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


OMDI1Harrison

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.

 

E-Do: Yeominrok, Wonderful Korean Musical Fusion


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Pony Canyon PCSD 01023

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.

 

Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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Sono Luminus DSL-92207

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.

BMOP Opening Concert Commemorates Armenian Genocide


BMOP20_logo

ADDENDUM:  Unfortunately the pianist Nareh Arghamanyan will not be able to perform.  BMOP informs me that they are substituting a piece by the wonder.ful Israeli composer Betty Olivero called Neharot Neharot (2006-7) for two string orchestras, accordion, percussion, tape and viola.  It will feature none other than violist extraordinaire Kim Kashkashian.  

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project begins it 20th season on Sunday October 18th with a concert in honor of the 1915 Armenian genocide with a celebration of that country’s artistic heritage.  Titled Resilient Voices 1915-2015, the concert will feature works by Komitas (1869-1935), Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Tigran Mansurian (1939- ).

Komitas_1902

Komitas, born Soghomon Soghomonian, is generally regarded as the foundational composer for Armenian classical music in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Like Bartok and Kodaly, he collected and transcribed folk music from his country.  He is considered an early founder of the practice of ethnomusicology collecting Armenian and Kurdish folk music.  He was ordained a priest in the Armenian rite church and took the name Komitas.  The impact of the genocide affected him deeply and he spent the last 20 years of his life in a psychiatric facility where he died in 1935.

Alan Hovhaness

Alan Hovhaness

American composer Alan Hovhaness also embraced a musicological approach to his composition by including Armenian folk songs and that of other musical cultures he had explored including Korean and South Asian. He also acknowledges a debt to Komitas (Hovhaness released a recording on his own Poseidon label of him performing Komitas’ complete piano music).

Hovhaness remains less well-represented than he deserves in the concert hall so this performance of Khrimian Hairig (1944, rev 1948) is a welcome one.  The piece is in three continuous movements titled, “Chalice of Holiness”, “Wings of Compassion” and “Triumph of Faith”.  It is scored for string orchestra with solo trumpet.  The solo here will be played by prominent new music trumpeter Terry Everson (whose talents are to be required in the next piece on the program).  Hairig was a prominent Armenian cleric and mystic of the 19th century.

This work is early in Hovhaness’ prolific output and is characteristic of his Armenian period utilizing Armenian folk melodies and writing on Armenian themes.  He would later gain wider fame when Leopold Stokowski premiered his 2nd Symphony “Mysterious Mountain” in 1955 on NBC television.  Hovhaness died in 2001 leaving over 400 compositions of which 67 are symphonies.

Arghamanyan_Nareh

Nareh Arghamanyan

The Armenian connection to the next piece is apparently the BMOP début of the young Armenian pianist, Nareh Arghamanyan (1989- ) in the First Piano Concerto Op. 35 (1933) of Dmitri Shostakovich.  This unusual piece is scored for piano, string orchestra and trumpet (I told you Everson would be back).  It is one of those neo-baroque experiments and quotes from well-known classical pieces.  It is quite challenge for a pianist and the début of this rising artist will doubtless be one of the highlights of the concert.

The title of the concert is Resilient Voices 1915-2015 and is given in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923) but more so in celebration of the voices and the talents that have endured.  Controversy remains evidenced by the fact that Azerbaijan and Turkey continue to deny the genocide but the estimated death toll was 1.5 million and this is the event for which the term “genocide” was first used.

Artistic Director and Conductor Gil Rose

Artistic Director and Conductor Gil Rose

It is the genius of Gil Rose, conductor and artistic director whose creative vision in a couple of releases  I recently reviewed ( Anthony Davis and Irving Fine) that first alerted me to the work of this fine ensemble (a little late, I know).  But I discovered a great orchestra with some of the most innovative programming with attention to new and recent music.  I was graciously offered a seat at this concert but it will have to be one of my regrets.  This sounds like a fantastic program.

Tigran Mansurian

Tigran Mansurian

How very appropriate then to have the BMOP premiere of the Requiem (2009) by Tigran Mansurian (1930- ) by far Armenia’s best known living composer.  The Requiem was written in memory of the holocaust and is scored for large orchestra, chorus and soprano and baritone soloists (not announced when last I checked yesterday).  Gil Rose conducts the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum with the Boston University Marsh Chapel Choir.  This is indeed a species of political music and BMOP is to be applauded for this as a contribution to the recognition of human rights. through music.

