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Naxos has released a new Composers Concordance CD titled Song Cycles, featuring the works of eight composers with text by eight poets. Each song cycle is comprised of two to four short selections and the subjects range from failed relationships to the classic character portraits of the Canterbury Tales. The playing and singing are beautifully realized on the entire CD and each piece convincingly carries forward its story with music and voice.
Carefully Try Balance is the first song cycle, consisting of three sections written by three different composers, all based on the poetry of Toby Roberts. The first of these, Part 1 was composed by David Gotay and begins with a strong piano chord and blustery flute passages. The clear soprano voice of Elizabeth Cherry soon joins, singing of winter weather; a metaphor for a relationship that is going cold. The flute answers each passage in the voice and the blend is very effective. The singing is precise and easy to follow, with good tone and clear annunciation. There is a chill in this that sets the stage for the sections that follow Part 2, by Zach Seely, begins with deep piano notes, dark and melancholy. The soprano enters with spoken text followed by dramatic singing whose volume and emotion approach operatic dimensions. This is the breaking up of the relationship with low, dark notes in the piano and coldly spoken words.
Part 3, by Thomas Carlo Bo, opens with a lighter, more optimistic piano line and the soprano now embarks on a more bluesy, reflective line. There is a sense of getting past the pain of the breakup, a more philosophical feel: “Life and romance can be cruel – both are over too soon.” The three sections, although separately composed, work very well together and the arc of the story is carried forward seamlessly throughout. This is also a tribute to the artful playing and singing that infuse this work. Carefully Try Balance is a fine example of the power of good writing and close artistic cooperation.
The second song cycle on the CD is Blues From an Airport Bar, composed by Gene Pritsker, with poetry by Jacob Miller and vocals by Charles Coleman. These three are reunited having appeared together on an earlier CD, Manhattan in Charcoal. The feel is similar and this four-movement work opens with a bluesy piano and Coleman’s solid baritone lamenting the departure of his former lover aboard an airplane that has just taken off. He is a poet who has lost at love and now considers his fate from an airport bar stool. There is a sad, confessional feel to this – almost Sinatra-like – as the alcohol begins its work. Movement 2 has a wonderfully tipsy line in the piano and just a bit less coherence in the lyrics as the singer drinks further into his cups. There are recriminations and regrets, but this movement ends on a questionably sincere “I wish her the best…”
Movement 3 is much slower and nicely evokes the effect of alcohol fully felt. The low notes in the piano and voice point to the depressive effect of the liquor and the lyrics meander through unconnected thoughts, honest realizations and unlikely scenarios of reconciliation. The singing here is outstanding; precise yet fully expressing that hazy combination of honest assessment and alcohol-induced fog. Movement 4 is upbeat, with a sense of release – the failure of the relationship is taken into a bigger context and the experience will become grist for the poet’s art. Blues from an Airport Bar charmingly captures the pain of a lost love in the familiar confines of an airport watering hole, the sadness, anger and alcohol perfectly reflected in the music and lyrics.
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Los Angeles-based Populist Records has released PRISM, a new CD of music by Scott Worthington. Composed between 2010 and 2012, PRISM widens the circle of masterful work heard on his previous CD Even the Light Itself Falls. All the pieces on this new album are performed by Scott Worthington on the double bass, some accompanied by electronics with others recorded and layered three or five times.
At Dusk (2010), for double bass and electronics, is the first track and this begins with a satisfying pizzicato thump followed by a low growling arco note and a series of higher, questioning tones. The sequence repeats with variations, each passage ending in silence but with a faint, quivering echo in the electronics. More sequences follow with the same elements, but more complex now in their variations. There is a nice mix of textures and tones that are captured as ghostly echoes that seem to hover in the air. The sense is of low intensity power, like looking at the sun on the horizon. At 7:15 the feeling turns a bit more settled and gentle – the reverberations becoming more optimistic and less alien. More complex rhythms follow, but there is less roughness in the lower notes and a smoother, more welcoming feel. At 12:00 there is a sense of fading energy – as if the sun is setting – and there are some lovely passages with pleasing reverberations. By 14:00 there is a growing sense of departure and the piece concludes on a series of higher notes that fade quietly away.
The quiet echoes heard in At Dusk are reminiscent of one of the techniques employed by Helmut Lachenmann in his Got Lost (2007/2008), where strong notes from the singer are sympathetically echoed by the strings of an open grand piano. At Dusk demonstrates the amazingly versatile sounds that can be elicited from the double bass and Worthington’s perceptive use of them when combined with electronics.
