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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Lee Actor, Piano Concerto

In the ever-permutating stylistic world of modern classical we have music to consider on today's blog post built of neo-classical and neo-romantic elements. The composer is Lee Actor (b. 1952) and his Piano Concerto (Navona 5986) (2012) is the featured work alongside his "Divertimento" (2011) and his "Symphony No. 3" (2013). The Slovak National Symphony Orchestra under Kirk Trevor does the honors fittingly, with Daniel Glover in the piano role for the "Concerto." All comes across well.

Actor is a polymath personality, practicing in his career as software engineer as well as a concert artist/composer. Perhaps this explains his deft manipulation of structural elements in his music. At any rate all three works bring traditional elements to bear in ways that both hearken back and look forward.

The music has a general rhythmic vitality, a sure sense of orchestrational color and an inventiveness that makes his music neo- more than retro-. It is music that has a tonal centrality that does not introduce much in the way of dissonance, instead using rhythmic continuity-discontinuity and thematic development to express a compositional ethos. (The symphony has an increased chromaticism in keeping with a late-romantic/modern ethos, however.)

You can hear both rhythmic and developmental elements especially vividly at work in the "Divertimento" and the final movement of the "Concerto," but it is continually a factor.

Here is the sort of music that grows inside of you with repeated listens. That of course may be true of most classical music but in Actor's case it is especially true. On the first hearing of the program, style hit me foremost. Then on subsequent listens the internal workings within style became more and more apparent and memorable.

"Symphony No. 3" is a good example. There is late romantic seriousness of purpose in the opening movement "Premonition," but it comes at you more and more impressively as you hear the movement a number of times. Perhaps, yes, there is something that reminds you of Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner in its monumental moroseness. Yet as you listen again the articulation of the orchestral blocks of sound become more and more Lee Actor and less derivative in the way it all hangs together beautifully.

The inner movements break the spell with a great headlong plunge into rhythmically rapid string figuration and grand punctuations from brass and woodwinds ("Scherzo I"). In contrast "Reflections" begins in a lyrically dark-somber mood, then goes on to a rather chromatic music of contemplation with dynamic outbursts that remind you we are in a post- and neo- world. "Scherzo II" brings us back to fleeting motion, the entire orchestra taking part in the moving panorama of tone with deftly orchestrated passages. The "Finale" returns to an ominous darkness that creeps forward with insistency and shows off the coloration-orchestrational acuity of the composer with distinctive writing for winds, brass and strings in various combinations. Somewhere in midpoint there are darkly dramatic outbursts that gradually build momentum into agitated climaxes of tangible power and clout. The cloudiness of the opening movement returns before a great hurrah ends it all.

So there you have it. Actor comes through with three distinctive works that give us a vivid picture of his latest orchestral music. This is not music on the edge of avant futurism so much as a new synthesis of classical-to-modern orchestral practices, resulting in an idiomatically personal approach that shows thematic and orchestrational prowess.

It is music that one welcomes more heartily back into one's music hearth the more one returns to it. If you like new music that delves into the past transformatively, this will give you plenty to savor!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Dan Roman, Musica de Palladium

Later incarnations of minimalism can tend to relax the strictures of continual ostinatos and nothing but. Puerto Rican composer Dan Roman combines repetition with through-composed elements and development very intriguingly on his album of chamber music, Musica de Palladium (Innova 904).

On the disk are five thoroughgoingly unformulaic, bright and attractive, finely crafted works of originality. Each features a typical small chamber instrumentation and each has an eclecticism that transcends the expected to keep you fascinated.

The title work "Musica de Palladium" uses violin, viola, cello, and piano, "La Machina Line" alto saxaphone and viola, "Retrospecto" cello and piano, "Fabulas" violin and piano, and "Passing Puntos" violin, cello and piano.

All of the works have rhythmic vitality, some reflecting Roman's Puerto Rican roots but also what you might call neo-classical elements and modernist touches. What's especially compelling to me about the music is how each element is thoroughly integrated into the whole so that there is a seamlessness. The music develops and unfolds inventively, bypassing the trance-like mesmerization of classic minimalism, often enough using the ostinatos as a classical element, only perhaps they have a greater importance here than in pre-minimalism but also that they continually shift to fit the arc of melodic thematics that he constructs so convincingly.

The performances are first-rate. They bring us the liveliness of expression with contemporary brio and zest.

This is music that should appeal to many for its mostly tonal lyricism. At the same time there is substance to all the works to exercise the ears of those careful listeners who seek more than congenial sounds.

Dan Roman has talent. You should give this one a careful listen if you want to hear where minimalism or post-minimalism is going these days.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Elements Rising, Modern Works for Chamber Ensemble, Various Artists

Modernism lives. It may not be the only game in town these days but it continues to evolve and consolidate in various ways, with various composers vibrantly active and good works coming to our attention every month. We get interesting examples of new music in the chamber mode today on the recent anthology Elements Rising, Modern Works for Chamber Ensemble (Navona 5990).

