Unheard Piano Trios, Chicago’s Lincoln Trio Finds Neglected Wonders


Cedille 90000 165

The Lincoln Trio is a Chicago based piano trio (founded in 2003) consisting of Desiree Rushtrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; and Marta Aznavoorian, piano. Their choice of repertoire is particularly wide ranging and includes basically the entire history of the piano trio including contemporary works.  

The present (already Grammy nominated for chamber music performance) offering, titled “Trios from the Homelands” gives us readings of piano trios by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), Arno Babajanian (1921-1983), and Frank Martin (1890-1974).  All are described as being outsiders whose work is little known outside of their native lands of, respectively, England, Armenia, and Switzerland.  

In many ways this recording is representative of the strengths of the Cedille imprint.  Attention to fine local musicians, a unique ear for truly interesting repertoire from a variety of time periods (largely 20th century), and high quality recording.  Whether or not these selections become incorporated into the common performing repertoire for piano trios is secondary to the fact that these selections are eminently listenable and entertaining.  They may very well find a place in many listeners’ playlists.

The first selection by Rebecca Clarke was premiered in 1922 (the oldest piece here) with none other than Dame Myra Hess at the keyboard.  Clarke’s music is hampered by gender prejudice but not by depth or talent.  This is a substantial work which is highly entertaining and contains material that continues to reveal wonders with repeated listenings.  There are three movements and the style is basically tonal, perhaps post romantic.  

Next is the trio by Arno Babajanian.  Most listeners (this reviewer included) have little exposure to Armenian classical composers outside of the Armenian derived works by the fine American composer Alan Hovhaness and perhaps some exposure to the truly wonderful work of Tigran Mansurian, the living ambassador and dean of Armenian composers.  On hearing this substantial Chamber work from 1952 listeners are alerted to the fact that there is much quality music that has seldom been heard outside of a country whose best known attribute at the present moment may rest largely on the 2015 centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide perpetrated at the hands of the Turks.  

The last piece is by the most familiar composer, Frank Martin.  Though not exactly a household name his oeuvre is the best documented in recordings even if his presence in the performing repertoire is still somewhat limited.  Martin is best known for some of his orchestral and choral music.  This “Trio sur des melodies populaires irlandaises” (1925) is described as a significant early example of the composer’s chamber music and the only work for piano trio.

As with the first two trios this is a substantial work whose three movements provide both technical challenges and very effective musical development.  This is not simply a pastiche of Irish tunes.  It is a very accomplished use of so called “popular” melodies to fashion major piece of chamber music.  

This disc is another fine entry into the Lincoln Trio’s recordings of lesser known repertoire that deserves at least a second hearing if not a promotion to more common live performances.  Their previous releases have included music by Joaquin Turina and a disc of music by women composers.  It would seem they are an ensemble that bears watching/listening.

Jennifer Koh, Putting Tchaikovsky in Context


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Cedille CDR 166

Let me start here with a confession:  I have never been a real big fan of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  However I am a huge fan of Jennifer Koh and of Cedille Records in their intelligent productions which place music like this in a more proper context.  The usual pairings of this concerto with Brahms or Beethoven only seem to highlight the distinct difference in style rather than a context more conducive to the appreciation of the music. Another problem with Tchaikovsky is that his reputation tends to hang on the 1812 Overture, the Violin Concerto, the first Piano Concerto and the last three Symphonies.  He wrote a lot more than that (including ten operas and three string quartets).

Now with that bit of whining out of the way let’s take a look at the recording at hand.  Jennifer Koh is one of the shining lights of contemporary violin soloists and that alone should be sufficient recommendation to listen to any of her recordings or performances. She holds a special place in this reviewer’s heart for her attention and expertise with contemporary music and for having performed the solo violin part in the most recent production of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach.  In costume with a shaggy wig she brought new and highly virtuosic life to that obbligato violin part.

It is her virtuosity and her perspective as one of the more recent generations of artists to wield this classic string instrument that holds the main interest here.  The Tchaikovsky concerto has been the darling of all the great violinists from Heifetz and Kreisler to Milstein and Stern. I suppose that every violinist must confront this work at some point and it is a genuine challenge as well as a showpiece for virtuosity.

The other works on this disc (which are presented chronologically) are the Serenade Melancolique Op. 26 (1875), the Valse-Scherzo Op. 34 (1877) followed by the Concerto Op. 35 (1878) and finally the Souvenir d’un lieu cher Op. 42 (1878, originally for violin and piano orchestrated by Alexander Glazounov and published in 1896).  Hearing this concerto in the context of the composer’s other works for violin and orchestra does more clearly delineate the composer’s process.

