07 Julius EastmanJulius Eastman – Piano Interpretations
Kukuruz Quartet
Intakt Records CD 306/2018 (intaktrec.ch)

In his relatively brief career, Julius Eastman (1940-1990) inhabited a kind of no man’s land as an African-American composer/performer in the classical wing of the American avant-garde, an associate of Cage, Feldman and Foss and a practitioner of a minimalism that embraced traditional chordal sequences. His titles were deliberately provocative – for example, Crazy Nigger and Gay Guerrilla – and he endured both drug addiction and homelessness. By the time of his death at 49, his work seemed slated for oblivion, and a rebirth of interest only began around 2010. Here the four pianists of the Kukuruz Quartet (Philip Bartels, Duri Collenberg, Simone Keller and Lukas Rickli) provide interpretations of four of Eastman’s compositions, works that possess drama and luminous power, resonating at once with work by Terry Riley and John Coltrane.

While the pieces operate on similar principles, using overlapping repetitions of short cadences, each has its own identity. The opening Fugue No.7 (1983) resembles church bells that echo and decay, building density through repetition and thickening, accumulating dissonances. Evil Nigger (1979) refines and expands elements of African-American church music. Buddha (1983) is a quiet change of pace, an extended foray into delicate textures as the four pianists focus on their instruments’ strings. The concluding Gay Guerrilla (1979) begins with repeated single notes, developing force through its half-hour length to its final triumphant, ascending figure.

There’s a rare strength to this music, its very methodology assuming a kind of defiance as the work develops its compelling identity.

01 Srul GlickSrul Irving Glick – Suites Hébraïques
James Campbell; Angela Park; Elissa Lee; Sharon Wei; Cameron Crozman; Barry Shiffman; Wallace Halladay; Susan Hoeppner
Centrediscs CMCCD 24817 (musiccentre.ca)

Srul Irving Glick (1934-2002) composed six Suites Hébraïques between 1961 and 1984, each a multi-movement work ranging between ten and 20 minutes in length. Three are written for solo instrument with piano accompaniment, and three for a variety of chamber ensembles. This release is the first to compile them all under one cover, and features some of Canada’s finest instrumental performers.

Modest in means and range, the pieces are nonetheless pure expressions of the composer’s love for Jewish traditional melodies, harmonies and forms. Not one movement exceeds six minutes, while most are much shorter. Glick didn’t write them to claim a place atop Parnassus, but rather to celebrate the music he heard and loved growing up the son of a cantor, singing in his father’s choir and at home. For that reason, pay particular note to Suite No.4, for saxophone and piano, played (sung) by Wallace Halladay with Angela Park on piano. Also on the second disc is the final suite, played by violinist Barry Shiffman with Park again at the piano. Both soloists perfectly express the singing quality called for in Glick’s music. Park took on the lion’s share of playing on this recording. She performs beautifully in four of the six suites.

Because they are based in the traditional forms, there is a repetitiveness to the titles: Circle Dance occurs in five and Cantorial Chant in four of the six suites; other titles, such as Nigun and Hora, variously find their way into several of them. It’s not a stretch to compare this to the work of Baroque composers, who also explored forms repeatedly in dance suites. However, nowhere does the music repeat itself. In fact, Glick seems to have been one of those composers for whom there was little effort in devising new material. In the jacket note Dorothy Sandler-Glick is quoted thus: “The melodies came easily as if they were waiting for him to lift them out of his soul.” So they sound.

03 ApogeeApogee – Music of Farshid Samandari
Mark Takeshi McGregor; Ariel Barnes; Brian Nesselroad; Marcus Takizawa; Joy Yeh
Redshift Records TK453 (redshiftrecords.org)

Vancouver-based composer Farshid Samandari (b. Tehran 1971) arrived in Vancouver in 2001. He quickly embedded himself in the regional contemporary concert music scene, serving in 2013 as composer-in-residence of the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra. That position has helped him build bridges with global musicians resident in the culturally diverse hub of the greater Vancouver area.

