01 Bev JohnstonThe Spirit and the Dust
Beverley Johnston; Mark Djokic; Amici Ensemble
Centrediscs CMCCD 27920 (cmccanada.org/shop/cmccd-27920) 

Dubbed, “a champion of new, genre-busting works” (DRUM! Magazine), Canadian percussionist Beverley Johnston is a rara avis in this country: a percussion soloist with an international career. Over four decades Johnston has built an enviable reputation for her musically intelligent performances, her deft classical transcriptions sharing the stage with contemporary compositions and dramatic presentations. Her career highlights and honours have been too many to list here. 

In 1986 Johnston released her first solo album Impact (Centrediscs, JUNO Award nominee), followed by seven more, as well having appeared on numerous other recordings. Her newest, The Spirit and the Dust, features her signature instruments, marimba and vibraphone. She is joined by violin virtuoso Mark Djokic and the illustrious Amici Chamber Ensemble in six works by four prominent Canadian composers, Christos Hatzis, Richard Mascall, Norbert Palej and Dinuk Wijeratne.

The Spirit and the Dust for solo marimba by Wijeratne is a dual musical meditation, skillfully reflecting on themes of life and death inspired by world literature, as well as on the richly varied tonal palette of the marimba itself. Johnston reveals her vulnerable side in Palej’s dramatic yet intimate ser con Él (be with Him). She whispers and sings words of yearning for someone unnamed while simultaneously playing vibraphone. Two fragmentary Chilean texts are separated by five centuries, one by an anonymous Inca poet, the other by Gabriela Mistral. 

While the absence these poets suggest may only be an illusion, the musical and emotional landscapes Johnston evokes on this album feel only too real.

02 PEP CD Vol 3PEP (Piano and Erhu Project)
Volume 3
Redshift Records (redshiftrecords.org/releases/tk474/) 

The duo of erhu virtuosa Nicole Ge Li and contemporary music specialist, pianist Corey Hamm, known as PEP (Piano and Erhu Project), issued its first CD release in 2015, the second following soon on its heels. I reviewed both for The WholeNote, commenting that PEP’s core repertoire exemplifies a “fluid interplay between these two instruments, each an icon of its respective culture. Rather than an intercultural vanity project, their collective music-making focuses on polished, musically engaged readings of recently commissioned scores.”

PEP’s Volume 3 extends that project to nine richly varied compositions. The carefully curated collection includes international composers working in many of today’s classical music streams. In addition to two Canadian works by Lucas Oickle and Stephen Chatman, new compositions by Michael Finnissy (UK), Gao Ping (China), plus existing works by Sergei Prokofiev (Russia/USSR), his grandson Gabriel Prokofiev (UK), Somei Satoh (Japan) and Marc Mellits (USA) are on this rich smorgasbord.

The album gets off to a rollicking start with the percussive first movement of Chinese-born composer Gao Ping’s Hu Yan (2017). The work’s six sections are each characterized by contrasting techniques and moods. Pizzicato passages in both piano and erhu in the third movement are certainly arresting, as are the eerie finale’s final moments: bass piano clusters thud while the erhu holds a still, high vibrato-less tone. 

The album concludes with an arrangement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Scherzo from his Flute Sonata (1943), later arranged for violin and piano by the composer. Hamm energetically nails down the two-fisted piano accompaniment while Li handles her difficult erhu part with panache. She makes it sounds like the 77-year old work was written for her. It’s an espresso nightcap to PEP’s exhilarating program.

Listen to 'PEP (Piano and Erhu Project)' Now in the Listening Room

03 chiaroscuroJordan Nobles – Chiaroscuro
Various Artists
Redshift Records TK477 (redshiftrecords.org/releases/tk477/) 

Gentle pulse, deep echo, and the alluring heat of mirage; this is the mysterious sonic imagery evoked throughout the enchanting music of Chiaroscuroa new release by Canadian composer Jordan Nobles. Chiaroscuro is a term used in visual art referring to the careful use of light and dark to create the illusion of three-dimensional volume on a flat surface. Nobles’ brilliant use of instrumental colour does exactly that: the artifice of tone painting creating multi-aural brush strokes of vast hyper-chroma. 

Although the music seems to provide a static environment on the surface, a masterful and beautiful complexity unfolds beneath. It is a space propelled forward by shimmering strings, luminous harp flourishes, fluttering winds and vocal wisps – messages from another world that travel by wind to ear. Nobles treats the large instrumental forces with such care that one seems to forget that there are separate voices: the resultant amalgam presented as unified iridescence. The two pieces on the disc offer oceans of spiritual radiances for the listener – make the time and dive in. 

04 EinaudiLudovico Einaudi – Chamber Music
Cameron Crozman; Quatuor Molinari; Pentaèdre
ATMA ACD2 2805 (atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1650)

Considered by many to be the world’s most popular classical composer, Italian Ludovico Einaudi’s vast collection of compositions has appeared in films, television series and on countless albums recorded by soloists, ensembles and the composer himself. Musique de chambre features four of Einaudi’s extended works, written for both soloists and chamber ensemble, performed by prominent Quebec musicians.

