Ursula Oppens, Bruce Brubaker, pianists
ECM New Series CD 2374
Meredith Monk is best known for her vocal works. However, she has been writing for the piano since early on in her studies and has mature works in her catalog that date back to the 1970s. Starting in the 1980s, she began to write a number of pieces for piano duo. Both solo works and duos are represented on this ECM CD of her piano music, played expertly and energetically by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker. They even engage in a bit of hand percussion and vocal call and response on the ebullient “Folkdance.“
As Monk points out in her liner notes, these are pieces that may seem simple on the surface. This is deceiving. Accounting for all their details and dealing with the slightly off-kilter rhythmic sensibility that is so often brought to bear in the works is quite tricky. One might wonder why the selections are called “Piano Songs.” Truth be told, Monk’s work, be it for instruments or voices, retains such a strongly vocal quality to the shaping of its lines that calling these pieces songs, much like Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte, seems apt.
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A Place Toward Other Places
Richard Hawkins, clarinet;
The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, Timothy Weiss, conductor
Oberlin Music 2xCD
While not hot off the presses (it was released in 2012), this disc is new to me and I’ve greatly enjoyed spending time with it. Richard Hawkins is a clarinetist with superlative technique and keen musicality. The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, conducted by Timothy Weiss, accompanies him in enthusiastic fashion. Their rendition of the Carter Clarinet Concerto (1996) is a study in contrasts, with the group playing muscularly while Hawkins spins arcing lines with cool command. There’s a similar dichotomy to be found in the performance of Benjamin Broening’s Clarinet Concerto. This does not in any way show the ensemble in a bad light. In fact, after hearing dozens of cool-as-ice performances by New York and European groups, it is a breathe of fresh air to hear these young musicians dig in con brio! Broening’s piece itself features many thrilling passages and is, as is most of his music, from a formal vantage point exquisitely well sculpted.
Things come into crystalline focus in the recording of the late William Albright’s Clarinet Quintet, with dovetailing strings turning on a dime and staccato and pizzicato passages delivered with precise accuracy. The piece is quite fetching; one hopes that more groups will take it up. The title work, by Aaron Helgeson, closes the proceedings in beautifully ethereal fashion. Hawkins and Weiss are not only a good team musically speaking; their curation of this recording’s program is thoughtful and artful.
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DETRICK: The Bright and Rushing World. AnyWhen Ensemble. Navona NV5955. 63 minutes.
Composer/trumpeter Douglas Detrick’s The Bright and Rushing World (2012) is a ten-movement piece of chamber jazz in which a single theme recurs throughout the work. The theme itself (stated at the outset by Mr. Detrick’s trumpet) is straightforward and memorable, with enough twists, turns, and ambiguities (both rhythmic and in harmonic implication) to sustain the piece for over an hour.
The Bright and Rushing World is a brooding piece, full of introspection–the overall title and the movement titles come from a poem about identity and release that Detrick wrote at the end of composing. The unique instrumentation of the AnyWhen ensemble (the composer’s trumpet, Hashem Assadullahi on saxophone, Shirley Hunt, cello, Steve Vacchi, bassoon, and Ryan Biesack, percussion) lends itself to that introspective vibe. Detrick mentions a few influences, including Ellington and Britten, in his notes, but what hear more than these is the Miles Davis of Birth of the Cool in sound and harmony, and that’s very high praise.
The playing here is really outstanding–technically and expressively. Highly recommended to a wide range of listeners, including jazz fans, chamber music buffs, and those seeking common ground between genres and audiences.
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HEATHCO: ravens & radishes. Misha Penton, soprano; George Heathco, electric guitar; Daniel Saenz, cello. Divergence Vocal Theatre DVT 002; georgeheathco.com; 25 minutes.
ravens & radishes (2013) is an “operatic fairytale song cycle” for soprano, electric guitar, and cello. The lyrics, by soprano Misha Penton, embody elusive retellings of tales from Grimm and a Slavic tale. They are well-matched with Heathco’s music, which has an easy eclecticism that reminds me of chamber rock with shifting textures and metric/rhythmic freedom. The songs work on their own and as part of the cycle.
Misha Penton, in addition to having a way with words, is a fine singer, with a darkly inviting voice, a sure sense of pitch, and outstanding diction. Mr. Heathco is a solid guitarist, coaxing a wide variety of sounds and textures from his instrument, which blends and contrasts in sometimes surprising ways with Daniel Saenz’ superb cello playing.
ravens & radishes is very well-written, recorded, and performed. A good example of the form and style.
