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David Lang’s symphony without a hero received its premiere on February 8/10 by its commissioner, Seattle Symphony and Music Director Ludovic Morlot. As usual, Lang spells his title in all lowercase letters, a gesture of acquiescence that particularly befits the resigned tone of this work’s namesake, Poem Without a Hero by the Soviet writer Anna Akhmatova. Lang, who is quite the Russophile, took his inspiration from Akhmatova’s wartime lament for her hometown Leningrad (St. Petersburg), besieged and abused at the hands of both Nazis and Stalinists. Lang’s reflections present as a single-movement essay that, regardless of one’s feelings toward postminimalism or orchestral composition in general at this stage of the 21st century, surely deserves to be ranked among his most compelling works.

Lang conceived symphony without a hero as the unfolding of “a melody that goes from the beginning of the piece to the very end—a 28 minute tune”. This melody, closer to 23 minutes at Morlot’s tempo, lies in the bass instruments: a gruff pseudo-ostinato that constantly tries to climb a C? minor triad (C? G? C? E) without ever literally repeating itself. It’s somewhere between a “real” tune and a clumsily-executed arpeggio exercise (imagine the fragmentary musical gestures of The Little Match Girl Passion, but louder and harsher). Above it the high strings, coupled with other treble instruments, spin a tonally ambiguous web of overlapping sustained tones derived from the bass tune, creating an effect akin to the angelic choir atop Ives’ texture in the Prelude to his Fourth Symphony. There’s little going on in the middle registers—it’s as though each instrument is compelled to choose between bass and treble. As Lang puts it, the two sides “don’t talk to each other”.

As from a tower that commands the view
From nineteen-forth I look down.
As if I bid farewell anew
To what I long since bade farewell,
As if I paused to cross myself
And enter dark vaults underground.

(1941, Leningrad under siege)
– Anna Akhmatova, translated by Nancy K. Anderson

David Lang (photo: Maggie Malloy)

Lang has spoken about being led into composition through his early encounters with Shostakovich. And the tone of his symphony is akin to Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony shorn of its triumphalism and cumulative effect. I kept thinking of that piece’s notorious first movement, but with its melodic and harmonic details blasted away, leaving just the repetitive martial rhythms as symbolic foundations to the bombed-out buildings of wartime Leningrad whose smoldering shells remain but whose trappings of life have been pulverized and left to circulate as a disorganized cloud in the smoky air. As if to reinforce the siege metaphor, Morlot positioned the drums at the left of the orchestra with the lower strings and brass on the right, effectively enveloping the jumbled and pleading voices of the treble choir. There’s definitely an edge to this music that you don’t always get with Lang.

Halfway through the symphony the quasi-ostinato stops, leaving the web of treble instruments standing alone. Most prominent here are the violins, supported by some high woodwinds, harps and a celeste. The bass reenters, but now with an alternation of sustained chords a half-step apart, reminiscent of Philip Glass (for whom Lang once worked as a copyist, meticulously typing the lyrics of Akhnaten into the score). As before, bass and treble proceed independently until the bass finally drops out entirely, leaving the violins (just as in Ives’ Symphony) with the last word.

To complete the evening Morlot paired Lang’s symphony with its putative opposite, Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) from 1898. The antebellum naiveté of that old warhorse has long screamed out for revisionism, and programming it after the brutal honesty of the Lang only seemed to emphasize its insouciance. If there was a moral to the evening, it was that true heroes are the ones bearing hard witness to bitter truths. In that light we can be grateful for Seattle Symphony’s long record of supporting contemporary music, a record that one hopes will continue despite the imminent departure of both its Music Director Morlot and its President/CEO Simon Woods.

3 hours ago |
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As part of their continuing new music series, the Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena presented Descent Into Madness, A Concert of Cautionary Music on February 9, 2018. The centerpiece of the evening was a performance of Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot by Peter Maxwell Davies, featuring Canadian soprano Stacey Fraser and Brightwork newmusic. Anthony Parnther, conductor, Jack Van Zandt, who studied with Peter Maxwell Davies, and Terry Smith, stage director for this production, were also on hand for a pre-concert discussion of this spellbinding work of mid-20th century British experimental opera.