Apogee features Samandari’s works for conventional Western instrumentation stylishly played by Onyx Trio’s Mark Takeshi McGregor (flute), Marcus Takizawa (viola), and Joy Yeh (harp), plus Brian Nesselroad (percussion). His compositions primarily reflect his interest in contemporary Western musical vocabulary, spectral analysis, as well as extended instrumental techniques. But Apogee also provides a window into subjects that inform his work, including modal Persian classical music and literature.

Another key ingredient is referred to in the liner notes: the autobiographical nature of the compositions played here. Exile and the search for a home are recurring narratives. And it’s the orchestral flute which takes centre stage in many of the five works here, serving as the composer’s voice. The flute is also the listener’s guide through Samandari’s life journey, connecting his old and new worlds. My favourite moments on the album are in the lonely, expressive and virtuoso flute solos of Apogee (2005) and the very substantial 16-minute Nuclide (2014), both sparkling played by Takeshi McGregor. These works belong in the Canadian flute solo playbook.

Samandari’s moto is “Unity in Diversity.” We get a sense of his personal peregrinations from Iran to Canada’s west coast in Apogee.

Listen to 'Apogee – Music of Farshid Samandari' Now in the Listening Room

04 Curio BoxCurio Box – Berio; Hindemith; Underhill
Ariel Barnes; Fides Krucker; Turning Point Ensemble; Owen Underhill
Orlando Records OR 0037 (orlando-records.com)

This disc is a standout, with terrific performances and a compelling program of works, all confronting the relationship between the past and the present.

In Kammermusik No.3 from 1925, German composer Paul Hindemith looks back to the Baroque, especially to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The Vancouver-based Turning Point Ensemble, under Owen Underhill’s direction, handles the inventive contrapuntal textures with stylish buoyancy, while Canadian cellist Ariel Barnes brings out Hindemith’s lyrical side. Barnes’ restraint with vibrato and Romantic phrasing is especially appropriate to Hindemith, an accomplished violist who was deeply involved in historical performance practices.

At the same time that avant-garde Italian composer Luciano Berio was creating his pioneering experimental works like Sinfonia, he was working on arrangements – and rearrangements – of music of the past, from Monteverdi to Puccini. In Folk Songs, from 1964, he creates altogether new accompaniments for traditional folk tunes (plus a few composed songs) from around the world. The result is an extraordinary mélange of styles and harmonic languages. Canadian vocalist Fides Krucker’s blazing theatricality and playful brilliance put her in the same league as the fabulous American singer Cathy Berberian, who premiered this work.

Canadian composer and conductor Underhill’s own Cello Concerto from 2016 takes us through the fragmentation and reassembling of memories of the past, triggered by a Chinese curio box full of precious objects. The virtuosic, responsive Turning Point Ensemble under Underhill’s precise direction creates evocative, colourful interplay with Barnes’ adventurous and dramatic cello playing.

I enjoyed the anecdotal liner notes and bios, but I do wish there were texts for the songs – with translations.

05 Shostakovich 4 11Shostakovich – Symphonies Nos. 4 & 11 “The Year 1905”
Boston Symphony Orchestra; Andris Nelsons
Deutsche Grammophon 80028595-02 (deutschegrammophon.com)

It says here there was no greater symphonist of the 20th century than Shostakovich. Don’t @ me, as they say on Twitter. This DG recording of the Boston Symphony, led by Andris Nelsons, is part of their ongoing project to record the complete cycle by the beleaguered Russian artist.

The story behind his Symphony No.4 is relevant to any reading of the piece, although much too involved to fully recount here. Suffice it to say he fell into sudden disfavour with Stalin while working on it, and finally chose to withdraw the work before its premiere. The move, while an illustration of how little freedom an artist had during the era, likely saved the composer from exile to the Gulag. (An excellent fuller version of the story is available here: michaellewanski.com/blog/2014/10/8/shostakovich-symphony-no-4-in-c-minor-op-43).

