It’s just about a year since I retired from New Music Concerts after two decades as general manager, but I can’t seem to get away from the (great) memories. At the invitation of artistic director Robert Aitken, the 2000/2001 season began with the Caput Ensemble of Iceland, a country that had previously captured my imagination and sparked dreams of travel. Although it would be more than a decade before I would experience the magic isle in person, this was my first exposure to the wonderful people and culture of the fabled land. It created an impression that stuck with me and was confirmed in 2012 during a two-week visit to Iceland with Bob Aitken, his wife Marion and my wife Sharon. As a result of his career as a flute soloist and chamber musician it was Bob’s 16th trip there. He seemed to know everyone in the country and we were made to feel almost like family. 

01 AtonementIt was truly a trip of a lifetime for me, and one I realize I have mentioned again and again in this column. My excuse this time is a new Caput recording, Atonement, featuring music by Pàll Ragnar Pàlsson (Sono Luminus DSL-92241 sonoluminus.com/store/atonement). Pàlsson, who began as a rock musician, changed his focus in his late 20s. After undergraduate work at the Iceland Academy of Arts he went on to a master’s degree at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre where he studied with Helena Tulve (one of many international composers I had the pleasure of meeting during my tenure at NMC). It was there that Pàlsson met his future wife, soprano Tui Hirv, whose voice is featured extensively on this disc. 

The title track is a setting of a poem by fellow Icelander Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir for soprano, flute, piano, violin, viola and cello. The quiet, eerie instrumentation and the poem’s final stanza – “Coming to terms with a new world, finally the moment you were waiting for” – aptly sets the stage for what is to come. The second piece Lucidity is an abstract work that adds clarinet and percussion to the mix (without soprano or viola). Hirv returns for Stalker’s Monologue, from Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic film Stalker, set for the whole ensemble (all of the above plus harp). A multilinguist and musicologist in addition to her exquisite vocal skills, Hirv provided the English translation of Tarkovsky’s Russian text that appears in the booklet. Midsummer’s Night, another poem by Gunnarsdóttir, is set for just flute, clarinet, harp and percussion with recitation by the author. Incidentally, I find myself writing this column on Midsummer’s Eve, June 23. Both of Gunnarsdóttir’s poems are in English. The disc culminates in Wheel Crosses Under Moss with a text assembled from various Swedish hymns from Vormsi Island in West Estonia. Featuring the “Pierrot” core of the ensemble in support of the guest soprano, it draws this striking portrait of the first Icelander to win the International Rostrum of Composers to a quietly dramatic close. 

It has been 20 years since I first heard, and met, the members of Caput. There has been a complete change in personnel during that time with the exception of founding clarinetist Guðni Franzson who now serves as the group’s conductor. Two things that haven’t changed are Caput’s commitment to contemporary Icelandic composers and its skill in bringing their music to life. 

02 Smarason StaraIt seems that I’m not the only one. Sono Luminus CEO Collin J. Rae is also enamoured of Iceland’s music and that small Virginia-based label has become a major promoter of Nordic culture under his stewardship. Hot on the heels of Atonement comes STARA, a portrait of another, younger Icelandic composer Halldór Smárason (DSL-92242 sonoluminus.com/store/stara) featuring the Siggi String Quartet and Friends. Smárason, was born in Ísafjörður, Westfjords in the northwestern part of Iceland in 1989. He completed an Advanced Level Piano Examination in 2009, a B.A. degree in composition from the Iceland University of the Arts in 2012 and an M.M. degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 2014. Smárason has received the Artists’ Salaries four times, a state-funded support for selected Icelandic artists. 

Founded in 2012, the members of Siggi String Quartet have worked with Björk, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ensemble Modern, Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Caput, Slátur, Bedroom Community and Errata Collective as well as being key players of the Reykjavík Chamber and Iceland Symphony Orchestras.

