Howard Hersh’s Chamber Music: Dancing at the Pink House


hersh pink

This latest release by Howard Hersh reveals more of his range as a composer.  His previous release focused on one large concerted work for piano and chamber orchestra as well as some virtuosic writing for piano and for harpsichord.  This disc (worth a listen if only for the return engagement of the pianism of Brenda Tom) focuses on some smaller chamber ensembles and a look at the composer’s more impressionistic moods.

This writer is left with the notion that each piece seems to be an intimate telling of a story.  Though the stories are not explicit, each piece has a distinct narrative character.  Mary Rowell handles the multi-track violin parts on Madam’s Tavern (2014).  The piece has an almost symphonic character evoking a variety of styles and meandering most pleasantly through a musical narrative whose details are not as important as the fact that the piece engages very successfully on a purely musical level.  It is written for solo violin with a chorus of some 15 tracks of violin accompanying.

Loop (2006) is a sort of cyclic quasi-minimalist work featuring Jonah Kim on cello, Brenda Tom (gently) on piano, and Patricia Niemi on vibraphone.  It is a dream-like, perhaps even impressionistic piece whose structure and compositional techniques serve the end goal of being a charming aural object.

I Love You Billy Danger (2012) was written for pianist Brenda Tom.  Here she demonstrates her virtuosity and her dramatic and dynamic range in a piece which, though related to Liszt according to the liner notes, seems to evoke the rather Lisztian master Frederic Rzewski as well.  Tom is at her fines with this challenging work and she conveys the narrative well.

Night (2013) seems related to the earlier Loop by virtue of being a percussion piece but also by its gentle evocation of a shimmering musical narrative punctuated with a clarinet part that alternately hides within the percussive sounds and comes wailing out  in jazzy/bluesy moments.  This writer was left with the notion of Gershwin haunting the score (but maybe that is because this review is being written in the Halloween season).  José González Granero is on clarinet, Patricia Niemi on marimba, and Nick Matthiessen on percussion.

Dancing at the Pink House (2006) is a musical narrative for clarinet and piano that Hersh has featured as a teaser on his website.  It was written for Patricia Shands, clarinet and is accompanied by James Winn on piano.  Shands is the owner of said Pink House and she seems to be having a lot of fun with this playful but substantial piece.  Both of these musicians appeared on Hersh’s 2007 CD release, Pony Concerto (Albany Records).

Dancing at the Pink House is a valuable addition to Hersh’s discography and reveals more of his range as a composer.  This is a highly entertaining recording and leaves the listener wanting more.

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Dark Queen Mantra, Celebrating Terry Riley at 80



Terry Riley (1935- ) turned 80 on June 24, 2015 and happily we are still celebrating this treasure of American music.  His iconic work “In C” (1964) is one of the defining works of the minimalist movement and Riley’s trippy album, “Rainbow in Curved Air” (1969) has also endured well.  But these works typify his early style and his work has evolved though his primary influences continue to be jazz and Hindustani music for the most part to a very personal style.

His discography boasts at least 30 albums and his compositions range from various chamber music pieces, solo and duo piano music, orchestral music, concertos and even music drama.  His influence on musicians is wide ranging and even includes that familiar intro to Baba O’Riley by the The Who (the title is actually an homage to Meher Baba and Terry Riley and that intro derives from Riley’s first Keyboard Study).  In recent years he has achieved much deserved success in collaboration with his son Gyan Riley who is a composer in his own right and an extraordinary guitarist.  Their collaborations have been a true highlight in both musicians’ careers.

This disc is a production from the truly wonderful Sono Luminus label whose recordings continue to set a high bar for production and excellence in sound as well as in intelligent programming.

Three works are presented here.  The first is Dark Queen Mantra (2015) for electric guitar and string quartet.  It is obviously the centerpiece and it is a fine work commissioned in honor of Riley’s 80th and written for the forces who perform it here. The amazing and versatile Del Sol Quartet and Gyan Riley seem a natural pairing.  These California based musicians seem to pour the whole of their artistic hearts and souls into this performance and Gyan Riley, a fine musician in his own right, always seems to be at his very best in his collaborations with his dad.  (Indeed anyone who had the pleasure of seeing their live sets can testify as to their beautiful musical intimacy.)

So it is we have a definitive recording of yet another fine piece from this beloved composer.  The choice to follow it with Mas Lugares (2003) by the late Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012) is an inspired and very appropriate choice (Riley was fond of this composer and helped promote his work).  Scodanibbio collaborated with Riley and recorded two albums with him (Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles, 1997 and Diamond Fiddle Language, 2005).  This work for string quartet is dedicated to Luciano Berio and is a sort of deconstruction via the lens of the composer’s vision of madrigals by the early baroque master Claudio Monteverdi.  It is truly a joy to hear more of this composer’s music and this serves as a loving homage by the Del Sol and, by association, with Riley.

