You might think that the upcoming holiday hiatus would result in a backlog of new material after the fact, and generally speaking that is indeed what happens. But this month I find my desk already agog (sorry, that’s a misuse of the word, but one I woke up to this morning as I faced the mounting pile of CDs – perhaps it is I who am agog) with a wealth of offerings all worthy of note. I will endeavour to be brief…

01 PubliQaurtetAtop the pile is a recent arrival that reminds me why I was drawn to contemporary music, string quartets in particular, in my formative years. PubliQuartet’s eponymous debut release on Concert Artists Guild Records (CAG115 grabbed me right from its percussive opening chords. Howie Kenty is not a composer I was previously aware of, but his brief An Impetuous Old Friend seemed just that – rambunctious and familiar, without seeming derivative. As a matter of fact I don’t know any of the composers whose work is included here, although I do find touchstones in their music. Jessie Montgomery is a NYC violinist, composer and music educator. I find many of the extended techniques she uses in Break Away reminiscent of the aboriginal sounds that Peter Sculthorpe incorporated into his string quartet writing. The program note however cites hip-hop and electronica as influences. Eugene Birman’s String Quartet, a 12-minute single movement “experiment in voicing and containing energy” comes across as a meditation, perhaps with echoes of George Crumb’s darker moments. In contrast David Biedenbender’s Surface Tension is all rhythmic drive and percussion.

One of PQ’s initiatives is a series titled Mind The Gap in which the group tries “to generate an interest in new music and keep traditional classical music relevant to modern audiences…[and] to blur the lines between performer and composer; intertwining compositions from seemingly disparate genres.” Two examples of this technique are included, Bird in Paris, juxtaposing Debussy with Charlie Parker and Epistrophy in which Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet are very effectively overlaid with themes by iconic jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. While I am not usually a fan of such hybrids I found this a convincing exception to the rule and found myself smiling as the two worlds collided and coalesced.

02 Reflections Gordon WolfeToronto Symphony principal trombonist Gordon Wolfe ( has just released his debut solo CD Reflections, with pianist Vanessa May-lok Lee, and it is a dandy. Wolfe presents a nicely balanced program of lyrical and idiomatic compositions, drawing on international repertoire – by Jacques Castérède, Paul Hindemith and Stjepan Šulek interspersed with Canadian works – that has influenced his own development:. Gary Kulesha says: “I made a deliberate attempt to write music that played against the perceived traditional role of the solo instrument, with the Trombone Sonata (2013) being aerial and lyrical. The trombone’s music soars and sings, and never becomes march-like or stentorian.” Elizabeth Raum’s Fantasy, written as a Christmas present for her husband Richard in 1981, is a delightful, gentle and melodious offering. The penultimate piece – Concertino for Trombone and Piano “Devil or Angel” – was written expressly for this project by Wolfe’s mentor Ian McDougall whom he calls “my favourite trombonist on the planet.” The (mostly) playful piece is in three descriptively titled movements – Cherub vs Imp; Guardian; Old Nick – which as you might expect gives Wolfe a chance to show off the contrasting aspects of his instrument and his mastery of it.

On Reflections, Wolfe makes a compelling case for the trombone as versatile tenor voice. Without venturing into extended techniques or bizarre effects we are presented with a lyrical portrait of a classical instrument that is all too often treated as a buffoon. Lee’s sensitive and well-balanced support adds to the success of the argument. Recorded in the Royal Conservatory’s Mazzoleni Hall, the sound is everything you would hope for, intimate yet full.

03 Jeremy Bell GriegSpeaking of maiden voyages, Jeremy Bell who has shared violin duties with Jerzy Kaplanek in Kitchener-Waterloo’s Penderecki String Quartet since 1999, has just released his own first solo disc, Edvard Grieg – Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano (Chestnut Hall Music Of course when I say solo I do not mean unaccompanied and for this project Bell is in fine company with pianist Shoshana Telner who is an equal partner in this virtuosic romantic repertoire. Of course Grieg is known as a nationalist composer and there are a lot of Norwegian folk influences evident in the music. As Bell tells us in his lucid program note, the Sonata No.1 in F Major, where violin and piano imitate Hardanger fiddling, was the first time that the composer introduced a purely national element. The second sonata, written two years later in 1867 takes the nationalism further and then there is a gap of 20 years before the Sonata No.3 in C Minor. This latter, with in Grieg’s words, “it’s wider horizons,” is the one most often heard in the concert hall, but it is the charming and “naïve” first sonata that is my favourite. In all three, presented here in the order 2, 3, 1 – for me saving the best for last – Bell and Telner are obviously in their element, capturing the contrasting moods and meeting the various technical demands with aplomb.

