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Volume 26 Issue 6 - March and April 2021

  • Text
  • Contemporary
  • Orchestra
  • Album
  • Toronto
  • Quartet
  • Ensemble
  • Jazz
  • Composer
  • April
  • Musical
96 recordings (count’em) reviewed in this issue – the most ever – with 25 new titles added to the DISCoveries Online Listening Room (also a new high). And up front: Women From Space deliver a festival by holograph; Morgan Paige Melbourne’s one-take pianism; New Orleans’ Music Box Village as inspiration for musical playground building; the “from limbo to grey zone” inconsistencies of live arts lockdowns; all this and more here and in print commencing March 19 2021.

are centred on carefully

are centred on carefully notated sheet scores, for the solo acoustic instruments at least. According to the composer’s notes, the first track A Teenage Dream for piano & CPU (“central processing unit” for the lesscomputer-savvy like me) is based on four songs by pop singer/songwriter Katy Perry. Other source material used – to contrast the pop elements – are bits of Thomas Tallis (“for religiosity,” comments the composer), plus two passages from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. The structure of the work consists of four large murals each inside an Alban Berg-ian “forward/retrograde ordering,” that formally connects the murals. But what I hear is essentially a complex, nearly 29-minute piano concerto with CPU accompaniment, featuring four solo piano cadenzas which Maguire cheekily calls, “Bill Evans plays Schoenberg.” American experimental music virtuoso, pianist Keith Kirchoff, turns in a spectacular performance here, though some of his pianism gets lost among the dense sonic jungle overgrowth. Sade auf Kashmir, another concerto – this for cello with CPU – is based on the sonic intertwining of singer Sade’s No Ordinary Love and rock band Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Toronto cellist Brian Holt lifts his technically demanding part off the page with accuracy and panache. Will this music be your cup of tea? I don’t know, but now it is mine. Andrew Timar Bruits Imani Winds Bright Shiny Things (brightshiny.ninja/imani) ! The American quintet Imani Winds present Bruits, the title work on their new release. Vijay Iyer’s title references medical terminology for sounds caused by arterial blockages. The theme of the disc is social/racial injustice. The ensemble playing is superb; individually and collectively the group is strong; the material they champion is compelling. Four of the five members of the group are people of colour, whose own writing in the accompanying notes underlines how they are affected by their country’s ingrained injustices. Polemics that entertain are rare, but Bruits bridges the divide: the first movement, Gulf, is exhilarating writing brilliantly covered by the quintet and pianist Cory Smythe. In the second movement, Force, ensemble members recite the U.S. “Stand Your Ground” law over a percussive ostinato, performed by the members of the quintet. Iyer wrote the work during the period of the murder trial of George Zimmerman, killer of Trayvon Martin. Thus the meaning of the piece comes into focus: Bruits as a blockage, not of the circulatory system but of justice in the U.S. It’s shocking, and riveting. The five movements carry tremendous emotional power. The Light Is The Same (2016) by Reena Esmail, is a single-movement work reflecting unease felt in the wake of the U.S. presidential election that year. The material, two distinct ragas, attempts to depict reconciliation between them. In Sometimes, Frederic Rzewski makes various affecting uses of a deconstructed melody: Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. Max Christie Songs of Insurrection by Frederic Rzewski Thomas Kotcheff Coviello Contemporary COV92021 (covielloclassics.de/en) ! Veteran American composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) stated in 1976 that, “It’s still true that most Americans care more about the price of meat than they do about the exploitation of Bolivian miners.” Already 45 years ago Rzewski set the bar high in his 1975 The People United Will Never Be Defeated, an hour-long piano tour de force of 36 variations on a Chilean workers’ song. It has received over 15 commercial recordings to date, the first of which garnered a 1979 Grammy nomination. His even more epic Songs of Insurrection (2016) is Rzewski’s eloquent sequel to his 1975 masterwork. Presented here in its first recording by brilliant early-career American pianist Thomas Kotcheff, the composition reaches to the music of the world’s peoples for inspiration. Each of the seven movements is inspired by a song from a different country. For example Die Moorsoldaten (The Song of the Deported) was written by prisoners of the Börgermoor concentration camp, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around is an American civil rights hymn and Oh Bird, Oh Bird, Oh Roller dates from the Korean Peasant Rebellion of Donghak. On one level Songs of Insurrection takes us on a global journey through social uprising. On a musical level the work is a sophisticated compendium of multiple piano idioms. They range from 19th-century romanticism, modalism, to pantonality, serialism and haunting experimental sounds coaxed from inside the piano. Rzewski hailed this performance as “magnificent.” I too was swept away by the emotion in this work brought to life by Kotcheff’s passion and authoritative command of his instrument. Andrew Timar E Pluribus Unum Liza Stepanova Navona Records nv6300 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6300) ! Although COVID is first and foremost a global health issue (and a crisis), it is also a political one. Without a doubt, there has been, and will continue to be, robust artistic responses to the virus, the mounting death toll and the ongoing lockdown. While the dissemination of artistic expressions are suffering at the moment – given furloughed touring and venue closure – the coalescing of political commentary and artistic expression has birthed a renaissance of music of all genres whose practitioners try and make sense of the current state of affairs in sound. While 2021 may go down in history as achieving a high-water mark of politically inspired music-making practices, pianist Liza Stepanova was ahead of the curve when she looked somewhat earlier to the turbulent American political landscape of 2017 when then-President Trump’s isolationist immigration policies were demonizing foreigners and breaking cross-border families apart. In response, Stepanova programmed a sprawling and challenging, but always musical, set of solo piano pieces composed by American composers of immigrant backgrounds. In part, her effort here was an attempt to shine a light on the contributions that immigrants make to the fabric of American musical life. But what is achieved is far greater than a political statement. As the album title (E Pluribus Unum – “Out of many, one”) suggests, Stepanova has taken a diverse range of composers with no other connection than a shared immigrant past and created a singularly unified, coherent and beautiful statement that stands up not just politically, but musically and artistically. Andrew Scott American Dream Amstel (saxophone) Quartet Amstel Quartet AR018 (amstelquartet.nl) ! The Amstel Quartet is based in the Netherlands and describes itself as “the world’s most colourful saxophone quartet.” They have an active concert schedule (currently employing livestreaming) and have released over ten albums of music in many genres including classical, contemporary and popular music. American Dream is their survey of selected American composers who represent different aspects of musical culture 42 | March and April 2021 thewholenote.com