Too many adjectives can attach to the puzzling work: at turns horrifying, melodramatic, sarcastic, madcap, maudlin, macabre, morose. Shostakovich might have been passing a note to his compatriot colleagues like Alfred Schnittke and Edison Denisov: “Here is as far as you can go, and not in any safety.”

Nelsons wrings a full accounting of the hair-raising piece, all 65 minutes of it, from the redoubtable BSO musicians. I defy anyone to listen to James Somerville’s horn playing here without feeling simultaneously uplifted and devastated.

The second half of the two-disc release makes a curious pairing. Symphony No.11 was composed more than two decades later in 1957, followed an overt “program” in depicting the events of the brutally quashed 1905 Russian workers’ uprising, and was written to satisfy a government-mandated (“suggested”) recognition of the 40th anniversary of the 1917 revolution. Perhaps the idea is to contrast the work of a brash young idealist, an artist who believed he was free, to the more mature output of one who knew he never would be. Clearly in his music he felt the humanity of those starving workers, murdered a half-century earlier by a despot. There are subtexts to all of his music, and the question remains about whether this symphony reflected the composer’s views about more recent crimes.

Programmatically structured to the point of pedantry, it is nonetheless brilliantly played. Hearing these excellent players gives the heart ease.

06 Trio ClavioTrio Clavio
Trio Clavio
ArcoDiva UP 0204 (arcodiva.cz)

Established with the help of Polish clarinetist/conductor Jakub Bokun in 2013, this Czech trio has been performing as Trio Clavio since its successful debut at Wrocław, Poland’s Clarimania Festival. The three talented members – pianist Lucie Soutorová Valčová, violinist Lucia Fulka Kopsová and clarinetist Jana Černohouzová – are each superstar soloists and chamber musicians. In their debut self-titled two-CD release, they demonstrate solid technique, musicality, ensemble playing, personal musical risk-taking, integrity, and the joy of performing music.

CD One has these younger-generation musicians playing music by three 20th-century composers. Highlights from Stravinsky’s trio suite from L’Histoire du soldat include colourful low and high pitches, clear articulation of individual notes, and mood-making intense playing, especially at the almost spooky Danse du Diable closing. Bartók’s three-movement Contrasts features a tighter full-orchestra sound, with classic Bartók dramatic musical conversations between the instruments. Paul Schoenfield’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin & Piano is a four-movement, Jewish-based work. The opening Freylakh has a nice klezmer feel, especially in the held violin and clarinet notes. March opens with exciting low-pitched mysterious piano notes and ascending and descending glissandos, leading to subsequent virtuosic trio performance. Nigun is a fugal klezmer piece and the final Kozatske is an exciting fast klezmer-flavoured movement.

CD Two showcases diverse works by living composers. Love Czech Lukáš Hurník’s witty work, Alphabet. After a short introduction, each capital letter of the alphabet is given a musical score resulting in a piece packed with diverse ideas and sounds. E is a fugue with three instruments emulating its three horizontal lines; D is all played on the violin D string; G is brought to sound life with a florid piano line. Czech Martin Brunner composed his self-described childishly playful Like Children while thinking of trio-member Valčová’s son. The three movements delight with touches of lullaby, reflection and running-around sounds. Trio Clavio commission “Chiaroscuro” Trio by Slovak Juraj Filas is a single-movement, tonal, expressive, Romantic-flavoured sonata reminiscent of film music, including subtle and sudden dramatic musical shifts from loud rhythms to slower reflective sections, high pitches and lengthy held notes. Closing is Czech Sylvie Bodorová’s Vallja e malit “Dancing Mountain,” a folk-music rooted work with a tight Ballata opening, and a faster, closing, toe-tapping, intense, rapid line-filled Danza movement.

Trio Clavio is musically wonderful, unique and breathtaking in all they play!

Back to top