Tigran Mansurian at the piano at Other Minds in San Francisco.

Tigran Mansurian at the piano at Other Minds in San Francisco.

Mansurian previously appeared at the Other Minds 20th Anniversary concert (also dedicated to the holocaust) in March of 2015 in San Francisco.  At that concert I captured a moment from the pre-concert discussion in which Mansurian agreed to sing a traditional Armenian song accompanying himself at the piano, a very personal moment from a composer whose art is deeply felt.

Please, BMOP, record this.  Thanks in advance!!!

Certitude and Joy, the World of Wold


MinMax 019

MinMax 019

This is one of those operas whose title evokes irony right at the start.  Like Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Rustic Chivalry) and Virgil Thomson‘s “Four Saints in Three Acts” the title Certitude and Joy hardly seems to evoke the right emotions in this harrowing story taken right from the headlines of a case in 2005 in which a mother kills her children and dumps their bodies in San Francisco Bay.  This is contrasted with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in which God tells Abraham to slay his son.  Of course God stopped Abraham in the bible story but that was not the case with the more recent story.

English: portrait of composer Erling Wold, pai...

English: portrait of composer Erling Wold, painted by Lynne Rutter. oil on panel, 2002 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erling Wold (1958- ) is a composer of whom I had been only distantly aware.  He is a California native and has studied with Andrew Imbrie, Gerard Grisey and John Chowning.  That right there gives you a clue to this man’s compositional range and skills.  He completed a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in 1987 and has worked for Yamaha creating new synthesizer programs in addition to pursuing his musical interests.

The San Francisco Bay Area has such a rich and varied musical culture that it is not all that surprising to me that I hadn’t come to know this fascinating composer.  And it’s taken me a while to absorb enough about Mr. Wold to feel that I could write something intelligent about this CD.

The composer’s web site (click here) contains a plethora of scores and sound recordings of this prolific and interesting composer.  And there are numerous offerings on You Tube and there is a blog linked on his web site in which he discusses a variety of topics not the least of which is his own music.  It seems that he has created several operas including one based on William S. Burroughs’ early but long suppressed novel, Queer.  His chamber operas, A Little Girl Contemplates Taking the Veil and his opera on Pontius Pilate illustrate his interest in both religious and political themes.

I won’t even try to get into his orchestral, chamber and solo piano works.  That is the job of a future blog which I can assure you will happen.  But the main point of this blog is to look at this most recent offering of his chamber opera Certitude and Joy.

As best as I can describe in words, Wold’s accompaniment figures remind me of Philip Glass or John Adams at times but he is not a simple derivative  of these composers.  His vocal lines, almost all sung as opposed to spoken, are more like recitatives than arias and  suggest a more ensemble feel as opposed to the grand opera style of arias, duets, etc.

Aldous Huxley, Famous Last Words

Aldous Huxley, Famous Last Words (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His libretto, ripped from the headlines so to speak, is a combination of philosophical musings, imagined dialogue and commentary from texts as diverse as Aldous Huxley’s writings on psychedelics and the more pedestrian musings of newspaper columns.  I think there is some affinity for Robert Ashley’s mysterious texts but again nothing derivative.  The work is perhaps political as social commentary but not as social protest.

What is important is that this work, thinly scored (though hardly thin in sound) for two pianos and a cast of singers, speaks directly and affectingly to the audience.  He manages to tell this tale in a fairly straightforward manner with occasional digressions for philosophical commentary.  But he never loses control of the narrative which flows on drawing you in to this sad story and leaves you with the questions he raises, albeit rhetorically, about the nature of religious revelation, mental  illness and the current state of our society and our world.  This is a tall order but Wold manages to fill it with just the right amount of drama and music that leaves the listener (and viewer if you see it live in person or on You Tube) seemingly with exactly the emotions I think the composer wrestled with in writing it.

Like the aforementioned Four Saints and Cavalleria, Certitude and Joy is a listener friendly opera with messages that are disturbing and go to the core of what it means to be human.  The performances by the fine duo piano team of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman (ZOFO) and singers Laura Bohn, Talya Patrick, Jo Vincent Parks, Kerry Mehling, Tranvis Santell Rowland with Bob Ernst, speaker and a cameo by the composer (I’ll leave that for listeners to find).  The beautiful recording on Paul Dresher’s MinMax label is distributed by Starkland and is available on Amazon and other outlets.  A worthwhile experience for all lovers of contemporary opera and drama.

