Archive for the “Clarinet” Category

thelema trioThelema Trio

Ward De Vleeschhower, piano; Peter Verdonck, saxophones, and Marco Antonio Mazzini, clarinets

Music by Junchaya, Lee, Carpenter, Honor, Mazzini, Walczyk, and Benadon

innova records

  • Rafael Leonardo Junchaya – Tres Danzas Episkénicas
  • HyeKyung Lee – Shadowing
  • Keith Carpenter – The Devil His Due
  • Eric Honour – neither from nor towards
  • Marco Antonio Mazzini – Imprevisto
  • Kevin Walczyk – Refractions
  • Fernando Benadon – Five Miniatures

The Thelema Trio’s modular nature, even within the context of being a trio, is one of its primary strengths and they  strut their stylistic, coloristic, versatile stuff with this collection of pieces.  No two works share the same instrumentation nor do any of the compositions share the same sound world.  The only performer not showcased with a solo feature of some sort is the pianist but Ward De Vleeschhouwer is a superb collaborative artist who can highlight his abilities within a chamber music setting.  Peter Verdonck has excellent tone and energy on alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones and Marc Antonio Mazzini has a lithe and supple sound on standard or bass clarinet.  Together, the two reed players have a perfectly communal sound quality.

Each piece on the disc showcases the Thelema Trio’s mercuriality.  Rafael Leonardo Junchaya’s Tres Danzas Episkénicas is equal parts sultry, ethereal and playful.  This work uses the most instruments overall with the reeds changing from bass clarinet to clarinet and use of baritone and tenor saxophones.  Overall, these dances are attractive, slightly thorny pitch language and extremely well orchestrated.

HyeKyung Lee’s Shadowing is a canonic/imitative work for clarinet and alto saxophone.  Long melodic lines weave in and out with sinewy and twisty motions.  The blend between the performers is spot on and the whole piece has great long-term trajectory.  The high climax reached early on in the work is the exact right music at the exact right time.  Keith Carpenter’s raucous The Devil His Due for baritone sax and piano is a punchy, aggressive, and energetic toccata for the two instruments.  Instead of the baritone sax being the “front man” of the piece, both instruments engage in funky rhythmic interplay.

The title track on the CD, neither from nor towards, is an extended rhapsody for baritone sax, clarinet, and piano written by Eric Honour.  This obsessive piece spends a lot of time spinning its wheels (in a good way) where the music is, indeed, neither from anywhere nor moving towards anywhere.  Long overlapping tones in the reeds and mid-range piano are broken by the occasional spiky piano accents in extreme registers.  Gradually a melody emerges and by the halfway point we are in a soaring, melodic section.  The soaring becomes frenetic, dies down, but then trashes around with one last outburst.  If you were to drop in on any single section of the piece, you might wonder how it all fits together.  But listening to the complete work, Eric Honour draws an excellent through-line.  The programming for this piece is perfect since it showcases not only the coloristic blend between the reeds but also the rhythmic punctuation possibilities found in earlier works.

The only solo composition on the disc, Marco Antonio Mazzini’s Imprevisto sounds like music we aren’t really supposed to be hearing.  The slow unfolding work for clarinet gives the impression that we are eavesdropping on the performer while they worked out musical/emotional stuff.  This piece is haunting and captivating.  Refractions, by Kevin Walczyk, brings back some playful and bouncy music back to the disc.  The motoric repeated notes in the piano provide a platform for melodies and shapes in the alto sax and clarinet.  The energy is constantly pushing forward, even when the music slows and becomes more tender.  The light and springy material returns to close out the composition.

Finally, the Five Miniatures for baritone sax, bass clarinet, and piano by Fernando Benadon are delightfully quirky pieces that present a focal idea, perseverate upon said idea, and then vanish.  Niether of the five movements feels underwritten and, while one might hear how each idea could become longer, I think it would destroy the chiseled nature of these pieces.  There is a lot of fun and whimsy in their brevity, making this piece the perfect waft of light flavor after a satisfying meal.

