet and novelist Ron Butlin, is billed as a concerto for soprano, violin and orchestra, and it truly casts both Pierard and Leppänen in virtuosic roles, vis-à-vis the orchestra as well as each other. The six poems center around the transcendent moments in which both voice and violin give utterance to sound, and then to music. The relationships are ever-changing: “Catch as catch can, / boy and girl, woman, man / contrapuntal, asymptotic, / palindromic / mirrorwise inversion / canonic imitation / Your theme or mine?” The two instruments appear as both lovers and rivals against the light orchestral backdrop. Movement VI is a scherzo, in which Pierard engages in pleasant verbal gymnastics with the evocative sounds of a string of names of famous violin virtuosi. VI, Burlesque, playfully twits the 12-tone school of composition: “Twelve equal tones, dangling on a score, / if one of them should modulate / would there be a melody / where none had been before?”

“Alas! How Swift,” the title of Crewell’s 11-minute concerto in a single movement for trumpet and orchestra, alludes to the fleeting passage of time, reflected in the swirling movement of the orchestral accompaniment, at the constant speed of 138 beats to the minute. That movement seems to echo the restlessness of wind and water (including, at the 0:57 mark and again, about a minute later, the chugging, guggling sound of water passing down a drain!) Often the orchestra is required to play both quietly and swiftly (musicians can tell you the difficulties that involves), and the trumpet player to execute frequnt double-tonguing. To return to the washday analogy, the orchestra goes into a final speed rinse cycle as we near the end, prompting a last burst of virtuosity from the trumpet.

“Cassandra’s Songs,” another example of a fruitful collaboration between Ron Butlin and the composer (with a verse from Euripides’ The Trojan Woman inserted as the text for the third song, of five) are poignant expressions of exile, identity, loss, hope and despair. It is another instance in which outstanding vocal artistry, here executed to perfection by Pierard, is brought to the service of great poetry: “Teach me, gods of song, some harsh lament / Dissonant with tears and howls, / Help me to sing Troy’s sorrows, invent / New sounds for my grief.” (The words I’ve chosen are Euripides’, but Butlin’s are on the same high plane of inspiration.)

Finally, Creswell returns to his Kiwi roots with Kaea, a concerto for trombone and orchestra that draws its title and the inspiration for its primitive beauty on the so-named war trumpet that was traditionally used by the Maori people to terrify their enemies before a battle. Of course, the Maori also have some of the world’s most beautiful songs and chants. But here, with the exception of a brief legato melody in the slow section of this work, the music is mostly staccato, phrased stunning by the soloist in a way that pushes the limits of the trombone in the way of terse, rhythmic excitement and a blaring suddenness that can create a miasma of sound, as it does when we first hear the voice of the Kaea. Truly, a hair-raising moment!

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The Fool / The Death of Enkidu

Singers: Tamara Hummel (s), Sandra Graham (m/s), Darryl Edwards (t), Gary Relyea (b/bt) (The Fool)
Amanda Parsons (actor), Julie Nesrallah (m/s), Martin Houtman (t), David Pomeroy (t), Doug Macnaughton (b/bt), Alain Coulombe (b) (Death of Enkidu)
Conductors: David Currie (The Fool), Les Dala (Death of Enkidu)

Centrediscs

This is part of Cenrediscs’ ongoing recording project commemorating Canadian composer Harry Somers (1925-1999). Somers came under the influence of the contemporary avante-garde early in his studies in his native Toronto (1942) in the person of John Weinzweig, who encouraged him to study traditional harmony as well as introducing him to 12-tone serial composition (presumably in order to thoroughly learn the rules he was to break). After the war, he studied for a time under Darius Milhaud in Paris, where he was influenced by the music of Boulez and Messiaen. As Somers was to describe this period of his life: “Now in the 1950s I was out of touch with developments that were happening in composition; I had to learn my own way. And my own way was to write works that employed Baroque techniques fused with serialism and the more highly tensioned elements of 20th century music I was familiar with at the time.”

Now, what about the two 40-minute chamber operas in the present 2-CD set? Briefly, The Fool is about a court jester who refuses to have his soaring spirit circumscribed by either convention or royal decree and falls to his death when attempting to fly from the castle battlements on his own homemade wings. (Presumably, this is the plight of the poor, misunderstood creative artist in modern society). The Death of Enkidu takes its inspiration from the ancient Chaldean epic of Gilgamesh. It deals, in flashback, with the downfall of the man-beast Enkidu, who had been happily running with a pack of wolves before the tyrant Gilgamesh sent a harlot to seduce him so that he would become more pliable to his plans for conquest following his loss of innocence. The Fool and Enkidu will be seen as stylized, non-naturalistic dramas that are philosophical, even existentialist, in thrust. They seem to reflect contemporary trends in the theatre in the 1950’s that came to be known as “Theatre of the Absurd” and “Theatre of Cruelty.”