Maybe Music Remains Forever, A New Martin Bresnick Disc


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This latest release from Starkland adds significantly to the discography of the Yale based composer Martin Bresnick.   Born in 1946 in the Bronx, New York, he studied at  the University of Hartford (B.A., 1967), Stanford (M.A., 1968; DMA, 1972) where he studied with electronic music pioneer John Chowning and Györgi Ligeti.  He also studied with Gottfried von Einem in Vienna (1969-70).   He has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Stanford University  and Yale where he is now a professor of composition.  Bresnick is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been the recipient of numerous prizes and awards.  His wife is the wonderful new music pianist Lisa Moore whose work with Bang on a Can as well as her solo efforts have made many valuable additions to new music recordings.

Bresnick_Martin

Composer Martin Bresnick

I had heard of Bresnick but had not yet sampled his music so the opportunity to review this disc prompted me to follow-up on my long-planned intent to investigate the work of this American composer.  Not wanting to judge him just from this disc alone, I obtained  for comparison the CRI recording which contains his second and third string quartets and a couple of other chamber pieces for strings which range from 1973 to 1994 in their composition dates.  As I listened to both that disc and the one which is the subject of this review I found myself increasingly intrigued with this unique musical voice.

As it turns out the unsuspecting consumer may have already been exposed to this man’s work in one of several film scores including two of the Cadillac Desert  series, The Day After Trinity and an Academy Award nominated short from 1975, Arthur and Lillie.  The most recent film score listed on his site was for The Botany of Desire, after Michael Pollan’s best-selling book on human interactions with food.   I must confess that I don’t really recall the music from these films but I will be listening closely next time I screen them.

The CRI disc consists of Bresnick’s earlier works for strings.  It is an enjoyable if more an academic musical experience.  But the present disc, Prayers Remain Forever consists of more recent compositions ranging from the 2010 Going Home to the 2012 Ishi‘s Song.  These are much freer compositions concerned more with expression than form.  David Lang, who wrote the liner notes on the inside of the gatefold, describes them as being “deeper and more personal.”

A look at Bresnick’s starting places for these pieces gives a clue as to their nature.  The composer, writing in the booklet that comes with the disc, cites Kafka, Goya, Ishi (the last of the Yahi-Yani Indian tribe), mortality, religion and his own emotional response to having visited his ancestral home in Belarus.  All in all a somber, elegiac set of pieces that deal with deeply personal emotions and memories.

Tracks 1, 3, 5 and 6 were recorded at the Morse Recital Hall, Sprague Hall at Yale University by Eugene Kimball.  Tracks 2 and 4 were recorded at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT by Nick Lloyd who also mastered this disc.

The first piece on the disc, Going Home-Vysoke, My Jerusalem (2010) is scored for oboe, violin, viola and cello.  It was inspired by the composer’s experiences having visited the ancestral home of his family.  He speaks of remembering the stories he heard from his grandparents of the “alte heym” (Yiddish for old home) and the suffering they endured, the murder of his great grandparents, the destruction of the town.  Bresnick, who is himself a trained oboe player, weaves a beautiful, though painful, picture here.  This could conceivably be a film score to the images that are in the composer’s memories.  It is, for this writer the most poignant and personal of the pieces on this recording.  It is beautifully played by an ensemble who call themselves “Double Entendre” with Christa Robinson, oboe; Caleb Burhans, violin; John Pickford, viola and Brian Snow, cello.

Ishi (ca. 1860-1916)

Ishi (ca. 1860-1916)

The second track, Ishi’s Song, was inspired by an actual recording of Ishi, thought to have been the last of his tribe of Yahi-Yani Indians of Northern California.  Ishi lived out his life at the University of California at Berkeley under the care of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and remains a beloved figure to many especially in the San Francisco  bay area .  Ishi recorded a song he that he had been taught and it is this song that forms the basis (or cantus firmus according to the composer) of this piece for singing pianist.  Lisa Moore is no stranger to the repertoire for speaking or singing pianist having recorded Frederic Rzewski’s masterful De Profundis (1992).  Her talents are put to good use here in this virtuosic set of variations on the haunting tune.

Kafka at the age of five

Kafka at the age of five (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Josephine, the Singer (2011) is perhaps the most unusual piece here.  It is inspired by the Kafka story of the same name which is about a mouse that can sing.  This piece is a significant contribution to the solo violin repertoire.  It is an expressive piece in a single movement which is played with an easy sense of virtuosity and expression by violinist Sarita Kwok.