Tracks 2 and 4 comprise two versions of a Quintet (after Feldman)(2011). Both of these pieces are short – a bit more than 3 minutes each – but consist of five separate layers of double bass. Version 1 begins with a low, rumbling chord with a rough, woody bottom and slightly metallic tones in the middle and higher registers. The tones are smooth and sustained, discordant and with a somewhat alien feel at times, but mostly warm and accessible. There is a sense of grandeur in the lowest tones, like being deep in the unknown world of dark ocean depths.
Version 2 continues in a similar pattern with low, sustained chords agreeably layered among the five double bass tracks. There is slightly more dissonance here, but this never results in an unsettled feel and the effect is to increase the exotic ambiance. Both versions of Quintet (after Feldman) seem to shift between the familiar and the unknown, but always with a deliberately comforting elegance.
Prism (2010) occupies track 3 and this consists of three double bass layers. This starts with a single high chord followed by silence. This is repeated three times, then again with notes that skip about, although the overall feeling is quiet and solemn. The piece proceeds in this way, a series of passages followed by a few seconds of silence. In one section the notes seem to chirp between the high and middle registers with an almost reedy sound. There is a lonely, open feel to all of this, with a touch of emptiness. Deeper notes appear, adding mystery.
At 4:10 a series of active notes are heard above a deep counterpoint. By 5:00 the tempo slows and thin, sustained tones are heard floating above soft, darker notes in the middle registers. Higher notes, now alone, produce a feeling of remoteness but this gradually evolves into a warm wash below with playful, bouncy notes riding above. Now a sudden low rumble with dissonant sounds that are followed by a light sustained tone, fading at the finish. Scott Worthington manages to evoke a wide variety of feelings from the double bass and the layering is artfully done.
The last track on the CD is Reflections (in memoriam Stephano Scodanibbio) (2012), for double bass and electronics, and this begins with a low drone that alternates between a dissonant growl and a somewhat thinner moan. High, sighing tones join in, adding to the mournful mood. Some roughness and a questioning feel are heard in the middle registers producing a sense of anguish and uncertainty. The relentlessness of the drone now becomes oppressive, like a great weight bearing down on the texture. The low, melancholy sounds fill the ears and seem to inhabit the listener’s head. Great sonic tears are falling and cry out in their sadness. By 9:00 the tempo slows, the drone diminishes and this compelling statement of disconsolate sorrow concludes as the sound slowly fades away.
Reflections is a fine tribute and a powerfully empathetic work that will move all who have experienced permanent loss.
PRISM was recorded at the Conrad Prebys Music Center in San Diego, CA and the sound engineering here – given the layering and subtle use of electronics – is first rate. PRISM expands the scope of Scott Worthington’s music to encompass an extraordinarily wide variety sensations and emotions, all conjured from the traditional double bass.
PRISM is available from Populist Records.
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Twilight of the Dreamboats
Cold Blue Music has released a new CD titled Twilight of the Dreamboats composed, performed and recorded by Chas Smith in 2014. Featuring a combination of sound sculptures and steel guitars, this electro-acoustic work is “…an ever-evolving single gesture, a seamless blend of tones and timbres.” Chas Smith has an extensive resume, including study with Morton Subotnick, Mel Powell, James Tenny and Harold Budd and he is also active as a performer in film scores.
The sonic materials that comprise this work are sound sculptures designed by Smith with names like Bertoia m718, Que Lastas, lockheed, Mantis and Sceptre. Additionally, Chas Smith performs on a series of modified steel guitars. The result is a precise, smooth sound that flows like liquid metal and evokes a variety of colors and feelings as it proceeds.
Twilight of the Dreamboats begins with a low, continuous tone that is soon joined by higher harmonics. There is a sense of discovery here, of something new and uncharted right in front of us. A low pedal tone enters, adding a sense of the profound. There is a haunting, continuously smooth texture to this; pensive but not dark or ominous. Swirling tones at 4:00 gradually break up this assurance and the feeling turns more mechanical and industrial as if we are in the presence of some large machine. A great, low rumbling soon overwhelms, like a large airplane passing overhead.
By 7:30, a softer, gentler feel emerges and the higher tones have again turned more optimistic and uplifting. Gradually the tone darkens somewhat, becoming more mysterious. A low moaning arises within and underneath the sound, adding a bit of anxiety. Halfway through the piece, a more approachable sound is heard and even the low tones have become warm and consonant. A soft wobbling is heard, reminiscent of the sound a worn bearing makes as it turns and this gives a sense of purposeful motion. By 16:00 we are in a whirring dream scape that contains some large, unseen mechanical force.
Now a high, barely perceptible pitch floats faintly over the swirling darkness, an arc of light in the gloom. The heavier sounds slowly dissemble, becoming less coherent by 22:00. A metallic moaning is heard, as if some large structure is breaking up. The pace slows, the sounds become quieter and there is a sense of settling as the piece slowly fades away.
