Archive for the “Uncategorized” Category
String Quartets 2 & 3
Ida Kavafian, Violin I
Mark O’Connor, Violin II
Paul Neubauer, Viola
Matt Haimovitz, Cello
With credentials as both a folk/bluegrass fiddler on one hand and a classical violinist on the other, Mark O’Connor’s journey through the world of music has been unique. So don’t expect anything ordinary about this offering on his own OMAC label. String Quartets 2 and 3, subtitled “Bluegrass” and “Old-Time,” respectively, are clear signposts on that journey as well as O’Connor’s tribute to his own early American family roots, which include New Amsterdam Dutch and Mohawk Indian strains. (And come of think of it, when have you last heard a classical composer talk about “hot licks” in describing his music?)
With the aid of three collaborators who are all well known to conoisseurs of string music in America, O’Connor launches us, in his “Bluegrass” Quartet, on a thrilling ride that will have many listeners unable to resist the urge to toe-tap and move in time to the music. The authentic whine and twang of bluegrass is present here, as well as the soulful harmonies and (of course) those hot licks we spoke of. That includes a lot of rhythmic “bow chopping” in the fast movements. A highlight of the slow movement is the down to earth somber melody with ”gospel yearnings” (O’Connor) taken by the first violin to sublime lengths. In the third movement (there are no descriptive markings) Bluegrass makes its closest approach to the four A’s of modernism: A-tonal, A-symmetrical, A-stringent, and A-tomic. The finale builds to almost unconscionable lengths, dying to a fall and rising again at several points, until we end with a well-deserved flourish.
Quartet 3, commissioned by the Hudson River Quadricentennial Music Project, pays its respects to old-time folk fiddling such as O’Connor’s ancestors found when they migrated from the Hudson Valley down the Appalachians to the south in the early 1800’s. The fast movements here are even more condensed and tightly wound than those in the “Bluegrass” Quartet and there is no real slow movement as such, and so the playing time is appreciably shorter, about 25 minutes compared with 35. As in the earlier quartet, O’Connor’s music is not as simple as it might at first appear, since he employs techniques such as canonic variation and re-harmonization to bring original but authentic-sounding folk phrases in line with the sound of contemporary music. One may question whether it represents a new direction in American music, based as it is on this composer’s unique history and keen personal interests, but it’s all tremendously exciting. The finale builds to a peak, and then ends suddenly and dramatically.
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Music of Eric Sessler, Anne Wilson, J. S. Bach, Joseph Jongen, Dan Locklair, Calvin Hampton
Alan Morrison, organist
Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia
Mischa Santora, conductor
The main reason for excitement on the release of this new album is that it is the recording debut of Eric Sessler’s scintillating new (2006) Organ concerto. That it was commissioned by the Curtis Institute for Alan Morrison, the superlative artist who premiered it in 2007, is a definite plus. Morrison worked closely with the composer through the time of its premiere at the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and is credited by Sessler as being “a major factor in the creation of this piece.” The work itself is a stunning conception, being both a display piece for the organ and a solid concert work for the orchestra, which remains an equal partner with the soloist throughout the 18-minute piece, so that it is an organ concerto in every sense of the word. In the outer movements, inspired writing for the orchestra, particularly the strings and percussion (read: ‘drums’) is matched blow-for-blow by glittering arpeggios, pungent parallel melodies, and dazzling pedal work from the organ. These outer movements, named “Electric Daydreams” and “Momentum” (and how!) enfold a slow movement in the form of a fantasia entitled “A Child’s Night Journey,” in which the organ clearly occupies center stage with the muted strings and soft percussion filling in the slowly moving harmonies and subtly underscoring the mood of nocturnal mystery. As in childhood itself, not of all these slumbers are untroubled, but happily there are no nightmares.
Anne Wison’s Toccata (2003) is up next. This bracing piece does everything you want a Toccata to do, with its rugged themes moving in side steps and parallel motions, bringing out all the virtuosity in the performer.
J. S. Bach’s Concerto in A Minor after Vivaldi, BWV 593 is the first of two works from the classic repertoire that make for an exceptionally balanced program. I’d never really paid this work for solo organ much attention until I listened to this superior performance in which Alan Morrison puts all the right emphasis in all the right places. At 11:41, it seems incredibly short, so swiftly and naturally do all the elements come together. Far from simply translating Vivaldi’s original concerto grosso, Bach lightened the texture in some places, thickened it in others, embellished the melodies and divided them between organ registers in the process of absorbing the basso continuo into the organ. It all seems so perfectly idiomatic (and Morrison plays it so masterfully) that we might have thought the organ version was the original.