I can’t say that I enjoyed listening to either work. Whether or not you describe Somers’ writing as “scale-like material with a strong tonal pull,” it is not at all euphonious. In fact, it is hard to talk about melody or harmony at all in the context of these works (believe me, it’s nothing you’d want to hum or sing in the shower). They suffer from the common limitation of most modern attempts to write English-language opera in that they tend to rely on heightened speech patterns in place of a true vocal vocabulary. Perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that we have no real bel canto tradition such as other languages have (There are, of course, vibrant folk and popular song traditions in various English-speaking countries, but contemporary composers have generally shown little interest in them). The result is a strained, declamatory style of operatic writing that many listeners (myself included) find most unattractive. In Death of Enkidu, this style reaches an extreme in the tortured, syllabic, hiccoughing delivery of the narrator and the equally mannered vocal writing for the hero, which incorporates wolf calls into a generally aphasic mix. There is a Chorus of three soldiers, who seem oblivious to Enkidu’s dilemma as the noble savage who has “sold out” to Gilgamesh and is thus uncomfortable in either the animal world or the human. Instead, they mostly complain about the harshness of their life in a desolate foreign land and how they long to return to their own country (which corresponds to modern-day Iraq, so you know things must really be bad). This may be alienation indeed, but it isn’t either good theatre or treasurable opera.

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Alabama Places

Ellen Tweiten, piano; Kurt Carpenter, microtonal keyboard

innova Recordings

“The synthesizer uses a piano patch and is detuned by 40 cents.” You know, when you encounter tid-bits like this in the booklet notes, you are talking about a different kind of animal altogether, in whose habits, care and feeding I do not claim to be familiar. So, I’ll be very brief before exhausting my knowledge on the subject. It seems that microtones are intervals of less than an equally spaced semitone. In Western music, which is based on 12 equal intervals to the octave, microtones have been of negligable importance (not so in music of the non-western world from Africa to Bali, where considerable use is made of them). Contemporary interest in semitones has been spurred by real-time computer music performance systems in both electronic and rock music. Beyond that, there seem to be literally hundreds of possible microtonal keyboard designs, which may vary considerably in the way they take and modify information from another source, such as a traditional keyboard instrument.

Alabama Places is a set of twelve duets for piano and microtonal keyboard, which composer Monroe Golden describes as “the fruit of an introspective four-year journey.” Each duet is connected in some way to a place that has either a strong personal association for the composer or some regional or historic significance. While we aren’t given specific information as to the type of microtonal keyboard employed here, Golden does inform us that these pieces were conceived as studies in the tradition of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, only in overtone-based harmony rather than key relationships. “The keyboard is detuned by an interval between 4 and 48 cents, in 4-cent increments, for each of the twelve pieces,” says the composer. “Thus, the entire set explores twelve different 24-note scales made up of two asymmetrical 12-note equal-tempered scales. Available pitches at a given moment correspond to overtone relationships from fundamental frequencies that also shift in 4-cent increments.”

Confused? I must admit I don’t follow the theory involved, so I’ll focus on the affective side of the music. Other critics have spoken of the “beauty and elegance” of these microtonal duets, finding them “delightfully disorienting” and “sumptuous, yet arcane.” Since my own ears have not been sufficiently “detuned” or “re-tuned,” I must confess there seems to be more than a little family resemblance among them, or, as Lewis Carroll’s dormouse would have put it, “much of a muchness.” The effect on the listener can be described as “mesmerizing,” if one is inclined to like what he hears, or “stupefying,” if one isn’t.

There is a kind of calming, soothing effect, perhaps even pensiveness or nostalgia, in the simplicity of Golden’s writing for the piano, which goes along well with the evocation of place names like “Iron Road,” “Natchez Trace,” “North Shelby,” and “Pell City.” The music in each duet did not always strike me as a perfect correlative for the place name. There are two duets with notable water-associations: “Tensaw,” inspired by a canoe trip down the Tensaw River, is described by Golden as “slow moving, lyrical, effortless, and buzzy” like the river itself (“Buzzy”? Maybe that’s the sound made by cicadas on the riverbanks on a hot summer’s day?.) “Coosa Basin” is more energetic, with cadences allegedly inspired by the hydroelectric plants in the area. Other correspondences are not as obvious, however: “Demopolis,” in a region of the state that time seems to have forgotten, is characterized by music not so very different from that used for “Montevallo,” Golden’s tribute to his alma mater, the liberal arts university where he studied in the early 80’s and where he fell in love with his first Moog synthesizer.  Switch the name plates, and we might be none the wiser.  There is, however, something for just about everyone to like in Alabama Places, whether you are a microtonal buff or not.