In addition to providing a complete accounting of Tchaikovsky’s violin and orchestra music listeners are able to hear the interpretation by this wonderful artist.  Indeed she does truly grasp the grand romantic sweep of the concerto and the more intimate shorter works. Let me say too that if you like the concerto you will also find much delight in the shorter works which frame it on this disc.  Her virtuosity shines and Koh’s ability to handle romantic as well as modern repertoire certainly mark her as a versatile modern master.

Of course one can’t miss the powerful contribution of the orchestra in considering these performances.  The Odense Symphony Orchestra (Denmark) is absolutely stunning in its clarity and drive.  The conductor Alexander Vedernikov is of Russian musical royalty (both his parents were accomplished musicians) and was the conductor of the Bolshoi from 2001-2009.  He is definitely a name to follow and his feel for this music of his homeland is most genuine and exciting.

This truly excellent recording is produced by Grammy winning veteran producer Judith Sherman.  Session engineering is by Viggo Mangor with post-production and editing respectively by Bill Maylone and Jeanne Velonis.  Audiophiles might even want to have this disc for the sound alone.  It’s that good.

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


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Cedille CDR 9000 163

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.

 

 

 

Stacy Garrop, A New Master of the Orchestra


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Cedille has tended to be very supportive of local artists (they are based in Chicago) and this is a fine example of them hitting a bulls eye.  Stacy Garrop boasts about 20 CDs which include her music and she has, as of 2016, began her career as a freelance composer.  She had taught composition at Chicago’s Roosevelt University from 2000-2016.

Her name is a new one to this reviewer but one which will remain on my radar.  This stunning disc contains three major works by her, the five movement Mythology Symphony (2007-2014), the three movement Thunderwalker (1999) which was her doctoral dissertation and Shadow (2001).

A quick look at Garrop’s intelligently designed website shows her to be a very prolific composer with works for almost every imaginable ensemble.  Scores and recordings can be ordered from the site.  Garrop earned degrees in music composition at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (B.M.), University of Chicago (M.A.), and Indiana University-Bloomington (D.M.).

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The composer at the piano (from the composer’s website)

Another of the nice features of this disc is the opportunity to hear the fine musicianship of the Chicago College of Performing Arts Symphony (and their chamber symphony) of Roosevelt University.  Conductors Alondra De La Parra and Markand Thakar are also new to this reviewer but I am glad to be able to acquaint myself with their skills in this recording. Listeners would do well to note these fine artists and to thank Cedille for supporting them. This is a fine example of producer James Ginsburg’s ability to recognize and promote local talent.

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Alondra De La Parra (from the conductor’s website)

 

 

 

 

Markand Thakar photos (c) dennis drenner 2012
www.dennisdrenner.com

Markand Thakar photos (c) dennis drenner 2012

The centerpiece here is, of course, the Mythology Symphony.  Its five movements were composed over several years and the symphony was first performed in its entirety in 2015. One is immediately struck by the directness of the composer’s invention and the elaborate but lucid orchestration.  This work would likely please any concert audience and its color and sense of narrative suggest almost cinematic aspirations.  Indeed Ms. Garrop could undoubtedly write for the screen with her wide ranging palette.

The second work, Thunderwalker, as mentioned above, is Garrop’s doctoral dissertation and the listener will doubtless perceive the fact that her style and skillful handling of the orchestra appear to already have been fully formed in this, her earliest orchestral composition.  The work, which does not have a specific program as does the symphony, still demonstrates the composer’s fascination with the mythological dimension as she weaves classical forms of fugue, pasacaglia and scherzo to describe her imagined image of the Thunderwalker.

Shadow (2001) is described in the notes as a reflection of the composer’s experience at the Yaddo artist colony.  Again her fascination with images to drive the music are present and her style remains remarkably consistent with the other two works on the disc.

The recording was engineered by Bill Maylone at the Benito Juarez Community Academy Performing Arts Center in Chicago.  Graphic design is by Nancy Bieschke with the lovely Medusa cover art by Thalia Took.  The very informative liner notes are by the composer.

 

 

 

 

Next Gen Steve Reich: Two Great New Recordings


One of the hurdles on the way to long-term historical recognition is finding the next generation of interpreters for whom the music itself is not new but whose interpretation is needed anew in light of the music’s place in the canon of performed and recorded music. So Mr. Reich has now arrived in two fantastic new recordings.


The first CD here is the Cedille (Cedille 90000 161) label debut by Third Coast Percussion, a young Chicago based group.  The label itself is reason enough to pay attention with their intelligently selected and well-recorded releases.  But even so this one stands out for a couple of reasons.