The disc includes three string quartets, two mixed chamber works and Skúlptúr 1 for solo guitar and electronics performed by Gulli Björnsson. The quartet Stara, the earliest work on the disc, dates from 2012 during Smárason’s American studies, where it won the Manhattan Prize. draw + play, the second quartet, heard first on the disc, was commissioned by the Siggi quartet. It is inspired by the accordion and the title is extracted from an old Icelandic word for the instrument. I find it intriguing how the composer uses the string instruments to replicate the sounds of distinctive extended contemporary accordion techniques. BLAKTA, the third quartet, is the most recent piece on the album. It was commissioned to celebrate Iceland’s 100 years as a sovereign state and depicts a flag fluttering in various weather conditions, characterized by distinctive vibratos of different speed and density. Very atmospheric. 

For the mixed ensemble works stop breathing and the intriguingly titled _a_at_na the quartet enlists the help of “Friends” Emilía Rós Sigfúsdóttir (bass flute), Geirþrúður Ása Guðjónsdóttir (violin), Helga Björg Arnardóttir (clarinet) and Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir (piano), as required. The latter piece is based on the composer’s personal struggle with anxiety, and the title is a puzzle requiring the Icelandic word for anxiety to solve. Even the stage setup is affected by this very personal subject, with the piano isolated in the middle of the audience and the rest of the performers spread around the periphery. Evidently this can be heard in the fully immersive audio version of the album on the Pure Audio Blu-ray™ disc that accompanies the standard CD, although it is not available on the digital files from which I am working. Regardless of that, the angst certainly comes through convincingly, completing a very personal portrait of an important new voice. 

It was in April 2003 that I had another “brush with greatness” thanks to New Music Concerts when George Crumb and his family came to Toronto to work with our musicians. Crumb had been an important part of the NMC family from the very early days to the extent that four of his pieces were included on an extended European tour in 1976. The first Crumb portrait concert had taken place at Walter Hall in 1974, with another at Premiere Dance Theatre in 1986 that included the premiere of An Idyll for the Misbegotten, dedicated to Robert Aitken, and then another at Glenn Gould Studio in 2003 as mentioned above. On that occasion Teri Dunn was featured in Federico’s Little Songs for Children and daughter Ann Crumb sang the recently completed cycle Unto the Hills. Crumb was 74 at the time and he showed no signs of slowing down creatively. 

03 Crumb 19It seems that is still true and the latest Bridge Records release George Crumb Vol.19 is testament to this (bridgerecords.com/products/9535). On it Marcantonio Barone performs Metamorphoses (Book I) (2015-2017) subtitled “Ten Fantasy-Pieces (after celebrated paintings)” for amplified piano. Amplification has often been an important aspect to Crumb’s instrumentation – the flute in An Idyll for the Misbegotten, the string quartet in Black Angels, and in almost his entire extensive piano repertoire. In most cases this is not to make the music loud, but rather to make the quietest subtleties of harmonics and extended techniques audible. The pianist is required not only to play upon the keyboard, but to venture inside the piano to pluck and strum and dampen strings, use fists, brushes, yarn sticks and other materials to caress and strike various wire, wood and metal surfaces, vocalize and employ a variety of small, mostly percussion, instruments to expand the solo piano into a real orchestra of timbre. 

Highlights of the set for me include Goldfish (Paul Klee, 1925) with its echoes of Debussy’s Poissons d’or and sustain-pedal, open-string resonance, Crows over the Wheatfield (Vincent van Gogh, 1890) with eerie cawing from the pianist, The Fiddler (Marc Chagall, 1912/13) with zither-like string strumming and dancing melodies, Contes barbares (Paul Gauguin, 1902) featuring Tahitian incantations and percussive outbursts, and The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dalí, 1931) with nods to some of Crumb’s favourite pieces, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, Beethoven’s Op.110 and the iconic hymn Amazing Grace. There are many references to Crumb’s earlier compositions and in many ways these new works sound familiar. One sometimes wonders “Why does Grandpa keep telling the same stories?” but listen carefully; you’ll find vast new worlds buried within them.

Although Book I is dedicated to Margaret Leng Tan, Crumb was evidently so taken with Barone’s performance that he is the dedicatee of Book II, completed earlier this year, the composer’s 91st. So, still not slowing down! I look forward to hearing the sequel and to future Bridge releases documenting the ongoing legacy of this great American composer. 

