01 Bill BrennanjpgBill Brennan – Kaleidoscope: Music for Mallet Instruments
Bill Brennan; Rob Power; Étienne Gendron
Centrediscs CMCCD 30822 (centrediscs.ca)

Canadian percussionist, pianist and composer Bill Brennan has racked up an impressive 100 album credits to date. Kaleidoscope, however, is the first album featuring his keyboard percussion compositions. While Brennan’s career has focused on contemporary concert music and jazz genres, he has also long immersed himself in the music of other cultures. He gratefully acknowledges the deep influences of the music of Ghana, Brazil, Indonesia and India in his liner notes. Those international music influences are on display throughout the album. 

For 20 years a core musician with Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan, Brennan’s Shadows and Istana were originally scored for its eight-piece [gamelan] degung – though they get an instrumental makeover here. Yes, Istana and Shadows are cast in the five-tone gapped scale of the West Javanese degung mode. But the use of vibes, tam-tams, finger cymbals, and especially the glistening tones of the glass marimba in these effective arrangements give the music a gently shimmering effect, as though heard through a permeable cultural gauze. 

Brazilian influences are evident in several works. Brennan describes Belo Horizonte as a musical representation of a morning stroll in a park in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, enlivened with the sounds of breezes, bamboo, chirping birds and chattering monkeys. Scored for two vibes and marimbas, Brennan skillfully evokes that soundscape by layering syncopated Brazilian bell patterns, making judicious key changes, and shifting harmonies, textures and dynamics.

Then there are the appealing Nostalgie and Vinyl Café Waltz, which lean toward the composer’s gentler, tonally unambiguous, melancholy side. I feel others will also pick up on the tinge of East Coast saudade in several sections. And that’s a good thing.

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Stefanie Abderhalden; Kyle Flens
Neuma 162 (neumarecords.org)

Chicago-area musicians – flutist Stefanie Abderhalden and percussionist Kyle Flens – get top billing in this satisfying, yet also occasionally quirky, recital of modernist and postmodernist concert music. Despite the billing on the cover, the album’s repertoire is considerably more focused on percussion than flute: five of the seven titles are scored for percussion alone. In addition, percussionists Malika Green, Katie (Wiegman) Burdett and Thomas Loretto add their skills to works by American composers Robert Fleisher, Robert Honstein, David Maki, plus iconoclastic Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis. 

Live performances, studio recordings and electroacoustic elements can all be found on this eclectic album. Yet it all hangs together as a satisfying percussion-centric recital. The 2008 title track Ilta (“evening” in Finnish) by Maki opens with Thai gongs, the alto flute and vibraphone sounds emerging from their resonant tones. The middle section’s instrumentation shifts to the higher C flute and crotales, the soundscape returning in last section to gong long tones animated by flute melodies.

The best-known work here is Rebonds A (1988) by Xenakis (1922-2001). This virtuoso work for multiple bongos, tom-toms and bass drums, played convincingly by Flens alone, grows ever more complex over its 6’33’’ duration. Exhibiting a kind of rhythmic accelerando or perhaps metric compression, it reflects the composer’s considerable interest in mathematics, specifically in the Golden Section, a numeric ratio associated with the Fibonacci sequence. I found Flens’ performance an architecturally taut and emotionally intense listen.

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03 Inbal Segev20 for 2020
Inbal Segev
Avie AV2561 (avie-records.com)

While in the heart of the 2020 pandemic, Israeli-American cellist Inbal Segev commissioned 20 works from some of today’s leading composers – some with whom she has worked before – asking them to document their responses to the challenging times. With this collection of mostly new compositions it is nearly impossible to speak on every piece but suffice to say there was not a single track on this double CD set that I was not moved by. There is a richness to the selections that are innovative and challenging, but still beautifully accessible. 

