This is the fourth entry from the Minnesota Orchestra in a projected Mahler symphony cycle, following releases of the Second, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies under the direction of Osmo Vänskä, the well-regarded Finnish conductor who has devoted himself to bringing this ensemble to international renown since 2003. Mahler’s First Symphony, composed in his 24th year, reveals at a single stroke a unique and compelling voice; it remains one of his most-often-performed works. Vänskä’s solid and unaffected interpretation of the work, though structurally very well-paced, strikes me at times as a wee bit circumspect, particularly so in the funereal third movement, the opening of which is normally played as a mournful string bass solo but is contentiously (alas, not for the first time) assigned here to the entire bass section, robbing this introduction of its essentially grotesque quality; the underplaying of the intentionally vulgar interruptions of klezmer music that follows is yet another ironic opportunity missed. That being said, the strong bond between this orchestra and their leader provides in the end a highly compelling performance. I was tremendously impressed by the excellence and enthusiasm of the Minnesota musicians – I’ve rarely heard such a fierce viola section cut their way through the tumult of the finale of the work. Props as well to the recording team lead by Robert Suff; the low-floor recording level and resultant extended dynamic range lend an other-worldly aura to the liminal string harmonics that slowly reveal the magic of this work and conclude with a sonorous account of the glorious brass passages of the finale. While it’s admittedly not the definitive performance of this popular work in a very crowded field of contenders, it is certainly a substantially satisfying one.
You receive a letter from “your favourite composer” signed “Your friend, Mozart,” requesting a 20th-century take on his style using extra percussion which “in my day wasn’t dignified.” The resulting 15-minute Letter from Mozart (1976) is a wonky, percussion-heavy series of dreamlike, stream-of-unconsciousness episodes, a drug-induced merging of the 20th and 18th centuries, requiring two conductors to avoid complete chaos. It’s great fun!
Side by Side (2007) presents Joanne Kong playing both piano and harpsichord, set 90 degrees to each other. To balance the disparate instruments, Colgrass first muted the piano strings, then amplified both to compete with the orchestra. Colgrass never severed his roots as a jazz drummer, so the 24-minute concerto exploits the percussive qualities of both keyboards and orchestra.
Colgrass wrote that The Schubert Birds (1989) is “a crazy quilt of theme and variations… based on Franz Schubert’s Kupelweiser Waltz, a little-known piano piece.” The title refers to “Schubert as a bird who spent his life singing, surrounded by a circle of others who… sang with him.” Like the CD’s other two works, the 19-minute piece revels in kaleidoscopic fragmentation and glittering sonorities.
The prolific, always-inventive Colgrass, the 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winner who died at 87 this past July, is less well-represented on disc than he should be. A Chicago native, he’d lived in Toronto since 1974, yet titled his 2010 memoir Adventures of an American Composer. Please, record companies, give us more CDs of the adventurous Michael Colgrass!
Two works by Vincent Ho, artistic director of Calgary’s Land’s End Ensemble, bookend this CD that spotlights as soloists the ensemble’s three musicians. First, cellist Beth Root Sandvoss performs Morning Sun, a lyrical, somewhat melancholy piece, just under four minutes long, that Ho composed while watching a sunrise in California.
In Derek Charke’s Tree Rings, violinist John Lowry and Ben Reimer on marimba depict a tree’s life under ever-changing weather conditions. The music’s moods and energies keep changing, too; it’s compelling listening throughout its own 11-minute “life.” Stelco is Omar Daniel’s “homage” to industrial machines and the Canadians “who risk life and limb” operating them. Pianist Susanne Ruberg-Gordon and Reimer on vibraphone manufacture ten minutes of metallic percussion, ranging from near-subsonic vibrations to pile-driver pounding, with clanging piano bass notes. The trio reunites in Analía Llugdar’s seven-minute Don Liborio Avila, based on a portrait of an old man in a small Argentinian town. “But,” says Llugdar, “violence haunts the picture.” The music is violent, too, the ensemble simulating angry electronic bursts, buzzes and squeaks.