Joseph Jongen’s Prière (Prayer) of 1911 seldom raises its voice above piano/pianissimo except for a few moments of quiet ecstasy, such as we encounter in the experience of prayer itself. Jongen, and Morrison, keep our rapt interest for 11 minutes without relying on any false theatrics, no small achievement. No wonder this piece is a perennial favorite among the fraternity of organists.
“The Peace May Be Exchanged” from Dan Locklair’s Rubrics (1989) takes its name from a sentence in the Service of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child. The soft diapison color reflects the mood of quiet happiness at this point in the service. As we often have occasion to marvel, a gigantic instrument such as the modern concert organ, whose full sonic output can be measured (literally) in horsepower, is often most eloquent when speaking in a soft voice.
Finally, Five Dances for Organ by the too-briefly lived Calvin Hampton (d.1984) is an impish tribute to Igor Stravinsky’s Five Easy Pieces for Piano Duet. Like its inspiration, Hampton’s music can be more complex that is apparent on the surface. “The Primitives,” which opens the suite, is indeed Stravinskyan in is savage changes of meter and its insistent rhythm based on alternating pairs of eighth notes. “At the Ballet,” the weakest part of the suite, is notable for a dreamy long pedal melody, and not much else. “Those Americans” sounds like a quotation and may be an in-joke referring to the manic frenzy with which so many of our contemporary organist-composers pursue ever farther-reaching modes of expression. “An Exalted Ritual” may also be mildly satirical in its intent, as a dignified, slow moving processioal melody is undercut by up-and-down octaves moving underneath it and a quirky little tune bubbling above it all. Unpredicatble melodies and rhythms in overlapping, shifting patterns add to the mounting excitement of the finale, “Everybody Dance.”
The Cooper Memorial Organ used in this recital is remarkable for its variegated range of timbres and dynamics. It was built by Dodson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, Iowa and was installed in stages before the Verizon Hall opened in 2001 and in the summers of 2004 and 2005. Its specifcations are listed in the very informative booklet, adding to the listening pleasure of organ aficionados.
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Further Secret Origins
- Terra Incognita
- Patricia Highsmith
- For Astronauts, for Travelers
- Some People Say That She Doesn’t Exist
- Orbis Teritus
All works composed and performed on the bassoon by Katherine Young
“Rough, rugged, in your face bassoon playing” might seem humorous to the uninitiated in regards to the facility and sonic capacity of the bassoon but this disc is one of only a few discs that left me totally entranced by the sounds of a solo monophonic instrument. Though frequently augmented with electronics, Katherine Young’s solo bassoon music does more than rock. It f-king kicks ass. And takes names.
Young’s music is well in tune with the extended sets of sounds and colors available on the instrument. Her performances are powerful and compelling. Most of the works are edgy, dissonant, rich with multiphonics and thick fat eruptions of sound. There are also tracks which feature more expressive, engaging, and haunting performances.
If you thought Stravinsky’s high bassoon writing was “otherworldly,” then you have to hear this. Most of the disc works as a cycle since the heartbeat that emerges towards the end of the first track becomes the foundational support that carries everything through the track “Relief.”
“Some People Say That She Doesn’t Exist” is a break from the aggressive and tense. This multiple basson piece is a sullen, tender, tonal, and introspective work. The final track is an echo to the rich timbres of the more aggressive music but in a more muted and meditative manner. “Orbis Tertius” is the perfect end for this disc.
Throughout the CD, whether hard or soft, edgy or tender, Young’s tone is rich and resonant with overtones every bit as interesting as the fundamentals. If you want to hear an orchestra of sound from a single bassoon, this is not a disc to miss.
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THE WHITE ELECTION:
32 Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson
Lisa Delan, soprano
Fritz Steinegger, piano
Another winner featuring the charming presence of Lisa Delan! These 32 poems that Gordon Getty has set to music have the thematic and musical unity to constitute a real cycle. The subject is Death (the “White election” of the title), and the poems look at the subject subjectively from every angle. Getty organizes them in four Groups: 1, The Pensive Spring; 2, So We Must Meet Apart; 3, Almost Peace; and 4, My Feet Slip Nearer. A noticeable progression occurs as the poet delves ever deeper into the mysteries of life and death, which are not the diametric opposites we commonly imagine.