Each of the pieces on this album demonstrates Einaudi’s ability to create an atmospheric soundscape using harmony and rhythm, incorporating minimalist elements to great effect. This is not classical music in the style of Mozart and Beethoven: rather than being foundational material, melodic lines are the exception to the rule; throbbing, pulsing rhythms and large-scale harmonic shifts bring Philip Glass and Michael Nyman to mind, but with the striking contrasts of dynamic and character that are indicative of Einaudi’s unique compositional voice. 

Corale, for example, juxtaposes vital and exuberant string passages with soft and subdued statements, the “choral” sung amidst the outbursts. Zoom (aptly titled, given our current reliance on the eponymous technology) combines a lengthy, slow opening with a speedy and chaotic conclusion – what begins as a seemingly ironic subversion of the title erupts into a virtuosic reflection of what it means to “zoom.” 

Canto and Ai margini dell’aria are, in both title and sound, reflective of vocal music, featuring prominent lines, sometimes many at once, over discordant accompaniment. For those who appreciate Einaudi’s style and want to look beyond the keyboard works, Musique de chambre is a fine place to start.

05 John Oswald coverCLASSICS from the Rascali Klepitoire (teaser) EP
John Oswald
fony (pfony.bandcamp.com)

This Toronto composer/saxophonist/improviser/electronics/artistic genius John Oswald release is an exciting cross section of masterfully created old and new projects illuminating Oswald’s unique talents in electronic and live sound creation, something this reviewer can attest from decades playing free improvised music with him in various settings. 

Oswald recently revised an earlier dance piano/ensemble soundtrack to disklavier for from exquisite lune. Linda Caitlin Smith’s score is one that Oswald subcontracted for his suite based on Debussy’s Clair de Lune, and here her slow reflective piece with wide spaces is breathtaking to the final high-pitched piano sounds. The Oswald and James Rolfe co-composition bird, based on Leonard Cohen, is fascinating with the opening solo female voice warbling, high notes, pace change, spoken words and final almost folk oompah groove backdrop. 

Plunderphonics galore in a sum of distractions* (concerto for conductor and orchestra), as the conductor/soloist is wired for sound, and fingertip triggers set off musical quotes against flute melody, intermittent orchestral crashes and superimposed familiar lines for new listening experiences. sounds of sigh… opens with a Simon and Garfunkel Sounds of Silence -sounding riff as overlapping symphonic held notes, groove patterns, intense sustained horn and atonal effects abound. 

Also included are lontanofaune, and ariature & panorama. But the biggest thrill is the “silly bonus track” 5th. Beethoven’s classic symphony now contains such treats as electronically produced sounds, squeaks, instrumental effects, grunts, all in classic Oswald plunderphonics bravado.

Oswald has also been releasing reissues on Bandcamp. Highlights include Grayfolded “radio edit” (1994), his infamous groundbreaking reworking of music played by the Grateful Dead. Discosphere (1991) is a cross section of Oswald’s “soundtracks for dance.” Kissing Jesus in the Dark is a 1970s “found sound” release by Pause Pirate – Oswald, Marvin Green and Miguel Frasconi.

Timeless fun music by a great Canadian musician!

06 New England TriosNew England Trios
Joel Pitchon; Marie-Volcy Pelletier; Yu-Mei Wei
Bridge Records BRIDGE 9530 (bridgerecords.com/products/9530) 

With the release of this exquisitely produced, recorded and performed disc, the skilled trio of John Pitchon (violin), Marie-Volcy Pelletier (cello) and Yu-Mei Wei (piano) have explored the New England connection between iconic American composers Ronald Perera, Walter Piston and Leonard Bernstein. All three of these seminal, 20th-century artists found common ground in their mutual New England upbringings and their education at Harvard University in Boston. Written at the age of 19, Bernstein’s 1937 trio is a very early work by the genius who would ultimately blur the lines between classical, jazz and ethnomusics, which led to the very definition of contemporary American musical theatre. Interestingly, recordings of the other three trios (the two by Piston from 1935 and 1966, and the Perera from 2002) have not been available in recent years, making the disc an especially important addition to the catalogue. 

Highlights of the ambitious CD are Piston’s Allegro from Piano Trio No.1, a vivacious, intense and passionate interpretation, punctuated by strong, sinuous, unison lines and deep, throbbing cello work from Pelletier, and Bernstein’s aforementioned Adagio non Troppo – piu mosso – Allegro Vivace, which is almost unbearably romantic, and yet rife with dark references to all-consuming passions, creative obsession and an all-too-brief creative euphoria. How prophetic those unguarded motifs are when viewed in context with Bernstein’s life and work. 

In Perera’s Incisivo, Pitchon shines with appropriate incisor-like attack and intonation, and all three trio members move through this piece as an unstoppable single-celled organism. Of special mention is Piston’s Allegro con Brio, which is a technical thrill ride, with pianist Wei dynamically clearing the path through the mysterious pizzicato forest. On this composition, Piston, being the senior of this composing triumvirate, displays his joy of experimentation that would echo generations into the future.

Listen to 'New England Trios' Now in the Listening Room

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