Ho writes that Kickin’ It 2.0, performed by the ensemble plus Reimer on drum kit, was inspired by “Squarepusher, jazz, gamelan music, Chinese folk music and the crime novels of James Ellroy.” Ellroy’s novels notwithstanding, Ho’s 20-minute, four-movement work offers jazzy aggression, gentle gamelan-like tinkles, a drum-dominated cadenza and a powerful, sustained motoric finale, ending a fascinating disc that gathers steam (and steam engines!) from start to propulsive finish.
The idea of north is central to Canadian composer Carmen Braden’s latest release, titled Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars. The imagery of shimmering icy planes at dusk – an impression imbedded within all Canadians whether physically experienced or not – is ever present in Braden’s writing for various chamber ensembles. But this imagery is not obvious, nor is it obfuscated through artistic trickery. Braden’s music is clear, and it is bright. It drifts, lingers, dances, and breathes at rest. It is at once far and near – a personal representation of a liminal landscape that is at once distant and comforting. One true gift (among many) on the release is the second movement from a piece titled Raven Conspiracy. Braden gives this movement the subtitle of Waltz of Wing and Claw. This music, written for strings, paints the density and impossible geometry of the dream cloud of birds – that dark unbroken remoulding of the sky against sun, ice and smoke. This recording is captured psychogeography – a process that asks us to embrace the playfulness of our surroundings, and to drift among those places without cause. It is clear that Braden is trying to provide a portrait – but also a release – between life and surroundings. With a wide range of instrumentations, colours, and ambiences, the sounds on this recording will haunt and comfort – much like the strange beauty of the northern terrain.
Vancouver flutist Mark Takeshi McGregor is an internationally recognized interpreter of classical flute music, particularly of the experimental kind. As he writes in the liner notes, the motivation for his new album came from an exploration of his identities. “Lutalica [the word invented by John Koenig] meaning ‘the part of one’s identity that doesn’t fit into categories’ is a solo flute project that grew out of an identity crisis.”
McGregor has been performing music of predominantly European composers on the metal concert flute, even though he was “anything but Western European. I am half-Japanese, half-Australian, born and raised on the West Coast of Canada: a true product of the Pacific Rim.” His geographically informed search culminated in Lutalica, an album of nine recent widely varied solo flute works by composers hailing from Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan and the USA.
Bookending the album are works by two composers with strong Canadian connections. Hope Lee’s moving requiem for her father, forever after (2000), alternates moments of lyrical grief with percussive anger. Emilie LeBel’s 2017 Hiraeth (Welsh for homesickness, nostalgia, grief for lost places of the past) explores at length the “traveller’s desire to be free… all the while longing for a home to which they cannot return… which maybe never was.” The final alternating long low tones make a beautiful and satisfying ending to this album’s musical journey around the Pacific rim.
Should you consider listening to an entire album of contemporary solo flute music? When it’s so well composed, thoughtfully curated, and impressively performed as Lutalica is, my answer is a resounding yes.
I once developed a liking for a pricey mosaic backsplash tile with sharp colours featuring tiny images reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-art icons. If minimalist music has an analogy in the visual arts it is with mosaics. Frank Horvat’s minimalism is attractive, bright-coloured and poppy. Also surprising. Also, somewhat formulaic. This last is not a criticism of the quality or value of his writing; I’m no judge in that regard, but it does strike me that five of the six cuts on the newly released What Goes Around clock in at roughly ten minutes, suggesting a pattern of construction he consistently follows.
Breaking with this pattern, at nearly 15 minutes, is the most powerful piece, 7 Pianos, recorded on several tracks and performed by the composer. A concentration exercise for the listener, it’s almost a game of recognizing the extremely gradual variations away from the initial minute of a repeated gesture. Maybe it’s me being jaded, but this one challenges me to truly listen and not let the patterning lull my attention. Fatigue for the performer is sometimes a cherished aesthetic of the composer (those guys burn me up), and if it is so for Horvat, he has at least chosen a willing victim: this is intensity from start to finish.
