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SHENG: The Singing Gobi Desert; LIANG: Messages of White; MAN: Dream of a Hundred Flowers; RUO: The Three Tenses. Prism Quartet; Music from China; Bright Sheng, Nové Deypalan, Huang Ruo, conductors. innova 885. 58 minutes.

In his extensive and highly readable liner notes for this disc, John Schaefer writes that this disc demonstrates that “saxophones and Chinese instruments have a natural, if unexpected, affinity”. That is an understatement, to say the least, as this remarkable program illustrates.

Bright Sheng’s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012, erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion) begins with a noisy and extravagant gesture, reminiscent of Messiaen. After that gesture (which returns) a melody snakes through the ranges of the various instruments, in harmony and in unison. The bulk of the piece consists in explorations and expansions of the implications of the opening. The piece moves easily through Western and Chinese idioms. without ever succumbing to what Steve Reich called “the old exoticism trip”. Bright Sheng’s piece explores the sonic space that both separates and unites the instruments in a way that is both brilliant and expressive.

Messages of White (2011, saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin and percussion), by Lei Liang, explores a very different landscape from Sheng’s Gobi Desert; a snowscape. This is a far more “abstract” landscape, with few overt references to the musical traditions that lie behind the instruments used. Glissandi on the erhu are combined with bowed percussion sounds to create a background in front of which the other instruments grow increasingly active, then less active towards the end of the piece, leaving the background as it was in the beginning.

Fang Man’s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and saxophone quartet) finds each saxophone paired with one of the Chinese instruments in a study, really a celebration, of the melodic styles associated with Chinese opera, with some very jazzy harmonies popping up from time to time. Over the length of the pieces, the duos join with other duos and the two quartets explore different relationships, like characters in an opera. It is a shapely piece, expressive and lovely.

The program ends with a searching performance of Huang Ruo’s The Three Tenses (2005, pipa and saxophone quartet). From a slow and spare beginning, the piece blossoms into hive of melodic activity, that reminds me at times of some of Luciano Berio’s melodic elaboration pieces (Voci, for example). It is very colorful and alive.

The sound is outstanding on this valuable release. Highly recommended.

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FUNG: Keeping Time; HIGDON: Secret and Glass Gardens; HOOVER: Dream Dances; LUO: Mosquito; SHATIN: Chai Variations; De KENESSEY: Spontaneous D-Combustion; DEUSSEN: A Recollection. Mary Kathleen Ernst, piano. innova 868. 69 minutes.

Headline: Mary Kathleen Ernst, who I admit I had not heard of before I got this recording, is a spectacularly gifted pianist. She plays with assured technique, a vast timbral palette, and a keen sensitivity to the variety of contemporary compositional styles. The current program, of recent music by female composers, is far more than  showcase for Ms Ernst, but it is that, too.

The program opens with Vivian Fung’s sly look at Keeping Time. Ms Fung uses time-keeping (an obsession in much contemporary American concert music) for melodic and gestural musings, with the clock’s insistence always present. The melodies in Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens begin as quietly purposeful wanderings that gradually blossom into large gestures covering the entire range of the keyboard.

Katherine Hoover’s Dream Dances begins with mysterious, impressionistic gestures (very idiomatic, pianistic) that are indeed dream-like in their ambiguity. The piece gradually, almost imperceptibly, develops into a driving, frenetic dance that abruptly, and convincingly, stops. Mosquito, by Jing Jing Luo, is a flighty beast indeed. Scurrying here, lighting there, it is a consistently delightful piece, well-written and expressive.

Chai Variations, by Judith Shatin, is a set of 18 variations on a Hebrew folk song. Shatin takes an effectively old-fashioned approach to variation form(s)–now Brahmsian, now Rzewskian–the theme is almost always clear in the background, if not the foreground. A shapely, convincing set.

Stefania De Kenessey’s Spontaneous D-Combustion is full of references to past styles. It is jaunty and eminently listenable. The program closes with Nancy Deussen’s attractive and haunting A Recollection. As the piece moves along, the nature of the “recollections” gets more-and-more elusive. It makes a fine end to a very good program, well-chosen and very well-played by Ms Ernst.