The first half of the concert was given over to three contemporary works, including two by Southern California composers. Un-intermezzi, by Veronika Krausas, opened the proceedings with Aron Kallay as piano soloist. The titles of the individual movements are taken from the novel Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville.

The first intermezzo, “each dreams the other” began with a quiet repeating phrase, and conveyed a lightly mysterious feel. Darker chords followed, adding tension, and these alternated with the softer passages. The program notes state that this movement : “… is the composer’s version of the floating quality of Brahms’ Intermezzo in B minor, OP. 119, no.1.” This provided a gently evocative prelude to the next section, “a bowl for shadows.” Written in the “whimsical style of Erik Satie”, there is more mystery here, with a solitary line of notes that are nicely offset by counterpoint and stronger passages that occasionally build to a mild anxiety. Good contrast in the dynamics and a sensitive touch by Kallay sustained this delicate balance. The last movement, “a chorus of night-things”, opens with a wonderfully active splatter of notes – a summer shower of optimism. This movement bubbles cheerfully along like a running brook in a spring pasture. A solemnly dark passage intrudes from the lower registers and as the movement proceeds, alternating with the sunny confidence heard in the opening. These contrasting passages continue throughout, increasingly varied and building to the finish. Un-intermezzi is a pleasing homage by the composer to literary and musical influences, brought forward to a contemporary sensibility.

Organism, by Jason Barabba was next, scored for clarinet and flute. The music stands at center stage were arranged so that the two players faced each other. A high pitch from the flute floated upward to begin, and this was nearly matched by clarinet so that their dissonance resembled the whistling of a strong wind. Skittering passages followed, and these soon morphed into a series of intertwined and independent phrases woven together into a dazzling matrix of brightly organic sounds. The composer writes in the program notes: “One of the great features of both the clarinet and the flute are their ability for great subtlety, control and intricate dynamic shading. In this case the undulating opening section was designed to highlight the instruments’ dynamic control in their higher ranges.”

There were no common harmonies or pulse – each line was independently played with the rapid runs and trills nearly colliding but for the precise playing of flutist Sara Andon and clarinetist Brian Walsh. Even with all of the notes flying out into the audience, there was enough of an arc to the phrases so that the listener could naturally follow the flow. While every bit as complex, active and animated as a Jackson Pollock painting, Organism engages and dazzles, but never overwhelms.

Birds in Warped Time II, by Somei Satoh followed and for this Aron Kallay was joined by violinist Tereza Stanislav. Long trills in the piano opened this piece with a warmly idyllic feeling, like walking in a sunlit summer meadow. Sustained tones in the violin hovered above, offering a pleasing contrast. As the trills in the piano became louder and more insistent, the violin remained calm and serene. Some lovely harmonies were heard, especially when the registers of the two instruments overlapped. As the piece continued, the violin became more agitated, eventually breaking back to the elegant smoothness of the opening. Birds in Warped Time II is alluring music, expertly performed, and centered in an elemental tranquility.

After an intermission, the main event of the evening began, the performance of Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, by Peter Maxwell Davies. Anyone who had to read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens in English class will know the plot: a young woman stood up on her wedding day becomes mentally unbalanced and refuses to leave the wedding hall or change out of her gown. This is based on a true story – there was a real Miss Donnithorne in Australia who in 1856 was engaged to marry a naval officer. When the groom never appeared on the appointed day, Miss Donnithorne subsequently withdrew from society and never left her deceased father’s house. The word ‘Maggot” in the title is from the older English usage, meaning obsession. The libretto for Davies opera was supplied by Randolph Stow – the two had previously collaborated on an opera about the madness of King George III using the same scoring of six instruments and a vocalist.

Brightwork newmusic took the stage, joined by special guest Ashley Walters on cello, with all led by conductor Parnther. A large array of percussion, the piano and the other musicians were wedged into the right half of the small stage, leaving just enough room for the acting. This never felt crowded or congested, however, and the interior nature of the drama was enhanced by the close confines. The staging, although spare and simple, was more than sufficient to carry the story forward. Soprano Stacey Fraser, singing the title role, appeared in a brightly arrayed white gown that appeared absolutely luminous in the artful stage lighting.

