Howard Hersh’s Chamber Music: Dancing at the Pink House


hersh pink

This latest release by Howard Hersh reveals more of his range as a composer.  His previous release focused on one large concerted work for piano and chamber orchestra as well as some virtuosic writing for piano and for harpsichord.  This disc (worth a listen if only for the return engagement of the pianism of Brenda Tom) focuses on some smaller chamber ensembles and a look at the composer’s more impressionistic moods.

This writer is left with the notion that each piece seems to be an intimate telling of a story.  Though the stories are not explicit, each piece has a distinct narrative character.  Mary Rowell handles the multi-track violin parts on Madam’s Tavern (2014).  The piece has an almost symphonic character evoking a variety of styles and meandering most pleasantly through a musical narrative whose details are not as important as the fact that the piece engages very successfully on a purely musical level.  It is written for solo violin with a chorus of some 15 tracks of violin accompanying.

Loop (2006) is a sort of cyclic quasi-minimalist work featuring Jonah Kim on cello, Brenda Tom (gently) on piano, and Patricia Niemi on vibraphone.  It is a dream-like, perhaps even impressionistic piece whose structure and compositional techniques serve the end goal of being a charming aural object.

I Love You Billy Danger (2012) was written for pianist Brenda Tom.  Here she demonstrates her virtuosity and her dramatic and dynamic range in a piece which, though related to Liszt according to the liner notes, seems to evoke the rather Lisztian master Frederic Rzewski as well.  Tom is at her fines with this challenging work and she conveys the narrative well.

Night (2013) seems related to the earlier Loop by virtue of being a percussion piece but also by its gentle evocation of a shimmering musical narrative punctuated with a clarinet part that alternately hides within the percussive sounds and comes wailing out  in jazzy/bluesy moments.  This writer was left with the notion of Gershwin haunting the score (but maybe that is because this review is being written in the Halloween season).  José González Granero is on clarinet, Patricia Niemi on marimba, and Nick Matthiessen on percussion.

Dancing at the Pink House (2006) is a musical narrative for clarinet and piano that Hersh has featured as a teaser on his website.  It was written for Patricia Shands, clarinet and is accompanied by James Winn on piano.  Shands is the owner of said Pink House and she seems to be having a lot of fun with this playful but substantial piece.  Both of these musicians appeared on Hersh’s 2007 CD release, Pony Concerto (Albany Records).

Dancing at the Pink House is a valuable addition to Hersh’s discography and reveals more of his range as a composer.  This is a highly entertaining recording and leaves the listener wanting more.

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Visions of a Dreamer: Keane Southard’s Waltzing Dervish


dervish

Keane Southard (1987- ) is a composer and pianist whose work is influenced by a variety of styles including standard classical and pop and folk influences.  This major debut disc is a fine sampling of his work though it is important to realize that his work is for diverse ensembles of pretty much every description and the present sampling is of music for wind ensemble.

Just like every specialized grouping, be it string quartet, string orchestra, wind quintet, solo piano, full orchestra, etc., one encounters composers with varying degrees of facility in each configuration.  Southard seems very much at home with the wind ensemble/band and its possibilities.  A quick look through his extensive works list at his site suggests a hugely prolific musician with a wide variety of skill sets in a variety of musical configurations.  Wind ensemble is clearly one of his strengths and the Northeastern State University Wind Ensemble of Oklahoma under conductor Norman Wika are up to the challenges.  Southard playfully refers to this grouping as a “wind powered” ensemble using it as a metaphor for ecologically sustainable power systems.

There are nine tracks of which three are transcriptions of other composers’ work and the remaining six are by Southard.  His metaphors are as eclectic as his musical choices but fear not, his choices are friendly ones.  The first track, Waltzing Dervish sets the tone as an original and substantial composition of some ten minutes duration in which he takes on the waltz and its various meanings both public and personal to create an original band composition concerned as much with ecological metaphor as with a striving for multicultural diversity in an optimistic and thoughtful exploration of what can easily be a tired dance form.