A curiously titled piece referencing the late Rob Ford is similarly a multi-track recording with Peter Stoll ably accompanying himself on multiple clarinets in melancholy tunefulness; apparently Horvat felt more compassion than outrage regarding the misguided mayor. Other performers include the redoubtable Bev Johnston on mallets, and the disc ends with a strangely offensive (to me, I have issues) voice loop on the repeated phrase “I Love You.”
The requiem mass has provided composers with inspiration for centuries, from which has come some of Western music’s greatest works, including the Requiems of Verdi and Mozart, Fauré and Duruflé, as well as those incorporating external texts, such as Britten’s War Requiem.
Russell Hartenberger’s Requiem for Percussion and Voices is a work in the latter form, eschewing the traditional requiem texts in favour of an eight-movement reflection on death and nature. Incorporating tolling bells, funeral drum beatings, a Bach chorale, bird songs and bugle calls, this requiem is an eclectic and wide-ranging synthesis of musical style that suggests a broad, universal outlook.
The disc’s liner notes, written by Hartenberger (who is also a member of Nexus), are exceedingly insightful and highly recommended to anyone who listens to this piece, for within them one will find a personal story behind each movement, from Hartenberger’s days in the United States Air Force Band to his study of West African drum music. In a work with such wide-ranging and globally sourced material as this Requiem, such commentary serves as a road map, guiding the listener in an invaluable way.
In an area of the arts so often committed to reviving the works of the past, it is vitally important to explore new material in addition to the old standards. This recording provides a splendid example of why this is: tuneful, contemporary (in its truest sense), and a fine display of vocal and instrumental ability, Requiem is worthwhile listening for all.
Pianist Maria Dolnycky originally brought together the five local musicians on this recording to perform the stylistically diverse music of these seven Ukrainian composers in 2016 at Toronto’s Gallery 345 as a fundraiser for modern prosthetic limbs for Ukraine.
Dolnycky performs with passion and detail in all the works. Mykola Lysenko’s traditional Romantic-flavoured Sorrow (Elegy), Op. 39 opens with cellist Matthew Christakos playing a mournful solo line leading to singable melodies above tonal piano chords. Anatoly Kos-Anatolsky’s Waltz for cello and piano is upbeat with dramatic touches of swing and big band styles. Now it’s violist Alex McLeod’s turn to perform expressively in Vasyl Barvinsky’s Three Romances, a three-movement work highlighted by the happy closing It’s Spring Again! movement. Levko Kolodub’s Moldovan Sketch for viola and piano showcases the composer’s and two performers’ musical talents ranging from classic high tinkles to rhythmic Moldovan-flavoured folk music. Title track Suite Nostalgique for clarinet and piano is the strongest composition here, as clarinetist Peter Stoll joins Dolnycky in playing composer Taras Yashchenko’s four-movement exploration of two-step Foxtrot, slower Aria and intense rhythmic party Samba. Flutist Izabella Budai also traverses musical styles with piano from the sweet to atonal in nine short tasty selections from Boris Kosak’s Petit Fours (bite-sized treats), and the expressive Théodore Akimenko’s Idylle, Op.14 for flute and piano.
Let’s applaud Dolnycky for making these fascinating lesser-known Ukrainian works available for wider audiences to hear and contemplate.
If you play clarinet in an orchestra, the bassoon is your best friend. That rich and deeply grained sonority forgives a multitude of pitch variances; a well-supported bassoon sound is a perfect colour complement to the whingeing voice of its single-reed neighbour. So immediately I must declare a bias in this commentary on Come Closer, featuring American bassoonist Michael Harley playing the music of several of his colleagues from the University of South Carolina and beyond.
Listen to this album. Just go out and buy it and put it on and marvel at the title track by John Fitz Rogers. A quartet performed in multi-track by Harley, with definite echoes of Reich, Adams and Glass, it nourishes the ear, never tiresome, always delightful. Precision marries beauty. In the following piece, Miphadventures by Stefan Freund, we’re treated to a blues-infused dialogue between bassoon and piano (played with sympathy and guts by Phillip Bush). An introductory arioso sets the stage for a swinging dance in a stylish syncopated four to a bar. This is Americanism, not Americana. It’s never hackneyed, simply enjoyable. Harley allows just the barest hint of jazz inflection, which is good. Too many bends induce nausea.