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CD cover art


Turning Point Ensemble,  Owen Underhill, conductor

featuring Franí§ois Houle, clarinet

ATMA Classique

  • Liquid, by  John Korsrud
  • Schrift by  Yannick Plamondon
  • Concerto by Franí§ois Houle
  • Kya by Giacinto Scelsi

This ATMA release of music for clarinet and chamber ensemble certainly gets the title right.  John Korsrud’s opening work begins with a rhythmic drive but quickly succumbs to a freely flowing and whirling series of colorful passages.  The return of the opening pulse is simultaneously surprising, welcome, and inexorable.  Yannick Plamondon’s Schrift takes a few timid steps at the beginning but then plunges the clarinetist feet first into blissful and graceful streams.  The harmonic language is rich and shimmering and the textures blend seamlessly from chaotic to plaintive and achingly beautiful without effort.  Plamondon uses the strings, piano, and percussion scoring to its maximal coloristic potential.  Schrift is a work that truly breathes in all the right places.

Franí§ois Houle is all over this disc (and I mean that in every way you can imagine).  His technique and musicality are perfectly matched to the flowing runs, soaring long tones, and any multiphonics that are thrown his way.  As a composer, his Concerto is the beefiest work on the disc and encompasses an eclectic and quirky musical language.  A frantic opening culminates with quasi-jazzy brass punctuations and then thins out into driving yet playful escapades.  The single 20 minute span contains a well delineated fast-slow-fast form.  The net result is as if Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto had been given a bunch of steroids with a twisted helping of Gershwiny activity.  The final scrambling cadenza has great use of slap tonguing and monophonic counterpoint.  The ending, with the small clarinet sound and high pizzicato, is hands down the best ending on the CD.

Scelsi’s Kya is a prime example of Scelsi’s style and of the expressive emotional potential that can be (and, in this recording, is) realized from his language.  Pitch centricity abounds while all players bend and twist around the drones in a haunting and mesmerizing fashion.  If the previous work was Stravinsky and Gershwin, this work falls somewhere between Klezmer and Alvin Lucier’s drone compositions.  The music and the performance is ultimately captivating and engrossing.  You just want to sit and soak in it again and again.

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Otherworld MusicOtherworld Music

works by J. S. Bach, Olivier Messiaen, and David Sherr

Bel Air Jazz

Aria from J. S. Bach Cantata 56 (excerpt performed by The Bach Aria Group)
…then have I the Eagle’s Powers, then Soar I Up from this World, David Sherr
Le merle noir, Olivier Messiaen
Au revoir Merle noir, David Sherr
Abí®me des oiseaux, Olivier Messiaen
Otherworld Music, David Sherr and Olivier Messiaen
A Little Flight Music, David Sherr
To the Muses, David Sherr
The Bel Air Jazz Ensemble

This disc is, to be blunt, the damnedest thing. Things start out plain enough. A Bach aria begins to chug away but suddenly fades out into a woman speaking French. Various other languages and voices appear and disappear, making a melange of sound. The voices subside and then the Bach aria appears in improvisatory fragments in flute, vibraphone, piano, and bass. When the mellow sax solo takes over, you realize that you have no idea where this disc is going to take you next. It is, as I said before, the damnedest thing.

Messiaen gets the David Sherr treatment as well. Straightforward performances of La merle noir and Abí®me des oiseaux alternate with jazz-inspired works or improvisations of the same (in the case of Abí®me des oiseaux the improv stems from the Intermí¨de from the Quartet). This probably sounds like blaspheme and sacrilege to some. The kicker is: it works. David Sherr can make the Bel Air Jazz Ensemble sound like his music regardless the the music’s original DNA was Bach or Messiaen. To borrow from Homer Simpson, Otherworld Music is “sacrilicious.”

David Sherr’s music is equally beautiful when he is not functioning as a co-composer. The no-nonsense jazz style of A Little Flight Music is energetic but with a light touch. To the Muses is a soulful saxophone feature that oozes with gratitude and tenderness. If I could do what Sherr does, I’d be thanking the muses, too.

