Classical Protest Music: Frederic Rzewski- The People United Will Never Be Defeated


In an earlier post (Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries, posted on March 20, 2013) I discussed a project in which I would identify what I have deemed significant works in this genre.  I have decided to narrow the topic to those works which are inspired by or are intended to express dissatisfaction with given sociopolitical issues.  This will then leave out works which are friendly to the political situation such as Aaron Copland‘s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ and ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. These are both great pieces of music but their presentation is more celebratory than critical.

Dag in de Branding 11 - Frederic Rzewski

Dag in de Branding 11 – Frederic Rzewski (Photo credit: Haags Uitburo)

So without further discussion (a proposed taxonomy of classical political music will be discussed in a future blog post) I wish to present another blog in that series.  The work up for discussion is the large set of piano variations composed in 1976 for the pianist Ursula Oppens.  Rzewski is well known for his virtuosity and for his support of and definitive performances of new music.  He is also known for quite a bit of music with political themes.  Some of those other works  will likely be the subjects of future posts in this series.

Logo de la banda Category:Quilapayún

Logo de la banda Category:Quilapayún (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rzewski took as his starting point a popular song by Sergio Ortega (1938-2003), a Chilean composer and pianist.  He wrote the song in 1973 with lyrics written by members of the musical group Quilapayún who subsequently recorded it.  Quilapayún recorded no less than 26 studio albums from 1966-2009 along with several live albums.  They are a part of the Nueva Canción Chilena which sought political change through new songs defining those changes.  The Nueva Canción movement became a subset of Latin American and Iberian folk-inspired protest music which saw groups form worldwide producing songs which became part of the soundtrack of political protests in those various countries.

English: The Inti-Illimani logo Español: Logo ...

English: The Inti-Illimani logo Español: Logo Inti-Illimani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the 1973 coup which deposed and likely assassinated Salvador Allende the song was popularized also by another Chilean group, Inti-Illimani.  Both groups along with many political dissidents sought and found asylum in other countries.  Inti-Illimani found refuge in Italy, Ortega and Quilapayún settled in France.

This major opus was written on commission for Ursula Oppens who asked for a companion to the Beethoven Diabelli Variations, certainly a tall order.  Rzewski wrote the piece in 1975 no doubt inspired at least in part by the 1973 coup which deposed Salvador Allende and installed the dictator Augusto Pinochet.  The piece consists of 36 variations grouped in 6 sets of 6 variations each.  In a nod to Bach’s Goldberg Variations the final variation is a restatement of the theme.  In addition to the main theme there are quotations from an Italian socialist song, “Bandiera Rossa” and “Solidarity Song” with words by Bertold Brecht and music by Rzewski’s former teacher, Hanns Eisler.

Oppens premiered the piece on February 7, 1976 at the Bicentennial Piano Series at the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts in Washington, D.C.  She made a grammy nominated recording of the work in 1979 and the piece has enjoyed numerous subsequent performances and recordings.

The piece is structured symmetrically in six sets of six variations each.  It also allows for a bit of improvisation.  But this is an eminently listeninable piece which seems rightfully to be gaining its place in the repertoire.  This is evidenced most recently in Sony’s decision to include this set of variations along with those of Bach (Goldberg Variations) and Beethoven (Diabelli Variations) in a boxed set which I reviewed here.

Rzewski himself has recorded the piece four times (1977, 1990, 1999 and 2007).  The last recording is a video of the performance. Having seen Rzewski perform this piece live in 1989 I can tell you that his performance is a pleasure to behold.

Several other pianists have released recordings (not counting several good ones on You Tube) including Marc-Andre Hamelin, Stephen Drury, Kai Schumacher,  I look forward to other recordings hoping to hear interpretations from Sarah Cahill, Bruce Brubaker, Lisa Moore, R. Andrew Lee and Nicolas Horvath to name a few.