If you begin to think this all sounds too like easy listening, stay tuned. The third track will satisfy your wish for tonal exploration. Alarums and Excursions by Carl Schimmel bills itself as a Puzzle-Burlesque, but really leave off the brain work and just gloat that here’s something very grabby that also avoids major and minor sonorities.
I could go on. You don’t need me to. You need to get this disc.
Here’s certainly something different, a bassoon duo playing contemporary concert music. Music scored for two bassoons apparently only reaches back a few decades, yet undeterred, bassoonists Rachael Elliott and Lynn Hileman formed their duo Tuple in 2006. They have played their unusual repertoire widely at American experimental art and music venues ever since. Darker Things, their debut album, displays their admirable technique and musicality, as well as the surprising tonal, timbral and emotional range possible on just two bassoons.
The earliest work here is by the celebrated Tatar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Her masterfully crafted, impassioned Duo Sonata (1977) is characterized by one of her extra-musical themes: reaching for the divine in music. Frequent glissandi, intense chromatic motives, the use of micro-chromaticism (i.e. quarter tones) and multiphonics illustrate what Gubaidulina characterizes as striving for a “transition to another plane of existence.”
Lacrimosa (1991), by the idiosyncratic Dutch master composer Louis Andriessen, is a slow and deliberate work employing close atonal harmonies to create the keening quality suggested by its title. On the other hand multiple Grammy Award-winning composer Michael Daugherty’s Bounce (1988) explores a series of dramatic moments in various moods, tempi, dynamics and bassoon ranges. Black (2008) by American post-minimalist Marc Mellits stays light of heart throughout. Echoes of Steve Reich at his most ebullient permeate the work, however Mellits’ complex cross-rhythms and syncopations also reference rock’s straightforward tonality and forward-propelling energy.
Darker Things is a fun and thought-provoking album suitable for double reed players – as well as the rest of us.
A musical pattern may be a repeating or recurring rhythm, pitch, dynamic, instrumentation etc. A repeating pattern of surprisingly fascinating, contrasting music by seven composers for diverse small ensembles, including two solo guitar works, makes this an unexpected listening joy.
James William Stamm’s Asymmetry for guitar duet is upbeat with alternating broken chord figures and short melodic sections. Georges Raillard’s guitar solo Disintegration opens with tonal intervals which then change to contrasting strums and atonal intervals. Composer/guitarist Santiago Kodela’s three-movement/pattern solo-guitar work, Two Lords, opens with Of Textures, a rhythmic toe-tapping work with low tones and moving melody. The slower, edgier Of Colours has ringing contemplative guitar tones. The faster Of Mechanics features driving guitar grooves, pitches and repeated note patterns.
Now for percussion patterns. Daniel Adams’ two-marimba work Road Traversed and Reversed opens with attention-grabbing marimba rolls, then lots of exciting repeated notes, tight duet contrapuntal playing and grooves. David Arbury’s Four Snares has four snare drummers performing constantly on the move – snare rolls, effects, taps and dynamic variations.
Bunny Beck’s tango-flavoured expressive Suite for Sarro for string trio encompasses contemporary and Romantic sounds. Fun abounds in Jan Järvlepp’s Bassoon Quartet. The four bassoons emulate car sounds like short beeps in Cadillac. The slower Reaching showcases the instrument’s low pitch abilities. Danceable Jig is rewarding at the low pitch with twirling melodic patterns.
The pattern is completed with impeccable production and performances. Great, great, great!