The second piece is an arrangement of a piece by Francisco Mignone (1897-1986), one of the composers whose music he encountered during his 2013 Fulbright Fellowship in Brazil.  The piece is scored for optional choir (not used in this recording) and band, an arrangement Southard made with the intention of sharing this music as a highly viable selection for concert band.  It is indeed a joyous affair and one could easily imagine this being adopted as a staple in the rarefied realm of concert band music.

Do You Know How Many You Are? is the composer’s 2013 band arrangement of a 2010 choral piece which he describes as having basically come to him in a dream.

Claude Debussy’s Menuet (ca. 1890) was originally a piano piece which Southard envisioned in this orchestrated form during the course of his studies of orchestration.  That sort of inspiration is not uncommon for a composer but the result is not always as ideal as the composer imagined.  Fortunately this orchestration works quite well and again would proudly fit in a given band’s repertoire as an audience pleasing piece.

The next piece, originally an orchestral piece from 2013 is presented in the composer’s own arrangement for band.  No Interior Do Rio De Janeiro (2013/15) is another of the inspirations from the composer’s 2013 Fulbright Fellowship and was inspired by his work with “Orquestrando a Vida”, a Brazilian music project inspired by Venezuela’s famed “El Sistema”.  The band version was written on a commission from the present NSU Wind Ensemble.  Here is perhaps a departure from the dance theme of the first three tracks.  It seems to be a thesis or musical diary entry reflecting his personal take on the experience of working with this project though the spirit of the dance remains throughout.

Carousel (2008/2010) is the arrangement for band of the third movement of a mini-symphony (perhaps a scherzo?) for orchestra.  Curiously he describes his inspiration as coming from the sound of the calliope, a sort of steam driven organ common in circuses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cortège et Litanie (1922) by French composer and organist Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) is a bit of a departure.  Neither a dance nor derived from Brazilian sources this piece was originally written for organ.  The organ (like the calliope in the previous piece) is arguably a wind instrument and this transcription retains some of the ambiance of that grand instrument.  It is among Dupré’s better known pieces and seems a natural for band.

Uma Pasacalha Brasiliera (2015) is a commission from a the Arrowhead Union High School Wind Ensemble and conductor Jacob T. Polancich.  The composer describes various influences in the circuitous path the the completion of this work but it is basically a sort of homage to the baroque form of the pasacaglia (variations over a repeating bass line) as well as to some of the great folk song influenced composers such as Percy Grainger.  Brazilian influences dominate much of the composer’s work from this period and they combine with the aforementioned baroque and folk influences to form a wonderfully creative take on that form of baroque counterpoint.

Finally the big finale is presented in another transcription, this time of a concerto for piano and organ from 2008.  Of course the organ again lends it’s sound easily to a band transcription and we have this Concertino for Piano and Wind Band (2008 rev. 2015) which allows us to hear the considerable keyboard skills of the composer.  This is the most substantial work on the disc and provides a satisfying finale to this portrait of a prolific and optimistic young composer at the very successful beginnings of what this writer (optimistically) hopes will be a long and productive career.

 

Ross Feller: X/Winds


feller-x-winds

Innova 911

 

This album is both an auspicious debut and a fine representative sampling of the compositional efforts of Ross Feller.  Feller holds MM and DMA degrees from the University of Illinois Champaign/Urbana, that venerable rural Illinois institution which oversaw some of the most significant early developments in computer technology.  More importantly for the present context it is has been the home of many important composers whose works have incorporated this technology directly or indirectly.  Like similar centers in New York (Columbia-Princeton), Oakland (Mills College), Stanford (CNMAT), Berkeley (CCRMA) among others a distinctive musical thread developed in that rural outpost and it is this provenance that makes this recording of particular interest.  Feller is also an editor at the Computer Music Journal and teaches at Kenyon College.

Ross Feller at the Paul Sacher Stiftung

Feller represents the current state of the art whose ancestry includes the likes of Lejaren Hiller and Salvatore Martirano, both major innovators in both music and technology.  Martirano was one of his teachers and Martirano’s widow, the fine violinist Dorothy Martirano, performs on this recording.  This writer had the pleasure of hearing the Martiranos in concert some years ago and can attest to the astounding quality of the work of this too little known composer.  Judging by the works on this recording Feller appears to be a worthy successor.

