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Friday, February 16, 2018

Harold Meltzer, Variations on a Summer Day & Piano Quartet

I have had the pleasure of encountering the music of Harold Meltzer via a harpsichord work in an anthology.of harpsichord music I covered here some time ago (you can look it up by typing Meltzer in the search box at the top) and, most importantly, I reviewed his Naxos CD in 2010, which I loved (see the Gapplegate Music Review article of November 19, 2010 for that). Now it is time to turn to the new CD at hand, Meltzer's Variations on a Summer Day & Piano Quartet (open g records).

The liner notes to the album sum up the composer's recent development. Andrew Waggoner makes note of Meltzer's 2007-08 Brion (on the Naxos release I reviewed, see above) as the culmination of the influence of Stravinsky and Donatoni. The later works heard here, Waggoner continues, move in a more individual direction at the same time as they tip the hat to the Pastoral American composers of the '30s and '40s of last century, and also make a connection with Copland's beautiful "Piano Variations" and too his "Piano Quartet."

All this does not contradict what I hear in this music. I must admit I am not so familiar with Donatoni. Nevertheless I hear the other influences mentioned without there being a derivation. These works bask in their originality at the same time as they offer a lively, lyrical and cogently Neo-Pastoral way ahead if you will.

Both works are substantial and have a winning aura about them. The "Piano Quartet" has none of the heavy romantic Germanicism of Pre-Modern chamber music. It is agile and light of foot, with lots of unexpected twists and lovely turns within a forward momentum.

"Variations on a Summer Day" brings in a central solo soprano part interpreted sturdily by Abigail Fischer. It all glows with a lazy summer sun ahead and the nine-piece chamber mini-orchestra scores with some truly special notefull-orchestrational tone paintings.

There is, then, some very welcome breeze freshening-- there is a refreshing  and beautifully Modern music lyricism on display in this album. Harold Meltzer is a phenomenon. The disk shows us how that is! Wonderful.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Emanuele Arciuli, Walk in Beauty, Contemporary Piano Music

When we reach a certain point in our music listening every new work we hear adds to the understanding of the whole of what has been and will be. Before we grasp the continuity of music as a whole each new thing seems to have no apparent relation to another thing, sometimes.

Those who have come to the music well and drank deeply of its cooling nectar should welcome pianist Emanuele Arciuli and his Walk in Beauty (Innova 255, 2-CDs), a survey of Modern Contemporary New Music for piano that has thematic continuity. There are in fact two overarching thematic components, one an abiding evocative representation of nature, and the second, Native American culture through music composed or inspired by indigenous composers.

In all these shades of interrelated meanings we experience virtually the all of New Music possibilities side-by-side, Post-Minimalism, High Modernism, Radical Tonality, Expressionism, a kind of epistemological United Nations of contemporary styles, with a basic American center node.

Emanuele Arciuli shows his enormous interpretive acumen. Each work is given a surety of pianism, an extraordinary rightness of musical saying.

In the course of unravelling this two-CD set we encounter all the mystery and beauty the program promises. So there are individual identity pieces by the likes of Connor Chee, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Michael Daugherty, John Luther Adams, Raven Chacon, Martin Bresnick, Louis W. Ballard, Jennifer Higdon, Peter Gilbert, Carl Ruggles, Brent Michael Davids, and Talib Rasul Hakim. Some are well-known to us, others less so; some are Native Americans, some just give out with a natural ethos and foundational spirit-singing. All contribute uniquely and stand up alongside one another as a gathering of musical voices in a great saying.

And so this program fits itself into what contemporary music can be and is now. We no longer have to present a stylistic monolith that is meant to replace all with itself. No, this music creates its own bringing together to say in musical terms what can best be said in musical terms.

And for all that the saying is remarkable on the level of compositions and performances. With a coming regeneration of springtime this music stands as a sturdy and unflaggingly bright wayside directional beacon. It is however for any season, for all seasons. It points but it also supremely IS. Listen. Listen again.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Megumi Masaki, MUSIC4EYES+EARS

In the course of the daily rounds I get the mail, open up the packages of new CDs for review consideration, hear new ones and listen to ones in the regular listening-review rotation. Oh, and in the mornings first light and beyond, I review one or more albums while listening a final time to each. First listens determine whether I like something well enough to review and then it goes from there. So Megumi Masaki and her MUSIC4EYES+EARS  (Centrediscs CD & Bluray 24017).

Pianist Masaki and her program of contemporary sounds (and sights) made it past the first listen and in subsequent listens took ready shape before me. Like many CDs I end up reviewing a first listen gave me a basic understanding and appreciation but it was only in subsequent hearings that I understood fully what was in the offing.

Megumi Masaka's MUSIC 4EYES+EARS is as the title indicates. The accompanying press sheet spells it out: "These works are designed to explore diverse concepts, performance techniques and interactive technologies in live piano + multimedia performance. Central to this project is how the interaction of image. movement, text and sound can create new expressive potentials as a whole."

