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.

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Skylark: Crossing Over, bringing the chamber choir to the mainstream


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Sono Luminus continues their dedication to high quality performances and recordings of a wide variety of music from the 20th and 21st centuries.  In this lovely  disc we are treated to a great deal of interesting and very listenable a capella choral music from the mid-twentieth century to the present.

It is this reviewer’s perception that a capella choral music is somewhat of an outlier in the classical music field and is generally not as well known as solo instrumental, orchestral, chamber music and such. (Band music is a similarly neglected area which is not frequently explored by many composers and not as familiar to audiences.)   It is not an area very familiar to me but this recording appears to be one that can expand this niche considerably by virtue of the sheer beauty of these recordings.

There are eight pieces by seven composers of varying levels of familiarity.  The most familiar names here are those of the late John Tavener (1944-2013) and William Schuman (1910-1992).  (Schuman was also no stranger to writing for band music.)  Some listeners may have heard of Jon Leifs (1899-1968), an Icelandic composer who should definitely be better known.  (Curiously the only comprehensive information available in English on this composer is in Wikipedia.)

The remaining composers, Daniel Elder (1986- ), Nicolai Kedrov (1871-1940), Robert Vuichard (1985- ) and (fellow Icelander) Anna Thorvaldsdottir (1977- ).  Thorvaldsdottir may be familiar to listeners via her earlier Sono Luminus release (reviewed here) as well as numerous other releases which definitely mark her as a rising star.

The disc opens with Elegy (2013) by Daniel Elder.  It is the only piece which features soloists and is a touching piece which demonstrates the composer’s skill with this specialized genre.

Butterfly Dreams (2002) by John Tavener is a series of eight choral meditations based on Chuang Tse known for his “…Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?”.  Tavener’s work has pushed the solo choral genre more to the mainstream than nearly any composer of the last 50 years and this piece is a good example of how he has managed to do this.  Tavener’s inspiration comes in part from the choral styles of eastern rite church music, a rich and sonorous sound.

Otche Nash by Nicolai Kedrov is apparently a classic in sacred music circles.  In Latin this would be Pater Noster and in English, Our Father.  This is a beautiful setting of the classic Christian Prayer.

Requiem (1947) by Jon Leifs is based on Icelandic folk poetry.  It was written in response to his grief at the loss of his daughter who drowned at the age of 18.  While not exactly representative of Leifs’ modern style it is a good example of the power of his invention in this heartfelt homage.  This is perhaps the composer’s best known work.

Heliocentric Meditation by Robert Vuichard is another example of the deep knowledge of the specialized techniques available to composers in this genre.  Vuichard appears to be a niche choral composer and one who has considerable skill.  There is a rather modernist feel to this powerful meditation.

William Schuman’s Carols of Death (1958) is a sort of modern classic which has been recorded many times.  There are three movements, each on a separate track.  It is curious how well these pieces fit in style with the rest of the disc given the date of composition.

Beyond the Veil (2005) is a setting by Anna Thorvaldsdottir of an old Icelandic psalm.  It is a prayer which is, in part, a meditation on death.  The composer has a mystical/impressionistic style that suits this music particularly well.

Funeral Ikos (1981) by John Tavener is definitely a modern classic.  This piece pretty much marks the beginning of the change from his early modernist style to the sort of “holy minimalist” (if you will) style that followed his conversion to and immersion in eastern rite sacred music.

Skylark is a chamber choir (five voices to each part, SATB) and this is their second album.  They were formed in 2011 and are under the direction of Matthew Guard.

This review is basically about the music but I have to say that this is also one of the most beautiful booklets I have seen.  It is short on info about the music but the photography and graphic design by Collin J. Rae and Caleb Nei deserve special recognition as well.  Each page features a photograph and texts of these pieces are tastefully printed across the photos.  This really enhances the experience and seems to be in harmony with the overall production.

Dan Mercurio, producer, has definitely made something special here and one hopes that this will help promote this compositional and performance niche to a more common experience and will encourage composers to write for a capella choir as well.  Daniel Shores is the recording and mastering engineer.  I am unable to assess the DVD audio and can only imagine how it must sound.  The CD itself is amazing to hear.

