Summer Pop

I’ve spoken before in these pages about artistic epiphanies I’ve had in this life – rounding a corner in the National Gallery in Washington and beholding Dali’s The Last Supper, hearing Paul Dolden’s The Melting Voice Through Mazes Running at the CBC Young Composers’ Competition – and a disc that came my way this month has brought to mind another such enlightening experience. When I was a teenager my ears were opened wide to the alternative music scene by a late-night AM radio show on CKFH called The Open Lid. There were several hosts over the years, but it was during Keith Elshaw’s tenure that I really got hooked and it was then that I first heard the music of Fraser and Debolt, a Canadian folk duo who would have a lasting influence on me. Their first album Fraser and Debolt with Ian Guenther was totally acoustic with just two guitars, two intense voices and Guenther’s violin. When I heard Pure Spring Water and its atonal “breakdown” segue to their version of the Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down I was intrigued and captivated. I didn’t sleep much that night and the next day right after school I headed down to the local Sam the Record Man in search of the disc. Of course it turned out that Elshaw was playing an advance copy of the album and I would have to wait for the official release. I didn’t sleep much for the rest of that week either.

01_Fraser__Girard.jpgAllan Fraser and Daisy Debolt worked together for five years, parting ways in 1974, but their songs – two albums’ worth – have been an integral part of my own repertoire for the past four decades. Debolt fronted a number of projects over the years – I remember one show at Harbourfront in particular where her band included three or four accordions – and was active until her death from cancer in 2011. As far as I know Fraser kept a lower profile, although I confess I have not been following the folk scene much in recent years. That being said, when I received the press release for an upcoming disc by Fraser & Girard (FG001 fraserandgirard.com) my heart raced a bit. Thank goodness I’m now in the position to receive advance copies of things!

It seems that Allan Fraser has found a new kindred musical spirit in Marianne Girard, and although comparisons to the original pairing are inevitable this new duo has developed a voice of its own. Girard’s husky contralto doesn’t have the shrill edginess of Debolt’s high range, but it blends well with Fraser’s sometimes gravelly low tenor and I love it when their harmonies are reversed as he takes the high line. The instrumentation is fairly sparse, with the duo’s guitars mostly supplemented by acoustic bass and drums with occasional additional guitar, fiddle and pedal steel. The eponymous release is shared about equally between songs by each partner, including Fraser (and Debolt)’s classic Dance Hall Girls and Girard’s particularly moving My Name is Carol. Concert note: I know where I’ll be on Sunday June 14 – at Hugh’s Room for the launch of Fraser & Girard.

02_Foo_Fighters.jpgSome months ago I stumbled on the HBO presentation of Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, an eight-part documentary directed by Foo front man Dave Grohl, and I have spent countless hours over the past few weeks revisiting the series on four RCA DVDs recently released by Sony Music (8887506014-9). Each time I go back to one of the episodes I am enthralled once again; it’s surprising how compelling they are. The premise is that the rock band travels to different American cities to explore the musical history of each place, meet some of the legends who have contributed to this history and then record a song written by Grohl, inspired by the time spent there in one of its iconic studios.

The odyssey begins in Chicago where we meet blues icon Buddy Guy and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielson as Grohl explores the various genres that have flourished in the Windy City over the past half-century. Washington D.C. is the next stop where the early punk scene (Bad Brains, Black Flag) is juxtaposed with the Go-Go scene (Trouble Funk). In Nashville we visit the Grand Ole Opry and meet Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Tony Joe White and Zac Brown and learn about the songwriting industry before heading off to Austin for an in-depth look at the 40-year history of the seminal TV show Austin City Limits with its vast range of musical styles and a visit with Willie Nelson. Joe Walsh gives us the lowdown on Hotel California in the L.A. edition, which also features Joan Jett, and we spend some quality time in the desert around Joshua Tree at the Rancho de la Luna studio. Each of the episodes focuses on a historically significant recording venue and in New Orleans the Foo Fighters set up in Preservation Hall and meet Doctor John, Alain Toussaint and one of the Neville Brothers, among a host of others. The Seattle segment is particularly poignant with its focus on the grunge scene epitomized by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana (although lead singer and guitarist for the Foo Fighters, Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana), the Sub Pop label and Heart. The final episode takes place in America’s musical Mecca, New York City, with its myriad cultures and histories. We meet Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Gene Simmons and Chuck D to name just a few, visit the Brill Building, CBGB – did you know that stood for Country, Blue-Grass and Blues? Quite a misnomer for the breeding ground of punk and new wave! – Electric Lady studio and the Magic Shop on a whirlwind tour that has left my head spinning. The above-mentioned names are just a sampling of the dozens of luminaries who appear throughout the series, with special mention going to Steve Earle who turns up time and again with a plethora of insights. A wealth of archival footage is seamlessly blended into the production, adding historical credence to the documentary.