I will leave aside the identity of the “dim companion” in the poems that seem to point to a definite love interest in the life of the semi-reclusive Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who went to her grave a life-long spinster. Gordon Getty summarizes the case very succinctly in his program notes, and others have written at book length on the subject. Since death for Ms. Dickinson meant the spiritual reunion with those we have loved, it opened the portals to a new life, and was not at all life’s antithesis. The symbolism of white raiment, in which she dressed the last twenty years or so of her life, applies to both to the shroud and a wedding dress. She equates them with a ferocious optimism in such verses as “No more her patient figure / At twilight soft to meet, / No more her timid bonnet / Upon the village street, // But crowns instead and courtiers / And in the midst so fair, / Whose but the shy, immortal face / Of whom we’re whispering here?” Or consider, “Sufficient troth that we shall rise, / Deposed, at length, the grave, / To that new marriage justified / Through Calvaries of love.” Many other examples could be cited.
As scholars have observed, Dickinson’s poetry seems to spring from origins in church music, especially in the shape of her discrete four-line stanzas, though the flow of the thought often carries over between those stanzas, and they are not as foursquare metrically as many church hymns often are. Getty conjectures that Dickinson, who had studied voice and piano, must have set many of her poems to music for her own satisfaction. These “odd, old tunes” (her description) were certainly not intended for publication, which would have been out of character for someone who never sought to publish her poetry during her lifetime. In setting them to music, Getty confides, “I have set them, in large part, just as Emily might have if her music had found a balance between tradition and iconoclasm something like that in her poems.”
As played by Fritz Steinegger, the perfect partner for Ms. Delan in this recital, the piano accompaniment is ideally suited to the sense of the lyrics. It seldom takes the form of a florid line, but usually occurs in the form of widely spaced chords or even single notes, either quietly stated or powerfully expressed, depending on the emotion of the poetic line. Occasionally it becomes more florid, as it does in a poem that celebrates the reunion of mother and son in death after many years, he a recent casualty in one of the Civil War’s terrible battles: “When I was small a woman died, / Today her only boy / Went up from the Potomac, / His face all victory. // To look at her how slowly / The seasons must have turned, / Till bullets clipped an angle / And he passed quickly round. ” The vigorously extended piano introduction before the first stanza suggests the rapid call of bugles; in this case, the martial music is both unusual and appropriate to the idea of death as a victory over the unnatural pain of separation, numbed though it may be with the passing years.
Other lyrics do not embrace death with such enthusiasm. There is skepticism about it in such lines as, “The going from a world we know / To one a wonder still / Is like the child’s adversity / Whose vista is a hill. / Behind the hill is sorcery / And everything unknown, / But will the secret compensate / For climbing it alone?” Other poems contrast the poet’s curiously disjunctive perceptions of the two states, life and death: “And sometimes odd within; / The person that I was / And this one do not feel the same. / Could it be madness, this?” And sometimes she is struck by the odd discrepancy of feeling and perception between the bereaved and the departed: “I cried at pity, not at pain, / I heard a woman say, / “Poor child,” and something in her voice / Convicted me of me. // She’s “sorry I an dead” again, / Just when the grave and I / Have sobbed ourselves almost to sleep, / Our only lullaby.”
OF course, even a first acquaintance with Dickinson’s poetry gives you the impression that it is at the same time simple in form and very sophisticated, both in her daring use of approximate and vowel rhymes and in the way a simple declaration or a striking images can resonate with meanings far beyond the stave’s end. You can’t just set them to music and sing them without interpreting fine nuances of significance. To that purpose, Getty’s song accompaniments often continue beyond the last stanza, extending and amplifying the mood and purpose of he poem. And Delan’s vocal artistry is well adapted to expressing the shifting, swiftly surging emotion in such run-on lines as “The bell within the steeple wild / The flying tiding told: / How much can come, / And much can go, / And yet abide the world!” As a song interpreter she may well be unequalled.
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Song of America II
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Craig Rutenberg (piano), Wolfram Rieger (piano)
Tom Hampson is a fellow who isn’t easily deterred. Not content to wait upon the vagaries of major record labels and their A&R managers, he started his own Hampsong Foundation to promote intercultural understanding through song, specifically through the preservation of our own rich (and somewhat neglected) heritage of American songs. “Wondrous Free” is Part 2 of a series begun last year with “Song of America,” both of which are available through his own website at thomashampson.com. If anything, this collection is even richer than its predecessor.
