01 Enigmatic VariationsEnigmatic Variations consists of Canadian works performed by Calgary-based violist Margaret Carey and pianist Roger Admiral (Centrediscs CMCCD 32723 cmccanada.org/product-category/recordings/Centrediscs), opening with a piece by Malcolm Forsyth (1936-2011), Steps for Viola and Piano (1978). Traditionally melodic and idiomatically well-suited to the viola, the five movements are self-explanatory: Buoyant, Strange Light, Violent, Colours and Jocular, all played adeptly by Carey and Admiral. Milton Barnes (1931-2001) is featured on three tracks, Ballade for Solo Viola (1978) and Lament and Hymn Tune Pavane for Viola and Piano (1976). Barnes was a traditionalist by nature who was schooled in the 12-tone tradition but chose to avoid avant-garde idioms in favour of tonally based expression. The pieces included here, especially Ballade, are playfully rhythmic and melodic, at times reminiscent of childhood chants and songs. 

The title of the disc is taken from a 2021 work commissioned from Sean Clarke (b.1983). Clarke and Carey both studied at Mount Royal University Conservatory and the variations are inspired by the “virtuosity, playing and teaching style” of several of their teachers and colleagues, as well as a landscape drawing by Carey featuring Canadian flora and fauna imbedded in a Peruvian Inca Cross. Apart from occasional sharp outbursts, the variations remain as dark and enigmatic as the opening theme. 

The most substantial work on this disc is the Viola Concerto Op.75 by one of the most prolific composers from Quebec, Jacques Hétu (1938-2010). Hétu composed 16 concerted works for most of the instruments usually found in an orchestra and several that are not, such as ondes Martinon, amplified guitars and marimba, plus a Rondo for cello and string orchestra and a Symphonie concertante for flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, bassoon and strings. Not to mention four full symphonies. I don’t believe any Canadian composer has come close to this orchestral output. The Viola Concerto (performed here in a piano reduction) is in four contrasting movements. Although Admiral does a fine job with the piano accompaniment, the lush colours of Hétu’s original orchestration are a bit lost in the translation. Carey’s solo viola is however, here as throughout the disc, full and present with all the nuance we would expect. 

In response to Carey’s request for a solo viola work, Stewart Grant (b.1948) transcribed his Two PoemsBreath of Life and The Rear View Mirror – originally composed for cello (2004). The disc concludes with a second 2021 commission, A Three Dog Night by the youngest composer represented here, Benjamin Sajo (b.1988). It’s another contemplative work, with the piano and dark-hued viola line perfectly balanced. 

02 Kevin LauAnother Canadian disc that has been in frequent rotation here this past month is Kevin Lau: Under a Veil of Stars featuring the St. John | Mercer | Park Trio (Leaf Music LM273 leaf-music.ca). Born in 1988, Lau is on track to give Jacques Hétu a run for the money in orchestral output. An almost ubiquitous figure on the GTHA music scene, Lau has served as composer-in-residence or affiliate composer with the Toronto, Mississauga and Niagara Symphony Orchestras, the Banff Centre and currently, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. In addition, his works have been performed by the National Arts Centre, Winnipeg Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, Hamilton Philharmonic and Tampa Bay Symphony Orchestras and the National Ballet of Canada, for which he has composed two major works. This release is devoted to his chamber music, including works for piano trio and subsets thereof. 

The extended title work is in three movements that are evocatively brought to life in the music: The Stars are Never Still; Land of Poison Trees and In that Shoreless Ocean. In his intimate program note Lau describes the impetus for the work, and how it changed with the death of the dedicatee, violinist Yehonatan Berick. Berick, along with his life partner cellist Rachel Mercer and pianist Angela Park comprised the AYR Trio who commissioned the work. Lau says the three movements depict a life cycle chronicling childhood, adulthood and old age. Renowned soloist and chamber musician Scott St. John has taken on the emotionally difficult task of replacing Berick in this trio’s configuration, not only in the trio works but also in Intuitions No.2, a violin and cello duo written for Berick and Mercer, and If Life Were a Mirror for violin and piano. This latter work comprises reflections on Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror), in which we hear numerous echoes of familiar tunes from Bach and other icons, “musical artifacts that reflect one another like a hall of mirrors.” The former was composed as part of a set of pieces designed to be played by partners living in the same bubble during the pandemic lockdowns, and the latter was completed just before the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The other trio works include two from 2007, Piano Trio No.1 and Timescape Variations, and A Simple Secret from 2019. The Dreamer for solo piano fills out the disc. Mercer and Park have worked together in various combinations over many years, including the piano quartet Ensemble Made in Canada, and their compatibility and intuitive partnership are on fine display here. St. John’s playing fits with these two like a glove, partly I’m sure due to Lau’s idiomatic and skilfully crafted music. A very satisfying release.