One of the press quotes from the DVD package states “Skillfully directed and packed with decades-spanning trivia” (Entertainment Weekly). I find this to be almost a travesty in the way it trivializes the concept and content of the series. The history of American popular music (in some of its edgiest forms) is so well presented in such depth here that I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone curious about life in the U.S.A. in the past half century. My wife says I can quote her, but I will paraphrase: Even if you’re not interested in the music per se, the series is compelling and illuminating.

The only regret I have is that Grohl and company did not make it to Detroit for a taste of Motown Soul. I hope that if there is a sequel the sonic highway will lead to the Motor City.

This Just In

As this issue of The WholeNote spans the three summer months I want to devote the rest of this column to a few titles that fell through the cracks over the past year and a number of very worthy new releases that arrived too late to receive full reviews but which I think you should know about sooner rather than later (i.e. September). First the new ones…

03_Spiin_Cycle.jpgAt time of writing, the second annual 21C Festival is about to get underway at the Royal Conservatory and as an example of the growing interest generated by the festival – in part sparked by last month’s WholeNote cover art – comes the surprising news that the Spin Cycle event, originally slated for Mazzoleni Hall, has been moved into the much larger Koerner Hall due to the high demand for tickets. This project brings together the Afiara Quartet, DJ Skratch Bastid and four young Toronto composers, Dinuk Wijeratne, Laura Silberberg, Rob Teehan and Kevin Lau. Each of the composers has written short, multi-movement acoustic string quartets which have been recorded by Afiara and are then subjected to the multi-layered treatments for which the award-winning DJ is renowned. One could be forgiven for thinking the experiment might end there, but not so, gentle reader. The composers were offered the opportunity to respond by creating yet a third iteration with new material added to the mix. Although the composers are all relatively conservative in their approach and the original works are quite tonal, by the time the re-mix and responses have been added there is an intriguing depth and complexity to the final creations which cross a variety of cultural and aesthetic borders. For those of you who missed the May 23 event, the concert also served as the launch for a double CD of the works (Centrediscs CMCCD 21215 musiccentre.ca) that is also available on iTunes.

04_Grieg_Fialkowska.jpgGrieg – Lyric Pieces (ATMA ACD2 2696) is the latest from Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska and it seems a bit of a departure from her usual Austro-Hungarian repertoire (from Mozart to Liszt) and the Polish music of her own heritage (Chopin, Moszkowski, Padereski and Szymanowski). Fialkowska seems very much at home on this northern excursion however, her deft touch perfectly suited to bringing these idiomatic Norwegian sketches to life. Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) wrote his Lyric Pieces, ten books of them over the span of his career, beginning in 1867 upon his return to Norway after studies in Germany. The first book proved so successful that his publisher requested more and more, so many in fact that in 1901 Grieg finished the last set with Remembrances, which took him full circle back to the first Arietta and he called a halt saying that “they are surrounding me like lice and fleas…”

Fialkowska has made an effective selection of 25 of the pieces, charming vignettes such as Berceuse, Butterfly, Sylph and of course the familiar Wedding Day at Troldhaugen with each of the volumes represented. There is very little virtuosity on display here, with most of the selections pastoral, but the selection is varied enough to keep our attention throughout – a quiet day in the country, with moments of exuberance such as the Norwegian Dance with its suggestion of Hardanger-style fiddling and hints of dread such as March of the Trolls and Evening in the Mountains. Fialkowska will get to experience all of this first-hand in mid-June when she is off to Tromsö, Norway as a jury member for the Top of the World International Piano Competition.

05_Bashaw_Piano.jpg15 for Piano (Centrediscs CMCCD 21115) features music by Alberta-based composer Howard Bashaw performed by Roger Admiral and it has the distinction of being the first CD recorded in the Canadian Music Centre’s concert space at 20 St. Joseph St. on their Steingraeber & Söhne piano. Both the instrument and recording engineer John S. Gray, not to mention the pianist himself, have their mettle tested by the vast dynamic range and physicality of the music, and all pass with flying colours. I sometimes kid that to me piano recitals are ultimately “just so much banging” but in this instance I cannot get enough. Admiral can bang with the best of them and Bashaw has a way of making relentless percussive density extremely exciting and musical. This is not to say that the 40-minute-plus 2012 title piece is without respite. There are beautiful moments when the tension relaxes and we are drawn into a very different world where time is suspended and we are able to catch a breath. And even some of the ostinato passages are quiet and gentle, belying the furious activity happening in miniature.