The opera proceeds continuously in a series of eight sections and opens with the jilted Miss Donnithorne sitting quietly at a desk, contemplating her circumstances. The percussion issues quick beats on the cymbal and blocks while the clarinet races through several rapid passages. The soprano enters, reading solemnly from what was the wedding invitation. More complex passages from the orchestra follow as the tension and emotional temperature rise in the voice. All of this was nothing less than a tour de force for Ms. Fraser who passionately invested every sort of painful emotion into the many words. That this was sung from memory is all the more impressive given the surreal nature of the music and its subject. As the opera proceeded, great surges of anger, sadness, despair and frustration were heard in their many variations, often expressed at the very limits of vocal technique. Ms. Fraser sang with a combination of confidence and daring perfectly suited to the occasion.

The action and arc of the opera is carried almost entirely by the voice and Brightwork newmusic supplied the fitful accompaniment to perfection. The various passages in the instruments were often disconnected and heard independently, and this required great precision in the playing. The percussion was especially challenging – there were all sorts of bells and whistles employed and at one point a toy balloon had to be popped on cue. All of the phrasing, various extended techniques and complexity from the instruments balanced beautifully with the voice and acting. Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot is a technically demanding work requiring great virtuosity from the participants, all skillfully realized in this performance.

The performers in this concert were:

Sara Andon, flute
Aron Kallay, piano
Ashley Walters, cello
Tereza Stanislav, violin
Nick Terry, percussion
Brian Walsh, clarinet
Stacey Fraser, soprano
Alexis Ramirez, Miss Donnithorne’s maid
Anthony Parnther, conductor
Terry Smith, stage director

2 days ago |
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Last Leaf

Danish String Quartet

ECM Records CD

The Danish String Quartet is best known for their insightful interpretations of classical and contemporary repertoire. For instance, a 2016 CD for ECM Records presented early works by Ades, Norgard, and Abrahamsen to widespread acclaim. However, back in 2014, the quartet had a best seller on Da Capo, Wood Works, that consisted of arrangements by its members of Scandinavian folk tunes. In 2017 they released Last Leaf, another album of these arrangements and original compositions for ECM.

Last Leaf is in many ways even more successful than Wood Works. The arrangements by the Danish String Quartet’s various members are more sure-footed and varied in ensemble deployments. ECM’s sonics are, as usual, top notch, and the space chosen for the recording, a Danish museum, provides exemplary chamber acoustics. In addition, the group has combined classical and folk dances in adroit ways in several places. One of the most fetching and memorable of these is “Nadja’s Waltz” by cellist  Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin. Another is “Shine No More,” a reel-like tune by violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. “Polska from Dorotea,” an arrangement by the full quartet is a wonderful blend of contrapuntal writing and boisterous dance music. Sumptuous sonorities populate the ballad-like “Now Found is the Forest of Roses,” a poignant album closer.

Often, string quartets rely on their creativity to provide impetus for interpretation. It is gratifying hear a group that is as interested in the acts of creating arrangements and compositions as it is in providing stalwart renditions of preexisting music. Recommended.

-Christian Carey

12 days ago |
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Poppy - Resolve

Poppy Ackroyd


One Little Indian CD/DL

Brighton-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Poppy Ackroyd has released her fourth album, Resolve, on One Little Indian. Like her previous work, ambient neoclassical instrumentals reign here. Ackroyd’s violin, piano, and synths are abetted by percussionist Manu Delago, wind player Mike Lesirge, and cellist Jo Quail. Together they create a formidable chamber group that realizes Ackroyd’s hybrids of synthetic and organic elements with grace and delicate shadings. This is particularly true of the winsome title track and layered keyboards of album opener “Paper” and the reverberant synthetic repeats of album closer “Trains,” a fetching post-minimal excursion led by Ackroyd’s piano and violin.