The program begins with the classic simplicity of he title song, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” by Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), said to be America’s earliest composer of note, and continues up to the present. With his honest, clear baritone possessed of an impressively wide range, especially in the upper register, Hampson does a splendid job shaping the contours of the familiar folksong “Shenandoah” (arr. Stephen White, b.1943); instead of drawing out the long vowels in the word “Missouri,” he foreshortens it at the end, giving the listener the un-familiar heart-stopping emotion of witnessing something that has disappeared forever. Only Hampson could take a really sentimental song like Stephen Collins Foster’s “Nelly was a Lady” or Charles Ives’ version of “Songs My Mother Taught Me” and not make it drip with cheap sentimentality. Try singing the lyrics “Seldom from her eyelids / were the teardrops banished” or “Ring the bell for lovely Nell / my dark Virginny bride” without waxing schmaltzy, and you’ll see what I mean!
Some of the finest specimens of genuine art song on this album are three settings by John Duke of poems by Edward Arlington Robinson, “Richard Cory,” “Luke Havergal,” and “Miniver Cheevy.” These are rare instances in which great poetry meets with musical arrangements that do it justice. “Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal / where the vines cling crimson on the wall / and in the twilight wait for what will come. / The leaves will whisper there of her, and some / like flying words will strike you as they fall; / But go, and if you listen she will call.” Surely those lines are the perfect metaphor for death and the pain of separation. Hampson handles them with the dignity and the unadorned emphasis they deserve.
Death, as a matter of fact, is a common denominator of many of these songs (There’s nothing like a wake to bring out the best in American poets). William Grant Still’s “Grief,” to a text by LeRoy V. Brant is in this tradition: “Weeping angel with pinions trailing, / the white dove, promise, stands!” So are Ives’ setting of John McCrae’s famous lyric “In Flander’s Fields,” Edward MacDowell’s “The Sea,” with its premonition of the seafaring lover’s death, and Foster’s “Hard Times,” with lyrics particularly meaningful for contemporary listeners: “Many days you have lingered around my cabin door, / O! Hard times, hard times, come again no more.” Paul Bowles’ Blue Mountain Ballads (1946) are distinguished settings of four lyrics, some poignant, some saucy, all pithy, by Tennessee Williams. “Cabin” just may be my favorite: “Now the cabin falls / to the winter wind / and the walls cave in / where they kissed and sinned. // And the long white rain / sweeps clean the room / Like a white-haired witch / with a long straw broom1″
Sidney Homer’s 1926 setting of Vachel Lindsay’s poem “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” captures all the spirit of its high-spirited original: “Booth led boldly with his big bass drum / (Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” The tub-thumping piano accompaniment to the rousing vocal line would have been to Lindsay’s delight: the last thing he wanted was for his poetry to be read silently in the solitude of one’s den or study. It was to be recited, and with fervor. Tom Hampson’s stirring rendition of this song makes the listener want to rise up and enlist as a Salvationist! And the sheer vocal gymnastics Hampson employs in his rendition of the first part of Ives’ “Memories,” with its conveying of the breathless emotions of two young people “sitting in the opera house, the opera house, the opera house / A-waiting for the curtain to arise” is something I wouldn’t dare try at home, even in the shower!
One of the most memorable moments in the recital is Hampson’s pure, dignified version of “Sing God a Simple Song (Lauda, Laude)” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (1971). That, and the songs “God Be in My Heart” (Elinor Remick Warren, to an anonymous 16th Century lyric) and “A Time for Farewell” (Jay Ungar/Cleo Laine) with its gently lilting rhythm, are likely to leave the listener in a mood of love and generosity toward all of mankind. (In my case, the feeling did not extend as far as the Republican Party. Even the magic of great music has its limits.)
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LAMENT IN THE TRAMPLED GARDEN
Penderecki String Quartet
Erica Goodman / Shalom Bard / Christopher Dawes / Nora Shulman
Marjan Mozetich was born in Italy to Slovenian parents in 1948 and moved with them to Hamilton, Ontario at the age of four. So, he counts as a Canadian product (U. of Toronto 1968-1972). Among his teachers were John Weinzweig, Franco Donatoni, and Luciano Berio, giving him a healthy introduction to musical modernism. Becoming disenchanted with the increasing alienation between avant-garde composers and their audiences, Mozetich turned to such figures as Terry Riley and Philip Glass for inspiration in developing a more common language rooted in tonality. Yet his own distinctive style as a composer is not attributable to the influence of any one mentor. It is personal, deeply felt, and expressive of feeling to a very high degree. It involves a rethinking of continuous variation forms from the late Renaissance to the present, and is both intellectually challenging and accessible at the same time.