Whether this work had any impact on the atrocities of the repressive Pinochet regime is certainly doubtful but the fact that this piece has essentially entered the repertoire for virtuoso pianists and stands as a monumental achievement in the variation form will pretty much guarantee that the atrocities and their perpetrators will be recalled and hopefully reviled at each and every performance.

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Next Gen Steve Reich: Two Great New Recordings


One of the hurdles on the way to long-term historical recognition is finding the next generation of interpreters for whom the music itself is not new but whose interpretation is needed anew in light of the music’s place in the canon of performed and recorded music. So Mr. Reich has now arrived in two fantastic new recordings.


The first CD here is the Cedille (Cedille 90000 161) label debut by Third Coast Percussion, a young Chicago based group.  The label itself is reason enough to pay attention with their intelligently selected and well-recorded releases.  But even so this one stands out for a couple of reasons.

As  Reich reaches his 80th birthday (as are many composers whose work informed my listening life since the 70s) we are seeing the next generation (or so)  of performers, musicians for whom this music is not new.  (Third Coast Percussion is Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore. They were founded in Chicago in 2005.). As these dedicated musicians traverse this repertoire they see it from a different perspective and they acknowledge this in the accompanying notes by Robert Dillon.  No doubt they are familiar with the music and have heard some if not all previous recordings. This music is no longer new and novel the way it was to those who first heard it.  And that is what we have here, a new take on music already familiar giving us the perspective of another generation.

The second reason to get this recording is the sheer beauty of the sound.  It is a masterpiece of recorded sound which does justice to the work of these fine musicians as well as the music.  The album was recorded at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (where Third Coast is in residency).  Dan Nichols was the engineer assisted by Matt Ponio.  It was mastered by Jessie Lewis and Kyle Pyke.
The CD opens with the recent Mallett Quartet (2009) which has been recorded only once before.  The piece is in three sections fast-slow-fast split over the first three tracks.  It is one of Reich’s finest compositions showing him as a still vital artist and it will no doubt receive many more performances but it would be hard to imagine a better recording.

The second selection is, for this writer, one of Reich’s more unusual pieces.  The Sextet (1984) is scored for two keyboards (pianos doubling synthesizers used for long held tones) and percussion.  David Friend and Oliver Hagen lend their formidable keyboard skills to this work and help it to swing.

I must admit that this performance has resulted in me giving this work some serious close listening again and I am liking it better.  Some of these movements seem like precursors to some of the writing in Reich’s wonderful The Four Sections (1987), another work that deserves more attention.

The brief but lovely Nagoya Marimbas (1994) is pretty much an accepted staple of the classical marimba repertoire and has also been transcribed and performed on guitars as well.  As with the preceding the performance is faithful and lively.

For the final track a decision was made to go back to early in Reich’s output with Music for Pieces of Wood (1973).  As with much of his early work we see his experimental side focusing as much as possible on a single process.  It uses the same rhythmic pattern as the 1972 Clapping Music but uses additive rather than phasing techniques (I believe), a great example of the roots of minimalism.  The group does some toying with the choice of percussion but, as in the preceding tracks, manage to create a performance worthy of the best interpreters in their generation.  Happy Birthday Mr. Reich!!


This second CD (New Focus fcr 165) is another aspect of crafting a legitimate new interpretation of a given piece of music.  Guitarist Daniel Lippel goes back to some of the roots of Reich’s mature style, Ghanaian drumming.  Reich seems to have achieved his personal artistic synthesis after his encounter and study with the master drummers of Ghana.  It is here that he was finally able to synthesize the gifts received from his study of jazz (Reich was/is a jazz drummer) and his tape music experiments into the larger forms for which he is now known through these studies with West African musicians.  And it is here that Lippel goes, with an assist from musicologist Martin Scherzinger, to create his (re)vision of this classic Reich composition.