This is an outstanding first release and my only question is what took Bell so long? Some two decades ago he was a prizewinner in the Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition and since then has appeared in a variety of solo roles. I suppose participating in 25 recordings under other auspices, being a member of an internationally renowned fulltime quartet, his teaching duties at Wilfrid Laurier University and seven seasons as director of NUMUS are reasons enough. At any rate this is a very welcome debut. Oh, and in the note he sent along with the disc Bell assured me that this does not presage a separation from the Penderecki Quartet to which he remains devoted.

Once upon a time some musical friend or another, well versed in 17th to 19th century repertoire, challenged me to name an Italian composer whose surname did not end in the letter “i”. My interest in 20th-century music gave me perhaps an unfair advantage as I immediately came up with Berio, Nono, Dallapiccola, Malipiero and Maderna. As it turns out, this latter could have counted twice because his family name was Grossato and it was only later that he adopted his mother’s maiden name.

Bruno Maderna (1920-1973), who participated in the 1949 international congress on dodecaphony in Milan, is best known as one of the forces behind the summer music courses at Darmstadt, that hot bed of post-war, post-serial composition. Only recently has an earlier and very significant work come to light. Maderna’s Requiem was written after his release from Dachau, having being taken prisoner by the SS for his activities as an Italian partisan. “At that moment it was only possible to write a requiem and then to die,” he later said. By July 1946 he had accomplished the former and avoided the latter. The hour-long work for four vocal soloists, choir and orchestra was championed by American composer and critic Virgil Thomson but ultimately never performed in Maderna’s lifetime. Shortly after completing the work Maderna lost interest in his earlier style as he got more and more engaged with contemporary trends. The score ended up lost on a shelf in the New York State’s Purchase College Library and was only rediscovered and published in 2009.

04 Maderna RequiemCapriccio (C5231) has just released the world premiere recording of Requiem using a broadcast performance by Deutschlandradio Kultur from 2013 featuring the MDR-Rundfunkchor, Leipzig and the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie directed by Frank Beermann. The vocal soloists are Diana Tomsche, Kathrin Göring, Bernhard Berchtold and Renatus Mészár. Composed in Maderna’s early 20s it shows obvious influences of the iconic works in the genre by Berlioz and Verdi, but more interesting to my ears are the shadows of Bartók, Hindemith and Stravinsky. The use of three pianos in the huge orchestral forces adds to the percussive effect and is also reminiscent of Carmina Burana which Carl Orff had composed a decade earlier. All of these influences aside, it is a strikingly original work and a great testament to the importance of this remarkable prodigy.

05 NYOCIf the CD set 2015 is any indication, under the direction of Michael Francis this year’s edition of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada ( lived up to the very high reputation developed over its 55-year history. And it’s no wonder, considering the incredibly talented faculty which nurtures the finest young players drawn from across Canada. There are some 40 top-rank, performing musicians/teachers involved, many of whom hold principal positions in professional orchestras, including such luminaries as Marie Bérard (concertmaster Canadian Opera Company), Sarah Jeffrey (principal oboe Toronto Symphony), both alumni of NYO Canada, Stephen Sitarski (concertmaster Hamilton Philharmonic and Esprit Orchestra) and renowned chamber musicians like Mark Fewer and the Gryphon Trio to name just a few. Auditioned from 500 applicants, 90 to 100 musicians between the ages of 16 and 28 receive tuition-free instruction (plus a stipend) which includes a two-week chamber program, three to four weeks of orchestral training, plus a wealth of career development, repertoire analysis and injury prevention information. This is followed by a national or international tour – 2016 will see them perform in Kitchener-Waterloo, Toronto, Montreal and Lisbon, Portugal – and a recording.

2015, recorded at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University, includes two staples – I’m tempted to say stables since these are war horses – of the orchestral repertoire, Holst’s The Planets and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Both receive fully inspired and polished performances which bodes well for the health of orchestral institutions in Canada’s future. But more important, for the overall health of Canadian music, is the fact that the young musicians get to work with living composers who have crafted works especially for them. Emilie Cecilia LeBel (b.1979), whose position with the orchestra is funded jointly by RBC and the SOCAN Foundation, composed a very atmospheric work, monograph on bird’s eye views, giving them experience with music that is not melodically based but rather concerned with colours and textures. Alfredo Santa Ana (b.1980), commissioned with the assistance of the Canada Council, created Ocaso (dusk), a more traditional orchestral essay full of rich harmonies and dramatic turns. All in all, a very satisfying release.