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Red Garuda / Rilke Songs / Bagatelles /

Piano Quintet

Peter Serkin, James Conlon, New York Philharmonic, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Orion String Quartet

Bridge Records
First, a clarification: “Red Garuda” is not the name of  a gangster, a professional wrestler, or a rodeo cowboy. Garudas are colossal bird-like creatures that exist in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. A golden Garuda is the symbol of Indonesia and the name of its national airline. A red Garuda is the national symbol of Thailand. More to the point of why contemporary American composer Peter Lieberson (b.1946) chose this title for his work for piano and orchestra, the Garuda is said to be capable of flying vast distances without tiring and of changing its shape and size. Thus, the creature can be taken as an emblem of absolute freedom, of a life unrestricted by conventional limitations. The inspiration for the creative artist is clear. As Lieberson explains it, “Before I began composing the piece, I had a dream vision of sitting on the back of a huge Garuda flying over different kinds of landcapes.” The work premiered, significantly, in 1999, the year the composer married his wife, the late, beloved mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The wonderful upsurge of powerful emotion one encounters in the 25 minute work may well reflect the joy he felt at this time.

 Red Garuda is listed as Lieberson’s second piano concerto, but is really more a symphonic poem with a piano soloist, much in the way that Scriabin’s Poem of Fire is. The analogy is not an idle one, as Lieberson employs Scriabinesque pulsating chords, tubular bells, and powerful contributions from the lower strings and bass drum to portray the Garuda’s emergence from the darkness and the apprehensive atmosphere of a pre-dawn world. This striking introduction, powerfully realized by pianist Peter Serkin and by the New York Philharmonic under James Conlon, gives way to variations symbolizing the ancient elements of Fire, Water, and Earth combined with Wind, as the Garuda soars over continents and oceans.

Eastern mythology is one thing. But when it comes to the verse of German language Austro-Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), that’s something else! I must confess I’m beyond my depth when it comes to explicating lines such as “Oh be inspired for the flame, in which a Thing disppears and bursts into something else; the spirit of re-creation which masters this earthly form, loves most the pivoting point where you are no longer yourself.” While even Lieberson admits there are lines in Rilke that defy exact explanation, the sense one gets in Rilke of continual transformation, of becomings rather than endings, obviously appeals strongly to him as a composer. That he could draw on the interpretive insights of his wife and of his frequent collaborator Peter Serkin in his settings of five of Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” was definitely to his advantage. I was especially impressed with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s considerable prowess as a song interpreter, which is essential in re-creating the sense of a very difficult and often paradoxical poet, and then expressing it in terms of pure lyricism.

I wasn’t as taken with Lieberson’s three Bagatelles (1985), partly because the titles puzzled me. My notion of a “bagatelle” is that of a trifle or an amusing anecdote, something lighter in mood than these somber piano pieces. “Proclamation” bears out its name musically well enough, but “Spontaneous Songs” seems a misnomer for a group of short subjects that strike me as rather hesitant and not terribly lyrical at all, and “Nocturne” might have been a better title for the restlessly probing third movement that Lieberson calls “The Dance.”

I’m more sanguine about Lieberson’s Piano Quintet (2003), an energetic work that further benefits from an outstanding performance by Serkin and the Orion String Quartet (Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violins; Steve Tenenbom, viola; and Timothy Eddy, cello). By this time, Serkin had been performing with the Orions for years, going back to the old days at Marlboro, and its shows in the solid mutual support these musicans give one another. The spirit of Cape Breton folk fiddling permeates the mood and rhtyhms of this music, evoking a place with strong associations for the composer. Part I of the work is in the form of a fantasy based on a four-note motif heard early-on. There is a brief interlude, the theme of which becomes the subject of a finely wrought fugue in Part II which builds to a vigorous climax. We have a recolection of earlier material, including a terse quotation of the four-note motif that we heard at the beginning, and then it all ends suddenly, good night and good luck!

