03 Jennifer HigdonJennifer Higdon – All Things Majestic; Viola Concerto; Oboe Concerto
Roberto Díaz; James Button; Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.559823 

Celebrated American composer Jennifer Higdon’s music has a personal voice linking to major 20th-century American composers. Her complex but meticulously scored suite All Things Majestic (2011) is more than ably represented on this disc by the Nashville Symphony under renowned conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. Hiking in the Grand Teton Range gave rise to titles and musical realizations, according to the composer. The orchestra of Music City goes from strength to strength in this work: inducing a majestic effect in the polytonal parallel chord streams of the first movement; shimmering exquisitely in different registers from which solo string figurations emerge in the following String Lake. Snake River, the third movement, is short and effective with fast runs leading into the rapids, while the closing Cathedrals features pitched percussion and harp in ethereal splendour.

Guest Chilean-American soloist Roberto Díaz’s full, well-rounded tone pervades the Viola Concerto (2014). The opening movement was to me unconvincing compositionally; its major-scale (pandiatonic) harmony seems too prevalent, as is the falling seventh interval in the viola. The second and third movements, though, are successful with witty and complex rhythms, including irregular subdivisions of the beat reminding me of today’s electronic dance music. In the pastoral opening of the one-movement Oboe Concerto (2005), Nashville principal oboist James Button’s rich timbre suffuses an extended melodic line. A contrasting motivic and rhythmic section gradually emerges with quirky orchestration, creating sparks that energize the rest of this convincing work.

04 PiccoloworksPiccolo Works
Natalie Schwaabe; Jan Philip Schulze
metier msv 28562 (divineartrecords.com)

Shrill, raucous, vulgar, strident! All too easily these adjectives seem to attach themselves to, and prejudice us against, the hapless piccolo. Yet for Piccolo Works, Natalie Schwaabe’s excellent debut CD, these notions are utterly debunked. From the outset this outstanding piccoloist of the Bavarian Radio Symphony (a world’s top-ten orchestra) presents a challenging and varied program of 21st-century delights, delivered with impeccable intonation, rhythmic precision, sensitive musicianship and finesse.

The opener, Levante Gyöngyösi’s Sonata for piccolo and piano (2007) (rapidly becoming a staple of the canon), shows ample clarity and energy of ensemble playing with collaborator Jan Philip Schulze. This sparkling, polished team has much to offer in interpretation and excitement. Amidst the other composers’ works are two originals composed for Schwaabe: Gert Wilden’s sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jazzy, always melodic two and a half piece and Kanefzky’s charming Pied Piper of Hamelin for flute/piccolo and narrator. Here the piccolo appears only as the magical voice of the piper’s instrument while Schwaabe’s nuanced command of the flute belies any myth that piccoloists are somehow less accomplished flutists. Unfortunately for unilingual audiences, Schwaabe’s narration is in German.

Mower’s Sonata, the perilous multiphonics of Donatoni’s NIDI Mikalsen’s starkly brutal Huit ilium where Schwaabe’s fluid control of even the highest notes is dazzling, and the Canadian Derek Charke’s wrenchingly sad Lacrymose round out this utterly brilliant CD. If this recording were to become essential listening, it would surely unfetter the piccolo from its enduring prison of prejudice.

06 FarahTime Sketches
John Kameel Farah
Neue Meister 03009045NM (johnfarah.com)

John Kameel Farah is a composer, pianist and visual artist who these days makes his home in both Toronto and Berlin. His piano-centric compositions have long attracted attention. During his University of Toronto music student years he twice received the Glenn Gould Composition Award.

Farah’s musical influences are extremely broad and cosmopolitan. They embrace the musics of Renaissance keyboard composers, J.S. Bach, Arabic maqam, Schoenberg and Ravel, as well as that of the minimalists, free improvisation and vernacular genres such as drum and bass. He performs all of them with precision and panache. Even more surprising, perhaps: in Farah’s live solo concerts he often deftly mixes many of these seemingly disparate elements, performing on piano, harpsichord, organ, synthesizer and computer. While his concerts primarily focus on his signature hybrid of composition, improvisation and electronic music, he often adds classical works, lending his programs a Euro-American historical perspective.

There is much to listen to and savour in Time Sketches. The relatively contained Behold! for piano and pipe organ is the example I’ll choose to talk about today. Set in a 20-beat metric cycle, it echoes the musical vocabulary developed mid-century by the American minimalists. The effect of the music is somewhat counterintuitive; it’s lilting and soft-spoken. Ending on a single, surprisingly gentle, middle-octave B-flat on the piano, it reminds this listener of mid-career Terry Riley’s keyboard music. Farah had private lessons in 1999 with that pioneer minimalist master, and Behold! is a worthy miniature addition to the minimalist music canon.