Admiral is also featured in a 2010 reworking of Bashaw’s Form Archimage, an older work originally performed and recorded by Marc Couroux. Once again the piece is a study in contrasts, with manic extended movements – Toccata, Counterpoint: where fractals meet Alberti, Celestarium II, Reverbatory and Barn Burner with Jacob’s Ladder – interspersed without pause among brief quiet sections. This latter was recorded in Convocation Hall at the University of Alberta, where both pianist and composer teach. As with the CMC recording, the sound here is immaculate. Future concert note: Howard Bashaw is currently writing an extended work for quadruple quartet, piano and percussion for New Music Concerts which will be performed in the spring of 2016.

06_Reich_18_Musicians.jpgAlso coming next spring, Soundstreams is celebrating Steve Reich’s 80th birthday with a concert featuring three of his seminal works. Clapping Music, Tehillim and the iconic Music for 18 Musicians will be performed at Massey Hall on April 14, 2016. There is a new recording of Music for 18 Musicians featuring New York’s Ensemble Signal under the direction of Brad Lubman (Harmonia Mundi 907608) and if you are not familiar with this classic minimalist work for four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, vibraphone, two clarinets, violin, cello and four voices, I would recommend this recording. As Steve Reich himself says, “Signal has made an extraordinary recording of Music for 18 Musicians. Fast moving, spot on and emotionally charged.” With top rank Toronto musicians engaged for the Massey Hall performance I am sure we can expect nothing less from Soundstreams.

07_Messiaen_Canyons.jpgSpeaking of iconic works of contemporary music, the London Philharmonic Orchestra has just released Des Canyons Aux Étoiles by Olivier Messiaen under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach (LPO – 0083). At 100 minutes in length, From the Canyons to the Stars (1971-74) draws extensively on Messiaen’s signature birdsong transcriptions for much of its musical material. As always it is also a paean to the glory of God, this time in the context of the natural beauty of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, which Messiaen visited in 1972 in conjunction with this commission from an American philanthropist. The full forces of the modern symphony orchestra are supplemented with four soloists: Tzimon Barto (piano), John Ryan (horn), Andrew Barclay (xylorimba) and Erika Öhman (glockenspiel), all of whom rise to the occasion. Highly recommended.

08_Dvorak_Triple_Forte.jpgCanada’s triple threat Triple Forte – Jasper Wood, violin; Yegor Dyachov, cello; David Jalbert, piano – have a new recording of Dvořák Piano Trios (ATMA ACD2 2691) and as one would expect it is a treasure. Founded in 2003 this trio comprises three top soloists who work together as a finely oiled machine. Their debut disc in 2012 of music by Ravel, Shostakovich and Ives showed them to be at home in 20th-century idioms. This proves no less true of the preceding century with these captivating performances of two of the pinnacles of Romantic chamber repertoire, the Trio in F Minor, Op.65 and the “Dumky” Trio in E Minor, Op.90, Dvořák’s third and fourth ventures into this genre. Although the opus numbers suggest a larger gap, the two works were written within a span of seven years, in 1883 and 1890. The first is set in the usual four-movement form, opening with a majestic and expansive Allegro ma non troppo replete with melodies reminiscent of Schumann and Mendelssohn. The “Dumky,” dating from the height of the composer’s Slavic period, is a set of six contrasting movements all based on the Ukrainian Dumka folksong form. In both works the strength (i.e. forte) of each of the players is allowed to shine while goading the others on to new heights in performances that exemplify the group’s name.

09_Berlin_sonatas.jpgBerlin Sonatas (Passacaille 1006 passacaille.be) features 18th-century works by Abel, J.C.F. and C.P.E. Bach, Benda, Kirnberger and Graun performed by Elinor Frey on five-string cello and Lorenzo Ghielmi on a Silbermann fortepiano (known at the time as a “Cembalo con il forte e piano” due to its ability to produce sounds both loudly and softly, unlike the harpsichord with its limited dynamic range). Frey provides an extended essay to explain why she feels a five-string cello is appropriate, and likely originally intended, for this repertoire. She makes a strong case for the instrument, not only in her writing but more particularly in her performance, especially in two violin solo works by Benda, here heard one octave below their intended pitch. One intriguing aspect of the keyboard used here is a “stop” heard in the final movement of Carl Friedrich Abel’s Sonata in G Major which makes it sound like a hackbrett (hammered-dulcimer). I had understood that the prepared piano had been invented by American Henry Cowell in the early 20th century and further developed by John Cage in the 40s, but it seems that piano-maker Gottfried Silbermann (1783-1853) beat them to the punch a century earlier. He developed a technique for replicating the sound on his keyboard instruments with a device he called the pantaleone in honour of the hackbrett virtuoso Pantaleone Hebenstreit.

