05 modern 03 ryan muncyHot
Ryan Muncy; Various Artists
New Focus Recordings NFR130

Chicago-based saxophonist Ryan Muncy has become a champion of new music, both as a soloist and as executive director of the fine new music ensemble, Dal Niente – if you have yet to hear this group deservedly dubbed “super-musicians” by the Chicago Tribune, check it out.

Muncy’s debut recording is bookended with works by two composers that few performers tackle: Georges Aperghis and Franco Donatoni. The craft and wit of these composers are the highlights of the CD. Aperghis’ Rasch for soprano saxophone and viola is almost conceptual in its difficulty; Muncy and violist Nadia Sirota give a meticulous reading, although I wish the gestures and pauses were more erratic. Donatoni’s Hot has become the most popular chamber concerto for saxophone and “jazz” ensemble. Muncy and Dal Niente perform this difficult score with ease, although the saxophone could be more present and wild in this concertante work.

Throughout the recording, Muncy shows his sensitivity and skill in works featuring instruments that the saxophone would normally overpower. In Refrain from Riffing by Anthony Cheung, the alto saxophone sweeps and quivers microtonally in tandem with the harp. Marcos Balter’s Strohbass, in which the bass flute acts as resonance for the subtle key clicks of the baritone saxophone, is so skillful and almost electroacoustic.

It would be wrong not to mention The Last Leaf, the commission from established Israeli-born Harvard Professor, Chaya Czernowin, for sopranino (!) saxophone, highlighting the plethora of extended saxophone techniques that Muncy executes effortlessly.


05 modern 04 rebekah heller100 names
Rebekah Heller
Tundra Records 001

American bassoonist Rebekah Heller is a respected performer in both classical and contemporary music styles, and a core member of the U.S.-based International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). In her debut solo release on ICE’s own Tundra label, Heller performs with a sweet tone, precise attack and colourful phrases in six recent compositions written for her.

She is especially original in her witty musical repartees to the electroacoustic tapes, feedback effects and live processing. The gut-wrenching distortion and percussive bassoon make the opening track by Edgar Guzman loud and in-your-face memorable. Though more tape effects provide colourful backdrops to the bassoon in works by Marcelo Toledo and the bonus track by Du Yun, these are no match for the superb composition On speaking a hundred names by Nathan Davis. This strong composition for bassoon and live processing is a showpiece for Heller’s sensitive interpretation and enviable breath control. The bassoon solo Calling by Dai Fujikura is a microtonal outing that demonstrates her strength as a soloist. Not only can Heller play the bassoon, she can fearlessly speak the text of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and play percussion too in the moving work …and also a fountain by Marcos Balter.

100 names features a wide breadth of extended bassoon techniques, all performed beautifully, and sure to be enjoyed by new music lovers. Rebekah Heller needs to be congratulated for her dedication to the bassoon, and her ability to inspire composers.


05 modern 05 tiresius duoTrade Winds
Tiresias Duo (Mark Takeshi McGregor; Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa)
Redshift Records TK428 (redshiftmusic.org)

Having reviewed Mark Takeshi McGregor’s CD of flute ensemble music, Different Stones back in November 2009, and now his most recent 2CD set, Trade Winds, I can say with conviction that I think he is a national treasure! It is not only that he is a great flutist and a truly engaging performer. I heard his recital at the Canadian Flute Association convention in June – it was truly memorable, not only because of his rapport with contemporary repertoire but also because he has a nose for that je ne sais quoi that makes a work a good piece of music. His choice of repertoire, and there is a lot of it – close to two hours – is unerringly good. The fact that the field was narrowed by limiting it to composers with some sort of connection with Japan makes his accomplishment even more remarkable.

There are discoveries here such as Kara Gibbs, whose Untitled Scenes covers the gamut from playful to meditative and serene; the flute sonata by Vancouver composer, Christopher Kovarik, reveals a unique compositional voice, forged through the study of Bach, Prokofiev and Shostakovich; and I was taken completely by surprise by the three works for solo flute by Paul Douglas, a flutist as well as a composer, and McGregor’s teacher at UBC. Elliot Weisgarber was another Canadian composer I had never heard of. A clarinetist in the late 1960s, he spent three years in Japan, where he learned to play the shakuhachi. His Miyako Sketches, to me anyway, reveals a thorough absorption of the Japanese musical tradition convincingly transferred to the western tradition.

I would be remiss not to mention Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, whose superb ease and sensitivity as McGregor’s collaborator on the piano contribute substantially to the project. Canadian flutists, get this CD and then get the music performed on it and make it part of your repertoire! Everyone else, get it and start marvelling at the quality of the music of our composers.


Jörg Widmann – Violin Concerto; Antiphon; Insel der Sirenen
Christian Tetzlaff; Swedish RSO; Daniel Harding
Ondine ODE 1215-2

Orchestral works by contemporary German composer Jörg Widmann (b. 1973) receive fine readings here. Widmann is a virtuoso clarinetist who understands the orchestra’s newer sonic resources and has a performer’s sense of the dramatic. The title of Christoph Schlüren’s liner notes, Hedonism of Danger, indicates another aspect of this composer’s voice.