All is not gentleness. Delago, in particular, adds formidable beats to several album tracks, notably “Quail” and “The Dream.” “Time,” appropriately enough, leads with drums that are then rhythmically mimicked by a repeating piano ostinato. “Stems,” at a fleeting minute-and-a-half, sets up a memorably propulsive ground bass with a plethora of auxiliary beaters: one wishes it was at least twice as long and allowed to truly blossom.

Ambient neoclassical music has become all the rage again and many of the reissues and newer work are quite good. The best of it, like Poppy Ackroyd’s recordings, present lovingly prepared arrangements, harnessing one’s attention with little details that make all the difference between surface beauty and a deeper listening experience.

13 days ago |
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Quattro Mani

November 15, 2017

Weill Recital Hall

Works by Gosfield, Moravec, Machover, Lansky, and Ben-Amots

NEW YORK – Since 2013, pianists Susan Grace and Steven Beck have been performing together as the duo Quattro Mani. Their recent recital at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall presented several New York premieres, including pieces by Annie Gosfield, Paul Moravec, Tod Machover, and Paul Lansky. Gosfield’s mix of dissonance with rollicking rhythms was winning in “Refracted Rhythms and Telepathic Static.” Lansky’s three Color Codas – “In the Red,” Purple Passion,” and “Out of the Blue” – indeed embodied multihued harmonies and sparking ostinatos. Moravec writes in an elegant, idiomatic style for the piano. His Quattro Mani contains a substantial amount of memorable material — dare one hope it is a sketch for a double concerto? The evening culminated in a scintillating performance of John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction, which was both fiery and superbly coordinated.

Quattro Mani’s latest CD recording for Bridge Records, Re-Structures, is an engaging outing. The title work, also heard at Weill Hall, is by Machover. Scored for piano and electronics, it juxtaposes frenetic acoustic virtuosity with correspondingly penetrating digital commentary. Lansky’s Out of the Blue, one of the Color Codas also on the New York program, is an attractive post-minimal exploration of small cells of material that gradually expand into boisterous passages in octaves and quick scalar runs.

The multi-movement work Cembal d’Amore, Book Two by Poul Ruders changes up the duo’s instrumentation: Beck plays harpsichord while Grace remains at the piano. Its corruscating textures, varying duplications and canons in a sequence of movements based in part on Baroque dance suites, revels in chromaticism and wry wit in equal measure. Yet another shift in approach is found in Életút Lebenslauf by György Kurtág. Basset horns, played by Andy Stevens and Sergei Vassiliev, accompany the pianists playing instruments tuned in microtones. Mysterious timbres bump elbows with thornily dissonant angularity in a piquant, unforgettable piece.

The CD’s closer is a bit more straightforward, but no less captivating. Tango for the Road by Ofer Ben-Amots is an eight-minute long exploration of traditional tango rhythms and gestures, with a few surprises and a left turn or two along the way. The piece gives Grace and Beck an ideal vehicle to showcase the supple phrasing and suavity they bring to bear whenever given a chance to swing.

Re-Structures is an adventurous exploration of many facets of 21st century piano music: highly recommended.

-Christian Carey

14 days ago |
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On Saturday, December 16, 2017 People Inside Electronics presented Electric Eclipse, a concert featuring the Eclipse Quartet and a world premiere by Zeena Parkins. Also presented was music by Mari Kimura, Tom Flaherty, Ian Dicke and Missy Mazzoli. There was a special appearance by shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, who presented an original work with the Eclipse Quartet. Every seat was filled in the Throop Church Hall, complete with speakers and what seemed to be several miles of cables.

The program opened with Spirit Away the Flesh (2017), by Zeena Parkins and this was the world premiere. The program notes describe this piece as “ an electro acoustic work using quad speaker diffusion that merges field recordings, vintage synth, and recordings of the Eclipse quartet creating a topography for three artists to reveal their motivations for artistic practice.” The recordings began with the sounds of insects and twittering birds, as captured in various locations along the east coast, from Florida to Long Island. Eclipse supplemented this with a series of soft skittering phrases that soon led to a broadly gentle harmony. Spoken text followed from the speakers; the words of the three visual artists were heard throughout the piece. At certain points the quartet players would strike small metal bowls that sent a pleasant ringing sound out into the audience.

