C’mon, There’s at Least Twenty Saints in There: A fine new recording of the Virgil Thomson opera, Four Saints in Three Acts


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BMOP/sound 1049

This recording is a fine example why I have come to love the work of Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project.  The scope of his musical choices ranges from intelligently selected new music projects by living composers and a fabulous survey of music by older composers that he considers worthy of attention again (and sometimes for the first time).  All BMOP recordings (even those on other labels) are consistently of the highest quality and the performances are definitive.  This series now on the orchestra’s own label is rapidly becoming a sort of canon defining modern music, or at least one vital vision of it.

There appear to be only two other recordings of this masterwork.  The first is a cobbled together mono version released on RCA with the composer conducting most of it and Leopold Stokowski conducting some numbers in this abridged performance.  The second is the very fine 1981 version by the Orchestra of Our Time under the able direction of Joel Thome.

The differences between these recordings is far less important than the fact that we now have three versions of this American operatic masterpiece for our listening enjoyment.  The BMOP recording is up to their usual high standards with wonderful sound and fine interpretation and musicianship.  

This 1934 opera premiered in Hartford, Connecticut and then opened on Broadway (yes, in New York) with an all black cast and ran for a record 48 performances.  Black music pioneer Eva Jessye conducted her choir and the production was directed by a young John Houseman who had just begun to turn his talents to the theater.

The libretto is by Gertrude Stein who later collaborated with Thomson on The Mother of Us All.  Her word play is more about sound than grammar (or mathematics for that matter).  It is in four acts and features more than four saints.  The music is classic Americana with the essences of folk musics and spirituals.

This is a gorgeous and fun piece which deserves to be in the canon of great American operas.  Want to make America great and celebrate Black History Month?  Then grab this recording and sit back for a wonderful listening experience.

 

Alberto Ginastera at 100


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Oberlin Conservatory OC 16-04

Let me start by saying that the only thing wrong with this album is that it is only one CD. Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) is without doubt one of the finest composers of the twentieth century.  Stylistically he holds much in common with composers like his contemporaries Aaron Copland (with whom he studied), Carlos Chavez, Leonard Bernstein and others who incorporated the spirit if not always the literal music of his homeland’s folk culture into his music.  In additional to these nationalist works he wrote a substantial amount of traditional concert music which touched on the edges of modernistic trends.

He wrote three operas, two ballets. two piano concertos, two cello concertos, a harp concerto, three string quartets, a bevy of piano music and sundry other items.  It is simply not possible to contain a fair representation of his work on a single CD.  Despite that this disc is not a bad retrospective.  It is lovingly played and recorded and if it does not represent the whole of Ginastera’s oeuvre it is a nice sampling.

The disc begins with the wonderful Harp Concerto Op. 25 (1956, rev. 1968).  Though originally commissioned by Edna Phillips (principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra) she had retired before she could perform it and it was premiered in 1965 by the amazing Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta.  This three movement work is certainly one of the composer’s finest works and is beautifully played by Yolanda Kondonassis with the Oberlin Orchestra under Raphael Jiménez.  This piece is one of the finest modern harp concertos and is representative of the composer’s international style with perhaps just a taste of modernism.

Next up is the single movement Pampeana Op. 16 (1947) with the great Gil Shaham on violin and his sister Orli Shaham on piano.  This is a sort of window on Ginastera’s earliest nationalist style full of melody and virtuosity.

The next work is the Sonata for Guitar Op. 47 (1976) played by Grammy winning virtuoso Jason Vieaux.  I had not heard this work and my first hearing was indeed a revelation.  This is a major work for guitar and a wonderful sonata in the classical form.  I gave these four tracks a few listens in an attempt to digest some of their beauty and complexity and I will doubtless give them many more listens.  This is a major piece that belongs in the repertory.

And, finally, we move to the earliest utterance here with the Danzas Argentinas Op. 2 (1937) in an exciting and dedicated performance from Orli Shaham.

The sound is wonderful and there are a geekily satisfying set of liner notes which include a useful analysis by James O’Leary, Frederick B. Selch Assistant Professor of Musicology, Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  All in all a beautiful production and a great introduction to Ginastera’s work but please, don’t stop here.  Make sure you get to hear his other work and perhaps the wonderful folks at Oberlin will consider a volume two?

