Allan Gordon Bell – Gravity and Grace - Land’s End Chamber Ensemble

02 Bell Gravity GraceAllan Gordon Bell – Gravity and Grace
Land’s End Chamber Ensemble
with James Campbell
Centrediscs CMCCD 19013

Gravity and Grace is a collection of recent chamber works by Alberta composer Allan Gordon Bell, featuring Calgary’s Land’s End Chamber Ensemble with guest James Campbell on clarinet. Bolstered by great performances by the core piano trio and guests, Bell’s music shimmers and shrieks, grumbles and growls.

Bell is afflicted with delight in sonority and fascinated by the physical fact of consonance, using an effective range of dissonance as a foil. He expresses a kind of gratitude to the world around him in all these works. He is a strongly visual composer; in one piece sounds create images of falcons rising on thermals above the prairie or cascades of water tumbling into pools. In Field Notes he begins with a depiction of two rivers meeting and finishes with a sunset. Sweetgrass wraps paired contrasting images of the prairie around a still central movement that takes a page out of Béla Bartók.

The album title derives from the final work on the disc. Trails of Gravity and Grace, for clarinet cello and piano, was commissioned by Toronto’s Amici ensemble. As good as the title is, it is the weakest part of a strong collection. The limited palate doesn’t suit the composer, and I must confess that at times I found Mr. Campbell’s intonation questionable.

Apart from that, the playing is solid and committed; I especially enjoyed Sweetgrass, (written in 1997, the earliest of these pieces) for a sextet requiring three guests: Calgary musicians flutist Mary Sullivan, Ilana Dahl on clarinets and Kyle Eustace on percussion. Bell is wise to write for some common groupings in the contemporary idiom: here it’s “Pierrot plus percussion.” Field Notes is written for the same group as Quartet for the End of Time.

Both Bartók and Olivier Messiaen could be fellow travellers with Bell. They shared a similar mystical regard for the natural world and made efforts to incorporate that world into their music. Bartók’s Contrasts and the Messiaen Quatuor would ride alongside Field Notes quite comfortably.

Woman Runs with Wolves Beverley Johnston

03 Johnston Runs with WolvesWoman Runs with Wolves
Beverley Johnston
Centrediscs CMCCD 18913

This new release by Canadian superstar percussionist Beverley Johnston has everything a listener loves — stellar performances, strong compositions and clear sound quality.

The title track, Woman Runs With Wolves by Alice Ho, is based on the myth La Loba from Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It is a dramatic work, with Johnston vocalizing a text of an invented language while playing hand-held percussion instruments. The work also involves acting and movement but Johnston’s precise rhythmic patterns and surprising range of vocal colours make it moving even without the visuals.

Christos Hatzis’ In the Fire of Conflict is a two-movement solo marimba and audio playback version of an earlier work also featuring cello. The marimba part adds a contrapuntal melodic line to the haunting rap tracks by Bugsy H. (aka Steve Henry) and tape effects, while the rhythmic component breaks down the boundaries between classical and pop music. Hatzis’ Arctic Dreams also features flutist Susan Hoeppner and soprano Lauren Margison in a soundscape of jazzy marimba, trilling flute and lush vocals against a wilderness-evoking tape part.

David Occhipinti’s moving marimba solo Summit, and three duets with pianist Pamela Reimer — Tim Brady’s rhythmically driven Rant! (based on a Rick Mercer “Rant”), Micheline Roi’s Grieving the Doubts of Angels and the film score-like Up and Down Dubstep by Lauren Silberberg — add compositional contrast and colour.

Johnston’s sense of phrase, tone colour and respect for the composers shine throughout this perfect release from a perfect musician.

Ann Southam 5 - Eve Egoyan

01 southam 5 egoyanAnn Southam 5
Eve Egoyan
Centrediscs CMCCD 19113

There are many reasons to get excited about this recording of late works by maverick Canadian composer Ann Southam. For one thing, no one knew these works existed until they turned up in Southam’s Toronto home after her death in 2010. For another, this is a gorgeous recording.

What struck me the first time I listened – and after many listenings I’m still not ready to put this disc away – was that although these works are strikingly austere, they throb with vitality. Like the water-sculpted fallen trees on the booklet cover, they enchant by stealth, as though they are emerging from another world.

Southam wrote these works with Toronto pianist Eve Egoyan in mind, like the works on Egoyan’s two previous Southam recordings. Egoyan is able to bring special insights from those close collaborations with Southam to her exquisite handling of the lilting, halting and shifting rhythmic patterns which connect these works to each other, and to previous works called Returnings (two of these share the name Returnings, while the rest were left untitled).

The booklet throws light on Southam’s personal sound-world, especially by reproducing pages from her manuscripts. The sound is clear and spacious, allowing the pauses to resonate. But this disc deserves a more meaningful title, especially since it makes such an important addition to the already substantial evidence that Southam is not just one of our finest composers – hers is a significant voice in contemporary music.

