Save Your Breath
Kris Davis Infrasound
Clean Feed CD
Ben Goldberg, Oscar Noriega, Joachim Badenhorst, Andrew Bishop, clarinets; Nade Radley, guitar; Gary Versace, organ; Jim Black, drums; Kris Davis, piano and compositions
On her new Clean Feed CD, joined by a cadre of clarinetists playing instruments in varying shapes and sizes, composer/pianist Kris Davis presents her latest suite of avant-jazz pieces. Save Your Breath features ardent solo work, not only from all of the clarinetists, but also from the members of the rhythm section. Organist Gary Versace’s sci-fi brilliance on “Union Forever” is a standout (he is matched pitch for pitch by the uniformly excellent clarinetist Oscar Noriega). The aptly named “Whirly Swirly” finds guitarist Nate Radley creating undulating syncopations that dovetail with clarinetist Badenhorst and Davis’s lines. The leader herself frequently contributes post-tonal percussive solos that propel the proceedings. Speaking of musical propellent, drummer Jim Black’s energetic playing keeps the music-making from ever lapsing into idleness.
Davis makes skilful use of the clarinet quartet, calling upon them to play on alternate instruments, testing them at either end of their registral extremes, from wailing up top to chorale-like textures on the bottom; some of the bass clarinet chords are spectacularly sepulchral. Throughout, there is a sense of a strong composer’s hand at work. Davis demonstrates that an imaginative approach can make even a very challenging ensemble grouping work handily.
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John Potter, voice; Anna Maria Friman, voice and Hardanger fiddle; Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman, lutes
ECM New Series 2441 CD
John Potter is best known for his work with the recently disbanded Hilliard Ensemble (writing recently disbanded for that estimable group is saddening indeed). But he has kept an active profile as a soloist as well. On the ECM label, he has focused on lute songs, with albums devoted to the Dowland Project. Anna Maria Friman is a member of Trio Medieval, who also record on ECM. They are joined by lutenists Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman on Amores Pasados, a most imaginative project. The central repertoire are lute songs written by rock musicians: John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin), Tony Banks (of Genesis), and Sting. Potter and company have also included selections by 16th century composer Picforth and by John Campion, a 17th century composer famed for his lute songs. Rounding out the recording are Potter and company’s arrangements of songs by early Twentieth composers and compatriots E.J. Moeran and Peter Warlock.
For those who misread this as one of too many “casual” crossover projects, don’t forget the background of the pop musicians involved. Tony Banks played 12-string guitar on the early Genesis albums, Sting has recorded an entire album of songs by John Dowland and Robert Johnson, and John Paul Jones is a versatile and formidable musician. This is in part why the results of this collaboration are so successful. The other factor, of course, are the performances. Whether in tuning the achingly beautiful close part harmonies in Jones’s No Dormia or navigating the harmonic and rhythmic shifts found in abundance in Banks’s “The Cypress Curtain of the Night,” Potter, Friman, and their lutenist colleagues prove skilful and sympathetic collaborators. They make no pretense to be pop singers, performing with classically trained singers’ diction and tone. The way they manage to meet these songs in the middle is rhythm and phrasing: they readily adapt to the syncopation that is ubiquitous in pop songs and amply present in those collected here.
With material so uniformly strong, it is difficult to call out favorites. However, Sting clearly picked up a great deal about ayres when recording The Labyrinth. His “Bury me deep in the greenwood” could pass for a song by one of Dowland’s contemporaries: it is quite stirring. I would love to have a crack at the sheet music – even if I had to negotiate lute tablature!
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The Song of the Stars
British Music for Upper Voice Choir
Naxos CD 8.573427
Wells Cathedral School Choralia, conducted by Christopher Finch; Eleanor Turner, harp; Elliot Launn, piano
Occupying as it does an important niche in choral literature, the CD Song of the Stars demonstrates the vitality and importance of Naxos Records’s “no stone left unturned” recording ethos. Apart from A Ceremony of Carols, A Survivor from Warsaw, and a few other well known works, many often think of SATB – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – groupings as the default vocal ensemble for which truly meaningful choral literature is created. Here we find a number of gems for upper voices – many of them in their debut recordings – that provide a strong case for inclusivity.
The program contains well known composers such as Gustav Holst, James MacMillan, and John Tavener, who rub elbows with some of the finest contemporary British composers: Paul Mealor, Tarik O’Regan, and James Whitbourn. A find for me was the music of Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951), represented on the disc by her Regina Caeli. The piece alternates lustrous polychords with sprightly counterpoint in an attractive blend of elements that makes me want to delve deeper into McDowall’s output. There are also works by composers familiar to me, such as O’Regan’s Alleluia, Iaus et gloria, that are impressive compositions made even more appealing by their authoritative performances.
This is the recording debut of the Wells Cathedral School Choralia. Conducted by Christopher Finch, this is a fine group that demonstrates strong technical skills, beautiful tone, and excellent musicality throughout Song of the Stars. Indeed, the title work, composed by former King’s Singers member Bob Chilcott, has a perilously demanding tessitura that conventional wisdom would suggest disqualifies some groups from attempting it. The Wells Choralia make it sound eminently attainable. One hopes that conductors and composers take a careful listen to this CD. It provides many ideas for possible programming and the creation of new works for upper voice ensembles. Recommended.