Left Coast Classical


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Dear friends of new music,

The annual Other Minds concert series is coming up on February 28, March 1 and 2. Now in its 18th iteration the festival seems to constantly be able to find new and interesting music from all over the world. And it gives every season’s musicians a week’s retreat at the Djerassi Resident Artists program during which they perform and discuss their music with each other sharing what must be a wonderful mind-expanding experience for them.

Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco provides a comfortable venue that is both visually and acoustically well-suited to the marvelously diverse collections of composers and musicians that come together for three nights following their week-long workshop/retreat. Under the direction of Charles Amirkhanian who was music director at KPFA radio from 1969 to 1992 this concert series threatens to invade the musical consciousness and tastes of Northern California and beyond. At the very least it holds off the danger of the music scene becoming stuck in a rut. And at best it cross pollinates the DNA of the musical world to yield as yet unknown artistic mutations.

For die hard fans of new music like myself the festival provides an opportunity to hear some exciting artists whose work has interested me as well as an opportunity to widen my horizons and hear younger artists whose work is yet known only to a smaller audience. There are world and local premieres every year. And one of the thrills, at least for me, is the chance to hear artists who later rise to greater fame, “I remember when I first heard…”

This year’s line up is no less varied than previous years. Casting its usual wide net composers are included from Denmark, India, South Korea, Sweden, Canada and the United States. For me it will be the first time in which I will have had practically no knowledge before hand of these composers. But some of the performers are known to me including electronic diva gurus Amy X Neuberg and Pamela Z, two Bay Area artists with distinctly different approaches to the ‘voice with electronics’ genre. Having appeared previously in the ‘Other Minds’ concerts presenting their own compositions (composers thus far have only been allowed a single appearance presumably to make room for the new) they are engaged to perform music by other composers.

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Neuberg recently appeared doing her own arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s ‘California’ in a well-received performance with 9 other bands playing their arrangements of the other nine tracks from Mitchell’s classic album, ‘Blue’. This wonderful concert was reviewed in a previous blog. She will perform along with virtuoso percussionist William Winant and his percussion group in the world premiere of Canadian American Aaron Gervais ‘Work Around the World’.

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Pamela Z is also well known and is pictured above in a performance at the annual Chapel of the Chimes Summer Solstice concert. The world premiere of her Kronos Quartet commission, ‘And the Movement of the Tongue’ for string quartet and electronics occurs on February 20 and 21 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center. She will be performing an improvisation with another soloist with electronics performer, Paula Matthusen as well as her own arrangement of Meredith Monk’s ‘Scared Song’ on the last day (Saturday).

While I had been aware of recorder player Michala Petri I am only familiar with her recordings of baroque music. But we will get to hear her artistry in performances of fellow Danes Sunlief Rasmussen and Paula Matthusen in contemporary pieces, one a U.S. premiere.

In addition there will be performances by Danish folk trio (recorder, accordion, violin) and Indian Bansuri master G.S. Sachdev as well as a performance by jazz pianist and ECM recording artist Craig Taborn.

Swedish contrabass recorder artist Anna Petrini will perform three works for contrabass recorder and electronics (an unusual combination to say the least) by three Scandinavian composers. Mattias Petersson is featured in a performance with video and electronics of his work ‘Strom’ from 2006 in its U.S. premiere.

And the second (of three) nights will feature the world premiere of a theatrical work, ‘ARA’ by the South Korean vocalist Dohee Lee featuring video and multi-channel electronics. I’m betting that this may be a major premiere.

If, as most biologists now believe, diversity is crucial to the survival of a species then the Other Minds festival appears to be mixing enough artistic DNA to keep new music alive for a couple of hundred years. I don’t know how many friends and acquaintances will be awed in 5-10 years when I tell them I was at the premiere of ‘ARA’ or ‘Work Around the World’ or try to describe the sound of a contrabass recorder with electronic enhancement but even the blank stares with some scratching their heads won’t detract from my own self satisfaction of having been there.

Hoping to see you at Other Minds,

Allan

Cançonièr at the Berkeley Festival Fringe


Full moon presides over exsanguinous tales.

