American Muse, American Master: Steven Stucky on BMOP


BMOP 1050

Steven Stucky (1949-2016) was sadly taken from the world too soon.  But we can rejoice in this wonderful new disc of (mostly) first recordings of some of his wonderful orchestral music and songs.  Boston Modern Orchestra Project adds another entry to their growing discography of must hear American music with this beautiful recording.

Three works are featured, Rhapsodies (2008), American Muse (1999), and Concerto for Orchestra (No. 1, 1987).  Only one, American Muse has been recorded (on Albany Records) before and all are worthy selections from the composer’s ample catalog.

Rhapsodies, the most recent work, is also the shortest at just over 8 minutes.  It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony and is for large orchestra and sounds as though it could serve as a movement in another Concerto for Orchestra.  Stucky, who was an expert on the music of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), was a master orchestrator as was Lutosławski though Stucky’s style is distinctly different reflecting a sort of friendly romantic modernism with serious virtuosity.  This little gem gives the orchestra and, no doubt, the conductor, a run for their money in this virtuosic and highly entertaining little sonic gem.  It was premiered in 2008 under Lorin Maazel.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic commission, American Muse was written with the fine baritone Sanford Sylvan in mind.  It is a four song cycle setting poems by John Berryman, e.e. cummings, A.R. Ammons, and Walt Whitman and was premiered in 1999 under Esa-Pekka Salonen.  Sylvan is a very fine interpreter of American music and first won this reviewer’s heart with his rendition of John Adams’ The Wound Dresser (also a Whitman setting).  One should never miss an opportunity to hear Sylvan’s work.

Again we are treated to Stucky’s acute and subtle sense of orchestration which works with the poetry unobtrusively paralleling the words with the musical accompaniment and seemingly creating its own poetry in sound. Sylvan is in fine voice and seems to be enjoying his performance, a very satisfying experience.

The inclusion of Stucky’s first Concerto for Orchestra which was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in 1988 (under Ricardo Muti) will satisfy fans of this composer’s work as it provides an opportunity to hear “the one that got away” so to speak.  It was the runner up for the Pulitzer Prize which he would later win for his Second Concerto for Orchestra (2003) in 2005.

In it’s three movements Stucky is clearly the master of his realm and creates a wonderful listening experience.  His sense of drama and emotion are stunning and serve to underscore the dimension of what the world has lost in his passing.  But it is time to leave sorrow aside and let the music speak and thus provide the composer with a dimension of immortality.

As usual the performance and recording are impeccable and Gil Rose continues to record wonderful music that deserves more frequent hearings and does honor to the memory of a cherished artist.  Now can a recording of Stucky’s 2012 Symphony be far behind?  Let’s hope so.

Grand Celebrations of Finnish Culture


BIS- 9048 SACD

The choice of repertoire, performers, and the quality of their recordings make any BIS records release worthy of attention.  This two disc set is a fine example.  Three major choral/orchestral works which celebrate the justly proud Finnish culture are given very fine performances in this live recording from 2016.

The earliest work, Jean Sibelius’ Kullervo Op. 7 (1892) is one of the less recognized masterpieces by Finland’s best known composer.  Based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, this massive symphony has acquired a bit of its own mythology.  Though several recordings of this work now exist the world world premiere recording by the late Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) from the early 1970s brought this neglected masterpiece to a larger listening audience.  The intelligent liner notes by Andrew Barnett (and Olli Kortekangas) document and dispel the myths that Sibelius suppressed all or portions of this work which was premiered in 1892 yet had to wait until after the composer’s death in 1957 to receive its first twentieth century performance.  

In fact it seems more likely that the large forces required along with programmers’ preference for the composer’s later masterpieces were responsible for the unfortunate neglect of the present work.  It was the more romantically inclined myth of mysterious oppression that greeted Berglund’s triumphant premiere recording and this reviewer recalls being both charmed and intrigued by it.  Whatever the story the music is now a recognized early triumph by its creator and it is given a gorgeous reading by Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, (principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra which plays powerfully and definitively.

So why a second disc?  Well, Maestro Vänskä saw fit to commission a new work by contemporary Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas to serve as a companion piece to Kullervo and, then include a version with chorus of Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia.  Together these three works would very satisfyingly fill an entire concert program.