03 Gerald CohenGerald Cohen – Voyagers presents chamber music by this American composer performed by the Cassatt String Quartet with guest soloists Narek Arutyunian (clarinets) and trombonist Colin Williams (innova 090 innova.mu). Cohen (b.1960) is a Jewish cantor and professional baritone as well as a composer and his music often reflects his religious roots. Playing for Our Lives was written for the Cassatt for a 2012 concert devoted to music by composers interned at the Nazi concentration camp Terezin (Theresienstadt) near Prague. The quartet asked for a contemporary memorial and tribute to the musical life at that place, a transit camp on the road to Auschwitz and other death camps. The three movements draw on material related to Terezin: a Yiddish folk song Beryozkele (Little Birch Tree) which had also been set by Viktor Ullmann who perished in Auschwitz; a lullaby from Hans Krasa’s children’s opera Brundibar, composed and performed at Terezin; and Verdi’s Requiem, a piece championed at the camp by conductor Rafael Schachter, from which Cohen fashioned his Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). The music is at once angry, contemplative, full of angst, uplifting and haunting, ultimately ending in sublime quietude. 

The title work for clarinet and string quartet is a tribute to the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 and headed to the outer reaches of the solar system. It was inspired by the music of the Voyager Golden Record, an audio time capsule intended to give extraterrestrial beings an impression of human culture on Planet Earth. Cohen “chose several of these [sound samples]: a Beethoven string quartet (Cavatina), an Indian raga (Bhairavi) and a Renaissance dance (Galliard), weaving them together in a composition that celebrates humanity’s quest to explore the universe, and the power of music to express the rich emotions and cultures of human life.” The final movement Beyond the Heliosphere brings back aspects of the first three using the Beethoven as its central element and ending with a direct quote from the Cavatina of Beethoven’s Op.130 quartet before fading out with a repeated high note from the bass clarinet “as if the signal of the Voyager keeps going, ever fainter, as it continues its interstellar voyage.” 

The disc ends with Preludes and Debka, written in 2001 for the unusual combination of trombone and string quartet. Three contrasting preludes lead to the concluding debka, a Middle Eastern dance popular in both Arab and Israeli communities, introduced by a trombone cadenza. This finale is “mostly lively and playful, eventually becoming rather wild before reprising the debka theme at the conclusion” bringing this intriguing and sometimes surprising disc to an end. 

04 Telegraph QuartetThe early 20th century was an exciting time in the development of European concert music, with a plethora of new approaches. With Divergent Paths – Schoenberg & Ravel (Azica ACD-71360 azica.com) the Telegraph Quartet has embarked on a project to present and juxtapose some of these diverse directions. Although born one year apart, Ravel (1875-1937) and Schoenberg (1874-1951) could in many ways not be farther apart, and the same could be said of the quartets presented here, written around the same time (1902 and 1907 respectively). The excellent and extensive liner notes claim that this is the first time the two have been recorded together, and point out that they rarely, if ever, appear on the same concert program. Following in the footsteps of Debussy’s quartet of a decade earlier, Ravel’s is the epitome of French Impressionism while Schoenberg’s expanded tonality points the way to his later development of the 12-note system adopted by the Second Viennese School; together they paint a telling portrait of the changing times. Although there is some sturm und drang in the vif et agité final movement of the Ravel, the overall impression is that of beauty and balance. Schoenberg’s String Quartet No.1 in D Minor, Op.7 starts stormily, in the relative minor key to Ravel’s F Major, making a good case for their pairing, but there the similarities stop. There is a lushness in the Schoenberg, especially in the third movement, but it is a much darker mood than the mostly playful Ravel. Heard now, more than a century after it was composed, the Schoenberg no longer sounds shockingly abrasive and there is even a Romantic sensibility in its quieter moments, making me wonder why it is still so infrequently heard in the concert hall. Fortunately, there are a number of historic recordings available of Schoenberg’s four quartets by the likes of the Juilliard, LaSalle, New Vienna, Schoenberg and Pražák string quartets. Hopefully this committed and thoroughly nuanced performance by the Telegraph Quartet will bring this first to a wider audience. I look forward to where they take us next in their exploration of Divergent Paths

