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 (atmaclassique.com). 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 couloir.ca) 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, eveegoyan.com) 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 (nikbeeson.com/dive/) 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 aliciahansenbenbrown.com), were the cover art by Mi’kmaq artist Jay White (draworbedrawn.com) 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 (tournsol.net) 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.

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. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for on-line shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

With the late Labour Day this year at times it has seemed happily like an endless summer. Unfortunately, with the opening of the CNE I am reminded it’s time to get my nose back to the grindstone and tell you about some of the most interesting discs to come my way over the past three months.

01_Barbara_Hannigan.jpgFirst up is a first-class documentary about Canada’s contemporary diva Barbara Hannigan, last seen in these parts as the featured soloist in works by George Benjamin and Hans Abrahamsen at last spring’s New Creations Festival hosted by the TSO. Barbara Hannigan – Concert & Documentary (Accentus Music ACC 20327) was filmed in August 2014 at the Lucerne Festival where Hannigan was artiste étoile, singing, conducting and giving masterclasses. The DVD includes concert footage with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra featuring an overture by Rossini, three Mozart arias, Ligeti’s surprisingly traditional Concert Românesc, Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Hannigan’s signature piece, Mysteries of the Macabre also by Ligeti.

Hannigan is certainly not the first singer to turn to conducting, but I’m not aware of any in the modern era that have undertaken to do both at once. We get insights into the development of this dual career and the particular challenges it offers in the candid documentary I’m a creative animal – Barbara Hannigan directed by Barbara Seiler. We get intimate glimpses of the artist as an accomplished chef (she travels with her own kitchen knives), going for daily runs with pop music in her ear buds, on horseback and in yoga class, but first and foremost as a diligent and dedicated musician with an incredible breadth of vision and accomplishment.

We hear Hannigan in her own words discussing growing up in rural Nova Scotia, her studies at the University of Toronto where her mentor (Mary Morrison, although unnamed in the documentary) opened her eyes and ears to the world of contemporary music, the trials and tribulations of living out of suitcases, the dangers of being revered as a “superhuman” and her aspirations for the future. We also hear from members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra about working under her direction and from her vocal coach about fine tuning and maintenance of Hannigan’s superb vocal instrument. This 45-minute portrait is a stunning look at a stunning artist and consummate musician. Not to be missed. Concert note: Barbara Hannigan returns to the stage at Roy Thomson Hall in the dual role of soloist and conductor in music of Nono, Haydn, Mozart, Ligeti and Stravinsky with the TSO on October 7 and 8.



In the tradition of full disclosure I will say that Canadian pianist and musicologist Dr. Réa Beaumont is a colleague whom I often encounter through the activities of the Toronto New Music Alliance (with which I am affiliated in my position as general manager of New Music Concerts) and who is an occasional contributor to WholeNote’s DISCoveries section. As a matter of fact you can find her impressions of the new Gryphon Trio compact disc further on in these pages.

That being said I want to tell you about A Conversation Piece, a CD that was released late last year by Beaumont’s Shrinking Planet Productions (reabeaumont.com) featuring works by R. Murray Schafer, Jean Coulthard, John Weinzweig and Maurice Ravel. Of particular interest to me is the first track, Beaumont’s own Shattered Ice, which combines compositional prowess with her concern for the environment in an ominous work depicting the fragile ecosystem of the Canadian Arctic and the dangers posed by human intrusion.

The first movement of John Weinzweig’s 1950 Suite for Piano No.2 gives the disc its title. This dialogue between the two hands is followed by a sombre lullaby and a brief, lively and angular toccata. Coulthard’s contemplative Threnody is followed by Polytonality, Schafer’s first published work, a sort of homage to Poulenc. Netscapes (2000) is one of Weinzweig’s very last works, evidently inspired by the experience of browsing the Internet and discovering a number of melodic fragments, which are juxtaposed in the composer’s distinctive wry style.

The second half of the disc is devoted to Ravel’s five-movement Miroirs from 1905, an extended work which heralded the French Impressionist movement. It is a perfect companion piece for the selected Canadian repertoire, with its poetic and visual images transferred to the keyboard. Beaumont’s touch is well suited to the delicate textures and the intricate passages as well as the quirky rhythms that surface in the Ravel and Weinzweig selections. The program is well balanced and the sound is immaculate thanks to the production by David Jaeger and the team at Glenn Gould Studio.

03_Matthews_String_Quartets.jpgIt is always a treat to discover a new Canadian ensemble and this summer I was introduced to the Clearwater String Quartet through its recording of music by Michael Matthews (Ravello Records RR7910 ravellorecords.com). This is not to say that Clearwater is recently formed, but simply that I had not been exposed to their accomplished playing before. Comprised of the principal string players of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra they have been performing as a quartet for more than a decade and have a busy schedule as the in-house ensemble for the Winnipeg Chamber Music Society. Matthews is also an integral part of the Winnipeg music scene, having been a founding director of Groundswell, the contemporary music organization which resulted from an amalgamation of the city’s new music groups back in 1991. He recently retired Professor Emeritus from the Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba and also served as Composer-In-Residence with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra from 2002 to 2004.

