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Friday, December 19, 2014

Paul Osterfield, Sound and Fury, Chamber Music

Perhaps the thing that most perplexes the novice listener to high modernist music (and advanced jazz, for that matter) is a puzzlement about affect. Pop songs have lyrics that tell you often enough how to feel. And the romantic era utilized affect codes at times, especially when the music was programmatic, that gave you often enough a range of emotional states you could pin onto the sounds, especially in opera. Minor key is sad, Beethoven's Fifth is about fate (or is it really?), Requiems, lost love, etc. It was always pretty clear where affect in La Boheme could be found, though that's perhaps a more extreme example than the norm. Not that it was always all that simple but a listener who needed some immediate grasp on feeling in the music could generally lock onto something pretty quickly, whether or not it did full justice to the music and what it "meant."

High modernist music is generally a complex response to the modern age we live in. The music in a way makes a representative model for all the complexities and complications of the industrial and perhaps post-industrial worlds we experience, getting stuck in traffic queues day-after-day to go to jobs connected to a whole in complex and often enough in unclear ways, being in one's home space and experiencing the various technologies that both simplify and make complex our recreational lives....being subject to authoritative force without necessarily being able to identify those driving all of it....Nothing about modern life is exactly simple, and the modernist musical experiencing of it both models it all and gives out with a complex affect that is often deeply ambiguous and not always a matter of clarity.

What puzzles or irritates the novice is what perhaps most interests the confirmed listener. One does not seek to label every passage with x or y feeling, though sometimes there may be something thematic about the music that does that regardless--in the religious music of Messiaen, for example. But even then the complexities express a complex of affect that does not in all its fullness give you a simple feeling key. Late Romanticism often enough had those complexities--a Mahler symphony can be a bundle of feelings expressed at times obliquely. But high modernism is also often enough an abstraction, with real life in there somehow, but not in any literal, monolithic way.

So we turn today to an anthology of high modern chamber music which by its title seems to give us a key to affect. Sound and Fury (Navona 5978) it is named, a worthy grouping of four compositions by Paul Osterfield. The album is titled after the piano trio that leads off the program. The music there is quite declamatory, dynamic, perhaps at times filled with a generalized "fury"--at times a complex of direct hits in a boxing match with inertia, perhaps. But Osterfield is no literalist, so the fury here is not especially referential to something outside as much as it is a part of the internal musical workings of note-against-note and note-with-note. After all, and this is key, Shakespeare has one of his characters tell us that life is a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." So in a way the music is about the complexity of meaninglessness as we experience it today, perhaps.

A little bit about Osterfield: he was born in Nashville in 1973, began playing the cello early-on and gradually turned to composing. He studied with Donald Erb among others, composing as he went and earning the various degrees that enable him to teach (at Middle Tennessee State University) while he continues to build his reputation and output as a composer of note.

The four works here sound quite good, thanks to the excellent abilities of the Blakemore Trio, pianists Caleb Harris and Lynn Rice-See, violinists Michael Jorgensen and Andrea Dawson, and Angela DeBoer on horn. They realize the music with care and feeling.

All four works have a dynamic charge, a full into-the-fray sort of excitement. They tend toward the outer edges of tonality and beyond. And the works each have a sort of individual stamp to them which is in part a matter of instrumentation, and as much or more a product of Osterfield's high inventive imagination. So we get the piano trio driving our attention with "Sound and Fury," the virtuosic clout of the "Etudes for Piano, Book 1," the abstraction in sound for violin and piano which is quite well done and fitting to the subject matter in "Kandinsky Images," and the concretely whispy, sometimes folksy modern matter-of-factness of violin, horn and piano on "Smoky Mountain Autumn."

There is much to explore here and the explorations pay off with an ever heightening appreciation for the highly wrought, master craftsmanship and art in the pieces. Osterfield is a modernist natural. This music shows a ready brilliance of sorts that comes off convincingly as no mere exercise in advanced sound, but with an organic centered quality that shows the sure hand of a composer of talent. Affect? It is here. This is music with feeling, but not simply so.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Karel Husa, Music of Life, Orchestral Masterworks

Karel Husa is a name I've heard mentioned over the years, but I must admit I have not experienced much of his music to speak of until now, aside from a few examples on Louisville Records. He was born in Prague in 1921, studied with Honegger and Nadia Boulanger in Paris, came to the US in the early '50s and has resided here since, teaching at Cornell and Ithaca for many years. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his "String Quartet No. 3."

