Of Mourning and Unity, 2016


 

oliverosolstice20160075Every year on June 21st, the Summer Solstice, there is a rather unique concert event in which musicians from the Bay Area and beyond gather in celebratory splendor in the sacred space of the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland.  The chapel is a columbarium  (a resting place for cremated remains) and a mausoleum.  The space is in part the work of famed California architect Julia Morgan.

On December 19th Sarah Cahill with New Music Bay Area secured permission to use this space for four hours from 11AM to 3PM.  She invited many musicians who had been involved in one way or another with Pauline Oliveros whose death preceded by a week or two the tragic “Ghost Ship Fire” as it’s become known.  The idea was to pay homage to both this wonderful theorist, composer, performer and teacher and also to pay homage and to mourn the losses of some 36 young artists who will now never realize their ambitions.

What follows here is a simple photo essay of my personal impressions of this event.  The slant of the winter light added a dimension to those beautiful spaces as a large roster of musicians played pieces by and about Pauline Oliveros.  It was a lovely and reverent experience.

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The angle of the winter light adds its dimension.

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Ken Thomson’s Restless: a Feast of New Chamber Music


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Ken Thomson is one of the rapidly rising stars of the New York music scene and beyond. His involvement with his group Slow/Fast which includes Ken Thomson, Russ Johnson, Nir Felder, Adam Armstrong and Fred Kennedy as well as Bang on a Can and others in the new music/new jazz community demonstrates his level of drive.  Thomson is a saxophone player and a composer.

The present album showcases his talents as a composer and are different than what I had expected from a musician with roots in free jazz and with saxophone as his principal instrument.  This is a set of two suites in the classical manner, a collection of movements. They do not appear to have any direct influence from jazz but rather they are quite clearly in a classical new music vein.

The first, Restless (2014) is a four movement piece for cello and piano.  It could have been called a sonata for all its complexity and development.  It is a lyrical and very listenable piece which is restless at times (though I think the title actually suggests multiple meanings) and loaded with fascinating musical ideas.  The writing for both the cello and the piano are apparently technically challenging but both are handled very well by Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Karl Larson (piano).  This disc is worth the price if only for the fantastic musicianship of these performers.

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Ashley Bathgate (cellist) and Karl Larson (pianist) (Photo by Gabriel Gomez, all rights reserved)

The three movement suite, Me vs. (2012) is a pianistic tour de force that makes great use of various pianistic effects involving judicious use of the sustain pedal and the creation of after image type effects which allow the harmonics to vibrate on strings not struck by the keys.  Again the nod to a basic three movement classical piano sonata with a complex first movement followed by a lyrical slow movement and a spritely virtuosic finale which resembles a moto perpetuo.

More about the internal dialogue that went on in the composer’s head is available in his commentary but this music doesn’t really require much explanation.  It is pretty clear and very effective music.  This is simply a wonderful recording of some fascinating new music.

Alberto Ginastera at 100


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Let me start by saying that the only thing wrong with this album is that it is only one CD. Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) is without doubt one of the finest composers of the twentieth century.  Stylistically he holds much in common with composers like his contemporaries Aaron Copland (with whom he studied), Carlos Chavez, Leonard Bernstein and others who incorporated the spirit if not always the literal music of his homeland’s folk culture into his music.  In additional to these nationalist works he wrote a substantial amount of traditional concert music which touched on the edges of modernistic trends.

He wrote three operas, two ballets. two piano concertos, two cello concertos, a harp concerto, three string quartets, a bevy of piano music and sundry other items.  It is simply not possible to contain a fair representation of his work on a single CD.  Despite that this disc is not a bad retrospective.  It is lovingly played and recorded and if it does not represent the whole of Ginastera’s oeuvre it is a nice sampling.

The disc begins with the wonderful Harp Concerto Op. 25 (1956, rev. 1968).  Though originally commissioned by Edna Phillips (principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra) she had retired before she could perform it and it was premiered in 1965 by the amazing Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta.  This three movement work is certainly one of the composer’s finest works and is beautifully played by Yolanda Kondonassis with the Oberlin Orchestra under Raphael Jiménez.  This piece is one of the finest modern harp concertos and is representative of the composer’s international style with perhaps just a taste of modernism.

Next up is the single movement Pampeana Op. 16 (1947) with the great Gil Shaham on violin and his sister Orli Shaham on piano.  This is a sort of window on Ginastera’s earliest nationalist style full of melody and virtuosity.

