01 MellanoOne of the most intriguing releases to come my way in a good long time is the 3-CD + DVD set How We Tried a New Combination of Notes to Show the Invisible or Even the Embrace of Eternity,featuring the music of 40-something French composer and guitarist Olivier Mellano (naïve MO 782182).

The first disc is devoted to the eponymous extended symphonic work commissioned by the Orchestre symphonique de Bretagne which performs with soprano Valérie Gabail under the direction of Québécois conductor Jean-Michaël Lavoie. Both the music and the text (in six languages plus a recitation of the formulas for the first 17 numbers of the Fibonacci series) are by Mellano. The gorgeous long melodic soprano line soars over orchestral textures that range from placid to tumultuous throughout the five movements, with a passing similarity to Górecki’s iconic Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. As moving and dramatic as this work is, what makes it especially interesting are the variations that follow on the other two CDs. Mellano has taken the basic material of the soprano/orchestral composition and reworked it for male voice (half sung and half spoken by Simon Huw Jones), 17 electric guitars (overdubbed by the composer) and drums (Nicolas Courret). In this instance the text is rendered entirely in English and comes to the forefront. This is even more the case in the third version in which the lyrics are “co-written and re-imagined” by Hip-Hop veteran MC Dälek (Will Brooks). The various transformations are stunning and taken to yet another level with a silent narrative interpretation by French filmmaker Alanté Kavaïté using Cocteau-like images over a soundtrack of the original orchestral version.

02 Brady SymphonyMellano’s was not the only intriguing symphonic work involving voice and electric guitar to come my way this month. Tim Brady – Atacama: Symphony No.3 featuring Bradyworks and Vivavoce (ATMA ACD2 2676) is a settingof poems from the collection Symphony by Chilean activist Elias Letelier who was given sanctuary in Canada in 1981 after being imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet regime. Brady says “The text speaks of the political terror of the Pinochet era in Chile, one of the country’s darkest moments, but it uses striking metaphors of hope and love in the midst of the nightmare of torture and disappearances. This mixture of tenderness and cruelty, of light and dark, gave me a kind of strong emotional and dramatic contrast that I look for in a text.” His effective settings range from mostly a cappella, close harmony singing by the virtuosic Montreal choir to extended, often minimalistic rhythmical instrumental passages by his unique ensemble of keyboards, percussion, flute(s), clarinet(s), saxophone(s), violin, viola, double bass and his own electric guitar. Perhaps most effective are the movements that skilfully combine the two as Brady continues to redefine the designation “symphony.”

03 DutilleuxAs we celebrate a myriad of centennials this season it would behoove us to keep in mind some of the senior living composers who continue to create. Henri Dutilleux is a case in point at the age of 97. The latest release of his music, Correspondances (DG 479 1180), includes the world premiere recording of the title piece featuring Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan. Although there are no performer bios included in the booklet, according to the blurb on the back of the CD Hannigan is “today’s foremost interpreter of contemporary vocal music.” She has performed the work with both the Toronto and the Montreal symphonies. Although originally written for Dawn Upshaw, Dutilleux was so impressed with Hannigan’s performance that he rewrote the ending especially for her. Also included are the cello concerto Tout un Monde Lointain with Anssi Karttunen and The Shadows of Time, a work based on The Diary of Anne Frank. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France andconductor Esa-Pekka Salonen recorded this disc in the presence of the composer. Dutilleux is no stranger to Toronto audiences and the TSO’s 1998 recording of Symphony No.2, Metaboles and Timbres, Espace, Mouvement under Jukka-Pekka Saraste is still available (Finlandia 3984 2525324-2). Both discs are highly recommended.