The concluding music is again by Terry Riley and it comes from the rich period of his collaboration with another set of fine California based musicians, the Kronos Quartet. They Wheel and the Mythic Birds Waltz (1983) first appeared on a Gramavision disc and this is a welcome reprise.  It is via his writing for the Kronos that Riley produced most of his string quartet writing and it is a fine repository for his compositional talents.

For its sound and its compositional and performance content this is one of the finest discs to come across this reviewer’s desk and it is a beautiful homage to Riley (father and son), the Del Sol Quartet, the Kronos Quartet and to the late Stefano Scodanibbio.  This is a gorgeous and deeply satisfying album.  Kudos to all.

Femenine, a Lost Julius Eastman Recording, a Major Treasure


This is an epic minimalist masterpiece that has the same sort of almost full orchestral impact that one hears in works like Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’, Riley’s ‘InC’, and perhaps Glass’ ‘Music with Changing Parts’ or ‘Music in 12 Parts’.  The point is that it is entrancing and engaging music that deserves to be heard.

Julius Eastman (1940-1990) was an American singer, performer and composer whose work was little known until after his untimely death.  It was the efforts of composer Mary Jane Leach who performed a labor of love essentially saving Eastman’s work from obscurity when she called upon her fellow musicians and artists to help her gather all the extant recordings and scores many of which were lost after Eastman was evicted from his apartment not long before he died.  Her Julius Eastman page is a valuable reference and her work has inspired further research and performances of Eastman’s music.

Leach’s substantive initial efforts resulted in the release of the 3 CD set, Unjust Malaise which made available all of the then known serviceable recordings of this composer’s music.  Since then this recording became available and it may be the finest that Eastman did.

This is a live recording of a performance from 1974 which is quite lucid and listenable.  It starts slowly but quickly finds its rhythm and pace and provides an uninterrupted 70 minutes of consonant, even romantic sounds.  It’s relation to femininity or any gender issues is not clear, perhaps not even the point.  This piece also seems to have had a companion (called masculine) which is sadly now lost.

Anyone interested and entertained by the minimalist works already cited will find this work very inviting.  Hopefully the release of this recording will encourage a revival of this work and it will be performed again soon.  We as consumers are blessed to have this major work by this major composer available for listening and study.  Eastman deserves recognition as a composer and this disc certainly is a strong support for that.

Duo Stephanie and Saar: Bach Art of Fugue


duo bach

New Focus Recordings FCR 181

One of Bach’s last works (It is dated 1748) was thought for many years to have been a sort of academic thesis which was not meant for performance.  Even though it has received performances it is problematic in many ways for performers and listeners. it has spawned many different approaches to this score which specifies no instrumentation, no ordering to the separate movements, and leaves it’s last fugue tantalizingly incomplete.

There have been many orchestrations for ensembles ranging from various chamber groupings to full orchestra.  It has been done on harpsichord, organ and piano, organ, string quartet, brass ensemble, saxophone quartet to name a few.  In fact all of these approaches would seem perfectly appropriate and authentic within the context of baroque performance practice.  Undoubtedly we can expect more of this pluralistic approach to come to terms with Bach’s final utterance.

Sometimes the most salient characteristic of a recording of this work is about a new orchestration or some new scholarship, including yet another effort to complete the fugue which Bach left incomplete in the manuscript.  In this two disc recording the motivation seems to be simple clarity.  Duo Stephanie and Saar (pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia) perform the pieces on piano 4 hands, two pianos and solo piano as befits their artistic vision.  They order the pieces by playing the first 12 fugues (or contrapuncti, as Bach refers to them) followed by alternately performing the four canons in between the remaining fugues and ending with the Canon in Augmentation to create a sense of an arch of unity with increasing complexity followed by the comparatively simple postlude of the final canon.  As with many of the recordings Stephanie and Saar choose to leave the last fugue incomplete as Bach left it which is slightly jarring, leaving the sensation of having missed a step in the descent of a staircase but the final canon then does serve to bring the listener down gently.

Not until the minimalist movement would we see such a long focus on a single key (D minor), a potential deal breaker for a lesser composer.  However the lucidity of these performances and recordings allows the listener to focus on the beautiful intricacy of counterpoint that represents one of the pinnacles of western musical art.  Actually I have found that this recording works as well with focused listening as it does as background music where its energy sneaks in to your consciousness in a different but no less exhilarating way.  This is doubtless due to the quality of interpretation.