06a ThorvaldsdottirIt was the realization of a lifelong dream to spend ten nearly night-less days in Iceland several summers ago, and so I was intrigued when two very different Icelandic projects came my way this past month. As with Emilie LeBel’s piece mentioned above, composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir created a very atmospheric work for ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble which is active in both Chicago and New York. In the Light of Air (DSL-92192 is an extended suite with evocative movement titles Luminance, Serenity, Existence and Remembrance which are connected by Transitions to form a seamless flow for the nearly 40-minute duration of the work. (Somewhat confusingly the CD also contains a piece entitled Transitions for cello and electronics which seems to be a separate work altogether.) Scored for viola, cello, harp, percussion and electronics, In the Light of Air gradually unfolds as we journey through unfamiliar sounds and textures, both instrumental, with many extended techniques, and electronic. There is a visceral low rumbling throughout much of the piece and although there are many “events” along the way, nothing ever really seems to happen. But this is not meant as a criticism. Much like the stark and seemingly barren landscape of Iceland, the closer you look the more you see, or in this case hear. There is wealth of detail for the patient listener.

06b MidgardThe other project is a vision of what the music of the Vikings – settlers of Iceland – might have sounded like. Midgard (BR8939, the latest release from Quebec’s medieval and world music band La Mandragore, “imagines the music of the Vikings had they had the time and leisure to notate it. Playing folk instruments from the Mediterranean and Scandinavian regions, and singing songs and tales in Swedish, Norwegian, Old Norse and French,” the ensemble presents what it calls “an authentic and eclectic collection of Viking-inspired music.” The title is the Norse word for Middle Earth and although I’m not convinced that this is what the music of that time and place would have sounded like, I must say I have enjoyed the conceit, and the music.

07 Erin Cooper GaySpeaking of eclectic, I’m not sure anything better suits that description than Black Market featuring Erin Cooper Gay and Contraband ( It is a stunning release on which Cooper Gay’s pure, crystalline soprano voice is featured in convincing renditions of Renaissance settings by John Dowland, José Marin, Tarquinio Merula and Claudio Monteverdi accompanied by period instruments, juxtaposed with clever arrangements by Drew Jurecka of contemporary songs by Jill Barber, Radiohead, Kishi Bashi and Punch Brothers. Somehow Cooper Gay and her cohorts – whose instruments range from harpsichord and lute and all manner of violin family instruments, French horn and clarinets, to qanun (Middle Eastern zither) and Juno (Roland synthesizer) – make what might have seemed like oil and water, into a very palatable mixture indeed. Compelling listening!

08 Panton Little ThingsThe next disc came in a couple of months ago, but I decided to save it for December as I felt it would make a perfect stocking stuffer for the little ones. I Believe in Little Things is the latest from jazz singer Diana Panton ( who in this instance presents her own take on some great songs written for young people. The spare and gentle arrangements feature Reg Schwager on guitar, Don Thompson on bass, piano and vibes and some memorable cello solos by Coenraad Bloemendal. Sesame Street’s Joe Raposo is amply represented – although I’m sorry Bein’ Green is not found here – including the title track, Imagination, Sing and Everybody Sleeps among others. Another Sesame Street standard, The Rainbow Connection, and the Disney classic, When You Wish Upon a Star, are among the most familiar tunes and highlights for me. Panton’s own Sleep is a Precious Thing leads to Richard and Robert Sherman’s Hushabye Mountain with an extended cello intro. The disc concludes with Stephen Foster’s Slumber My Darling. A perfect good night!

09 Andre GagnonLast issue I talked about symphonic works with organ recorded in the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal’s new home and mentioned that the current resident organist is Jean-Willy Kunz. This month I find him in another capacity as harpsichordist on André Gagnon Baroque (ATMA ACD2 2719). Gagnon, the popular Québec pianist and composer, wrote a couple of quasi-baroque suites for piano and orchestra – Mes quatre saisons and Les Turluteries – back in 1969 and 1972 respectively that were great successes when released by Columbia Records. Some four decades later Gagnon has revisited the clever works and given the solo duties to the harpsichord. Kunz shines in these playfully convincing pastiches and the Orchestre symphonique de la Vallée-du-Haut-Saint-Laurent under Daniel Constantineau’s direction embraces the project with enthusiasm. Although producing a larger sound than period orchestras, they capture the spirit of the music and play with surprising lightness.