Strange Devotion (2010) is a lyrical piano piece sensitively played by Lisa Moore.  Bresnick’s inspiration, according to his notes in the accompanying booklet, state that he is here depicting a one scene from Goya’s horrific set of etchings, Disasters of War in which a donkey pulls a cart holding a coffin as people kneel by the roadside while it passes.  The “strange devotion” to which he refers is the devotion to religion.  The mood here is not one of cynicism it is more like a lament.

A Message from the Emperor (2010) is another piece based on Kafka.  This piece is scored for two speaking percussionists who play marimba, vibraphone and small tuned drums.  This little narrative follows in the same basic tradition as the speaking pianist piece.  The musicians speak sometimes separately, sometimes together coordinating their substantial duties on their instruments as well.  The story tells of an important message that, as is characteristic in Kafka’s absurdist world, can never actually be communicated.  It’s not clear if this (or, for that matter, the other tracks on this disc)  is intended as political protest music but the analogies are certainly there if the listener chooses to apply them..

yehuda_amichai2

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)

The last work here is inspired by “Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever”, a poem by famed Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000).  One  line of the poem, “Tombstones crumble” provides the inspiration for the appropriately somber cover art while  the music at hand, Prayers Remain Forever (2011) chooses perhaps a more optimistic line from the poem.  Again we have a deeply felt emotional expression here expertly interpreted by TwoSense  (Lisa Moore, piano and Ashley Bathgate, cello).

 

Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever

I saw in the street on a summer evening
I saw a woman writing words
On a paper spread on a locked wooden door,
She folded it and slipped it between the door and the doorpost
And went off.

I didn’t see her face or the face of the man
Who will read the writing and not the words.

On my desk lies a rock with the inscription “Amen,”
Piece of a tombstone, remnant of a Jewish graveyard
Ruined a thousand years ago in the city of my birth.

One word, “Amen” carved deep in the stone,
Hard and final, Amen to all that was and will not return,
Soft Amen: chanting like a prayer,
Amen, Amen, may it be His will.

Tombstones crumble, words come and go, words are forgotten,
The lips that uttered them turn to dust,
Tongues die like people, other tongues come to life,
Gods in the sky change, gods come and go,
Prayers remain forever.

(found on http://jpbaird.com/2013/11/)

Perhaps these non-literal musical expressions here can be said to be poetic and, like the prayers of Amichai’s poem may even last forever.  At least that seems to be the optimistic point Bresnick seems to make here.  This is a beautiful recording with talented and dedicated musicians that will continue to make it to my playlists.  And I am now compelled to seek out more by this wonderful composer.

Notes From the Underground, A major new recording of Anthony Davis’ orchestral music


Album cover

Album cover

In March, 2014 the Boston Modern Orchestra Project released Notes From the Underground, a major retrospective recording of the composer’s work for large ensembles.  The recording includes Notes from the Underground (1988) a two movement work for orchestra, You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007) a concerto for clarinet and contra-alto clarinet and Kurzweil processor and a new recording of the piano concerto Wayang No. 5 (1984) with the composer as soloist.  The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is conducted by Gil Rose.

There are liner notes by the composer and also by the great musician/composer/historian George Lewis (and a frequent musical collaborator with Davis).  The notes are relatively brief but contain a wealth of information and provide useful insights into both the musical processes and the sociopolitical forces that drive Davis’ music.  Davis describes his compositional processes and Lewis, a frequent musical collaborator,  places the music in historic and sociopolitical contexts.

Only the Wayang No. 5 has had a previous recording.  It was one of the two works included on the Gramavision release which included the equally engaging Violin Concerto “Maps” (1988) written for and performed by violinist Shem Guibbory.  The concerto reflects Davis’ interest in jazz as well as his study of gamelan music from whence comes the title “Wayang”. Davis has written a series of compositions for various combinations of instruments titled sequentially Wayang No. 1, No. 2, etc.  The term refers to the shadow puppet theater of  Bali which are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra, an ensemble largely of tuned gongs and other percussion instruments.  Davis studied gamelan music and wrote six compositions (so far) titled Wayang of which the fifth is the piano concerto on this recording.

