Grand Celebrations of Finnish Culture


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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.

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When Politics and the Arts Clash, OM 22


Isang Yun (1917-1995)


The relationship between politics and music is complex and varied.  There are many instances of clashes between these two disciplines from the politics of state and church sponsored music to its repression by those same institutions.

After centuries of Catholic church sponsored music a decision was made in 1903 to repress the performance of anything but Gregorian chant and any instruments except for the ubiquitous organ.  The reasons for this decree have been discussed but the end result was less work for musicians.

More recently the Nazi “degenerate art” concepts and the later proscriptions on “formalist music” in Soviet Russia similarly put artists and musicians out of work.  In fact many were jailed or killed.  Shostakovich and Prokofiev were high profile musicians who endured bans on performances of their music based ostensibly on claims that it brought (or potentially brought) harm to the state’s political visions.

Even more recently the blacklist created by Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes perpetrated a similar assault on actors, directors and writers like Dalton Trumbo (recently dramatized in the excellent film Trumbo with Bryan Cranston leading the fine cast).  This sad chapter of history did not completely end until the 1970s and only recently have efforts succeeded in restoring suppressed screen credits to these films.  Many lives were destroyed or irreparably harmed.  One hopes, of course, that such travesties will not be repeated but the recent efforts to eliminate the NEA suggest that such struggles remain with us.

On February 18th Other Minds will present a centennial celebration of two composers’ births.  Lou Harrison certainly expressed some political themes in some of his music but did not incur state sponsored political wrath.  Unfortunately this was not the case with the other honoree of Other Minds’ 22nd season.

In 1967 Korean composer Isang Yun was kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers and taken to South Korea to face accusations of collaboration with the communist government of North Korea.  He was held for two years and was subjected to interrogation and torture based on information later acknowledged to have been fabricated.  Even so South Korea declined to allow the ailing composer’s request to visit his hometown in 1994.  He died the following year in his adoptive home in Berlin, Germany.

A petition signed by over 200 artists including composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Ligeti and conductors Otto Klemperer and Joseph Keilberth among the many was sent to the South Korean government in protest.  A fine recent article by K. J. Noh, Republic of Terror, Republic of Torture puts the incident in larger political context. It is a lesson sadly relevant even now in our politically turbulent times.

The concert will feature works from various points in his career, both before and after the aforementioned incident.  It is a fine opportunity to hear the work of this too little known 20th century master.  Conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies knew and worked with both Harrison and Isang.  It is so fitting that he will participate along with his wife, justly famed new music pianist Maki Namekawa, in this tribute to the the late composer.  This can’t right the wrongs but what better way to honor a composer than by performing his music?

The performance is at 7:30 PM at the historic Mission Dolores Basilica at 3321 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114.  Tickets available (only $20) at Brown Paper Tickets.

February 18th, Mark Your Calendars: Other Minds 22, A Must Hear


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Lou Harrison (1917-2003)

The American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and Korean composer Isang Yun (1917-1995) turn 100 this year and Other Minds 22 has a wonderful celebration that is not to be missed.  On February 18th at 7:30 PM in the beautiful, historic Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco’s famed Mission District.  This is actually only the first of two concerts which will comprise the Other Minds season 22 which is subtitled, “Pacific Rim Centennials”.  It is curated by Charles Amirkhanian, the reliable arbiter of modern musical tastes in the Bay Area and beyond.  (The second concert, scheduled for May 20, will be an all Lou Harrison concert closer to the composer’s May 14th birthday.)

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Yun Isang (1917-1995)

Harrison is well known to new music aficionados, especially on the west coast for his compositions as well as his scholarship and teaching.  His extensive catalog contains symphonies, concertos, sonatas and other such traditional classical forms as well as some of the finest of what we now call “world music” featuring instruments from non-western cultures including the Indonesian gamelan.  He is also the man responsible for the preparation and premiere of Charles Ives’ Third Symphony in 1946 which was subsequently awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Yun is perhaps less of a household name but is known for his many finely crafted compositions in the modern western classical tradition and, later, incorporating instruments and techniques from his native Korea.  He was infamously kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers in 1967 and taken from his Berlin home to South Korea where he was held and tortured due to allegations (later proven fabricated) of collaboration with North Korea.  Over two hundred composers and other artists signed a petition for his release.  After several years he was returned to his adopted home in Berlin in 1969 where he continued to compose prolifically and teach until his death in 1995.