Last night, local early music ensemble Cançonièr performed in what was their last appearance until next year.  In the somewhat noisy parish hall of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church this four member ensemble played a slightly condensed version of a program they have been touring for the last year or so.  It was a program called ‘Black Dragon’ with music from the first half of the 15th century, the time of the reign of Count Vlad Dracula, the historical antecedent of the vampire character.

Cançonièr is a four member ensemble co-directed by Tim Rayborn and Annette Bauer.  The other two regulars are Shira Kammen and Phoebe Jevtovic.  All are amazing instrumentalists and scholars in their own right and all play in other ensembles and groupings.

Tim Rayborn is a medieval scholar , multi-instrumentalist, singer and performer.  Annette Bauer is a recorder virtuoso, multi-instrumentalist and singer.  Shira Kammen plays vielle (antecedent of the violin/viola), medieval harp and sings.  And Phoebe Jevtovic is a singer who also does double duty by playing a small bell set in some of the pieces.

Annette Bauer demonstrates her virtuosity on the recorder.

Tim Rayborn

Tim Rayborn providing context and performing.

The group goes beyond their scholarship (which is excellent) and puts their performances in context.  They provide translations of the words they sing (frequently in dead or antiquated languages) and they connect with their audience with a pleasant sense of humor as well as drama.

Shira Kammen playing the vielle.

They clearly enjoy playing together and seem very connected, deriving great pleasure from making music.  And they produce a beautiful sound with their intricately crafted replicas of the instruments of the time.

Phoebe Jevtovic sings accompanied by Tim Rayborn on the lute.

One complaint.  The location of this church at Bancroft and Ellsworth makes for a bit of urban distraction provided by sirens and traffic.  And there were apparently other activities going on in the church complex which could be occasionally heard.  But the musicians and audience handled the distractions in a good-natured manner consistent with the rest of their performances.

They began and ended their intermissionless program with a narrative drama with music partly sung, partly spoken or intoned but performed with characteristic flair by Tim Rayborn accompanied by himself on frame drum and the ensemble.  This was a jaunty upbeat sounding piece at the outset that gives way to the narrative talking/singing about the infamous subject of this performance here called Dracula of Wallachia.  The language here sounded like an old German dialect and after the brief but harrowing telling of the story in speech and song (the speech gratefully rendered in English) the jaunty music of the beginning returns to conclude the piece.  One can imagine this being performed in a tavern or inn by a troubadour or group of musicians for the guests.

Rayborn then spoke to the audience providing more context by explaining that tonight’s music is from the time of the Count’s reign but that it is not known if he indeed had musicians in his court.  And for those who do not know the story of ‘Vlad the impaler’, as he was known, this is pretty grisly stuff.  Reality programming from the dark ages if you will.

There followed two more composed songs, a folk song, a traditional Romanian dance,  a heart-rending Moldavian chant passionately sung by Jevtovic and a traditional Bulgarian dance.

I have not bothered to mention the composers’ names (which were listed in the printed program) because they are very little know and would likely clutter this little narrative.  My apologies to the composers and the scholars if I have offended in my omissions.

Left to right: Shira Kammen, Annette Bauer and Phoebe Jevtovic demonstrating their vocal collaboration.

But the next piece was by a composer familiar to anyone who has taken a course in western music history, Guillame Dufay (1397-1474).  The work of this composer, who provided a lot of sacred music for the church as well as secular pieces, was so successful that his work and his name have survived the ravages of history.  The ‘Lamentio Sanctae Matris Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae’ required the vocal skills of all four in the group as well as instrumental accompaniment.  And they did so beautifully singing, we were told, in two different languages as the piece is originally written.

There followed an Italian dance, a Byzantine secular court piece called a “kratima” (spell check is practically useless here), a medieval Russian pilgrim  song and an Ottoman Turkish piece followed by a very spirited reprise of the first piece.

The ensemble clearly enjoys their music making.

All in all a very satisfying evening and a clearly appreciative audience sent this writer out into the Berkeley night not with nightmarish images but with the tunes of this joyful performance ringing in his head (medieval earworms?).  And I popped one of their CDs in my car stereo for the ride home.  I could easily hear this again.