Catching up

10_Bad_Plus_Rite.jpgThe first of the discs overlooked at the time of their release that I want to bring to your attention is a 2014 realization of The Rite of Spring in a surprising orchestration for piano, string bass and drum kit by the jazz combo The Bad Plus (Sony Masterworks 88843 02405 2), primarily known for their avant-garde approach to jazz, tinged with hints of rock and pop. I was particularly impressed with their convincing recreation of Stravinsky’s score using only the minimal tools of their trio. Comprised of Ethan Iverson (piano), Reid Anderson (bass and electronics, mostly involving treatments and layerings of the piano part in the introductory section of the piece) and David King (drums), the group developed this project during a year-long residency at Duke University in 2010-2011. The result has to be heard to be believed. With the exception of the addition of a brief and unnecessary percussive coda following Stravinsky’s final chord, the trio stays true to the original score and gives a remarkable performance using only limited resources. Highly recommended!

11_Zodiac_Trio.jpgStreamlined Stravinsky is also a feature of a disc by the Zodiac Trio (Blue Griffin BGR257 bluegriffin.com) although in this instance the reduction is the work of the composer himself. L’Histoire du Soldat was originally written as a theatrical piece for three speakers – soldier, devil and narrator – dancer and seven instruments based on a Russian folk tale. The sponsor of the piece, Werner Reinhart, was an excellent amateur clarinetist and the year after its 1918 theatrical debut in Lausanne Stravinsky made a suite of five movements for clarinet, violin and piano. Stripped to the bare bones, this already skeletal work – said to be a reflection of the depleted supply of musicians as a result of the Great War – is still very effective, as Zodiac’s dedicated performance proves.

The group – Kliment Krylovsky (clarinet), Vanessa Mollard (violin) and Riko Higuma (piano) – was formed at the Manhattan School of Music in 2006 and its goal is “to etch this instrumentation into the ranks of chamber music’s dominant combinations.” To this end they commission works and tour extensively. Their 2010 debut recording featured original works but this latest draws on existing repertoire. The Stravinsky Suite notwithstanding it is Bartók’s Contrasts, written for Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti, which is generally considered to have launched this genre. Zodiac gives Contrasts an exuberant and idiomatic performance, confirming its place at the head of the table. The disc also includes the world premiere recording of the somewhat anachronistic A Smiling Suite by French composer Nicolas Bacri, and a moving (and haunting) early work by Shostakovich protégé Galina Ustvolskaya.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews. 

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01_Boulez.jpgLast month Bruce Surtees wrote that Deutsche Grammophon had marked Pierre Boulez’s 90th birthday year with the release of a 44-CD box set of all his DG recordings of music composed in the 20th century. Another project to honour the iconic composer is Pierre Boulez – Le Domaine Musical 1956-1967 (Accord/Universal 4811510, 10CDs) which documents the dozen years during which founder Boulez was at the helm of this seminal French concert society. This set has many personal resonances for me. It was the Domaine Musical recordings of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Pierrot lunaire (both included here) that originally sparked my interest in the Second Viennese School of composition (and eventually led to naming my contemporary music program at CKLN-FM Transfigured Night). Other Domaine recordings provided my introduction to the music of such composers as Messiaen, Varèse, Stockhausen, Henze, Pousseur and lesser known names likes Gilbert Amy and Jean-Claude Éloy.

These new sound worlds were revelations to me and had a profound effect on my musical development. It was these recordings under the direction of Boulez, and others that they led me to, which set the stage for many of my subsequent life choices. The radio show, which aired from 1984 until 1991, provided the opportunity to meet some of the most important creators of the music of our time, many thanks to the generosity of New Music Concerts artistic director Robert Aitken. This in turn ultimately led to my accepting the position of general manager at New Music Concerts in 1999 – after stints at CJRT-FM and the Canadian Music Centre – a post which remains my day job. It was in this capacity that I had the immense privilege to meet and assist Pierre Boulez during his stay in Toronto to accept the Glenn Gould Prize in 2002 and conduct a concert of his music which Aitken had prepared with NMC musicians. I am tempted to say that brought my musical development full circle, but it has in fact continued to grow thanks to the ongoing opportunities to interact with great composers and musicians provided by NMC (and The WholeNote!). But enough about me…