The complete work is an exploration of dark and light, of despair and joy, not only documenting the many layered issues around the pandemic and isolation, but also world events in general. With two CDs of chamber-style compositions, it is worth noting that Segev’s choice in composers represents a diversity of time and cultures. With the youngest (Sophia Bass, b.1996) to the most established (“the most obscure great composter of our time”) Gloria Coates (b.1938) this album is essential listening for any lover of contemporary classical music, not just the cello. I was hooked from the first track, Room to Move by Viet Cuong, a cathartic, sweeping work written for octet played entirely by Segev, splitting the eight parts between two cellos, her 1673 Ruggieri and her modern 1957 Becker, to add nuance and colour to the different parts. This piece had me dreaming of being a circus hoop performer. From here, Fernando Otero’s first movement of a Cello Concerto revised here for cello, string quartet and bass is a challenging work “infused with tango and jazz.” James Lee III’s Ekah, a heartbreaking lament on how there can be so much hate in the world, ends with a stunning prayer. The whole piece is surely destined to be a recital feature. Complex pizzicato work in Timo Andres’ Agita is followed by Sophia Bass’ mesmerizing piece Taal-Naad Naman for cello, tabla and tanpura. Bruce Wolosoff’s Lacrymae for cello choir was again overdubbed solely by Segev, in true pandemic fashion. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer’s The Window exposes the powerful complexities of hope while avoiding sentimentality. Christopher Cerrone’s The Pleasure at Being the Cause is a minimalist play on simultaneously holding and moving, as was the constant during the pandemic. The first CD ends with Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón’s Ruta Panorámica, a delightful road trip complete with traffic and road sounds for cello, bandoneon and electronics. 

The second CD is just as varied, again each composition is uniquely noteworthy. Though there is simply ot space to recognize the beauty of every track, standouts for me included composer and environmental activist John Luther Adams’ A Weeping of Doves, Molly Joyce’s It Has Not Taken Long, Immanuel Wilkins’ Exhale, a speeding, breathtaking saxophone-style solo that is so relentless one can only wonder how Segev manages to pull it off, and Stewart Goodyear’s wonderous Kapok, which packs a powerful ending to the project. The bonus encore of Segev’s own composition Behold, for cello quartet, adds yet another work to the cello ensemble repertoire.  

Segev’s tone throughout this challenging project manages to be every colour imaginable, while both clear and vibrant, and warm and dark. The entire double album encompasses a stunning display of fireworks and gentleness. That so many of these works will surely be iconic mainstays of the contemporary cello repertoire, for those who dare to take them on, is a testament to the leadership and investment in the cello repertoire from this great artist.

04 Kate ReadKate Read – After
Kate Read
Leaf Music LM258 (leaf-music.ca)

A curious mixture of contemporary solo viola compositions and Baroque pieces, this debut album by Kate Read is engaging and explorative, as well as enterprising. Although not a theme, the music on this album indirectly depicts the natural elements of Newfoundland, where Read currently resides – beauty amidst ruggedness, vastness of (sonic) space, wildness of possibilities. Read is a powerful performer, fully present in every phrase and turn, adventurous, always aware of the structure and direction. Her sound is imposing yet gentle, with an array of colours and expressions.

All contemporary pieces on the album involve electronics but don’t venture into the avant-garde, entailing structural symmetry and classical aesthetics. Two are new commissions by Kate Read: Evennight by Benton Roark, a neverending joyful cascade of 16th notes using amplified viola with analogue electronics, and Blackwood Sketches by Andrew Staniland. The latter is a visceral, expressive take on an acclaimed etching by David Blackwood, Fire Down on the Labrador, and involves synth tones and low notes to depict the whale, ice and wood underneath and in between the viola’s segments. Keep in Touch by Nico Muhly features an unusual, pre-recorded track that blends with the viola exquisitely. The album closes with Aftermath, a collaborative improvisation on two of Bach’s pieces with Michelle LaCour, featuring synthesized and found sounds, pedals and layering. 

Baroque pieces by Biber (Passacaglia from Mystery Sonata No.16) and Bach (movements from Violin Sonata No.3) are arranged for viola by Read and played with passion. The unusual programming gives a spark to this album.