Angels in Flight (1987) is described as “a triptych in three panels for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet.” The title resonates with centuries-old associations in the visual arts (Mozetich has said he was initially inspired by an Annunciation scene of Fra Filippo Lippi), but the aim is musical gesture and expression, not mere pictorialism. Panel 1: Arrival and Dialogue opens with broad harp arpeggios and a duet between flute and clarinet. The music has color and brightness, drawing much of its energy from downward swooping figures. A pastoral melody, a sudden modulation, and then a boldly arching theme radiating light and grace. Panel 2: Song to the Eternal represents repose and tenderness, especially in the decorations the solo violin applies to the long line it shares with the flute. The spiritual climax of the movement involves hovering unisons and beautiful color transformations. In Panel 3: Departure, the movement is upward, in a progression that evokes emotions of sadness and beauty. There is a coda with solos from violin, clarinet and flute, and then the reappearance of the arching theme from the first panel, now tinged with the melancholy mod associated with leaving something beautiful behind. The ending dissipates with ascending arpeggios and trills. Though Angels in Flight will inevitably invite comparisons with Olivier Messaien in terms of color, continuous development, and religious inspiration, I think a study of these two easily recognizable composers will reveal Mozetich’s unique style.
Lament in the Trampled Garden (1992), so movingly interpreted here by the Penderecki String Quartet, stands as a metaphor and a lament for man’s destruction of his surroundings. At the opening, the cello issues a call to grieve in the form of a simple melodic cell from which the material grows organically. Contrasting emotion of bittersweet sorrow and remorse are succeeded by an increasing mood of desperation and anger. Tremolos and pizzicati in the next section create a pale, dreamlike mood, ushering in a lament by the first violin, accompanied by slowly resonating pizzicati and downward tending glissandi. Next, swinging syncopations by the violin create an illusory mood of energy in the Alla Jazz section. The final section is marked by a recurrence of the opening lament in slowly descending scales, a brief moment of loud defiance, and then an ebbing away into soft dissonant harmonics. The listener s free to supply his own real world correlative for what the music implies. (This work, by the way, was approved as a test piece for the Banff International String Quartet Competition, and very admirably puts the performing ensemble through all its paces.)
Hymn of Ascension (1998) seems to be both a nostalgic work and an attempt to bridge the past and the present, though no actual program is implied. Christopher Dawes on harmonium joins the Penderecki Quartet in relishing the work’s rich texture of slow ascending lines, recitative-like solos, cascading scales over pulsating tones, double-stopped exclamations over descending lines, and a beautiful arch of intertwining melodies at the end. The quality of Mozetich’s writing seems both timeless and contemporary at the same time. Finally, Scales of Joy and Sorrow for violin, cello, and piano (2007) involves the Gryphon Trio in an intriguing work with a double meaning. Scales, and scale fragments, are indeed the building blocks Mozetich uses, but “scales” also has the meaning of degrees – of joy, sweet sadness, and sorrow in a relationship. The work is organized in a five-section arch that seems highly congenial to the composer and what he wants the music to say: A (slow) B (fast) C (Arabesque) B recall (fast), A recall (slow). The perfect balance of the structure, together with the lush piano harmonies and the soft ostinato on which the work ends, combine to give the listener a feeling of wholeness and comfort.
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The Weilerstein Trio
[ed. note: This just recieved:
We were disappointed to read Phil Muse's recent review of The Weilerstein Trio's release in which he states that he, "lost touch with (Donald Weilerstein and Vivian Hornik Weilerstein) for a time, due in part to the demise of Arabesque, a fine American label whose loss is to be lamented." We appreciate the labeling of Arabesque Recordings as a "fine American label," however, we are clearly still operating and very active. Mr. Muse would be happy to know that he can still purchase The Weilerstein Duo's Arabesque releases via this link on our website.
Sincerely, Chaim Roberts -- A&R Coordinator, Arabesque Recordings ]
I remember listening with pleasure to the spousal duo of violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein back in the 90′s. I lost touch with them for a time, due in part to the demise of Arabesque, a fine American label whose loss is to be lamented. In the meantime, their cellist daughter Alisa came of age and developed a strong artistic presence of her own, so the family is now the Weilerstein Trio. The present offering of trios by Robert Schumann and Leoš Janáček shows what a happy combination that is.