04 Glass SymphonyIf the DG disc can be faulted for having no performer bios, the next disc goes to the opposite extreme. The latest release on Orange Mountain Music (OMM 0086), a label devoted to the music of Philip Glass, features the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra under Anne Manson’s direction. In this instance the booklet includes two pages about the conductor, two pages about the guest piano soloist (Glass’s collaborator Michael Riesman), a page about the orchestra and full credits for the recording done at Glenn Gould Studio, but not one word about the composer or the music. I understand that a label which features Glass’ music exclusively might not need to include his biography on every release, but I was very surprised that there were no program notes about the pieces, Symphony No.3 and The Hours. The symphony, for string orchestra, surprised me as not being typical of the composer’s minimalist style, at least not until the third movement. The first two movements are reminiscent of English string symphonies of the early 20th century, although this wouldn’t really be mistaken for one, with only the final two more recognizable as Glass. The Hours is a suite arranged by Riesman from Glass’s original music for the 2002 film of the same name. It is lush and warm and beautifully balanced, exactly what we have come to expect from the cinematic Glass with his repetitive wash of diatonic unison melodies. Listening to the suite enticed me to revisit the marvellous film with a stellar cast including Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf. I now look forward to re-reading Michael Cunningham’s book on which it was based. By the way, the DVD of the movie includes an interesting bonus track with Glass discussing the music.

05 Poulenc ChamberBrief notes: It’s hard to keep up with all the excellent new releases by Montreal’s ATMA label. I was very pleased to find that one of their latest features a work that I fell in love with in my formative years and have not had occasion to revisit recently, the Sextet for piano and wind quintetby Francis Poulenc. It gets a stirring performance by David Jalbert and the woodwind quintet Pentaèdre on Francis Poulenc – Chamber Music (ACD2 2646). The disc also includes fine renditions of the sonatas for flute and piano and clarinet and piano, the Elégie for horn and piano and the Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon. A very welcome addition to the catalogue.

06 Boxcar BoysRye Whiskey is the latest offering from the eclectic local quasi old-time music quintet The Boxcar Boys (www.theboxcarboys.ca). Theunusual instrumentation of the group — clarinet, accordion, violin, trombone and sousaphone, supplemented by mandolin on some tracks — works surprisingly well in a wide range of music that spans original compositions in the form of waltzes, stomps and tangos to the standards Freight Train and You Are My Sunshine, and traditional tunes like the title track. The music is mostly instrumental and happily so. The occasional vocals are tentative at best, and while I think this may be part of the point — reminiscent of scratchy, distant sounding early 20th century folk recordings — in contrast to the high sound quality of the instrumentals they seem incongruent. Overall though, this disc is a wonderful swinging romp through a variety of hills and dales, swamps and deltas.

07 Jorge MiguelToronto-based flamenco guitarist Jorge Miguel (www.jorgemiguel.com) has undertaken a monthly residency at the Lula Lounge (next instalment April 17) in support of his latest release Guitarra Flamenca (Andaluz Music AM1012). The playing is crisp and nuanced with lively, if minimal, support from percussionists Luis Orbegoso and Daniel Stone — often with just complex hand clapping — and bassist Justin Gray. Highlights include the opener Tortilla de Buleria, the rousing Rumba Tangos with vocals by the percussionists and the somewhat introspective Romance del Amargo, the only non-original composition on the disc. Written by Federico Garcia Lorca and Ricardo Pachon, it works very well in Miguel’s arrangement. In all this is a very satisfying release, one that makes it hard to keep your feet still.

08 Beatle BalladsThe final disc I will mention is one that would not normally find its way into our pages due to its mainstream pop sensibility, but Beatle Ballads (www.martinandfrank.com) is quite surprising in its accomplishment. Singer/guitarist Martin Gladstone, well known on the Toronto scene for a number of decades now, and his younger colleagues Frank Caruso (piano and direction) and Brenton Chan (cello), have managed to capture the essence of 17 of the most poignant Beatles songs in their solo voice and instrumental trio arrangements. Purists will no doubt prefer to stick with the originals, but as a tribute album this features a great selection of well-loved tunes, lovingly performed. Highlights will no doubt vary with your own particular favourite Beatle songs, but even this jaded old critic (not known to have a fondness for the Fab Four) can’t resist such gems as Here Comes the Sun, Michelle, Julia and While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 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 and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