Eight works are represented here ranging from solo to acoustic ensemble to electroacoustic works.  The only thing missing is a purely electronic work and one hopes this will occur in a future release.  Composition dates range from 1994 to 2008 though, properly speaking, the 1994 work was revised in 2006.

Triple Threat (1994, rev 2006) is a sort of mini concerto for three soloists (B flat clarinet, trumpet and violin) and an ensemble of nine.  It is a sort of contemporary concerto grosso in that the soloists are more integrated into the overall texture of the piece.  It is a taught, well organized composition whose technical aspects discussed in the composer’s very useful notes are beyond the scope of this review.  What is well within the scope of this review is the fact that this is a marvelously engaging work in a sort of neo-mid century modernism sort of vein.  The technical aspects which will no doubt entertain theorists function in service of the music and are not an end in themselves.

Still Adrift (2013) is the first of three electroacoustic pieces on the disc.  This is an intense and virtuosic essay ably handled by soloist Adam Tendler.  It is obviously a very personal work evidenced both by its intimate focus and the composer’s own liner notes.  One suspects, however, that something is lost without the visuals and immediacy of seeing a live performance.  Nonetheless this piece easily stands on its own sonic merits.

Bypassing the Ogre (2006) is the first of two tracks for soloist without electronics.  This is perhaps the most experimental of the pieces on this disc.  It is essentially an etude focused on the soloist’s (Peter Evans) formidable improvisatory techniques on the trumpet.  It reminds this reviewer at times of the more experimental work of the justly lauded West Coast composer Robert Erickson (1917-1997) whose work also pioneered developments in electroacoustic musics as well.

Disjecta (2006) for percussion ensemble is actually the most extended work here at 14’10”.  It is sort of a catalog of Feller’s experiments with writing for percussion ensemble using playing techniques and naturally occurring (instead of electronically mediated) acoustic phenomena.  The title comes from Samuel Beckett’s term which he applied to a collection of miscellany.  This one requires close ,multiple listenings to grasp the composer’s intent but it appears to point the way to innovations in writing for percussion.

Sfumato (2006) for violin, bass clarinet and electroacoustic sound comes from the same apparently very productive year, 2006, as do three other tracks on this album.  This is the second electroacoustic track here.  As is often the case with electroacoustic compositions it is frequently difficult for the listener to determine whether the sounds heard are acoustic, electronic or some combination of the two without seeing a score or at least seeing the performance.  What is important is the sound and the impact of the music.  Again the music is engaging and satisfying.

Retracing (2009) for violin and electroacoustic sound is related to Still Adrift in that it incorporates gestures as well as textiles and dancers but stands on its sonic merits as a concert piece as well.  This is a very intense essay beautifully handled by Dorothy Martirano.  Even without the visuals there is much to engage the listener.

Glossolalia (2002) is the second of the two unaccompanied solo pieces here.  This one is for cello.  Unlike Bypassing the Ogre this piece seems to have impressionist leanings.  It is certainly filled with a variety of techniques but the end result is a coherent musical narrative.  It is abstract without an obvious narrative so the listener is free to apply their own impressions elicited by this very intense piece.

X/Winds (2008) for symphonic woodwind ensemble is the piece from which the album derives its title.  Here we return to the rich orchestral palette of the opening track.  Feller seems particularly strong in his ability to write meaningful and engaging music for large ensembles.  It left this reviewer wanting more.

These are incredible performances by highly competent and creative musicians of music which is well served by these skills.  Very engaging music very well performed and recorded.  