IN BRIEF

04 JQ Metamorphosis coverAnother Metamorphosis crossed my desk this month featuring 2004 Banff International String Quartet Competition laureates the Jupiter Quartet (Marquis Classics MAR499 marquisclassics.com/499_met.aspx). The disc, which will be released on August 7, honours the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with his String Quartet Op.131 in C-sharp Minor, a work that violist Liz Freivogel describes as one that “quartet musicians picture [as] their ideal chamber music experience […] There are few other works that require such a prolonged and intense communion with one another.” She goes on to say that Jupiter “naïvely” tried to learn the work in their first year together with limited success, but now, almost two decades later, feel they understand “a few more of the elements that make it so powerful.” This performance is a fully mature one that convincingly captures the depth and breadth of Beethoven’s masterpiece. Jupiter has paired it with one of the seminal quartets of the second half of the 20th century, Ligeti’s Quartet No.1 “Métamorphoses nocturnes.” Completed in 1954, the work is reminiscent of the quartets of Bartók and looks backward as much as forward while remaining rooted in the abrasive textures of the recent avant-garde, before metamorphosing to a “melancholy and lonely close.” Once again the quartet excels, confirming not only its command of the literature in all its intricacies, but also its creativity when it comes to programming. 

05 Weilerstein BachWhat to say about yet another recording of the Bach Cello Suites? Literally, my shelf runneth over, so it is actually a blessing to be working from digital files during the COVID crisis. But I do welcome this latest addition to the PentaTone catalogue, Bach Weilerstein (pentatonemusic.com/bach-cello-suites-alisa-weilerstein) featuring 2011 MacArthur Fellow Alisa Weilerstein

As Jason Stell declares in the program notes, “The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by J. S. Bach loom larger than any other works in the genre. They are the veritable Alpha and Omega of a cellist’s art.” It is no wonder then that every cellist aspires to “conquer” this summit, but it must also be daunting to try to find a new path where so many have gone before. I’ll let Weilerstein explain her decision to undertake this journey:

“With their delicacy and nakedness, their strength and restraint, the cello suites present a unique and humbling challenge. After many years telling family, friends, and myself that I would attempt a recording only when I was much older, I decided that what had seemed like prudence was, in fact, a misunderstanding of the suites’ nature. The intrinsic impossibility of this music is the very source of its freedom.

“I have been living with these suites since further back than memory can reach, and I have grown with them throughout my life with the cello. Great music is a reflection of life as it is lived, and this recording is a reflection of myself, in 2019, at 37 years old, steeped in and still discovering Bach’s unparalleled accomplishment.”

I’m very happy to have been invited to share this monumental undertaking with one of the finest artists of her generation. You should too!

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 Flights of AngelsWhile I don’t personally put much store in celestial beings, in these dire times I concede that we need all the help, comfort and support we can get anywhere we can find it. It seems that the extraordinary cellist Margaret Maria firmly believes in angels, and they are an ongoing source of inspiration in her work. Her latest, Flights of Angels (enchanten.bandcamp.com), once again creates an orchestral texture by combining many layers of sounds generated by her solo cello. From the artist’s website (enchanten.com) we learn this is meant to be: “Healing music being released into a broken world. Music created from otherworldly energies and the spirit world that can only be felt when you open your spirit to the invisible that exists just beyond what we can see. This music represents my spiritual journey in finding my music and moments of subconscious/dream states where I felt compelled to move in a certain direction, as if guided by a light towards an idea or emotion…” 

Beginning with Snow Angel, “overjoyed by the dancing snowflakes as they descend upon her wings,” we embark upon a journey that takes us through many states of being and consciousness: An Impossible Gift (to feel everything, to be a channel for both the dark and the light); An Angel for Maria (a special angel or spirit... one of the most beautiful Angels); Another World Opens (limitless, timeless, expansive); Tears of an Angel (listening to the sadness in the world); Passing Through (reality passes in and out of consciousness and finally, through); Breathtaking Light (a liminal light... made of half earth and half heaven); What If (...what if / In your dream / You went to heaven / And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower...); Floating Hope (the strongest emotion that keeps propelling me forward is hope...); And They Kept Kissing (heaven on earth to my tortured soul); Be Love (...a place where I can float in a space of love) and finally Princes of Heaven (I have been sent four Archangels in my life...).