Wayang No. V is the earliest composition on the disc and consists of four movements.  Opening-Dance begins with an improvisatory section with the pianist playing over unresolved harmonies in the orchestra which then leads to the main section of the movement which is characterized by ostinati in the orchestra as well as on the piano.  There is a seamless transition to the second movement Undine, a slow movement with an impressionistic feel.  March also begins without pause from the previous movement.  It is a scherzo like piece where the polyrhythmic structures are quite clear.   The finale, Keçak, a reference to the monkey chant in the ritual enactment of a scene from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara help Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana.  It begins with a long solo piano introduction followed  by a sort of dialog between the piano and several percussion instruments.  Davis demonstrates his virtuosity here in writing that is indebted as much to gamelan as it is to jazz and modernism from Schoenberg to Bartok, Stravinsky, Hans Werner Henze and Thelonius Monk.

This is a concerto that is more concerned more with expression than empty virtuosity though the piano part could hardly be called easy.  I am amazed that there have been no pianists who have added this wonderful piece to their repertory.  It is a very entertaining piece of music making.

The title track is the orchestral composition, Notes from the Underground (1988).  It is a two movement work dedicated to the writer Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), best known for his National Book Award winning novel The Invisible Man (1952).   The title evokes Dostoevsky’s existential 1864 novel as well as Ellison’s collection of essays, Shadow and Act (1964). The composer describes it as a “riff” on Duke Ellington’s Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937).  It is, to this listener, a grand set of orchestral variations.

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first movement, Shadow, is described by the composer as one that introduces fragments which will be heard in the second movement.  It features a prominent solo for the percussionist.  The second movement, Act is the longer of the two and is described as being written in ten steps with an elaborate polyrhythmic structures described in more detail in the accompanying notes. The writing here probably comes as close to minimalist or process music as anything the composer has done.  It is not minimalism per se  but it is perhaps proto-minimalist techniques whose roots are at least partly in jazz as musicologist Robert Fink suggests.   It produces a ritualistic and meditative feel to this richly orchestrated, reverent and mysterious sounding piece.   It is a fitting tribute to a great American man of letters as well as to the great composer Duke Ellington.

The concerto, You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007) is the most recent as well as the most overtly political piece on the album and it is a gem.  It is written for clarinet doubling alto clarinet and a Kurzweil synthesizer/sampler and orchestra.  Longtime collaborator, the wonderful J. D. Parran  plays the clarinets winding his way through a balanced hybrid of styles including bebop, modern classical and free jazz styles comprising rhythmic complexity and multiphonics.  One could hardly imagine a soloist better suited for this music.  Earl Howard plays the Kurzweil which intones sampled speech of words from the Miranda Rights which are supposed to be presented at the time of an arrest.  Here they are presented strategically in poetic dialogue with the music controlled by the keyboard player.

Here again the individual movements have their own titles poetically referencing the issues which the composer attempts to invoke in this piece. He says in his notes, “I tried to approach ‘silence’ as, rather than John Cage’s apolitical world of ‘white privilege’, a much more dangerous place.”  The first, Interrogation, is intended to evoke the clarinet as being interrogated by the orchestra.  The second, Loss  features an improvised duet between the Kurzweil and the clarinet.  It ends with an homage to Charles Mingus, a major influence on Davis.  The third, Incarceration includes more text from the Miranda and the Kurzweil processes both the words and the clarinet solo.   And finally, Dance of the Other, intending to evoke the fantasy and the feeling of otherness and presumably alienation.

It is a concerto in the classical sense of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra and it seamlessly blends various classical and jazz harmonies and techniques which challenge the expertise of the soloist.  All the while it clearly presents a political context which meditates on the inhumanities and inequalities inherent in our “correctional” system and in our society as a whole.  As political music it lies within a grand tradition taking a place beside earlier masterpieces of that genre like Henze’s Essay on Pigs (1968) and Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).  And as a concerto it is a challenge to the soloist and a delight to the listener.

This is a wonderful disc, well recorded and performed.  It presents some amazing and substantial music by one of the living treasures of American composers.  Anthony Davis has had a long and influential presence on the American music scene in his jazz performances as well as his chamber and orchestral music.  His operas like X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), Amistad(1997 ) and the more recent Wakonda’s Dream (2007) have been performed to critical acclaim. Hopefully this recording will introduce people to this composer’s works and remind those already familiar with the power and depth of Davis’ music.  Bravo to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for bringing this music to the listening public.  I hope the major orchestras and theaters and recording companies are paying attention so we can hear more from this still too little known composer.

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