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Friday, March 16, 2018

Susan Kander, Hermestanze

We carry on in life day in and day out. New people come into our center focus. Others leave. Unfamiliar composers can surprise us. Susan Kander is the latest of the latter. She is from the USA. Seemingly thriving. MSR sent me a CD of three World Premier Recordings of her music. Hermestanze (MSR 1578) is the title, named after the longest and perhaps most involved work of the three. A common thread throughout is the violin (and viola) work of Jacob Ashworth who sounds beautiful here. Joining him are pianist Lee Dionne and Jessica Petrus, soprano. All are dedicated to drawing out the rich subtleties of Kander's music, which is extremely well put-together and inspired, in a sort of Modern Neo-Classical vein.

There is depth and poise to the music. The half-hour opus "Hermestanze" (2013) for violin and piano forms the most remarkable of the three works, filled with intricate beauty. There is no direct similarity but one nonetheless recalls Stravinsky and Hindemith. There is a definite twist in form however that sets this work apart. In the tradition of earlier composers such as Schumann, the music is conceived of as a song cycle, in this case for violin and piano. 13 discrete yet interrelated song-like movements grace our ears, with a reprise of "Hermes, Messenger of the Gods" at the conclusion. This is no Neo-Romanticism in spite of the roots of the form. It is decidedly Modern and Classically balanced in the best ways. Jacob Ashworth commissioned the work and gives it definitive form. Lee Dionne makes an ideal partner for the performance. It is superb music, superbly played.

The "Solo Sonata" (2002) (with Ashworth on violin in the outer movements, viola in the middle) has the seriousness of purpose of similar works by Bartok, Reger and Hindemith. The imaginative and idiomatic use of violinistic articulations (such as double stops and harmonics) and a combination of momentum and moodiness mark Kander out as a worthy successor to the 20th century masters of such configurations.

"A Garden's Time Piece" (2011) is based on the poetry of Leslie Lasky. It has an introspective, contemplative air about it and a touchingly sparse demeanor thanks to Kanders well conceived parts. Ashworth's violin is the sole accompaniment to Jessica Petrus and her movingly sweet soprano voice. The nicely articulated performance and the considerable charm of the music win the day if you take the time to listen closely.

Susan Kander has genuine torque as a fully accomplished voice on the Modern scene. Get this one if a new wrinkle on Neo-Classicist New Music appeals. If you do not know whether that is so for you or not listen carefully and you may well be convinced that Kander is worth hearing and a welcome original exponent today.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Matteo Liberatore, Solos

For where the electric and acoustic guitar is today in New Music-Improv worlds, you can give yourself a real leg up on things by listening to the music of Matteo Liberatore, in a recent album simply entitled Solos (Innova 985). Elliot Sharp, the preset-day artist and curatorial champion of advanced guitar realms, did the remixing and mastering, and his involvement is telling, since his selfless and insightful sponsorship has been central of late in a series of guitar showcases for the very new realms on Clean Feed, I've Never Meta Guitar. (See my Gapplegate Guitar Blog for review articles. The link to that site is located in the column to the right.)

Liberatore makes very varied and imaginative use of tunings, preparations, and both conventional and unusual sounding techniques for the twelve solo interludes on this CD. Hammering on the strings with objects, bowing, cycles of picking arpeggiation, scraping, rubbing,  striking and plucking at once, glissandi, open strings along with stops, harmonics, etc.

Each composition is rather improvisatory in that it realizes a particular way to sound the guitar in a way that has immediacy. Some seem overtly, compositionally structural; others are free-flowing sound color realizations. All have in their own way a striking sonance, a special sound universe, all seem like soundtracks to some heightened state of being. Not all interludes are completely tabula rasa in terms of extended techniques. It all however holds together as a suite of musically vibrant works.

Beyond and aside from the rather ingenious ways the guitar is rethought with the various extended techniques of which Matteo makes very creative use, the music fascinates on its own. Bravo!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Miya Masaoka, Triangle of Resistance

There is a great deal more New Music coming out of different shades of stylistic distinctness now than there might have been in, say, 1972. For composer Miya Masaoka, there is a High Modern stance that nestles welcomingly in a post serialist, post-pointillist, post-bleep-bloop manner of proceeding; that is on the two works contained on the recent album Triangle of Resistance (Innova 945).

The title work is the more ambitious and memorable of the two. It is scored for a chamber ensemble of seven instrumentalists including koto (played by the composer), plus string quartet, percussion and synthesizer. It was written in remembrance and protest against the internment of Japanese-Americans in the US during WWII. "The Long Road," "The Clattering of Life," and "Survival" are the respectve titles of the three movements. The music portrays the  uprootedness, suffering and upheaval of sudden and tragic displacement as it must have felt to the victims. The music has a muted anguish and an outspoken expressiveness to it consistent with the subject matter.

The second work, "Four Moons of Pluto" is written for solo contrabass. The music involves the shifting vortex of a number of heightened resonance positions via harmonic partials and enhancements gained by detuning strings. The work seeks an analogy between the movement of planetary bodies and the movement of small number ratioed intervals.