Huang Ruo: Red Rain, a New Generation From the East Makes Itself Known


redrain

This recording grabbed my attention in wonderful ways from the very beginning and didn’t cease to amaze me until it ended.  Huang Ruo (1976- ) is one of the most striking new voices this reviewer has heard in some time.  This Chinese born American composer draws on his ancestral culture, modern culture and synthesizes it with contemporary compositional techniques in new and interesting ways.  He provokes the same sort of excitement in this reviewer that first contact with the music of Bright Sheng and Ge Gan Ru did when they first came into earshot some years ago.

huangruo

Huang Ruo (1976- )

(Perhaps it is due to the rising star nature of this artist but there seems to be relatively little reliable info on him.  His website is apparently not yet complete and even his Theodore Presser page fails to even give dates for his scores.  I’m hoping these glitches get resolved soon because I think this is a composer who deserves serious attention.)

The very first track, Four Fragments (2006?) in the version for cello solo (apparently there is a version for violin solo but it is not clear which came first) is a powerful and virtuosic piece loaded with various pizzicati, glissandi and other effects that perhaps only a score could really tell you with certainty.  What is interesting is the really organic nature of these effects, that is to say that they serve the composition and aren’t simply “golly gee what a virtuoso” type fireworks. The amazing Canadian Korean cellist Soo Bae handles this work beautifully and seemingly with relative ease.  This is the second longest (by about ten seconds) of the pieces on this disc and the music, the performance snagged me immediately.  What a powerful piece!

After that I was prepared for perhaps a let down, something more “ordinary”.  But, no, the next track, the title track, Red Rain (200?) for piano played by the wonderful Emanuele Arciuli is another distinctive statement which seems to mine the riches of the composer’s native culture and place it anew in a contemporary and relevant modern context.  At 10:50 it is a substantial piano work.  Like the cello piece it seems to use some unconventional idioms for the instrument and by that I mean it sounds nothing like Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy or even Boulez or Stockhausen.  It seems infused with an eastern musical flavor no doubt gained from techniques native to non-western traditions.

In another assault to any expectations I might have had the three movements of Shifting Shades have the pianist using a whistle such as your gym coach likely used with the pea inside to create a tremolo.  Here the pianist whistles (and plays some sort of flute, maybe a recorder or shakuhachi? at one point; he also apparently plays directly on the piano strings at times) whilst playing the rapid tremolos and the drones that seem to characterize Huang’s keyboard writing. Stephen Buck is the hard working pianist here.

Buck comes back again for the Tree Without Wind for piano (this time played a bit more conventionally).  This is the longest piece on the disc at 13:57 and rewards the listener’s attention.  It seems to probe mythological depths and was suggested by a Chan Buddhist narrative by Hui Neng.  Tremolos, clusters, drones and melodic fragments take on a symphonic grandeur at times.  There is a wide range of dynamics and tempi as the pianist recounts in sounds the meaning of movement and silence.

Three Pieces for Piano gives names to the short movements.  Prelude: Diffluent, Postlude: Left… and, Interlude: Points and Lines all contain the same techniques as the other piano pieces here (though without any additional instruments this time).  These sound like they might be earlier works and perhaps studies investigating different techniques though they seem fully fleshed out and complete in themselves.  The three movements are varied and the last one is apparently the composer’s only dalliance with twelve tone techniques and is by far the most conventional sounding work here though Huang’s distinctive fingerprint is present.  Once again we hear Stephen Buck navigating the score.

In the last track we get to hear the composer himself at the piano with Arash Amini (a member of the American Modern Ensemble) on cello in Wind Blows…  Like the previous tracks and as indicated in the fine notes by Stephen Buck this piece utilizes specialized effects to produce a unique sonic image.  The piano part is referred to as a “drone” and it is indeed static at least in relation to the part for cello. Unlike the preceding pieces there seems to be less concern about evoking images and more concern for just the sound itself which is described aptly as “meditative”.   In fact it is powerfully lyrical, even “Brahmsian” if I can be forgiven for that comparison.

The brief biography in the overall fascinating liner notes describe the composer as having been influenced by a wide variety of musical styles ranging from traditional Chinese folk musics to Chinese Opera, various western classical traditions including modernists such as Lutoslawski and various “pop” traditions as well.  He studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and he appears to have achieved a fascinating synthesis in what seems to be his mature style.  He is a composer, conductor and vocalist.  His music is unique and beautiful as a Taoist painting but grounded in traditions that embrace perhaps the entire world as filtered through his creative mind. Bravo Innova for bringing this music to light in this fine and interesting CD.

