Metropolis - Harringon/Loewen Duo

04 Modern 01 Metropolis saxophoneMetropolis
Harringon/Loewen Duo
Ravello Records RR7889

New Canadian saxophone music is taking flight recently, much as a result of the commissioning efforts of Winnipeg-based saxophonist Allen Harrington. Prairie composers Gordon Fitzell, Michael Matthews and Diana McIntosh are featured on this disc with pianist Laura Loewen.

Harrington’s debut recording begins with a bang: literally, with the saxophone screeching and popping whilst the pianist hits the strings with mallets inside the instrument. Fitzell’s Metropolis is a kind of sonic experiment, or lexicon of extended techniques for both instruments; the piece is always in motion, despite its fragmented form and sparse texture.

I find the crystalline sound and static drama of Sudbury composer Robert Lemay’s modernism more successful: this composer has written many works for saxophone – and also uses every technique available – but Oran always has a clear motivation.

Harrington and Loewen show their years of collaboration successfully in the more traditional works on the disc: Srul Irving Glick’s Sonata and Matthews’ The Skin of Night highlight their sensitivity to lyrical passages – his alto saxophone sound has a warm intensity in the middle range and she has a dramatic and articulate touch on the piano.

Being the only Canadian to place at the Adolphe Sax Competition (in 2006), Harrington is a strong soloist. But it is his collaborative efforts with Loewen that are impressive; the recording (done at the Banff Centre) masterfully captures both instruments in equality. The saxophone and piano repertoire will continue to grow as this duo continues to inspire Canadian composers.


American Chamber Music - James Ehnes; Seattle Chamber Music Society

04 Modern 02 American ChamberAmerican Chamber Music
James Ehnes; Seattle Chamber Music Society
Onyx 4129

In addition to the great European tradition of chamber music, American composers have also made significant contributions to the genre, beginning with the works of Arthur Foote in the 19th century. American chamber music is alive and well 150 years later, and this recording is a fine representation of repertoire from the 1930s and 40s with music by Copland, Ives, Bernstein, Carter and Barber performed by Canadian violinist James Ehnes and musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society.

While some of the music on this CD might not be all that well known, it’s all worth investigating. Copland’s Violin Sonata from 1943 is a study in contrasts, with its buoyant opening movement, a restrained march and the rhythmical finale performed here with much panache by Ehnes and pianist Orion Weiss. Leonard Bernstein was still a student at Harvard when he composed his Piano Trio in 1937, its exuberance very much the music of a 19-year-old prodigy. The most familiar piece on this recording is surely Barber’s String Quartet, if only because of the famous Adagio, most often heard arranged for string orchestra. Here, the warmly resonant strings further heighten the movement’s elegiac mood. Equally elegiac is the brief Largo for violin, clarinet and piano by Charles Ives. Insurance broker by day and composer on the weekend, Ives was very much an individualist. His approach to music was distinctly American, and I liken the introspective mood of this piece from 1901 to those stark urban landscapes by Edward Hopper created 30 years later. Elliott Carter’s Elegy for viola and piano from 1943 is marked by a romantic conservatism not seen in his later style.

So it would seem that during the 1930s and 40s, there was more going on musically in America than the jitterbug and big bands and this CD proves it admirably. Kudos to James Ehnes and his group from Seattle for bringing to light some treasures that most certainly deserve greater exposure.


The Transcendentalist

04 Modern 03 The TranscendentalistThe Transcendentalist
Ivan IlicHeresy Records 015 (

When it comes to new music the average music lover, including myself, is in an unknown territory (or downright ignorant) and that can provoke hostility and aversion at times. This new disc by Ivan Ilic, a distinguished American pianist of Serbian descent, does an immeasurable service to smoothen the road to acceptance by the back door, so to speak.

It’s a masterstroke to devise a program with the likes of Cage, Feldman or Wollschleger by tracing them backwards to “fall on branches descending from Frédéric Chopin.” It’s also all the more surprising – says Mr. Ilic – that Scriabin, one of the greatest innovators in the early 20th century, took Chopin as a point of departure. And this is the point at which this remarkable journey begins.

Scriabin’s Prelude Op.16, No.1 indeed sounds a bit like a Chopin Nocturne with a charming little melody developed nicely and it’s over in two minutes. Fine… everyone is happy about that, but our pianist now presents an early piece by John Cage, Dream (1948), and we immediately sense the relationship to Scriabin. The hesitant fragments moving at an even pace like moving in and out of our subconscious, laying out slowly a wonderful oriental landscape, sometimes interrupted by deep and disturbing chords… yes, indeed, we feel the connection, but also experience the departure into a new world with a mesmerizing, hypnotic effect.

“Transcendental meditation?” The phrase here takes on a new meaning under the magic hands of Ilic who is guaranteed to hypnotize you like no other into the mysteries of another universe, but at the same time plays Scriabin’s gorgeous D-flat major Prelude Op.31, No.1 so beautifully that you can perhaps endure the vicissitudes of this here universe.


Hosokawa – Orchestral Works 2

04 Modern 04 HosokawaHosokawa – Orchestral Works 2
Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Orchestre National de Lyon; Jun Märkl
Naxos 8.573276

Toshio Hosokawa is in some way a visual artist disguised as a composer. The three pieces on this collection of orchestral music bear a striking similarity of form; they remind me of St. Exupéry’s descriptions of his childish drawings of boa constrictors who swallowed elephants. The author never succeeded in conveying how fearsome these images were to him; Hosokawa’s music, on the other hand, delivers moments of awe and terror, bordered by serenity and contemplation.

