01_French_Trumpet.jpgFrench Trumpet Concertos
Paul Merkelo; Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano
Analekta AN 2 9847

Three challenging French trumpet concertos composed in the 20th century are given pristine, energetic and rollicking performances by soloist Paul Merkelo with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under Kent Nagano. Merkelo has been principal trumpet with OSM since 1995. This long working association with his orchestral colleagues is heard in the performances, especially in sections where the soloist and orchestra have tight musical conversations. Conductor Nagano is yet again brilliant in his ability to lead them both while allowing considerable freedom for individual sound statements.

Each concerto is interesting in its compositional attributes. Militarist musical references such as trumpet fanfares and snare drums with jazz-like solo trumpet lines highlight Henri Tomasi’s Concerto pour trumpette et orchestre. Alfred Desenclos’ Incantation, Thrène et Dance pour trompette et orchestre is the most academic of the works here. Rooted in the Romantic harmonic and melodic tradition, Desenclos also sneaks in jazz-rooted ideas, creating a movie music scenario which ends with an appropriate big bang. Even more jazz influences are found in André Jolivet‘s Concerto pour trompette No.2. Described by the composer as “a ballet for trumpet,” 14 different percussion instruments, piano and saxophones lead the rest of the orchestra to groove like a big band. Merkelo shines in the second movement solo with its changing sonic qualities.

These may not be the strongest trumpet concertos ever written but the abounding essence of fun and enthusiasm in performance is uplifting!

02_Spirit_of_American.jpgSpirit of the American Range
Oregon Symphony; Carlos Kalmar
Pentatone PTC 5186 481

The “American Range” moniker of this album is a tad disingenuous as the three composers represented here all honed their craft in Paris in the 1920s and hailed from the East Coast of America. Boston-based Walter Piston (1894-1976) was an esteemed figure in mid-20th century American music who taught a generation of composers as a professor at Harvard. His most popular work, the masterful and highly entertaining suite from his 1938 ballet The Incredible Flutist opens this fine recording with panache.

George Antheil (1900-1959), the self-described “bad boy of modern music,” was born in Trenton, New Jersey. His 1927 composition, A Jazz Symphony, was first performed at Carnegie Hall by the African-American Harlem Symphonietta directed by W.C. Handy. The orchestra responds to this swaggering score with great gusto, with notable contributions from a very tight brass section.

Brooklyn-born composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) stressed in his program note for the 1946 Boston premiere of his Third Symphony under Koussevitsky that his work contained “no folk or popular material,” hallmarks of his previous highly successful series of ballet scores. Nevertheless, the triumphalism of this, his most ambitious and extended composition, mirrored the optimism of the Postwar Era and the work was swiftly hailed as the epitome of the longed-for “Great American Symphony.” Kalmar’s interpretation eschews the tub-thumping often brought to this symphony with a highly sensitive and fluid reading which illuminates the complex thematic relationships between the four movements of this mighty work.

Pristinely captured in vivid sonics, these are live performances unmarred by any extraneous noises. This is a recording you’ll surely enjoy listening to repeatedly.


John Korsrud – Crush
John Korsrud’s Hard Rubber Orchestra
rubhard 04 (hardrubber.com)

From note one, it’s clear that composer and bandleader John Korsud studied at the Burning Man school of jazz, forging his wide-ranging musical inspirations into a bubbling hot electric Kool-Aid. Crush is all about oppositions: between big band and chamber music instrumentations; in the mash-up of musical genres; as competing strands within individual textures, and among the pieces, interpolating between the rabid (Crush, Lowest Tide, Slice, Wise Up) and the pensive (Peace for Ross, Mist 1 & 2). While the longer, heavier works symbolize a hydraulic press squeezing divergent energies out the seams, their shorter counterparts are the compacted, focused units at the end of the process.

On first hearing some of the pieces may sound discombobulated, but further listening reveals that even the most frenetic surfaces are unified with careful constraint. In Crush, surrounding the flailing wildness of drummer Dave Robbins, percussionist Jack Duncan and trumpet soloist Brad Turner, Korsrud displays near-tantric restraint with a slow, sustained low-register chorale, generating the tension that defines the piece. For Lowest Tide, among visceral clouds of fast and wiry ascending figures reminiscent of mid-period Ligeti, a Phil Dwyer solo scorches the Earth, Wind & Fire-inspired groove, punctuated with metallic horn shots that turn into a buzzing sax section pulp. In Come to the Dark Side, a serpentine trumpet lead (played by Korsrud) is pitted against a consistently pneumatic, stuttering accompaniment loosely recalling John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Industrial-strength Mahavishnu Orchestra-styled ostinati churn their repetitions alongside guttural baritone saxophone exhortations and Ron Samworth’s warped guitar playing in the final piece, Wise Up. If it seems like an implausible assemblage of ideas and sources, Korsrud and crew’s deft handling will flatten any doubt like a Jumping Jack Tamper™ on the sands of the playa.


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Neal Bennett; Brian Nesselroad
Redshift Records TK433

Matching personality to instruments in the brass section, trumpets are the alphas, French horns are quietly confident team players of generally modest demeanour; near the bottom you find the seeking souls who play trombone. Sensitive by nature, they mask this trait with tough-guy attitudes, fooling nobody. (The tuba runs the show, but nobody wants that to get out).

The last half-century has seen a surprising number of highly gifted sackbut virtuosi, players who turn their unwieldy horns on various dimes to produce striking results. Taking his place among them is Canadian Neal Bennett. His recent release, Ziggurat, offers works for solo trombone as well as a variety of choir sizes. Best known to local fans of new music will be Jocelyn Morlock, who contributed Sequoia for an ensemble of eight trombones and percussion and After the Rain, a solo piece. Scott Good’s Liquid Metal for ten (!) trombones, is a mighty enjoyable evocation of the foundry scene from Terminator 2.