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                              Dennis Russell Davies (from the American Composers Orchestra site)

This celebratory and memorial concert will feature world renowned artists including Grammy Award winning conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies who knew and collaborated with both Harrison and Isang.  Other artists will include pianist Maki Namekawa, violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams, percussionist William Winant (with his percussion group), and the Other Minds Ensemble.

The program is slated to consist of:

Sonata No. 3 for Piano

(1938, Lou Harrison)

Dennis Russell Davies

Kontraste I for Solo Violin

(1987, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams

Gasa, for Violin & Piano

(1963, Isang Yun)

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Grand Duo for Violin and Piano (excerpts)

(1988, Lou Harrison)

IIII. Air
II. Stampede

Yumi Hwang-Williams, Dennis Russell Davies

Intermission

Canticle No. 3

(1941, Lou Harrison)

William Winant Percussion Group
Joanna Martin, ocarina
Brian Baumbusch, guitar
Dan Kennedy, Loren Mach, Ben Paysen, William Winant, Nick Woodbury, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Interludium A

(1982, Isang Yun)

Maki Namekawa, piano

Suite for Violin, Piano & Small Orchestra

(1951, Lou Harrison)

I. Overture
II. Elegy
III. First Gamelan
IIII. Aria
V. Second Gamelan
VI. Chorale

Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin
Maki Namekawa, piano
The Other Minds Ensemble:
Joanna Martin and Janet Woodhans, flute
Kyle Bruckman, oboe
Meredith Clark, harp
Evelyn Davis, celesta
Andrew Jamieson, tack piano
Emil Miland and Crystal Pascucci, cello
Scott Padden, bass
William Winant, percussion
Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

Other Minds is also co-sponsoring (with the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive) a screening of the 2015 German television produced film, Isang Yun: In Between North and South Korea on February 19th (4:15PM) at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.  Dennis Russell Davies and composer Charles Boone will also be present to discuss the film.

If you do know these composers you probably already have your tickets but if you don’t know them you owe it to yourself to check out these performances.

 

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.

In Celebration of a Lost Culture: Sephardic Journey by the Cavatina Duo


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This tasty little disc of world premieres commissioned through grants to Cedille Records in Chicago consists of new works which celebrate the culture of the Sephardim, the Jews of southwestern Europe, primarily Spain.  It both memorializes and resurrects the rich music of this all but lost culture.  In the last few years we have seen a growing interest in this culture through settings of texts in the original Ladino language as well as in the melodies which sprang from their folk traditions.

The Cavatina Duo consists of Eugenia Moliner, flute and Denis Agabagic, guitar.  Moliner is originally from Spain and Agabagic is originally from Yugoslavia (now Bosnia-Herzegovina) and they are husband and wife.  Both have a strong interest in the folk musics of their respective cultures and in exploring other folk music cultures.  Their previous album for Cedille, The Balkan Project, similarly demonstrates their affection and scholarship for the cultures of that region of the world.

Five composers were commissioned for this project: Alan Thomas (1967- ), Joseph V. Williams II (1979- ), Carlos Rafael Rivera (1970- ), David Leisner (1953- ) and Clarice Assad (1978- ).  This is one of those wonderful crowd funded efforts through Kickstarter.

Thomas’ contribution adds a cello (played by David Cunliffe) to the mix for this Trio Sephardi in three movements each of which is based on a traditional Sephardic song.  The piece makes good use of the vocal qualities of the songs quoted and the lyrics seem to exist as a subtext even though they are not sung here.

Isabel by Joseph V. Williams is a sort of homage to Isabel de los Olives y López, a Sephardic woman who lived during the time of the Spanish Inquisition.  She outwardly converted to Catholicism but lived secretly as a Jew.  One can hardly miss the sad irony of this tale of religious intolerance from the 15th century and its relevance for today.  This piece is based on a resistance song which masquerades as a love song, again a metaphor for our times.  It is scored for flute and guitar.

We move again into the realm of the trio, this time with violin (played by Desiree Ruhstrat), for this piece by Carlos Rafael Rivera called, “Plegaria y Canto”.  This is the most extensive single movement amongst all the works on the disc and is a deeply affecting and dramatic piece for which the composer’s notes provide insights.

The last two pieces utilize the forces of the Avalon Quartet for whom this is their second appearance on the Cedille label.  Their first disc, Illuminations, was released last year. They are currently in residence at Northwestern University and Cedille does a great job of promoting the work of talented Chicago area musicians.

Love and Dreams of the Exile is David Leisner‘s poignant contribution.  Its three movements tell an aching tale of love, pain and, ultimately, transcendence.