The latter-day Four Seasons takes iconic music from Québec by Pierre Ferland, Félix Leclerc, Claude Léveillée and Gilles Vigneault – you guessed, Winter begins with the classic Mon Pays – all reworked à la Vivaldi. Les Turluteries takes inspiration from songs written or sung by Mary Travers – better known as La Bolduc – in two suites in the style of Bach and Handel. Tongue in cheek, or respectful homage – more likely a bit of both – the project comes off in flying colours. It really is a hoot!

10a Tafelmusik GermanOf course for the real thing it’s hard to beat Toronto’s own Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. They have just released two sampler CDs on Tafelmusik Media which combine recent recordings from Humbercrest United and the Banff Centre with previously released material from CBC Records. Best of German Baroque (TMK1028CD) is actually comprised only of music by JS Bach, but I guess it does indeed not get any better than that. We are presented with various instrumental movements in new arrangements by Alison Mackay along with the full Brandenburg Concerto No.3 with a new cadenza by Julia Wedman. Jeanne Lamon and Aisslinn Nosky are the featured soloists in movements from a sonata and a concerto for two violins, and Ivars Taurins lead the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir in the Gloria in Excelsis Deo BWV191

10b Tafelmusik French

Best of French Baroque (TMK 1029CD) takes a different approach, presenting suites by Marin Marais (from Alcyone), Rameau (Dardanus) and Lully (Phaëton). Once again the Chamber Choir is featured in an extended work, Grand Motet “Dominus regnavit” by Jean-Joseph de Mondonville. Great music, great performances, great sound – great stocking stuffers!

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01 Organ and OrchestraWhen the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal moved into its new home, the Maison symphonique in the Place des Arts in 2011, the reviews were enthusiastic for both the aesthetics and acoustics of the hall. In May 2014 the crown jewel of the edifice, Le Grand Orgue Pierre-Béique, was unveiled in concerts which included the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony No.3 and new works by Montreal-born Samy Moussa and Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Kent Nagano was at the helm of the orchestra and the soloists were OSM organist emeritus Olivier Latry in the Saint-Saëns and Saariaho and current organist-in-residence Jean-Willy Kunz in the Moussa. The stunning performances were captured in exquisite recordings that can be found on a recent Analekta CD (AN 2 8779).

In earlier years the OSM made many of its recordings in Église de St. Eustache which offered a good acoustic and a fine organ. As the sound on this new CD attests there is no longer any reason for the OSM to leave home to make a recording, and the arrival of the new organ by Casavant Frères is the icing on the cake. The organ was designed in collaboration with the hall’s architects Diamond Schmitt + Ædifica to specifications developed by Latry (now organist at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris). It comprises four mechanical action keyboards, with electrical assistance, 109 registers, 83 stops, 116 ranks and 6,489 pipes.

The Saint-Saëns, the benchmark against which all other works in the genre must be measured, is well enough known that I will not go into details here. It will suffice to say that orchestra, soloist and instrument are all in splendid form and under Nagano’s direction it’s hard to imagine a finer performance. The new works, both commissioned by the OSM (in conjunction with Orchestre national de Lyon and London’s Southbank Centre in the case of the Saariaho), are dark works that explore the sound/colour spectrum available through the combination of full orchestra and the vast resources of the “King of Instruments.” Moussa, is a 30-year-old with a flourishing career in Quebec and in Germany. His A Globe Itself Infolding is a one-movement work that slowly unfolds, gradually combining dense textures with only moments of punctuation and no real melodic development but is effective and compelling. It is conceived as a stand-alone piece but also as the prelude to a possible future full-length concerto. Saariaho’s Maan Varjot (Earth’s Shadows) is in three movements. The first, Misterioso ma intenso, is just that, mysterious and intense without much development. This is followed by a Lento calmo in which prominent, if sparse, trumpet phrases are echoed and embellished by the organ. The final Energico opens with a blasting cadenza from the organ which is taken up and sustained by the orchestra, eventually giving way to quiet bass drum “footsteps” and a high, soft organ chord that gradually dies away. Although she has not written extensively for the instrument, Saariaho was an organist in her student years and her understanding of the medium is displayed in an effective work that brings this excellent disc to a close.