I recommend Time Sketches as a worthy addition to your quality listening time.

Grace
Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan with Jennifer Moore & Sanctuary
Artifact Music ART 041 (artifactmusic.com)

Bridge
Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan
Independent (evergreenclubgamelan.ca)

07a Evergreen Grace30 plus years of performing, composing and commissioning works together has completely immersed the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan in the sonic possibilities of their unique orchestra. Two recent CD releases provide ample evidence of the maturity of their sonic palette.

Grace is a live collaboration with the Sanctuary Trio (bass clarinet, cello and pipe organ). These very unique timbres create an inspiring range of compositional possibilities that are fully explored in the three pieces that make up this recording. Bill Parsons’ Translating Grace immediately pulls us in with a softly insistent, offbeat time-keeping underpinning a series of two-note motifs on the gamelan’s various tuned percussion instruments. The texture becomes quietly denser as drums, higher melodies and suling (bamboo flute) all join in. It all slowly unravels and ends with a percussive burst that repeats and fades, echoing into the distance. We have now entered another realm… Low and ominous tones from the cello and bass clarinet underpin the sober truth-telling of the vocalist. This static, sombre mood alternates with blithe suling interjections over gamelan textures, and a loping, Dolphyesque bass clarinet solo.  Dreamlike textures and odd time signatures keep us adrift. The vocalist reminds us: “Before Grace, everything slips away.”

The pairing of the ECCG with the Sanctuary Trio in this setting creates a wonderfully lush and warm environment. Jeff Reilly’s Meditations on Innocence delves deep into the textural possibilities of this pairing, while using ample space in the music to fully exploit the acoustics of the cathedral used for this live recording. Space is a palpable part of the texture of a slow gong ostinato, over which bass clarinet and cello take turns giving voice to the silence.

Mark Duggan’s Language of Landscape begins deliberately off kilter, sounding like the wind pushing through chimes. Though the work stays very abstract, it is no intellectual exercise. It is full of feelings of questioning and yearning, expressed mainly by the cello and bass clarinet. Repetitive textures imply urban or mechanized environments. A slow one-note chiming mantra is the underpinning of dense organ clusters reminiscent of the Japanese shō. This all gives way again to fragments and gestures and is brought to a close by the organ.

07b Evergreen BridgeThis recording is a great document of the musical sensitivities the two ensembles bring, not only to each other but to the environment in which they performed.

The ECCG’s recording Bridge is an ambitious project, years in the making. Citing various Indonesian sources as inspirational starting points, original lyrics were composed, and arrangements using the gamelan as well as western strings, guitars and turntables were written. The music is definitely accessible to those not familiar with the sounds and structures of Indonesian music; striking the right mood between instruments and sensibilities is the real accomplishment here. However, the inclusion of an arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now seems transparently aimed at getting airplay (Canadian content x2!). Though cleverly arranged, it is rather saccharine, and I find it disruptive to this collection of otherwise interesting experiments.

Canadian Composers Series
(anothertimbre.com) at105 - at109

Linda Catlin Smith – Drifter
Apartment House; Bozzini Quartet

Martin Arnold – The Spit Veleta
Philip Thomas; Mira Benjamin

Isaiah Ceccarelli – Bow
Various Artists

Chiyoko Szlavnics – During a Lifetime
Konus Quartet; Apartment House

Marc Sabat – Harmony
Jack Quartet

01a Another Timbre bookletTradition is a wonderful reality, but not understanding that the inner dynamic of tradition is to always innovate is a prison. This is eminently true in the case of music produced by the Canadian artists on the imprint Another Timbre. Beginning with Linda Catlin Smith, every one of the group under review has chiselled uniquely beautiful, but defiantly provocative works from out of the bedrock of contemporaneity. And although familiar forms such as the Piano Quintet (from Linda Catlin Smith) pop up in these performances, the music flies in the face of all conventions.

Indeed, these artists force listeners to reconsider what tradition is. For example, Marc Sabat, on Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, positions himself in creative conflict with age-old protocols about how a string quartet ought to work. Likewise with Chiyoko Szlavnics, whose Reservoir sends strings rippling against flute, accordion and percussion. It becomes clear, then, that having actively thrown overboard melodic, structural and harmonic hooks that have been expressively blunted through misuse, these artists seem to build from what might– or mightn’t-be left.