Deep, anxious chords next appeared in the strings, and these became agitated, like so many angry mosquitoes. A feeling of uncertainty and anxiety crept in, contrasting with the more reassuring organic sounds from the field recordings. The playing, the field recordings and the spoken texts were all carefully balanced and blended. The feeling throughout oscillated between tension in the strings and the soothing sounds of the bells and rustic recordings. Spirit Away the Flesh is an engaging work, with many interwoven elements that were nicely coordinated and impeccably performed.

I-Quadrifoglio (2011) by Mari Kimura, followed. This is a four movement piece reflecting on the effects of the 2011 earthquake in Japan and the subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. “Quadrifoglio” means four-leaf clover in Italian and the movements of this piece are titled “faith, love, hope, luck.” The program notes state that “I-Quadrifoglio is not only a prayer, but a plea for the international community to keep watch and demand more information; air and water are connected globally and affect all our children’s future.”

I-Quadrifoglio opened with high, thin sounds in the violins followed by sustained tones in a nicely blended tutti harmony. A rolling feel predominated, followed by trills of anxiety and a series of interweaving melody lines. The electronics seemed to quietly echo the playing of the quartet, and this was very effective. The middle movements featured some very lovely passages, expressively played. Contrasting sections of strong pizzicato ricocheted around the quartet and through the electronics. There were extended techniques, rapid phrases and runs that were scattered among the strings, but all were negotiated with just the right amount of liveliness and precision. Towards the end of the piece a dance-like rhythm appeared that morphed into a very complex texture that swirled and surged to the finish. I-Quadrifoglio is a technically challenging piece that draws out many strong emotions while also demonstrating the virtuosity of the Eclipse Quartet.

Recess (2016), by Tom Flaherty, was next. The first movement, “Spin,” began with a strong opening tutti chord and a series of sforzandos that rolled around the quartet, followed by sustained tones that created an anxious feel. The tension continued to build in the rapidly dynamic passages that followed. The tight ensemble of the Eclipse Quartet was nicely balanced with the energy in this piece. For all the innocence of its title, Recess at times stirred memories of early and mid 20th century Soviet era expressionism.

The second movement, “Swing”, while slower and more restrained, continued the sense of tension. A soft echo of the strings could be heard in the speakers, lightly processed by the electronics. A series of descending tones was very effective and lent an almost supernatural air as this movement as it came to a calm finish. The final movement, “Tag” returned to the rapid pace with a frenetic tempo and swirling texture that, like the playground game, seemed unsure as to where it was headed. Exuberant and unrestrained, this is very visceral music and Recess concluded to enthusiastic applause.

(Cycles) what falls must rise (2009) by Kojiro Umezacki followed the intermission. For this piece the composer joined the Eclipse Quartet playing the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese end-blown flute. Cycles is based loosely on a haiku by Masaoka Shiki:

entangled with
the scattering cherry blossoms
the wings of birds

The piece begins quietly, with soft sounds in the electronics and sustained tones from the shakuhachi. The strings enter, producing a reserved, calming feel as if the sun is rising on a still morning. This spiritual sensibility is enhanced by a dramatic melody in the shakuhachi that weaves in and around the sustained chords in the strings. The lower strings follow, taking up the melody that is eventually passed to the violins, producing a more strident and purposeful feel. A strong tutti sound emerges, providing a fine contrast to the quiet mysticism of the opening section. Powerful trills in the strings and strong notes from the shakuhachi increase the sense of tension and drama – like a squall building in intensity. This eventually subsides – to complete the cycle – dying away at the finish. (Cycles) what falls must rise is an engaging work, grounded in traditional Japanese sensibility, yet equally at ease with the western string quartet and contemporary electronics.

Unmanned (2013) by Ian Dicke, followed, an unsettling piece first heard in a 2016 People Inside Electronics concert. Exploring the use of deadly military force by remote control, Unmaned is a work that brilliantly combines contemporary music and electronics with sharp political commentary. Missy Mazzoli’s iconic Harp and Altar (2009) concluded the concert, a stirring musical portrait of the Brooklyn Bridge and the surrounding waterfront.