That Twilight of the Dreamboats elicits such a wide range of feelings and emotions without a beat, recognizable musical instruments, harmonic progressions or familiar musical gestures is quite remarkable. The aesthetic power of the electro-acoustic processes and techniques deployed by Chas Smith on this CD is impressive and demonstrate just how far his music has evolved into a sound world of singular character and power..
Twilight of the Dreamboats is available from Cold Blue Music (CB0045)
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In the Village of Hope
Tasha Smith Godinez, harp
Michael Byron and Cold Blue Music have released a new CD of gorgeous music for the solo harp, commissioned and performed by Tasha Smith Godinez. In the Village of Hope contains a single 22 minute track that unfolds with such delicacy and grace that an hour of it would not seem too much. The composer writes: “With a sound reminiscent of wind chimes, it yields fields of harmonic stasis, that mysterious circumstance of individual notes diverging and merging to form a delicate fabric of sound.
In the Village of Hope opens with a quiet serenity, full of sound, but gentle as a summer rainfall. The tempo picks up almost imperceptibly and we are soon awash in a lovely counterpoint that infuses the harmonies with a steady propulsive energy. The rhythm is constant, with a fluid feel that ebbs and flows in complex patterns that weave a tapestry of sound. There is no progression or sense of harmonic movement except when a key change occurs – and there are several of these – then a new set of tones takes up in the same manner as previously. The texture and density have an appealing consistency throughout. Towards the finish the tempo slows and the sound becomes quieter as the final notes slowly expire. Listening to this piece is like watching the sun slip slowly over the horizon as it illuminates the sky in ever-changing colors and shades.
This music is perfectly suited to the harp providing just the right timbre for the complexity and hopefulness that are combined in this piece. There is an exotic and idealistic feeling to In the Village of Hope that is beautifully drawn out by the playing of Ms. Godinez, who negotiates the 22 minute shower of notes with assurance and perfect command of her instrument.
This is an impressive work, both in concept and performance – In the Village of Hope perfectly captures the optimism and tranquility that seems so elusive in our busy lives.
In the Village of Hope is available from Cold Blue Records (CB0043), Amazon and iTunes.
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After the Wars
Cold Blue Music
Sarah Cahill, piano
Cold Blue Music has released a new CD of piano music by Peter Garland titled After the Wars. Recorded by Sarah Cahill, After the Wars is one of a series of works she has commissioned that focus on the concept of peace. Each of the four pieces on this CD is based on a Chinese poem or Japanese Haiku and is built on sustained piano tones and chords. According to the composer the pieces in this album are “…simply stated with relatively little temporal or thematic development.”
The first track is Spring View: “The nation is ruined, but the mountains and rivers remain.” ( after Tu Fu) This begins with a series of deep, rumbling chords that paint a vivid picture of doom and destruction. These continue but are interspersed with higher, lighter chords that seem, in contrast, to hold out some hope. The heavy, sustained sounds boom out and then slowly fade after each passage. The lighter chords seem to be making cautionary comments on the devastation declared by the powerful sounds in the lower register. Spring View is the darkest of the pieces in this album and becomes the starting point for what follows.
The second track is titled “Summer grass / all that remains / of young warriors’ dreams.” (after Basho) and this also begins with dark, dramatic chords that ring out from the depths of the piano. In this piece, however, the chords climb up to the higher registers as if ascending a ladder. There is an ethereal feel to this progression, a redemptive quality that springs out of the previous darkness. The sustained ringing of the chords as they are struck hover in the air like spirits awaiting release. There is a more reflective feeling here and ultimately a sense of restful assurance.
Track three is Occasional Poem on an Autumn Day: “When I’m at peace I let everything go.” (after Ch’eng Hao) and this has a pleasantly sunny feel after the heavy drama of the first two pieces. Dense, sustained chords open but turn warmer and more relaxed as the piece progresses. A sense of relief is felt and the touch of Sarah Cahill on the keyboard is precise enough to give a slightly different feel to each of what is a succession of very similar chords. At 3:45 the dynamics increase noticeably and the chords become joyful, like hearing the peal of bells. The tempo slows towards the close and the volume tapers down to a quiet, peaceful chord at the finish. Occasional Poem on an Autumn Day effectively expresses a welcome sense of placid release and calm.
The final piece on the album is “A snowy morning / smoke from the kitchen roof– / it is good.”