Electric Counterpoint (1987) was written for and first recorded by the still wonderful jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.  His recording is certainly definitive but, as with all music performance, hardly the last word.  Several artists have presented their versions (David Tanenbaum’s acoustic guitar version deserves more attention by the way).  It is a very appealing and interesting piece cast in a classic fast-slow-fast format that presents formidable challenges for the musician but not for the listener.

It is difficult (and certainly beyond the scope of this review) to say specifically what Mr. Lippel has done differently but there is clearly a difference (further notes can be found here).  I am loathe to find adjectives to describe this recording except to say that it is well worth your time to hear it.  It provides a different way of hearing much as Glenn Gould has done for Bach.  Just sit back and enjoy.

Getting the Oboe (et al) to Stand on Its Own, Catherine Lee


    Connections can be fascinating and not long after publishing my review of Emily Doolittle’s  release here I received, in addition to a stunning number of readers for that article, a CD by one of her fellow musicians featuring another of Doolittle’s interesting works alongside four other works for solo oboe (or English Horn or Oboe d’amore).  Though certainly kind and timely I did not relish the idea of being subjected to even this short CD single of a soloist with no accompanying musicians playing a series of unknown soliloquies.  My concern was that of having to endure the sincere efforts of a musician who is convinced of her instruments’ solo potentials and who labors to prove this to all but hardly gets past technical achievement like a recording I once heard of the Bach Cello Suites played on a Double Bass, interesting as a technical achievement but…

My fears were clearly unfounded as I listened to each track.  Patience turned to excitement and I think I’ve now heard a sort of new breed of instrumental specialist.  Lee plays oboe as well as the closely related English Horn and the very little known Oboe d’amore with expertise.  But she is not a specialist in the “period ensemble” genre per se. Rather her focus is on the potentialities of her instruments as vehicles for new music, improvisation and solo performances.  There seems to be little threat of a forthcoming rendition of the Telemann Flute Fantasies played on one or all of those.  Instead we have a gifted musician who seems poised to shepherd these instruments into new adventures in the 21st century.

The album consists of 5 tracks, all less than nine minutes in duration but each is a fully realized composition lovingly interpreted by this performer.  I am only familiar with one of the composers here, Emily Doolittle whose Social Sounds from Whales at Night (2007) is the only track which features any accompaniment.  It is a good example of Doolittle’s potentially groundbreaking work with animal sounds.  The other tracks manage to rise above the level of mere effects-ridden etudes to the level of compositions that define their own sound world and subjugate that world to artistic expression.  Very interesting listening.

From the first track it is clear that this is a musician with a deep understanding of the expressive possibilities of her instruments in both traditional and extended techniques as well as a clear sense of how to find music of substance.  Her playing sounds effortless suggesting that she puts a great deal of time into honing her virtuosity but she clearly moves beyond the technical to master the expressive range.
I would certainly be willing to hear just about anything Ms. Lee chooses to play including the relatively obscure repertoire for the oboe d’amore but I have my fingers crossed that we may get to hear her tackling concertos by Morton Feldman, Vincent Persichetti, Witold Lutoslawski and Hans Werner Henze, big projects that are nice to hope for but we do see that her ear for the smaller projects is clearly golden.

Exceptional New Album of Harp Music: Karen Gottlieb


gottlieb hp

Innova 927

This is simply one of the most beautiful and satisfying albums to come across my desk.  Karen Gottlieb is a bay area harpist and harp technician.   She holds degrees from the University of Washington, Seattle and the Cleveland Institute of Music.  She is also a certified Lyon& Healy and Salvi Harps technician.

kghp

Harpist Karen Gottlieb

Ms Gottlieb teaches at Mills College and SF State University.  She plays with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players as well as other bay area institutions.  She also teaches harp privately and her entertaining website also includes some of her favorite recipes.

From the cover photograph to the recording, to the choice of repertoire and the fellow musicians this is an absolutely gorgeous and satisfying album.  The cover photo by Peter Neibert expertly represents the material within.  The recording by the wonderful Robert Shumaker is superb.  This is both celebration and homage to composers and musicians of Northern California.