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05 Lakota ProjectThe Lakota Music Project
South Dakota Symphony Orchestra; Delta David Gier
Innova 1 081 (innova.mu)

This highly creative project is a stunning combination of material composed by six gifted Indigenous Americans of the Lakota Sioux nation featuring the eminent South Dakota Symphony under the musical direction of Delta David Gier. The Lakota Project is a brilliantly constructed collection of music specifically written and designed to dissolve the walls between the Lakota peoples and their horrific history of abuse and near genocide at the hands of European settlers. The music itself was created in an atmosphere of trust and open communication and is a pure, resplendent boon to the process of reconciliation. 

Black Hills Olowan by Brent Michael Davids features the Creekside Singers dynamic; mystical motifs depict the incredible power of natural forces and the ensemble’s magnificent voices serve to intensify the magic. The composition and arrangement here are nothing short of superb, and awash with emotional and musical gravitas – chaos and destruction, and then rebuilding. Also exceptional is the six-movement, Victory Songs (Wakétgli olówan) by Jerod Impichchachaaha’ Tate, which fluidly moves the listener through time and history – from the beginning of the world to the horrific murder of Sitting Bull. Stephen L. Bryant’s sonorous voice digs deep into the soul, at once elevating us up into etheric dimensions and plunging us back down into the grief and horror of one group of the human race determined to exterminate another. 

Of particular delight is Desert Wind by guitarist Jeffrey Paul. Paul drags us into the present time and place with his cheeky, relentless electric guitar, soothed by Robert Erhard and Sharon Mautner-Rodgers on cellos and the Creekside Singers. The closing track is (ironically) John Newton’s 1772 Christian hymn, Amazing Grace. Arranged by Theodore Wiprud, this song celebrates a transformation that speaks to the oneness of all… a radiant and much needed message in our present world.

06 American StoriesAmerican Stories
Anthony McGill; Pacifica Quartet
Cedille CDR 90000 216 (cedillerecords.org)

This is a great recording. What is not to like here? The Pacifica quartet are excellent, Anthony McGill turns the clarinet into a beautiful distinct voice, and the stories? Well, let’s talk. 

Leaving aside the question of whether music can function as narrative, let’s at least say that while American Stories doesn’t push the inclusion-and-equity button too hard, it includes equally compelling tales from a variety of voices. Richard Danielpour’s threnody Four Angels reflects on the aching sorrow caused by the Birmingham church bombing now almost 60 years in the past. The angels are the four young girls who lost their lives to the hatred of a racist. The piece derives real beauty from that reflection and opens our hearts to hope. Despicable acts seem to be part of the curse of humanity, and courage and hope two blessings we require in order to persist. Commissioned by McGill in early 2020, it was premiered online in 2021. 

The longest and most entertaining work is the final one, Valerie Coleman’s Shotgun Houses. Coleman grew up in West Louisville, Kentucky as did the subject of the piece. Muhammed Ali’s early life and rise to prominence as an African American hero is depicted in three movements: the first, with the same title as the entire work, describes the neighbourhood itself, the architecture of poverty celebrated for the strength of the inhabitants. Grand Avenue is one of those streets, notably Ali’s home address when he was still Cassius Clay and before his Olympic triumph in Rome 1960. In this last movement Coleman pencil strokes Ali at the speed bag, on a flight (his first ever) to Rome, and in the ring for three rounds on his way to the gold medal, in under seven minutes; the entire work lasts about 18. I hope the composer at least considers whether it might be expanded, perhaps even with an epilogue to honour Ali’s later years as an activist, and his struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

Between these are two other great pieces: High Sierra Sonata by Ben Shirley and James Lee III’s Clarinet Quintet. More tone poem than narrative, Shirley’s piece is an honest response to the dynamic beauty of the American southwest, in American vernacular style, if that means anything. Lee has a heavier task, addressing the treatment of the Indigenous peoples who were cheated out of promised territory in the Dakotas. Made me think of a half-finished monument to Crazy Horse that sits near Mount Rushmore. Both pieces substantially add to a growing genre: the clarinet quintet.

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