(after Buson). This begins with high, bright chords and an appealing, sunny harmony that is followed by lush and comforting deep notes. There is a sense of peaceful happiness in the deliberate chords; the comforts of domestic tranquility fill up the sound. More deep chords, solemn but not sad, rise up to a sunlit landscape. All is now peaceful and harmonious.
The arc of After the Wars – from destruction and ruin to the return of placid domesticity – is artfully realized here with a minimum of musical materials and the exquisite playing of Sarah Cahill. Hearing this album creates in the listener a desire for that same healing process to be present in our own life and times. It inspires the hope that no matter how gloomy the present may seem – and our world is full of terrible things – the path to a peaceful wholeness is yet attainable.
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Winter, Spring and Fall
From Seattle-based composer J.C. Combs and Cellar Door Records comes a new album, Winter, Spring and Fall, with three solo piano improvisations and two pieces that combine piano and electronics.
The first piece is Currents and this piece begins with a series of fast trills that roil and surge like a river in flood. Deep notes add a profound feeling and the playing is very controlled, keeping just the right tempo. The volume rises and falls and the texture is alive with swirling movement. The pitches also move gradually up and down – as a sort of rising and falling of an internal tide. The electronics are buried in the whirl of sound and only rise to prominence towards the end with a low oscillation that echoes the running flow of the piano. Currents is a mesmerizing listening experience that nicely evokes swiftly moving water.
Improvisation for Winter is an improvisation in a similar mode, with nice movement and a brisk tempo to start. After a sudden stop the pace becomes more leisurely, as if ambling along a sidewalk or street. Now faster and with more notes, as if in a blizzard – hard to see for all the swirling snow. A well-crafted bass line adds some drama. The tempo slows and the notes lighten as if there is a break in the storm – the feeling here turns more more thoughtful. After a few final swirling passages, Improvisation to Winter concludes.
Improvisation for Spring starts off with a series of identical solitary notes, soon joined by a second played in harmony. The beat continues, now with wistful chords. A nice bass line provides a strong color and adds to the pensive feeling. Now a more emphatic melody line in the upper register is heard, offset by powerful chords in the bass. The opening pattern of identical straight quarter notes is repeated but with more tension developed in the counterpoint. Some soft notes in the very high octave of the piano quietly end this piece.
Improvisation for Fall has a quiet, mysterious opening – like a question hanging in the air. The steady beat on a single note adds a measure of tension. Darker notes appear in the middle and lower registers that add to the taut feeling. This is a pleasingly atmospheric piece that feels a bit like Halloween. Towards the end it turns a bit more optimistic and glides gracefully to a stop.
The final track of the album is Elevator to the Moon and this is for electronics and piano. The electronics sounds open with low pitches, rumbling and a sort of metallic moan in a middle register. The piano can be heard in between with dark chords and nervous riffs that build the sense of tension – we are traveling to a different place. Two well struck piano notes jump out of the texture – as if startled – then all becomes slower and more subdued. The piano repeats the two note motif against the sustained and quiet electronic tones as the piece comes to a close.
This latest album by J.C. Combs expands the reach of his piano improvisations and reveals a judiciously chosen color palette that impeccably fits the mood of each season.
Winter, Spring and Fall is available for download here.
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Equinox / Alejandro Escuer / Onix Ensamble
Alejandro Escuer’s Mexico City-based quintet Onix Ensamble–Escuer, flute; Fernando Dominguez, clarinet; Edith Ruiz, piano; Abel Romero, violin; Edgardo Espinosa, cello–turns 20 this year at a time when just surviving in the new music world is a major achievement. I’ve followed their work since I wrote up two of their CDs for Classical Music Review. Those CDs contained the work of Latin American composers but Onix’s repertoire also encompasses the work of modernist masters like Bartok, Stravinsky, and Martinu. But we need to remember that Europe isn’t the only game in town though it never tires of trying to convince us that it is. Yet after two massively destructive world wars and endless colonial adventures which of course included Mexico, we have Equinox which proves that there’s lots more going on south of our mutual border than cartel killings, kidnappings, and disappearances. The four works here by two Mexicans, one Costa Rican, and one American are completely individual in style. They also bear out Garcia Lorca’s assertion that “all that has dark sounds has duende) ” which for him meant everything from Bach to cante jondo.
El Aguila Bicefala (Double-Headed Eagle) — 2005 — by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz ( b. 1964) is a prime example of her style which is characterized by quickly changing meters — 7/8; 8/8; 7/8; 8/8; 5/8 in the first 5 bars and is marked sempre ritmico e con vigore — with dramatically changing colors and virtuosic writing for the ensemble and each of the five players. It’s intricate but purposeful, subtle yet clear, even mysterious. Ortiz has always been a composer with a strikingly individual voice and this piece should bring new listeners to her work, and whet their appetite for more.