Nothing flashy here, no overblown musicological perspectives, just strong playing by artists who clearly know and love this music.  The Art of Fugue is not the easiest of Bach’s works to appreciate.  Indeed it took this listener many years and multiple different recordings to finally grasp the depth of the work.  And while it may not have been intended for performance per se this recording does a good job of finding the unity in these contrapuntal etudes which are effectively a summing up of the techniques of the high baroque era.  Stephanie and Saar take us on a wonderful journey, one you will want to take many times.

David Toub’s Ataraxia, a unique compositional vision


ataraxia

World Edition 0029

David Toub is a composer whose name is known to perhaps relatively few right now but whose star is clearly rising.  Born on the east coast he studied at Mannes College and at Julliard with Bruce Adolphe and others but his musical education reached maturity when he was studying at the University of Chicago and running the contemporary music programming at the college radio station.  While he had written some twelve tone and freely atonal music it was his encounter with a 1979 WKCR broadcast of Einstein on the Beach that changed his compositional vision.  The musics of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and protominimalist Morton Feldman would henceforth infuse his style.

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David Toub

He is also what I have termed a composer with a day job.  Like Charles Ives (who sold insurance) and Alexander Borodin (who was a chemist, physician and surgeon) he makes his livelihood in the decidedly non-musical world of gynecologic surgery.  Another analog for people like David would have to be William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician whose place in American letters is assured by his poetry and novels.

I personally discovered David’s music via his website where one can find a great deal of his scores and (very helpful) sound files of many of his works.  It is definitely worth your time to browse these scores and sounds if only to get an idea of the scope of the composer’s visions.  By his own admission his music resembles that of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Morton Feldman but perhaps it is more accurate to say that one may be reminded of these composers since his music is anything but derivative.

Some of his music has been championed by the fabulous Monacan pianist Nicolas Horvath whose You Tube Channel is a feast for new music aficionados.  In fact Horvath’s reading of “for four” (2012) can be heard and seen there.  David also has a You Tube Channel with some live performances that are well worth your time.

Many of David’s scores do fit the more conventional (ca. 20 min) time frame of most concert music but some of his most interesting scores lean toward the extended time frames common to Morton Feldman’s late work (in the liner notes he refers to a recent piano piece which lasts four hours).  These require a bit more concentration and multiple hearings to be able to perceive the compositional unity but, having done that, I can tell you that my time was well spent.

ginsburgh-de-face

Stephane Ginsburgh (from the pianist’s web page)

Stephane Ginsburgh is a Belgian new music pianist whose repertoire traverses some of the work of Morton Feldman as well as Frederic Rzewski and others.  He, along with Alessandra Celetti and Louis Goldstein were the dedicatees of the “quartet for piano”.   Having been already familiar with Toub’s work I was pleased to find that Mr. Ginsburg’s interpretive skills both do justice and provide insight to these scores which on paper (or in a PDF file) are difficult to grasp.  In fact these performances are mesmerizing.

“quartet for piano” (2010) comes in at 46:48 and the second track “for four” (2012) comes in at 22:58 but the timings are ultimately superfluous once the listener allows themselves to be taken by the collaborative adventure of this composer and performer.  I don’t think I can do justice speaking of the structure of this music except to say that, in this listener, it was like listening to the slow ringing changes of Zen Temple bells in a distant dream.  I have had the opportunity to play this CD without distraction a few times and each time found it transporting with the music taking on almost symphonic dimensions despite it’s outward simplicity.

This is a crowd funded effort in which I was a willing participant.  The lovely graphic design is by faberludens utilizing detail from a mysterious photograph by Richard Friedman (long time host of Music from Other Minds) and provides an apt visual metaphor for the music therein.  The conversation between the composer and Udo Moll dominate the liner notes and provide very useful insights to the origins and intents behind the composer’s work.

The sonorous piano is a Bösendorfer 225 and the recording was done by Daniel Léon with mastering by Reinhard Kobialka.  CD production curated by Udo Moll on Maria de Alvear’s World Edition label.  Soon to be available on iTunes and Amazon.