which (the quartet writes) include the influence of jazz, working from modernism to post-modernism and employing unique rhythms. Paul Creston (1906-1985) is well known to saxophone players for his Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano which is a mainstay of the repertoire. His Suite for Saxophone Quartet, Op.111 was written towards the end of his career and illustrates his craftsmanship in the opening fugue, the rhythmic elements and the Pastorale written, strangely, in 15/12. Michael Torke’s May, J une and July combine to demonstrate the “rhythmic dynamism” of his writing. May is sprightly and leaping with lush and melodic interplay; June is more sombre and July returns to a lighter form. John Cage’s Four5 is a series of instructions that can be played by almost any four instruments and includes percussive and tonal parts. The YouTube video the quartet produced playing this piece is well worth enjoying: it is the perfect COVID-era work combining Cage’s structure with the quartet’s own musical proficiency, isolated performances and sense of humour. American Dream is rounded out by Marc Mellits’ Tapas and Christian Lauba’s Mambo. The Amstel Quartet plays precisely and warmly and this collection of American saxophone quartet music is thoughtfully assembled. Ted Parkinson Personal Demons Lowell Liebermann Steinway & Sons STNS 30172 (steinway.com/music-and-artists/label) ! Composerpianist Lowell Liebermann has just released a two-disc testament, expertly curated and impressively executed. It is a witness statement to five decades of life in music – a glimpse into an artistic practice that consistently hits its creative stride, fuelled by flames that still burn bright. The album has been adroitly produced, edited and mastered by Sergei Kvitko of Blue Griffin Recordings (featured in the November 2020 issue of The WholeNote.) Three of Liebermann’s own works are included in his debut solo recording as a complement to music by Liszt, Busoni, Schubert and little-known Czech composer, Miloslav Kabeláč. Each composer has galvanized – even haunted – Liebermann throughout his career. Such “demons” are presumably specters of the inspirational sort and Disc One opens with Liebermann’s most popular piano work, Gargoyles, Op.28. He swiftly introduces us to a forthright and individual brand of pianism, one with roughcast textures and crystal-clear melodic lines, obliging our ears toward resonant, robust and irresistible soundscapes. We perceive a virtuosic abandon, underpinned with an urgent, restless vitality. Such forthright modes of expression carry into the next tracks: the Eight Preludes, Op.30 by Kabeláč. These pieces are especially significant for Liebermann and he unveils them to us consummately. Finely etched, bearing echoes of Benjamin Britten, these evocative miniatures have absorbed Liebermann for decades and are here bestowed like building blocks: compositional models at which to marvel. The final work on Disc One is Liszt’s stalwart Totentanz, S525, a vivid, dazzling pianistic essay. The music’s economy of means – characteristic of Liszt’s best writing – remains of discernable influence for Liebermann hinting at the American composer-pianist’s own Lisztian lineage. Disc Two’s Four Apparitions, Op.17 are followed by the extemporaneously tender Variations on a Theme of Hüttenbrenner, D576 by Franz Schubert. This unfamiliar set proves an ideal platform for Liebermann’s lyrical abilities at the keyboard. Next is Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, BV256. Likening it to a “Mount Everest that he wanted to climb – a challenge in a way,” Liebermann’s affinity for Busoni is striking, with an audible reverence for the Italian master’s intellect and formalism on full display. Finally, the intimately benevolent Nocturne No.10, Op.99 ushers in a denouement. Highly personal for Liebermann, this music hums and swells, waxing poetic like a lucid conversation between lovers, revealing truths of a lifetime. Shades of Samuel Barber and Carl Vine drift in a dusky, sonic bloom as Liebermann’s piano now quietly sings this album to a whispered, nocturnal close. And so, what might the morrow bring, we wonder? Adam Sherkin True Stories & Rational Numbers Chris P. Thompson Independent (chrispthompson.com) ! New York-based percussionist Chris P. Thompson is a longtime member of Alarm Will Sound, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and other groups. His album True Stories & Rational Numbers, a nine-movement 43-minute work, however showcases him as composer and pianist. True Stories & Rational Numbers reflects Thompson’s large-scale exploration of piano music in just intonation, the tuning system based on tuning notes to simple mathematical ratios of the natural harmonic series. He also employs whole-number rhythmic and harmonic relationships in his score. Taken together, he likens listening to this music to having his “eyes re-opened to music and seeing it in colour for the first time.” In addition, the music was composed and programmed in modern piano roll notation, an extension of how 20th-century commercial piano rolls were made. Thompson’s main inspiration here was American composer Conlon Nancarrow’s boundary-pushing experimental player-piano compositions. Other influences were German scientist and philosopher Hermann von Helmholtz, the author of the landmark book, On the Sensations of Tone, and the music of Aphex Twin and modern drumline. The chamber music of Ben Johnston, which liberally employs unorthodox tunings, is cited as another important influence, as is Johnston’s elegant notations of just intonation. Thompson states his goal in True Stories… was “to marry the machine with the warmth of human emotion…” Listening to it not only gradually reveals an unorthodox musical mind, but also invites us to contemplate what “in tune” in music is. Andrew Timar Firefly Songs Melia Watras Planet M Records (meliawatras.com) ! While we continue to endure the extended shutdowns and performance cancellations, there was a particular joy in discovering Melia Watras’ Firefly Songs. Listening to what feels like a personal diary of her inner thoughts, one could almost call this an album of accompanied poetry, yet it is so much more. At times deceivingly simple, more often there are complex musical pairings to thoughts, poems, literary references, inspirations and memories. American violist and composer Watras wrote these 13 individual pieces between 2015 and 2018 for combinations of violin, viola, cello and voices, and the flow of the album is both unique and comforting. Full of surprises, from the charming Mozart Doesn’t Live in Seattle to the trancelike tones and rhythms of overlapping voices in Seeing Cypresses with Catherine C, this is an album of singular gems as well as a complete collection. A work belying its complexity, Firefly Songs also stands strongly, piece by piece as beautifully expressed miniatures, each feeling free and spontaneous. Watras’ solo viola work, Lament, written for the passing of her father, expresses a delicate nuance of emotion delivered with depth and presence. In William Wilson, the complexities hidden between the lines of Edgar Allan Poe are beautifully unveiled both with voice and on the violin by Michael Jinsoo Lim. Lim also stands out in the operatic (one). It would be thewholenote.com March and April 2021 | 43

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