Olli Kortekangas (1955- ) chose poetry by Finnish-American poet Sheila Packa and composed a 7 movement work (three are interludes for orchestra alone) in celebration of the 150th anniversary of modern Finnish migration to the United States.  The work, Migration (2014), is similar in orchestration with its use of male chorus and two soloists backed by a large orchestra.  The composer’s style is a sort of 21st century romantic style with tasteful modern touches.  

The focus of this fine new work is an affirmation of Finnish culture and its impact on the United States.  It seems both fitting and satisfying then that this program conclude with the landmark work of Finnish pride and nationalism, Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia (1899).  But rather than just another reading of this classic of the concert hall  Vänskä chooses to do a version with chorus.  This was not the composer’s original intent but this version fits remarkably well in the context of this album.  

This is a very enjoyable album, well conceived and executed in every way.  Soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Tommi Hakala sing their roles with skill and passion as does the YL Male Voice Choir.  The applause track at the end of the Finlandia performance echoed the emotional experience of this reviewer and will likely do so for anyone who chooses to avail themselves of this fine example of recording art.

Words Fail and Music Succeeds: Violinist Yevgeny Kutik


Marquis 774718147721

Politics requires words and indeed fails at times but music very much succeeds in this fine recording.  This charming collection organized loosely around songs without words is the third album by this emerging artist.

The music is largely 20th to 21st century (if you count the date of the transcriptions) but the sound and mood of the album ranges from the romanticism of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, the post-romantic Mahler, to the neo-classicism of Prokofiev and a dash of modernism from Messiaen, Gandolfi, Andres, and Auerbach.  No words, no politics, just some really beautiful music.

There are 14 tracks of which the Mendelssohn and the Mahler will be the most familiar to listeners.  What is interesting here is a certain unity in these seemingly disparate works which range over nearly 200 years of compositional invention.  In fact this recital program strongly resembles in spirit the justly popular programs of Jascha Heifetz and his acolytes.  That is to say that this is at heart a romantic recital program sure to please any aficionado of the violin and piano genre.

Two of the tracks, those by Michael Gandolfi and Lera Auerbach are for solo violin.  The unaccompanied violin repertoire best represented by J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas is a relatively small one and one fraught with difficulties for composers as well as performers.  Fear not though, these pieces are well wrought and represent significant contributions to the solo violin literature.

The Gandolfi (1956- ) Arioso doloroso/Ecstatico (2016) was commissioned by Mr. Kutik and this is the world premiere recording.  The composer utilizes a basically romantic sounding style with clear references to Bach at moments to create a very satisfying piece imbued with depth but eminently listenable.  Gandolfi’s eclectic oeuvre is by itself worthy of further exploration.

Lera Auerbach’s (1973- ) T’Filah (2015) is a reverent (though not excessively somber) prayer written in memory of the victims of the Nazi holocaust.  Auerbach shares some Russian roots with the soloist and this brief composition will leave most listeners wanting to hear more from this fine and prolific composer.

Timo Andrés (1985- ) plays the piano on the eponymous track Words fail (2015), the second of the two works commissioned by Kutik and premiered on this disc.  He is a skilled composer using a wide variety of compositional and instrumental techniques (which he mentions in his liner notes) to create a sort of modern song without words that fits so well in this program.  Andrés is certainly among the rising stars both as composer and performer.

One should definitely pay attention to the fine work of Kutik’s accompanist John Novacek whose precision and interpretive skill so well compliment the soloist.  The art of the accompanist shines very clearly here.

Overall a great recital disc from a soloist from whom we will doubtless continue to hear great things.

Captain Kirk and the Buddha Speak Esperanto: Other Minds 22 Commemmorates Lou Silver Harrison at 100


Esperanto is a constructed language brought into being in an 1887 book by a Polish-Jewish doctor by the name of L. L. Zamenhof (1861-1917).  This constructed language was intended in part as an intellectual exercise which might contribute to greater international discourse and perhaps understanding.  He outlined his intentions as follows:

  1. “To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner.”
  2. “To enable the learner to make direct use of his knowledge with persons of any nationality, whether the language be universally accepted or not; in other words, the language is to be directly a means of international communication.”
  3. “To find some means of overcoming the natural indifference of mankind, and disposing them, in the quickest manner possible, and en masse, to learn and use the proposed language as a living one, and not only in last extremities, and with the key at hand.

Esperanto did gain a great deal of popularity and there are still adherents today (an estimated 2 million people worldwide).  Lou Harrison was one of the users of this language (users are known as “Esperantists”).