The program of compositions indeed address that. The CD contains two works by two Canadian composers, Patrick Carrabre and Keith Hamel. They are each a fascinating joining of elements in dramatic juxtaposition, soundscape-y at times and otherwise tonally adventuresome and freely combinatory. The piano has a central and notable role to play in all of this and Ms. Masaki does a beautiful job realizing the parts with a poetic pianism that brings the notes to vivid life. The visual multimedia elements of course cannot be apprehended on the CD, but the spoken, sung, electronically enhanced and instrumental parts all bring forth a very scenic, synethesially near-visual immediacy in their connotations.

So "Orpheus Drones," "Orpheus (2)." and "Touch" have a narrative quality to them as they also present a vibrant sound panorama fascinating in the sensual-aural realm alone. There is a second disc, a Blu-Ray program that includes "Touch" and three additional works. Unfortunately I do not currently have Blu-Ray capability but I imagine there are visual components to be seen and multi-channel audio? Based on the CD I can only imagine there would be much there of interest and fascination.

And the more I listen to the CD, the more I find it rather riveting. Some parts seem post-minimal, some post-Stockhausenian, some elsewhere altogether but beautiful in the piano and sound color narratives that consistently take place."Touch" for live computer processing and piano by Keith Hamel is quite something remarkable in its unfolding. Then again Carrabre's long two-part "Orpheus Drones" that includes Margaret Atwood's poetry has another take on the possible that is most definitely worthwhile and memorable.

Without knowing exactly how the Blu-Ray disk goes I nevertheless do not hesitate to recommend this album to you. The piano-not-piano interplay is not quite like anything being done out there today. The music holds its own.  It is new music with an emphasis on the NEW! So check it out if you will.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Gail Archer, A Russian Journey, Organ Music of the "Russian Five"

When an album presents to a listener like me a body of works I might only dream about and do not expect to find, it is an occasion. And then I listen with avid interest. That is what has happened on the recording at hand. It is organ music of the Russian Five! Plus one. That is, we have a selection of organ works by Mussorgsky, Cesar Cui, Ljapunow, Glasunow. Slominski and Alexander Schawersaschwili. I speak of the album by organist Gail Archer, A Russian Journey (Meyermedia MM17035).

Of course the Russian Five were supremely important original figures in the development of a genuinely independent Russian classical identity. Mussorgsky alone was a titan but none of them are at all explained away by the Romanticism in the air all over the West at the time. What is primary is a continuity with the classical tradition but a search for Russian expression and in the process an oblique path towards a Russian Modernism that only comes to its fullest flower with a Stravinsky, a Prokofiev and later a Shostakovich.

To keep all of this in mind as we listen to this program of organ music is to feel a creative turbulence and an expressive movement that only becomes clear in the teleology of time passing. The music we hear on A Russian Journey is very much in the organ music lineage of the later 19th Century. So we hear a relationship to the symphonic fullness of Franck and his school, yet also a clear pulling away with the Mussorgsky especially, and truly present in more or less subtle ways in the rest.

The critical contrapuntal influence of Bach can also be heard to greater or lesser degrees, especially in the various preludes, fugues and the toccata.

All of this music is not inconsequential and well worth repeated hearings. The organ version of "Night on Bald Mountain" is fabulous and revelatory. Who but Mussorgsky could craft such an expression when he did?  But any Russophile of a serious sort will welcome the entire program. The performances by Gail Archer have heart and expressionist aplomb.

In the end I recommend this very much. The audience may be self-selecting. You are either someone who wants to hear this for all the reasons you do, or you do not. In other words, this is probably not the album to transform you into an organ music lover nor does it lend itself especially to function as a first stab at Russian classical appreciation, though it could if you come to it as an organ enthusiast.

In the final round this program offers much to treasure.  Get it if it sounds like it has your name on it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Craig Hella Johnson, Considering Matthew Shepard, Conspirare

I was sent Craig Hella Johnson's ambitious choral-instrumental work Considering Matthew Shepard (Harmonia Mundi HMU807638-39 2-CDs) some time ago. I liked it on first listen but then the pile it was in became left off to the side in the hustkle and bustle of my life then. I rediscovered that stack behind other stacks recently and came back to the album. Subsequent listens made me feel ever more sure that the music was quite excellent and needed coverage despite the delay. So I turn to it today and hope to do it the justice it deserves.

The exceptional group Conspirare does the performance honors along with select vocal soloists. And they are the right performers in their ready ability to adapt themselves to the considerable and variably pan-stylistic, eclectic demands of the score.

The work is about the infamous hate crime, the brutal beating and murder of Matthew Shepard because he was gay. There is the chain of events and the long mourning, the long search for meaning in the aftermaths of protests and outrage, the senselessness of it all.

Johnson makes of it all a touchingly direct panorama. It is eclectically tonal, pomo in a way surely. It may well belong to an American patchwork quilt of sounds, a lineage that certainly includes Bernstein's Mass in its rooted recent past. Considering Matthew Shepard movingly and effectively combines a bit of minimalism with lyrical and theatre song, songwriting-singer traditions, earthy hymns, blues and gospel tinges, and choral vibrancy in telling the sad tale and in the end redemption of a kind we only get after the worst has happened. That is if we care to reflect upon the outrageous happenstances of some modern days and nights.