The Domaine Musical concert series began in Paris in 1954 and was based on three tenets: the “references” (early musical figures like Dufay and Gesualdo and later pioneers like Bach); “great contemporaries” (composers of the first half of the 20th century that remained virtually un-performed in France like Bartók, Varèse, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg); and Boulez’ own generation (born around 1925). In addition to the ten CDs, the box includes a comprehensive more-than-100-page booklet (in French and English) with thorough program notes, historical background and a transcription of Claude Samuel’s interview with Boulez from 2005 which appears on disc ten. In the interview Boulez discusses the philosophy and evolution of the programming of the series, including a detailed look at the very first concert presented: Bach’s Musical Offering, works by Webern, Stockhausen and Nono, culminating in Stravinsky’s Renard. While the bulk of the discs are arranged by subject – Les Références Françaises (Debussy, Varèse, Messiaen), Boulez the Composer, Les Compagnons de Route (Kagel, Nono, Henze, Pousseur, Stockhausen) – the set also includes an example of the original programming idea, presenting the third concert of the 1956 season in its entirety: Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzone dalle “Sacrae Symphoniea” 5 and 3; Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments; Henze’s Concerto per il Marigny; Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques and Éloy’s Equivalences. The set opens with the Tenth Anniversary Concert featuring seminal works by Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez (Le Marteau sans maître) and Messiaen and the final disc includes the first-ever recording of Le Marteau from 1956.

Add to this a disc devoted to Stravinsky and three exploring the early, middle and mature works of the New Viennese School and we are presented with an impressive introduction to the music of the first half of the 20th century and the seminal years of the post-war generation of composers who were to dominate Western Art Music for a number of decades. The sound quality of the recordings is varied, but as Bruce Surtees points out elsewhere in these pages “the brain soon adjusts” and the importance of this as a historic document – not to mention a personally rewarding trip down memory lane! – easily makes up for any sonic inconsistencies.

02_Kreutzer_Quartet.jpgAnother CD of music composed around the general time of the Domaine Musical came my way this past month, but without an obvious context. The Kreutzer Quartet’s Unfold (Move Records MD 3371 move.com.au) features works by four composers previously unknown to me (Don Banks, Nigel Butterley, Richard Meale and Felix Werder), as was for that matter, the string quartet itself. The back cover of the disc gives neither composer birth years nor composition dates and I found myself thinking that, since I had not heard of them, this was likely a crop of young composers being championed by an equally young ensemble. I also thought that a group named “Kreutzer” would likely be most interested in the music of Beethoven or perhaps Janáček. I put on the disc without opening the booklet and was very surprised by what I heard. Where would they have found young composers writing in such a distinctly old-fashioned way? By old-fashioned I do not mean music that sounds like it was written in the 18th or 19th century as is sometimes the case these days, but rather music written in the uncompromisingly “difficult” style of the 50s and 60s. Eventually I decided I had better read what the booklet had to say and it seems I was wrong on all counts in the assumptions I had made judging the CD by its cover.

Although I have not been able to determine when the quartet was founded, it has been around for at least 15 years and is the dedicatee of more than 200 works. Based in the UK, it is very active in Europe and its previous discography includes cycles of works by Gerhard, Finnissy, Birtwistle, Tippett and Hallgrimsson. I was also wrong about the composers. Far from being young, they are all of the Boulez generation: Don Banks (Australia 1923-1980), Felix Werder (Germany/Australia 1922-2012), Nigel Butterley (Australia b. 1935) and Richard Meale (Australia 1932-2009). So there are common threads, all Australian by birth or naturalization, and all works composed in the decade beginning in 1964. But what is the connection of the quartet to the repertoire? I’m left scratching my head. I see that the recording, on an Australian label, was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts and so perhaps that is explanation enough, but I’m still curious. I see no mention of an Australian residency or even a “Down Under” connection in the biographies of the quartet that I can find, and certainly no mention in the disc’s booklet. I think there must be an interesting story behind the project that remains to be told.

That being said I think the music speaks well enough for itself and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to get acquainted with it. Peter Sculthorpe is the only contemporary Australian composer I’ve had much exposure too and this music is very different from his, which is so grounded in the landscape and aboriginal culture. This is not to say that the composers represented here are four peas in a pod. Each has a distinctive voice – Werder’s the most abrasive and Butterley’s the most atmospheric, with Banks and Meale each echoing aspects of Schoenberg and his school, but in individual ways – and together they provide an intriguing insight into a lesser-known place and time.

I find it curious that the thoughtfully presented program notes, which provide welcome background on the individual works (if not of the project itself), are arranged in a different order than the pieces are presented on the disc. On second listening I chose to program the works as per the notes described and found it a very satisfying experience, one that I would recommend to anyone interested in discovering some unknown classics of the 20th century.

