Archive for the “Naxos” Category

Xavier Montsalvatge

Madrigal

8.573101

Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Tim Fain, violin, Sato Moughalian, flute; Blair McMillen, piano

Perspectives Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordonez, conductor

Naxos CD

 

Catalan composer and music critic Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) created a stylistically varied and compelling body of work. The pieces here demonstrate his music’s abundant vitality, continual curiosity, and eloquence. In particular, the two vocal works, Madrigal sobre un tema popular, which teems with attractive folk dance rhythms, and 5 Invocaciones al Crucificado, an affecting meditation on Christ’s passion, are given standout performances by the extraordinarily talented mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Violinist Tim Fain supplies an energetic and adroit rendition of the solo part in the neoclassical work Concertino 1+13, and flutist Sato Moughalian and pianist Blair McMillen negotiate the more modernist environs of Serenata a Lydia de Cadaques with technical skill and thoughtful musicality. The Perspectives Ensemble, conducted by Angel Gil Ordonez, provides stalwart support throughout. The disc is an excellent snapshot of a composer whose perseverance during the repressive time of Franco’s regime yielded a great deal of memorable music.

 

Comments No Comments »

It is apparent from the beginning of Composer Bruce Wolosoff’s new NAXOS recording with the Carpe Diem QuartetSongs without Words – that Mr. Wolosoff’s music fits into the fringe of a larger trend in contemporary American music: the fusion of popular and traditional idioms. Whereas one player in this movement, Bang-On-A-Can, attempts to distill the visceral dynamism of punk rock with instrumental amplification and driving rhythms, Mr. Wolosoff  is more transparent, and explicitly references jazz, blues and pop styles. What is also clear within the first couple tracks of this album is the genre of Songs without Words: divertimento. Mr. Wolosoff’s sentimental melodies, circular harmonic progressions and repetitive structures update a brand of crowd-pleasing music dating back to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Along these lines, the liner notes describe Songs without Words as “amiably crossing musical borders”, and there are two principal musical regions Mr. Wolosoff explores through the prism of the Carpe Diem Quartet: blues and classic pop rock.

The first of these allusions is communicated through pentatonic and blues-based melodies and the typifying inflections one would expect from a blues guitarist or bluegreass fiddle player. The movement “Dancing on my Grave” is probably the best example of this in the whole set, and is a traditional blues jam with a rocking bass line with improvisatory melodies above it, culminating with a classic blues bass progression. In contrast, “The Letter” is the purest rock ‘n’ roll movement, and uses the I – vi – IV – V harmonic progression common to 1950s bubblegum pop ballads to exemplify the other category of Mr. Wolosoff’s musical references.

The remaining 16 movements in Songs without Words are somewhere in between these stylistic extremes. For example, “Cat Scratch Fever” references 1970s hard rock with its title and its use of parallel fifth ‘power chords’ in the cello’s ostinato bass line. Similarly, “Creepalicious” has much more abstract musical material than the other movements of the set but employs the same simple phrase structures, maintaining a strong connection to Mr. Wolosoff’s popular influences while distinguishing the movement’s content from its neighbors.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments No Comments »

Avner Dorman
Mandolin Concerto; Piccolo Concerto; Concerto Grosso; Piano Concerto in A
Avi Avital, mandolin; Mindy Kaufman, piccolo;
Arnaud Sussmann, Lily Francis, violins; Eric Nowlin, viola;
Michal Korman, cello; Aya Hamada, harpsichord;
Eliran Avni, piano;
Metropolis Ensemble, conducted by Andrew Cyr.
Naxos American Classics CD 8.559620

On the second Naxos CD devoted to the music of  Avner Dorman, concerti take center stage. At first blush, the composer seems to display a palpable streak of traditionalism. Triadic language abounds in his works and he makes many tips of the hat to Baroque music and neoclassicism. But there’s much more beneath this attractive, if familiar, surface. Dorman is also interested in uncovering some of the undiscovered potential of the concerto, exploring its capacity for different narrative arcs and recasting the genre with some unusual protagonists.

Indeed, it was for a work with an unlikely soloist, the Mandolin Concerto, written in 2006 for Avi Avital, that the disc has received the most attention. Avital’s incisive and nuanced performance has garnered a Grammy nomination. The Mandolin Concerto itself is one of the most adventurous works Dorman has yet composed. Its explorations of many timbres, orchestral effects, and myriad shifts of tempo & demeanor make it a dazzlingly mercurial and potent essay.

There’s more on the CD to recommend as well. Metropolis Ensemble, with a passel of soloists in concertino tow, sparkle in the Concerto Grosso (2003). The work features virtuosic string writing and cinematic sweep. Indeed, here Dorman displays a fluency of orchestration that in places reminds one of John Corigliano, his teacher during doctoral studies at Juilliard.