Musica para Cinco ( 2009) by Mexican composer Samuel Zyman ( b.1956 — ) sounds more indebted to Schoenberg’s 12-note method than to jazz despite Zyman’s program note where he stresses its “general jazz character”. He also seems to tip his hat to the Viennese master when he says his score is for the “Pierrot” line-up, which of course means Onix’s flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano. Musica para Cinco also has something of the feel of a Schoenberg march but it’s not doggedly insistent as so often with him, but vigorous, colorful and very imaginative with surprises at every turn, and Onix makes all of its facets shine.
Zachic 4 (2006) by Costa Rican composer Alejandro Cardona (b. 1959), which uses Aztec-like materials, is equally well-made, but sounds more instinctive, more extreme, and definitely more exciting, from its expansive floating in time opening song for alto flute, bass clarinet, cello and violin, through its successive three movement lay-out. The “static” opening of its third movement sounds a bit like “Farben” (Colors) from Schoenberg’s great and deeply influential Funf Orchesterstucke (1909). Its second movement is full of Stravinsky-like stamping rhythms, and there’s a rapid, wonderfully demented clarinet figure accentuated by the flute above, which gets reprised in the final movement.
Kukulcan II (2007), by American composer David Dzubay (b.1964) uses indigenous-sounding Aztec material – for his own expressive ends. Its textures are clean and open; and like many composers before him — Berlioz most famously in his Symphonie Fantastique — Dzubay uses the Latin chant Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) evocatively. His writing here is also generally more linear than the other three composers on Equinox , and he uses dramatic cut-offs, which keeps the audience, as in a film or stage score, on edge, expecting , wanting more.
Denibee, which is devoted to seven chamber works by Gabriela Ortiz, couldn’t be more different, and her distinctive voice is heard in each, the expressive range wide, yet classically contained.
From the mercurial 100 Watts ( 1998 ) which Ortiz revised in 2012 for 3 members of Onix — Escuer, flute; Fernando Dominguez, bass clarinet; Edith Ruiz, piano — and which they play spectacularly here; to the curling arabesques of Alejandrias Sonoras (2012) for Escuer’s solo flute; to Tres Toritos (2011) for three flutes with its three sharply contrasted movements, the second Tregua (Truce) is especially striking with Escuer’s flute line floating over a nearly motionless bass line provided by Mary-Elizabeth Thompson and Leonardo Bajarno..
The two vocal works —Tres Haikus (2012) — which aren’t really haiku because they’re not in 3 stanzas of 5-7-5 syllables each –,and Rio Bravo (2011) are more ambitious. The images in Maria Barnarda’s poem — El cielo es un piedra — are arresting — and Ortiz’s setting for mezzo Carla Lopez-Speziale and cellist Natalia Perez deepens its sense. Ortiz’s 2011 setting of Monica Sanchez Escuer’s poem Rio Bravo for Lopez-Speziale, Alejandro Escuer’s flute, and crystal glasses, evokes the psychological dislocation of the women in the poem trapped on both sides of the US/Mexico border. But Lopez-Speziale’s voice is miked too far back, and Escuer’s flute too closely. The floating ” dreamlike” sense of of the piece is there but it doesn’t get under your skin.
But fortunately there’s another version of Rio Bravo on Ortiz’s seven works Grammy -nominated CD Aroma Foliado with the LA-based Southwest Chamber Music,which does get under your skin. From the “simple ” fact of the substitution of Evan Hughes’ baritone for Lopez-Speziale’s mezzo, and the substitution of Lorenz Gamma’s violin for Escuer’s flute, which gives it a dark and deeply human urgency, Hughes’ singing sturdy and expressive, his sound beautifully supported and extended by Gamma’s violin, as if they were lovers, for what is love but the closing of distances between?
Aroma Foliado: Southwest Chamber Music
The string quartet Aroma Foliado, which Mainly Mozart commissioned in 2006 for Cuartetolatinoamerico, is easily the best piece on the CD, but not just because it’s written for the neurotic alone-in-my-room-I’m-a-genius-and-nobody-knows Western tradition — which is at its best a very pretty lie — but because it’s lyric, dramatic, always surprising but always completely logical. And though Ortiz in her program note calls it a “rondo”, which it is, it can also be heard as a series of variations on contrasted rhythms/textures. It’s learned — it quotes from Mozart’s String Quartet in D K.575 ( (1795) , and Bartok’s 1929 Quatet # 4 — not academic — sonorous, imaginative, and — “foliate “– as its title suggests–each idea springing from the leaves of the same tree.
The quartet here — Lorenz Gamma and Shalini Vijayan, violin; Jan Karlin, viola; and Peter Jacobson, cello — give a big-boned but very elegant performance.