There is strength and fragility there to be heard. And a power much more than the first impression of eclecticism reveals. No, you must listen more.

And after a time you find that this music very much speaks. It is much more than the sum of its parts. It very much hangs together as drama, as documamusic, as ponder piece on the sad realities of events sometimes, and a healing in the end. Or a gesture towards that end.

It is not music intended to cut the edge of possibilities. Instead in draws upon a broad swatch of American local  musics to be of a place as much as of a piece.

All that makes the music and its performance a welcomely moving thing. There is lyricism in its healing. You may well love it. I think I do.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

American Romantics II, Gowanus Arts Ensemble, Reuben Blundell

Turn-of-the-century America liked to see itself in its arts as both simple and ineffable, occupying in its drams and in its dreams a natural landscape fashioned and improved by humankind for its pastoral pleasure, along with the virtues of hearth, family, home and community in an ideal cast. Reality was in part these things but then all sorts of complexities and ambiguities, even in downright contradiction, namely its industrial juggernaut, inequalities, and the struggle towards Modernity that was to become paramount in a few years, but at first a direction only lurking in the woolgathered brown studiousness of future artists.

The freeze frame of a land poised to change rapidly yet still seeing itself with the lens of an ideal past can be heard in a volume of short works by the composers stylistically prior to the bold Charles Ives. They were roughly contemporaneous with each other in an overall field that Charles Ives found himself reacting with and against when he first came upon the scene. It helps us to hear and contemplate the Romantic matrix out of which sprang American Modernity. Plus it is music worthy of a hearing on its own terms. And it helps us more fully to grasp American Neo-Romantics like Samuel Barber who were to appear in the wake of these artists.

And so we have a volume directly relevant to such concerns, American Romantics II (New Focus Recordings FCR 166B). It is a worthy grouping of short examples performed devotedly by the Gowanus Arts Ensemble under Reuben Blundell. There is a serenity and transparent depth to these performances that seem just right. Nothing becomes mawkish as perhaps some earlier recorded versions could. Even the bookend Carl Busch arrangements of Stephen Foster songs are luminous and reverently staged.

Beyond the surprisingly moving Foster arrangements we are treated to softly glowing works by the likes of Felix Borowski, George Whitfield Chadwick, Arthur Foote, Paul Theodore Miersch, Ethelbert Nevin, Edgar Stillman Kelly, Martinus Van Gelder, Bernardus Boekelman. Louis Lombard, Arthur Bird, Charles Wakefield Cadman  Not all of these names you will know, I suspect, and some you will. Yet taken all together we get a true representative example of what the first end-point of American Romanticism might sound like in retrospect.

And the strings have a way about them that is almost early-music-like in their very retrained vibratoes and the plaintive matter-of-factness of it all. The sort of brio vibrato madness with which these works might have been performed some years ago disappears to be replaced by performances that are so much more convincing.

In the end we are given the chance to re-experience these works anew. For me anyway I feel like there is a new life to this music here. It is much more congenial and even touching to hear these somewhat naive pastoral works the way Gowanus and Blundell approach them. Bravo!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Alla Elana Cohen, Jupiter Duo, with Sebastian Baverstam

After listening to, liking and reviewing Alla Elana Cohen's Red Lilies of Bells, Golden Lilies of Bells on these pages (see November 9, 2017 article here), I was ready for more. Happily I did not have to wait long, for there is a new album of Cohen works entitled Jupiter Duo (Ravello 7978). It is an engaging sampling of Ms. Cohen's very expressive music for cello and piano. Sebastian Baverstam has a great deal of presence on cello. Ms. Cohen flames and sparkles brightly on piano.

We have a chance to hear seven multi-part compositions on the program. "Book of Prayers" appears twice in two different segments. Then there are "Sephardic Romancero," "Three Film Noir Pieces," "Third Vioil," "Spiral Staircases," and "Querying the Silence."

Expressionism differs from Romanticism like a third-generation offspring resembles her grandmother. Related yet NOT the same. If you factor in a folk expressionism like one heards in world musics, African music especially, the chronology may be backwards? Not so, however in the Classical lineage, where mostly we go from  R to E.

All that to introduce the idea that these works and their vital performances are more "Expressionistic" than Romantic. There is much in the way of passion, and a harmonic bouquet of brilliant edginess. It is way beyond some overt sentimentality and very Modern in its more diffuse feeling.

The most important thing is that Alla Elana Cohen sounds Russian, then Jewish, and then totally herself.  This is Ms. Cohen's own play of passion that she and Mr. Baverstam exude heartily and concentrically in their readings.

Now that is what you might expect. It is music that I find increasingly relevant to my ears. I love the music and I love how expressively it is performed by the duo. It is very beautiful and I would say too that it is very original. Cohen sneaks into my hearing and I find her important. That is, important to me. You listen and see if you feel the same. It is very much worth your ear-time! Highly recommended.