The Weilersteins inform their performance of the Janáček Piano Trio known as “The Kreutzer Sonata” with the greatest precision, fire and commitment. This is an insightful rewriting by Stephen Coxe of Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1 with the same subtitle, which was written contemporaneously with a now-lost piano trio. Both were inspired by Tolstoy’s famous story of infidelity, jealousy and murder. The tale intrigued Janáček because of the parallel with two of those themes (happily, not murder) in his own life. While his music is certainly not programmatic, the literary inspiration accounts for the turbulence and discord in this work, beginning with the violent forte on a bi-tonal basis in its very opening bars.
Terseness of expression and the composer’s trademark vocal inflections replace melody and harmony in the usual sense. Intense psychological realism is what the work demands, and gets, in the present performance. We frequently hear repeated notes, jagged rhythms and instruments played in non-idiomatic, non-traditional ways so that we’re not always sure which instrument is taking a particular snatch of a theme. The slow movement is typical of Janáček’s approach, with its sad, tragically hued melody interrupted by the most discordant outbursts. If you are a more traditional listener, you may not always love what you hear, but the affective power of this work and its performance is undeniable.
Schumann may seem at first blush to be an odd companion for Janáček in this recital, but he too was one who pushed the envelope for new modes of expression in the music of his day. His Duos for Piano & Cello with Piano Accompaniment after Etudes in Canonic Form, Op. 56, heard here in the transcription by the cellist Paul Bazelaire, and his Piano Trio No. 3 in G minor, Op. 110 were both written during times of great emotional distress for Schumann, though the results show a command of his material that belies the mental condition in which he wrote them. The Op. 56 pieces, which actually fit together very well as a single work, were products of Schumann’s study of Bachian counterpoint, though they are so expressive and melodically enchanting, one has to make a special effort to listen for the composer’s secure contrapuntal mastery.
Op. 110 is a sweeping romantic work, touched by a gentle melancholy that the composer wears like a mantle that is not at all burdensome. The beautiful interplay between the instruments allows all three ample opportunities to have their moments in the sunlight without detracting from the overall ensemble. The slow movement, marked Ziemlich langsam (rather slowly) is marked by a beautiful melody for the two strings, punctuated by gentle chords from the piano. It is interrupted briefly by more agitated material, reminiscent of the Bewegt mood of the opening movement, before the trio take charge of matters once again and sing this lovesong-like movement to serene, peaceful sleep. The Scherzo, marked Rasch, is thrilling, the finale, Kraftig mit Humor (powerfully, with humor), is a delightful Schubertian romp with invigoratingly quirky changes of mood, texture, and key.
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music of David Lang
It may seem disingenuous to write a review for a soundtrack when I haven’t seen the movie said soundtrack is from. I have every intention of seeing (Untitled) as soon as I can. Suffice it to say that the movie didn’t really make it to Central Michigan or if it did I missed the day that our local theater showed it. Be that as it may, the soundtrack is worth discussing. And it just so happens that I’ve listened to the disc a few times.
David Lang’s music has been excerpted and retooled (by Lang himself and music supervisor Lawson White) into the soundtrack for this movie about artists trying to do their thing. You can read John Clare’s interview with Lang on the process just a stone’s throw away. The first 22 tracks of the disc present these fragments, as well as a few fragments by other composers (Chopin, Schoenberg, and Grieg) as a kind of Lang pastiche. The strangest thing about the first 22 tracks is how well they work as a singular composition (to my ears, but maybe I’m trying too hard).
I do find it slightly ironic that Lang’s music is being used to accompany film. Lang’s music defies a prescriptive emotional arc and it seems to me that film music is all about highlighting and emphasizing the stories own emotional arc. Lang’s flat affect seems to be directly at odds with the very reason that filmmakers hire composers. I wonder if, after someone has seen the film, they will then project the emotions from the movie onto these aloof compositions. I will let someone who has seen the movie deal with that issue. Hopefully in the comment section…
As an extra treat, the last 4 tracks of the CD are full performances of Wed, Sweet Air, The Anvil Chorus, and Cheating, Lying, Stealing. These are all previously-released tracks but including them helps the “gateway drug” aspect of this disc. Some folks will have seen the movie and enjoyed it enough to buy this soundtrack. Some people will buy the music because they have heard of David Lang and want to know more. If you are already a BOAC fan, then I don’t know that this disc is going to do much for you. If you enjoyed the movie, dug the quirky music, and want to delve deeper into the music, then please step inside.