All in all we have two provocative and relatively stunning aural explorations that most New Music appreciators will likely find interesting and worthwhile. Listen.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Altius Quartet, Shostakovich, String Quartets 7, 8 & 9

Shostakovich during his eventful life wrote 15 String Quartets. They have long been celebrated as some of the handful of 20th century masterpieces of the idiom for the emotional depth of the music, the exceptional color of the strings and the serious thematic dramatics of the music from first to last. It is music to live with and grow into for an entire lifetime. The serious breadth of the music gives us something to ponder and evolve towards for an eternity. How much can any body of music offer this in a sustained way? The less of it than the more, in the end. So we should treasure what we have so exceptionally in the Shostakovich Quartets.

And as if to forward that the Altius Quartet gives us a new recording of the middle String Quartets 7, 8 & 9 (Navona 6125). There is great thrust in their hearty brio, quiet passages of sensitive probing, affirmations of the complexities and trials of human existence.

The middle quartets are a bellwether in the unfolding excellence of Shostakovich's non-compromising, severe sublimity.The middle quartets are a product of post-WWII trauma and upheaval. It was not a good time to be a Soviet composer. Shostakovich reacted to the troubled times with a challenging set of works exactly the opposite of what was expected of him by State apparachiks.We are so fortunate that he courageously prevailed under such dire circumstances. Would any of our artists today been so courageous to produce works like this under all-too-serious government opposition? Maybe not. Perhaps today such an artist would simply be locked away in an ivory tower and disposed of with a passive-aggressive indifference? That is another situation and one might ask whether that kind of "freedom" is so much better? No answer from me. History will no doubt tell the story better than we can. Too much is at stake now. And we cannot always see what developments are moving us where.

In the end it is these works we remember as enormously significant beacons of  Modern 20th-Century Music.

The Altius Quartet gives us ravishing performances of the three quartets. There is brisk energy and unsentimental, slightly reticent acuity that make these performances stand out.

Are these the best ever renditions of 7. 8 & 9? I would not go so far as to say that. Nonetheless they are vital readings and I am glad to have the CD as an addition to my Shostakovich Quartet standard recordings. A newcomer to these essential works would be well-served too. Highly recommended. The Altius Quartet is a phenomenon!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, The Firebird Suite, David Bernard, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

There may be no more important work in the rise of Modernism than The Rite of Spring. There perhaps is no more significant pre-Modern precursor than The  Firebird. Both established Stravinsky as one of the titans of our times. And music was never quite the same afterwords. Here 2018 now, more than a century later, and the music sounds as beautifully important as ever. David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony in the wake of their rather seminal recording of the Pathetique Symphony (see index for that review) come to us with another worthy offering, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and The Firebird Suite.(Recursive Classics 2058479).

As I sit here and write this post outside my windows are the makings of a soon-to-be-active springtime. Listening to The Rite of Spring again after so much personal and historical water under the bridge makes me wonder to myself. A work, this work brought reactions of horror and shock on the now infamous premiere performance. Audiences rioted. Hear the music today it is difficult to reimagine what the fuss was all about. That is of course much to do with how the music effected the Modern music that came after. Rhythmic drive, some dynamic dissonances, and Stravinsky's beautiful handling of the orchestra as no longer a matter of strings and extras, of course.

Does that truly explain the shock some felt on hearing the music for the first time? No. It is hard to reconstruct. By the time I was a kid Stravinsky was just there, part of what you heard. My very first classical record had on it The Firebird Suite. It seemed like it was made for a kid like me. In 6th grade we watched a slide show depicting the Firebird mytho-poetic sequence while the music played. No, they did not bring in the Rite at that point. And if they did not, it was because of the subject matter more than the musical content I would think. The Art Major Class in high school was it seemed always to be playing the Rite on the portable record player while kids created things. Nobody was shocked. Hardly.

So think of the subject matter.  "Ritual of Abduction," "Mystic Circle of the Young Girls," "Sacrificial Dance." This was a musical primitivism on the surface of things, just as Picasso introduced African Mask imagery into his art around the same time. People were reacting especially to this pre-Christian "savagery" when they rioted, maybe. Not to the music. Suppose Stravinsky had named it "The Hurricane?" That audience might all have cheered at the end.

Needless to say such a "primitive" subject matter hardly phases us today. It poses no threat. No more than Picasso's introduction of exotically "primitive" imagery into his paintings in the years just preceding the premier. It was in the wind there in Paris. It marked a momentus cultural change, of course. Yet it did not mean that Europe had truly "gone native." It was just an incorporation of non-Western, proto-archaic  aspects into the Modern assumption of what was acceptable as subject matter and content.

The music seems so familiar now that it could be profitably heard by virtually anyone of some musical understanding. Years and years of strident horror film soundtracks alone have accustomed us to expanded possibilities.

