06 Tomorrows AirTomorrow’s Air – Contemporary Works for Orchestra & Large Ensemble
Various Artists
Navona Records NV6108
(navonarecords.com)

Here is a go-to music release for anyone in love with dramatic, expressive orchestral music with lyrical string melodies and dense harmonies, as six composers take a compositional approach to what the future may bring.

Each work is a unique personal musical exposé. Hilary Tann’s Anecdote is inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem Anecdote of the Jar. Lush orchestral harmonies support the mournful yet positive solo cello lines, which span a wide pitch range with glorious low tones. Hans Bakker’s Cantus is equally expressive, with a driving rhythm pitted against an uplifting happy string melody. Inspired by William Blake’s poetic ode, Daniel Perttu’s To Spring – An Overture is another majestic lyrical work, with an especially gratifying, almost chromatic melody in the middle section. My highlight is Canadian composer Jan Järvlepp’s moving In Memoriam in memory of his late brother. Drawing on more original atonal harmonies, his grief is aurally depicted by high and low strings in the emotional conversational contrapuntal sections, and the heart-wrenching final repeated notes. The lush strings, clarinet and piano of Pierre Schroeder’s Late Harvest create a film-score-reminiscent sound that swells with simultaneous sadness and hope. Flute and piccolo perform lyrical and tricky melodic lines against energetic percussion in Paul Osterfield’s Silver Fantasy. Love the playful, almost marching band section at the end.

Excellent performances drive the music, especially the four works with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Tomorrow should be perfect if the music here is any indication!

01 Derek CharkeDerek Charke – In Sonorous Falling Tones
Wired Ensemble; Mark Hopkins
Centrediscs CMCCD 23917 (musiccentre.ca)

This CD is unique in that all the music performed on it is by one composer, Derek Charke, who is also the flute soloist in three of the four works and a member of the ensemble in the fourth.

As a composer, Charke understands that building music around arresting melodic/rhythmic patterns which lead to/are followed by contrasting arresting melodic/rhythmic patterns produces results which are interesting and engaging. He seems to have access to an innumerable variety of patterns, from the driving pulsating opening of In Circles, the opening movement of In Sonorous Falling Tones, to the lyrical melody in Warning! Gustnadoes Ahead, the last track on the album – and lots more in between.

As a flutist his versatility is remarkable. Equally at home on the piccolo, the “regular” flute and the bass flute, he seamlessly blends conventional and extended techniques. Best of all, he puts his “pyro-technique” completely at the service of the artistic ends of the music, as in Lachrymose, where singing while producing multiphonics on the piccolo brings this elegiac work to a stirring climax.

The WIRED! Ensemble, which plays with Charke as soloist, in In Sonorous Falling Tones and Warning! Gustnadoes Ahead, and in which Charke plays as a member of the ensemble in What do the Birds Think?, is perfect, matching Charke’s energy and intensity at every step.

Bravissimo! This is contemporary music-making at its best. Good things are happening in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

02 Jocelyn MorlockJocelyn Morlock – Halcyon
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 23817 (musiccentre.ca)

With Halcyon, JUNO-nominated Canadian composer Jocelyn Morlock explores her compositional voice over seven substantial works from voice accompanied by piano to orchestra. Let’s give a listen.

Halcyon, warmly performed by cellist Ariel Barnes with Corey Hamm on piano, is a slow tonal elegy. It takes as its extra-musical theme the mythic tale of the kingfisher Halcyon. The composer tells us in the liner notes that the next work Vulpine, brought to life by violinist Nicholas Wright and Hamm, plays on the many characteristics associated with the fox.

With Shade, the cello is back, this time supported by Vern Griffiths on vibraphone. Morlock enigmatically remarks on the multiple meanings of shade, and “Hades, a disembodied spirit” in her liners.

Two song cycles follow. The three Involuntary Love Songs are sung by contemporary music specialist soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen, the six Perruqueries by Driedger-Klassen and baritone Tyler Duncan, plus the stand-alone song Somewhere Along the Line by Driedger-Klassen. Erika Switzer provides the muscular piano framework throughout. The amusing lyrics for the Perruqueries set – about wigs and the people who love them – were provided by the Canadian author Bill Richardson. After hearing Morlock’s offerings here, I’ll pay closer attention to the recent reemergence of Canadian art song.

The album wraps with Aeromancy, an airy, loose-limbed two-movement laconic – at times mysterious – double concerto. Ariel Barnes and Joseph Elworthy spin emotive cello melodies, while the Vancouver Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leslie Dala, provides pastel colours over a firm harmonic base.