L. L. Zamenhof (1859-1917)

In 1966 a horror film, “Incubus”, written and directed by Leslie Stevens (of Outer Limits fame) was released starring the just pre-Star Trek William Shatner.  Once thought lost, this film was restored from a copy found in a French film library.  It was only the second (and apparently last) feature film done entirely in Esperanto (the first being the 1964 French production, “Angoroj” or Agonies).  It was thought that the use of Esperanto would add a mysterious dimension to the production though detractors challenged the actors’ ability to properly pronounce the dialogue.  A link to a Shatner scene is here.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=accFmyaOj7o

And if you want to sit through the entire film (definitely a cult film experience) you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHUfHj2lTaM

Curiously 1917, the year of Dr. Zamenhof’s death, is also the birth year of Lou Harrison, the principal subject of this essay.  This patriarch of 20th century modernism was a composer, conductor, musicologist, performer, teacher, dancer, calligrapher, and Esperantist.  He used Esperanto to title many of his works and set some Esperanto texts to music.

Lou Silver Harrison

And the Buddha Becomes an Esperantist

In his masterful big composition, La Koro Sutro (1972) translated portions of the text of the Buddhist Heart Sutra (into Esperanto) are set for mixed chorus and American Gamelan.  Gamelan is an Indonesian mostly percussion orchestra which Harrison studied extensively following the example of pioneering Canadian ethnomusicologist and composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964).

Gamelan was first introduced to western audiences at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair where composers such as Claude Debussy and Erik Satie heard the instruments and later incorporated some of those sounds in their music.  (That Gamelan now resides in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.) Harrison’s life partner Bill Colvig, an instrument maker, constructed a percussion ensemble which they called the American Gamelan to differentiate it from the traditional Indonesian ensemble.  The American Gamelan, consisting of five percussion instruments (augmented with organ, harp, and chorus) was first used in the cantata La Koro Sutro.

Harriso (left) with Bill Colvig

This composition is very much a synthesis of the composer’s musical and philosophical ideas.  Harrison was an avowed pacifist and the Heart Sutra is a key Buddhist scripture which supports introspection and non-violence.  Here he uses his expertise as an esperantist, his knowledge of Indonesian as well as western classical music to create one of his largest and finest works.

Lou Harrison with Charles Amirkhanian (curator of this concert series) in 1966

It is a testament to Harrison’s influence that this is the fourth performance of La Koro Sutro in the Bay Area.  It was written for an Esperanto conference in Seattle in 1972 with a translation by fellow esperantist Bruce Kennedy and was premiered that same year at Lone Mountain College  in San Francisco (now part of the University of San Francisco).  Additional performances (available on You Tube) were staged in Berkeley in 1973 and again in 2012.  This is truly an American masterpiece as well as a prayer for our times.

The performances will take place in the Mission San Francisco de Asís Basilica, better known as Mission Dolores.  The mission was founded in 1776 and the still active small adobe church next to the Basilica, built in 1791, is the oldest surviving building in San Francisco.  The much larger Basilica next to the adobe church (and the actual location of said concert) was dedicated in 1918.

Interior of the historic Mission Dolores Basilica

For the record, a Basilica is a reference to both architectural and spiritual aspects of any church so designated.  In the Catholic Church a Basilica is a pilgrimage site, a place to which the faithful travel in a spiritual quest.  I don’t believe it is too much of a stretch to view this event as a musico-spiritual pilgrimage open to all ears and minds, and hearts.  You won’t come out speaking Esperanto but you will never forget what you’ve heard.
The program will include:


Threnody for Oliver Daniel for harp (1990) 

Suite for Cello & Harp (1948)

Meredith Clark, harp

Emil Miland, cello

Pedal Sonata for Organ (1987/1989) Praises for Michael the Archangel (1946-47)

Jerome Lenk, organ

Suite for Violin & American Gamelan (1974, composed with Richard Dee) 

Shalini Vijayan, violin

William Winant Percussion Group

La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra, 1972)

For large mixed chorus, organ, harp, and American Gamelan

The Mission Dolores Choir, Resound, Jerome Lenk, organ, Meredith Clark, harp, and the William Winant Percussion Group conducted by Nicole Paiement.
Saturday, May 20, 2017- 7:30 p.m. 

Mission Dolores Basilica

3321 16th St.

San Francisco, CA
The very affordable tickets ($12-$20) are available at:

http://om22concerttwo.brownpapertickets.com/

Revido tie. (See you there.)
 