Now the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony and David Bernard's reading of Rite and Firebird reflects our acceptance and familiarity with these icons. There is sensuality, there is great power, there is a dynamic smoothness, a sure handedness of execution and easy comprehensions of the full breadth of the scores. The chamber sized orchestra does not overtax, the strings are equals with the winds and brass, all seems right and measured yet forcefully lyric.The percussion is not shy and we get the full weight of the music in a nicely balanced neither romanticized or self-consciously "savage" way.

The versions are close to ideal. The performance is near perfect for the newcomer to "Modern" music. Old hands may well find these versions worthwhile to add to their collection. I myself am glad to have them.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Janson, Mikalsen, Vaage, Ratkje, Variations Over Variations, Norwegian Radio Orchestra

So much to hear out there. And then, something sneaks up on you. Boom! Variations Over Variations (Aurora ACD 5096) was a kind of boom for me. I did not expect it. I was glad to hear it. The Norwegian Radio Orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya give us well shaped performances of four Norwegian works previously unknown to me yet adventuresome in the New High Modern zone.

Three of the works were written in 2014, one in 2017. The liner notes point out that the composers straddle different generations and traditions. In common is that all works were commissioned or co-commissioned by the orchestra. What counts is that all works have a poignancy and thoroughly immerse the listener in orchestral color and imaginative poetics.

We get the chance to familiarize ourselves with Alfred Janson's "Variations Over Variations Over a Norwegian Folk Tune," Jan Erik Mikalsen's "Songr for Orchestra," Knut Vaage's "Mylder," and Maja S.K. Ratkje's "Paragraf 112."

Through the many twists and turns that I make no attempt to describe here one constant weaves its way through it all--the Modern project whether tonal or expanded, an acute sense of line and timbre, an epic attention to involved orchestral eloquence. Every one of these works adds something good to what already has been.

It should be a joy to you if you  treasure the new consonance, the new orchestral possibilities. There is neither an acute striving after the very borders of the possible nor a conscious attempt to hold back the sluice gates of invention. A hugely satisfying sleeper is what we have here. Take a chance and listen closely! Very recommended.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Ann Millikan, Millikan Symphony, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose

The excellent Boston Modern Music Project under Gil Rose returns for the music of a New American Composer of note, namely Ann Millikan and her full-length Millikan Symphony (Innova 981). Now I must say that dealing with a plethora of New Music most every day has its challenges, for me especially in the constant interplay of same and different. Commonly there will be stylistic traits in New Music that tend to cluster in groups and can be identified. In the end, though, what matters about a composer or a work is how those clusters reverberate in the individual sense, or on the other hand what is not to be found if it does not seem to be there, how sometimes you do not hear such a reverberation much.

In the case of Ann Millikan and her Millikan Symphony, what she does with some Modern traits is much more important than the newness or oldness of the traits themselves. Listening to Millikan Symphony it is supremely important to hear the work closely, more than once. Otherwise  the traits themselves will be the main apprehension and the special putting together might totally pass you by. A reasoned, considered judgement on New Music is a complex give and take of content and structure.

So I would venture to say that the structuring of the content of Millikan Symphony is the critical aspect that sets it apart. Sure if you look at each piece as a piece you might identify Copland pastoral tenderness, Stravinskian Neo-Classical heroic regality, maybe some of the orchestral dynamics of some of the most celebrated big orchestrators (I won't say Richard Strauss here because it is not quite that), maybe the Harrisonian delicious articulation of flute and strings, the moody mystery of Post-Tone Poetry, and more.

Yet thanks to the very gradated excellence of the BMOP performance and what the score calls for, there is a kind of inner organicism of spirit and a narrative thrust that is a story in itself.

This is a work of hommage, of Ann to her brother Robert, dead at the age of 55 in 2012, a brilliant epidemiologist, a pioneer on the incidence of breast cancer,  a dedicated veterinarian, a lover of nature and a profoundly musical soul. The five movements of the work unravel and reveal a special aspect of Robert the human. There is the "Science" movement, one for "Animals," "Rowing," and "Violin." Polyrhythmic and tonally expanded, the music is at once beholden to the legacy of High Modernism and also too to the grand narrative style of the most revered orchestral masters. The music comes out of a collaborative venture planned over the years between Robert and Ann. Some of the music was dictated by Ann to Robert; the principal"Violin" movement  theme has Robert's compositional hand upon it. Milliken Symphony is the triumphant result of the two in their musical closeness, yet also stunningly a backward view of Robert's many tiered life via the hindsight of its passing.

It is hard to imagine a more moving tribute. Even though we may know next to nothing about Robert's life, something very strong of its essence comes through throughout. 

After very many listens I come away from the work feeling like I have heard something of real significance. All those superficial traits at the first listen have become enigmatically original along with the flow and pacing and structure. It is not a work you put on first time and give a loud "wow!" to in response. The wow effect builds. Then, you know. Or I knew, anyway. Wow.

You would do well to venture upon this music and its very satisfying performance by BMOP. It is subtle in the beginning of your interaction, then the it becomes more and more clearly, identifiably special. I do recommend you spend some serious time with this. Ann Millikan is a living treasure!