—David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

01 HatchWhat a wealth of material coming out of the Canadian Music Centre these days! Four solo piano discs have been released in the past two months followed almost immediately by three discs of chamber music. The one I have in hand is history is what it is — music of Peter Hatch performed by the Blue Rider Ensemble (Centrediscs, CMCCD 18413). Kitchener-based Hatch founded NUMUS Concerts in 1985 and the Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound in 1998, both of which continue to flourish. He was composer-in-residence with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony from 1999 to 2003, is currently the Arts and Culture Consultant with the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and a Professor at the Faculty of Music at Wilfrid Laurier University. In addition to these administrative and academic pursuits Hatch has managed to compose an impressive body of work over the past three decades. The current collection encompasses works spanning the past dozen years including pieces written for Toronto’s Continuum Contemporary Music, Vancouver’s Standing Wave Ensemble, Montreal pianist Marc Couroux and a collaborative endeavour — a structured improvisation — with K-W’s Blue Rider Ensemble. Hatch often finds inspiration in literature and two of these works reflect that. Five Memos from 2005 draws on essays of Italo Calvino. The memos have evocative titles such as the first, In Which an Image is Formed, with its darkly lyrical cello line gradually taken over by clarinet, flute and violin. The second, In Which Things Happen Quickly, opens with a vibraphone pattern soon joined in unison by strings and eventually giving way to piano and winds while the percussionist moves to unpitched sounds. The following movements provide contrasting moods and textures ending with a whirlwind and wayward quasi-military march led by snare drum and piccolo (fife?) and the frantic scratching of block chords on the fiddle.

Music is a beautiful disease is an extended one-movement work that starts pianissimo with occasional percussive interjections before a ghostly motif reminiscent of a European police siren, but heard at such a distance as to suggest calm rather than emergency. This haunting fragment is given a variety of instrumental treatments throughout the 18-minute work, eventually heard shared by piano and vibraphone. One Says. History Is. for solo piano was written in 2003. It begins tempestuously in moto perpetuo form alternating sustain pedal drones and staccato passages. After this prolonged fast section the music calms and we hear, in the distance, a recitation of texts from Gertrude Stein’s We Came. A History. At the end of the recitation the piano returns to its former frenzied pace over which we hear a very slow wordless melody sung calmly. The relentless repeated notes eventually give way to a pointillistic denouément for the last three minutes of the first movement. This is followed by another calm section in which the recitation comes to the forefront for several minutes until the piano returns to percussive, although more subdued, textures. The final movement of this nearly half-hour long work is an extended meditation using very few notes.

The disc ends in a beautifully calm mood with the structured improvisation mentioned above, Cantabile, with grace, based, the composer says “on a simple sketch I generated for them.” Throughout the disc the members of the Blue Rider Ensemble — Liselyn Adams, flute; Paul Bendza, clarinet; Jeremy Bell, violin; Paul Pulford, cello; Pamela Reimer, piano and melodica; Beverley Johnston, percussion; Anne-Marie Donovan, voice and melodica — are in fine form.

02 SchnittkeLike Peter Hatch’s Music is a beautiful disease, Alfred Schnittke’sPiano Quintet has a haunting theme that recurs and is transformed. We hear it piece-meal in the opening movement but it really takes form in the second, a sort of demented waltz. It eventually returns in a ghostly form in the pastoral finale. The work was begun in 1972 shortly after the sudden death of the composer’s mother, but not completed until 1976, a year after the death of his idol Shostakovich. In 1978 he made an orchestral version of this dark work and called it In memoriam. It is the original version which is included on Alfred Schnittke – Chamber Music Volume 2, the latest release by Montreal’s Molinari Quartet (ATMA ACD2 2669). For the quintet and the one-movement Piano Quartet written in 1988 based on sketches by Gustav Mahler, the members of the quartet are joined by Louise Bessette. The much celebrated pianist was awarded two Opus Prizes by the Quebec Arts Council last month for her “30-year career” concert with the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec in March 2012. Incidentally, the Molinari Quartet, whose seventh ATMA recording this is, has also been honoured with Opus Prizes, 14 since its formation in 1997.

While the two Schnittke works with piano have been among my favourites for a good many years, this important addition to the discography also includes a String Trio from 1985 with which I was not previously familiar. This would be reason enough to pick up this excellent CD. My only quibble is that at 60 minutes there was more than sufficient room to include Mahler’s own movement for piano quartet that Schnittke’s was meant to accompany.