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ConcertosMieczysław Weinberg: Concertos

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Chandos SA-CD

Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra, Claes Gunnarsson, cello
Concerto No. 2 for Flute and Orchestra, Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra, Anders Jonhí¤ll, flute
Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, Urban Claesson, clarinet
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Thord Svedlund, conductor

These four concerti, all pristinely performed and recorded, are each full of passionate energy, be it somber and morose or playful and skippy. The language of each piece fits comfortably within the composer’s world of mid-20th century Russia. The overall musical style is a mixture of Shostakovich and Bartok. There are some slight allusions to Jewish folk music as well.

The Fantasia for cello and orchestra starts with low, rich string tones and a serious, achingly beautiful melody in the cello. Claes Gunnarsson seems to draw heartbreak from each note. When things speed up, the dance feeling is infectious and I cannot sit still when I listen to it. The slower, somber mood returns at the end for a plaintive and serene close.

Both of the flute concerti contain the same sweet and sorrow moods found in the Fantasia. In this premiere recording of the second concerto, the first movement is rather understated. There are some flute fireworks, but the general tone of the piece is subdued. The Largo movement is restless and troubled. You can tell that the flute wants to be serene, but a darkness permeates the movement and keeps the lyrical soloist in slightly disturbed places. The final movement seems to cast this darkness aside and revel in a playful dance. Again, my feet can’t keep still during this final movement.

The Concerto for Flute and Strings (aka Concerto No. 1), is frenetic with energy and drive. In the first movement, the flute is a force to be reckoned with, constantly pushing the string orchestra forward. This Largo movement is much simpler in texture than the as the slow movement of the Concerto No. 2. The flute is the clear dominant voice, but again Anders Jonhí¤ll is playing a dark and mournful tune. The work finishes off with another dance-inspired movement, ending with a rather abrupt and frantic push.

The Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, also receiving its premiere recording, follows many of the other concerti’s patterns. The first movement is slightly aggressive with the soloist pushing the ensemble forward. The middle movement is slow and lyrical, but this time the clarinet seems to be in a much more contemplative space. There is less darkness surrounding the melody here. The ending movement is playful, skittering, and rhythmic. Urban Claesson sounds great throughout the work.

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Le livre des Mélancolies

Jean-Guy Boisvert, clarinet and Quatuor Bozzini

ATMA Classique

Jean-Guy Boisvert, clarinet and Quatuor Bozzini (Clemes Merkel, Nadia Francavilla, violins; Stéphanie Bozzini, viola; Isabelle Bozzini, cello)
…River to the Ocean…, Piotr Grella-Mozejko
Le livre des Mélancolies, Jean Lesage
Slow Dances, Tim Brady

These three works for clarinet and string quartet by contemporary Canadian composers (Grella-Mozejko was born in Poland but lives in Canada) are lithe and supple compositions which have been flawlessly executed by the performers. …River to the Ocean… is a haunting and colorful journey with an organic formal process (even the jarringly bright major chords sound natural and justified, although surprising).

Le livre des Mélancolies is a more tangled and twisted chamber piece than its predecessor. The string quartet is more actively engaged with the clarinet sound which makes the clarinet feel less like a soloist and more like another timbral possibility of the ensemble. Speaking of colors, they abound in this work (and the disc as a whole). Each of the three movements stays in a largely meditative emotional space, although each does so in its own sumptuous manner.

The four movement Slow Dances harnesses more direct energy than the previous two pieces. Especially in the second movement, “A Sort of Tango,” there is finally some aggression and power to jar me out of the haze created by the earlier pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I was in a blissful sort of absinthe haze. It was nice to be shaken out of it by a tango (of any sort).

Each of these three pieces is performed with great care, color, and musicality. Quatuor Bozzini makes easy work of the constantly shifting timbral demands in each piece and Jean-Guy Boisvert matches the ensemble at every single point along the way.

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Earnest.jpgEARNEST: Winter Dances; The Blue Estuaries; Trois Morceaux. Judith Kellock, soprano; Mariam Adam, clarinet; Peter Sanders, cello; Evelyn Ulex, piano; Hrabba Atladottir, violin; Ensemble X/Sebastian Gottschalk. Koch 7555. 53 minutes.

John David Earnest has devoted most of his long compositional career to music for orchestra, song cycles, and choral music. The current disc contains about half of his chamber music. The music here is accessible, but not without some harmonic and (especially) rhythmic bite.