As  Reich reaches his 80th birthday (as are many composers whose work informed my listening life since the 70s) we are seeing the next generation (or so)  of performers, musicians for whom this music is not new.  (Third Coast Percussion is Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore. They were founded in Chicago in 2005.). As these dedicated musicians traverse this repertoire they see it from a different perspective and they acknowledge this in the accompanying notes by Robert Dillon.  No doubt they are familiar with the music and have heard some if not all previous recordings. This music is no longer new and novel the way it was to those who first heard it.  And that is what we have here, a new take on music already familiar giving us the perspective of another generation.

The second reason to get this recording is the sheer beauty of the sound.  It is a masterpiece of recorded sound which does justice to the work of these fine musicians as well as the music.  The album was recorded at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (where Third Coast is in residency).  Dan Nichols was the engineer assisted by Matt Ponio.  It was mastered by Jessie Lewis and Kyle Pyke.
The CD opens with the recent Mallett Quartet (2009) which has been recorded only once before.  The piece is in three sections fast-slow-fast split over the first three tracks.  It is one of Reich’s finest compositions showing him as a still vital artist and it will no doubt receive many more performances but it would be hard to imagine a better recording.

The second selection is, for this writer, one of Reich’s more unusual pieces.  The Sextet (1984) is scored for two keyboards (pianos doubling synthesizers used for long held tones) and percussion.  David Friend and Oliver Hagen lend their formidable keyboard skills to this work and help it to swing.

I must admit that this performance has resulted in me giving this work some serious close listening again and I am liking it better.  Some of these movements seem like precursors to some of the writing in Reich’s wonderful The Four Sections (1987), another work that deserves more attention.

The brief but lovely Nagoya Marimbas (1994) is pretty much an accepted staple of the classical marimba repertoire and has also been transcribed and performed on guitars as well.  As with the preceding the performance is faithful and lively.

For the final track a decision was made to go back to early in Reich’s output with Music for Pieces of Wood (1973).  As with much of his early work we see his experimental side focusing as much as possible on a single process.  It uses the same rhythmic pattern as the 1972 Clapping Music but uses additive rather than phasing techniques (I believe), a great example of the roots of minimalism.  The group does some toying with the choice of percussion but, as in the preceding tracks, manage to create a performance worthy of the best interpreters in their generation.  Happy Birthday Mr. Reich!!


This second CD (New Focus fcr 165) is another aspect of crafting a legitimate new interpretation of a given piece of music.  Guitarist Daniel Lippel goes back to some of the roots of Reich’s mature style, Ghanaian drumming.  Reich seems to have achieved his personal artistic synthesis after his encounter and study with the master drummers of Ghana.  It is here that he was finally able to synthesize the gifts received from his study of jazz (Reich was/is a jazz drummer) and his tape music experiments into the larger forms for which he is now known through these studies with West African musicians.  And it is here that Lippel goes, with an assist from musicologist Martin Scherzinger, to create his (re)vision of this classic Reich composition.

Electric Counterpoint (1987) was written for and first recorded by the still wonderful jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.  His recording is certainly definitive but, as with all music performance, hardly the last word.  Several artists have presented their versions (David Tanenbaum’s acoustic guitar version deserves more attention by the way).  It is a very appealing and interesting piece cast in a classic fast-slow-fast format that presents formidable challenges for the musician but not for the listener.

It is difficult (and certainly beyond the scope of this review) to say specifically what Mr. Lippel has done differently but there is clearly a difference (further notes can be found here).  I am loathe to find adjectives to describe this recording except to say that it is well worth your time to hear it.  It provides a different way of hearing much as Glenn Gould has done for Bach.  Just sit back and enjoy.

Black Classical Part Five


Looking at the previous four installments in this, my personal tribute to Black History Month, I decided that I needed to write one more (for now) in this series. So here I will present some of the resources I have found useful in learning about this music. While I have some knowledge in this area I could not have written these posts without these sources and I will continue to look to them to help me discover more musical gems. I hope that these essays have sparked some interest and I hope that any such interest will have ways to grow further.

The most useful general search terms formed the titles of these posts: black classical (or “African-American classical” which then limits your search to U.S. or the Americas). The term, “classical” is problematic but did serve to differentiate my searches from blues, ragtime, traditional jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, pop, rap and related genres that are more stereotypically associated with black people in music.