03 FretlessMy high regard for the Molinari Quartet and its commitment to the art music of our time notwithstanding, a very different sort of string quartet has also captured my attention this month. The Fretless brings together traditional Celtic and Canadian-style folk music in what they call a “Rad Trad” amalgam using the standard formation of a classical string quartet. Three western Canadian fiddle champions, who take turns in the viola chair, are joined by a classically trained New England cellist whose interest in folk idioms came from his father’s Irish and old-time musical interests. After very successful fiddling careers in British Columbia, Victoria’s Ivonne Hernandez and Courtenay’s Trent Freeman went off to Boston to polish their skills at the Berklee School of Music where they met cellist Eric Wright. Add to this mix Saskatoon’s Karrnnel Sawitsky, a four-time Saskatchewan fiddle champion and you have the makings of a very fine ensemble indeed. Waterbound (thefretless.com) presents a lush and invigorating mix of traditional and traditional-sounding original compositions full of jigs and reels and drones. With guest spots by singers Ruth Moody and Norah Rendell in the more balladic title tune (Moody) and Harder to Walk these Days than Run (Rendell) it’s no wonder that this debut recording garnered top honours at both the Western Canadian Music Awards and the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

Another happy discovery this month occurred when I received a letter and a new CD from the iconic Canadian conscience Mendelson Joe. Perhaps best known for his outspoken letters to the editor in national publications, Joe has been adding his voice in the wilderness to the Canadian music scene since the hippie heyday of Yorkville with the blues band McKenna-Mendelson Mainline and sporadic solo acoustic releases over the past four decades. He is also the author of five books and a painter of renown. He uses all of his creative outlets to speak against oppression, injustice and environmental abuse.

04 CanuckianRecorded last spring in Huntsville Canuckian (mendelsonjoe.com) is testament to Joe’s unflagging determination to hold societal hypocrisy and political meanness and greed up to the microscope. I Am Canuckian provides an autobiographical insight into the Canadian landscape through the eyes of someone who’s “been everywhere, man” and includes a (somewhat ambiguous, but I have been assured heartfelt) indictment of Jim Keegstra and things Albertan. I’m A Folkie is a lament for “Big, Big Mommy” (Mother Earth) and Deemo Crassy demonizes Steven Harper as “a world-class weenie and a world-class meanie.” If I’m Dreaming is simply a love song, Joe returns to his soapbox in the final track, Dissertatio, a philosophical diatribe on the subjects of truth and greed which includes reference to his mentor “the late angel” June Callwood who said “there are no innocent bystanders.” He concludes with the motto “I exist therefore I Art.” It’s reassuring to know that Joe continues to “stand on guard” for us.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503–720 Bathurst St., Toronto ON, M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website, thewholenote.com, where you can find additional, expanded and archival reviews. 

—David Olds, DISCoveries Editor


01 NYOCThe National Youth Orchestra of Canada has released a 2-CD set documenting its 2012 adventure under the baton of Alain Trudel. Russian Masters – Canadian Creations (nyoc.org) includes sterling performances of selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 in E Minor alongside new works from young(ish) Canadian composers Nicolas Gilbert and Adam Sherkin. If the playing on this disc is any indication, the future of orchestral music in this country is in good hands. The playing is dynamic and nuanced with strong attention to detail and line. Trudel is to be commended for his work bringing these young musicians from across the country into a cohesive and convincing whole. My only complaint is with the lack of musicological information. There is a booklet with extensive details about the organization — mission statement, audition process, training and touring programs — and a biography of Trudel, a complete list of the musicians and even the recording personnel, but not a word about the composers or the music. Perhaps the “Russian Masters” need no introduction, but this is a real disservice to the Canadians. I assumed that they were commissioned to write these works specifically for the NYOC and a visit to the website confirms this was the case for Gilbert’s Résistance but that is the only information I can find there. Sherkin’s Terra Incognita remains “unknown” with no mention of its origin or context. (A Google search turned up the information that this work was developed at an orchestral workshop of the Buffalo Philharmonic and a revised version was performed in 2005 at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto under Trudel’s direction.) Both works make full use of the orchestra’s resources skilfully although neither breaks any particularly new ground.

Montreal’s Nicolas Gilbert’s chamber music has been heard in Toronto in several contexts, performed by the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal, New Music Concerts and Continuum, and in recent years he has served as host on the ECM’s cross-country “Generation” tours. Sherkin is a Toronto-based composer and pianist with a burgeoning international career whose new Centrediscs release of solo piano compositions is reviewed by Nic Gotham further on in these pages. It is great to have the opportunity to hear large scale orchestral compositions by these two; I only wish we were given some background information.