Having disclosed my scepticism of celestial creatures I must consider it a coincidence that as I write this on April 21 while listening to Snow Angel I am enchanted to find myself watching a veritable blizzard outside my window. It has now passed and it’s a beautiful, albeit blustery, sunny day. Hopefully, like the late season snow, the COVID-19 virus too shall pass quickly. In the interim I take heart from Margaret Maria’s music. It does have healing powers, if the calm and gentle invigoration I’ve been feeling while listening is any indication.

Listen to 'Flights of Angels' Now in the Listening Room

As with almost everyone I am sure, self-isolation (with my dear wife Sharon) has curtailed much of my activity, foremost that of making music with other people. As regular readers will know, I am an avid amateur cellist, and in the months before this lockdown my string quartet had been working on several movements from Richard Krug’s arrangement of Schubert’s Winterreise. We were almost ready to bring in a singer to work with us when the pandemic reared its ugly head and all bets were off for the moment. I first encountered the string quartet version several years ago when I received a recording with baritone Johan Reuter and the Copenhagen String Quartet, of which Krug is the cellist (you can find my April 2018 review at thewholenote.com). Last fall, in my first outing following knee replacement surgery, I had the pleasure of experiencing a live performance by Daniel Lichti and the Penderecki String Quartet, during which I found myself thinking, hey, I could play (at least some of) that! I contacted Krug and purchased the score and parts to his arrangement and shortly after began to rehearse with my friends. 

02Winterreise for QuartetI look forward to getting back to rehearsal as soon as this crisis is over, but in the interim another interesting transcription has come my way. Winterreise for string quartet (Solo Musica SM 335 naxosdirect.com) is a purely instrumental version of the classic song cycle arranged by Andreas Höricht, violist of the featured Voyager Quartet. Höricht has taken half of the original songs and linked them with intermezzi of his own design to make a 50-minute suite (the entire cycle spans about 75 minutes). I have mixed feelings about the result. While it works quite well in its own right, and of course Schubert’s tunes are among the finest, I still miss the singer and the emotional content provided by the words. And I miss some of the songs, most particularly two of the ones my group has been focused on, Die Wetterfahne and Erstarrung, this latter presenting the most difficult challenge to the cellist in Krug’s arrangement and the one on which I have spent the most time and effort. That being said, Höricht’s interludes provide useful bridges between the selected songs and bring a contemporary sensibility without being particularly jarring. He has chosen seven songs from the first 19 of the cycle, but presents the final five in sequence ending, of course, with the Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy man) in a suitably haunting performance. 

I say “of course” but in another transmogrification of Winterreise this was not the case. In January of this year Philippe Sly and the Chimera Project brought a live performance of their stunning Klezmer/Roma arrangement for baritone, violin, clarinet, trombone and accordion to Koerner Hall. In their rendition – fully staged and performed entirely from memory – the evening begins with a surprisingly peppy instrumental version of the opening song Gute Nacht before proceeding through the other 23 songs in order. After Der Leiermann with the singer accompanied by the quartet, instead of being the end of the performance, Sly, alone on the stage, then gave a chilling rendition of Gute Nacht accompanying himself on the hurdy-gurdy. It was unsettling and has stayed with me ever since. You can find Pamela Margles’ June 2019 review of the Chimera Project Analekta recording at thewholenote.com. 

03 Zephyr QuartetOther than the music of Peter Sculthorpe, I’m not well versed in Australian culture or repertoire, but from the opening strains of Hilary Kleinig’s Great White Bird on the Zephyr Quartet’s new CD Epilogue (navonarecords.com) I knew I was listening to music from Down Under, with its drones, overtones and distinctive rhythms. Touted as Australia’s “leading genre-defying explorers of dynamic cross-artform, multi-focused collaborations,” Zephyr was founded in 1999 and has since garnered numerous awards and accolades. The members all compose, arrange and improvise and their latest release brings together works written by them between 2013 and 2019. Cellist Kleinig contributes three tuneful works, Cockatoos and Exquisite Peace in addition to the opening number. Violinist Belinda Gehlert is represented by the three-movement tribute to notorious women Femme Fatale and the concluding title track. Violinist Emily Tulloch and violist Jason Thomas each contribute a pair. Tulloch’s Blindfold Gift starts as a gentle pizzicato meditation which turns into a minimalist lilting jig of sorts. Much like the disc itself, Thomas’ Time’s Timeless Art, the longest selection, is one extended harmonious arch in which time indeed seems to stand still. A balm for these troubled times.  