Clarice Assad is a Brazilian composer too little known in the U.S.  She is indeed related to the famed Assad family of musicians and she clearly has as abundant a talent.  Her Sephardic Suite concludes this program with this three movement essay on love and relationships.

Bill Maylone is the engineer with editing by Jean Velonis and the executive producer is James Ginsburg.  Photography of the Alhambra Palace by Maureen Jameson graces the cover.  Design is by Nancy Bieshcke.

This is music of an oppressed culture and it is tempting to look upon the creative impetus which oppression sometimes seems to provide but the message here is one of sadness and nostalgia but also of hope.  It is perhaps a tribute to the ultimate triumph over said oppression even if it took 500 years.  There is some comfort and healing to be had from the celebration of this lost culture and that is the triumph of this disc.

 

 

 

Other Minds 21, the Dawn of a New Chapter and the Raising of the Dead


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Charles Amirkhanian with the composers of OM 21

Much needed rain pummeled the city by the bay on all three days of OM 21 dampening, perhaps, some attendance but not the enthusiasm of the audience or the performers.  In most ways this concert was a continuation of the celebration begun last year commemorating 20 years of this festival.  Returning this year were Gavin Bryars (OM7) and Meredith Monk (OM1).

Until last year no composer had appeared more than once at this series.  For those unfamiliar with OM it is worth noting that the process has been for the 8-10 selected composers spend a week at the Djerassi Arts Center in Woodside, California sharing and discussing their work before coming to San Francisco for performances of their work.

As it turns out this year’s concert series will be the last to follow that format.  Apparently OM has become the victim of gentrification and has had to move out of its Valencia Street offices and will now opt for various concerts throughout the year as they have done but without the big three-day annual festival and the residency at Djerassi.

The archives of OM are now going to be housed at the University of California Santa Cruz where they will reside along with the Grateful Dead archives.  I do believe that Mr. Amirkhanian lived near Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead when he lived in San Francisco some years ago so it seems fitting that these two archives will peacefully coexist in that space (also coming to UCSC will be OM 21 composer Larry Polansky though not in an archive).

This is certainly a change but this is a festival which has endured various changes in time and venue led throughout by the steady hand of the Bill Graham of contemporary music concerts, Charles Amirkhanian (both men have had a huge impact on music in the bay area as well as elsewhere and it is worth noting that the Contemporary Jewish Museum will have a tribute to Graham this year).

Actually Other Minds traces its provenance to the Telluride, Colorado Composer to Composer festival (also led by Amirkhanian) and later morphed into OM with the leadership of president (now emeritus) Jim Newman back in the early 1990s.  There is a short excellent film describing OM’s history on Vimeo here.

It is the end of a chapter but, as Amirkhanian explained, there are many exciting concerts coming up which will keep Other Minds in the earshot of the astute contemporary music aficionados on the west coast.  Next year, for example, will include several very exciting concerts celebrating the 100th birthday anniversary of beloved bay area composer Lou Harrison.

My apologies for the delay in posting which was due to both the richness of the experience and the exigencies of my day job and other responsibilities.  I hope that readers will find this post to have been worth the wait.

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Nordic Voices

Starting our rainy day were the extremely talented singers known as Nordic Voices.  Lasse Thoresen‘s Solbøn ( Sun Prayer) (2012) and Himmelske Fader (Heavenly Father) (2012) both required keen listening and required the use of extended vocal techniques such as multiphonics.  The singing appeared effortless and even fun for the ensemble but that speaks more to their expertise and preparedness than any ease in terms of the score.

It is always difficult to judge a composer’s work by only a small selection from their output  but Thoresen’s virtuosity and subtle use of vocal effects suggests a highly developed artist and it would seem worth one’s time to explore more of this gentleman’s oeuvre.

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Lasse Thoresen takes the stage to acknowledge the applause.

Next was an unusual, humorous/dramatic work by Cecile Ore called Dead Pope on Trial (2015/16) with a libretto by Bibbi Moslet.   This Other Minds commission was given its world premiere at this concert.  The work is based on the story of a medieval pope who was taken from his grave no fewer than six times for various perceived offenses.  It is a mix of irony and humor in a sort of madrigal context.  The work was in English and had the nature of a conversation between the singers.  No doubt a challenging piece, it was sung very well and the composer seemed as pleased with the performance as much as the audience.

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Cecile Ore smiling as she acknowledges the applause for the wonderful premiere performance of her new work, Dead Pope on Trial.