05 Leopold van der PalsAlthough relegated to obscurity in recent decades, the prolific composer Leopold van der Pals is currently undergoing a renaissance, thanks in large part to the efforts of cellist Tobias van der Pals, the great-grandson of Leopold’s younger brother, conductor Nikolaj. Leopold was born in St Petersburg in 1884. His father was the Dutch consul there, while his Danish-born maternal grandfather was Julius Johannsen – composer, music theorist, professor at and later director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Music had a central role in the van der Pals home, where the composers Glazunov and Tchaikovsky were regular guests, and it was on Glazunov’s recommendation that the young Leopold began his tuition as a composer. At Rachmaninoff’s suggestion he went to study with Reinhold Glière in Berlin, under whose tutelage he completed a symphony that was accepted for performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, an auspicious beginning indeed. The outbreak of WWI forced him to leave Germany and the October Revolution in Russia meant he could not return there either. Van der Pals settled in Switzerland where he remained until his death in 1966.  

Tobias van der Pals has been immersed in his great uncle’s life and legacy for more than 20 years and in 2018 had the opportunity to move Leopold’s entire archive to Copenhagen. There are now over 700 compositions being prepared for publication by Edition Wilhelm Hansen with Tobias as editor. Following a CD of orchestral works and another of solo concertos, CPO has recently released Leopold van der Pals – String Quartets Vol.1 performed by the Van Der Pals Quartet, of which Tobias is a member (CPO 555 282-2 vanderpalsquartet.com). Van der Pals completed six quartets and the first three are included here, along with a brief late work, In Memoriam Marie Steiner. Born a decade after Ravel and Schoenberg, he too wrote his first quartet around the age of 30, beginning it shortly after his move to Switzerland. That decade seems to have made a difference in the confluence of styles, and in van der Pals’ writing we see something of a blending of the cultural differences of the elder masters. 

Although van der Pals returned to the medium at several points in his life, the first three quartets were completed within a span of a dozen years. Strangely he didn’t publish the second and only heard a fragment of it performed in his lifetime. It was given its world premiere by this ensemble in 2018. The lyrical third quartet dates from 1929 and was very well received by public and critics alike as, it seems, was all his music. This makes its disappearance during the latter part of the century even harder to fathom. Kudos to Tobias van der Pals and his colleagues and to the folks at CPO for bringing these forgotten gems to light. I am eager to hear more.

06 Amalie StalheimI had hoped to include one more disc, but I see I have run out of space so I will just give it honourable mention here. Stravinsky | Poulenc | Debussy (LAWO Classics LWC1260 lawo.no) features excellent performances by Norwegian cellist Amalie Stalheim and pianist Christian Ihle Hadland of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, an arrangement of Baroque-inspired dances extracted from his ballet Pulcinella, and cello sonatas by Poulenc and Debussy, the latter being one of the Impressionist master’s final works. A collection to treasure, with immaculate sound, balance and ensemble playing. 

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, The WholeNote c/o Music Alive, The Centre for Social Innovation, 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4 or to discoveries@thewholenote.com.

01 BernsteinJumping the gun a wee bit, I’d like to start with a world premiere recording of Leonard Bernstein’s “long lost” Music for String Quartet (1936) that will not be released officially until September 8 (Navona Records nv6577 navonarecords.com). Composed by an 18-year-old Bernstein during his studies at Harvard, the piece has been “steadfastly shepherded from its re-discovery to this historic release” by former Boston Symphony Orchestra librarian John Perkel who discovered it in the Library of Congress. The two-movement work lasts just over ten minutes, beginning with an extended angular, though melodic, dance-like fast movement followed by a brief and somewhat mournful slow one. It’s not clear whether this latter, recently found in the Library of Congress, was intended as a final movement – it ends somewhat inconclusively with a pizzicato pattern fading into oblivion. Complete or not, this is an interesting addition to the string quartet repertoire and an important key to understanding the young Bernstein who would go on to become such an iconic figure in American music. It is convincingly performed by violinists Lucia Lin and Natalie Rose Kress, violist Danny Kim and cellist Ronald Feldman. Kress and Kim are also featured in the contemplative duo Elegies for Violin and Viola by Aaron Copland, a musical mentor, collaborator and dear friend of Bernstein’s.