Most of the composers are based in B.C., and his lone collaborator is percussionist Brian Nesselroad. Yes, instead of herding all available and capable practitioners for the multi-bone works (four of the seven tracks), Bennett worked all 34 (THIRTY-FOUR) parts up himself, layering overdub upon overdub. Sink that putt, I ask you.

The material is uneven. I’m nuts about Rob McKenzie’s blues-based Indigo but I feel Roydon Tse’s Continual Awakening, riffing on short-term memory impairment, is more interesting in idea than execution. Theatrics fail to work on a disc as they might on stage in Swedish composer Folke Rabe’s Basta, though the piece serves to highlight Bennett’s virtuosity. Finally there’s Ziggurat, by Farshid Samandari, a gorgeous dialogue with background voices and drums; it evokes the grand structure suggested by the title. A chattering coda ends the disc with a bang.


05_PEP.jpgPEP: Piano and Ehru Project
Nicole Ge Li; Corey Hamm
Redshift Records TK437

The Vancouver duo Piano and Erhu Project (PEP), founded in 2011, is by its very nature a cross-cultural enterprise. It represents the ongoing artistic partnership between pianist and UBC music professor Corey Hamm, a champion of avant-garde music, and the erhu player Nicole Ge Li, the concertmaster of the B.C. Chinese Music Ensemble. She is a virtuoso on that Chinese two-stringed fiddle, the most popular of the huqin family. Moreover, as eloquently evidenced on this album, Li is as much at home in recent Western musical idioms as in Chinese ones.

While the combination of erhu and piano may be novel to most Canadian listeners, it isn’t news in China. There the practice of a pianist accompanying an erhu soloist reaches back into the last century. The compositions which form the backbone of Li and Hamm’s project however, exemplify a more fluid interplay between these two instruments, each an icon of its respective culture. Rather than an inter-cultural vanity project, their collective music-making focuses on polished, musically engaged readings of recently commissioned scores. It’s also a reflection of Vancouver’s rich, ever-evolving, pan-Pacific music scene.

The repertoire on the album all dates from within the last few years. It explores a wide stylistic range, from the alternately sassy, sizzling Blues ’n Grooves (2014) composed by University of Toronto composition student Roydon Tse, to Edward Top’s mysterious, modernist Lamentation (2014), a feast for Li’s expressive mastery in the erhu’s upper range. Top was a recent composer-in-residence with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

A word about the composers; of the ten featured here most are Canadian, including Jocelyn Morlock, John Oliver, Laurie Radford and Mark Armanini. The polished scores they have produced for PEP are all performed with care and élan, and bear repeated listening. With a treasury of over 40 commissioned works by both Canadian and Chinese composers played to high standards, I’m not surprised that Volume 2 of PEP has already been announced.


04 Modern 01 Nicole LizeeNicole Lizée – Bookburners
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 20514 (CD+DVD)

In 2013, Canada’s government committed what scientists now call libricide, closing seven Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries. Ostensibly, it was to save by digitizing materials, but that hasn’t happened. Little attempt was made to preserve the materials and precious collections were lost to landfill. It was 21st-century book burning, but without the symbolic theatre.

Milton wrote that anyone who kills a man kills “a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.” The striking cover image (by Todd Stewart) of Nicole Lizée’s Bookburners CD/DVD may assert a similar interpretation. Depicting a skeleton holding a smouldering book, the figure may have sought to burn it, but instead self-immolated, consigning her/himself to eternal damnation, rather than squelching the ideas on the pages. Conversely, a dug-up, laughing skeleton having a good read fits in with the rough-hewn and somewhat nostalgic approach to technology and media that permeates the aesthetic of the five works in this collection.

The music and images tease us into dissecting the materials, reference points and tools; a rich exercise with antennae outside European contemporary music and into pop cultural icons that are the shared knowledge of Lizée’s generation. Prog-rock chord progressions, American minimalist repetitions, post-digital glitch techniques, DJ sound gear and uncommon instrumentations are all there, crashing into one another, but listening exclusively that way becomes so fragmented that it prevents the pleasures of listening to the global textures. When identification of materials becomes second to hearing their blended interaction, the music opens up a bright tableau of complex rhythms and timbres, despite the darker undertones of the titles and subject matter.

On the CD, White Label Experiment, for percussion quartet and electronics, is a joyously warped mashup of John Cage and rave culture, with the turntable as the common denominator. Typewriters peck away, combined with stylus/needle drops, noise timbres and omnichord, while metallic percussion takes you higher, in register and experience. Ouijist continues the attraction to sound hacking and an expansive, low-tech electronic palette built on the bent and the broken. On Son of the Man with the Golden Arms, drummer Ben Reimer’s playing stands out with a crisp tone and light touch, relishing in the complexity of notated beats, which are at times reminiscent of Bill Bruford on the Yes Fragile album.

For the DVD, Lizée brings film into the mix. Hitchcock Études (for piano and “glitch”) works with the Lissajou-inspired credits from Psycho, excerpts from The Birds and other middle-period Hitchcock films, looping them and jarring perception of the familiar into the strange and sometimes menacing. Paradoxically, the glitches are a by-product of digital sound techniques, whereas the film sources she’s working with originate from the silver (analog) screen, meaning the glitch element is obtained by imposing new tech on old media. Bookburners is staged footage of turntablist DJ P-Love and cellist Stéphane Tétreault performing in a freight elevator/loading dock. Like the other pieces in this set, it’s a bit longer than the material suggests, yet achieves its goals more tamely. Without exception, these are excellent performances, artfully combined to express a fresh remix of North American musical mannerisms.

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