I first met Erkki-Sven Tüür at the quadrennial Estonian World Festival which was held in Toronto in 1984. At just 25 years old, he was a young composer emerging from the world of rock and roll where he was something of a star. I have followed his development in the three decades since then, both through recordings and live performances, as he has become a fully mature contemporary composer.

02 GesualdoTõnu Kaljuste, who conducted a work of Tüür’s a few years ago in Toronto for Soundstreams, was the instigator of a recent recording which features Tüür and Australian composer Brett Dean. The title Gesualdo (ECM New Series 2452) refers to the Italian Renaissance composer and prince, Carlo Gesualdo, best known for his intensely expressive chromatic madrigals and for brutally murdering his first wife and her lover after finding them in flagrante delicto. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra perform under the direction of Kaljuste, who transcribed the opening track, Gesualdo’s Moro lasso, for string orchestra. Dean’s Carlo for choir and strings begins with a quotation from Moro lasso and other Gesualdo motives in the choir which are gradually displaced by the orchestra as we are led into a 20th-century sound world. Toward the end of the piece, in the composer’s words, “Gesualdo’s madrigals are eventually reduced to mere whispers of his texts and nervous breathing sounds. These eventually also grow in dramatic intensity into what may be seen as an orchestral echo of that fateful night in Naples.”

At Kaljuste’s request Tüür arranged Gesualdo’s O crux benedicta for strings (adding some “fragile sound clouds” to the original material) and composed L’ombra della croce especially for this recording. The latter reflects the sensibility of Gesualdo’s music with its sombre mood and slowly descending melody, with a brief light and joyous section just past the mid-point before returning to the murky depths.

The disc concludes with Psalmody, an earlier work which has its roots in Tüür’s prog-rock band In Spe (1979-1982). Although not composed until 1993, Tüür says it was “a retrospective commentary on the music I had created in [those] years.” It stands in marked contrast to the other works on the disc. Originally written for mixed chorus and the early music ensemble Hortus Musicus, it was conceived as a vehicle to bring together a minimalist diatonicism and complex atonality. In its several incarnations the atonal aspects were excised and in 2012 it was re-orchestrated and reworked for choir, double winds and brass, percussion, keyboard and strings. It is a joyous and energetic work in which the composer “aimed to step into a dialogue with the mainstream of minimalism that originates from America.” I think fans of Steve Reich and John Adams would be suitably impressed. I know I was.

The other discs to pique my interest this month were a direct result of my association with New Music Concerts over the past 16 years. I first encountered the composer and clarinet virtuoso Jörg Widmann in October 2005 when Robert Aitken invited him to curate a concert of his own music on the series. He was just 32 but well on his way to a stellar double career. Since then he has returned to Toronto several times, at the invitation of the Toronto Symphony in 2012 to take part in the New Creations Festival with conductor/composer Peter Eötvös and again in 2014 for another portrait concert with NMC and to rehearse with the TSO for their European tour.

03 WidmannOn that first NMC concert he played music of Alban Berg with pianist David Swan and three works of his own with our musicians. The highlight of the concert for me however was the Accordes’ performance of Widmann’s Jagdquartett – String Quartet No.3 with its vocal and extra-musical interjections and flamboyant gestures. That came right back to me while listening to a new Wergo 2CD set Jörg Widmann – Streichquartette which features all five numbered string quartets plus two short early works for the strings performed by the Minguet Quartet (WER 7316 2). The Minguet has worked extensively with Widmann over the past decade. This is actually their second recording of his quartet cycle so I think we can consider these definitive performances of very challenging works that employ myriad extended techniques.

The quartets are presented in chronological order and, as discussed extensively in the comprehensive liner notes, treated as five movements of one large work. In this way I am reminded of the Orford Quartet recording of the first five quartets of R. Murray Schafer as recorded for Centrediscs back in 1990. At the time producer David Jaeger suggested the same thing about Schafer’s cycle with its interlocking themes and motives. There are other parallels between the Widmann and Schafer quartets, particularly with the vocal outbursts in both third quartets and the use of soprano (albeit much more extensively by Widmann – Claron McFadden is superb) in their respective fifths. Of course Schafer has gone on to expand his set to an even dozen, all interconnecting and all recorded by Quatuor Molinari for ATMA ( I wonder if Widmann will continue in the same fashion. At 42 he certainly has time to consider it, but he is currently booked for years in advance with opera and orchestral commissions. It has been a decade since he composed his fifth quartet and so, for the time being, we must content ourselves with this testament to the outstanding contribution to the genre by a young composer who has moved on to larger projects. The set also includes the youthful Absences for string quartet and a brief moto perpetuo movement entitled 180 beats per minute for the somewhat unusual combination of two violins, viola and three cellos. A marvellous “portrait of the artist as a young man.”