04 Piano QuintetsTreasures from the New World (Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0609
naxosdirect.com) features piano quintets by Amy Beach (1867-1944) and Henrique Oswald (1852-1931) performed by Clélia Iruzun and the Coull Quartet. Beach’s Piano Quintet dates from 1908 and had more than 40 performances during her lifetime. She premiered it with the Kneisel Quartet, with whom she had previously performed the quintets of Schumann and Brahms. While exhibiting both a distinctive and mature voice, the work acknowledges the early influence of those two masters. 

Although Beach has been receiving well-deserved attention recently and recordings of her music are proliferating – there are currently 19 titles listed on Grigorian.com – Henrique Oswald is a new name to me. He was born in Brazil of Swiss and Italian parents and after early studies in São Paulo he travelled to Italy to study and remained in Florence for some 30 years. He returned to Brazil in 1902 where he accepted the post of director of the Instituto Nacional de Música in Rio de Janeiro. His influences were primarily the French Romantics and he was dubbed “the Brazilian Fauré” by his friend Arthur Rubinstein. Composed in 1895, toward the end of his sojourn in Florence, the Piano Quintet reflects not only his fondness of French idioms, its outer movements look back to the music of Robert Schumann, making a wonderful pairing with Beach’s quintet. 

The charming disc also includes a short work for piano and ensemble by Brazilian Marlos Nobre (b.1939) who says “I can say I am a contemporary composer still capable of writing a beautiful melody,” and Beach’s celebrated Romance for Violin and Piano with Iruzun and Roger Coull. The performances throughout are idiomatic and compelling. 

05 Aspects of PulitzerThe final disc that caught my attention this month also features music from the New World, in this case mid-to-late century works by distinguished American composers. Aspects of America: Pulitzer Edition (PentaTone PTC 5186 763
pentatonemusic.com) features Pulitzer Prize-winning works by Walter Piston, Morton Gould and Howard Hanson performed by the Oregon Symphony under Carlos Kalmar. It was Hanson (1896-1981) that drew me to this disc, as he was the one to convince Canadian icon John Weinzweig to pursue a master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY, where he studied under Bernard Rogers in the years before WW2. Although not a result of the formal teaching he received there, this period proved seminal in Weinzweig’s development by virtue of his exposure to 12-tone composition through the works of Alban Berg which he found in the school library. While he didn’t become a strict serialist, Weinzweig did incorporate dodecaphonic principles into his own compositions, seemingly the first Canadian to so, and later passed them on to his own students at the University of Toronto. 

Hanson, himself, was considered a neo-Romantic composer by his peers. He personally rejected the serial approach although he did incorporate some dissonance and bi-tonality in his work. He won the Pulitzer in 1944 for his Symphony No.4, Op.34 “Requiem.” This is one of seven symphonies and Hanson claimed it as his favourite. It’s in four movements, named for parts of the Catholic Mass for the Dead: Kyrie, Resquiescat, Dies irae and Lux aeterna. Although the earliest work here, it is placed last on the program, with its “eternal light” providing an uplifting and ethereal closing to the disc. There is no mention in the notes as to whether the symphony references the global war that was raging at the time of composition. 

Chronologically next, Piston’s Symphony No.7, is the first selection on the disc. Piston (1894-1976) studied in France with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas after attending Harvard, where he later taught from 1926 until retiring in 1960. His illustrious students included the likes of Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein. His textbook, Harmony, was published in 1941 and is still in use today. The Pulitzer he won in 1961 for the Seventh Symphony was actually his second, the first being awarded for his Third Symphony in 1948. The Seventh starts ponderously but soon develops into a driving Con moto before receding quietly. This is followed by a meditative Andante pastorale movement; the symphony finishes with a boisterous Allegro festevole

The most recent work is Stringmusic by Morton Gould (1913-1996) which won the Pulitzer in 1995. It was written for Mstislav Rostropovich and “showcases all the possible sounds and colours of a string orchestra,” although anyone familiar with Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima might disagree. It’s a lyrical five-movement work – Prelude, Tango, Dirge, Ballad and Strum (perpetual motion) – which serves as a fitting monument to the life of a man whose eclectic career spanned vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley to Broadway and concert halls around the world. This excellent disc is part of an ongoing tribute to American music from PentaTone and the Oregon Symphony. 