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Outside Music (2005) / Domus Aurea (2000) / A Complete Wealth of Time (1990) / Melt Me So with Thy Delicious Numbers (2002) / Losing Touch (1994)
Outside Music was my first acquaintance with the music of Texas native and Bay Area resident Edmund Campion (b.1957). It was also the first chance any home listener has had to get acquainted with Campion, as this curious figure was half a century on this earth before David Milner, director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, finally broke down Campion’s aversion to having his music recorded. Not that Campion has ever had any reluctance to public performance. A member of the composition faculty at Cal Berkeley, he is also a co-director of the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). There, he merrily pursues his fascination with sound itself, in his belief that “there is no distinction between acoustic sound, natural sound, or electronic sound. Everything is integrated with the full spectrum of possible sounds.” It is a natural extension of a fascination with sound phenomena that began in boyhood and was made keener through his studies with Mario Davidovsky at Columbia and Gérard Grisey at the Paris Conservatory, where he was accepted for advanced study at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM).
Whew! I’m glad that’s over. Musicians’ credentials always bore me. After reading countless booklet notes, one gets the impression that everybody must have studied everything with everyone else, and performed it everywhere. Like most eccentrics in any field, Campion’s preoccupations are actually very simple: an unusual sensitivity to sounds, a love of rhythm, and a fascination with the natural history of sound that includes the man/computer interface. “Sound means life to me,” says the composer. “And though my music is mechanical, ecstatic shapes often appear and force the form to exceed its limits.” Campion feels a kinship with Albrecht Dürer’s contemplative angel in his famous engraving Melancholia, musing on the absurdity of man’s trying to measure the vastness of the universe with his own puny tools: a compass, a sphere, an hour glass. In the work to which he relates this image, “Melt Me So with thy Delicious Numbers” (a quote from the 17th century poet Robert Herrick), Campion takes a solo player, in this instance a violist (Ellen Ruth Rose), connects her to a microphone aligned to a computer that analyzes incoming sounds to enhance temporal, spectral and gestural details of the performance. “My goal,” says the composer, “was to place the electro-acoustic response on the same footing as a live musician who follows and accompanies a performance.”
Campion goes a step further in Outside Music, in which he uses a sample-based keyboard designed to exhibit the virtuosity of pianist Julie Steinberg (to whom the piece is dedicated) while generating and superimposing a dazzling variety of sounds in immediate response to the performer’s touch. Other members of the SF Contemporary Music Players – flutist Ted Brody, bass clarinetist Carey Bell, harpist Agnes Lee, vibraphonist Daniel Kennedy, and contrabassist Michael Taddei – are heard on this track, in which the ensemble is paradoxically conceived of as a single “instrument,” with the keyboard mirroring and consolidating the collective acoustic. For the listener, all of this can be kind of dicey: just when you think you are listening to the clarinet, it turns out to be a keyboard sampling – but them, the keyboard samples its own sounds, too, so just where are we? A pleasant hazard! As for the tile, it may well have the double meaning of music for the out-of-doors and an attempt to get outside the usual boundaries of music itself.
As a more traditional listener, I found the earliest work on this program, A Complete Wealth of Time (1990), played by the duo-piano virtuosity of Gloria Cheng and Vicki Ray, to be the most satisfying as music. At 17:17, it might be said to be a trifle overlong, but one is never bored for a moment with its jazz-like exploration of time values, its sheer energy, and the impression it creates of a voyage of exploration that could go on forever. One need not accept Campion’s fanciful story of a metaphysical conversation with Death, in the person of a drowsy Paris museum guard, as the origin of the marvelous title “A Complete Wealth of Time” (If it didn’t happen, it should have) to marvel in the composer’s unflagging response to what Matthew Arnold would have termed “The Everlasting Nay.”
Domus Aureum, inspired by the profusely imaginative frescoes in Nero’s “Golden House,” is an exercise in the grotesque. As executed by William Winant, vibraphone and Julie Steinberg, piano, it seeks to create that middle stage in the grotesque in which the senseless jumble of events and images begin to beg revelation. If it isn’t entirely successful, blame the difficulty of trying to precisely define something that is more intuitive than empirical. In like measure, Losing Touch may be said to be a valiant exercise in doomed futility in which vibraphonist (in this recording, Christopher Froh) and electronics travel together as companions and then part company in the final two minutes, as “the fixed electronics degenerate into a musical sequence that the musician cannot and does not care to follow” (Campion).
I have not been able to determine whether Campion is a descendant in any way of either or both of two famous Elizabethans, the composer of lute songs Thomas Campion (1567-1620) and the Jesuit martyr St. Edmund Campion (1540-1581), their lives foreshortened by the plague and hanging, respectively. It would be pleasant to imagine such a connection, since our Campion is a modern-day Elizabethan himself in his restless spirit and boundless enthusiasm for exploration.
