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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OM202022

David Rakowski: Stolen Moments, Fabulous New Orchestral Music


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BMOP 1048

The spirit of jazz and, in particular, that of Duke Ellington and perhaps George Gershwin seem ever present in this recent release from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.  David Rakowski (1958- ) is a new voice to these ears but clearly a highly developed one well schooled in writing for large orchestra and for piano solo within that context as well.

Two works are presented here, the four movement Stolen Moments (2008/2010) and Piano Concerto No.2 (2011).  Both are large, colorful works in a basically tonal/romantic context but with clear modernist influence.  Nothing experimental here, just sumptuous orchestral writing and a challenging and interesting work for piano and orchestra.  It was only from reading the useful liner notes that I learned Rakowski had been a student of Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), a composer famous for his hard nosed complexity.  In fact Rakowski actually quotes from Babbitt and this music is a tribute to the education received from this man (keep in mind that Babbitt also taught harmony to Stephen Sondheim).

It is as difficult to grasp that Rakowski was taught by Babbitt as it is to believe that, by his own assertion, he knows very little about jazz.  The first work seems to channel the spirits of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin more than Babbitt for sure.  This four movement orchestral suite, in it’s many moods, is melodic, jazzy and engaging in a way that can’t fail to entertain.

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Amy Briggs (image from the artist’s web site)

Amy Briggs has long been a collaborator with Rakowski and is an artist who has successfully made her career exclusively playing contemporary music.  This second of Rakowski’s concertos for this instrument was written for her and she plays it magnificently.  She clearly has a feel for the jazz rhythms and handles the virtuosic writing as though it were second nature.

The concerto ventures into a variety of moods and provides ample opportunities for many BMOP soloists to have their moments.  It is basically a classical three movement structure with multiple subdivisions within each movement.  These large movements come in at nearly 15 minutes each and are practically works unto themselves though they clearly adhere to the same basic vision.  The second movement is dedicated in memory of Rakowski’s teacher Milton Babbitt.  I’m sure he would have approved.

This is in fact the second time that Gil Rose and his massively talented musicians have chosen to survey some of Rakowski’s music.  That alone should be enough to clue listeners in to a potentially good listen.  Rose has been amassing a catalog of music by modern composers whose work deserves attention and, while this is an example of some pretty recent music, Rose and BMOP have done a fine job of giving attention to composers who have been unjustly neglected as well.   They seem to have a fine ear for quality music and this reviewer will listen to anything they choose to record.

As usual with BMOP, the recording is bright and lucid allowing the listener to hear the fantastic details in these big and intricate but entertaining works.  The production is by Gil Rose himself with recording and post-production by Joel Gordon.  Another great volume in the growing BMOP canon.

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.

E-Do: Yeominrok, Wonderful Korean Musical Fusion


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Call it world music, call it jazz, call it fusion but whatever the description this is an innovative and fascinating musical journey.  Using traditional Korean instruments as well as the usual keyboards, vocals, and drums this group of young musicians crafts a very interesting and beautiful tapestry of sound.

I have long had an interest in and some appreciation of traditional Korean musics and instruments but my knowledge is rather limited.  I am inclined to compare this group to Oregon, the iconic jazz/new age experimental band of the 1970s but unlike Oregon’s more widely cast net we see young musicians embracing their ancient Korean musical heritage as they seek to express themselves and invoke the wisdom of their ancestors.  This album was sent to me as a gift from a friend but I quickly fell in love with it and I had to write a review.

It seems to me that Korea has, more than many countries, been damaged and stunted by the antics that became known as World War II and the Korean War.  As a result this rich and ancient culture was nearly erased in favor of geographic division and political expediency.  It is heartening to find young artists such as these seeking to communicate with if not actually recover some of this rich past.

This band is named after a revered 15th century Korean king and they make liberal use of traditional Korean instruments alongside their drums, keyboards, and vocals.  The album succeeds to some degree in achieving a synthesis (as opposed to a sappy watering down) of traditional music and something like jazz with some rock and pop sensibility.  These are sincere and perceptive artists and if they have not fully succeeded then they have made a significant step toward reviving some of their justly valued history and culture.

In addition to its musical values this is a gorgeously produced album (visually and sonically) and I am sorry to see that only the digital download is available on Amazon.

There are six tracks on the disc and all feature traditional Korean instruments alongside the band’s keyboards, drums and vocals.  There are few vocals but no words as far as I can tell and any program is implied at best.  This is strictly about the music.