On it we hear six varied works by five composers who may not be familiar to you unless you are thoroughly immersed in Navona releases. Each has something to offer and does so with lively performances. All have in common a post-Darmstadtian modernism in gesture and a wider tonal palette for the most part.

Yves Ramette starts off the program with "Introduction et Allegro" for flute, oboe, Bb clarinet, bassoon and piano. It is a worthy example of small chamber ensemble writing today, very sonorically stimulating and gesturally dynamic. From there we go on to Steven Block's "Fire Tiger" for violin and piano, Rain Worthington's "Night Stream" for two violins, and "Rhythm Melodies" for string quartet, all very worth hearing.

Paula Diehl's "Gambit" as played by the Moravian Philharmonic Chamber Players under Petr Vronsky has the largest and most sonorically distinct aura in part because of the forces involved. It stands out for that reason and gives the ear a refreshing change. At the same time it has an ambience and sound color that set it apart regardless of its juxtaposition.

Allen Brings closes off the program with his "Duo for Violin and Cello," a study in shifting thematic elements with rhythmic insistency, a memorable conclusion to an excellent disk.

In the end we get a judicious assortment of extremely well-crafted works that show in each case the hand of an original voice, each rooted in the modernist heritage yet tackling the varied instrumentation with a skilled sense of what will sound well with the instruments at hand. We get folk elements now and then and rhythmic approaches that range from a jagged event-sounding approach to a more symmetrical regularity. A timbral openness and refreshing approach to form applies in various ways to all the compositions included in the set.

It is music with complexities that must be digested over time. With a little ear work you are rewarded with six windows that open each to its own universe of sound and structure. In the end the experience is filled with much to appreciate and ponder.

Highly recommended.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Ten Holt, Incantatie IV, for Three Pianos, Jeroen and Sandra van Veen, Tamara Rumiantsev

Minimalist repetition (or what Gertrude Stein called "insistence") was hardly a new thing in essence when works started appearing under that rubric. African and Balinese music, for example, had made it a part of the music for many centuries, blues and rock had it as an important part of the music, and of course one might look elsewhere as well. But for a combination of insistence and a more or less classical framework, Satie may have been the principal progenitor but it was something new nonetheless.

By now there have been a good number of works to experience, some better, some less better, but by all means Simeon ten Holt (1923-2012) can be considered one of the major exponents. I say that after I have listened in depth to the 4-CD performance of Canto Ostinato XXL by Jeroen Van Veen and company (see my November 17, 2014 review) and now Incantatie IV (Brilliant 24918, 2CDs) for three pianos, performed by Jeroen and Sandra van Veen and Tamara Rumiantsev.

Like the Canto Ostinato XXL it contains choice on the part of performers as to what to include and what to leave out, along with choices in timbre and pitch, style and tempo, instrumentation and length of repetitions. Van Veen and company choose a moderately fast tempo and put the music in a minor mode. The score has complexities in its 15 layers. The three pianists negotiate them deftly, coming up with material from the score that would sound well even if not repeated, in a way that in the end is very pianistic. And perhaps that is one of the keys to what makes Simeon ten Holt so intriguing, that the compositional materials are composed of thematic elements that hold interest both in their repetition and in their transformation. Not all minimalist exponents are melodists of this caliber. Riley and Reich, surely, but some others less so.

And even then Simeon ten Holt's transformation options are sequentially dramatic but interrelated in fine ways, perhaps more classical ways than with some composers. That and the van Veen ensemble's very skilful and music interpretations make this music come alive beautifully. In the end Canto Ostinato XXL may have a slight edge in my mind over Incantatie IV, but one should ideally revel in both.

Ten Holt is up there with the very finest minimalists; Van Veen's ensemble is the one to give the music its just due. The music both sings and swings admirably. Fabulous!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Zina Schiff, Cameron Grant, Zeisl & Copland Violin Sonatas

For the last posting on the month, I have at hand an anthology of modern violin-piano music, Zeisl & Copland Violin Sonatas (MSR 1493), played well by violinist Zina Schiff and pianist Cameron Grant.

All of this music has in various degrees Jewish "folk elements." That and the rhapsodic dedication of the performers gives this disk a unified feel. On it we hear Eric Zeisl (1905-1959) in his "Violin Sonata 'Brandeis'" (1949-50) plus the brief "Menuchim's Song" (1939); from Aaron Copland (1900-1990) we hear his "Violin Sonata" of 1942-43; Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) gets represented with his "Abodah" (1928); finally, Robert Dauber (1922-1945) closes out the program with his "Serenata" (1942).