Unheard Piano Trios, Chicago’s Lincoln Trio Finds Neglected Wonders


Cedille 90000 165

The Lincoln Trio is a Chicago based piano trio (founded in 2003) consisting of Desiree Rushtrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; and Marta Aznavoorian, piano. Their choice of repertoire is particularly wide ranging and includes basically the entire history of the piano trio including contemporary works.  

The present (already Grammy nominated for chamber music performance) offering, titled “Trios from the Homelands” gives us readings of piano trios by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), Arno Babajanian (1921-1983), and Frank Martin (1890-1974).  All are described as being outsiders whose work is little known outside of their native lands of, respectively, England, Armenia, and Switzerland.  

In many ways this recording is representative of the strengths of the Cedille imprint.  Attention to fine local musicians, a unique ear for truly interesting repertoire from a variety of time periods (largely 20th century), and high quality recording.  Whether or not these selections become incorporated into the common performing repertoire for piano trios is secondary to the fact that these selections are eminently listenable and entertaining.  They may very well find a place in many listeners’ playlists.

The first selection by Rebecca Clarke was premiered in 1922 (the oldest piece here) with none other than Dame Myra Hess at the keyboard.  Clarke’s music is hampered by gender prejudice but not by depth or talent.  This is a substantial work which is highly entertaining and contains material that continues to reveal wonders with repeated listenings.  There are three movements and the style is basically tonal, perhaps post romantic.  

Next is the trio by Arno Babajanian.  Most listeners (this reviewer included) have little exposure to Armenian classical composers outside of the Armenian derived works by the fine American composer Alan Hovhaness and perhaps some exposure to the truly wonderful work of Tigran Mansurian, the living ambassador and dean of Armenian composers.  On hearing this substantial Chamber work from 1952 listeners are alerted to the fact that there is much quality music that has seldom been heard outside of a country whose best known attribute at the present moment may rest largely on the 2015 centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide perpetrated at the hands of the Turks.  

The last piece is by the most familiar composer, Frank Martin.  Though not exactly a household name his oeuvre is the best documented in recordings even if his presence in the performing repertoire is still somewhat limited.  Martin is best known for some of his orchestral and choral music.  This “Trio sur des melodies populaires irlandaises” (1925) is described as a significant early example of the composer’s chamber music and the only work for piano trio.

As with the first two trios this is a substantial work whose three movements provide both technical challenges and very effective musical development.  This is not simply a pastiche of Irish tunes.  It is a very accomplished use of so called “popular” melodies to fashion major piece of chamber music.  

This disc is another fine entry into the Lincoln Trio’s recordings of lesser known repertoire that deserves at least a second hearing if not a promotion to more common live performances.  Their previous releases have included music by Joaquin Turina and a disc of music by women composers.  It would seem they are an ensemble that bears watching/listening.

Lavinia Meijer, New Superstar of the Harp Takes on Philip Glass



This is the ninth CD and the fourth Sony release by harpist Lavinia Meijer (1983- ).  This South Korean born artist was raised and educated in the Netherlands by her adoptive parents.  Her musical talent has earned her Cum Laude Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music and she has successfully pursued a career as both a soloist and an orchestral musician.  She appears to have a thorough grounding in both classical and contemporary harp repertoire and a passion for music.

In this double CD she presents her own transcriptions of ten of Philip Glass’ piano etudes and a second disc of music inspired in part by Glass’ style.  The Herculean tasks of transcribing and learning these etudes elicited collaboration with the affable composer and any Glass fan will want to hear her take on these pieces.

Meijer has chosen ten (of the now twenty) piano etudes for this album.  Now the harp is very close to the piano in many ways.  I believe it has basically the same pitch range and it does rely on strings and a sounding board.  However the playing of the instrument and the range of possibilities playable by two trained hands differs quite a bit.  There are problems on transcribing piano music for the harp.  It is not clear that all twenty can ever be successfully transcribed and played on Meijer’s instrument but this reviewer is truly grateful to hear the ten she has done and holds hope for the future that the remaining ten may find their way to a future release.  Her interpretation of these works help to provide the listener with insight to their complexities both technically and in their interpretation.  