The next work is the Sonata for Guitar Op. 47 (1976) played by Grammy winning virtuoso Jason Vieaux.  I had not heard this work and my first hearing was indeed a revelation.  This is a major work for guitar and a wonderful sonata in the classical form.  I gave these four tracks a few listens in an attempt to digest some of their beauty and complexity and I will doubtless give them many more listens.  This is a major piece that belongs in the repertory.

And, finally, we move to the earliest utterance here with the Danzas Argentinas Op. 2 (1937) in an exciting and dedicated performance from Orli Shaham.

The sound is wonderful and there are a geekily satisfying set of liner notes which include a useful analysis by James O’Leary, Frederick B. Selch Assistant Professor of Musicology, Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  All in all a beautiful production and a great introduction to Ginastera’s work but please, don’t stop here.  Make sure you get to hear his other work and perhaps the wonderful folks at Oberlin will consider a volume two?

The Musical Mother of Us All: Pauline Oliveros, a Personal Appreciation


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Pauline Oliveros at one of Philip Gelb’s dinner concerts in Oakland.  I published this photo on Pauline’s Wikipedia page.

I woke at about 3PM on the day after Thanksgiving (having worked the previous night shift) and I checked my e-mail and then, on Facebook I learned of the passing of theorist, composer, musician, teacher and all round wonderful human being Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016). She had died peacefully in her sleep on Thanksgiving Day.  Going over the copious posts and comments I was saddened at her passing but oddly comforted by the fact that these posts honoring her are effectively eclipsing the ones on the obnoxious political issues as well as demonstrating the incredible reach of her influence.  Thankfully, Pauline will not have to endure the regressive politics which now dominate our country and, indeed, the world.

I first encountered Pauline’s work, as many did, through the Columbia Odyssey LP curated by none other than David Behrman in his Music of Our Time series.  There are several composers on the disc including Steve Reich (Come Out), Richard Maxfield (Night Music), and Pauline Oliveros (I of IV).  Over the years I collected and listened to most of her recordings Discogs lists 55 recordings but no doubt there are many more and likely a plethora of unreleased material which will grace our ears for years to come.  Like her older contemporary John Cage it is difficult to identify a “masterpiece” and, also like Cage, she didn’t aspire to such notions because she aspired to learn and subsequently teach the art of listening. Her Deep Listening Institute is based in Kingston, New York.

 

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Stuart Dempster at another of Philip Gelb’s dinner concerts. Stuart is one of the members of Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band

I was pleased to be able to see one of the incarnations of the Deep Listening Band in Chicago at the Harold Washington Library.  This concert occurred on the night of the famed “Chicago Flood” (1992) in which a construction mishap diverted thousands of gallons of water from the Chicago River into the disused coal delivery railway tunnels which connect most of the downtown buildings.  I brought along a postcard from her album The Well and the Gentle hoping to get her autograph.  It was my first face to face meeting with this icon of new music.  She graciously took the card into her hand and immediately exclaimed with a smile, “Oh, this is from the Well”.  She quipped that next time they would hold their concert in one of the “deep tunnels” which are a part of the Chicago’s massive flood control rainfall overflow system.  I still treasure that autograph and the memory of my first meeting with Pauline.

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Ione (l) doing verbal improvisation while Pauline improvises in parallel on her digital accordion at a memorable dinner concert curated by Philip Gelb.

I can hardly tell you my level of excitement when vegan chef and musician Philip Gelb announced that Pauline with her partner Ione would be appearing at his next dinner concert.  The opportunity for a close encounter with this master was certainly heaven sent. (Pauline later wrote the lovely introduction to Philip’s first vegan cookbook.)

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Philip Gelb performing at the June 21, 2015 Garden of Memory Concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes. This vegan chef and cookbook author plays and teaches shakuhachi and curates a wonderful dinner/concert series at his loft in West Oakland.  Philip also appears on several albums with Pauline and others.

Indeed, as I sat across from Pauline no doubt babbling some starstruck nonsense, I encountered in both her and her partner Ione two warm and unpretentious people.  While I knew I was in the presence of genius I was given to feel very welcome as they both engaged me and the other guests in lively conversation at this spectacular vegan meal.  In the pause just before dessert they gave a wonderful performance with Ione speaking improvised and passionate poetic utterances while Oliveros played her quirky improvisations in parallel on her digital accordion.

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Pauline Oliveros, Miya Masaoka and Frode Haltli performing Oliveros’ Twins Peeking at Koto (2014) at Other Minds 20 in 2015

I later got to see Pauline as a returning guest composer/performer at Other Minds 20, a series lovingly and painstakingly curated by composer, broadcaster and new music impresario Charles Amirkhanian.  I believe this was her last major bay area appearance.