In the extended (six-page) essay by Max Fleischman in the accompanying booklet we are told that Matthews is a voracious reader and a listener whose compositions reflect this. He goes on to say that “Judged against the prevailing 21st-century aesthetic this literateness tars Matthews as deeply conservative in his ethos and art. In particular, his music finds itself at odds both with the rancorous anti-intellectual streak in North American culture and with its sense of ‘cool.’ This music is serious. It is complicated. It is human, and speaks in the miraculous and improbable language that Europe has been working on since Gregorian times…. This music is earnest: it demands (and deserves!) multiple hearings. And it is sober, speaking the language of Holocaust, totalitarianism and uncertainty, and speaking it like a native, or at least like the literate child of witnesses and survivors.” With this emphasis on conservatism and heritage we might expect to hear liturgical-based melodies along the lines of those “Jewish” compositions of Srul Irving Glick, but make no mistake, it is the intellectual rigour of Western art and philosophy that is the focus, and the music is more reminiscent of the Second Viennese School and Shostakovich. That is to say “good old-fashioned new music.”

Matthews, who was born in Gander in 1950, seems to have come to the string quartet fairly late in his career. Although his earliest acknowledged compositions date back to the early 1970s, he didn’t write his first quartet until 1999, since which time there have been three more, plus a set of miniatures for the medium. The disc includes String Quartet No.3 (2008, revised 2013), a work in four contrasting movements lasting more than half an hour, the eleven Miniatures (2000) and String Quartet No.2 (2003) with its brooding, extended last movement and echoes of Bartók’s night music. These are all very strong works immaculately played by some of Canada’s finest string players, Gwen Hoebig and Karl Stobbe (violins), Daniel Scholz (viola) and Yuri Hooker (cello). I hope we hear more from them soon.



I almost gave the next disc to Toronto’s star recorder player Alison Melville to review, but upon listening I found I could not bear to give it up. Never fear though, Alison will be on duty next month to tell us about two more concerto recordings featuring the extraordinary Michala Petri. On Double Triple Koppel – Concertos by Anders Koppel (Dacapo 6.220633) Petri is joined by the composer’s son Benjamin Koppel in the Concerto for Recorder, Saxophone and Orchestra (2010) and Koppel teams up with Eugene Hye-Knudsen and Tine Rehling for the Triple Concerto for Mezzo Saxophone, Cello, Harp and Orchestra (2009). I was immediately drawn to the unusual instrumentation of both works, and especially the use of saxophone.

The first time I am aware of having heard saxophone in an orchestral context goes back to a recording of Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No.2 featuring Daniel Shafran almost four decades ago. About halfway through the piece there is an incredible moment when, seemingly out of nowhere, a saxophone takes over the solo cello line in a cadenza-like flourish. It takes a moment to realize that the new texture is in fact no longer the cello, but rather an alto sax. It was a minor epiphany for me.

Likewise the first time I heard the recorder in a contemporary orchestral context. The occasion was coming across an RCA disc, Moon Child’s Dream, in the CJRT library back in 1992. That featured Michala Petri in the title work by Thomas Koppel, brother and uncle of the Koppels mentioned above, plus pieces by Holmboe, Christiansen and Toronto’s own Gary Kulesha. I was hooked by the juxtaposition and integration of the shrill timbre of the baroque wind instrument into the texture of a modern chamber orchestra, but, as I am wont to say, enough about me!

The two concertos presented here are dramatic, lyrical works with plenty of rhythmic drive juxtaposed with extended passages of dreamlike calm, especially in the Triple Concerto. Not to be confused with the mezzo saxophone in F produced in the late 1920s by the CG Conn company which rapidly fell into disuse, the instrument employed here is a modern one manufactured by Danish maker Peter Jessen, tuned in G, placing it midway between the E-flat alto and B-flat soprano saxophone. Jazzer Joe Lovano has made extensive use of the mezzo, but this is evidently its orchestral debut. The range and timbre of this saxophone make it a well-matched partner for the cello but from the very first notes there are surprises in store. The cello enters with strident notes in its highest register sounding more like a Chinese erhu than the mellow baritone we normally expect. The harp adds a busy pointillist texture over which the sax and cello soar during the extended cadenza of the Moderato that concludes the work.

Koppel’s music, which falls firmly into the neo-Romantic camp with extended melodies and tonal harmonies but always with a modern sensibility, is more innovative in its instrumentation than in its compositional form. The way he combines instruments is truly unusual and extremely well handled. Even after repeated listening I am surprised to realize which instruments are creating the sounds and how well he blurs the lines between even such disparate voices as the recorder and the saxophone. Well worth investigating for yourself.