One would be forgiven if they assumed going in that a Piccolo Concerto would be a piercing prospect and too limited a palette to work satisfactorily. I’m still not convinced that this is a genre that requires a plethora of options, but soloist Mindy Kaufman’s rendering of the Dorman concerto for the instrument reveals striking versatility. The piece itself combines jazzy rhythms, neo-Baroque signatures, and resonances of the pipes and whistles found in a variety of folk music traditions.

Written when he was just 20 years of age, Dorman’s Piano Concerto in A Major is a splashy technicolor work that embraces virtuosic showmanship, combining a prevailingly Neo-romantic aesthetic with occasional post-minimal ostinati. Pianist Eliran Avni captures the concerto’s spirit, performing its often dizzyingly paced passagework and cadenzas with pizzazz. While no one will mistake it for the mature voice found in the Mandolin Concerto, the youthful exuberance of the Piano Concerto is frequently charming.

Concerto in A – 1st Movement from Metropolis Ensemble on Vimeo.

Comments No Comments »

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.

Comments No Comments »

Meltzer on Naxos

Harold Meltzer

Brion / Sindbad / Exiles (Cygnus Ensemble, Peabody Trio, Sequitur, Shirley-Quirk, Baker, Hostetter)

Naxos CD 8.559660

After having a couple of pieces featured on compilation recordings that appeared on the Albany imprint (including the memorable work Virginal for Sequitur), composer Harold Meltzer’s first solo disc is on Naxos. Meltzer’s music combines an incisive sense of rhythm – he’s particularly thoughtful in setting the rhythms of speech – with a varied pitch palette that combines judicious but punctilious use of dissonance with lush, often haunting, moments of repose.

The Cygnus Ensemble makes a palpable delineation between these two musical approaches on their sharply etched recording of Brion (2008). This piece was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and one can hear why. It’s fastidious in its craftsmanship, yet abundantly imaginative. Centering around a bird call-based ritornello refrain, which easily moves between foreground and background presentation, its intricate design is just the type of work that’s tailor made for Cygnus’ modernist performance specialists. And Brion isn’t sparing in its technical demands either. Guitar flurries are matched by virtuosic flute passages in several bustling duos. But the ritornello supplants this with an eerily pastoral music suffused with chirping birds and, at the piece’s close, an intriguing, if somewhat uneasy, sense of harmonic closure.

On “Two Songs from Silas Marner,” soprano Elizabeth Farnum negotiates the high tessitura with grace, bringing delicate shading of dynamics to her characteristic pitch-perfect accuracy.

Both sprechstimme and monodrama have, not entirely unfairly, gotten a reputation for sounding carbon-dated at best and often mawkish when not well-deployed. While Sindbad may not entirely allay these misgivings, Meltzer’s aforementioned talent for word-setting and a passionate performance by baritone (here as speaker) John Shirley-Quirk make a case for this hybridized musical/dramatic form. It certainly helps that the speaker is accompanied by such colorful and multifaceted music.

Sequitur appears here too, accompanying baritone Richard Lalli in Exiles, a two-movement work featuring settings of Conrad Aiken and Hart Crane. Written in a kind of “bari-tenor” register (Exiles was originally composed for the tenor Paul Sperry), it could, in the hands of a lesser (or lower) baritone, seem a bit strained. But Lalli too negotiates the upper regions with a supple and, at times, surprisingly gentle approach. It well befits Exiles haunting lyricism and limber long-lined melodies.

All told, this disc is a very strong outing that begs for a sequel.

Comments No Comments »

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.

Comments 1 Comment »

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!

Comments No Comments »