02 ShatterSticking with American music for string quartet, Bright Shiny Things has recently released Shatter, three world premiere recordings performed by the Verona Quartet (BSTD-0186 brightshiny.ninja). The works include Julia Adolphe’s Star-Crossed Signals, Michael Gilbertson’s Quartet and Reena Esmail’s Ragamala, which features Hindustani singer Saili Oak. It is this latter four-movement work that opens the disc and comprises almost half its length. Ragamala interweaves Eastern and Western traditions. Each movement opens the same way, inspired by Esmail’s experience of attending concerts in India, with traditional drones here provided by the string quartet. Each movement is based on a different raag: Fantasie (Bihag); Scherzo (Malkauns); Recitative (Basant); and the Rondo (Jog) all sung by the sultry Oak over the lush textures of the strings. Adolphe’s Star-Crossed Signals juxtaposes issues of empowerment and the assertion of dominance with a yearning for connection. The movement titles, DELTA X-RAY and KILO KILO come from nautical signal flags used by ships at sea, which the composer’s father used in his early paintings. The first, which means “keep your distance” and “watch for my signals,” is quite aggressive in contrast to the second, “I wish to communicate with you” in which the composer says “the strings gently reach for one another, enveloping and folding each line in a kind of dance.” Gilbertson’s Quartet was in progress during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, after which it became a personal reaction to those events. Feeling the need to compose something comforting, Gilbertson chose as the basis for the first movement Mother Chords a gesture like the pulsing chords that open Sibelius’ Second Symphony. The second movement Simple Sugars, which Gilbertson describes as “carbs that are metabolized quickly and provide an immediate rush, but no nutritional substance” is an allusion to the movement’s restless energy. The Verona Quartet rises to all the challenges of these diverse works. 

03 Ashley Bathgate 8 TrackFrom quartets to octets now, in a manner of speaking. My first exposure to Steve Reich’s music for multiple instruments of the same family was Vermont Counterpoint for solo flute and an ensemble of ten flutes, or pre-recorded tracks of the piccolos, flutes and alto flutes as performed by the soloist, this latter being the case in the 1982 Ransom Wilson EMI release. In 2003 Reich composed Cello Counterpoint for eight cellos on a joint commission for Maya Beiser (who will appear later on in the column). On the recent New Focus Recordings release 8-Track (FCR373 newfocusrecordings.com) we are presented with Ashley Bathgate’s layered realization of the work, along with new compositions in the same format by Canadian/Icelandic composer Fjóla Evans and Americans Emily Cooley and Alex Weiser. Evans’ Augun was inspired by a traditional Icelandic song and features overlapping motives to create shimmering, undulating textures. Cooley tells us that composing Assemble was like “assembling a sort of puzzle;” only at the end do the pieces come together in one voice. Weiser’s Shimmer unfolds through gradual and dramatic changes, in a waxing and waning of the canonic relationship between each cello and the soloist. This is the closest in minimalist spirit to Reich’s original which concludes this inspired disc. Bathgate’s technical control and musicality shine through each of these contrasting works within a common context, resulting in a mesmerizing recording. My only concern is that the two most similar sounding works, Weiser’s and Reich’s, are placed side by side. I would have preferred the disc to begin with Cello Counterpoint thus presenting a context for the project.

Listen to '8-Track' Now in the Listening Room

04 Kate Ellis Strange WavesKate Ellis’ Strange Waves is a digital release that takes this same approach to the cello ensemble, but this time presenting an extended six-movement work by collaborating Irish composer Ed Bennett (Ergodos Records ergodos.bandcamp.com). Ellis has been a member of Crash Ensemble, Ireland’s leading new music group, for the past two decades and currently serves as its artistic director. Strange Waves is a predominantly ambient work with the multiple cellos blending in a dreamlike texture of glissandos and drones creating a foggy haze into which field recordings from the County Down coast and Ireland’s northernmost island, Rathlin in the North Atlantic, are subtly integrated. A truly meditative experience.