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

David Olds with Jean-Guihen Queyras, November 2002Once upon a time, and a long time ago it was, I was sitting around with friends discussing what we would do if we won the lottery. I said I would buy a radio station – this was long before blogs and podcasts – so that I could play just the music I liked. My friend Gary suggested it was not necessary to actually buy a station to make that happen, and asked did I know about the Ryerson alternative music station CKLN-FM (1983-2011)? I did not, but was pleased to learn of this incredible, if somewhat limited, community resource which by that time had expanded from being an in-house station “broadcasting” to about a dozen speakers around the Ryerson campus, to a whopping 50 watt operation accessible to anyone with a strong FM receiver in the downtown core of Toronto. I began to listen and was quite taken with the breadth and diversity of its programming, virtually all of which (from alt-pop, punk and grunge, reggae, hip-hop, house and rap, to such varied offerings as old timey roots and gospel, electronica, ambient music, spoken word, LGBT politics and ultra-left takes on current events) could not easily be found anywhere else on the dial at the time. 

Although it seemed a strange extension of the mandate, I proposed a program of contemporary classical music, kind of a supplement to Two New Hours (which had been airing weekly on the CBC since 1978, under WholeNote colleague David Jaeger’s production). Station manager Adam Vaughan and program director John Jones, although amused when I included talking on a taxi radio, my “day” job at the time, in my broadcast experience, found enough merit in my proposal to give me access to the equipment and a few brief lessons on how to run the board to allow me to produce a demo tape. To bring a long introduction to an end, in the early days of 1984 I made my radio debut as the host of Transfigured Night, named after my favourite piece of chamber music at the time, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. The show initially aired from 2am to 7am on Tuesday mornings, which of course was Monday night to me, having been a denizen of the night-shift driving Globe and Mail trucks and later Beck Taxis for many years. During the seven years that I produced and hosted Transfigured Night, I broadcast works of Arnold Schoenberg on 109 occasions including ten performances of the show’s namesake. My final broadcast aired on November 25, 1991 and on that occasion I played the recording that had made me fall in love with the work, Pierre Boulez’s sextet version with Le Domaine Musical from the 1950s. 

01 Schoenberg Violin concerto Verkl rte Nacht (All) that all being said, I was delighted to find a new release of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto paired with Verklärte Nacht featuring Isabelle Faust and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding’s direction (Harmonia Mundi HMM 902341 harmoniamundi.com). The six performers for the latter piece include Canadian-born French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras whom I had the pleasure of meeting back in 2002 when he was awarded the City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize as selected by Pierre Boulez, laureate of the Glenn Gould Prize that year. As part of the concert at the award event, Queyras was the soloist in Boulez’s Messagesquisse performing with a sextet of other cellists assembled by New Music Concerts for the occasion. 

Normally I would have forwarded this disc to Terry Robbins for his Strings Attached column, but due to the number of personal connections, and the fact that Terry reviewed another performance of the violin concerto last month, I have selfishly retained this one for myself. But I will borrow from Terry’s review. He told us that in spite of the composer’s own description of the concerto – extremely difficult, just as much for the head as for the hands – “it’s a quite stunning work that is emotionally clearly from the heart, and that really deserves to be much more prominent in the mainstream violin concerto repertoire.” With two significant recordings emerging in as many months, I think it safe to say that the concerto is beginning to receive the attention it deserves. The sextet (1899) with its dark and stormy backstory is resplendent in late-Romantic sensibility that only hints at the (a)tonal developments to come. The concerto was written almost four decades later, several years after the composer’s move to the USA. While it employs the serial (12 note) technique central to his mature works, Schoenberg had taken a more tonal approach to writing after his move to America and the concerto has many neoclassical elements, not unlike Stravinsky. Faust’s performance is outstanding, finding a perfect balance between the at times craggy angularity of the melody and the lyrical moments of respite. Her tone is assured and her technique flawless. The performance of Verkärte Nacht is everything I would have hoped for – warm and lush without sacrificing nuance or detail. A very welcome opportunity to revisit what is still one of my favourite works. 