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Tyshawn Sorey

Tyshawn Sorey, drums, percussion, composer; Cory Smythe, piano, toy piano, electronics; Chris Tordini, bass

Pi Records PI70

Tyshawn Sorey has had quite a year of musical accomplishments. After recently finishing up his doctorate at Columbia, he succeeded Anthony Braxton on the faculty at Wesleyan University, won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and received several other major awards and commissions. He has remained active in a number of ensembles, playing a pivotal role on another of this year’s best CDs, Vijay Iyer Sextet’s Far From Over (ECM). Verisimilitude, for Pi Recordings, is his sixth recorded outing as leader. Sorey is joined by pianist Corey Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini in five adventurous and stimulating compositions.

A suitable overture, “Cascade in Slow Motion,” is buoyed by interlocking arpeggios from pizzicato bass and piano and punctuated by supply drummed polyrhythms. Clocking in at four and a half minutes, it is the only relative miniature here. Thereafter, Sorey and his colleagues explore long form music-making. An arco bass solo leads off “Flowers for Prashant,” which then turns into a dovetailing duet. A gradual intensification led by this duet texture takes place, only to hew back to drone-based passages of repeated notes.

Smythe uses electronics and Tordini high-pitched arco lines to begin “Obsidian.” After an extended introduction exploring these timbres, Tordini plays lower pitched glissandos and Smythe sepulcral bass note stabs. Sorey enters with textural percussion: a gong, a host of woody fills, and shimmering cymbals. A fulsome groove is established; Tordini returns to pizzicato bass, Smythe repeats bass register chords, and Sorey deploys a cannonade at the kit. Eventually, pointillism is reasserted with upper register piano chords and throbbing bass notes; Sorey moves back to cymbals and auxiliary percussion instruments. Smythe’s basso reiterations lead to a coda based on the second section. Then there is a gradual denouement, punctuated by long gong strokes and slithering bass register glissandos.

“Algid November” is the half-hour long centerpiece of Verisimilitude and is Sorey’s most ambitious piece for trio yet. Once again, the emphasis is on gradually morphing from one set of textures and playing demeanors to the next. The musical fabric consists at first of a prevailingly soft dynamic and slow tempo, one undergirded with big beats (never amorphous) that contains numerous angular feints and jabs from all three players. Sorey is a master at contrasting the resounding of instruments such as gongs and cymbals with the faster decay of drums and small percussion instruments; all interactions and decays are timed with precision. After a long period in which these juxtapositions are the focal point, Sorey performs at the drum kit with zeal, while Smythe and Tordini operate in a dissonant language of jagged filigrees.

A little less than halfway through, the piece moves from post-tonality to post-bop, with cascading arpeggiations from Smythe and walking lines from Tordini locked in a tight groove that Sorey simultaneously supports and overlays with contrasting elements. Just when one feels their toes tapping, the trio moves sideways in lockstep, back to the big beats of the opener but with a fuller overall texture. Rearticulated verticals, first low and then high, signal yet another change in direction. Smythe’s repeated notes pile up in an ostinato haze and Tordini grooves in still another timeframe while Sorey engages in lithe ornamentation. Two thirds of the way through the piece, a visceral build up leads to a huge crash of cymbals.

Afterwards, the musicians resume the slow tempo and fragile soundscape that began “Algid November.” Pitched percussion, quickly plucked bass melodies, and chiming piano lines give way to rattling reiterations from Sorey and Smythe. It is as if the big crash that signalled the piece’s climax is being allowed successive echos. Interpolations of the swing section, in tiny slices that last merely a breath or two, are juxtaposed with barbed jabs and intricately constructed rhythmic passages. Another gale storm threatens, then is subdued, devolving into muted piano notes and quietly reverberant gong rolls.