Definitely keep and eye and ear out for this guy.  He has many things to say and interesting ways to say them.

New and Newer Music for Flute and Piano


nataraja

New Focus FCR154

This is a curious collection of flute and piano music.  It is framed by two pieces from the late great Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012), one by Elliott Carter and a collection of world premiere recordings by composers far less familiar and markedly different in style.

The premieres are all by living composers (Josh Levine, Christopher Dietz, C.R. Kasprzsyk and Sam Pluta).  Now these are all fine compositions but their style is so very different from the Harvey and Carter pieces that it is almost jarring to the listener.  This living set of composers is represented by a far more conservative compositional ethic (please don’t read that as a negative) than the older, more modernist pieces which frame their efforts here.

Of course only time will tell the eventual place of these works in the annals of musical history but the fact here is that we have two towering works by Harvey, a tasty bit of one of Carter’s lesser known works and essentially unheard works from a gaggle of newcomers. The listener just has to be prepared to switch gears.

The performances are beautiful and loving throughout.  The Harvey pieces truly stand out as the masterpieces they are as does the Carter.  Curiously Carter (1908-2012) has been somewhat maligned since his passing for reasons that defy logic but I am glad that this late Carter piece was included.

This is a lovely recording and performance.  The juxtaposition of the modernist pieces framing the neo-romantic pieces by the younger composers is striking but stick with it. The pleasures of this recording are in the loving and committed performances as well as the recording itself which is quite lucid.

Conor Nelson on flute and Thomas Rosenkranz, piano are new names to me but I will keep them in mind having heard what they have done here.  The ear who made this recording so listenable was Ryan Miller, the recording engineer.

Finding Angels, Energetic Eclecticism from Howard Hersh


Angels and Watermarks

Angels and Watermarks

Howard Hersh (1940- ) studied music and earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Stanford University.  He is a California native and he succeeded Charles Amirkhanian as music director at KPFA.  His Pony Concerto (2005), Braided River Nights (2004) and Sonata for Violin and Percussion with String Bass obligato (2000) were released on Albany Records in 2007 and his Dancing at the Pink House (2006) is available as a free download on Bandcamp.

I had not been familiar with Mr. Hersh’s music when I agreed to review this disc but I found that liked it immediately and it made my  list of favorite releases for 2014. The  featured piece here is the Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments (2008) and it is a tour de force.  Hersh writes in a tonal idiom that sounds to this reviewer’s ears like a mix of Conlon Nancarrow and Francis Poulenc.  This concerto is virtuosic in the extreme but not the empty virtuosity of the romantic composer pianists (Anton Rubinstein bores me to tears).  This work in three movements sounds very difficult to play but manages to remain playful and entertaining, never taking itself too seriously.  Pianist Brenda Tom does a fantastic job (she must have fingers of steel) and is very ably supported by the small ensemble conducted by Barbara Day Turner.  Rapid attacks, scales and arpeggios keep the soloist very busy and the ensemble clearly listens and collaborates in what is an electrifying performance.

The other pieces on the disc are a sort of strange contrast to the concerto.  First is a suite for harpsichord, Angels and Watermarks (2004) was composed during Hersh’s residency at the Djerassi Arts Center.  The piece is in five movements and is a significant contribution to the contemporary literature for that instrument.  Cast in the manner of a baroque suite, each movement plays on familiar forms.  The first movement is a ponderous prelude which is followed by a playful moto perpetuo, a gentle lullaby, then a spectacular jazz inflected toccata and finally a sort of non-literal recapitulation of the prelude.  Again we are treated to the dynamic keyboard work of Brenda Tom who executes each movement flawlessly and with great expressiveness.

The final work on the disc is Dream (2012)  which the composer (who wrote the liner notes) says is his exploration of how to incorporate tonal harmony in his work.  It is a soft, slow meandering piece in which he manages to make his explorations into a beautiful and restful work.  Brenda Tom is the dedicatee of both this and the harpsichord suite and she demonstrates her ability to work with soft expressive textures.

