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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

James M. Stephenson, The Devil's Tale

Something today rather unusual, a kind of sequel to Stravinsky's chamber-and-narrative classic "L'Histoire du Soldat," namely James M. Stephenson and his The Devil's Tale (Ravello 7906). It essentially gives us Stravinsky's "Soldat" in reverse, as far as plot goes. There is no fiddle, instead the main character is a musician in a Las Vegas show band, his girlfriend a Vegas dancer, the devil a blackjack dealer. We get a plot where the devil loses, in a kind of symmetrical reversal of the Stravinsky.

I've said my peace about works with extensive non-sung narratives. I generally dislike the approach. Here the dialog tells the story effectively enough. Narrator Matt Bean is called upon to play all three characters. He is no Laurence Olivier doing "Hamlet," but let me just bracket all that. It is fundamental to a reverse "Soldat" and so it is there. But it is not the strength of the work.

What captures my fancy about the piece is the music. Stephenson manages to convey the period essence, the early Jazz-ish strains of the Stravinsky, the neo-classic elegance and brilliance of the original piece, and make a modern-day analogue that fascinates and enthralls. The seven-member Western Illinois University Faculty Chamber Players under Mike Fansler do an excellent job realizing the score.

Stephenson not only understands the essence of the Stravinsky, he recaptures it and creates a vivid rejoiner. If the music reminds a bit of period Weill as well, so much the better.

The rhymed narrative-play has of course an essential role in the totality. I have followed along in my listens and must say it is quite adequate, though again perhaps a Laurence Olivier would put it all together in a more convincing way. But the music is quite nice and well performed. So we get a good idea of Stephenson's gestalt. And the music triumphs!

If you love "L'Histoire du Soldat" this will give you pleasure. Even without knowing the original there is much to please. Something different!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Keller Quartett, Cantante e tranquillo

When I was a graduate student years ago it was finals week when must of us were up all night trying to get the papers written for the deadlines. One of my fellow students, who happened to be Amish, remarked the next day how he liked to listen to Haydn Quartets when writing, but only the slow movements. He wished there was a compilation of such things. I thought the idea fascinating, but left it at that and promptly stopped thinking about it.

Though nothing like that to my knowledge has come out, we do have the Keller Quartet doing a wider range of quiet movements on the recent Cantante e tranquillo (ECM New Series 2324 B0021591-02). The performances and the selections stand out in a program that puts you in a profoundly tranquil frame of mind, reflective, inward.

The late Beethoven Quartets are here in slow movements from Quartets Nos. 16 and 13, we have string quartet arrangements of segments of Bach's "The Art of the Fugue," and then we have a number of modern works, a movement from Alfred Schnittke's "Piano Quintet," and excerpts from works by Ligeti, Kurtag, and Alexander Knaifel. Not all are quartets (there are also duos, trios, quintets) but all are deeply probing, meditative, absorbing, moody in the best ways.

The Keller Quartet has an exquisite sensitivity towards the music. That and the quality of the works make us take pause, listen, drift along with it all. It is an extraordinary program and I cannot recommend it strongly enough for when you are in a mood for reflection.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Bang On A Can All-Stars, Field Recordings

The premise behind the Bang On A Can All-Stars album Field Recording (Cantaloupe CD & DVD) was simple. Each composer commissioned for the project was asked to select a pre-existing recording or create one anew and utilize it as a sort of found object to compose music around. The original tape and its permutations are played back and performed against by the Bang on a Can chamber ensemble according to the respective score the composer created.

The premises are simple but the music is far-ranging and very inventive. Source sounds vary widely, from traditional Irish folk singing to street singing, from John Cage reading from his diaries to gospel preaching, electro-acoustic sounds and much else as well. Each in its own way is a gem.

So we get works by Julia Wolfe, Florent Ghys, Michael Gordon, Christian Marclay, David Lang, Tyondal Braxton, Johann Johannsson, Todd Reynolds, Steve Reich, Bryce Dessner, Mira Calix and Anna Clyne.

The music draws from modern and postmodern, quasi-rock and folk modes with the panache and elan you expect from Bang On A Can adventures. A good deal of funding from listeners and institutions went into making this project a reality, and a good thing it is. There is an accompanying DVD with several of the compositions and visual elements. I was not able to watch it but I imagine it enhances the package.

Either way this is music of differences, inspired and played with grace and thrust by the All Stars.

Very highly recommended.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Wolfgang Rihm, Et Lux

There are composers out there today who get your attention ever so gradually over a period of time. Through the accident of place and convergence you only come to appreciate their stature after an ongoing period of exposure. Such a composer for me has been Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952). I've listened to and appreciated selected works but now with the release of Et Lux (ECM New Series 2404 4811585) I am fully illuminated.

The 2009 work is for vocal quartet (Huelgas Ensemble) and string quartet (Minguet Quartet) under the direction of Paul Van Nevel. The sung text consists of fragmented excerpts of the traditional Roman Requiem. The string quartet plays pianissimo, with mutes, the upper-ranged instruments bowed close to the fingerboard to create the sound of an ancient consort of viols.

The vocal parts combine early music styles with ultra-modern harmonic densities. The strings similarly give way at times to eruptions of the very contemporary both with and against the vocal group.

The hour-long work is a masterfully original example of the early-in-the-late aspect of contemporary music, not following Arvo Part in sound and substance, but creating a mysteriously engaging parallel soundscape that reflects Rihm's own sensibilities.

Rihm makes use of old church harmonic part writing as well as the fully dissonant and open possibilities of the modernism we still find central to the world we live in today.