Únicamente la verdad!
Ortiz’s Grammy-nominated opera Unicamenta La Verdad – La Autenica
Historia de Camelia La Taxana (2008 -2010) poses questions for which of course there are no answers. Did “La Texana”, who achieved fame through Los Tigres de Norte’s ” narco corrido Contrabanda y Traicion ” (Contraband and Betrayal ) really exist, and if she did did she drive her lover — several names are proposed– to commit suicide by putting his neck on the track in front of a train in the Mexico/US border town of Ciudad Juarez, which is sometimes called “the murder capital of the world’?” Opera has always trafficked in extreme situations and confused identities and Ortiz’s opera, to a libretto by her brother Ruben Ortiz Torres, which also questions how we make up our identities, as well as the role of the media in projecting them, is a perfect fit. Its seventy-five minute playing time goes by in a flash.
And Ortiz marries an advanced yet approachable new music style with the rhythms and colors of the cumbia and the norteno (North Mexican) sound, like a contemporary Revueltas, with frequent cross-cutting between chorus, orchestra, and soloists which mirrors the constructed identity of “la Texana”. And all the Mexican singers — soprano Nieves Navarro as three Camelias — tenors Gerardo Reynoso and Jose Luis Ordonez, baritones Jose Adan Perez and Armando Gama, and American bass John Atkins, are superb. This is one of the strongest first operas I’ve ever encountered. Brilliant. Serious. Entertaining. And the 24 piece Ensamble ULV and 17 member ULV chorus — each instrument and voice separately miked with the finest brands at SONY in Mexico City–under the alert and passionate direction of Jose Arean, and Christian Gohmer, produce a clear and truly spectacular sound.
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Juan Pablo Contreras
Silencio en Juárez
Albany Records has released a new CD of chamber music by Juan Pablo Contreras – Silencio en Juárez – consisting of three new works and featuring two prizewinning compositions. The music of Juan Pablo Contreras has been widely performed in Mexico and reflects a contemporary Latin perspective on culture and events. This is most evident in the title piece of the CD, written in remembrance of 15 teenagers murdered at a birthday party in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican border town opposite El Paso, Texas.
Silencio en Juárez (2011) is scored for violin, clarinet, piano and unfolds in four movements starting with Madre Dolorosa. This begins with a quiet, mysterious opening in the strings and the violin in very high pitch, doubling the cello. A solemn piano chord sounds and the sad melody continues, invoking a mixture of sadness and menace. Now a warm, loving feeling for a few phrases is countered by more tense piano chords. The piece morphs into a definite feeling of anxiety, louder and more pronounced. The orchestration is very well crafted here – each instrument produces just the right effect and there is an abundance of sound coming from just four players. Madre Dolorosa has an uneasy and troubled feel – the perfect prelude.
Corrido, Movement II, is bouncy and raucous music – as if we have walked into a bar where the customers are pleasantly drunk. A send up of a familiar Mexican folk song, this movement is nevertheless very effectively written – a bit of comic relief – and no doubt meant to describe the birthday party that figures in the actual event. The ensemble here is excellent and while the music sounds offhand, it is precisely scored and played.
Movement III, Liturgia, has an entirely different tone. Dark and somber piano chords sound, like church bells tolling in the distance. A plaintive melody in the cello feels like a desperate prayer. A haunting clarinet solo is heard, and a graceful violin entrance adds a measure of sadness. A loud and dissonant tutti passage becomes a cry of mourning. The sorrowful violin returns accompanied by the dark, processional piano chords that slowly fade to silence.
La Injusticia, Movement IV, has a busy, strident feel, filled with complexity and detail. Staccato phrases in the clarinet and violin interweave among syncopated piano passages as if describing some needlessly complex process. Clamorous clarinet phrases mix in with slower stretches, but a distinct level of tension remains. A hurried feel to this at times – at 4:30 there is a more coherent and settled feel – but an overall sense of uneasiness is reinforced by the sudden ending. The music seems to be saying that justice delayed by never ending procedural issues is truly justice denied.
Silencio en Juárez is masterfully written chamber music – it won the 2013 Brian M. Israel Prize – but more than that it is an honest attempt by the composer to deal with deeply troubling issues in contemporary society.
La más Remota Prehistoria is the second work on this CD and the title translates to ‘The Most Remote Prehistory’. The four short movements of this piece are based on a poem by Dario Carillo and performed by the Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Kyle Ritenauer. Juan Pablo Contreras sings the solo tenor part.