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BATES: Stereo is King; Observer in the Magellanic Cloud; Difficult Bamboo; Terrycloth Troposphere; String Band; White Lies for Lomax. Cynthia Yeh, Jacob Nissly, Eric Banks, perc; Mason Bates, electronica; Chanticleer; Baird Dodge, vln; Ken Olsen, cello; Jennifer Gunn, fl; Susan Warner, cl; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano; Cliff Colnot, cond; Bill Ryan and the Grand Valley New Music Ensemble; Claremont Trio; Tania Stavreva, piano. innova 882. 66 minutes

I have to say right up front that I find that, even having listened to a fair amount of it, I cannot engage with most of what I’ve heard of Mason Bates’ music. With an important exception, the pieces on this release, well-written and played and sung impeccably and enthusiastically by renowned performers, don’t speak to me. I agree with Joshua Kosman, who writes “[f]or sheer compulsive listenability, you could hardly do better than the title track, a bowlful of sonic popcorn that combines Thai gongs with a sleek veneer of electronic processing.” In fact, these very aspects of it are an important part of what is off-putting about this music. But for some reason it doesn’t speak to me. So I don’t have much to say about the disc, except to repeat that it is very well-written, played, sung, and recorded.

Except for String Band, an expressive and riveting piece of music, given a powerful performance by the Claremont Trio. String Band wears its influences lightly and feels less wedded to its musical influences than are the rest of the pieces on the program. The sleekness that Mr. Kosman finds so enthralling in Stereo is King is missing here, and the expression is, at least to my ear, more direct, somehow less mediated than in the pieces I’ve heard from Mr. Bates, and from others in his compositional cohort.

The fact that the other pieces just don’t do it for me says as much about me as it does about the music, if not more. But my experience with String Band gives me hope, and that’s always very good.

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BECKER: Gridlock; Five Reinventions; Fade; Keeping Time; A Dream of Waking. Common Sense Ensemble/Bradley Lubman; New Millennium Ensemble. innova 855. 53 minutes.

Dan Becker’s brand of post-minimalism is brightly colorful and rhythmically incisive. And it sounds as if it would be great fun to play. While the music is built on steady, clear pulses, Becker rarely resorts to a backbeat. His percussion writing, rather, is built on irregular accents and colorful blasts of sound. His writing for winds and strings is equally idiomatic; again, it sounds like it would be great fun to play.

The music on this disc that speaks most directly to me is contained in the slow sections of pieces like Fade and Keeping Time (Mvt. 1). Here, Becker uses pop-oriented harmonies and progressions, but with an irregular harmonic rhythm, supporting expressive melodies colorfully orchestrated.

The performances are top notch. The players love this music and it shows. The Bachian Reinventions are played by a Discklavier, which seems indifferent compared to the human players–the notes are there, but still.

Innova’s sound is very good, and John Halle’s notes are gushily informative.

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IVES: Songs. Various Artists. Volume 1: “123” through “Cradle Song”. Naxos 8.559269. 75 minutes. Volume 2: “December” through “Gruss”. Naxos 8.559270. 68 minutes. Volume 3: “Harpalus” through “Luck and Work”. Naxos 8.559271. 76 minutes. Volume 4: “Majority” through “Over the Treetops”. Naxos 8.559272. 73 minutes. Volume 5: “Paracelsus” through “Swimmers”. Naxos 8.559273. 80 minutes. Volume 6: “Tarrant Moss” through “Yellow Leaves”. Naxos 8.559274. 66 minutes.

Charles Ives completed nearly 200 songs between 1887 and 1926, spanning the entirety of his composing life. All of his aesthetic, musical, poetic, philosophical, and political concerns are addressed, one way or another, in one style or another. All of the completed songs are included in Naxos’ six volumes, which are organized according to song titles, in alphabetical order. This arrangement seems extremely counter-intuitive, but it turns out to be really inspired, as it allows a listener to get a picture of the range of Ives’ work in the form, without having to purchase the entire set.