Impressive credentials, to say the least. His music lives up to expectations. A fine recording of three orchestral works is available as Music of Life: Orchestral Masterworks (Ablaze 00008). They show a fully modernist mastery of orchestral forces and a keen inventiveness. The world premiere recordings of his "Concerto for Violincello and Orchestra" and "Pastoral for String Orchestra" are included, along with "Scenes from The Trojan Woman."

The "Pastoral" is short to the point of terseness, but engaging. The other two works are more boldly modern and dynamically enthralling with their dissonances and orchestral fireworks. This is music outside the fractured realm of Darmstadt Serialism, more sequentially unfolding and A-to-B in syntax.

The "Cello Concerto" has a very expressive, rather dark solo part played here with finesse and an excellent idiomatic sense by Paul York. The music bursts forth with firey orchestral colors and emblazoned climaxes.

"Scenes from The Trojan Woman" has some beautifully buoyant percussion and extraordinarily apocalyptic orchestral passages that show you the Husa of vivid contrasts.

All three works are impressive and the performances by the University of Louisville Symphony Orchestra under Kimcherie Lloyd sound great.

You modernist-leaning listeners out there will find this one an exemplary introduction to orchestral Husa. It is a rather blazing tribute to a composer who clearly deserves more recognition. Recommended!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gerald Cohen, Sea of Reeds, Works for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble

Something that is easy to like is not necessarily facile. I would say that of composer Gerald Cohen's recent album of compositions for one or more clarinets and chamber ensemble, Sea of Reeds (Navona 5979).

Quite the opposite applies in this case. Cohen's music is filled with vibrant melody, rhythmic clarity, drive and compositional construction that show a mastery of and a real sympathy towards the clarinet.

That is coupled with instrumentalists who clearly love this music and match the notes with execution that brings the music vividly to life. The Grneta Ensemble of two clarinets and piano with and without the viola of Maria Lambros or the violin of Jennifer Choi (and that includes Vasko Dukovski and Ismail Lumanovski on clarinets and Alexandra Joan on piano) bring out the Baltic-Jewish-Jazzish charm of the music rather brilliantly.

What we have are four works/suites written between 2007 and 2010 and they work together to bring you a big picture of a Gerald Cohen inspired by the instrumentation and filled with things for the artists to play/say. The music speaks naturally, unforced yet with a classic balance.

"Variously Blue," "Sea of Reeds," "Yedid Nefesh" and "Grneta Variations" overflow the disk with expressive music that revels in tonality yet of a more folksy eastern than academically classical sort. You may hear a touch of Stravinsky or Prokofiev in the driving lucidity, but that can just as much have to do with the rootedness of the music as any direct connection or influence.

This is a sheer delight to hear, a chocolate-fudge sundae of excellently intertwining musical syntax.

Three cheers for this one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Amy Schendel, Uncommon Ground, Contemporary Works for Trumpet with Horn, Trombone, Piano and Organ

As per yesterday's post and the idea that brass music feels seasonal, we have another one today, quite different but equally lively. It is an anthology of modern works by trumpeter Amy Schendel and others, called Uncommon Ground (MSR 1536).

Six contemporary works are presented, all featuring trumpet and other instruments. These are not well-known composers, at least not to me, but the works have plenty of substance and spirit.

Patrick Schulz contributes "Fanfare for Trumpet and Piano," Jean-Francois Michel "Suite Pour Trompette, Cor et Trombone," and also "Eveils Pour Trompette, Trombone et Piano," Joseph Blanda "French Suite," Wayne Lu "Sonata for Trumpet and Piano," and Harald Genzmer "Sonate fur Trompette in C und Orgel."