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A clearly happy Pauline Oliveros acknowledges the warm applause of the Other Minds 20 audience after her performance at the SF Jazz Center in 2015.

Every year at the Garden of Memory summer solstice concert the open membership Cornelius Cardew Choir performs Oliveros’ Heart Sutra every year.  The verbal score describes how one enters the singing circle and intones basically the note of their choice with one hand over their heart and the other on the back of another singer.  I screwed up my courage to participate in this ritual a few years ago and it is now an essential part of the beginning of my summer.  Pauline has taught me much and no doubt will continue to teach me through her writings and recordings.  For that I am eternally grateful.

 

 

Couloir, a Wonderful New Cello and Harp Duo


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This is an beautiful album.  The main attraction is the world premiere recording of Serere (2012) by James B. Maxwell in two versions separated by a shorter piece by Nico Muhly.  Ravello Records brings us a wonderful Canadian duo, Couloir consisting of Ariel Barnes on cello and Heidi Krutzen on harp.

Maxwell, a Canadian composer, is new to this writer but the present work suggests that there is good reason to pay attention to this artist.  I’m not sure of the wisdom of two versions of the same piece on one disc but it does allow for close comparison.  It is basically an intimate and episodic piece of chamber music which is filled out with some electroacoustic material in the second version.  I don’t mean to sound dismissive because this is an engaging and enjoyable listen and a piece which seems to contain a certain depth and wisdom which suggests a well crafted work.  Both versions are clearly challenging from a technical aspect but all seems to be integrated in service of the music and not simply empty effects.  The second version of course has a fuller sound due to the augmentation of the electronics.  Both versions benefit from multiple listens and I certainly don’t intend to set this disc aside for a bit.

This is actually my first encounter with Nico Muhly’s work.  I have certainly heard of him but I am not familiar with any of his other work so I have nothing against which to compare the present piece except in the context of this disc.  Given that, this briefer piece, Clear Music (2003) is also finely wrought and engaging.  Maryliz Smith plays celeste on this track.  It functions basically as an interlude here but it does help clear the palate (so to speak) without taking the listener too far out of the musical context.

The recording from 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia is clear and pleasant and the performances are simply wonderful.

 

 

 

 

 

The Postcard Sessions, Saxophone and Piano


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It has always seemed to me that the saxophone has had a difficult time integrating into the mainstream of classical performance.  Since its invention by Adolphe Sax in the mid 19th century this family of instruments has amassed a somewhat limited solo repertoire and has only really made it as an orchestral instrument in the twentieth century.  The subsequent adoption of these instruments at the forefront of jazz and pop has forever changed the perception of this hybrid woodwind/reed/brass instrument which, for those who segregate musical genres, complicates matters even more.

It is the twentieth century that this album represents and it is the classical voice, not jazz or pop which speaks here.  This intelligently chosen set of pieces is like a little tour of the saxophone and piano literature representing some of the best of the early to mid twentieth century repertoire.  If that makes it a niche market then so be it, it is a lovely niche.

Now Robert Schumann (1810-1856), whose work opens this disc, is hardly a twentieth century composer but these transcriptions by Frederick Hemke (long time saxophonist of the Chicago Symphony and a highly respected teacher) are definitely contemporary and work well for saxophone and piano.  Drei Romanzen Op. 94  (1849) are originally for oboe and piano.

Tracks 4 and 11 contain pieces by Astor Piazolla (1921-1992), the Argentinian composer best known for his work with the tango forms.  Here we have two film music excerpts in apparent transcriptions.

There are four other sets of pieces on this recording by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958), Jean Francaix (1912-1987), Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) and Paule Maurice (1910-1967). The Vaughn Williams Folk Song Suite is originally for cello and piano and is vintage Vaughn Williams at his English folk song best.  The Ibert and the Francaix are suites of the sort of nervous, jazz inflected music that characterized an era between the wars.  Paule Maurice is a new name to this listener and the artists are to be commended for their part in saving her work from obscurity.

The Aeolian Song by Warren Benson (1924-2008) is probably one of the best known (and deservedly so) pieces on this disc.  This is actually the slow movement of a concertino for saxophone and orchestra but has become a sort of recital classic in its incarnation for saxophone and piano.

The Harrington/Loewen Duo are based in Canada and that may be their only flaw.  The curious but annoying lack of attention to the musicians who are our neighbors to the north is certainly mitigated to some degree by this release.  It is a lovely recital and the musicians are both committed and creative.  One hopes for another volume of recital pieces to follow this delightful release.

Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.