Maya Beiser
Provenance
Innova CD

“From the 9th to the 15th centuries, the area which is now modern Spain was home to the greatest peaceful agglomeration of cultures ever known in the post-literate world…Even more remarkable than the flowering of art itself was the confluence of cultures that produced it: under the rule of Islam, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived and worked together in relative harmony.”
-Maya Beiser, Provenance liner notes essay
Cellist Maya Beiser’s latest CD for the Innova imprint seeks to craft music that celebrates the rich multiculturalism of the Iberian peninsula. Using medieval Spain as a jumping off point, Beiser has commissioned a collection of works that celebrate Christian, Jewish, and Muslim musical traditions. The participants frequently interweave stylistic and ethnic boundaries. The results are frequently engaging musical hybrids.
Iranian kamancheh composer and master Kalyan Kalhor’s “I Was There” features Beiser alongside oud performer Bassam Saba and percussionists Jamey Haddad and Shane Shanahan. This rhapsodic piece allows cello and oud each to negotiate long-breathed melismatic cadenzas. Eventually, Beiser and Saba come together, duetting in supple, then increasingly rhythmically incisive phrases.
Armenian dudukahar Djivan Gasparian’s “Memories” is a haunting and evocative piece. While Gasparian is not necessarily a household name, his performances on duduk (a double reed instrument) have populated a number of Hollywood films, including Blood Diamond and Gladiator. “Memories” captures the essential flavor of Armenian folk music, all the while bearing in mind the cello’s proclivities for generous-toned lyricism. Above an omnipresent drone, Beiser unleashes keening, ardent modal melodies.
Israeli composer Tamar Muskal took Ladino folksong as the basis for “Mar de Leche,” her collaboration with Beiser. Sung by Sephardic Jews in Spain, Ladino is a linguistic hybrid of Spanish and Hebrew. Muskal’s piece, a work for chamber ensemble that features the same musicians as the Kalhor work, abetted by the dynamic vocalist Etty Ben-Zaken. Beiser and Saba once again exhibit considerable musical chemistry. Beiser also incorporates some of the undulating vibrato and pitch-bends of Ben-Zaken’s vocal style, creating an organic set of timbral ensemble interactions.
In the summer of 2009, Beiser travelled with composer Douglas J. Cuomo to Cordoba and Granada: a field trip to do research that would abet the composition of his contribution to Provenance: “Only Breath.”
Inspired by the work of Sufi poet Jellaludin Rumi (one of my favorites!), the piece finds Beiser in collaboration with sound designer Shahrokh Yadegari. Seeking to evoke the sound of wind passing through the prevalent minarets in Andalusia, Cuomo has crafted a work that plays with mobile filigrees and reverberant echoes. It makes good use of looping technology too; rather than using it to fashion a pad of repeated utterances, the loops instead allow for slow-building counterpoint of phantom cello Doppelgängers. The final result is a series of dovetailing, angst-filled melodic lines amid ghostly, floating verticals. I’ve heard many vocal settings of Rumi that have had much less to say than this more abstracted, yet tremendously thoughtful, instrumental meditation on his work.
Evan Ziporyn’s arrangement of the Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir,” for Beiser and prog-rock luminary drummer Jerry Marotta, closes out the disc. While its clear that this is the piece with the most accessible crossover appeal on the CD, that awareness takes nothing away from its inclusion. It points up another kind of hybridized music-making – the influence of Eastern signatures on Led Zep’s rock-oriented sound. What’s more, Beiser and Marotta just plain tear it up!
Sometimes, a concept album contains a creative inspiration that is far better than the reality it imagines. In my view, Provenance extolls a wonderful collaborative atmosphere: a model for many future cross-cultural projects. Alas, this type of music-making is a relatively recent innovation and, in many venues, is still far from prevalent. One wishes Maya Beiser were able to make multicultural music without extolling the virtues of dhimmi under Muslim rule. During the Middle Ages, dhimmi – “people of the book” (Christians and Jews) – were sporadically allowed limited religious freedom in Iberia. But there were significant legal and cultural restrictions placed upon non-Muslim citizens; these were terms of surrender, not of collaboration or accommodation. Thus, my reading of history doesn’t allow me to share Beiser’s utopian view of medieval multiculturalism. I’d rather listen to Provenance as a hopeful and tantalizing glimpse at what music-making and, indeed, cultural coexistence, may increasingly look like in the future than to revise or rewrite our spotty attempts at getting along in the past.

Comments No Comments »

 

Leoš Janáček

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Breiner

Naxos

Peter Breiner, music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, has done us a service in arranging and recording a series of suites from the operas of Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), with the object of making some of the composer’s most vibrant music accessible to a wider public outside the opera house. To judge from what I hear in these suites from Jenufa and The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, Breiner has succeeded admirably as both arranger and conductor. (Even as we speak, a second volume of Janáček suites, consisting of Katya Kabanova and The Makropoulos Affair, has been released by Naxos.)

Janáček has been called “the first minimalist composer,” but the analogy is misleading. Much of the effectiveness of his writing is due to his assimilation of the natural pitch, rhythm, and inflections of the Czech language. From this study, he derived what he called “speech tunes.”  These he applied as as short, repeated motifs to build his unique dramatic style. The repetition of these motifs has a powerful cumulative effect. It is, however, quite different from the way repetition is often used by our present-day Minimalists, which to my mind can be quite boring compared with the result Janáček achieved.