The first track, Bird of Oblivion, unfolds like an Indian raga with a meditative slow beginning giving way to a faster section.  It is the most extended work on the disc at 13:51 and it certainly serves to bdraw the listener in.  The remaining tracks range from pop-inflected jazz (track 3) to a little bit of rock .  Throughout the traditional Korean instruments make their presence known but not overwhelmingly.  This album is a pretty successful synthesis of old and new.

E Do consists of:

Kyung-hwa Ryu: chulhyungeum, yanggeum, janggu, kkwaenggwari

Chung Lim: drums, jungju, gong

Min-soo Cho: junggu, Korean drum, Korean fan, percussion

Jung-chul Seo: electronic bass, contrabass

Young-Sup Lee: daegeum, taepyeongso, danso, ocarina

Seung-hwan Yang: keyboards

Tae-young Kim: vocals

Young-goo Lee: daegum

Seek this one out.  And don’t forget to pick up some traditional Korean music as well.  It is well worth your time and, after all, a nod to the fine efforts of this wonderful group.

 

The Postcard Sessions, Saxophone and Piano


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Ravello RR 7934

 

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.

Lara Downes Making Magic at Noon in San Francisco


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Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco

A much needed light rain fell as I ventured out to hear Lara Downes play at the noontime concert series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood.  I had just recently reviewed this artist’s new CD release (here) and I jumped at the opportunity to hear her live.

The trip from my home in Alameda to this venue, a distance of some 15 miles took me almost two hours.  Construction rules right now.  In the course of the concert Ms. Downes commented that it took her 45 minutes to get there from her hotel in San Francisco (no doubt less than 2 miles).

Being familiar with this trip I managed to arrive at about 12:15PM.  When I arrived I was a bit surprised to find a service in progress so I sat quietly observing this beautiful little church.  Though raised Catholic I haven’t ventured into a church in some years.  The experience did place a sort of spiritual context on my concert experience.

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Priest saying mass at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral

The service ended a little after 12:30 and, after some of the congregants left I moved closer to the front.  Technicians moved the piano in place and Ms. Downes was introduced.

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Downes intensely focused as she plays Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces

She chose to open with Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Op. 12 Fantasy Pieces Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 (1837).  I have but a passing knowledge of Schumann’s music.  It is highly virtuosic romanticism. Beautiful melodies, classical harmonies with just a dash of dissonance and a very high level of technical difficulty which characterizes these pieces.  Downes played them with confidence and ease seemingly casting a spell as she did.  She played the set without interruption and received much deserved applause from the somewhat sparse audience of perhaps 50 or so people.

She followed with a selection from her upcoming release America Again, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s (1875-1912) setting of the spiritual Deep River Op. 59 No. 10 (1905), one of a set of 24 so-called “Negro Melodies”. Coleridge-Taylor was a black British composer of the late 19th century sometimes referred to as the “African Mahler”.  This setting, very much in the same spirit as the Schumann was pretty much what one might have expected had Schumann encountered black spirituals.  This selection added again to the spiritual dimension.  Deep River is a majestic and celebratory piece which, like the Schumann, was well received.

Downes deviated from the printed program to play another selection from that forthcoming album, Morton Gould’s (1913-1996) American Caprice.  This short piece was a delightful foray into jazz reminding us of Gould’s connections with his contemporaries like Aaron Copland and George Gershwin.  Gould is a composer whose work deserves more attention and this listener is grateful to the artist for bringing this little masterpiece back into the light.

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Downes making Rhapsody in Blue sound anew.

In some ways this functioned like a precursor to the next piece on the program, Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924) in the composer’s arrangement for solo piano. Downes, whose speaking was as comfortable and natural as her playing, asked the audience to try to hear this oh so familiar piece with new ears.  Indeed her fluid and dynamic playing put her own stamp on this popular gem and demonstrated again her seasoned virtuosity.  She played the work with passion but also with ease and confidence.

The ample applause and standing ovation brought her back for a wonderful encore.  It was Gershwin again for sure but this time in an amazing arrangement by Nina Simone (1933-2003) whose spirit seemed to be channeled by Downes.  “I loves you Porgy” from Porgy and Bess is featured on her new CD and it brought the afternoon to a very pleasing close.

I took the opportunity to meet and thank Ms. Downes who was, in turn, gracious and pleasant.  I went back out to the ordinary world charmed and invigorated and that is what I had hoped for.

 

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.