All of this music is exceptionally well-written. The instruments sound great””in fact, the music is probably easier to play than it sounds, and performers love that. The forms are simple, direct, and clearly-articulated. In fact, Earnest’s skill as a composer raises the craft itself to an expressive element of the music. It’s a case where the technique so identifies with the content that quality of the work translates into expression. Earnest’s harmony is tonal, but not diatonic, and his rhythmic style is flexibly pulse-y, with shifting accents and changing meters.

The performances are very good, with the players responding to their parts with style and skill. Soprano Judith Kellock delivers the vocal part in The Blue Estuaries in a rich, full soprano voice and with solid diction and a good sense of phrase. Koch’s production is very clean, with good balance.


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filebVRmD-jpg-full.jpeRICHARDS: finalbells; time’s racing; My Great-aunt Julia; Conch Music; harte’s bels; The Bells Themselves: Jonathan Edwards and the American Songbook; Chicken Pull. Alan Zimmerman, cowbells; Kay Stonefelt, percussion; David Keck, bass-baritone; Paul Schiavo, oboe; Greg Purnhagen, baritone; Paul Marquardt, piano; Molly Paccione, clarinet; Adam Alter, bass clarinet; Eric Richards, whistler. New World 80673-2. 67 minutes.

[Disclaimer: I’ve known Molly Paccione (clarinet) and Paul Paccione (annotator) for many years. They introduced me to Eric Richards and his music back in 1993. I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to write a little bit about it]

The music of Eric Richards creates and gives life to an original soundworld unlike any I have ever encountered before. It is a soundworld of space, quietude, and expressive power.

Richards’ music is private in the same way that great string quartets are, probing and introspective, yet it is open and even accessible, in the best sense of that often abused word and idea. The music’s introspection is dramatically expressed by Richards’ characteristic scoring for groups of identical instruments, with most of the parts pre-recorded for performance by a soloist who then plays a part accompanied by the tape of herself playing the other parts.

The most extreme example of this procedure is Chicken Pull, for 72 clarinet parts and 4 whistlers. Molly Paccione (clarinet), Adam Alter (bass clarinet), and the composer (whistling), is a quietly teeming piece based on recordings of classic blues introductions, transcribed and rewritten. Chicken Pull is also characteristic of Richards’ work through its use of other types of music to create new sounds and forms.

In some pieces these found musical objects are placed in opposition to extramusical ideas. In The Bells Themselves: Jonathan Edwards and the American Songbook (for three pianos, with Paul Marquardt performing all three parts), abstracted bits of American show tunes are juxtaposed with the brimstone warnings of the titular Puritan preacher. The urgency of the playing and the increasing layering of the fragments as the piece progresses express a life and death struggle like those in Edwards’ sermons.

The vocal pieces on the program, My Great-aunt Julia (sung with conviction by David Keck) and harte’s bels (all five parts sung by Greg Purnhagen) reflect Richards’ e pluribus unum aesthetic in different ways. The baritone in harte’s bels accompanies himself on tape while the bass-baritone in My Great-aunt Julia gives an illusion of multiplicity through rapid juxtapositions of fragments in widely divergent registers.

finalbells, time’s racing, and Conch Music all explore various kinds of resonance””cowbells, percussion, and oboe sounds respectively. Like the other pieces on this remarkable disc, they make oblique reference to other musics or soundworlds. The performances are sensitive and musical.

I can’t give this  disc any higher recommendation for those interested in absorbing, original, and thoroughly contemporary music.

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guitarcomposer_1945_1303.gifLEISNER: Acrobats; El Coco; Nostalgia; Dances in the Madhouse; Trittico; Extremes. Cavatina Duo (Denis Azabagic, guitar, Eugenia Moliner, flute); Katinka Klein, cello; Joshua Rubin, clarinet. Cedille 90000 096. 60 minutes.

Flute and guitar. The pairing suggests fleetness of foot and lightness of touch, a kind of instrumental Fred and Ginger. Acrobats, a collection of music for flute and guitar (with the occasional addition of cello or clarinet) by David Leisner, fulfills this image/expectation in clear and often intriguing ways.