The other supporters named include: Maria de Alvear, Sergio Cervetti, Carson Cooman, Chris Creighton, Kathie Elliott, Paul Epstein, Sue Fischer, Alex Freeman, Richard Friedman, Stephane Ginsburgh, Louie Goldstein, Matthew Greenbaum, Hazem Hallak, Barnabas Helmajer, Christian Hertzog, Robert Kass, Harry Kwan, Steve Layton, Connie Lindenbaum, Richard Malkin, Shadi Mallak, Leah Mayes, Kirk McElhearn, Juhani Nuorvala, Rebecca Pechefsky, Lou Poulain, John Prokop, Simon Rackham, David Reppert, Larry Roche, Larry Rocke, Dave Seidel, Kel Smith, Beth Sussman, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, Samuel Vriezen, and Ann Wheeler.  The composer also includes his family, Debbie Bernstein, Arielle Toub and Isaac Toub for their emotional support and (in his typical self-effacing humor) “tolerance” of what he calls his “odd compositional habit”.  As habits go this one appears to be a winner.

 

Christopher Bailey: Glimmering Webs, New Piano Music


glimwebs

I admit to some trepidation when I received this 2 disc set of piano music by an unfamiliar composer.  Even in the best of circumstances the “double album” concept can be a trying thing even to fans of a given artist.  I think I recall some similar trepidation confronting the newly released Elton John Yellow Brick Road double album.  I invoke some pop sensibility here in part for humor but also because that sensibility is one of the many threads that imbue this rather massive collection of pieces.

bailey2

Christopher Bailey

Christopher Bailey is a freelance composer who holds degrees from Eastman (BA, 1995) and Columbia University (MA, 1997 and PhD, 2002).  This is the eighth disc to contain his music though only the second to be dedicated entirely to his works (and his first double album).

The first disc is a journey of styles ranging from electroacoustic music (like the opening track which resembles the work of Mario Davidovsky at times) to several whose inspiration seems to venture closer to that of Pierre Boulez and ends with a lengthy sort of post minimalist piece appropriately titled, Meditation.  The composer says in his liner notes that this piece is his homage to “ambient music” and in particular, Harold Budd. The second track is a piece which is a sort of deconstruction of a Hall and Oates song, the pop sensibility to which I referred earlier.  And, yes, there is some nod to microtonalism as well.  Can you say eclectic?

The second disc contains the large Piano Sonata and a host of smaller works in various styles ranging from neo-classical to microtonal.

In the rambling liner notes the composer provides useful clues as to the genesis and intent of some of his ideas.  One need not read the notes to appreciate the music but the clarity that they provide was useful to this listener. More notes would have been appreciated though.  The composer’s and the pianists’ web sites are certainly useful but I doubt that the average listener will spend that much time researching these things and is then left with gaps in information and consequently in understanding.

The composition dates here range from 1994 to 2013 and embrace a wide swath of styles all with a strongly virtuosic aspect.  The second disc starts with the brief Prelude-Fantasy on the So-Called Armageddon Chord (2011).  The title is almost longer than the piece and, while it’s a fine work, the placement at the beginning of the disc preceding the major opus of his four movement Piano Sonata (1994/1996/2006) is a bit confusing.

I don’t mean to quibble with such things as track order and such but I was left with a sense of difficulty focusing.  Here is a large collection of music which ranges through pretty much the entire gamut of the last 200 years of music and it is presented en masse.  I think some re-ordering might have been helpful but that is one of the difficulties with multiple disc issues.  I listened numerous times to these discs and find the sheer volume and diversity a bit overwhelming.  It is as though this is too much for a single release.

Bailey says that the sonata is an homage to Stravinsky and those neo-classical elements are certainly clear but this listener hears some ghosts of Charles Ives and the polystylism of Alfred Schnittke as well.  The Sonata seems to be the highlight here.   It is wonderfully complex, kaleidoscopic, loaded with quotation, even grandiose at times, but eminently listenable and it is a highly entertaining piece also because of it’s virtuosity which is ably handled by the performer.

There are apparently three pianists on this recording, Jacob Rhodebeck, Shiau-Uen Ding and Augustus Arnone.  The problem is that it is not clear from the labeling or the notes who plays what.  This is actually a fascinating and engaging collection, well played, but I was surprised to be unable to attribute the various virtuosities to the deserving performers.

The recording, mastered by Silas Brown, is as good as it gets.  Overall quite a collection but one that left me with many questions as well.  Perhaps that was, at least partly, the intent but it is my hope that these ambiguities will not distract the listener and that more releases will be forthcoming.  This is very interesting music deserving of serious attention.