03 Brian CurrentBrian Current – Faster Still
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 24217 (musiccentre.ca)

This recording is a timely reminder of the significant work that Brian Current is doing as a composer and conductor, and the excellent performance standard of three of Toronto’s leading new music ensembles.

The CD opens with an attractive short scena from 2006 – Inventory – with soprano Patricia O’Callaghan as a shoe salesperson, letting her imagination wander. The clever text is by Anton Piatigorsky and the Soundstreams ensemble (conducted by Current) features fine playing by some of Toronto’s top players. O’Callaghan’s poignant and whimsical performance is a highlight of the disc.

Faster Still, Strata and Shout, Sisyphus, Flock are three substantial instrumental works given superb performances here by the ensembles of Duo Concertante/Blue Engine String Quartet, Continuum Contemporary Music and New Music Concerts respectively. All three works are vital and intense and illustrate Current’s mastery of ensemble colour and aural imagery.

The Duet for Cellos, originally written in 2007 and revised in 2016, is an effective contrast in the middle of the program. Cellists Amahl Arulanandam and Bryan Holt give a sensational performance of this short, compelling work. The final track Circus Songs is a thrilling early piece for a mixed quintet that takes the listener on a wild ride and features great playing from all the performers. I especially loved pianist Stephen Clarke’s muscular “freak out” near the end.

It was a pleasure to get to know Current’s music better through this fine CD. He is a bold, uncompromising, highly skilled composer with much to say. 

04 Canadian OboeCanadian Works for Oboe and Piano
Charles Hamann; Frédéric Lacroix
Centrediscs CMCCD 24117 (musiccentre.ca)

In 1993, 22-year-old prodigy Charles Hamann became principal oboe of the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Continuing in this role he is now internationally renowned; this two-disc Canadian sesquicentennial CD with University of Ottawa colleague Frédéric Lacroix shows why. Well-rounded tone and sensitive phrasing invite us into the uneasy lyricism of Jean Coulthard’s Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1947) and her concise Shizen – Three Nature Sketches from Japan (1979). Pianist Lacroix shines in the inventive sonorities and harmonic colour of Alexina Louie’s Filigree (2012). Neglected composer Leslie Mann’s haunting Vocalise (1974) is riveting, as is Incantation (1977) by Jacques Hétu featuring Hamann’s breathtaking sustained tones. Amazingly, Oskar Morawetz’s bracing, dialogue-rich Three Fantasies for oboe and piano (1976) is played here for the first time!

JUNO Award-winning composer John Burge’s lively, beautifully-crafted Sonata Breve No.4 (2006) first attracted Hamann and Lacroix into this recording project, which also includes his whimsical solo oboe Twitter Études No.2 (2016). Gary Kulesha’s imaginative, commissioned Lyric Sonata for Oboe and Piano (2015) is lyrically unconventional, with quarter tones and multiphonics effectively melded into the slow movement which evokes a lonely landscape. The disc includes a Sonatine (2015) by Frédéric Lacroix, arrangements of Marjan Mozetich’s Calla Lilies and John Estacio’s Canzona, plus works by Charles Wilson, Monte Keene Pishny-Floyd and Victor Herbiet. For great stories about the recording’s creation see the Canadian Music Centre website and the program notes. Highly recommended for anyone who likes the oboe and 20th- and 21st-century music!

05 Canadian WomenCelebrating Canadian Women!
Laurel Swinden; Stephanie Mara
Independent LBSCD2017 (musiccentre.ca)

Flutist and University of Guelph flute professor Laurel Swinden and pianist Stephanie Mara have teamed up to record this new CD of music by Canadian women, introducing composers and music new to many of us. Swinden’s playing is consistently first-class – great sound with flawless intonation and articulation. Mara is her equal all the way, playing like a soloist when that is required – and there are at times some devilishly difficult solos for the pianist – and stepping back when needed.

The program includes two sonatas, one by Quebec composer and organist extraordinaire Rachel Laurin, the other by composer and pianist Heather Schmidt. Both sonatas, oddly enough, have cadenzas which are, in my opinion, some of the best writing in these pieces, and which Swinden plays with great confidence and verve.

I had the same response when hearing the opening of the Schmidt Sonata and the opening phrases of Alice Ho’s Suite for Flute and Piano: “What a composer!” Both bristle with excitement and virtuosity, demanding that the performer go to a stratospheric energy level. I was struck by how idiomatic Schmidt’s writing was for the flute. The second movement’s kaleidoscopic changes of mood are virtuosic feats of composition. While Swinden excels in this exciting and treacherously difficult music, she also shines in the more lyrical, like Jean Coulthard’s Music on a Quiet Song, which she plays with great artistry.

This CD brings together artistry and artistic leadership. Well done!

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