A somber bassoon solo followed by flute, strings and then voice open the first movement. There has a primal feel and a bit of wistfulness as the (translated) text begins: “Sense your warmth, it has become cold space disputed by the blue shadow, between the rock folds, and subtle inspiration with which I write.” This is sung in Spanish and it is as if we are hearing long dead fossils in the rock lamenting their fate. A sense of sadness and longing is nicely captured in the writing, orchestration and the smooth vocal line.
The second movement turns darker still giving off a bleak, melancholy feel. The measured tempo adds to the drama and the elegant expressiveness in the tenor line reinforces the sense of mourning. The third movement, however, is all motion and energy and the text here is about swirling torrents of sediment, adding to the prehistoric imagery. The final movement returns to the slow, sorrowfulness of the opening, but with a sense of resignation in the voice. Flute trills suggest birds – who might have evolved from the dinosaurs – and the piece concludes with passionate singing and a flute solo in the last few bars that is beautifully poignant.
Despite its unusual subject matter, La más Remota Prehistoria is a touching work that is artfully composed and orchestrated.
The final work on this CD is Angel Mestizo (2013), a concerto for harp and chamber orchestra that won the 2014 Arturo Marquez First Composition Contest. This work is in four movements and traces the adoption of the European harp as a cultural touchstone, starting from the Spanish conquest through the subsequent metamorphosis of Mexico into a dominantly mestizo society. The first movement, La Conquista, opens with sharp, percussive sounds that are full of energy and movement. The harp is heard in solo passages, bringing a calming interlude to the militaristic uproar and a short flute solo adds some soothing pastoral imagery. Rattling drums and bold horn calls trade back and forth with harp and flute, as if a battle is raging across the spacious landscape. A sudden flurry of syncopated rhythms concludes this movement.
The second movement, Veracruz, has a slow and lushly exotic feel with the clarinet, percussion and marimba giving the impression of a hot sun blazing overhead. The harp was first brought to Mexico by the Spanish to the port of Veracruz and there is a lingering sense of conquest and conflict in the music here, sharp at times, as in the first movement. The harp passages, especially lovely and empathetic in the final measures, seem to be trying to heal the divide between the indigenous people and their European conquerors.
Cadenza Criolla, movement III, follows and this opens with a series of strong harp arpeggios. The harp plays alone and there are bright passages but also the sense of a darker undercurrent spilling over from the opening movements. ‘Criolla’ is a term used to describe someone of Spanish ancestry born in Mexico. The latter half of Cadenza Criolla consists of snatches of a folk melody, signifying that the harp is being appropriated by the newly emerging society.
Movement IV, Son Jarocho concludes the work and as the harp cadenza finishes there is a sudden, lively outburst of contemporary folk music. This has a loud and festive feel, but is interspersed with occasional suggestions of the drums and militaristic music from movement I. The harp is heard in solo passages throughout, mostly hopeful and joyous, but also reflecting the sense of the tension that persists in this complex culture even hundreds of years after the the trauma of conquest.
Angel Mestizo is an ambitious work, taking in the history of Mexico and the evolution of its social order – using the harp as the musical focal point was a brilliant choice. The playing by the Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra and harpist Kristi Shade is superb. The scoring and orchestration – here and in all the pieces on this CD – are fully formed and mature beyond the years of the composer. The music of Juan Pablo Contreras would be a fine addition to the repertory of any American chamber orchestra seeking to connect with a contemporary Latin audience.
Silencio en Juárez is available from Albany Records and also by download at iTunes.
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Manhattan in Charcoal
Jacob Miller – Libretto
Manhattan in Charcoal is a newly released CD from Composers Concordance Records and distributed by Naxos. This is a chamber opera with the libretto written by the poet Jacob Miller and music composed by Gene Pritsker. The story is about “The life and loves of an artist in New York City in the early days of the 21st century who is struggling to find his way…” Manhattan in Charcoal is a powerfully dark work whose strength is equally derived from the poetry and the music.
The first movement starts with The Village Feels Empty and the music evokes just the right atmosphere – a sustained trombone tone with a moving bass line underneath. Woodwinds and brass hold higher, dissonant tones, while a running piano scale is heard cutting through the texture. Now violins add a dark shadow, and the image of a rainy night in Manhattan is complete. The narrator – librettist Jacob Miller, perfectly cast – begins his story.
The story line of Manhattan in Charcoal is about a painter – the Artist – who is struggling to make an impression in the uptown galleries while at the same time maintaining a balanced relationship with his girlfriend Beatrice, who is jealous of his devotion to his art. The music in the opening scene reflects this tension, but dissolves into warm harmony when the Artist invites Beatrice to look outside the window. They sing “Art is everywhere, Beatrice – come look at the streets…” Later the Artist tries to assure Beatrice with the words: “But there is and has always, been only you.” – this is sung as a lovely duet and it seems as if Beatrice is almost convinced.