04 Wine Dark SeaThe most recent New Music Concert featured the Turning Point Ensemble from Vancouver, a large group whose members include cellist Ariel Barnes (featured in a concertante role in Linda Catlin Smith’s Gold Leaf) and harpist Heidi Krutzen (not present for the Toronto performance). Together these two formed the ensemble Couloir in 2011 and have since commissioned a number of works for this somewhat unusual combination. Released in 2013 but previously unknown to me, Wine Dark Sea (Revello Records RR7879 presents three of these original works: Three Meditations on Light by Jocelyn Morlock; Drifting Seeds by Baljinder Sekhon; and A monk, dancing by Glenn Buhr.

The disc opens with Vancouver composer Morlock’s Meditations. The birds breathe the morning light begins quietly with the harp providing pointillistic accompaniment to a high, falling melody in the chanterelle range of the cello which gradually develops denser textures without ever losing its contemplative mood. Bioluminescence, the subtitle for which gives the album its title, while still gentle is a more dance-like movement with rhythmic harp motives shimmering under the lyrical cello melodies. Absence of Light – Gradual Reawakening begins, as we might expect, in darkness and the depths of the instruments’ registers but eventually leads us back to the light with some bird-like sounds along the way, ending in warm long tones from the cello.

Sekhon is a composer and percussionist living and teaching in Florida. There are world music influences and extended techniques in his 2012 Drifting Seeds which he says “explores the social and cultural connections between individuals and societies. … While composing this work I was very interested in the idea that we are all different versions of each other.” He does this by juxtaposing, layering and ultimately eliminating materials from a “collection of musical fragments. They appear at different speeds, transposition levels, and with different timbres throughout the work.” It is very effective.

Kitchener-based Buhr says, “A monk, dancing is a good metaphor for a composer. We composers spend much of our time alone in our studios (monastic cells), but the task is to imagine music; so in our minds, we dance.” After a long contemplative section rife with rich melodic chant-like lines in the cello, an arpeggiated transition leads to the “dance” – “bright and happy, with a beat a monk could dance to…” – before returning to contemplation.

While there is a certain sameness to the lush timbres and textures produced by harp and cello in all of the pieces, there is enough diversity to sustain interest throughout this fine recording.

At the Turning Point concert I was particularly impressed with the sound Barnes produced from his cello which he told me is a modern Portuguese instrument. On this CD he is playing another gorgeous-sounding cello, the 1730 Newland Johannes Franciscus Celoniatus on loan from the Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank. I am left with the feeling that any cello would sound great in his hands.

The only piece of music by Isang Yun that I have ever heard performed live was Novelette for flute, harp, violin and cello, presented in the context of New Music Concerts’ Portrait of Toshio Hosokawa that also included Hosokawa’s Memory (In memory of Isang Yun) back in May 2000. The story of Yun is an intriguing one. He was born in what is now Tongyeong, South Korea in 1917, long before the division of North and South. Yun studied and settled in Germany where he was the first Asian composer to integrate aspects of the music of his homeland into the Western Art Music tradition. Yun was a strong believer in the reunification of Korea. While living in West Berlin, along with a number of compatriots, he was in contact with North Korean representatives in East Germany trying to open cultural relations between the two Koreas. Accused of being a spy, Yun and his colleagues were kidnapped and taken to South Korea where they were imprisoned and tortured. After a year, pressure applied by the German government resulted in Yun’s release and return to Germany, where, despite hoping to one day return home to a unified Korea, he remained until his death in 1995. Since that time his music has been championed in both North and South Korea where there are institutes, competitions and festivals in his name, although he is still seen as a dubious character by some.

05 Isang YunOf course there is much more to the story than that, some of which is told in Isang Yun Inbetween North and South Korea, a film by German director Maria Stodtmeier which has been released by Accentus (ACC 20208). It is an excellent introduction to the man and the music, with extended excerpts of performances of his challenging and virtuosic compositions – of special interest to me was the extremely demanding Cello Concerto – as well as moving reminiscences of him as a teacher, mentor and composer of popular school anthems, which continued to be performed anonymously during the period when his music was banned in his homeland.