Like every collection of this size and this variety, every listener will have favorites and every listener will find revelations. Many of the songs are well-known, such as “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” (Volume 2, David Pittsinger, bass, and Douglas Dickson, piano), “Majority” (Volume 4, Robert Gardner, baritone, and Eric Trudel, piano), “The Cage” (Volume 1, Gardner and J. J. Penna, piano) and “The Greatest Man” (Michael Cavalieri, baritone, and Dickson).

An example of a revelation is “Ich Grolle Nacht” (Volume 3, Gardner and Penna). This is an early (1898) song on a text by Heinrich Heine. This song and others from the same time frame show a fully mature composer with a solid grasp on the late Romantic style of the day. The touching lyricism that characterizes this song emerges throughout Ives’ career, as in the deconstruction of the hymn “At the River” (Volume 1, Sara Jakubiak, soprano, and Dickson).

Ives’ stentorian mode comes into play in such political/patriotic songs as “Lincoln, the Great Commoner” (Volume 3, Gardner and Trudel) and “Walt Whitman” (Volume 6, Ryan MacPherson, tenor, and Trudel), which are also portraits of their subjects in the manner of the composer’s “Concord” Sonata. Patriotic fervor also brings out Ives at his most gloriously impractical, as in the 42-second song for voice and three pianos “Vote for Names! Names! Names!” (Volume 6, MacPherson and pianists Laura Garritson, Dickson, and Trudel).

Every disc is replete with the special pleasures of Ives’ art. Hymn-tunes, patriotic songs, and chaos abound. Anyone wishing to stick a toe in this repertoire would do well to get any one of the volumes.

The performances throughout the collection, featuring about two dozen singers, a number of pianists and assorted instrumentalists, are ardent, committed, and expressive, if not quite as polished as those of Susan Narucki and Donald Berman. Naxos’ production is solid, and Richard Whitehouse’s notes are well-written and richly informative.

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IVES: Selected Songs. Susan Narucki, sop., Donald Berman, piano. New World 80680. 57 minutes.

If Charles Ives’ piano music can be heard as expressing his philosophical ideas about living in America, and I believe that it that is certainly one way to hear that music, his songs (there are over 200 of them) can be heard as embodying his more day-to-day, closer to the ground observations about America, its place in the world, and American life.

This selection of songs is as good an introduction to the composer’s work in this medium as I have heard. Soprano Susan Narucki and pianist Donald Berman display a profound understanding of and identity with these songs. Ms Narucki’s voice is warm and powerful. She is a fine vocal actress, with a strong sense of rhythm and of poetry, and Mr. Berman is a sensitive and expressive accompanist.

Every listener will have his or her own favorites from the 27 songs given here, which were composed between 1897 and 1921. The program has a good mixture of some of Ives’ most famous songs, like “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven”, “The Greatest Man”, and “The Things Our Fathers Loved”, along with some that are maybe a bit lesser known, like “Songs My Mother Taught Me” (an inspired opener), “Where the Eagle Cannot See”, and “Feldeinsamkeit”.

The informative notes (always a valuable part of a New World release) were written by the performers, and their perspective is helpful for close listening. The sound is close and intimate. This is an important disc both for Ives fans and those looking to explore this chronicler of America.

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IVES: Sonatas 1 and 2 (“Concord”). Jeremy Denk, piano; Tara Helen O’Connor, flute. Think Denk Media 2567. 74 minutes.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was the first composer whose music gave a comprehensive sound-picture of life in America. This musical picture is of America during a certain time and in a particular place. This America was the New England of Ives’ youth, and later the New York of his adulthood. The music moves back and forth between overwhelming complexity and childlike simplicity, between grinding, aggressive dissonance and clear, hymnal-like harmony, and between tunes we’ve known all our lives and alien other-worldly abstraction, often with whiplash-inducing speed. It is probably inevitable that this musical embodiment of a diverse, almost contradictory nation is based on such striking dualities.

The most important of the dualities embodied in Ives’ music, though, is that of interior/ideational and exterior/experiential expression. (You could argue that all art is based on this dichotomy, but it is radically at the center of Ives’ aesthetic.) That is, Ives takes his memories and experiences and abstracts them into musical structures, while at the same time he often puts the external experience on the surface of the music in the form of quotations.