My focus was on composers and conductors leaving out a vast category of black classical musicians. A useful overview can be found at: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/articles/black-history-month/2013/jan/31/timeline-history-black-classical-musicians/. This little timeline provides a perspective on the slow acceptance of black musicians in the elite ranks of producers and ensembles that define the classical music experience.

africlassical.com is a good general site that lists many black musicians and its far more up to date companion site http://africlassical.blogspot.com/ has postings of great interest on an almost daily basis has been both essential and revelatory at times (I bookmarked this blog).

Center for Black Music Research is a rich resource and also publishes an academic journal on the subject as well as many other useful and interesting publications. They also maintain a large research library of books, journals and recordings. And they cover all forms of music. An excellent resource.

But the starting point for my personal interest in this subject is the landmark set of recordings which I encountered in the mid to late 1970s. Columbia records release of nine albums entitled ‘Music by Black Composers’ is perhaps the best starting point due to the wonderful scholarship and musicianship in this set. Conductor Paul Freeman along with musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma collaborated on this set. They produced a fine overview of neglected black composers from the 18th century to the mid-20th century in an intelligent selection of music and excellent performances by American orchestras. I was pleased to find that the reissue of these albums as a 9 vinyl disc boxed set remains available for only $35 plus postage from here. I jumped at the opportunity to acquire this great reissue funded by the Ford Foundation and my order was sent to me in less than a week.

Chicago-based Cedille Records has some great releases and even more great black classical is available at Albany Records.  Search for the work of Paul Freeman on both labels.

The ultimate goal for me in all this would be to have black classical musicians and composers equally represented on recordings, in performances and in programming. But until that happens (I’m not holding my breath here) the recordings and resources thus far cited (and many that were not) will have to suffice. While I continue to enjoy discovering this music as a “best kept secret” or a limited boutique-type item I would much prefer that the art of these black musicians become common knowledge, not a political issue of which Marian Anderson‘s concert at the Lincoln Memorial has become emblematic.

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Let me end by referring my readers to my favorite fiction book about black musicians: Richard Powers‘ 2003 masterpiece ‘The Time of Our Singing‘. Powers, who is also trained as a musician, demonstrates amazing insight to music as well as civil rights issues in this sweeping epic of the twentieth century. The chapter entitled, Easter, 1939 (too long to quote here) brings the Marian Anderson concert to life in powerful prose. Read it, preferably out loud to a friend, because it will give you a history lesson and perhaps put you in touch with the emotional power and significance of that event.

Happy Black History Month to all. And happy listening.

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Black Classical Part One


Adolphus Hailstork

Adolphus Hailstork

In honor of Black History Month I want to bring attention in this blog to black music that is not a part of popular culture. I want to highlight some of the black classical composers whose work I find most satisfying and accomplished.

I will begin with the music of Adophus Hailstork. I had been aware of some of this man’s work for some years but it was when I purchased the Naxos recording of his 2nd and 3rd Symphonies that I came to appreciate the power of his work.

Hailstork was born in 1941. He studied piano, organ, voice and violin. He is another of a long line of composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. As one would expect, some of his music is concerned with significant events of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s. ‘American Guernica’ of 1983 is his response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church which killed four little girls. Similarly his 1979 composition, ‘Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed’ is an homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.

I purchased the Naxos disc to become more familiar with this man’s music. The first work on the disc is the 3rd Symphony of the late 1990s struck me as a highly entertaining and accomplished work that deserves a place in the symphonic repertoire. It is a joyous and inventive work which, to my ears, echoed the likes of orchestral masters such as William Schuman and Vincent Persichetti as well a hint of minimalist repetitive structures. It is a lavish neo-romantic work with a depth and complexity that demands several hearings but one which has an immediate appeal. The somber 2nd Symphony is imbued with the composer’s reactions to having visited the historical slave market areas of West Africa which, I imagine, must be not unlike visiting the death camps of the former Nazi Germany.

As time and finances permit I intend to pursue more of this American composer’s works. There is precious little reference material to be found on the Internet regarding this prolific masterful composer (as is the case with all the black classical composers i have so far encountered) though, thankfully, there are more recordings.

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman

Africlassical.com and its related blog provide some information on about 50 composers and musicians. The now retired daring black conductor Paul Freeman recorded a significant series of music by black composers issued on 9 LPs for Columbia records in the 1970s. He recorded another 3CDs of music by black composers on Chicago-based Cedille records. He founded the Chicago Sinfonietta (billed as the world’s most diverse orchestra) and was its principal conductor for 24 years and continues in its mission of diversity presenting unusual concert repertoire.

More about some of the composers on those Columbia LPs and Cedille CDs as well as others to come in future blogs during this month.