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Phenomenon,” The Music of David Garner
Lisa Delan, soprano; Stephanie Friede, soprano
Suzanne Mentzer, mezzo-soprano
Francisco Araiza, tenor; William Stone, baritone
Kristin Pankonin, piano
The title “Phenomenon” actually derives from “Phenomenal Woman,” a setting of seven songs on poems by Maya Angelou which is heard on this CD, and perhaps refers in general to the magic by which a lyric poem can acquire yet more vivid life when set to music, if the setting be right. It does not refer to San Francisco native David Garner (b.1954) personally, though from his portrait on the booklet cover, I’d say he looks like the sort of chap who wouldn’t mind claiming the distinction. When he is good, in these settings of poetry by Spanish, Japanese and American poets, he is admittedly very, very good.
First, let’s get the disappointment out of the way. I have difficulty understanding the English language when set to music as “art” song, but then, I’m a native speaker of the language. Even familiarity with the words of the three selections Garner has chosen from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (Fiddler Jones, Charles Webster, Lucinda Matlock) and having the booklet in hand, did not help me in following Garner’s correlation of words and music. Perhaps Masters’ spoken American idiom is too plainspoken and spare for a musical setting, in contrast to the flowering of his imagery. To his credit, the composer has taken pains to re-create a distinctive musical idiom for each of his early American portraits, sung by mezzo Suzanne Mentzer. In “Fiddler Jones,” we hear the rhythms of Bluegrass music, in “Lucinda Matlock” light-stepping, shifting metrical patterns, recalling her girlhood love of dancing.
Vií±etas Flamencas (Flamenco Vignettes) are settings of six poems by Francisco Garcia Lorca, a poet much influenced by Spanish folk culture and the Canto Jondo style of singing in particular. In his musical settings Garner does a splendid job of evoking the ethos of Flamenco, with its evocations of passionate singers, swirling skirts, and green glass mirrors in smoke-filled cafés reflecting strange, distorted images. Some of the most telling of these poems are tributes to deceased Canto Jondo artists “His cry was terrible. Old timers say that one’s hair would stand on end, and make the quicksilver split in the mirrors” (Portrait of Silverio Franconetti). Others express the bitterness of life and its final end: “Parrala maintains a conversation with Death. She calls Death but Death never comes. And she calls out again. The people are inhaling her sobs. And in the green mirrors, her long silk train sways back and forth” (Flamenco Cabaret). These poems are sung in the original Spanish by Mexican tenor Francisco Araiza, and benefit from his distinguished manner of interpreting passion and meaning in a song.
Next, we have a change of pace in the form of settings of two Japanese poets in English translation, alternating the voices and interpretive skills of William Stone and Stephanie Friede. There are two rather expansive personal lyrics by Nakajima, “For My Daughter” and “An Old Pond,” and five Haiku by Nozaki, poems in which the emotion is entirely sublimated to the strict demands of the form. The persona in the first Nakajima poem directly expresses his anxiety over his daughter’s impending marriage, rare for the Japanese. But even here the usual Japanese way is to let the images carry the emotion: delicate falling petals, moonlight, a lone firefly trailing its luminescent streak off into the dark woods. Garner never fails to find the right musical correlative for what he wishes to say. Sometimes, he does some intentionally impressionistic picture painting, of a snake “transforming himself as he swam across, into ring upon ring of water” (An Old Pond), for instance, or Nozaki’s image of a mountain spring flowing down in pure crystal waters (Five Haiku). Since the typical Japanese poem is open-ended (“a “˜one-way journey’ from one emotional place to another”), Garner wisely chooses to through-compose his settings, rather than recap the meaning and the emotion at the end. The results are very satisfying.
The seven poems by American poet Maya Angelou, collected under the title Phenomenal Woman, are at the opposite end of the poetic spectrum from the Japanese. They seethe and burst with emotion and resonate with the spoken Black idiom. Each poem is self-sustaining, rather than part of any notion of a “cycle,” and to re-create them musically, Garner employs a variety of popular music types: blues, jazz, rock “˜n roll, and music theatre are all present here (and superbly rendered by soprano Lisa Delan, I might add). The poems express Angelou’s faith in the indomitable human spirit, and in particular the strength of the female: “Men? / Yes, I’ll love them. / If they’ve got the style, / To make me smile, / I’ll love them. // Life? / “˜Course, I’ll live it. / Let me have breath, / Just to my death, / And I’ll live it.”
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