03_Piano_Northwest.jpgThe latest Centredisc to come my way is Piano Northwest – Music of William Pura (CMCCD 20915) featuring pianist Sylvia Shadick-Taylor performing works spanning a quarter of a century by the senior Winnipeg-based composer. Although a founding member of the Manitoba Composers Association and Winnipeg’s IZ Music, as well as serving on regional councils of the Canadian Music Centre and the Canadian League of Composers, Pura’s academic training was in fine arts and he taught at the University of Manitoba School of Art until his retirement in 2010.

Pura also studied piano extensively and his idiomatic understanding of the instrument serves him well in the compositions presented here, all of which draw on extra-musical subjects for their inspiration. Nemesis (2008) has two such points of departure, a poem of the same name by H.P. Lovecraft and Johannes Kepler’s 17th-century calculation of the intervallic relationships between the six known planets. It is a dense yet pointillistic work, which explores a variety of moods over its ten-minute duration.

The Statue’s Desire once again draws on texts, in this case a prose poem by the artist Giorgio de Chirico as well as a song by Charles Ives. Although the works are not settings per se, the texts are given in the composer’s program notes, allowing us the opportunity to search for parallels between the words and the music.

The most substantial work on the program is Sonata Northwest 1985, written in 1990 (and revised in 2006) to commemorate the centennial of Louis Riel’s 1885 Northwest Rebellion. (This is a theme Pura would return to a decade later in his hour-long musical drama Batoche for two singers, three dancers and small ensemble.) An extended Lento cantabile movement is followed by a brief Trio in which a harmonica and snare drum are added, hauntingly simple parts which can be played by the pianist or, as in this case, by additional musicians (George Andrix and Jonathan Taylor respectively). I imagine the slowly repeated snare drum taps as representing a march to the gallows. The last movement Ballade is somewhat reminiscent of Ives’ Concord Sonata, with its polyrhythms and polytonalities and passing references to familiar-sounding tunes.

Shadick-Taylor’s biographical entry makes a point of noting her exploration of composers’ ideas and inspirations, musical building blocks, which in combination with her command of her instrument “transform a fine performance into a captivating story.” Pura’s prosaic compositions benefit greatly from the understanding of this “brilliant storyteller.”

04_Shoeless.jpgAs usual, my month would not have been complete without something completely different. The Shoeless is the eponymous album by a young Toronto string band (theshoeless.com) with the somewhat unusual instrumentation of cello (Eli Bender), banjo (Frank Evans) and fiddle (Emilyn Stam), with occasional vocals by all. This debut release is a melange of mostly original tunes (with Stam penning the lion’s share) and traditional tunes, with a couple of outside offerings by accordionist Stéphane Milleret and fiddler Gudrun Walther. Although the CD is bereft of any information beyond titles, composers and durations plus recording credits, a visit to the website, and the links beyond, provides evidence of a wealth of experience that belies the youth of the individual members. Self-described as a “cross-cultural stew, combining the sounds of Klezmer, French, Celtic, Appalachian and English music,” this album is a breath of fresh air and another fine example of a new generation rejuvenating an old tradition.  Concert note: The Shoeless can be heard in Hamilton on May 6 at the Artword Artbar, in Kitchener on May 7 at Café Pyrus (with the Ever Lovin’ Jug Band) and here in Toronto on May 13 at Musideum (with Soozi Schlanger).

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels and additional, expanded and archival reviews. clip_image001.png

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

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April_Editor_scans_01_Amram.jpgI was intrigued to receive a package from Woody Guthrie Publications in New York City and more so when I opened it to find it contained This Land: Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie by David Amram performed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (coloradosymphony.org). I first encountered the music of David Amram almost half a century ago on the soundtrack to the seminal Beat Generation film Pull My Daisy directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. The film included Amram’s jazz setting of the title poem written by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. The somewhat haunting theme proved to be an earworm that has stuck with me since first hearing. (If you haven’t seen the film you can check it out at ubu.com/film/leslie_daisy.html.) My next exposure was at the Mariposa Festival one of the years it took place on the Toronto Islands where Amram was featured in a variety of guises, including in the children’s tent with Raffi who sang a catchy song to the tune of Arkansas Traveler with the words “Peanut butter sandwich made with jam, One for me and one for David Amram…” which still pops up in my ears from time to time. Amram is a renaissance man who is seemingly comfortable in all genres and on almost all instruments. A pioneer of jazz French horn and a trailblazer of the World Music movement, he is equally at home in the concert hall, having conducted more than 75 orchestras and performed as orchestral soloist on a host of different instruments. In 1966 Leonard Bernstein appointed him as the first composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic and his oeuvre extends to more than 100 orchestral and chamber works, several operas and a couple of notable film scores (Splendor in the Grass and The Manchurian Candidate). All of which is to say that he has impeccable credentials to pay tribute to one of the most iconic songwriters and chroniclers of American life.