In Ives’ music for orchestra and for string quartet, this internal/external dichotomy is a function of community, where the layers of music can be heard as a picture of an event projected through the prism of artistic remembrance. Whether “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean” or “Turkey in the Straw” is heard in the foreground is a matter of perspective when they occur simultaneously in the musical texture.

In a piece for solo piano, it’s different. All of the various strands of music come from the same place, from the same fingers. The expressive tension that results from the external/internal dichotomy in Ives’ music is magnified exponentially. His two piano sonatas are monumental essays on American thought and experience.

Pianist Jeremy Denk is known in the musical blogosphere for his imaginative and informative writing. Reviews of his performances cite a powerful combination of intelligence and imagination in his playing. Given this, it’s not surprising that Denk chose for his debut recording Ives’ two piano sonatas. Throughout both of these pieces, Denk handles the shifts in mood and style, and the contrapuntal complexities of this music with apparent ease.

The First Sonata is a sprawling arch in five movements. Denk projects Ives’ architecture without sacrificing the often playful expressive elements, such as the raucous quotation of “Bringin’ in the Sheaves” near the end of the second movement. Denk’s performance makes a very strong case for this often-neglected work.

The First Sonata is neglected only because the Second Sonata (“Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”) is one of the most influential piano works of the 20th century, as well as one of the touchstones of American concert music. The Concord Sonata is one of Ives’ most difficult works, both in execution (which you would never know from Denk’s performance) and in musical substance, but since that difficulty is part and parcel of what the piece is about, it is immediately approachable as well.

The Concord Sonata’s four movements are character sketches of figures associated with American Transcendentalism—Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau. The subject matter is a natural field for Ives’ one-foot-in-the-world-the-other-in-the-stars approach to music. It is clearly natural to Denk as well—this is the best, most convincing account of this work I have ever heard. His technique seems to know no bounds and his ability to shift gears without warning is a tremendous asset here. The violence in passages in both the Emerson and Hawthorne movements is more than matched by the tenderness is the lyrical episodes of “The Alcotts”.

Not surprisingly, Denk’s notes are a lively read, offering clues to what we will hear in the recording, and the sound is excellent. Denk is an extraordinary musician and a fine thinker. I have a list of pieces in my head that would love to hear him take on, but I think I’ll keep it to myself and just see where he goes next.

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LENTINI: Orchestra Hall Suite; El Signo del Angel; Five Pieces for Cello and Piano; East Coast Groove; Scenes from Sedona; Montage. Paul Ganson, bssn; Geoffrey Applegate, Harvey Thurmer,vln; James Van Valkenberg, Mary E. M. Harris, Cynthia Fogg, vla; Marcy Chanteaux, Pansy Chang, Tom Flaherty, vcl; Jaquelyn Davis, harp; Siok Lian Tan, Robert Conway, pft; Velvet Brown, tuba. Naxos 8.559626. 58 minutes.

What is “academic” music? For most people who think about the subject (and those tend to be composers), it’s the music that dominated the composition department at whatever school they attended, if they didn’t write that way themselves. Others see it as music studied in theory/analysis class. (How being chosen for analysis in a class or a studio makes the music itself “academic”[1] is a little mysterious.)

As a long time observer and sometime participant in the college music scene, albeit outside the big music centers, it seems to me that there is a more meaningful and less charged way of looking at academic music. That is, academic music is music written for and played by faculty and students at music schools. That’s not meant to say that the music itself has limits that make it artistically unable to thrive outside the academy, rather that the market outside the academy is generally limited to certain kinds of ensembles. The composer of this kind of academic music writes for established types of ensembles (such as string quartets and piano trios) when they are available, but as often as not, they write for the idiosyncratic, ad hoc combinations available amongst colleagues and students.