Meanwhile the Artist, always struggling for money, begins his latest work, ‘Manhattan in Charcoal’ – envisioned in paint at first, but later reduced to a more affordable charcoal and paper. Outsider Art opens Movement 2, and the music to describe this slowly unfolding process is heavy and complex as the Artist struggles to adapt to the unfamiliar technique. As the drawing nears completion, plans advance to show it in a gallery and when this occurs the Narrator describes the exhibition, backed by a wonderfully jazzy groove that projects success and sophistication.
A lively piece opens Movement 3 – Art Dealers Dance – and this captures the mundane and banal demands of those who simply want to make money from the success of an artist. Just the Way I Draw is all horns, woodwinds and brass – bouncy and light – the perfect allegory for the airy pronouncements by the critics. The Artist has gained some notoriety from ‘Manhattan in Charcoal’, but his sudden celebrity has attracted the attentions of another woman, and Beatrice senses a rival. This leads to the crisis and denouement of the opera. In the final scene the libretto and music are masterfully matched in a beautiful collage of woodwinds, voices and percussion that is very moving.
The lead singers in this recording – baritone Charles Coleman as the Artist, and soprano Lynn Norris, as Beatrice, give a skillful and precise reading of the sometimes angular and uneven phrases. The accompanying musicians provide a polished and well-balanced support, effectively evoking the many different moods that are woven through this work.
This opera is described in the liner notes as “… the life and loves of an artist in New York City in the early days of the 21st Century…”, but there is no plot device having to do with cell phones or email. Rather, Manhattan in Charcoal is the timeless story of artists and lovers, beautifully told here in poetry and music.
Manhattan in Charcoal will be released in May 2015 and the CD will be available from Naxos.
A short video featuring some of the music is here.
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Michael Vincent Waller
The South Shore
From XI Records comes The South Shore, a new double CD release by New York-based composer Michael Vincent Waller. Totaling some 138 minutes, The South Shore is the most comprehensive musical statement from Waller to date – his two previous albums of piano music were much less ambitious in scale. With a style that runs to miniatures and other smaller forms, The South Shore features a total of 31 tracks. This new collection includes a number of different instrumental ensembles that greatly add to the possibilities for new colors and texture. This is a definite enhancement and brings an added dimension to Waller’s carefully constructed pieces. Released in latter weeks of a difficult winter, hearing the warm and sunny pieces of this album is like a weekend in the south of France.
With such a profusion of music, here are some observations on selected tracks.
From disk 1, Atmosfera di Tempo, on track 2, is an example of how an ensemble of several instruments – in this case a string quartet – can give a greater sense of intimacy and empathy to the underlying structure. This piece begins with a repeating figure in the violin supported by the cello. The others join in, to create a warm, contented feeling with just a slight tinge of sadness that strings can bring out so well. The theme is repeated with variations, sometimes gentle and lush and at other times more insistent and stark. The subtle shadings and sensitivity evident in this piece are a credit to the four players.
Per La Madre e La Nonne on track 4 features a string trio, with a light, bright sound to open. The violin leads with a repeating melody with an effective counterpoint in the lower strings. Variations follow and the close ensemble adds to the sweet feeling in this piece. Written for the composer’s mother and grandmother, Per La Madre e La Nonne is sturdy enough to carry the emotions invested in it yet delicate enough to clearly render the finer details. Towards the end the cello carries the melody with the others in counterpoint, and this gives a somber, almost brooding feel. The ensemble here -by Pauline Kim-Harris, Daniel Panner and Christine Kim – is excellent.
Pasticcio per meno è piú, track 5, is a solo piano piece played with great sensitivity by Nicholas Horvath. A simple running melody above is supported by warm chords underneath and the feel of this is very impressionistic. The gentle touch on the keyboard nevertheless produces a wonderfully luminous sound and the overall effect is to be transported to a sunny day in the south of France. A variation at 4:00 has a more purposeful color, but Pasticcio per meno è piú concludes by reinstating the softer opening.
Nel Nome di Gesú on track 10 opens with a powerful series of strong, chant-like passages repeated by Christine Kim’s cello. The organ line by Carson Cooman adds an expansive component and the result is a feeling of the monumental combined with a comforting sense of familiarity. It is like sitting in a strange church but feeling as if at home. The second movement of this piece is track 11 and the cello, with darker tones plays the melody below the organ, now registered with a lovely flute sound. There is a plaintive, almost mournful feel to this that is nonetheless very beautiful. Both movements of Nel Nome di Gesú are well balanced and quietly touching.
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