Concert Note:
Eve Egoyan plays a recital for Music Toronto on November 26 in the Jane Mallett Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

T. Patrick Carrabré - War of Angels

02 carrabreT. Patrick Carrabré - War of Angels
Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
Centrediscs CMCCD 18513

T. Patrick Carrabré’s accessible, modernist music is characterized by angular lines and apt, dissonant sonorities orchestrated with clarity and balance. Inuit Games (2002) is an engrossing work in which Inuit throat singers Pauline Pemik and Inukshuk Aksalnik together weave continuous vocal patterns. Around them Carrabré emphasizes the low and high orchestra registers in mysterious, menacing sonorities. A unique and strong piece. In Symphony No.1: The War of Angels (1996), the opening movement’s fast triplet motion initially struck me as suggesting a finale. But then, shouldn’t wars happen differently in angel space and time? The sombre slow movement has profound moments, while the concluding one needs more intensity, in my view. The Winnipeg Symphony brass and winds shine in this work.

Hearing the workmanlike first movement of Symphony No.3 (2003) left me with some qualms about the composer’s propensity for the moto perpetuo process. But the second one is richer and more expansive; the Winnipeg winds give their numerous atmospheric solos loving treatment. And the finale is dramatic and varied, with some intricate counterpoint that builds to an impressive climax. The Dragon’s Tail (1997) is the exciting closer on this disc, featuring percussion passages performed energetically as the other sections of the orchestra also generate plenty of menace! Kudos to Carrabré for his compositions and his work (along with conductors Andrey Boreyko and Bramwell Tovey) for the annual Winnipeg New Music Festival, which has helped composers, orchestra and audiences for contemporary music flourish.

Rite - Jon Kimura Parker

03 stravinsky parkerRite
Jon Kimura Parker
Independent FP 0907 (

Rite is an exciting CD of world premiere transcriptions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) and the complete ballet Petrouchka (1911) by pianist extraordinaire Jon Kimura Parker. There have been numerous transcriptions of the Rite, notably, by Stravinsky himself, Sam Raphling and Dickran Atamian. There are countless CDs and YouTube versions of three movements from the ballet Petrouchka. Emil Gilels, Grigory Sokolov, Alexis Weissenberg, Maurizio Pollini are excellent, Yuja Wang and Lang Lang with huge followings less so. What makes Parker’s version of Petrouchka a “must listen” is his remarkable and sensitive adaption of the complete ballet for solo piano. The focus is not so much on the pianistic fireworks of the famous dances but more on the pathos and lyrical qualities of melodic passages and the storyline. His attention to detail in transcribing is impeccable and his performance is never rushed but unfolds with singing lines and capricious humour. The ballet breathes in shapes and emotions. I realized at the end of the piece that I had not thought about the orchestra or the dancers because Parker’s transcription works beautifully as an extraordinary solo piano piece. This is definitely a welcome addition to the piano repertoire.

May 29, 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the Rite of Spring premiere performance in Paris, France. Today The Rite of Spring is one of the most influential works of the 20th century. Claude Debussy knew the work well and played it with Stravinsky in the four-hand duet version. Stravinsky himself worked on the score from the piano so it is no surprise that it works well as a solo piano piece. Jon Kimura Parker discovered Stravinsky’s piano duet version, which was used for ballet rehearsals. He felt that it was “less fastidious with details than I had expected.” Parker then began to add instrumental lines that had been left out. Other solo piano versions were deemed either too minimal or unplayable. I like Parker’s version with the encompassing layers of sound, from extreme delicacy and poignant colour to raw sensuality and primitive power. His performance is virtuosic both technically and artistically. I also agree with Parker’s quote about his own inspiration for this project. “Playing the Rite of Spring at the piano I am reminded of the day that I saw an exhibition of Picasso’s pencil sketches side by side with the finished paintings. Despite the absence of colour the angular power of the lines had even a greater impact.” We can use the same words about this CD which is excellent and I recommend it highly.

Ives/Brant - A Concord Symphony; Copland - Organ Symphony

04 ives-brantIves/Brant - A Concord Symphony; Copland - Organ Symphony
San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas
SFSMedia 821936-0038-2

The four movements of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata for piano (published in 1919 at Ives’s own expense along with his philosophical Essays Before A Sonata) are entitled Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts and Thoreau – all leading authors of the American Transcendentalist school. Ives’ visionary writing is similarly “transcendent” and extremely challenging for performer and listener alike. Canadian-born composer, teacher and professional orchestrator Henry Brant had a particular affection for this groundbreaking work and set out to transcribe it for orchestra, a labour of love that occupied him off and on over the course of 35 years. The resulting 50-minute work was completed in 1994. Brant explained his intent was “to create a symphonic idiom which would ride in the orchestra with athletic sure-footedness and present Ives’s music in clear, vivid and intense sonorities.” Brant’s transcription is masterful and highly imaginative. He freely shifts the contours of melodic lines from one register to another and occasionally constructs inner voices to enhance his orchestral palette while remaining true to the content of Ives’s original piano score which, with its multiple staves, extreme density and general absence of time signatures, clearly suggests a blueprint in the form of an orchestral short score. The result could hardly be in more capable hands than those of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, both of whom have an outstanding record of support for contemporary American music.

The disc also includes Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony of 1925, a work commissioned and first performed by his mentor Nadia Boulanger. It is a remarkably assured accomplishment by the then 24-year-old composer and was the first of his works to receive wide public acclaim. Organist Paul Jacobs delivers a knockout performance of this intriguing and surprisingly intimate work. Superlative SACD quality sound throughout makes this disc a must-have item.

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