Lasting nearly 40 minutes, This Land uses the orchestral palette to paint a vast pastoral portrait of the land that Guthrie traveled so extensively and described so aptly in his songs. The work is divided into six main movements with descriptive titles: Theme and Variations for the Road (in which we first hear the familiar tune from the marimba) & Variation I: Oklahoma Stomp Dance; Variation II: Sunday Morning Church Service in Okema (Guthrie’s home town); Variation III: Prelude and Pampa Texas Barn Dance; Variation IV: Dreaming of Mexico; Variation V: Dust Bowl Dirge; Variation VI: Street Sounds of New York’s Neighborhoods (which includes Caribbean Street Festival, Klezmer Wedding, Salvation Army Hymn and Block Party Jam). The melody of This Land Is Your Land is cleverly woven throughout the textures of the work, sometimes hidden but never far from the surface, and appears in some surprising contexts such as the ground bass for the klezmer clarinet solo. My only concern is the overall subdued nature of the work. It never gets truly raucous or rambunctious and we never hear the hard edge of Guthrie’s gritty side, his working class hero with the emblem “this guitar kills fascists” etched on his axe. This Land is complemented with another pastorale, a mellow set of variations for flute and strings on the American classic folk song Red River Valley.

April_Editor_scans_02_Monk_Feldman.jpgA disc that met all my expectations was recently released by New World Records (80765-2)Soft Horizons features works by Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman performed by pianist Aki Takahashi, the Flux Quartet and the DownTown Ensemble. It opens in a very contemplative mood with the title piece, a solo piano work reminiscent of the composer’s late husband and mentor Morton Feldman. The sparse, gentle, meandering work gives each note time to breathe before moving on, producing a wondrous sense of calm while at the same time creating a sense of anticipation as we await the next quiet event. Written in 2012, Soft Horizons is the most recent work presented.

Although currently residing in Guelph, Monk Feldman lived for many years in New Mexico. Her 2004 String Quartet No.1 is subtitled Desert Scape and presents two visions of that geological phenomenon. The first begins with a consonant viola melody commented upon by bird- or insect-like sounds from the violins. As the movement develops the harmonies get closer in a kind of gentle abrasiveness which is supplanted by melodies echoed in higher octaves and later a Bartókian “night music” section, but in slow motion. The second movement maintains the sense of uneasy calm, this time with high melodies and commentaries in the lower strings. As the piece gradually unfolds we are drawn into a delicate soundworld where the sense of disquiet gradually seems to become the new normal.

The final piece, The Chaco Wilderness (2005), while maintaining the overall sonic mood of gradual progression adds a wealth of colour to the textures through its use of vibraphone, flute, clarinet, guitar/mandolin and piano. The work is in three contrasting movements and is the shortest by far on the disc. It may seem surprising that it contains the most “activity” per se, but I rather think that this is indicative of Monk Feldman’s style. The pieces in which “nothing happens” need a longer time frame to unfold.

All of the artists on this recording are masters of the genre. Aki Takahashi has been in the forefront of the avant garde since the 1970s, working with Cage, Xenakis, Boulez and Takemitsu to name but a few. In 1980 she was invited by Morton Feldman as a Creative Associate of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY, Buffalo. FLUX, which includes Canadian violist Max Mandel, was founded nearly 20 years ago and has been active on the New York scene ever since. Among their achievements is the performance (and recording for Mode Records) of Morton Feldman’s stunning five and half hour String Quartet No.2. The DownTown Ensemble, founded by Daniel Goode and William Hellermann, is now in its fourth decade of presenting experimental music in virtually all of its diverse forms.

April_Editor_scans_03_Gonzales.jpgComing at it from a very different angle, Europeanized Canadian MC/pop arranger/composer/performer Chilly Gonzales (aka Jason Charles Beck) has been working extensively with the Hamburg-based Kaiser Quartett lately and has just released a disc of original compositions for piano and string quartet. Chambers (Gentle Threat Records GENTLE016, chillygonzales.com) is intended as a reimagining of “Romantic-era chamber music as today’s addictive pop” and the project succeeds, with catchy melodies and warm harmonic writing. While it certainly doesn’t push any boundaries of new classical vocabulary it will open the ears of people who don’t normally have occasion to listen to string quartets or thoughtful instrumental music. The overall feeling of the disc is surprisingly laid-back, with only three of the twelve tracks proceeding at anything faster than a moderato pace, but this makes for a sense of continuity throughout. The titles are playful, including clever wordplay as in Prelude to a FeudFreudian Slippers, and Green’s Leaves. One surprise is a slightly melancholy piece called Odessa, dedicated to the Ukrainian-born Russian composer Reinhold Glière. Another is a haunting vocal ballad, Myth Me, the earworm which concludes the disc. Concert Note: Chilly Gonzales and the Kaiser Quartett perform at Koerner Hall on April 21.