The sassy neo-punk haircut on the album cover conjures comparisons in this reviewer’s mind of the hipness in both dress and presentation that characterized the wonderful Kronos Quartet, especially in their early days.   Indeed she does seem to be following a similar trajectory and Sony no doubt has hopes that she will establish a similar marketing niche doing for her instrument what the Kronos did (and continues to do) for the string quartet.  It certainly appears to be a safe bet.

One need only look to the second of the two discs to find Meijer championing some recent works written in contemporary styles that owe something to Glass’ compositional style.  The disc which includes Meijer’s take on portions of Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi score along with compositions by five other composers is definitely a lighter even more pop-inflected experience at times.  That is not to say that this disc is lesser in any way but that it does seem to be reaching perhaps for a younger audience less versed in the classical harp repertoire.  Classical music needs to embrace other genres as the very concept of genre becomes more divisive than useful.  Another Strategy reminiscent of the Kronos.  

Whether or not this album manages to attract a wider audience to the charms of her instrument it does serve to showcase the range of this artist’s technical skills and the delightfully broad reach of her repertoire.  This rapidly rising star seems poised to be writing a bright new chapter in the life of the concert harp, a truly exciting prospect.

Kristjan Järvi Celebrates Steve Reich’s 80th


Kristjan Järvi (1972- ) is the youngest son of justly famed conductor Neeme Järvi.  He is also a frequent collaborator with the talented and ubiquitous Gene Pritsker among others.  This double CD represents a portion of his concerts in celebration of Reich’s 80th birthday.  There are apparently recordings available on the streaming service Medici TV of several other Reich works including the Three Movements for Orchestra (1983) and Desert Music (1986).  All these stemmed from a residency (2013-2014) that Reich enjoyed with the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony and Chorus.

This 80th birthday tribute gives us yet another opportunity to hear another generation (other than Reich’s) interpreting this music.  For years only Reich and his ensemble had access to his scores but this is not the case with his orchestral and choral works.  Some may still consider Reich to be a difficult or experimental composer and this has limited the programming (and no doubt the commissioning) of music for such larger ensembles.  It is delightful to hear how other musicians respond to and interpret Reich’s music.  

In fact Reich’s music for larger ensembles is definitely worth hearing and hearing in different interpretations.  This set gives us the world premieres of beefed up orchestrations of You Are and Daniel Variations.  This writer looks forward to the orchestral version of Tehillim (1981) as well.  

This handsome two disc set includes the early Clapping Music (1971), Duet (1993), The Four Sections (1987), You Are Variations (2004),  and Daniel Variations (2006).  It is not a greatest hits compilation.  Rather it is a personal survey by a wonderful young musician.  Kristian Järvi is a conductor, composer and new music raconteur who is at the beginnings of a very promising career.  This album is a love song if you will.  Järvi clearly understands and loves this music and the opportunity to record these works, especially perhaps the intimate Clapping Music with the participation of the composer.

The Four Sections is tantamount to being a concerto for orchestra and is among this reviewer’s favorites among Reich’s works.  It has received too few performances and to date only two recordings.  This is the first live recording and gives insight into the amazing competence of both conductor and orchestra.  The 1993 Duet for Two Violins and String Orchestra is Reich’s homage to a musician of a generation preceding his, the wonderful violinist, conductor, and pedagogue, Yehudi Menuhin on his 80th birthday.  Soloists Andreas Hartmann and Waltraut Wachter handle this all too brief piece with skill and insight.  

The second disc contains studio recordings of the large orchestra versions of two very personal works.  These recordings alone are adequate reason to purchase this set.  Reich has gained much from tapping his Jewish heritage (musical, linguistic, and literary) in service of his art.  Both of these pieces feature texts from a variety of sources including the Bible, Hasidic aphorisms, the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein among others.  In both works the texts determine to some degree the rhythmic choices of the music. 

You Are Variations is a four movement orchestral/choral work which sets a different aphorism in each movement.  It is among the composer’s more personal works and includes quotations from Wittgenstein (the subject of Reich’s undergraduate studies) along with Biblical and Talmudic texts in a beautiful existential meditation.

Daniel Variations is a powerful overtly political work written in response to the tragic murder of journalist Daniel Pearl who was beheaded by extremists in Pakistan in 2002. It is a deeply felt and very pained work which expresses the tragedy and creatively makes a link with the Book of Daniel as well as Pearl’s own words.  Reich is no stranger to political protest on his music and this is among his finest in that genre.

If you don’t know Reich’s music this is not a bad place to start.  If you are already a fan (as I’ve been for years) you will want this set to round out your collection.