05 Bach BeiserInfinite Bach is Maya Beiser’s very personal take on the iconic Suites for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach (Islandia Music Records IMR012 islandiamusic.com/releases). In the words of Beiser, best known for her work as an avant-garde cellist, “I spent 2022, my 60th year of life, immersed in recording, and rerecording, deconstructing and decontextualizing, experimenting and exploring sounds, reverberations, harmonics in my converted barn in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, engaging with Bach’s cello Suites. Having dedicated the past 35 years to creating new music, work that reimagines the cello on a vast canvas in multiple disciplines, I radically departed from the conventional classical cello sound. Yet, the Suites were ingrained in my daily practice. Even as I was getting ready to perform a new work by Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, or David Bowie, I would still begin every day playing a movement from the Suites. Over the years I was experimenting with the process of unlearning the doctrine I was taught about this music, until last year when I took the time to relearn it anew.” The result takes some getting used to, sounding at times as if recorded from a different room, with extreme reverberation sometimes supplemented with sympathetic drones and overlays, and some radically altered tempos. I also find the arrangement of the suites surprising. Spread over three discs (itself not unusual) Beiser has chosen to pair the suites according to major and minor tonality, the G major and C majors (nos.1 and 3) on the first disc, the D minor and C minor (2 and 5) on the second and the E-flat major and D major (4 and 6) on the last. While my initial reaction was that this was too much of the same mood on each disc, I eventually came around to appreciate the continuity. And once I let myself let go of expectations and prejudice about how these works were supposed to sound, I was able to immerse myself in Beiser’s vision and enjoy the ride. Although Infinite Bach is available in Full Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio via Apple Music and in an Immersive Binaural Mix for enhanced headphone listening, I must say the plain old-fashioned CDs sound pretty good on my old stereo system too.

06 Bach ThorsteinsdottirSæunn Thorsteinsdóttir is another cellist who has made the Bach Suites “her own,” re-interpreting them, although in a much less radical way than Beiser. In the liner notes to Marrow – The 6 Suites for Solo Cello by J.S. Bach (Sono Luminus DSL-92263 sonoluminus.com) she says “There is an Icelandic saying, ‘mergur málsins,’ which directly translates to ‘the marrow of the matter,’ and these Suites, to me, speak directly to the essence of being human. As for many cellists, these Suites have been my steady companion throughout my life with the cello, first as a vehicle to learn counterpoint, style, and harmony, then as material with which to explore personal expression and interpretation, and today they are a mirror, reflecting the deeper truth of the human experience, revealing more layers of meaning each time I come back to them.” Thorsteinsdóttir feels Bach “pushes the boundaries of the expressive and technical possibilities of the instrument with each succeeding Suite.” As she began playing the Suites as a set, she heard a dramatic through-line begin to emerge, finding the first “innocent” and the second as a “first taste of bitter disappointment,” in the third a “renewed optimism,” the fourth “bold and brash,” with “dark tragedy” in the fifth and “glorious redemption” in the sixth. To clearly illuminate this arc, she presents the Suites without the printed repeats “so that we may more closely follow this universal storyline.” This also has the advantage of making it possible to present them all of a piece, in one sitting. The two CDs of this set clock in at 90 minutes, and present the suites in numerical order conserving the original major-minor-major groupings. The performance is exhilarating and makes for a satisfying, if intense, listening session.

07 Harnoy HerriottThe final selection also features solo cello, but in a very different context. In a trip down memory lane, Portrait (mikeherriott.com/bwg_gallery/discography) featuring cellist Ofra Harnoy and her life partner trumpeter Mike Herriott, takes me back to my days as a music programmer at CJRT-FM. Harnoy’s RCA discs of Haydn and Vivaldi concertos (several of which were world premiere recordings) with the Toronto Chamber Orchestra under the direction of former CJRT music director Paul Robinson were staples of our library. The current disc with the H&H Studio Orchestra, a hand-picked ensemble of Toronto’s finest studio musicians, features many of the jewels of the operatic repertoire that were often heard during CJRT’s exhilarating all-hands-on-deck fundraising campaigns. These include Una Furtiva Lagrima from L’elisir d’Amore, The Flower Duet from Lakme, Au Fond du Temple Saint from The Pearl Fishers, along with several selections from Porgy and Bess and Somewhere from West Side Story. These vocal treasures have been masterfully arranged by Herriott and feature cello and trumpet alternating in the solo roles. All the performances are outstanding and my only quibble is that overall mood, lyrical and slow moving, is a bit too similar from track to track. That being said, it’s still a marvellous journey, which ends with Harnoy’s moving transcription for cello and trumpet of Larry Adler and Itzhak Perlman’s languid duet arrangement of the iconic Summertime