02 Robert BakerThere is no shortage of information on the CD Sharp Edges featuring music of Toronto composer Robert A. Baker (robertabaker.net) who completed his doctorate at McGill University in 2009 and now makes his home in Maryland. The notes start with an Artistic Statement which states in part “At the heart of my musical imagination is a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand I want to hear music of the distant past, maintain a sense of connection to my musical heritage, and in this way feel a part of humankind. On the other hand, I feel an irresistible curiosity; a need to consider sound in as objective a manner possible, embrace any sonic option that is relevant and practical, no matter how unconventional, and attempt to hear what I have not yet heard, and say what I have not yet said.”

In addition to his activities as a composer, pianist, conductor and teacher, Baker is an active researcher on contemporary music analysis and philosophies on the perception of musical time. These concerns are exemplified in the seven compositions showcased on this excellent recording. A series of four works titled Valence,ranging from solo piano to an ensemble of six instruments, are interspersed with independent pieces including the title track for four strings and percussion, another piano solo and a string quartet. This last which “evokes an array of references ranging from the distant to the recent past in Western musical history” was premiered at the Canadian Contemporary Music Workshop in Toronto in 2004. This recording of the two part ethereal then angular piece features Toronto’s Elgin Quartet. The Valence series was composed between 2008 and 2011 and is presented here in reverse chronology. The disc begins with the final instalment, scored for clarinet, trumpet, piano, percussion, violin and cello, and ends with the solo piano precursor. It is intriguing to hear how the treatment of the material changes from incarnation to incarnation. Sharp Edges is not only the title of a 2009 composition for violin, viola, cello, double bass and percussion, but also an apt description of Baker’s uncompromising music which encompasses the past while embracing the future.

In March 2012 the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s New Creations Festival was curated by Hungarian conductor and composer Peter Eötvös. During the week Toronto audiences had the opportunity to hear a number of his works thanks to both the TSO and New Music Concerts. One of the highlights was the Canadian premiere of the Eötvös’ violin concerto Seven, a memorial to the astronauts of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The number seven provides the shape of not only the musical materials of the piece, but also the layout of the orchestra into seven mixed instrumental groups and the placement of the six tutti violins (seven violins counting the soloist) throughout the hall, distant from the stage, “in space” as it were.

03 EotvosA new recording of this stunning work appears on Bartók/Eötvös/Ligeti featuring violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Ensemble Modern under Eötvös’ direction (Naïve V 2585). The 2-CD set also includes Bartók’s Violin Concerto No.2 dating from 1939 and the five-movement version of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto from 1992, the premiere of which was conducted by Peter Eötvös in Cologne. Spanning roughly 70 years, this recording effectively brings together works by the most important Hungarian composers of the 20th century in sparkling performances by the young Moldovan violinist.

The Bartók concerto has of course become a classic of the repertoire and this recording reminds us why. The Ligeti, scored for a chamber orchestra of 23 players including natural horns and four winds doubling on ocarinas, is an extremely challenging work first heard in Toronto with Fujiko Imajishi as the soloist with New Music Concerts in 1999. (She later reprised the work with Esprit Orchestra.) Described in the notes as “a characteristic example of Ligeti’s late work ... Elements of music from the Middle Ages to the Baroque, Bulgarian and Hungarian folksong, polyrhythmic superimpositions as in the piano rolls of Conlon Nancarrow and an exorbitantly difficult solo part are forcibly yoked into complex constructs that liberate undreamt-of sonic energies and make listening into an adventure.” It is all that and more.

04 Tan DunMy final selection for the month also has a (perhaps tenuous) Toronto connection. Chinese born American composer Tan Dunwas selected by Glenn Gould Prize laureate Toru Takemitsu for the City of Toronto Protégé Prize in 1996. A recent Naxos release, Tan Dun – Concerto for Orchestra (8.570608) includes two compositions from 2012, the title work and the Symphonic Poem on Three Notes, juxtaposed with 1990’s Orchestral Theatre performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer’s direction. This disc provides a welcome entrée into the concert music of the composer who came to international attention with the score to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Concerto, which employs material from Dun’s opera Marco Polo, is especially effective in its extended percussion cadenzas and its blending of vocalization with instrumental accents. With nods to Stravinsky, Bartók and Lutosławski while referencing his Asian heritage, this work is very effective.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 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, and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

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