As if in a demonstration of sheer stamina in addition to virtuosity Nordic Voices took the stage again, this time for some Madrigals (2002/2016) by returning artist Gavin Bryars.  Bryars is no stranger to Other Minds or to madrigals and such older musical forms from the renaissance and before.  He has extensively explored vocal writing and medieval harmonies in many previous works.  Though categorized as being a “minimalist”, Bryars actually has produced a huge range of music in all forms including opera, chamber and orchestral music.

His madrigals have been written for the Hilliard Ensemble and each book is distinguished by the madrigals having been written on a specific day of the week.  The first book on Mondays, etc.  They are settings of Petrach’s sonnets and are sung in the original Italian of his day.  On this night we were treated to four madrigals from Book Two and the premiere of a madrigal from Book Four.  That madrigal was dedicated to Benjamin Amirkhanian, the father of Charles Amirkhanian who celebrates his 101st birthday this summer.

I had the opportunity to meet and speak briefly with the affable Mr. Bryars.  His generous spirit pervaded our conversation and he spoke very highly of both his visits to Other Minds.  If you don’t know this man’s music you are doing yourself a great disservice.

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A very pleased Gavin Bryars deflects the applause and adulation to the amazing Nordic Voices for their astounding performance of five of his madrigals.

The singers of Nordic Voices sustained a high level of virtuosity as well as sheer stamina as they sang for nearly two hours in the opening pieces of this concert series.  No time was lost setting the stage for the performance of the next piece, another premiere, Algebra of Need (2016) for electronic sampling and string quartet by Bang on a Can member Phil Kline.

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FLUX Quartet playing at SF Jazz, 2016

The Flux Quartet was featured in the next two (and last) works on this long program.  Algebra of Need is Kline’s meditation on the words and the cadences of the iconic writing and voice of the late William S. Burroughs (gone 19 years as of this writing).  The familiar voice seemed to go in and out of clearly audible, at times mixed more closely with the string writing in this intense homage.

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A satisfied looking Phil Kline leans in to embrace the first violin of the Flux Quartet after their premiere of his Algebra of Need.

The Bang on a Can collective was also represented tonight by Michael Gordon.  The Sad Park (2008) for string quartet and electronics put a most decidedly disturbing conclusion on the evening.  This piece, which samples the voices of children (one of them Gordon’s) as they spoke of their experience of the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks.

The effect was, as no doubt intended, harrowing leaving a pretty strange and unsettling feeling as we walked away from the concert into the still rainy night.

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Michael Gordon embraces the FLUX Quartet’s first violin after a stunning performance of The Sad Park.

The rain continued on Saturday but the crowd was noticeably larger for the second night which opened with the usual panel discussion.

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left to right: Meredith Monk, John Oswald, Nicole Lizee, Eliot Simpson, Larry Polansky, Oliver Lake and Charles Amirkhanian in a panel discussion prior to the concert

This evening began with a performance by the wonderful bay area violinist Kate Stenberg of a piece which was a sort of antidote to the somber, The Sad Park from the previous night.  Again the composer was Michael Gordon and the piece was Light is Calling (2004), a collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison.  Though hardly a happy piece Light is Calling is perhaps elegiac and the composer seems to achieve some of his stated intent to find some healing in the wake of a disaster to which he was all too close.

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Kate Stenberg plays violin beneath the projection of a Bill Morrison film in Michael Gordon’s, Light is Calling

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Michael Gordon and Kate Stenberg accepting the applause of an appreciative audience.

Next up was John Oswald, a Canadian composer whose career took off in infamy when his Plunderphonic CD, released to radio stations in the early 1980s, became the subject of legal battles over the meaning of copyright law in light of digital sampling.  Fortunately Oswald won the right to publish his work and his Plundrphonics concepts now underlie much of his compositional process.  Until this night I had not heard any but his Plunderphonic CDs so the introduction to his live music was a revelation.

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Pianist and (at least here) multi-instrumentalist Eve Egoyan performing with a Yamaha Disklavier and other instruments.

The first piece she did was called Homonymy (1998/2015) was originally written for chamber orchestra and was then transcribed for Egoyan and her prepared disklavier et al.  It is a piece based on linguistic elements and with a visual component as well.

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Eve Egoyan performing Homonymy with overhead projections.