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SHENG: The Singing Gobi Desert; LIANG: Messages of White; MAN: Dream of a Hundred Flowers; RUO: The Three Tenses. Prism Quartet; Music from China; Bright Sheng, Nové Deypalan, Huang Ruo, conductors. innova 885. 58 minutes.
In his extensive and highly readable liner notes for this disc, John Schaefer writes that this disc demonstrates that “saxophones and Chinese instruments have a natural, if unexpected, affinity”. That is an understatement, to say the least, as this remarkable program illustrates.
Bright Sheng’s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012, erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion) begins with a noisy and extravagant gesture, reminiscent of Messiaen. After that gesture (which returns) a melody snakes through the ranges of the various instruments, in harmony and in unison. The bulk of the piece consists in explorations and expansions of the implications of the opening. The piece moves easily through Western and Chinese idioms. without ever succumbing to what Steve Reich called “the old exoticism trip”. Bright Sheng’s piece explores the sonic space that both separates and unites the instruments in a way that is both brilliant and expressive.
Messages of White (2011, saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin and percussion), by Lei Liang, explores a very different landscape from Sheng’s Gobi Desert; a snowscape. This is a far more “abstract” landscape, with few overt references to the musical traditions that lie behind the instruments used. Glissandi on the erhu are combined with bowed percussion sounds to create a background in front of which the other instruments grow increasingly active, then less active towards the end of the piece, leaving the background as it was in the beginning.
Fang Man’s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and saxophone quartet) finds each saxophone paired with one of the Chinese instruments in a study, really a celebration, of the melodic styles associated with Chinese opera, with some very jazzy harmonies popping up from time to time. Over the length of the pieces, the duos join with other duos and the two quartets explore different relationships, like characters in an opera. It is a shapely piece, expressive and lovely.
The program ends with a searching performance of Huang Ruo’s The Three Tenses (2005, pipa and saxophone quartet). From a slow and spare beginning, the piece blossoms into hive of melodic activity, that reminds me at times of some of Luciano Berio’s melodic elaboration pieces (Voci, for example). It is very colorful and alive.
The sound is outstanding on this valuable release. Highly recommended.
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FUNG: Keeping Time; HIGDON: Secret and Glass Gardens; HOOVER: Dream Dances; LUO: Mosquito; SHATIN: Chai Variations; De KENESSEY: Spontaneous D-Combustion; DEUSSEN: A Recollection. Mary Kathleen Ernst, piano. innova 868. 69 minutes.
Headline: Mary Kathleen Ernst, who I admit I had not heard of before I got this recording, is a spectacularly gifted pianist. She plays with assured technique, a vast timbral palette, and a keen sensitivity to the variety of contemporary compositional styles. The current program, of recent music by female composers, is far more than showcase for Ms Ernst, but it is that, too.
The program opens with Vivian Fung’s sly look at Keeping Time. Ms Fung uses time-keeping (an obsession in much contemporary American concert music) for melodic and gestural musings, with the clock’s insistence always present. The melodies in Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens begin as quietly purposeful wanderings that gradually blossom into large gestures covering the entire range of the keyboard.
Katherine Hoover’s Dream Dances begins with mysterious, impressionistic gestures (very idiomatic, pianistic) that are indeed dream-like in their ambiguity. The piece gradually, almost imperceptibly, develops into a driving, frenetic dance that abruptly, and convincingly, stops. Mosquito, by Jing Jing Luo, is a flighty beast indeed. Scurrying here, lighting there, it is a consistently delightful piece, well-written and expressive.
Chai Variations, by Judith Shatin, is a set of 18 variations on a Hebrew folk song. Shatin takes an effectively old-fashioned approach to variation form(s)–now Brahmsian, now Rzewskian–the theme is almost always clear in the background, if not the foreground. A shapely, convincing set.
Stefania De Kenessey’s Spontaneous D-Combustion is full of references to past styles. It is jaunty and eminently listenable. The program closes with Nancy Deussen’s attractive and haunting A Recollection. As the piece moves along, the nature of the “recollections” gets more-and-more elusive. It makes a fine end to a very good program, well-chosen and very well-played by Ms Ernst.