It was during the time of Transfigured Night that I became enamoured of electronic music in many of its (classical) forms – musique concrète, mixed works (electronics and live instruments), computer-generated and synthesized compositions, acousmatic art etc. – and at a conference in Montreal in 1986 became a founding member of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community. I also became the first to commission radiophonic works for community station broadcast, a dozen pieces from such luminaries as Norma Beecroft, Francis Dhomont, Yves Daoust and Paul Dolden, along with the abovementioned Jaeger and another current WholeNote colleague Wendalyn Bartley. 

02 Nick Storring Cover 1500 JPGAlthough in recent years my interest in the form has waned, the most recent release from Toronto cellist/composer/producer Nick Storring has brought fond memories of my earlier involvement with the medium. The nostalgia I feel is not just the reminder of the many ways that electronic media can be used to convey personal expression, but also the variety of programming across the board at CKLN. Storring’s My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell (orangemilkrecords.bandcamp.com) is described as a “heartfelt, albeit oblique, homage to Roberta Flack” who, Storring goes on to say, “in addition to managing profound emotion and consummate musicality as a vocalist, has a brilliant curatorial mind. She brings together songs into smart and beautiful arcs and assembles artists to adorn these songs with powerful production choices and arrangements.” Oblique as it is, I’m not sure I would have recognized this as a tribute to the powerful pop icon without the artist’s statement contained in the press release. 

Storring’s latest, and his first release on vinyl (though I’m working from digital files), is a multi-faceted creature divided into six movements ranging from about five to ten minutes in length. The overall feel is gentle and tonal, although there are many different moods. Tides That Defeat Identity is a kind of synthetic aural sunrise which begins with barely audible cello scrubbing and develops through many layers in which a number of acoustic instruments can be discerned in various forms of electronic disguise. After a couple more dreamlike tracks What A Made-Up Mind Can Do builds gradually to a tumultuous clatter that gradually gives way to a Morse Code-like interlude followed by some funky bass licks with Latin beats, electric piano and psychedelic guitar that in turn recede into the mist via some gamelan-like percussion. To my ear, the title track is most reminiscent of Roberta Flack. The opening electric piano arpeggio immediately reminded me of one of her megahits, Killing Me Softly with His Song, and there I have a personal connection as well. I attended an Eric Andersen show at the Riverboat in 1974, the year after the release of Flack’s hit, and was surprised to find that the opening act, Lori Lieberman, had “written” the song. I remember that several times during his set Andersen snickered (or maybe just grinned), hummed a bar or two of Killing Me and said “I wish I’d written that…” At any rate, isn’t the internet a wonderful resource? I just Googled and was informed that Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, Lieberman’s agents, actually wrote the song “in collaboration with Lori Lieberman.” There’s much more juicy info in the entry if you’re interested in some sordid details. At any rate, until Storring’s wonderful tribute to the (still active at 83) songstress, that was my main connection with Roberta Flack. And don’t let my talk about nostalgia lead you to believe that My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell is an anachronistic throwback. It’s a carefully crafted and very effective eclectic post-modern creation. Give it a spin on your turntable, or your digital media provider, or wait for the CD release which I understand is imminent. 