Nicole Lizee’s David Lynch Etudes (2015) was the next piece  and also made use of the projection screen.  The subtitle of the piece indicates it is for “disklavier and glitch”.  Well life imitated art as some sort of glitch prevented the projection from functioning at first but this was rather quickly resolved and we were treated to excerpts of scenes from several David Lynch films with the piano playing some of the rhythms of the dialog in an exchange that puts this writer in the mind of music like Scott Johnson’s “John Somebody” and Steve Reich’s incorporation of speech rhythms in works like, “The Cave”.

Nicole Lizee is a Canadian composer and was the youngest composer on this year’s program.

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Eve Egoyan playing Nicole Lizee’s David Lynch Etudes with projected scenes/glitches from Lynch’s films.

The work is one of a series of pieces inspired by films and was executed with apparent ease by pianist Eve Egoyan who played the disklavier (both the keyboard and directly on the strings), a guitar and perhaps other gadgets .  The piece kept her quite busy and the associations I described above sound nothing like this work actually.  These etudes were a unique, typically Other Minds sort of experience, one that expands the definition of musical composition.

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Nicole Lizee (l) with Eve Egoyan absorbing the audience’s appreciation of the David Lynch Etudes.

Two more John Oswald compositions graced the program next.  Palimpia (2016) is a six movement piece for disklavier with pianist playing as well.  Oswald says it is actually his first composition for piano.

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John Oswald embracing pianist Egoyan and enjoying the audience applause for his work.

Well I did say there were two more Oswald pieces but this last one was a masterful plunder by this truly unusual composer.  Here Oswald conjured the playing as well as the image of the late great Glenn Gould who was seen actually playing Invaria (1999) with the disklavier performing along with the film of Gould performing this music.  It was, for this writer, a spellbinding experience.  He has raised the dead in the name of music.  Wow!  It was an amazing and heartfelt homage to a fellow great Canadian musician.

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Glenn Gould playing John Oswald

Larry Polansky (1954- ) is well known as a teacher and as a composer but one is hard pressed to find much in the conventional discography of his work.  The few discs out of his amazing electronic music (and one disc of piano variations) represent only a small fraction of his output and represent only one genre of music which he has mastered.  However the astute listener needs to be advised to look online to look, listen and hear some of the bounty of his creative output.  Check out the following sites: Frog Peak Music (Polansky’s publishing site which includes music and scores by a great many interesting composer in addition to himself and Dartmouth Page (which contains link to various recordings, writings, computer software, etc.

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Giacomo Fiore (left) and Larry Polansky playing Polansky’s ii-v-i (1997)

As an amateur musician who has enough trouble simply tuning a guitar it made my knees weak to watch these musicians effortlessly retune as they played.   Polansky’s experimentation with alternate tunings is an essential part of many of his compositions.

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Fiore and Polansky changing their tunings mid-phrase in a stunning demonstration of virtuosity with pitch changes.

The program then moved from the electric to the acoustic realm with Polansky’s folk song arrangements.  Eliot Simpson, the pedagogical progeny of the great David Tanenbaum (who played these concerts last year at OM 20), played the just intonation National Steel Guitar and sang.

Let me say just two things here.  First, these are not arrangements like Copland’s Old American Songs and second, I will never hear these folk songs quite the same way again.  Polansky’s interest in folk music and Hebrew cantillation along with alternate tunings produces what the ears hear as perhaps a different focus.  In these pieces he did not stray too far from the original (as he does in his Cantillation Studies) but one is left with distinctly different ways of hearing and thinking about this music and the listener is left richer for that.  It is a journey worth taking and Simpson played with both passion and command.

Eliot Simpson playing a selection of Larry Plansky's Songs and Toods

Eliot Simpson playing a selection of Larry Plansky’s Songs and Toods

Polansky returned to the stage for a performance of his 34 Chords (Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton) (1995). Again we were treated to the virtuosic use of alternate tunings performed live (and again with live re-tunings) by the composer.

Oliver Lake delivering a blistering free jazz improvisation.

Oliver Lake delivering a blistering free jazz improvisation.

Continuing with the solo performer theme we were privileged to hear the virtuosic jams of Oliver Lake (1942- ) whose long career is legendary in the jazz world.  The “mostly improvised” (according to the composer) Stick was played on two different saxophones in what appeared to be as intense an experience for the performer as it was for the audience.

Oliver Lake takes a final bow at the end of the second concert of OM 21

Oliver Lake takes a final bow at the end of the second concert of OM 21

The emotional workout was received warmly by the audience.