Each work opens with a sustained unison B flat, shimmering and pulsing; eventually each arrives at a final unison elsewhere. Hosokawa rejects artifice and architecture, preferring the organic. He depicts development, origins, growth. The first piece, Woven Dreams, traces an imaginary passage from the womb. Blossoming II and Circulating Ocean are reflections on the natural world. In the liner notes he describes the signature unison openings as fluid, amniotic or aquatic. One hears birdsong and water droplets, earthquakes and storms.

Though Hosokawa’s forms have curved edges, his orchestral effects often jar. He discovers new dissonances through note bends and microtonal juxtaposition. Deep booming percussion nearly overwhelms. At times his orchestration reminds me of Schnittke, at others of Mahler. He will use the orchestra as a huge macabre organ and then exploit individual instruments for passagework.

Unlike his senior compatriot, Toru Takemitsu, Hosokawa chose to embrace rather than distance himself from his own culture. He often uses canonic melodic entries, often cascades in the treble winds. He refers to this technique as Oibuki, featured in a style of Japanese court music called Gagaku. Where Takemitsu was repelled by the militarism he witnessed as boy, Hosokawa worries his culture is too ready to adopt external models rather than grow from its own roots.

Two different orchestras supply the music, under the able direction of Jun Märkl, whose parents bridge the east-west musical divide, a German violinist for a father, his mother a Japanese pianist.


Gabriel Prokofiev – Selected Classical Works 2003-2012

05 Modern 01 Gabriel ProkofievGabriel Prokofiev – Selected Classical Works 2003-2012
Various Artists
Nonclassical NONCLSS017

In this release by composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev) we get a clear sense of the composer’s predilection for displacing his various musical influences (electronica for example) into traditional classical contexts. This disc, released on Prokofiev’s own label, is a collection of works ranging from 2003-2012 that signal Prokofiev’s return to notated compositions.

In his first and second string quartets, a series of dance grooves constantly devolve into mysterious textures. Punchy double-stops and gritty gestures remind one of Bartók or Janáček.  Rhythmic plucks and scratches lie below lyrical folk inspired melodic elements. In the second quartet, Prokofiev does away with any lyrical commitment and relies on clear rhythmic processes akin to dissonant minimalism. Both quartets possess a satisfying yet frigid mood, much like the dreariness of the CD cover image.

Next, in the Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra the turntablist creates various electronic sounds cleverly blended with the orchestra with confident rhythmic inventiveness. Imagine Stravinsky’s Rite fused with the pounding rhythms of a nightclub beneath a haunting lyricism. The second movement evokes a deranged carnival as the turntable sounds mesh with the orchestra in a bizarre and warped sound environment.

Piano Book No. 1 provides an array of moods for the performer to explore without relying on unnecessary virtuosity. Next, the Cello Multitracks for solo cello allows the performer to stack dense layers of recorded cello sounds through electronic manipulation. The result is a rich sound world moving to and from ethereal and light moments, to thick and intense passages.

The disc is an impressive culmination of confident works that span a decade of the composer’s output. Each piece shows Prokofiev’s ability to create a successful reaction to the influences of pop and electronica through a traditional application.

Editor’s Note: Gabriel Prokofiev was the Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition and composer-in-residence at the University of Toronto’s New Music Festival in January 2014. There were a number of performances of his works including the Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra (with DJ Madhatter and the U of T Symphony) and Cello Multitracks and Remixes performed by Shauna Rolston. 

Madison Avenue - Wesley Ferreira

05 Modern 02 Wesley FerreiraMadison Avenue
Wesley Ferreira
Potenza Music PM1035 (

Canadian clarinetist Wesley Ferreira, now based in the U.S., has a solo release of mostly American music. The textures range from intimate and unaccompanied to wind-ensemble backing at hurricane-force. He includes nothing substantial in terms of duration, but consistently demonstrates a fine fluid technique and flexible tone. The longest work, clocking in at 13 minutes, is a tribute to the automobile called Auto ’66. This selection wheels along in spite of poor engineering (sound, not mechanical): Ferreira and the band seem to have been separated by a firewall. High rev. brassy moments are reduced to a sub-compact size, and the clarinet colour is dulled, losing the waxy lustre it displays on other tracks. Composer James M. David has a thing for cars and for Holst’s The Planets. Mercury is a source for the second movement (Mini Cooper S), which is appropriate, but what Mars has to do with a Lamborghini escapes me.

Elsewhere Ferreira knocks off blistering passagework and a great array of multiphonic effects, most notably in Mikro-Sonata by Aleksandar Obradović. The title track, by Nick DiBerardino, opens the CD with a brief and cheeky tribute to New York. Pianist Gail Novak types furiously in the background (the composer’s own suggestion, from the very useful liner notes), while the clarinet scales the skyscrapers and swings on looping Spidey-webs between them. Canadian Alasdair MacLean’s Without Further Ado II for two clarinets which immediately follows sounds like it could be a second movement to the previous track. In this as elsewhere, Ferreira is joined by his spouse Copper Ferreira. She holds her end of the bargain up well in the MacLean, but not so well as the bass clarinetist in Rotazione tre by Roberto Cognazzo, which derives much of its material from music of Nino Rota, a less instantly recognizable source than Holst.

My pick for best cut is the Sonata for B-flat Clarinet and Piano by Nikola Resanovic. At just over ten minutes, it wastes no time doing anything but providing a showcase for Ferreira and fun for the listener, especially in the Balkan-influenced finale.

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