 

 

 

Oh, No! Not Another Minimalist! Lubomyr Melnyk, Fastest Fingers in the West, Makes Major Label Debut


I first encountered the music of this undeservedly obscure but unique composer/pianist in the late 1980s with the purchase of a double vinyl album of his “Lund-St. Petri Symphony” a work for solo piano which is stylistically one of the tributaries of minimalism.  Melnyk was born in Germany of Ukrainian descent and now lives and works in Canada.  I began this article for inclusion in my series about minimalist composers (the designation of “minimalist” is imposed by the author and is not necessarily the identity embraced by the artist).  In addition to providing a sketch of the artist I am pleased to be able to review this major label release.

melnyk

Sony

Ilirion marks this composer/pianist’s big label debut and this is a fitting recognition for this long established composer, pianist and teacher.  Lubomyr Melnyk (1948- ) has been performing since the 1970s and has released over 20 albums.  His web site is in need of updating and here’s hoping that this release will help provide the impetus for that and for the greater distribution of this artist’s work.

Below is the description of Melnyk’s music from his web site:

Melnyk’s Continuous Music is based on the principle of a continuous® and unbroken line of sound from the piano — this is created by generating a constant flow of rapid (at times EXTREMELY rapid) notes, usually with the pedal sustained non-stop. The notes can be either in the form of patterns or as broken chords that are spread over the keyboard. To accomplish this requires a special technique, one that usually takes years to master — this technique is the very basis of the meditative and metaphysical® aspects within the music and the art of the piano.
Moreover, in his earlier works, Melnyk devoted much attention to the overtones which the piano generates, but in his more recent works, Melnyk has become more and more involved with the melodic potential of this music.
Melnyk’s earlier music was generally classified as Minimalism®, although Melnyk strongly refutes that term, preferring to call his music MAXIMALism®, since the player has to generate so many, many notes to create these Fourth Dimensions of Sound®.
Because his piano music is so difficult and requires a dedicated re-learning® of the instrument, no other pianists in the world (so far) have tackled his larger works — and so, his recordings are truly collector’s items (both as LP-s and CD-s).
He has however recorded extensively for the CBC in Canada, as well as various European stations. He has performed and given lecture-recitals across Canada and in Europe. 

I’m not sure how useful this explanation will be to listeners but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the composer has attempted to establish a system explaining his work. However one does not need to be deeply familiar with the underlying theory to appreciate the music.  One does not need to understand Schoenberg’s twelve tone theories or Anthony Braxton’s far out ideas to appreciate their music.  One doesn’t even need to understand the basics of western classical harmony to appreciate Mozart, for that matter but such knowledge can contribute to appreciation.  I certainly lay no claim to understanding this man’s music and I am not aware of any musicologists or critics who have written anything analyzing Melnyk’s work but I find his music compelling and worth wider attention.

Rather than attempting a comprehensive review of Melnyk’s output (and risking muddying the field) I am simply going to recommend a couple of discs which I have found particularly interesting and may help put this latest release in useful perspective.  The disc which is intended to provide a sort of exposition of his work is KMH.

kmh

The other disc, and the one which I have admired most, is the Lund St. Petri Symphony.  I bought it as a two disc vinyl album and it does not appear to be easily available now but it is well worth seeking (and maybe Sony will consider re-releasing it).

lund

The present release on Sony contains 5 tracks:

Beyond Romance is the first and longest track on the disc (16:12) and is certainly representative of his work.  The composer’s brief notes describe this work only as a grand romantic piece.  It perhaps has echoes of Liszt but certainly with at least an echo of minimalism.

Solitude No. 1 is a much briefer piece (7:36) and is a live improvisation by the composer recorded in the Netherlands.

Sunset (3:49) is the briefest on the disc and is an impressionistic description of its title.

Cloud No. 81 (16:02) is a far more extended impressionistic essay with more harmonic variety than the other tracks.

The title piece, Ilirion (14:12) is another extended essay more akin to the first track.

These discs range from interesting to enthralling for this reviewer and the limited descriptions contained in this release do little to guide the listener.  So I guess I can only say, “Please listen”.

Tracks 1, 3, and 4 were recorded at Clearlight Studios in Winnipeg, Canada.  Track 2 is a live recording from Tilburg, Netherlands and the last track is described as being an archive recording from also from Tilburg.  All were recorded between 2012 and 2015.

The rather sparse liner notes are by one Charles Bettle who is described as a “long time friend and admirer” of Melnyk’s work.  The even sparser notes on the music are by the composer.  The beautiful photography is by Alexandra Kawka.

It is difficult to say why this artist remains as marginally known but, as I have asserted before, artists from Canada get strangely little notice here and Mr. Melnyk does not appear to be a very good publicist.  I hope that this endorsement by Sony results in more releases and, more importantly, in more good studio recordings of his work.  It is unique and highly recommended to aficionados of piano music and minimalism.