For an album ostensibly about death there is great joy and beauty to be found here.  Highly recommended, and not just to fans of choral music.

 

 

 

New Cello Music: Michael Nicolas’ Transitions


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Michael Nicolas is the new cellist of Brooklyn Rider as well as member of the International Contemporary Ensemble and numerous other affiliations.  This French Canadian/Taiwanese young man now residing in New York is definitely an emerging artist to watch and his debut album does much to demonstrate why he deserves serious attention.

This selection of mid/late twentieth and twenty first century cello pieces comprises an intelligent survey of this repertoire introducing new music and providing a younger performer’s take on some classics of solo cello with electronics as well some more recent works.  As he says in his liner notes this survey is concerned with the dichotomy between the solo instrument and the attendant electronics in various guises (even the quasi-Max Headroom cover art seems to reflect this).  Erin Baiano did the photography and Caleb Nei did the graphic design.  If I have a criticism of this fine album it is perhaps that the liner notes provide less detail than this listener prefers so I have tried to provide a few details here.

Beginning with Mario Davidovsky‘s classic Synchronisms No. 3 (1964) for cello and electronic sounds (one of twelve such works for solo instrument with electronics) and continuing with Steve Reich‘s Cello Counterpoint (2003) Nicolas begins his survey with two relatively well-known pieces in this genre and he certainly does them justice.  These pieces serve as Nicolas’ sort of homage to the past which he follows with some very current compositions.

He introduces some pieces unfamiliar to this writer.  David Fulmer‘s Speak of the Spring (2015) is a piece for solo cello with electronics.  Fulmer is a composer/performer apparently worth watching from a quick read of his web site.  As I was unable to determine the date of composition I contacted the composer who graciously responded despite his busy travel schedule: “The work was written last year, in 2015 specifically for Michael Nicolas and this particular project (cello and electronics). Michael had asked me for a piece for his recording project, and having known him (we went to school together) for many years, and admiring his playing so much, I was very interested in writing this piece for him. As for perspective…as a string player, I always enjoy writing string works. I’m interested in the beautiful timbres that the strings have. Tuning is also an important concept for me; at the end of the work, the cello electronics (pre-recorded cello) is scordatura.All of the prerecorded lines are recorded by Michael. I see this as a work written for Michael, played by Michael, and many versions of Michael.”

Next are two pieces by Annie Gosfield for cello and sampler.  Four Roses (1997) and “…and a Five Spot” (2015, commissioned by Nicolas as a companion to the former).  Both pieces are basically lyrical with spectral effects, microtonal passages, extended techniques and the samples of course.  The first piece is more assertive and direct while the second seems more introspective.  Both appear to be typical of Gosfield’s fully developed style.

Next up is a piece by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir whose album length “In the Light of Air” performed by ICE was reviewed here.  Her piece on this disc for solo cello and electronics Transitions (2015) has a similarly ethereal character but one gets the impression that her approachable style belies complexities that underlie her work.

The last piece is flexura (2015) by Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa, a Peruvian born composer now working in New York.  This piece functions almost like a bookend with the Davidovsky piece that opens this disc (Davidovsky also comes from South America having been born in Argentina).  La Rosa holds a PhD. in computer music from the University of California San Diego and is developing open source software (and hardware) for live performance.  His MANO controller can be seen in the video on his website.  This last piece inhabits a similar sound world to that of the Davidovsky.  It is thorny and modern sounding and works as a showcase for the cellist.  Strictly speaking I suppose this piece is more of a duet in that there are two musicians required to perform it.

As always the impeccable production by Sono Luminus makes for a wonderful listening experience and this is quite an impressive debut for this interesting young musician. Kudos to producer Dan Mercurio recording technician David Angell  and executive producer Collin J. Rae.

Perhaps I am premature in saying this but this release has the earmarks of a being classic survey of the current status of this genre.  One of the joys of such a project is to hear new interpretations of established works and to hear an intelligent selection of new pieces.  Definitely want to hear more from Mr. Nicolas as well as from the composers represented.