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

01 Aux Deux HemispheresAux deux hémisphères features two sonatas and three stand-alone works by Quebec cellist and composer Dominique Beauséjour-Ostiguy, accompanied by pianist Jean-Michel Dubé, (Société Métropolitaine du disque SMD 311-1 dominiquebeausejourostiguy.com). Although the CD’s extensive liner notes are unilingual French, the composer’s website gives detailed context in English for the project from which I take the following: “The title is a reference to two of my main sources of inspiration, namely the lyricism and the torment found in Russian post-Romantic music as well as the relentless rhythmic energy of Argentinian tango music. These two hemispheres are very present in my music and represent the two poles of my musical personality. Indeed, my compositions frequently alternate between introversion and extroversion [creating] a cinematographic flavour with a lot of intensity and contrasts. The two hemispheres are also a way of expressing the duality and the complicity between the cello and the piano, constantly in dialogue and each occupying a place of equal importance.” On repeated listening to this disc, the word that kept coming to my mind was “soaring.” The music itself is enthralling, both conventional and adventurous at the same time, and the multi-award-winning performers, are in top form. As pointed out by Terry Robbins elsewhere in these pages, the facilities at Domaine Forget where it was recorded in late 2021 “guaranteeing top-level sound quality,” this album is a real treat for chamber music enthusiasts. 

02 Duo CavatineNuages is another outstanding Canadian cello and piano disc, showcasing Noémie Raymond-Friset and Michel-Alexandre Broekaert respectively, collectively known as Duo Cavatine (KNS Classical KNS A/121 duocavatine.com). The title for this debut disc, which translates as clouds, comes from its centrepiece, producer David Jaeger’s Constable’s Clouds for solo cello. I spoke in my February column about a reworking of this piece with electronics for violist Elizabeth Reid, so I welcomed the opportunity to get to know this original set of variations inspired by the cloud studies of John Constable. Jaeger tells us the variations “of widely differing character” were inspired by the “magical and endless variation we see in the shapes of clouds streaming by.” Raymond-Friset, who gave the work’s premiere, rises to all the technical challenges Jaeger presents in these nuanced nuages. The disc opens with a rarely heard yet charming sonata by Francis Poulenc dating from the occupation years of the Second World War. It’s from the gentle second movement Cavatine that the duo has taken its name. Alfred Schnittke’s powerful Sonata for Cello and Piano No.1 reverses the normal order of things by starting and ending with Largo movements bookending a diabolic moto perpetuo Presto. Throughout the disc, whether in the lyricism of Poulenc or the abrasiveness of Schnittke, Raymond-Friset and Broekaert shine, with technique and musicality to burn. Recorded at Glenn Gould Studio the sound is, as we have come to expect from engineer Dennis Patterson, impeccable.

Listen to 'Nuages' Now in the Listening Room

03 Brian BaumbuschIn the Pot Pourri section this month you will find Andrew Timar’s thoughtful and informative account of three new discs by the California based Gamelan Sinar Surya, an ensemble devoted to preserving the traditional gamelan music of Indonesia and its diaspora. In contrast, following in the footsteps of his West Coast predecessor Lou Harrison, American composer Brian Baumbusch has created his own instruments in the Balinese tradition while also envisioning new performance practices through innovative building designs and special tunings. He has worked closely with the Balinese ensemble Nata Swara and in 2022 donated his instruments to them and shipped – 1,800 pounds of them – to Bali. He then went to Bali himself to record the album Chemistry for Gamelan and String Quartet with Nata Swara and JACK Quartet (New World Records 80833-2 newworldrecords.org/search?q=Brian+Baumbusch). The disc opens with the exhilarating Prisms for Gene Davis for gamelan, completed in 2021, the most recent work presented. This is followed by Three Elements for String Quartet (2016), Helium, Lithium and Mercury. Performed by JACK, the work, an extreme example of Baumbusch’s “polytempo” style, features close harmonies and some abrasive textures amid doppler effects and the breakneck speed of its final movement. The disc closes with Hydrogen(2)Oxygen (2015) featuring both ensembles. The work reconsiders the earlier Bali Alloy for quartet and gamelan in which the composer attempted to unite the disparate instruments. This later work takes into consideration the irreconcilability of its two sound worlds, i.e. the harmonic overtone series naturally produced by the string instruments and the inharmonic series of partials of the steel and cedar bars of the gamelan instruments. This allows the string quartet and gamelan to exist side-by-side, exploiting their combinations and contrasts for expressive effect; in the words of Stephen Brooke after the premiere, “building from an ethereal opening into a raging torrent of asymmetrical rhythms, phase-shifting patterns and beautifully strange harmonies [...] magnificent, and as intoxicating as a drug.” 