My years as a volunteer at CKLN-FM garnered me the experience to land what I sometimes consider to have been the “best” job of my life, five years as a music programmer at CJRT-FM (especially now that I’m benefitting from a modest Ryerson University pension). Reconstructed as JAZZ-FM in 2001, the Ryerson station had been a multi-format broadcaster since its inception in 1949 and during the five years I worked there (1993-1998) the programming included classical music, opera, jazz, folk and blues shows, live concert recordings (jazz and classical), BBC variety programs and an assortment of academic courses under the auspices of Open College Ryerson. I had the great pleasure of selecting the music for Alex Baran’s Music for Midday, recording – with engineer William van Ree – and scripting CJRT Concert, selecting the music for Peter Keigh’s Music Before 1800, interviewing such celebrities as Ben Heppner for This Week in Music and producing Canadian Currents, 52 hour-long programs celebrating the concert music of our native land. This last notwithstanding – it was funded by a grant from Joan Chalmers through the Canadian Music Centre – the music I was “allowed” to program was for the most part not contemporary and certainly not “challenging.” After all, the publicly funded station existed thanks to the generosity of its listeners, who for the most part enjoyed “traditional” fare. It was during my tenure there that the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs swept the classical world, including the august halls of CJRT. In 1992 the London Sinfonietta, under David Zinman with soloist Dawn Upshaw, recorded Henryk Górecki’s 1976 Symphony No.3 with that now-famous subtitle. To date, the Nonesuch recording has sold more than a million copies, something unheard of for a contemporary classical recording. I find it somewhat surprising to note that the three string quartets by this, until then, obscure Polish composer, were all commissioned by the American Kronos Quartet, and that two of them predate the release of the chart-topping symphony that brought him world fame. Another instance of the foresight of this adventuresome group. 

03 Henryk GoreckiThey have been newly recorded by Quatuor Molinari for ATMA on Henryk Górecki Complete String Quartets (ACD2 2802 atmaclassique.com). Although there are some quiet and contemplative moments, particularly in the opening of the second quartet with its extremely dark viola melody, anyone looking for a reprise of the beauty of the “sorrowful songs” will likely be disappointed. At times reminiscent of the stark and angular pathos of some of Shostakovich’s later quartets, especially in Górecki’s second, these works are more what you would expect from a member of the Polish postwar avant-garde. Even in the String Quartet No.3 “Songs are Sung” with its four extended sombre and quiet movements interrupted by one brief central upbeat interlude, the brooding character never finds the transcendence of the famous symphony. Quatuor Molinari bring their vast skill and dedication to this latest addition to an impressive discography, not only adding to our understanding of this undersung composer who died a decade ago, but also proving that Górecki was not just a one-trick pony. Highly recommended!

04 Fred LerdahlAlthough I see that I’ve pretty much used up my allotment of words mostly talking about myself once again, (but heck, it’s my corner…) I did want to mention one more disc that I’ve been spending a lot of time with this month, Fred Lerdahl Volume Six (Bridge Records 9522 bridgerecords.com). I must confess to a lack of familiarity with this American composer who was born in 1943 and is the Fritz Reiner Professor of Musical Composition at Columbia University. Lerdahl is known for his work on musical grammar and cognition, rhythmic theory, pitch space and cognitive constraints on compositional systems. For all that, I must say I find his music quite lyrical and not at all academic. The disc includes recent chamber works and one concerto, beginning and ending with pieces composed for Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen in 2010. There and Back Again for solo cello (Tom Kraines), was commissioned by Karttunen as part of the Mystery Variations, a series of solo works to commemorate his 50th birthday. As with all the variations, it takes as its point of departure, and in this case return, the Chiacona for solo cello by Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694). In less than five minutes we are transported from the 17th century to the 21st and back again. This is followed by String Quartet No.4 from 2016, a one-movement work which sounds thoroughly modern without being atonal. Commissioned to celebrate the ensemble’s 15th anniversary, it is performed by the Daedalus Quartet. Fire and Ice is a setting of Robert Frost’s poem of the same name for the unusual combination of soprano (Elizabeth Fischborn) and double bass (Edwin Barker), based on one of Lerdahl’s theoretical papers The Sounds of Poetry Viewed as Music. The liner notes explain how the tenets of the 2001 paper were applied to the 2015 compositional process which culminates when “the soprano and double bass gradually fan out to their highest and lowest registers, symbolizing the antipodes of fire/desire and ice/hate around which Frost’s poem is organized.” The playful and at times jazz-tinged Three Bagatelles from 2016 was written for guitarist David Starobin who performs here with violinist Movses Pogossian. The programmatic arc of the disc, with its palindromic cycle of composition dates, is completed by Arches, a cello concerto which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011. Performed masterfully here by Danish cellist Toke Møldrup with the Odense Symphony Orchestra under Andreas Delfs, the dramatic work itself is, not surprisingly, arch-like, beginning and ending quietly after a rollercoaster of a ride. I found this a great introduction to the music of a heretofore unknown composer and I’m glad to know there are five previous volumes in the series. 

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

Back to top