Ms. Gottlieb enlists the talents of fellow bay area artists Dan Reiter, cello, Tod Brody, flute, Daniel Kennedy, percussion and William Winant, percussion in a celebration of bay area composers Lou Harrison (1917-2003), Wayne Peterson (1927- ), John Cage (1912-1992) (OK, Cage isn’t really a “bay area” composer but he was and is well-loved in the area) and Dan Reiter (1951- ).

Harrison’s deceptively simple sounding music is joyful and tuneful but that simplicity belies a great emotional depth as well as evidence of his studies in world music.  He is represented here by his Suite for Cello and Harp (1949) and Music for Harp with Percussion (1967-1977).  These pieces, respectively, open and close the disc.

Peterson’s Colloquy for Flute and Harp (1999) us actually the most recent piece on the program and it evokes much of the sound world of, perhaps, Ravel in its intense dialogue.  

Cage’s In a Landscape (1949) is written for harp or piano and is one of his best known works.  The simplicity of this work’s sound world is actually pretty intricate in structure and, like many of his pieces of that era, was written to accompany a dancer.  Gottlieb’s reading is thoroughly convincing and satisfying.

Reiter’s Sonata for Flute and Harp (1982), like the Harrison, evokes world music through its imitation of shakuhachi and koto.  I hadn’t heard Reiter’s compositions before and now I look forward to hearing more.

What makes this disc particularly endearing is this generation of musicians’ interpretations of these classic and newer works.  None of these works are commonly heard but all deserve more exposure.  The musicians, led by Gottlieb, seem to exude a sort of native understanding of these compositions or at least manage to convincingly make them sound both loving and definitive.

 

Filling Vital Gaps in the Recorded Repertoire: The Walden Chamber Players Do America


walden ch pl evolution

The only name that might not be familiar to fans of early to mid-twentieth century American music feature in this recording is that of Marion Bauer (1882-1955).  The rest of these composers are clearly established in both recordings and the performing repertoire.  One of the great things about this recording is that the collector runs practically no risk of duplication.  While the Rorem, Barber and Bowles have been recorded before I am not aware of any currently available recordings of the Thomson, Copland and Bauer pieces.

I don’t know how profoundly significant all these works are, only time (and more performances/recordings) will tell.  But these are attractive pieces that fill historical gaps and that is apparently the goal of this clever ensemble.  Even if these are not first order masterpieces they do speak to the historical evolution of the American sound in the twentieth century.

Marion Bauer is herself in need of a reassessment.  This woman, 20 years older than Aaron Copland was essential in the establishment of the foundational institutions of American music.  Few of her works have been recorded and even fewer given good or great recordings.  So this 1944 Trio Sonata No. 1 recording is a very good start.  This, like the other works on the album do not stray far from basic romantic tonality but were the “modern” idiom for the works of their day.  The sound of mid-century neo-romanticism is clearly in evidence in this lovely and lyrical three movement sonata.

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) is now better known for his excellent music criticism but he was also one of the finest examples of the American neo-romantic tradition (and the only composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for a film score) and his work is sadly under-appreciated. The five brief movements are infused with the composer’s folk and hymn references like much of his work.  I do not think this lovely little Serenade for Flute and Violin (1941) has been recorded before and, hearing it now, I can’t imagine why not.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is represented here by two late works from 1971 and 1973, both entitled Threnody.  The first is dedicated to Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and the second to Copland’s friend Beatrice Cunningham.

As far as I know this is the first recording of these two works.  They are short and intense pieces whose apparent simplicity most likely belies some complexity but these are very approachable works.  It is a great service to have them available for listening.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is probably the foremost representative of American romanticism.  The brief Canzone for Flute and Piano (1961) was originally written for a friend.  The melody made its way into Barber’s Piano Concerto Op. 38 (1962) and has been given the opus number 38a.