04 Jason DoellThere are times when Baumbusch’s textures sound unearthly and it’s hard to reconcile the sounds with acoustic instruments. The same is true of Jason Doell’s Becoming in Shadows – Of Being Touched (Whited Sepulchre Records WSR043 jasondoell.com), although in this instance there are electronic manipulations at work. All the sound materials originate from the composer’s daily piano improvisations recorded while in residency at the Banff Centre in early 2020 (although some of it seems to have been performed by Mauro Zannoli on a “frozen” piano, exhumed from a snowbank). These are, to greater and lesser degrees, subjected to a piece of simple generative music software developed by Doell. The program blends user-defined parameters with decision-making procedures to determine how sounds from an audio database are strung together, layered and transformed, all the while guided by the composer’s aesthetic. A kind of humanized AI design. The result is a dreamlike landscape, a labyrinthine journey where microtonal pitches are blended with soft percussive sounds, all recognizable as emanating from a piano, albeit an otherworldly one. 

Concert Note: On June 18 at Array Space the TONE Festival features Jason Doell as he launches his album Becoming In Shadows ~ Of Being Touched

05 Alice Ho BlazeAlthough there is an electronic aspect on one of the tracks of Christina Petrowska Quilico’s latest CD Blaze featuring piano music of Alice Ping Yee Ho (Centrediscs CMCCD 31323 cmccanada.org/product-category/recordings/Centrediscs), the rest are purely acoustic. Ho tells us “The eight works in this collection have short, descriptive titles, with inspiration drawn from abstract paintings, forces of nature, the last journey of a female pilot, a horror film, plus a show piece from a piano competition. These compositions are both introspective and personal, designed to elicit evocative ‘images’ or ‘impressions,’ visually and psychologically. It is a great honour to have these works recorded by Christina Petrowska Quilico, an astounding musician as well as an acclaimed visual artist. The poetic metaphors in these pieces not only showcase her powerful performer’s persona but also uniquely resonate with her beautiful and vibrant paintings.” Among the paintings depicted are Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Erupting Skies evokes Amelia Earhart’s last journey: “The solo piano is a symbolic representation of a female voice; […] the electronic track is a combination of Earhart’s voice with multiple layers of engineered acoustic and synthesized sounds.” The range of emotions depicted and the sheer virtuosity of several of the works make demands on the pianist that a lesser musician would find daunting. Petrowska Quilico, still at the top of her game after more than 50 recordings, rises to every challenge without breaking a sweat. Stay tuned for the upcoming Centrediscs release Shadow & Light, a double concerto CD with Petrowska Quilico and violinist Marc Djokic with Sinfonia Toronto under Nurhan Arman featuring music by Ho, Christos Hatzis and Larissa Kuzmenko. 

06a Future is Female 1If it is due to the efforts of Christina Petrowska Quilico that we are aware of as many Canadian women composers as we are, it is thanks to American pianist Sarah Cahill that the world is becoming increasingly aware of the presence of women composers throughout history. The Future is Female (firsthandrecords.com) is a project launched in March 2022 encompassing 30 composers ranging from Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) to the more familiar 19th and early 20th-century names of Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and Germaine Tailleferre, and on into modern times with two dozen more including Betsy Jolas and Meredith Monk to name just a couple. Bringing the series to a close, Vol. 3 At Play (FHR133) was released in May 2023 and features works by Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836), Cécile Chaminade, Grażyna Bacewicz, Chen Yi, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Pauline Oliveros, Hannah Kendall, Aida Shirazi and Regina Harris Baiocchi, pieces by the last four having been composed in the 21st century. Cahill says “Like most pianists, I grew up with the classical canon, which has always excluded women composers as well as composers of color. It is still standard practice to perform recitals consisting entirely of music written by men. The Future is Female, then, aims to be a corrective towards rebalancing the repertoire. It does not attempt to be exhaustive, in any way, and the three albums represent only a small fraction of the music by women which is waiting to be performed and heard.” Each of the three volumes has a theme – In Nature, The Dance and At Play – and is arranged chronologically, with ten works spanning three centuries per CD. In this way each recital brings a fresh perspective and expands our understanding of the history of Western music from the classical to the modern era. Kudos to Cahill for convincing performances of the music of all these diverse styles and composers, for giving them voice and for opening our eyes and ears. 