05_Matt_Haimovitz.jpgIn Brief: Over the long summer there was of course a plethora of other offerings that held my attention. Orbit – Music for Solo Cello (Pentatone PTC 1586) is a 3-CD compilation comprising material originally released over the past decade by Montreal-based Matt Haimovitz on his own Oxingale label. Even for an aficionado such as myself nearly four hours of nothing but the sound of a single cello in repertoire drawn from a single time period (1945-2014) might get to be a bit “much of a muchness,” but I must say that my attention did not wane. From the opening title track, not to my ear sounding anything like other compositions by Philip Glass that I have heard, through such diverse composers as Berio, Golijov, Sokolovic, Ligeti, Carter, Sciarrino, Tremblay, Machover and Rorem the contrasts made for very effective programming and a compelling listening experience. The uncompromising but varied voices of these composers was juxtaposed occasionally with more popular fare – Haimowitz’s own transcription of Jimi Hendrix’s iconic version of the Star Spangled Banner and Luna Pearl Woolf’s take on Lennon-McCartney’s Helter Skelter – but even within the “serious” repertoire there was an amazing breadth of style and genre. Haimowitz proved himself up to all the challenges. This is an incredible testament to the accomplishment of a great musician, and an outstanding compendium of music of our time.

06_Brett_Higgins_Atlas.jpgBrett Higgins’ Atlas Revolt provided much-needed respite during a stop-and-go drive up Highway 400 on the long August weekend. Double bassist Higgins has been active on the Toronto scene in a variety of genres, as a founding member of the eclectic Beyond the Pale among many other credits. His latest project is an instrumental combo with Aleksandar Gajic (violin), Robbie Grunwald (keyboards), Tom Juhas (guitar) and Joshua Van Tassel (percussion) which encompasses world, Latin and pop influences in a mostly jazz context. The disc, released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label (TZ 7813 tzadik.com), is comprised of ten Higgins original tracks in a variety of styles. I was enjoying it so much that I didn’t notice it was on repeat play until the third time through the disc. It made sitting in traffic almost worthwhile.

07_Dalannah__Owen.jpgAnother bass-centric disc in rotation on my player this summer is Been Around a While featuring Vancouver-based blues duo Dalannah and Owen (Quest QST-009 questrecords.com). This sparse offering consists solely of Dalannah Gail Bowen’s smoky, bluesy vocals and the electric bass playing of Owen Veber and except for occasional overdubbing of additional bass lines (or more likely “looping” in this day and age) that’s all we hear. And it’s enough. There’s nothing fancy here, just the blues stripped down to its essentials. About half of the songs are originals, including the title track, plus effective covers of Billy Eckstine, Marvin Gaye, Son House and the duo’s reworking of Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen.

08_Slocan_Ramblers.jpgCoffee Creek is the first full-length release by the young Toronto bluegrass band Slocan Ramblers (slocanramblers.com). Mentored by Chris Coole of Foggy Hogtown Boys fame who also produced this disc, the group shows a virtuosity and command of the genre that belies their youth (and geography). The formation is fairly standard – banjo (Frank Evans), mandolin (Adrian Gross), guitar (Darryl Poulson) and double bass (Alistair Whitehead) – with the vocal duties shared and the balance about equal between original instrumentals and traditional bluegrass songs. The band’s website testifies to a busy touring schedule, both across the country and south of the border, but unfortunately it seems we won’t get to hear them live in Toronto in the immediate future. Readers in Ottawa can catch them on October 24 at Spirit of Rasputin’s Folk Club at Westboro Masonic Hall.

Of course my summer was not spent entirely in front of loudspeakers attached to mechanical (or electronic) reproduction devices. There was a generous share of backyard music-making with friends and I attended a number of live music shows. The one that had the most impact on me was at the Summerworks festival, a “musical” unlike any other I’ve seen. Written and created by Adam Paolozza and Gregory Oh, Melancholia: The Music of Scott Walker drew on five decades of music recorded, and for the most part written, by the former Walker Brother, best known to members of my generation for the 60s hit The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. I must confess that I was unaware of Walker’s creative development in the intervening years. I was actually surprised to hear that there even was such a person as my understanding was that no member of the Walker Brothers was actually named Walker. But it seems that the baritone “brother,” born Noel Scott Engel, adopted the name when he went out on his own in the 1970s. The music that followed was a far cry from the pop ballads that had brought the boy band fame, which for a time rivaled that of the Beatles. Evidently he was profoundly influenced by the music of Jacques Brel and some of his earlier solo work reflects this, including an album of covers of Brel’s work. Walker is also well versed in classical music and has given producers such instructions as “I hear Sibelius here” and “I’m thinking of Delius for this.” His own songs became darker and darker over the years and although his distinctive, low plaintive voice would not change much, the music behind and at times over top of the lyrics, did profoundly.

09_Scott_Walker_Sunn.jpgSince experiencing the live local production I have continued to explore the world of this troubled, solitary artist. Although he has not performed live in many years, he did allow cameras into the studio when he was recording the album The Drift. The resulting documentary, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man produced by Stephen Kijak (with executive producer credits to David Bowie who professes to have been deeply influenced by Walker), was released in 2006 and is viewable on YouTube. I highly recommend it. And then skip ahead to his latest release from 2014, Soused (4AD CAD 3428CD) which features five extended Scott Walker “songs” on which the now familiar melancholy voice is accompanied by the Seattle drone metal band Sunn O))). Not for the faint of heart!

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David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

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