Copland and Bloch do not need an introduction, since they are of course well-known. Less will be familiar with Eric Zeisl, who had established a burgeoning career as a composer in Vienna before the Nazi onslaught forced his immigration, eventually to Hollywood, in 1941. He composed the soundtrack scores for more than 20 films between 1942 and 1958. He is less remembered for his concert work, but all that may indeed change with the advent of his music sounding so well here.

Robert Daucher composed the "Serenata" while yet only 20. He was a Holocaust victim, killed at Dachau in 1945, aged 23.

The music is uniformly worthwhile, with Zeisl and Daucher holding their own against their better-known contemporaries. All of the music here is neither rabidly modernist nor exactly neo-classical or neo-romantic. It is music that revels in the "Jewish tinge," soaring minor mode melodies, jaunty dance-inflected music and modern compositional elements, all played with genuine idiomatic musicality by Schiff and Grant.

It is refreshing, delightful music that rings true and gives great pleasure. I do recommend this one heartily.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

J.S. Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, Kimiko Ishizaka, Piano

Over the years of listening I have embraced Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier ever increasingly as a masterpiece that rewards with an untiring unlocking of its subtleties as you hear it again and again, in all the versions one might come across that approach the music with sincerity and purpose.

Yet in all the years, all the versions, I have never heard "Book 1" done better than on the new recording by pianist Kimiko Ishizaka (Navona 5993, 2-CDs). She has been celebrated for the "Open Goldberg Variations" which she has made available on CD and for "pay what you choose" download on the net. I have not heard that but after listening to her "Well-Tempered Clavier" I surely will. The main thing here is she has gathered an underswell of public enthusiasm for that rendition that carried over to a funding campaign that made the present recording possible. And I am very glad of it.

So what is it that makes Ms. Ishizaka's version so special? She like Glenn Gould does not shy away from the piano's qualities in her reading. Gould made of the "Well-Tempered Clavier" a series of virtuoso pieces that were and still are enthralling to hear, and the piano's sonarity has much to do with the effectiveness of his version. Kimiko Ishizaka takes a different approach, one which is equally pianistic.

Yes, she can take things at a rapid clip when that seems warranted. But her singularity of vision is to avoid the sustain pedal completely, more or less staying away also from excessive rubato, only using it when some of the preludes seem to call for it. Otherwise her mission is, in every way possible, to bring out the clarity of each part, to achieve total parity, total equality between parts. This is achieved beautifully by articulation, varying strokes at times to bring a part into increased presence, and a poetic naturalness of phrasing that brings your attention to the whole unfolding.

She worked on this in part by practicing each Prelude and Fugue in total darkness, to allow her a total focus on the sound being produced.

The results are fabulous. There is a great grace to what she gives us, a marvelous clarity, a sense of totality that is a very real joy to hear. She takes Bach at his word, that each part is important in the ultimate contrapuntal result. You hear Bach with new ears. Her use of dynamics is key, too. She can subtly build dynamically or for that matter play some sections in a more or less pianissimo way. All of it works together to bring you Bach in all his glory.

The minor-keyed segments are exceptionally well done, but then so are the major-keyed preludes and fugues. Here we have a poetic reading that respects and brings attention to every note and how it fits into the total scheme of things.

There have been other beautiful versions of "Book 1." This is up there with the very best. At the moment it is most certainly my favorite. Bravo, Kimiko Ishizaka! Onwards to "Book 2"!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

David Lipten, Best Served Cold

Today we have a release that came out in 2012 but is no less vital for it. Composer David Lipten is a "classical" modernist very much into structured music of a harmonic depth, music that is not Darmstadt-oriented so much as informed by the pointillism of that school but firmly sequential in a Western modern way.

The album at hand is an anthology of various Lipten works entitled Best Served Cold (Ablaze 00006). It sports very good performances from the likes of the Ciompi Quartet, pianist Mark Tollefsen, the Volti choral group under Robert Geary, a small chamber group under Harvey Sollberger, and the trio of Jana Starling, clarinet, Omri Shimron, piano, and Beth Ilana Schneider, violin. Each ensemble-performer does well in bringing us the full impact of Lipten's approach.

All in all there is a modern expressive lyricism and a gestural dramatic quality to the music. "Time's Dream" (2003), a choral work in six parts, is especially so. The solo piano work "Show of Hands" (2003-2005) (in three parts) is dynamic and impactful. "Whorl" (2002) for clarinet, piano and violin has depth and an emphatic presence. "Gyre" (1995-97) for six instruments has a dynamic stridency that makes effective interlocking use of reeds, flute, strings, piano and percussion. It sounds very much like the sort of music one expects to hear from the later 20th century, but has an impact born of inspiration and real craftsmanship. "Ictus" (2000-2001) for string quartet works with certain intervals as a germinating cellular theme and goes on for some excellent four-way development.

David Lipten, it is clear, is a composer with a strong sense of direction, a fluid syntax and an inventive linear-abstract melodic gift. This anthology will appeal to the confirmed modernist. It is excellently done and very uplifting. Highly recommended.