Video of Tarik O’Regan’s “Alleluia, Iaus et gloria”
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The Subliminal and the Sublime
Chris Dingman, vibraphone; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone; Fabian Almazan, piano; Ryan Ferreira, guitar; Linda Oh, bass; Justin Brown, drums
Excellent albums contain many magical moments, but there’s often one that is a clue that a particular recording will be a special experience for the listener. Just such a moment occurs early on Chris Dingman’s aptly named CD The Subliminal and the Sublime. After a few minutes of shimmering textures created on the vibraphone, saxophonist Loren Stillman enters with a crescendo into a held note that completely changes the demeanor of the proceedings. It is then that you know that this recording will not just be about its leader, but that it will be an ensemble affair, artfully arranged and indelibly well paced.
Dingman’s compositional style sits astride contemporary jazz and contemporary classical composition. Befitting a percussionist led endeavor, there are many moments that recall the minimalism and prolific polyrhythms of Steve Reich. And while Stillman is a standout, frequently engaging in duets with the vibraphonist, everyone on the recording gets a turn to shine. Both Fabian Almazan and Ryan Ferreira are sensitive accompanists, but their solo spots, particularly the pianist’s dexterous endeavors, are memorable. Linda Oh and Justin Brown create a fulsome groove that propels the proceedings. Occasionally, one worries that Brown may overwhelm the vibes with his prolific use of crash cymbal paired with bass drum. But the sections containing his most energetic playing are well-timed and he provides a consistently engaging foil for his fellow percussionist Dingman.
Both of the miniatures on the album, “Tectonic Plates” and “Plea,” are particularly charming and chockfull of interesting harmonies. These are offset by much more extended tunes. One is hard-pressed to name a favorite, but the intricate architecture of the album’s longest cut, “The Pinnacles,” allows us to hear both Dingman the composer and the sextet at his disposal at the height of their current powers. One can only imagine that the way forward for them all will be even more promising.
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At the Speed of Stillness
NMC Recordings CD NMC D202
Claire Booth, soprano; Lucy Schaufer, mezzo-soprano; Alexandra Wood, violin; Andrew Matthews-Owen, piano; Huw Watkins, piano; Aldeburgh World Symphony, Sir Mark Elder, conductor; Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Oliver Knussen, conductor
Charlotte Bray’s music displays steely determination and an expansively colorful textural palette. Her NMC portrait CD supplies an abundant view of these characteristics. The title work is particularly impressive; it is filled with piquant yet often spacious harmonies, frequent juxtapositions of orchestral groupings, and lithe pacing.
Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer approaches Fire Burning in Snow, settings of poems by Nicki Jackowska, with clear diction and an emotive presence. Likewise the players from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group give detailed precision to the work’s angular intervals and supply intensity to the nuanced dynamic shadings found in the accompaniment. Soprano Claire Booth, ably accompanied by Andrew Matthews-Owen, brings expressiveness and considerable beauty of tone to Songs from Yellow Leaves, settings of Caroline Thomas’s poetry.
Pianist Huw Watkins pulls double duty on the CD, deftly inhabiting the alternately shimmering, sprightly, and strenuous atmospheres of the solo work Oneroi. There are far more episodes possessing the latter demeanor in the piano concertino Replay. However, the variety of timbres found in the chamber ensemble’s accompaniment keeps the work from becoming overwrought. Explained in part by its title, the piece also contains considerable motivic repetition and development: an attractive addition to Bray’s arsenal of resources.
The two-part chamber concerto Caught in Treetops is similarly endowed with an enriched template of motives, ranging from repeated note flurries to widely spaced arcing lines. The work begins with a cadenza, introducing sterling soloist Alexandra Wood, a versatile and formidable violinist. Only gradually is the chamber ensemble invited in, filling the gaps with contrapuntal lines and forceful tutti. While Bray’s language remains primarily a chromatic one, Part Two of Caught in Treetops contains the addition of some beautiful, delicately announced harmonic verticals. The gentle close of the piece provides a perfectly enigmatic twist to the CD’s program, leaving one eager for more from this talented composer.
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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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ZOFO Plays Terry Riley
Sono Luminus Blu-ray/CD
Piano four hands duo Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi once again bring energy, virtuosity, and imagination to a composer’s work on their latest recording, a portrait of Terry Riley.
ZOFO arranged a few of the pieces on the album for four hands. Their rendition of “Half-Wolf Dances Mad in the Moonlight” is a powerfully incisive standout and “G Song” is supple and, given the breathlessly fast tempo, played with impressive rhythmic integrity. There is also a new piece on the CD, commissioned by the duo: the sprightly, syncopated, and surprisingly stylistically faithful Praying Mantis Rag.
The rest of the programmed pieces are from The Heaven Ladder, Books 5 & 7, collections commissioned by pianists Sarah Cahill and Gloria Cheng. The most expansive of these selections, “Cinco de Mayo,” is given a sterling rendition, filled with dynamic shadings, fleet passagework, and tightly knit exchanges.
Pointed up on the album is Riley’s versatility as a composer. While he can create churning ostinatos with the best of them, his connections to jazz, raga, and dance music of many varieties are just as prominently felt here as his status as an elder statesman of minimalism. Given their chameleon-like presence on previous recordings, ranging from Rite of Spring to Samuel Barber to David Lang, it is hardly surprising that ZOFO relishes in the eclecticism of the fare here. Recommended.
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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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