The one-movement Violin Concerto (2007) has roots from the later 20th century German neo-Expressionists back to Alban Berg. Overall the work is the antithesis of “cool” – the violin writing is intense with broad lyrical gestures and sharp contrasts. Tetzlaff’s tone is rich in the lower registers; harmonics are ethereal and intonation reliable. Harding’s orchestra stays sonorous in extreme registers, never submerging the soloist’s voice in its natural soundscape.

I particularly like Insel der Sirenen (Island of the Sirens) of 1997 for violin and 19 strings. It re-imagines the episode in Homer’s Odyssey as experienced on a rickety boat in the harsh seascape, with periodic squeaks, honks and rustling over tremolando waves. The solo violin “siren’s” vibrato is wide and glissandi wider; other sirens are high-pitched and the atmosphere is menacing.

Antiphon (2007-08) for full orchestra is the most hard-edged and dissonant work. Abrupt, aggressive gestures such as sharp attacks and crescendi suggest a post-industrial world where things are battered and torn at. In both this and the preceding work, innovations of Schafer, Penderecki and Ligeti are excitingly transformed by and for a new generation in a new millennium.

Concert Note: Widmann is featured as composer, conductor and clarinetist when New Music Concerts presents ”A Portrait of Jörg Widmann” on April 18 at the Betty Oliphant Theatre.

05 modern 01 rosenthal lemelinRosenthal – L’intégrale pour piano
Stéphane Lemelin
ATMA ACD2 2587

While Manuel Rosenthal earned his greatest success as a conductor over the span of his long lifetime (he died in 2003 a few weeks short of his 99th birthday) he was also a composer of considerable merit, writing in an affable, neo-classical style. For whatever reason, his output for solo piano is comparatively small, all of it written between 1924 and 1934, and it is presented in its entirety on this ATMA release featuring pianist Stéphane Lemelin.

With his affinity for French music, it seems appropriate that Lemelin should be the one to unearth this relatively obscure repertoire. He studied with Karl Ulrich Schnabel and Leon Fleisher and since 2001 has been on faculty at the University of Ottawa.

From the gentle opening chords of the Huit Bagatelles from 1924, it’s clear that Lemelin is very much at home with this music. His playing is refined and elegant, ably capturing the ever-contrasting moods of these musical miniatures. And it’s this sense of kaleidoscopic variety that makes these pieces so engaging. The brief Valse des pêcheurs à la ligne (The Angler’s Waltz) is all pastoral tranquility, while the suite Les Petits Métiers from 1934 is a musical description of various occupations, ranging from the striking chords of the “Le Maréchal-ferrant” (The Blacksmith), to the staccato frenzy of “La Petit Télégraphiste” (The Telegraph Operator). Do I hear echoes of François Couperin? Lemelin handles it all with great panache.

While Rosenthal’s piano output might not be deemed “great music,” it nevertheless has a charm all its own, often combining elements of French salon style with the more progressive tendencies of Ravel and Milhaud. Lemelin is to be commended for bringing to light some intriguing 20th-century repertoire that might have been undeservedly forgotten.


05 modern 02 ligetiLigeti – Violin Concerto; Lontano; Atmosphères; San Francisco Polyphony
Benjamin Schmid; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 1213-2

It’s not just the terrific performances on this disc that make it so appealing. The programming of four iconic works by Hungarian composer György Ligeti offers a handy overview of the orchestral music of one of the most imaginative, idiosyncratic, influential and enjoyable composers of the past century. Ligeti was a loner, but his music was embraced by leading avant-garde composers and featured in popular films like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The big draw here is violinist Benjamin Schmid’s energized performance of the majestic Violin Concerto, a late work from 1993. There are plenty of thrills, especially in the virtuosic cadenza. But what makes this performance so memorable is the way Schmid and conductor Hannu Lintu find the ideal balance between Ligeti’s angular modernism and his heartfelt lyricism.

The earliest work here, Atmosphères, from 1961, still fascinates – that such an apparently static work can be so gripping. The surface is all glassy smoothness. But Lintu takes us deep into the colours and textures swirling underneath as they emerge and recede.

By the time Ligeti wrote San Francisco Polyphony, in 1974, he was working with recognizable melodies, layering them in new and exciting ways. In his delightfully idiosyncratic booklet notes Lintu admits that “successfully executing the trickiest sequences in San Francisco Polyphony requires not only skill but a generous helping of good luck, too.” It sounds like everyone involved in this marvellous disc had plenty of both good luck and skill.


Concert note: Hannu Lintu conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall on March 20 and 22 in Solen by Matthew Whittall, Symphony No.5 by Sibelius and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5, with Angela Hewitt as soloist.

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