Ned Rorem (1923- ), composer and diarist is also a strong contender for the romantic crown in American music.  He is the youngest of the composers represented on this recording (though this reviewer would like to make the case to perhaps include David Del Tredici 1937- for inclusion in this survey of mid-century American romantics).  Best known for his songs, Rorem’s orchestral and chamber music have only recently begun to get the attention they deserve.

His Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano (1960) is very strong example of the quality of his chamber music.  The four movement trio has been recorded before but this performance is about as fine and definitive as one could imagine.

Paul Bowles (1910-1999) is far better known for his literary endeavors and is connected to the beat writers.  His novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949) secured his literary fame.  Bowles spent much less time on composition after 1956 but his music has (though painfully slowly) been going through some reckoning in recent years.  And so it should.  This contemporary of Aaron Copland  has written a fair amount of music, much of that in the form of incidental music for various plays.  This Sonata for Flute and Piano (1932) has been recorded before but it is good to see it made available in a competent recent version.

Ned Rorem, the only composer here still living, gets the final word in The Unquestioned Answer (2002).  It is essentially a reflection on Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question (1908, rev. 1930-5) and provides a fitting conclusion to this wonderful survey.

I very favorably reviewed a previous release by the Walden Chamber Players (Marianne Gedigian, flute; Curtis Macomber, violin; Tatiana Dimitraes, violin; Christof Huebner, viola; Ashima Scripp, cello and Jonathan Bass, piano).  And they continue their intelligent and very personal survey of chamber music.

This is a very satisfying album which achieves its goal of displaying music which clearly contributes to the collective voice of American music as it developed in the early to mid- twentieth century.  This intelligent selection of music, well-performed, fills gaps in the recorded repertoire and, one hope, will encourage others to bring more of this work to recordings and performances.

 

 

 

 

A Really Great Brass and Organ Album, Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble


gargoylebrass

MSR Classics MS 1598

At first this disc seemed to be one of those “audiophile spectacular” niche market items designed to show off one’s stereo system.  I expected a well-recorded album with wide dynamic range and a clarity that would stun the listener but these types of albums frequently have well-recorded but uninteresting music or, worse, cloying showpieces that don’t bear repeated listening.

The first listen dissuaded me from that notion immediately because this is interesting and well-played music.  Except for three clever transcriptions of late 19th/early 20 century pieces all the music is from 2005-2013 (as are the transcriptions for that matter).

The music is, on the whole of a somewhat conservative nature but that is not a negative thing.  All of the music is pleasantly engaging and/or downright exciting.

The first four (of a total of 15) tracks present the music of Carlisle Sharpe (1965- ).  The first work Flourishes (2005/10) is a festive fanfare which was revised for this ensemble. The next three tracks contain the Prelude, Elegy and Scherzo (2012) is a commission by the present artists.

Next we move on to one of the arrangements by Craig Garner (1959- ).  This is, I think, a difficult arrangement to play but is handled with such ease by these players that one could be fooled into thinking it was easy.  The arrangement of the popular drinking song from Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) is a lucid and detailed transcription.  It is the clarify of the recording that makes this obvious as we are able to hear the various challenging lines that allow pretty much everyone in the ensemble to demonstrate their facility.

William Whyte (1983- ) is the next featured composer with a satisfying little suite called Dwarf Planets (2012).  It is in five brief movements.  The piece was also commissioned by and dedicated to Chicago Gargoyle Brass and artistic director Rodney Holmes.

Earthscape (2011) by David Marlatt is cast in a similar vein and, with the previous five tracks these are effectively musical appendices to Holst.  Marlatt, a Canadian composer has written this lyrical piece for the Gargoyle Brass.

Tracks 12 and 13 are another great transcription of a type of work which conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was fond of calling “bon-bons”, an appellation that was a proto-pop concert concept describing short, popular encore pieces.  It is the Polka and Fugue from “Schwanda the Bagpiper” by Jaromir Weinberger (1896-1967), a Czech composer whose reputation lies pretty much entirely on this work.   Originally for orchestra, this engaging work is very effectively arranged for this ensemble.