All in all a great CD which will delight any new music fan.  It is available from CD Baby and Amazon.  Highly recommended.

Alvin Curran’s Fake Book at the Berkeley Arts Museum


Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

Staging set up for the Alvin Curran solo performance at the Berkeley Arts Museum

On a cool Friday evening in Berkeley April 11th I proceeded to the Berkeley Arts Museum which sits across the street from the University.  It is a beautiful modern architectural creation with a large and resonant space where there was a large and colorful rug, a series of pillows and behind that a set of conventional chairs for the audience.  Many chose to sit on the rug close to the performer.

The set up consisted of a piano on loan from the Piedmont Piano Company, an electronic keyboard on loan from Paul Dresher along with Mr. Curran’s computer and and amplifier driving two speakers on either side of the keyboards.  The open space is just off the entry way of the museum and tends to have a fair amount of traffic and ambient noise of the people on the various levels.

Curran, now 75, has been a prominent figure on the contemporary music scene internationally since about 1964 when he was partnered with fellow expatriates Frederic Rzewski, Allan Bryant, Richard Teitlebaum and Carol Plantamura among others in the ground breaking Musica  Elletronica Viva.  They created events and happenings using live electronics in the days before such things were easily accessible.  He has continued to explore the leading edge of musical creativity throughout his long and ongoing career.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

Curran playing a harmonica at the opening of the concert.

The concert began with Curran circumnavigating the audience in clockwise fashion beginning stage right and going around the audience making a full circle and returning to the front of the audience stage center.  he began by playing two simple chords on the instrument repeating them several times.  He then switched to another woodwind type instrument playing some unusual sounds.  When he took his place in front of the keyboards he set those instruments down.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

Curran completing his circumnavigation which opened the performance.

He alternated between playing the piano and the electronic keyboard sometimes playing both.  He began with some simple sounding piano music and then turned to the electronic keyboard and began playing some of the samples on it.  They ranged from speech to electronic sounds.

At first the ambient noise of the crowd echoed gently in the museum along with the music.  Gradually as the music became more complex and louder the audience seemed entranced, taken on the ritualistic journey that comprises Curran’s work, Fake Book, a reference to books of musical lead sheets that musicians have used over the years to quickly and easily access a variety of materials for live performances.

The louder music then suddenly changed back to a softer dynamic and the reduction in the ambient noise of the audience and casual museum goers had noticeably decreased and one sense an increased attention and focus on the music.  All seemed to be drawn in to the variety of sounds and styles which Curran refers to as his “common practice”, a practice in which the composer uses any and all sounds, instruments and styles strategically to evoke the things the composer wishes to express.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

Alvin Curran at the keyboards performing his Fake Book.

Curran played for just over an hour without pause an encyclopedic diversity of styles and ideas evoking the musical past in classical sounds, jazz sounds, modernist sounds.  The electronic keyboard samples played voices, radio snippets, electronic sounds and electronic manipulations of these sounds.

Curran effectively involved us all in a ritual performance respectfully evoking the past and blending it all into our experience of the moment.  From the beginning as he walked clockwise around the audience and through the complex collage of musical and sonic ideas he created a genuine ritual, a sacred performance if you will.  His music this night was an homage to the past and a celebration of the present.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram's horn) over the undamped piano strings.

Curran blowing the ancient shofar (ram’s horn) over the undamped piano strings.

He signaled the end of the performance as he blew the ancient shofar, an instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn, over the undamped piano strings creating a beautiful sympathetic resonance.

The audience responded with warm applause and appreciation.  Curran, who told me that he began work on this music while he was in residence at nearby Mills College, is clearly embraced and appreciated by the local audience.  He continues his tour and will return to his adopted  home in Rome, Italy but this evening he was clearly one of our own.

Overhead view of the keyboard set  up for the April 11th performance.

Overhead view of the keyboard set up for the April 11th performance.

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