The final work on the CD, “Contemplating Tranquility,” opens with the same muted material that closed “Algid November.” Gongs and temple bells gradually coalesce into a new, still slow, pulse stream of pitched percussion, toy piano ,and then grand piano. Glassy piano harmonies are pitted against reiterated soundings of the gong. Smythe gradually adds arpeggios in the low register to replicate the lowest sounding frequencies of the gong. Filling in the registers, Sorey suddenly switches roles, adding trebly unpitched percussion to the proceedings where there had been piano. Toy piano and pitched percussion engage in a duet that is joined by a low rumbling and then sustained upper register arco lines and a generous dose of harmonics from Tordini. Smythe begins to build verticals in a more harmonically conceived direction, buoyed by more consonance — even an octave here and there — from the bass player. As things converge around the low E string of the bass, Tordini then has some fun of his own, throwing in notes that rend the heretofore harmonically grounded passage asunder. While Sorey weaves sustained cymbal passages, pianist and bassist create a duet that ebbs and flows in an ever narrowing dynamic spectrum. Temple bells suggests a possible return to the more contemplative demeanor of the opening. Instead, it is a signal that the meditation is over. Thus ends Sorey’s Verisimilitude, Sequenza 21’s Best Recording of 2017.

1 month ago |
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Dark Queen Mantra

Terry Riley and Stefano Scodanibbio

The Dark Queen Mantra

Del Sol String Quartet; Gyan Riley, guitar

Sono Luminus

On this Sono Luminus CD, Terry Riley’s chamber works are superlatively performed by Del Sol String Quartet. Joined on the title piece by the composer’s son, guitarist Gyan Riley, the group navigates an array of rhythms, many of Spanish origin. Movement titles evoke the Basque region Vizcaino and the paintings of Goya. The final, eponymous, movement builds to an intense conclusion; Gyan Riley incorporates distortion and high volume, matching the whirling dance of the quartet in a rock-inflected finale.

Stefano Scodanibbio, who died in 2012, was a friend to both Rileys. Diamond Fiddle Language (Wergo, 2005), his collaboration with Terry Riley, is a standout in both of their respective catalogues. After his passing, Gyan Riley presented a memorial concert of Scodanibio’s music at New York’s The Stone. He invited Del Sol to play the composer’s Mas Lugares ( su Madrigales di Monteverdi), a work they have since made their own. A five-movement homage to the early Baroque master, Scodanibbio takes his source material on all sorts of fascinating of twists and turns. A virtuoso bass-player himself, Scodanibbio wrote prolifically and eloquently for strings. Channeling and transforming early music was only one aspect of his work – he was well known for extended techniques and as a formidable improviser. This is reflected in Mas Lugares … : The piece isn’t a neoclassical take on its source material. Instead, it is a persuasive update with considerable refashioning.

Originally premiered by Kronos Quartet, The Wheel and Mythic Birds Waltz is more of a minimalist affair than The Dark Queen Mantra. That said, few of Terry Riley’s pieces for quartet are unadulterated minimalism – apart from In C, his is a polyglot musical language. There are a considerable number of extended chords, folk-like melodies, and jazz-inflected wrinkles amid the repetitions. As such, the piece pairs well with the other two on the CD, and serves as a fitting closer.

The Dark Queen Mantra is Sequenza 21’s Best Chamber Recording 2017.

1 month ago |
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Wayne Peterson


Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor; PRISM Quartet

BMOP/sound 1053

Composer Wayne Peterson (b. 1927) served as one of his generation’s fixtures on the West Coast music scene where, in addition to several other academic appointments, he elevated the composition program at San Francisco State to prominence. Despite fine recordings of his chamber music, this is his first portrait disc of orchestral music. 2017 has been a year where Boston Modern Orchestra Project, under the inspired direction of Gil Rose, has released a number of fine recordings, including CDs of works by Paul Moravec, David Del Tredici, Stephen Hartke, and Jeremy Gill (more about these in a forthcoming article). All are worthy of recommendation, but it is the Peterson disc that sticks out for me, both in terms of filling in a gap in late Twentieth century repertoire, and in the considerable durability of the works it contains.