Tracks 14 and 15 comprise another transcription, this time of two movements from Camille Saint-Saens’ (1835-1921) 3rd Symphony (1886).  This is another truly great piece of music that always plays well with audiences.  The original is for a large orchestra and an organ.  The transcription is remarkably faithful to the score and it’s hard not to get hooked on that finale.  The entire symphony is actually based on the “Dies Irae” chant from the Requiem Mass though this is not a somber piece at all.

The last track is Velvet Blue (2012) by Peter Meechan (1983- ), a British born Canadian composer.  Originally written for a “rock” organ (the Hammond variety) and here played on a traditional pipe organ this is one of the most unusual pieces here.  It’s blues/jazz inflections harken back to big band sounds of the 1930s.

Brass instruments and organs are not instruments known for their agility.  Combine that with the resonant recording space of the churches involved and you have some serious engineering challenges.  Hudson Fair at Hudsonic has met these challenges and succeeded in capturing these performances in lucid detail with a true audiophile recording.  The dynamic range is wide and the the recording is about as clear as I have ever heard done  in this setting.

The musicians Lev Garbar, trumpet; Andrew Hunter, trumpet and flugelhorn; Amy Krueger, horn; Kathryn Swope, horn; John Grodrian, trombone; Graham Middleton, trombone; Ryan Miller, trombone; Andrew Vandevender, tuba; Paul Ramsler, tuba; Joshua Wort, tuba; Michael Schraft, tympani and drum set; Jared Stellmacher, organ; Mark Sudeth, piano; and Steven Squires, conductor all play with precision, lyricism and feeling.

One more piece of what I call “audio porn” is nicely included, the statistics on the two beautiful organs played at the two churches where these recordings were made.  Nice touch. Great fun album.

 

Between the Lines, New Percussion Music by Neil Thornock


Between the Lines

Between the Lines

Other than the information on this CD and the composer’s faculty page (here) information seems limited on this composer,.  He earned a BM, Organ Performance, Brigham Young University, 2001, an MM, Music Composition, Brigham Young University, 2003 and a DM, Music Composition, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, 2006.  Currently he is associate professor of music at BYU where he teaches theory and composition as well as electronic music.

Thornock is that rare breed of percussionist (or is it keyboardist?), a carriloneur  and he takes the opportunity to display those skills on this all percussion release, apparently the first recording of this composer’s music.

It is very difficult to assess a composer based solely on their percussion music and sometimes that genre can take on the insider feel of, say, band music or some more rarefied and sequestered niche of music.  As popular as percussion music has become in the 20-21st century it seems sometimes to be an orphan genre.  This is also, no doubt, due to the all-inclusive nature of the term “percussion” which leaves a huge list of potential instruments to consider.  So an album of tympani music or bongo music or marimba music (conceivably even piano and harp can be included under the percussion rubric).might all be spoken of generically as percussion music.  This recording uses a wide variety of instruments.

Having said that this disc appears to show a composer with a wide palette and knowledge of the medium and it is an opportunity to hear carillon music which is itself a relatively rare experience in recordings.  His writing is accessible and, no doubt, well-tailored to the skills of the musicians.

There is nothing familiar here.  All are new works written, presumably, in the last few years.  It would be interesting to hear more of this composer’s output in the areas of chamber, orchestral and electronic music.  But this little tease will have to do for now.

Matthew Coley, the percussionist, seems to be the real star here.   He plays on all tracks and seems to be a highly skilled player.  His website was the most useful to this reviewer as well.  Along with him are the Iowa Percussion Group, the Iowa State University Percussion Ensemble and, as mentioned earlier, the composer on carillon on tracks 7-10 with Gerard Norris conducting.

This New Focus recording FCR 156 is beautifully recorded and I think that is no simple task given the variety of instruments involved.