07 Bruce CockburnSome half a century ago I spent many hours at my kitchen table trying to figure out a song from Bruce Cockburn’s eponymous first album, the inaugural release on Bernie Finkelstein’s True North Records label. That song, Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon, has recently come back into my repertoire thanks to guitarist Brian Katz who attended one of my backyard music gatherings last fall. It’s taken a while to get my chops back for Cockburn’s intricate chord progressions and finger patterns, but it’s been worth the effort. So imagine the pleasure I felt to find Cockburn’s O Sun O Moon (True North Records TND811 truenorthrecords.com), in my inbox last month. Over the years Cockburn’s music has gone through changes from that pristine acoustic first offering through many sides of pop music and hard-edged songs, but he has always maintained his moral compass, celebrating life and protesting abuse and ignorance. On his latest album the opening track On a Roll is reminiscent of some of his rockier outings, but the overall feel of the disc is gentle and, as always, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Predominantly acoustic, Cockburn plays guitar, resonator guitar and dulcimer and is joined by a handful of A-list musicians including guitarist Colin Linden, who also produced the recording, with vocal support from Shawn Colvin, Susan Aglukark, Allison Russell and Ann and Regina McCrary. Highlights include the mournful yet anthemic Colin Went Down to the Water, When the Spirit Walks In the Room with violinist Jenny Scheinman and Janice Powers on B3 organ, the cryptic King of the Bolero – who is it plays like that? – and the instrumental Haiku. Cockburn’s voice has weathered somewhat over time, but he uses the gruffness to good effect, and he has not lost any of his musical charm or character. “O Sun by day o moon by night | Light my way so I get this right | And if that sun and moon don’t shine | Heaven guide these feet of mine – to Glory…”

08 Outside the MazeThat first True North Record was produced by Eugene Martynec, as were many of the label’s subsequent offerings including, in that same inaugural year, the haunting track December Angel on Long Lost Relatives by Syrinx, a seminal Toronto electronic ensemble featuring the synthesizers of John Mills-Cockell. Martynec is still an active part of the Toronto music scene, albeit after spending some years abroad, and his current project is the free improvising collective Gilliam | Martynec | McBirnie in which he’s in charge of electroacoustics, with pianist Bill Gilliam and flutist Bill McBirnie. Their latest release, Outside the Maze (gilliammcbirniemartynec.bandcamp.com/album/outside-the-maze), consists of ten diverse tracks, no two of which sound the same. While the piano and flutes (C and alto) are pretty much distinguishable throughout, Martynec’s contributions vary from atmospheric to percussive. At times it is hard to imagine the convincing sounds are not being created on physical drums and cymbals; at others it’s hard to imagine what their origins are. It’s also hard to imagine that these cohesive “compositions” are being created spontaneously in real time without premeditation or formal structure. The results are entrancing. 

09 Eliana CuevasA final quick note about Toronto’s Latin diva Eliana Cuevas’ latest release Seré Libre (Alma Records ACD472323 shopalmarecords.com). The Venezuelan-Canadian singer is accompanied by the Angel Falls Orchestra – named for the world’s highest waterfall located in Canaima National Park, Venezuela – conducted by the album’s producer Jeremy Ledbetter. Cuevas says “I created this 27-piece orchestra, as it was the one missing piece to realize my dream of fusing the incredibly rich traditions of Venezuelan folk rhythms and classical music.” The album explores loss – the deaths of Cuevas’ father and grandfather – and her mission to continue the centuries old folk music traditions they taught her. The title song, which translates as “I shall be free,” is a nine-minute epic journey which Cuevas says she always dedicates to her troubled homeland, but “it can be interpreted as being about finding freedom from whatever is holding you back.” With Cuevas’ gorgeous voice and the lush orchestrations played by an orchestra that includes many of Toronto’s finest pit musicians, this is truly a glorious album. There will also be a theatrical film release of the project which will be available online by the time you read this. 

Listen to 'Seré Libre' Now in the Listening Room

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David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

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