In terms of style, this kind of academic music is neither uptown nor downtown, but it partakes of aspects of both. It is largely tonal, of the expanded variety, but is not afraid to partake of more astringent harmonies from time to time. It often shows a distinct influence of jazz and/or pop, both in melodic/harmonic materials and in rhythm. The originality in the music is most present in its orchestration, where instruments (bassoon and tuba, for example) are asked to carry roles they rarely have in orchestral music. The result (depending on the skill and vision of the composer) is appealing and accessible, without being cloying or patronizing.

James Lentini writes this kind of music, and he does it very well. He deftly combines unusual groups of instruments and makes the listener feel that there should be an entire repertoire for them. This is most immediately true (for me) in Orchestra Hall Suite, for bassoon, violin, viola, and cello. After hearing this expressive, well-made piece, one wonders why the “bassoon quartet” is not a staple of chamber music series.

Lentini, who is Dean of the School of Fine Arts at Miami University (Ohio), has a thorough understanding of instruments, how they work and how they work together. The unlikely duo of viola and harp sounds great in El Signo del Angel (The Sign of the Angel). East Coast Groove, for tuba and piano, sings and swings.

 The performers, many of whom are Lentini’s colleagues at Miami, are outstanding executants of this fine music. Naxos, with this outstanding release, continues to be one of our most important record companies.


[1] Remember, “academic” is always a pejorative.

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CRUMB: Eleven Echoes of Autumn, 1965 (Echoes I); The Sleeper; Vox Balaenae; Five Pieces for Piano; Dream Sequence. Jamie Van Eyck, ms; International Contemporary Ensemble. Bridge 9261. 72 minutes.

This release of some of George Crumb’s early (mostly) mature works is Volume 12 of Bridge’s Complete Crumb Edition. Most Sequenza21 readers are undoubtedly familiar with Crumb’s style, which combines an expanded tonality sensibility, an extraordinarily sensitive ear for color (often expressed in a plethora of special instrumental effects), and a keen feeling for ritual to make directly expressive musical statements.

 The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), joined by the talented mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck for The Sleeper, turn in outstanding performances. When Crumb doesn’t work for me, it tends to be because the performance falls into being a kind of catalog of special effects, but there’s no hint of that here. The effects are seamlessly integrated into the musical flow.

The big pieces here are Eleven Echoes of Autumn, 1965 (Echoes I) (1966), Vox Balaenae (1971), and Dream Sequence (Images II), (1976). All of the characteristics of Crumb’s mature style listed above are in full flower in these works. Of special interest to me is the spectacularly assured reading given Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale, for amplified flute, amplified cello, and amplified piano), one of the composer’s signature pieces. The ICEers (Claire Chase, flute, Kivie Cahn-Lipman, cello, and Jacob Greenberg, piano) play this moving (and difficult) score as if they were born to it.

Bridge’s Crumb series continues to be an important tribute to an iconic American composer.

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FELDMAN: Clarinet and String Quartet; BABBITT: Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet. Mark Lieb, clarinet; Phoenix Ensemble. Innova 746. 63 minutes.

We spend a lot of time, energy, and words on the differences in art—what separates artists, what makes for different styles, what distinguishes one period from another, etc. Occasionally we are nudged into hearing these things in a different light by unusual juxtapositions of pieces in a concert program or on a recording.

It is tempting, easy in fact, to hear the music of Morton Feldman and Milton Babbitt as irreconcilably opposed. Where Feldman is expansive, Babbitt compressed; where Babbitt bubbles, Feldman flows.

This disc, however, almost forces us to hear the common ground between these two totems of the mid-century style wars. The two pieces are wholly characteristic of the composers’ mature style, yet their common instrumentation (and their juxtaposition on the disc) highlighted their similarities. This is also due in part to the beautifully nuanced performances by clarinetist Mark Lieb and members of the Phoenix Ensemble.

Specifically, I am struck by the expressive/structural use of register in both pieces. Both Feldman and Babbitt use the return to and movement away from pitches fixed in a particular register as markers in the progress of the piece. I wonder if there’s been much analysis/research on the use of register in music of the second half of the twentieth-century, because it seems to me to be a uniting factor in an era known for adversarial diversity.

This is an outstanding recording. Highly recommended for fans of the genre and either or both composers.

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