Transformations (1985), which resembles a concerto for orchestra, is a marvelous display of timbre, with recurring fanfare-like gestures of repeated notes and chords, punctuated by interjections from percussion, juxtaposed against solo passages and richly overlaid ensembles for each of the orchestra’s sections. Frequent changes in demeanor create an almost kaleidoscopic effect. While the playing is excellent all around, pianist Linda Osborn deserves kudos for tackling a formidable part.

Jazz played an important role in Peterson’s development as a composer. There are jazz influences in all three of the pieces presented here, none more so than And the Winds Shall Blow (1994), a saxophone quartet concerto. PRISM Quartet are the estimable soloists here, often playing ensemble passages with such precision and fluidity that they sound like a single mega-instrument. The saxophone solo passages are where the flavor of jazz most keenly persists, and all of the PRISM members play them displaying a strong sense of jazz history, appropriately inflecting each successive homage to swing, bebop, and modern styles. In other places, quartet and orchestra alike are filled with contrapuntal intensity. Rose balances the many competing elements, artfully complex, and assures that each line receives due clarity.

Peterson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for the last of the selections on the BMOP disc, The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark, but this honor was not bestowed without controversy. Ralph Shapey had been tipped off early that his piece was the music jury’s recommendation, and raised hell when Peterson was selected over him by the board. After many years with only Shapey’s score to consult, I was grateful to finally acquaint myself with the Peterson piece and judge for myself (The Face of the Night… was played only once and a commercial recording wasn’t released at the time – nor has Shapey’s been recorded commercially. In fact, it would be wonderful if BMOP turned its attentions to Shapey on a future portrait CD – they would play his work just as eloquently as they present Peterson’s). As a Shapey scholar, and based on some of the press I had read about the debacle, I’ll cop to a bit of bias: I had presumed that his Concerto Fantastique would win handily: I’m happy to admit that I was wrong. Both are excellent compositions. The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark is expressive and labyrinthine in form where Concerto Fantastique is taut and sectional, but both display a compelling, complex harmonic language and masterful use of the orchestra.

Face of the Night… is cast in two movements. The nocturne form is given a modern treatment not unlike the insomniac reveries of Elliott Carter’s Night Fantasies. Rapid shifts in demeanor betray the stray thoughts that sometimes keep us from sleep or inhabit our dreams. Peterson’s Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark has passages that underscore the portentous quality suggested by its title. However, all is not nightmarish: there are beautiful moments of repose and reflection that suggest the coming darkness is not entirely enveloping: dawn awaits. The work’s climax is stirring and resolute – one imagines bolting upright from bed.


Transformations is Sequenza 21’s Best Orchestra Portrait CD of 2017.

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Luciferian Towers - GSYBE

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Luciferian Towers

Constellation CD/LP/DL

Canadian instrumental post-rock leftist collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor brings something old and something new to the musical anti-fascist fray on Luciferian Towers, their latest recording for Constellation. They are still angry at the political establishment (as are many of us). But they are REALLY angry. Composition titles such as “Bosses Hang,” “Fam/Famine,” and “Anthem for No State,” are bracing sentiments, ones that seem all the more resonant with the determined opposition movements that on the political left the have been emboldened in the wake the double punch of the 2016 election and Charlottesville.

Early GSY!BE output relied on, indeed did a great deal to codify, a certain formula for post-rock: pieces contained one long hairpin crescendo from pianissimo to fortississimo primarily focused on drone-based textures. A penchant for minimalism and martial rhythms remain, but the group’s approach is more texturally varied. True, this time out there aren’t field recordings, but album opener “Undoing a Luciferian Towers” (sic) does include free jazz horns. Bagpipes adorn the album’s closer. Throughout, guitars oscillate and repeat riffs with little wrinkles of variation. Most significantly, dynamics are varied rather than inexorably inclined, with piano sections lingering, forte sections juxtaposed with softer passages, and some of the music cannonading through without significant shading. These changes of shaping and form demonstrate the band’s significant musical development over time. Moreover, Luciferian Towers is a yawp of resistance at just the time that we need its cathartic power. Godspeed You! Black Emperor has created a record precisely for its time, and the Best Rock Recording of 2017.

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