01b optional Linda SmithJust as Frank Zappa once famously asked, “Does humour belong in music?” one feels compelled to also pose the question: “Does mathematics belong with art?” The answer in the architectural geometry of Smith’s Drifter is a most emphatic “Yes.” Its resident geometry, however, seems to have been informed by French curves rather than by set squares. As a result her spacy Piano Quintet seems to defy definitions of beauty, which although essential to Smith’s credo, is bereft of perfumed listener-ingratiating beauty and resplendent in the natural sounds of tuned percussion, bowed strings and plucked guitars.

The emerging members of Apartment House and the Bozzini Quartet float effortlessly over Gondola and Far from Shore seemingly tracing their fingers delicately over the contours and hachures of the map of a priceless treasure without compromising the location of its secret world. In all of this and other music on the double disc Smith makes use of time and space as well as championing the cause of her singularly poetic approach to the all-important beauty of the melodic line.

Meanwhile Martin Arnold’s music for Points and Waltzes, Slip Minuet and the title work of his album The Spit Veleta comes alive in the silvery tonal purity and exquisite subtlety of phrasing by its interpreters who bring fresh ears to these radiant gems. Similarly, Isaiah Ceccarelli’s seven pieces on Bow are designed to extract the maximum tonal depth from strings, reed organ, organetto and percussion; as does Chiyoko Szlavnics from strings and reeds and woodwinds, and the Jack Quartet with violin, viola and cello on the exquisite narratives on Marc Sabat’s Harmony.

It all bodes rather well for the future of this Canadian Composers Series and for Sheffield, UK-based Another Timbre, a label whose presence in contemporary music is doing yeoman work to shine a brighter spotlight on new music that is being beamed by across the world.

02 Worlds ApartWorlds Apart
Christina Petrowska Quilico
Centrediscs CMCCD 23717

Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico unleashes the eight works here with such immediacy that she creates a special kind of pianistic excitement. Her technique is brilliant, and her imagination boundless. But it’s not just the thrill of the keyboard that drives her – above all you feel the fierce conviction that underlies her vision of each composer’s score.

This is the latest release in Petrowska Quilico’s ongoing recording project covering works from the Canadian piano repertoire. It’s as though she’s out to singlehandedly show just how rich it is. These works were written during a period of just over 20 years, from 1969 to 1992. They all, more or less directly, invoke historical sources – musical, literary or visual.

Peter Paul Koprowski’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Brahms and Steven Gellman’s Fantasia on a Theme of Robert Schumann take full advantage of Petrowska Quilico’s virtuosity. Koprowski gives the elements of Brahms’ Lullaby a Chopinesque treatment, only gradually revealing the familiar theme, while Gellman introduces his theme, from the slow movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet, then lavishes embellishments.

In Las Meninas, John Rea follows the structure of his source, Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. But he filters it through his viewing of Velázquez’s iconic, complex painting, Las Meninas by recasting Schumann’s 13 movements in various composers’ styles – Romanticism, impressionism, minimalism, jazz, and so on. Petrowska Quilico has a field day.

Her energy infuses Patrick Cardy’s mythologically based The Masks of Astarte with narrative force. In contrast, her incisive control allows a sense of space to envelop Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux’s lyrical yet monumental Assemblages like a multidimensional sculpture (I thought of Anthony Caro’s works currently on display at the AGO).

In Quivi Sospiri by David Jaeger (who produced this set, and whose writings appear in this magazine), Petrowska Quilico is joined by computer-generated sounds. The rhapsodic yearnings of the piano confront the ominous electronics, then blend in a moving evocation of the sounds that swirl around the hopeless souls condemned to darkness in Dante’s Inferno.

Diana McIntosh’s atmospheric Worlds Apart, which gives this collection its title, weaves a shimmering fabric of intricate patterns. But it’s Geste by Michel-Georges Brégent, Petrowska Quilico’s first husband, who died in 1993, that forms the spiritual heart of this set – especially in the way he invites the performer’s interventions in shaping what happens and when. Brégent’s own description likens his score, mounted on a scroll, to a Calder mobile. In PQ’s hands the sense of urgency never lets up, even in the contemplative passages.

This set certainly showcases Petrowska Quilico’s talents, including her talent as a painter. The painting by her on the booklet cover, called Other Worlds – Light and Dark, beautifully sets the tone for this terrific collection.

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