Kaija Saariaho – True Fire; Trans; Ciel d’hiver
Gerald Finley; Xavier de Maistre; Finnish RSO; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 1309-2 (naxosdirect.com)
Wergo Edition Musikfabrik 15 (musikfabrik.eu/en)
Kaija Saariaho appears to engage all the senses at full throttle when she is writing music. This tactility is channelled in such a manner that one might conceivably hear the creeping of the shadow of a tree elongating at dusk or a flower weeping in the rain in long inventions and subtly sculpted lines for a cello. All of this appears to make for works that comprise highly complex sound masses, created out of microscopic tangles of intertwined instrumental lines – a kind of musical spider’s web woven with micropolyphony. Through it all she remains completely focused on melody, counterpoint and harmony, with rhythm also surfacing in dramatic outbursts. Saariaho appears to push form to its limit, creating a compelling musical world at once eerie and beautiful.
The music on this disc is made up of three exquisite orchestral works and is beyond tonality, atonality and post-modernization. On Trans, a work in three movements for harp and orchestra, Saariaho creates a vivid storyline and invites the listener to follow her principal character – personified by the harp – as it evolves in the music’s narrative. Harpist Xavier de Maistre’s performance is lustrous and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra is outstanding as they make the work seem visionary, highlighting Saariaho’s gift for creating hauntingly memorable sounds.
Saariaho also reveals her heightened sense of the dramatic in Ciel d’hiver, a retelling of part of the journey of the son of Poseidon, re-orchestrated from her larger piece, Orion. The appropriately smaller symphony orchestra still manages to deliver the work’s supple textures with consummate musicality, allowing for the beauty of the mythic narrative to emerge with compelling force. On True Fire, Saariaho turns to perhaps her greatest strength – the setting of poetry to music. This work is performed by the great Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who weathers the enormous difficulty of the vocal writing with glorious ease. His vocal outpourings, together with masterful orchestral direction by Hannu Lintu, help the poetry leap off the page.
Saariaho’s music reappears on a second disc also featuring works by two other contemporary composers, Steffen Schleiermacher and Michael Wertmüller. The disc is titled Sturm (or Storm) as the music is evocative of – poetically or otherwise – atmospheric agitation appropriately conjured up by the extraordinary contemporary collective, Ensemble Musikfabrik, joined throughout by soloing guest musicians.
In the case of Saariaho’s contribution, the music translates parts of Shakespeare (The Tempest) reincarnated in a cycle of songs titled The Tempest Songbook and brought to life by the lustrous soprano of Olivia Vermeulen and the ink-dark baritone of Peter Schöne. Schleiermacher’s Das Tosen Des Staunenden Echos (The roar of the amazed echo) captures an agitated journey, its turbulent repeated gestures revolving theatrically, breaking in waves and sounding like fluid birth pangs in the very act of the enigmatic composition itself. Wertmüller’s Antagonisme Contrôlé is a fiery piece that roars between the freewheeling worlds of jazz and avant-garde-music styles as soloists, including the inimitable saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, take the music to dizzying heights.
This is one disc that achieves so much more than it sets out to do. Bird as Prophet (the composition) is an amalgam of Robert Schumann, a Romantic with a deep and abiding knowledge of literature and philosophy, and Charlie Parker, the iconic bebop genius who revolutionized jazz – and, it may be argued, all contemporary music. But it is the fingers – and bow – of David Bowlin that drives the music of the entire disc much further.
Bowlin brings so much more to the music than mere virtuosity. Combining his absolute mastery of the violin with inspired interpretations, he lifts the black dots off the page in an utterly beguiling performance evocative of the very nature of human endeavour and the mercurial vicissitudes that go with it.
Bowlin’s instrument lives and breathes and takes us to another world. It’s full of glinting illuminations, mysterious depths, expectations, frustrations, hopes and doubts, like the lights and shadows of a quasi-Schumann scherzo glimpsed by moonlight in a forest. Using taped effects and partnered by four other musicians (on three other tracks), Bowlin creates passage upon passage of notes that are at once perfectly transparent yet gorgeously coloured. There’s also a sense of tightly disciplined improvisation everywhere in the music.
Finally, on the mesmerising Under a Tree, an Udātta, an almost-nine minute musical exploration of Sanskrit phonetics (Udātta is the pitch accent of Vedic Sanskrit), he bows out with buoyant, aristocratic grace.