Leisner’s music is direct and accessible without sacrificing expressivity. The composer has a firm but flexible grasp on tonal harmony and rhythm, especially dance rhythms. The instruments are shown off to great effect””the music really sounds.

Denis Azabagic (guitar) and Eugenia Moliner (flute), comprising the Cavatina Duo, are excellent instrumentalists and sensitive musicians. Their playing is clean and expressive. They are joined by Katinka Klein (cello) and Joshua Rubin (clarinet), both fine players in their own right.

This is well-made music, lovingly played and recorded.

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Tom Johnson: Rational Melodies, Bedtime Stories

Roger Heaton, clarinet
Ants AG12

The title begs the question, of course. When can a melody meaningfully be described as “rational”? Are the passages of (in retrospect) textbook species counterpoint in Palestrina rational? The mad twitchings of Boulez’s Structures Ia? The self-similar patterns of John Luther Adams’ air-raid sirens? The additive processes of Glass’ Music in Fifths?

A good deal of Tom Johnson‘s compositional history has been devoted to posing that very question, and British clarinetist Roger Heaton’s performance of this selection from the ever-growing set of Rational Melodies does so in particularly beguiling form. These are pretty, songful little tunes, most under two minutes in length, generally consisting of patterns that repeat according to simple and immediately comprehensible schemes of addition, subtraction, or step-by-step transformation. Heaton, recorded in a beautifully resonant acoustic, plays these little tunes innocently, like lullabies or improvised little childrens’ tunes.

As always with Johnson, though, the overt rationality of these pieces””their transparent dependency on logical systems””is more complex than it seems. As was the case with another disc of Johnson’s music I reviewed recently, the extremely strict formal constraints still leave room for a lot of conscious, intuitive, “creative” decision-making, and here those decisions are made in a way that complicates things significantly. Almost all of these melodies are simply conjunct or triadic, and most of them have tonal implications. “Tonal implications,” of course, is shorthand for a whole universe of implications, tendencies, expectations, weightings of possibilities emanating from every pitch. Even the smallest musical event presents a welter of little arrows pointing to a universe of subsequent options, each with their own reasons and consequences, none of which have anything to do with the ostensible “rational” method of construction.

In the tenth selection here, for example (the Rational Melodies may be played as any subset of their complete number, in any order), a simple arpeggiated figure in A flat major is transformed through a simple nested pattern of downward semitonal shifts, but jostling for the listener’s attention alongside that self-similar pattern is a whole kaleidoscope of tonal relations, a complex harmonic structure rivaling anything in Wagner or Strauss, that bursts forth unbidden purely as the result of Johnson’s irrational choice of pitches.

These are unanswerable questions. They are asked here, though, with a dainty sort of gracefulness. Rarely are such profound critiques of the nature of human creativity asked in a way that is so easy on the ear.

The rest of the disc is filled by Bedtime Stories, for clarinet and a narrating clarinetist. This piece has had a colorful history on radio, including productions involving recordings of the composer snoring and a young girl counting (sheep, presumably). Here we have a set of twelve of Johnson’s absurdist narratives, the sort that occur again and again in widely varying contexts in his work, from the Four-Note Opera to Failing: a Very Difficult Piece for String Bass, with simple little clarinet figures interspersed that have a broadly abstract illustrative function. The various ways of seating guests at a dinner party, for example, are illustrated by different permutations of an eight-note whole-tone set; one story consists entirely of a man trying to put together a “Chinese puzzle”; the words “but that didn’t work, so he tried it another way” are repeated over and over, followed after each repetition by another arrangement of a small set of widely spaced pitches. It ends when “he finally gave up.”

This is wonderful stuff. Not only should Bedtime Stories be played by young clarinet students the world over””it would be an absolute smash in student recitals, and is easily playable by those with limited technical abilities; it, along with the Rational Melodies, highlight the whimsical nature of Johnson’s intentionally naí¯ve approach to music. His methods of composition are those of a wide-eyed child, innocent and delighting in every “accidental” discovery, and nowhere is that clearer than in these utterly charming pieces.

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