In terms of his orchestrations, on the other hand, you’d have to consider Janáček a “Maximalist,” if there is such a word (if not, coin it at once!) His scores are continuously busy, involving every family of the orchestra. Symphonic players must really love Janáček. No matter what your instrument, he doesn’t keep you sawing away in the background on some boring accompaniment for long; sooner or later, you will have your moment in the sun. In particular, his distinctive writing for the brass is highly imaginative and is often used for expressive purposes. In Jenufa, a dark, troubled tale of passion and jealousy in which, among other things, the heroine’s love child is drowned in a mill race by her envious stepmother, the sounds of the brass are often blurred as in a miasma, psychologically reflecting the internal turmoil of the characters. The mill itself is characterized by the ceaseless tapping of the xylophone, to be replaced later by the smoother, undulating sound of the harp, when the sinister crisis has been resolved and Jenufa has at last found happiness.

The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is an opera in a different mood, based on a fictional Czech hero who rivals Baron Münchhausen as a shameless liar. As befits a drunken hero who lives in a wine vat and is at one point sentenced to die in a beer barrel, the music associated with Broucek is highly colored. In the opening movement of the suite, our hero’s name, Mataj Broucek, is blared out for us by the horns and trumpets. When one of his imaginary “excursions” takes him to the moon, we hear mystic strings and harp glissandi. In the last excursion, when Broucek finds himself in 15 th century Prague, the savior of his country against the onslaughts of the Austrian Emperor, the scoring becomes more robust as Janáček invokes the same Hussite chorale that Smetana had previously used in Ma Vlast (My Homeland), and for much the same nationalistic purpose.

Comments No Comments »

226966

Mass (1971)

Jubilant Sykes, baritone (The Celebrant)
Morgan State University Choir; Peabody Children’s Chorus
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop

Naxos

By now, almost all our readers must have heard of this sensational recording and the string of awards it has garnered in the classical industry. After a long period of benign neglect, Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed (or notorious?) masterwork has resurfaced again in a modest trio of recordings by Kent Nagano (2005), Kristjan Jarvi (2009), and now Marin Alsop that attest to its vitality. Its kaleidoscope of musical styles, mixing live musicians and pre-recorded tape, is mind-boggling. The listener is assaulted with rock, blues, and classical reverberations of everything from medieval chant to modern polytonality, Beethoven, symphonic music, traditional protestant hymns, brass bands, revivalism, early Christian melismas and tropes and Hebrew liturgy, echs of Stravinsky and Carl Orff, and large doses of that incongruous mish-mash of styles we call “Broadway.” All are continually jostling for our attention. It is as much theatre–what we might term “urban guerilla theatre,” complete with a chorus of street people as it is a work of music. In the interest of being provocative it can be vulgar on occasion, but it won’t be ignored. And in this recording, the pace moves with split-second timing as conductor Marin Alsop marshals her assembled forces to make the maximum impact on the listener.

Essentially, Mass challenges people’s shallow concepts of religion. The targets of the sometimes far-from-subtle satire in the texts by Stephen Schwarz and Leonard Bernstein are many, but they generally fall into predictable categories. The naive who take their religion spoon-fed. The worldly jaded for whom “life is easy when you’re half alive.” The cynics who confess their sins, then “go out and do it one more time.” The incurably hip who are too proud to accept the simplicity of a God who loves all simple things because He is the simplest of all. Yes, there is a more or less self-consciously righteous streak in all of this. And yes, Bernstein’s work is steeped in the social ferment of the time in which he wrote it. A time of war protests, freedom marches, and growing popular dissatisfaction with the administration in Washington, be it Johnson or Nixon. So different from the times in which we now live, with our media-fed pap in place of the discussion great issues, disillusion with what appears to be a broken political process, gnawing anxiety over the economy, and war protest that is conspicuous by its non-existence.

What gives Bernstein’s Mass a more enduring appeal is its preoccupation with theological issues that don’t wax and wane with the times. Life hurts. Man experiences separation from God, and needs to feel connected. “Things break all too easily” and need to be fixed. Life hurts. People hurt. People hurt other people. For the Problem of Pain there is no easy solution, so don’t expect this work of music cum theatre to be especially neat or tidy. It makes its impact by shock, conflict, and accumulation. And the sonic ambience of the recording is more typical of pop music and Broadway in its vivid, immediate presence than it is what we normally think of as a choral performance.

And finally, everything you have heard about American baritone Jubilant Sykes is true. His beautiful voice, his timing, his ability to adapt to a variety of modes of expression both as singer and speaker, from quiet, breathless wonder to exultant shouts of joy, all fit in perfectly with his role as The Celebrant, the man who has lost his faith and wants desperately to rediscover it: “I will sing the Lord a new song / I will sing His praises while I live / All of my days.” Since The Celebrant represents us, and since he directs our focus from one section of this sprawling work to the next, it is no mistake to say the performance would not have held together as well as it ds with the expressive, intelligent qualities Sykes brings to it.

Comments No Comments »