In 2015, vocalist Diana Panton released I Believe in Little Things, with Don Thompson, Reg Schwager and Coenraad Bloemendal. The album has a lot going for it: intelligent arrangements, strong performances, and classic songs from sources such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pinocchio and The Muppet Movie. While Panton had released a number of records previously, I Believe in Little Things was her first children’s album.
Panton’s project continues with A Cheerful Little Earful, a new album of jazz for kids, which was released in October 2019. Schwager and Thompson are back, as are succinct arrangements of songs from television, film and music theatre. Panton has a gift for singing with simple phrasing and with an unaffected delivery that places emphasis on the melody at hand; this stripped-down style works perfectly in the small-ensemble setting with Schwager and Thompson, and also focuses the listener’s attention on the songs’ lyrics.
Like I Believe In Little Things, A Cheerful Little Earful is being marketed as a “jazz album for kids.” It might, however, be more accurate to say that it is an album for adults looking back with fondness at the music of their own youth (and their parents’ youth, for that matter; Happy Talk, the album’s first track, is from South Pacific). But whether Panton’s listeners are swept up in a rush of nostalgia or experiencing these songs for the first time, it’s safe to say that they’ll enjoy this well-crafted record.
At times, Nick Fraser has been Toronto’s busiest jazz drummer, but he’s increasingly involved in developing his own music and some key international partnerships. Among his projects is this trio with New York-based saxophonist Tony Malaby and pianist Kris Davis. For the trio’s second outing (Too Many Continents appeared in 2015), they’ve enlisted guests: New York saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and Toronto trumpeter Lina Allemano appear on the three Fraser compositions included here.
It’s a hard-edged band with a disciplined intensity that shows in each taut track, with or without guests, a give and take between form and freedom that often moves toward form. The incendiary opening dialogue between Malaby and Laubrock (he has the warmer jazz tone; she’s responsible for the weirder hollow harmonics and deliberate bleats) is eventually drawn into form. Throughout the program, tight-knit figures are frequently employed to develop structural tensions that will ultimately explode before reassembling themselves.
Fraser’s Sketch 46, a dance between restraint and expression, begins with the most incidental wisps of sound: the lightest piano flurries, a muffled cymbal, air through a trumpet, saxophone plosives. These events, increasingly pointillistic, gradually increase in length and intensity, volume remaining low, relations among parts sketchy. Eventually the band activity expands to an increasingly dense collective. Drawn into Fraser’s fierce knitting drum figures, the horns emerge for brief solo episodes, until a long-toned melody, almost choral, emerges.
It’s just one crucial piece in this demanding set of brilliantly realized works.
Could this musical yarn of Fezziwig, whose chronicles the Mark Kelso Jazz Project so expertly spin, hark back to a character from the novel A Christmas Carol created by Charles Dickens? If the time and circumstance of Dickens’ story and our time were to inhabit similar capsules, then the jovial, foppish man with a large Welsh wig might just as well be evoked by this breathtakingly effervescent music for our rather dark times, to sweep away the turmoil of our century into a Green Revolution, just as the character in Dickens’ story did at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.
Opening the fold-over package to get to The Chronicles of Fezziwig we read the words: “Inspire creativity.” This is the kind of spark that Kelso’s drumming inevitably provides whenever he becomes the rhythmic and catalytic pivot in any ensemble. Here too, the electrifying drummer plays that role in this sextet. In Fezziwig’s character, Kelso’s songs can be quirky (Elliptical), elegiac (A Message from Idris), mesmerizing (Pinwheel) and more. Each song evolves into a gripping narrative evoked by a riveting melody laced with glorious harmony. The rippling jazz grooves that ensue gently build into boppish saxophone and piano runs, launched, of course, by Kelso’s broodingly percussive funky and tumbling rhythms.
The ensemble includes heavyweight musicians: saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, guitarist Ted Quinlan, pianists Gordon Sheard and Brian Dickinson, and bassist Mike Downes, all of whom interpret Kelso’s vivid works idiomatically.