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

01_Eve_Egoyan.jpgIf ever there were two artists more suited to each other’s aesthetic than composer Linda Catlin Smith and pianist Eve Egoyan I’m sure I don’t know who they are. Their latest project, THOUGHT and DESIRE (Earwitness Editions EE2015, was realized at the Banff Centre in December 2014. The CD contains first recordings of three works by Smith written at six year intervals beginning in 2001. The most recent, Nocturnes and Chorales, will receive its Toronto premiere performance October 16 to 18 at the Small World Music Centre. It consists of nine movements which the composer says “seemed to be either nocturne-like or chorale-like in nature. At the heart of the music is the voice of the piano, its resonance and character, the way inner voices work in a chorale for instance, or the way melody and arpeggiation can create a landscape.” She goes on to say that Chopin and Satie were in the back of mind during the creation of the work which was the result of a residency through ArtSpring on Salt Spring Island. The overall sense of the pieces is quiet and contemplative, but in the hybrid Nocturne Chorale there are moments when the repetition of strangely sonorous note clusters brings to mind an anecdote about New England composer Carl Ruggles back in the early part of the 20th century. One day, drawn by the seemingly tireless banging of a single complex tone cluster on the piano over and over again, a neighbouring farmer dropped by to ask what the infernal noise was. Ruggles reportedly told him he was given the chord the “test of time.” Admittedly Smith and Egoyan’s “banging” is gentle by comparison, but there is a certain relentless quality at times. The overall impression however is one of timelessness.

Thought and Desire (2007) is quiet and introspective. The pianist is called upon to realize a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 45 “to be sung quietly as though to oneself or someone close by.” Egoyan’s fragile, barely audible voice brings to mind another Shakespeare reference, mad Ophelia’s songs.

In an extended essay that accompanies the disc, Doina Popescu discusses the final, and earliest composed, work presented. “The Underfolding is a composition that digs into a multi-layered reservoir of sounds while moving elegantly through the musical fabric of the piece. The title evokes a well-known oil-painting technique called ‘underpainting,’ developed by the masters of the Renaissance. The hidden under-layer was used to sketch the basic design of each work, its tonal values and shadings of light and dark.” Smith says, “I became interested in working in a layered way, to create a more ambiguous or diffuse sense of harmony […] This was my way of creating a subtle complexity, which comes not from an attempt at virtuosity, but from a desire to create a hovering atmosphere.” I think this well describes not only the piece in question but Smith’s oeuvre in general – a hovering atmosphere where the nature of sound itself becomes the subject. It takes a good deal of patience to fully appreciate this slowly unfolding music, but the effort is well-rewarded.

Concert notes: As mentioned above, Eve Egoyan has performances at the Small World Music Centre in the Artscape Youngplace facility on Shaw St. on October 16, 17 and 18 at which she will perform Linda Catlin Smith’s Nocturnes and Chorales and new works by Nick Storring and John Mark Sherlock. Smith’s Gold Leaf will be performed by Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble at Betty Oliphant Theatre on October 17 under the auspices of New Music Concerts.

02_Dive.jpgOne of the most striking theatrical experiences I had over the summer was the production DIVE at the Arraymusic Studio, based on Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s short story The Professor and the Siren. The play was developed by Richard Sanger, Alex Fallis and Fides Krucker, and Krucker also had a major hand in the development of the music, composing and improvising most of her multi-character role and working with sound designer Nik Beeson. When the CD DIVE: Odes for Lighea ( arrived on my desk I wondered how well the “soundtrack” would work when taken out of the theatre. Beeson, who provided the incidental music for the play, has expanded and developed it for the purposes of this stand-alone product. Fortunately, the short synopsis provided with the disc does give most of the story’s premise, explaining the context, the characters and the slowly revealed tale of the mermaid with whom the professor fell in love one fateful summer in his youth. This is juxtaposed with the political climate in Italy at the time of the story’s telling, when Mussolini is rising to power and totalitarianism is the ultimate result.

The sound design is mostly electroacoustic but includes some instrumental sounds such as bass (Rob Clutton), vibes (Rick Sacks) and piano (Neil Gardiner). Beeson himself adds a number of percussion textures including cloud bowls and mbira. The more unpleasant moments include archival snippets from Mussolini’s speeches and Krucker performing a particularly growly rendition of the fascist hymn Giovinezza, drawing on her signature extended vocal techniques. But we also hear her in clear and attractive voice in her portrayal of the various female characters. I should point out that although there are two male characters in the play – a young reporter and the now-aged professor – they only have speaking parts, not singing.