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Simple Lines of Enquiry

Eve Egoyan, piano

Centrediscs

You have to be in an unfamiliar mindset to listen to Ann Southam’s Simple Lines of Enquiry. If you’re not, you might find yourself waiting just under an hour (58:41 to be exact) for something momentous to happen, and then leaving with the feeling that you have been cheated. As presented here with great discipline and sensitivity by pianist Eve Egoyan, who has often collaborated with Southam and gives the present work its premiere recording, the twelve movements that make up this major work for piano come across as the aural equivalent of twelve abstract paintings hanging by themselves in a gallery, generating an atmosphere of silence instead of sound, stasis instead of the activity we usually expect from a work of music.

This, of course, is minimalist, and very slow. The emphasis is on a 12-tone row, or rather a 12-interval row, as Southam would have it, with a slow, gentle, and precisely sequenced exploration of these intervals and the sonorities they create. As Southam has explained it elsewhere, the two notes in the right hand at the end of the sequence provide a kind of tonal center around which the 12-tone row works. At the same time, Southam’s music is distinctly atonal. Her silences are as eloquent as the bell-like sounds she is fond of deriving from repeated notes. In this recording you will typically hear Eve Egoyan play a cluster of 5-10 notes which seem to hang in the air, mingle their overtones, and then fade into near silence before she resumes her attack on the next cluster. Egoyan talks of Southam’s “magically suspended, weightless sound world, a place for deep listening and contemplation.”

And here we get to the crux of the matter. In Southam’s writing, the usual linear aspect of music takes on a very different meaning. Notions such as melody, rhythm and counterpoint exist, if at all, in a personal context. Tones and their overtones take on the character of the principal subject of the music. The end result is to create a deep listening experience that focuses and relaxes the mind of the listener, facilitating a contemplative state. Since these ends are so highly intimate and personal, it is difficult to imagine Simple Lines of Enquiry inspiring much enthusiasm from a concert audience, as opposed to the performer or the home listener. As contemplatives, we exist as individuals, not en masse. Depending on your own mood and your listening needs at the moment, attending to the music on this CD may leave you feeling deeply relaxed and centered. (If, however, you prefer things Canadian served up with a bit more excitement, go and watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs!)

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String Quartets 2 & 3

Ida Kavafian, Violin I
Mark O’Connor, Violin II
Paul Neubauer, Viola
Matt Haimovitz, Cello

OMAC

With credentials as both a folk/bluegrass fiddler on one hand and a classical violinist on the other, Mark O’Connor’s journey through the world of music has been unique. So don’t expect anything ordinary about this offering on his own OMAC label. String Quartets 2 and 3, subtitled “Bluegrass” and “Old-Time,” respectively, are clear signposts on that journey as well as O’Connor’s tribute to his own early American family roots, which include New Amsterdam Dutch and Mohawk Indian strains. (And come of think of it, when have you last heard a classical composer talk about “hot licks” in describing his music?)

With the aid of three collaborators who are all well known to conoisseurs of string music in America, O’Connor launches us, in his “Bluegrass” Quartet, on a thrilling ride that will have many listeners unable to resist the urge to toe-tap and move in time to the music. The authentic whine and twang of bluegrass is present here, as well as the soulful harmonies and (of course) those hot licks we spoke of. That includes a lot of rhythmic “bow chopping” in the fast movements. A highlight of the slow movement is the down to earth somber melody with ”gospel yearnings” (O’Connor) taken by the first violin to sublime lengths. In the third movement (there are no descriptive markings) Bluegrass makes its closest approach to the four A’s of modernism: A-tonal, A-symmetrical, A-stringent, and A-tomic. The finale builds to almost unconscionable lengths, dying to a fall and rising again at several points, until we end with a well-deserved flourish.

Quartet 3, commissioned by the Hudson River Quadricentennial Music Project, pays its respects to old-time folk fiddling such as O’Connor’s ancestors found when they migrated from the Hudson Valley down the Appalachians to the south in the early 1800’s. The fast movements here are even more condensed and tightly wound than those in the “Bluegrass” Quartet and there is no real slow movement as such, and so the playing time is appreciably shorter, about 25 minutes compared with 35. As in the earlier quartet, O’Connor’s music is not as simple as it might at first appear, since he employs techniques such as canonic variation and re-harmonization to bring original but authentic-sounding folk phrases in line with the sound of contemporary music. One may question whether it represents a new direction in American music, based as it is on this composer’s unique history and keen personal interests, but it’s all tremendously exciting. The finale builds to a peak, and then ends suddenly and dramatically.

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