Charles Amirkhanian introduces Meredith Monk on the final day of OM 21

Charles Amirkhanian introduces Meredith Monk on the final day of OM 21

There was no panel discussion on the third day of OM 21.  This matinée was dedicated entirely to the work of Meredith Monk (1942) who, fittingly was one of the featured artists in the first Other Minds gathering in 1993.  Now a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts this beloved artist returns to OM 21.  Though the rain continued the house appeared to be full.

Meredith Monk playing a Jaw Harp in one of her early solo songs.

Meredith Monk playing a Jaw Harp and singing in one of her early solo songs.

Monk played a selection of material from various periods in her career in a mostly chronological survey which she called The Soul’s Messenger.  She began with selections from her solo songs and proceeded to her voice and piano music, then to her work with multiple voices and instruments.

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby

Meredith Monk performing her signature Gotham Lullaby

Most of the audience seemed to have a comfortable familiarity with the individual works she offered on this night which effectively gave a picture of her career.  Monk was in good voice and appeared to enjoy her performance.

Long time collaborator Katie Geissinger and Allson Sniffin joined in the next selection

Long time collaborator Katie Geissinger and Allson Sniffin joined in the next selection

The stage was set to allow for the dance/movement that is an essential part of Monk’s works.  She originally trained as a dancer.

Monk and long time collaborator Katie Geissinger reacting to the appreciative audience

Monk and long time collaborator Katie Geissinger reacting to the appreciative audience

In addition to the grand piano the stage was set with two electronic keyboards, an essential sound in many of Monk’s works.

Monk at one of the electronic keyboards

Monk at one of the electronic keyboards

Woodwind player Bodhan Hilash joined the ensemble for the last set of pieces.

From left: Bodhan Hilash, Meredith Monk, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger

From left: Bodhan Hilash, Meredith Monk, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger

The audience gave a standing ovation at the end resulting in 3 curtain calls.

Left to right Allison Sniffin, Meredith Monk, Katie Geissinger and Bodhan Hilash receiving a standing ovation.

Left to right Allison Sniffin, Meredith Monk, Katie Geissinger and Bodhan Hilash receiving a standing ovation.

And the properly prepared artist came back for an encore of her song Details.

Meredith Monk performing an encore at the final concert of OM 21

Meredith Monk performing an encore at the final concert of OM 21

 

It was a fitting finale to a great OM 21, fitting to have this artist who appeared on the first iteration of Other Minds returning now crowned with a National Medal of the Arts and clearly beloved by the audience.  Her music like her lovely smile fade to the edge of memory like that of the Cheshire Cat on a truly triumphant finale.

And, despite some format changes, who knows what treasures continue to lie in store?  I will be watching/listening and so, apparently will many others.  Keep an eye on www.otherminds.org .  I know I will.

 

Spirituals Re-Imagined


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I managed to squeeze a delightful brunch meeting with my busy friend and colleague Bill Doggett on New Years Day.  It was there at a favorite Oakland cafe that we discussed many topics and Bill gave me a copy of this beautiful CD by a young black composer whose work is entirely new to me.

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Shawn Opkebholo (1981- )

Shawn Okpebholo (1981-  ) was born in Lexington, Kentucky.  He earned his B.A. in music at Asbury College and his M.M. and D.M.A. degrees at the  Unniversity of Cincinatti.  Doctor. Okpebholo is currently on faculty at Wheaton College  in Illinois.

The present disc is Opkebholo’s first CD dedicated entirely to his own compositions and is the composer’s “reimagining” of spirituals.  Drawing on the folk tradition of spirituals, worksongs, etc. as well as classical art song traditions he fashions his personal take on these much loved melodies.

I do feel compelled to mention the beauty of the photography and album design.  Greg Halvorsen Schreck took the pictures and Jeremy Botts did the overall design.  Powerful stuff.

In a slight deviation from the classic voice and piano arrangements the composer chose to score this little cycle for baritone, mezzo-soprano, viola and flue along with piano.  For this writer this was an interesting and suitably entertaining choice.

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J’nai Bridges

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Will Liverman

The singers Will Liverman, baritone and J’nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano are marvelous and sensuous voices and discharge their duties most beautifully.  The pianist Paul Tuntland Sànchez is also a composer and very accomplished soloist.

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Paul Tuntland Sanchez

 

 

 

 

The violist is Dorthy White Opkebholo and is the composer’s wife.  She is an accomplished musician in her own right.

The flute is played by Caen Thomason-Redus.

This is a beautiful recording of these loving arrangements of spirituals which can occupy that place in the literature populated by the likes of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs.  A must for art song and folk song fans and a great opportunity to hear some fine musicians at the beginnings of what is hoped to be long and successful careers.