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BATES: Stereo is King; Observer in the Magellanic Cloud; Difficult Bamboo; Terrycloth Troposphere; String Band; White Lies for Lomax. Cynthia Yeh, Jacob Nissly, Eric Banks, perc; Mason Bates, electronica; Chanticleer; Baird Dodge, vln; Ken Olsen, cello; Jennifer Gunn, fl; Susan Warner, cl; Kuang-Hao Huang, piano; Cliff Colnot, cond; Bill Ryan and the Grand Valley New Music Ensemble; Claremont Trio; Tania Stavreva, piano. innova 882. 66 minutes
I have to say right up front that I find that, even having listened to a fair amount of it, I cannot engage with most of what I’ve heard of Mason Bates’ music. With an important exception, the pieces on this release, well-written and played and sung impeccably and enthusiastically by renowned performers, don’t speak to me. I agree with Joshua Kosman, who writes “[f]or sheer compulsive listenability, you could hardly do better than the title track, a bowlful of sonic popcorn that combines Thai gongs with a sleek veneer of electronic processing.” In fact, these very aspects of it are an important part of what is off-putting about this music. But for some reason it doesn’t speak to me. So I don’t have much to say about the disc, except to repeat that it is very well-written, played, sung, and recorded.
Except for String Band, an expressive and riveting piece of music, given a powerful performance by the Claremont Trio. String Band wears its influences lightly and feels less wedded to its musical influences than are the rest of the pieces on the program. The sleekness that Mr. Kosman finds so enthralling in Stereo is King is missing here, and the expression is, at least to my ear, more direct, somehow less mediated than in the pieces I’ve heard from Mr. Bates, and from others in his compositional cohort.
The fact that the other pieces just don’t do it for me says as much about me as it does about the music, if not more. But my experience with String Band gives me hope, and that’s always very good.
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BECKER: Gridlock; Five Reinventions; Fade; Keeping Time; A Dream of Waking. Common Sense Ensemble/Bradley Lubman; New Millennium Ensemble. innova 855. 53 minutes.
Dan Becker’s brand of post-minimalism is brightly colorful and rhythmically incisive. And it sounds as if it would be great fun to play. While the music is built on steady, clear pulses, Becker rarely resorts to a backbeat. His percussion writing, rather, is built on irregular accents and colorful blasts of sound. His writing for winds and strings is equally idiomatic; again, it sounds like it would be great fun to play.
The music on this disc that speaks most directly to me is contained in the slow sections of pieces like Fade and Keeping Time (Mvt. 1). Here, Becker uses pop-oriented harmonies and progressions, but with an irregular harmonic rhythm, supporting expressive melodies colorfully orchestrated.
The performances are top notch. The players love this music and it shows. The Bachian Reinventions are played by a Discklavier, which seems indifferent compared to the human players–the notes are there, but still.
Innova’s sound is very good, and John Halle’s notes are gushily informative.
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New World Records
What if one wanted to focus on the contemplative nature of mythology’s Furies instead of their ferocity? They might want to hear Arthur Levering’s The Furies. Sequitur’s performance of the piece, conducted by Paul Hostetter, presents layers of counterpoint and corruscating lines with enviable clarity and precision. There are occasional eruptions, but one is more struck by the piece’s unerring pacing than any brash moments that ensue. Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, give Il Mare Dentro a similarly detailed reading. Once again, Levering opts for a slow build with a gradual accumulation of material, much of it resonant with aquatic imagery: there’s even a sly quote of Debussy’s La Mer towards the work’s conclusion.
Four Drinking Songs is Levering at his most minimal. Harp and piano ostinatos accompany mezzo-soprano Krista River, whose warm tone and clear diction brighten the proceedings, on a multilingual tour of intoxication. The two-piano piece Partite sopra Ciaccona is more portentous in demeanor, but no less attractive than the larger works. Levering deploys a rich harmonic palette and supplies pianists John McDonald and Donald Berman with virtuosic passages a plenty to play. BMOP returns for the title work, which features its string section in a wide ranging theme and variations that combines soaring lines with a dissonant chordal sonorities. Once again, one hears frequent post-minimal ostinatos propelling the piece, but they are just part of a larger stylistically diverse tapestry that also encompasses post-tonal thinking, abundant counterpoint, and a postmodern sensibility. Levering is a talented composer whose works should be much better known. Hopefully this excellent disc will help.
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Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Tim Fain, violin, Sato Moughalian, flute; Blair McMillen, piano
Perspectives Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordonez, conductor
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.
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