These are works with a straightforwardly contrapuntal or generally through-composed demeanor, with a modern tonal palette to lesser or greater degree, depending. They each reflect a sort of neo-classic stance, in the sense that they take into consideration the past via a reflection on classic music for brass, yet are thoroughly of our time.

Amy Schendel acquits herself well, with a nicely burnished tone and a way around her parts that are given weight by the fine work of the other brass players and keyboardists represented on the program.

It is a program of worthy compositions, played with verve and even joy.

It's a good one!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Thompson Brass Ensemble, Barbara Bruns, Music for Brass & Organ

I associate brass ensembles with this time of the year--winter and Christmas. Part of that is because of my experience in high school band and the brass choirs my second band director assembled for winter concerts, partly because the association is part of the season anyway.

So when I received recently the new disk by the Thompson Brass Ensemble and organist Barbara Bruns, namely Music for Brass & Organ (MSR Classics 1481), I was ready and predisposed toward it.

It's a nice program covering Gabrieli, Buxtehude and Bach as one might expect, but also Strauss, Hovhaness, Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov--and others you might not typically come across in such an anthology.

In truth it all works quite well. The ensemble and Ms. Bruns give us stirring renditions. The three Fisk organs from three New England churches sound regal and dramatic, and the brass is recorded with the spatial staging you would expect.

The beauty of the music shines forth in splendor and I find myself in the spirit of the season every time I listen. It is a very good one, with just enough of the unexpected to give your ears new life.

Very recommended.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Gapplegate Classical-Modern Review Records of the Year, 2014

As in keeping with last year, it is again time for my "Records of the Year" picks. With so many exciting new recordings coming out in 2014 it has been tough to narrow it all down to just three. See the other blogsites for the rest of my choices. Here are those that belong in the Modern Classical category.

Best Modern Classical Album, New Music: John Luther Adams, Become Ocean (Cantaloupe) See review, October 23, 2014.

Best Modern Classical Album, Repertoire: Milhaud, L'Orestie d'Eschyle (The Oresteia of Aeschylus), Kenneth Kiesler, University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, etc. (Naxos) See review, September 29, 2014.

Best Modern Classical Album, Wild Card: Markus Reuter, Todmorden 513, Concerto for Orchestra, Thomas A. Blomster, Colorado Chamber Orchestra (7D Media) See review, June 25, 2014.

Bruce Levingston, Heavy Sleep, Music for Solo Piano

The right pianist with the right imagination can fashion a program that is very...right. Pianist Bruce Levingston has done this vividly on his album Heavy Sleep (Sono Luminus 92183). What we have in the artist's vision is a series of piano works where "each relates either directly or spiritually to the theme of death, rebirth, or both," to quote the pianist from the liners. Every work also refers obliquely or directly to other composers and/or their own works. The idea is that "together, these works offer a touching perspective on the close spiritual connectivity we all share as artists and as human beings, culture to culture, past and present."

This germinating set of ideas gives Levingston the inspiration to make the music express deeply. It is a pianistic monument in its own way to the ideas and composers involved.

Two modern works serve as bookends to the music of Bach himself or his music as represented in piano transcription. It begins with Timo Andres' "Heavy Sleep," then proceeds to the Bach-Reger "Chorale Prelude in B Minor," the Bach-Siloti "Prelude in B Minor," continues with a Bach Prelude and a Fugue, both also in B Minor, his "Chromatic Fantasy in D Minor," a Fugue in D Minor, Bach-Kurtag's "Gottes Zeit Ist Die Allerbeste Zeit" and finally Mohammed Fairouz's "El Male Rachamin" in memory of Gyorgy Ligeti.

I won't give you a blow-by-blow description of the music here. Suffice to say that Levingston makes of the Bach something entirely contemporary seeming and/or brings out the linear baroque qualities of the modern works. Levingston makes all flow as one by his sheer pianism and his abundant interpretive instincts.

The new works (in their recorded world premieres) are significant and deep, and share with Bach an ingenious overarching sense of the drama of intensely realized inner workings. Bruce Levingston is a pianistic poet of the highest sort. The disk fills you with the wonder of music and how it can express some of humanity's most profound concerns.

I recommend this one to you without hesitation. It is a winner on every count.