April_Editor_scans_04_Lefevre.jpgAnother album with a somewhat similar feel comes from renowned classical pianist Alain Lefèvre who is known for his recordings of Chopin, Liszt and Mozart and also for his championing of the music of Canadian wunderkind André Mathieu (1929-1968). Rive Gauche (Analekta AN 2 9295) is a collection of Lefèvre’s own compositions, in his words “films for the ear, images for the piano” so it is likely no coincidence that the disc begins with a piece entitled Cinema Lumière. There is an overall sense of nostalgia in these warm, melodic pieces that range from swinging solo piano miniatures to chamber jazz tunes with the addition of bass (Michel Donato) and drums (Paul Brochu). Violinist Angèle Dubeau makes a cameo appearance on the tune Paris de mes souvenirs, a lovely ballad full of longing, and Léane Labrêche-Dor adds her pleasing jazz-infected voice to the closing track Au bout de mes rêves.

April_Editor_scans_05_Saint-Saens.jpgWhen we think of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) such works as the Carnival of the AnimalsDanse macabre and the magnificent Organ Symphony come most readily to mind, but he also left some chamber gems behind, including a number of sonatas for various instruments, a piano quintet, a piano quartet and two piano trios. It is the Piano Trios which are featured on a new disc by Trio Latitude 41 (Eloquentia EL 1547 eloquentia.fr). The curious name of the trio stems from the geographical placement of both their first engagement in Rhode Island and the city of Rome, where the Italian cellist Luigi Piovano lives. The other members are American violinist Livia Sohn and Canadian-born pianist Bernadene Blaha, who for the past two decades has made her home in Los Angeles where she teaches at the University of Southern California.

While far from unknown, these trios are quite underrepresented in the catalogue – only three other recordings of the two together, including one by the Vienna Piano Trio who appeared in Toronto recently courtesy of Mooredale Concerts, turned up on a quick search at Grigorian.com – and these sensitive and nuanced performances are a welcome addition. The trios were composed three decades apart, the first having been written in 1863 and the second not until 1892. The disc opens with the latter, with rumbling bass from the piano’s left hand and a welcoming melody from the strings accompanied by ebullient passages from pianist’s right hand. Although not a work we hear very often it sounds familiar in wonderful way, with hints of Mendelssohn’s A Minor Trio without seeming derivative. At 35 minutes it is an exhilarating and at times intense journey. The charming earlier trio, itself nearly half an hour long, is lighter and more playful, perhaps indicative of the youth of the composer, but balanced and well crafted. Both receive compelling performances in this rewarding release. I thank Trio Latitude 41 for bringing these works (back) to my attention.

Review

April_Editor_scans_06_McBirnie.jpgAnd in closing, something completely different – the latest from Mr. “Extreme Flute” Bill McBirnie. On Grain of Sand (EF07 extremeflute.com) McBirnie once again teams up with Latin multi-instrumentalist Bruce Jones, revisiting a partnership which resulted in the 1998 album Desvio. Jones wrote all the music, some of the tunes in collaboration with McBirnie, and the results are predominantly Brazilian-inspired samba and bossa nova style with plenty of Jones’ distinctive nylon-string guitar and vocals. Although only the two musicians are involved they have used the recording studio to good advantage, creating a multi-layered offering that is especially effective in the flute duet over guitar and ambient drone in Lembrando Paul Horn (Remembering Paul Horn). Other influences include hip-hop and funk and the end result is a diverse mosaic ranging from the mellow Vai Bem Devagar  (Proceed with Caution) to the bouncing Cê Tá Com Tudo (You Are Everything), while maintaining an integral continuity. McBirnie’s flute, although not particularly “extreme” in this instance, is lively and lilting as it soars over the bed tracks laid down by Jones, in the forefront in the instrumental tunes where it has the dominant melody and tastefully in the background or heard in duet with Jones’ voice in the songs with lyrics. I only wish they had included the words and translations in the package. This is good time music, well played and obviously enjoyed by McBirnie and Jones. It takes me back to my introduction to this genre back in the 1970s when I first heard Brazilian icon Jorge Ben (Jor). Thanks for the memories!

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http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/billmcbirniebrucejones

http://www.extremeflute.com/index.html

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/grain-of-sand/id963888825

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, expanded and archival reviews. David Olds, DISCoveries Editor discoveries@thewholenote.com

Author: David Olds
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