I will never know how I might have felt about the CD had I not had the benefit of seeing the stage production, but my impression is that it does indeed work as an independent entity. You can sample it yourself at the website mentioned above.

03_Alicia_Hansen.jpgThe things that initially drew me to Companion, the new CD from Alicia Hansen and Ben Brown (AHBB001.5, were the cover art by Mi’kmaq artist Jay White ( and the fact that cellist Peggy Lee was part of the ensemble. I did not previously know White’s art but was immediately drawn in (no pun intended) to his strange hybrid of representation and abstraction. Lee is a cellist I’ve been aware of in the contemporary music context through her work with Standing Wave and other Vancouver ensembles. Although I was aware of her activity as an improviser, I was surprised to see her appear in a jazz context twice in this month’s offerings (see also Stuart Broomer’s Waxwing review in Jazz, eh?). That being said, it turns out that her role in the Hansen/Brown project is peripheral, with cello almost exclusively used as part of the overall texture and not in a solo role. Be that as it may, I’m glad I was drawn to this disc. I find Hansen’s writing (in some cases co-written with Brown) intriguing and her vocal work distinctive and enticing, at times reminiscent of Björk, especially in the haunting Outside my Window, but individual nonetheless.

Hansen’s piano and keyboard work is complemented by Brown’s drumming – he’s not a timekeeper in the traditional sense but rather is heard in counterpoint with and as punctuation to Hansen’s lines. Bassist Russell Sholberg is present but unobtrusive throughout, and he adds the eeriness of a bowed saw to Little Veins. Although not a guitar-centric disc, it is guitarist David Sikula who provides the sparse, yet surprisingly rich, arrangements. The quirky In Petra adds the convincing sound of a recorder to the mix, but searching the credits I am left to conclude this is simply one of Alicia’s “keys.”

Falling somewhere between (gentle) avant pop and experimental jazz, this disc is highly recommended.

04_Respighi.jpgIt has been a while since I spent any time listening to the neo-classic/baroque music of Ottorino Respighi so it was with pleasure that I found the new disc Il Tramonto featuring Isabel Bayrakdarian and Orchestre symphonique de Laval under Alain Trudel’s direction (ATMA ACD2 2732). The performances of Gli Uccelli (The Birds) with its aural aviary based on earlier renderings by 17th century composers, Trittico Botticelliano depicting paintings of the renowned artist and Antiche Arie e Danze (Ancient Airs and Dances) based on works of the Baroque are all that could be asked for, with Trudel drawing clarity and balance from his fine ensemble.

My only disappointment came in the title track, and not from any flaw in the performances. Bayrakdarian is in fine voice, enunciating the Italian words translated from the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley with warmth and passion. And the orchestra rises to the challenges of this work which is distinctly romantic in its approach and orchestration. At times hinting at the music of Wagner – Siegfried Idyll comes to mind – the story lends itself to this lush treatment. But here is where my concern lies. The otherwise informative notes (for the instrumental pieces) are here inadequate. At first I thought it was just an awkward translation into English, but checking the original French it seemed as if the writer had not actually read the poem (which is included in Shelley’s English, Respighi’s Italian and in French). We are told that the poem “embodies the purest Romantic tradition, with its depiction of a sunset symbolizing the death of two lovers.” But Shelley clearly states “That night the youth and lady mingled/lay in love and sleep – but when the morning came/the lady found her lover dead and cold.” The remainder of the poem makes clear that she went on to live a long life mourning his loss. That notwithstanding, I have no qualms in endorsing this fine recording.

05_Fanfarai.jpgOne quick note in closing. September 17 saw the kick-off of the annual Small World Music Festival with a pre-festival launch party featuring the Toronto debut of the big band Fanfaraï. Somewhat bombastically billed as “French/Algerian/Moroccan jazz musicians with a passion for the Maghrebian 6/8 who begin to sing in Arabic, Berber and Turkish, dancing like the Gnawa ... Fanfaraï is a Rai UFO matured in the copper sun of North Africa breathing intercultural harmony and sensory journey into Great Happiness!”

I recently received their 2013 release Tani ( and am sad to say that if this disc is any indication, I missed what must have been a fabulous party that night – I’m dancing in my seat as I write this!

Concert Note: The Small World Music Festival continues through October 4.

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