The result is a music of remembrance and a sort of confrontation of the weight of our cultural heritage with the real totalities of the present.

In the end we are treated to a haunting work that brings us squarely to Rihm's brilliance. The performance is everything one would hope it to be. The recording has the ECM resonance one expects, which seems especially right for a work of this sort.

Thrilling music! This one is a must for those who follow the trends in new music and an enthralling listening experience as well. Wolfgang Rihm enchants our ears with a masterpiece.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Emily Doolittle, All Spring, Chamber Music, Seattle Chamber Players and Friends

Spring may be over here where I sit at my desk outside New York City. But the music of Emily Doolittle, specifically her album All Spring (Composers Concordance 0025) transcends season. Five works in the chamber mode get careful and effective performance by the Seattle Chamber Players and Friends.

I read on the press sheet that the album has an official street date of July 31st, 2015, so I am a bit early.

Nonetheless this is music worth waiting for, a set of works that all have a disarming charm, an organic, almost rustic sort of modern feel. She hails originally from Nova Scotia but now divides her time between Seattle and Glasgow. Her music has been performed to acclaim over North America and England.

All five works have the personal Doolittle stamp upon them. The music often has a whimsical quality, well paced, organically modern tonal, spun out with a cohesively inventive narrative sequentiality. Each work has a distinct identity.

The 2004 "All Spring" song cycle based on the poetry of Rae Crossman has an open poeticism which soprano Maria Mannisto brings out nicely. The duo "Col" (2002/2014) for marimba and violin has a diatonic matter-of-factness and charm. "Why the Parrot Repeats Human Words" (2005) is a narrative based on a Thai folktale with chamber accompaniment. Though I generally do not respond to extensive narrative works I found the chamber music surrounding it compelling.

"Four Songs About Water" (2000) portrays water in four different states with corresponding descriptive music for a nine-member chamber ensemble. So we get effectively contrasting movements depicting "Running Water," "Salt Water," "Frozen Water" and "Rain Water." It is fascinating, nicely crafted and innovative.

"Falling Still" (2001/2009) has as its inspiration the song of a blackbird singing in the early morning rain. The music has a gentle pastoral quality, lyrical and flowing.

If you were to try and pin the ancestry of this music to the influence of forebears you might as I did think of the chamber neo-classic phase of Igor Stravinsky, but that mostly in the pacing, not the tones themselves. Nonetheless Emily Doolittle stands on her own ground, rather delightfully so.

Recommended listening.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki Conductus funebris, etc., The Sixteen, Eamonn Dougan

The early music and baroque composers of Poland generally have not gotten the attention they merit in our modern era. Part of that has to do with historical upheavals, no doubt, but the rest seems serendipitous. Acclaimed early music group the Sixteen are doing their part to expose us to choral music from that time and place. They recently came out with a third CD in the series, in this case the music of "the Polish Handel" as he was called in his day, one Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (1665-1734).

Gorczycki gets our attention as the Sixteen perform three substantial works and a few brief additions. Conductus funebris, Litaniae de Providentia Divina, Missa Rorate caeli (CORO 16130) partake alternatingly in "stile antico" and "stile moderno" with varying degrees of contrapuntal density accordingly.

Both a cappella and choir-instrumental sacred works get the usual brilliant Sixteen stamp of excellence. As expected the ensemble comes through with wonderfully authentic and rousing versions of the music, with the sort of sweet yet somber timbral richness that brings out the period in all its specificity.

Gorczycki strikes one as a skillfully inventive composer throughout, with a discerning sense of line and part. He is a genuine lyrical force. The performances are as near ideal as one could imagine, pristine, sonically alive, fully worthy of the quality of the compositions.

A beautiful recording, highly recommended.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Zhou Long, Chen Yi, Symphony "Humen 1839," New Zealand Symphony, Darrell Ang

There are a number of Chinese composers active today who are talented and original. A good example is Zhou Long (b. 1953), who is featured on a recent CD of orchestral works. The central work is Symphony "Humen 1839" (Naxos 8.570611) which he co-wrote in 2009 with composer Chen Yi (b. 1953). It commemorates the 1839 seizing and burning of 1000 tons of opium amassed by British traders. The action set off the First Opium Wars with the British. The work has rhythmic vitality, a very contemporary orchestral sound that is spiced with motifs that have a vaguely traditional Chinese feel to them, along with inventive tonal and extra-tonal modern dynamics. The music is descriptively evocative, at times turbulent, other times reflective. It stands on its own as orchestral music of today with its own original cast.

Two additional Long works complete the program. The first, "The Rhyme of Taigu" (2003) features three Japanese Taiko drummers, clarinet, violin and cello. Like the Symphony it also has passages that are highly rhythmic.

The program concludes with Long's "The Enlightened" (2005), which concerns itself with contemporary world struggles and the possibility of achieving peace and understanding in the universe via harmony and balance in personal everyday life. This goal and its attainment is in accordance with ancient Chinese philosophy. The work tries to capture this all via sound-episode narrative. It has a mysterious quality in the opening, then goes on to depict episodes of tension and release with vivid orchestrational expression that makes use of space and contrast in ways somewhat suggestive of ancient Asian music, yet with a very modern result.

In the end we hear some very provocative and original music that may not quite reach the level of seminal masterpieces but nonetheless maintains interest through an expressive mastery of the orchestral colors available. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Darrell Ang does a respectable job bring these works to life. Long and Yi give us music well worth hearing, world-class orchestral music that goes its own way and reflects a melding of Asian and contemporary elements both convincing and at times quite exciting.