03 In the WeedsIn the Weeds
Ventus Machina
MSR Classics MS 1633 (ventusmachina.com)

New Brunswick-based woodwind quintet Ventus Machina shows off their classical roots mixed with fun and flavour in their first full-length release. They self-describe their performances as themed programs, evident here in the varied music performed by members Karin Aurell (flute, piccolo), Christie Goodwin (oboe, English horn), James Kalyn (clarinet), Ulises Aragon (French horn) and Patrick Bolduc (bassoon).

Two quintet commissions by Canadian composers are featured. Mike Titlebaum’s Short Set is his three-movement take on a jazz band’s closing tunes. The jazz-flavoured Amblin’ has jazz effects juxtaposed with classical touches and counterpoint against an “amblin’ groove.” A-Fashin’ features more traditional lush harmonies and held tunes while the final movement In the Weeds has upbeat swing grooves, with tricky speedy runs, accented group rhythmic notes and melodic conversations. Martin Kutnowski successfully incorporates his Argentinian musical roots in Tonadas Y Mateadas. After a fast jumpy opening, three main sections follow – a slow oboe theme, a horn-led waltz theme and a fast clarinet dance which resurfaces throughout the work.

Paquito D’Rivera’s Aires Tropicales is an enjoyable mood-shifting listen, while Richard Price arranges Leonard Bernstein’s famous sing-along show tunes for wind quintet subtleties in Suite from West Side Story. Ventus Machina adapts William Scribner’s arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga Sin Palabras for English horn lead, resulting in an amazing group emulation of the bandoneon sound.

A tight ensemble with impeccable tone, pitch and breath, Ventus Machina really can play anything well.

Listen to 'In the Weeds' Now in the Listening Room

04 TorQModulations
TorQ Percussion Quartet
BeDoINT Records BR004 (torqpercussion.ca)

I first heard TorQ when I took my grandkids to TorQ’s concerts for kids at Toronto’s Harbourfront. Then, in 2015, I sang in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Toronto Choral Society, TorQ providing the percussion. These guys clearly have fun performing, and it’s fun watching and listening to them.

So it is with this CD, starting with Thrown from a Loop by TorQ member Daniel Morphy. It’s just under nine minutes of music for marimbas and vibraphones, with overlapping loops “influenced,” writes Morphy, “by the music of Steve Reich.” The music has an easy swing to it, unhurried but always moving forward.

Christos Hatzis writes that his 19-minute Modulations for two vibraphones and two marimbas combines the seemingly contradictory styles of minimalism and Elliott Carter’s “metric modulation,” because “each exemplifies and needs the other for musical clarity and informational interest to ensue.” Nonetheless, instead of minimalism or Carter, Modulation’s tonal, tuneful and very jazz-inflected music distinctly reminded me of Milt Jackson’s between-the-beats magic as vibraphonist of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The three movements of Peter Hatch’s 22-minute timespace play with various aspects of musical time and space. Time Zones presents eight different tempi simultaneously, the spatially conceived music of Spooky Action circles the audience in opposite directions, while Gravitas, writes Hatch, “is a light and humorous depiction of musical gravity” that “bends and twists our sensation of time.”

Together, nearly 50 minutes of fun listening from this very fun ensemble.

05 Illumination oboeIllumination
Nancy Ambrose King; Ann Arbor Camerata; Oriol Sans; Victor Minke Huls
Equilibrium Recordings EQ144 (nancyambroseking.com)

Illumination is an intriguing collection of contemporary repertoire for oboe and chamber orchestra. As played by American virtuoso Nancy Ambrose King with the Ann Arbor Camerata, Michael Daugherty’s Firecracker (1991) is brillant in its economy of means, extending semitone “sparks“ into exciting events over its 13 minutes. The title refers to a matchbook popular in 1940s and 1950s Las Vegas, a locale evoked by eerie Spanish-style piano and percussion with wailing oboe glissandi. But there is frenzy in Vegas as well: use of extreme registers, rapid runs and extensive double-tonguing, all handled confidently by King. Following a sensitively-played lyrical section the bass percussion explodes, leading to a dramatic ending.

Alyssa Morris’ Dreamscape (2012) takes the form of a four-movement overnight sequence suggesting childhood drama. King’s tone is evocative in the Falling Asleep and Chase opener; eyes seem to close as a harp enters. But the chase feels underdeveloped musically, as do succeeding movements. The final Nightmare and Awakening is best, building a well-orchestrated sense of menace leading to a brilliant oboe cadenza before emerging into morning.

Both Gone (2016) and Grunge Concerto (2014) were written for Ambrose King by much-commissioned Scott McAllister. The former work is meditative and pastoral, evoking memories of loss. The soloist shows amazing breath control in long tones over a ground bass. The latter work imaginatively recasts a pop genre in three movements ending with Headbanging, a tour-de-force of virtuosity by soloist and orchestra.

Robin de Raaff – Entangled Tales
Various Orchestras
Challenge Records Int. CC72747 (challengerrecords.com)

Robin de Raaff - Stolen back from Time
Various Orchestras and Ensembles
Attacca ATT 2017152 (attaccaproductions.com)

06b de Raaff Stolen back from TimeThis past December, Dutch composer du jour Robin de Raaff (b.1968) was present for Toronto’s New Music Concerts’ performance of his Percussion Concerto. The following week, the Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble performed his Ennea’s Domein. (I attended both concerts.) Both works are included in the 2CD set Stolen back from Time, along with his Violin Concerto No.1 “Angelic Echoes,” Double Concerto for clarinet, bass clarinet and orchestra, Unisono for large orchestra, Clarinet Concerto and In Memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich.

There’s a lot to listen to in de Raaff’s complex music, filled with intense energy, bright and unusual sonorities including lots of percussion, and irregular rhythms derived using mathematical constructivist techniques. But it all sounds rather more expressionistic than mathematical, especially in Unisono, 18 minutes of snarling sonic blasts performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Ed Spanjaard. Think of the battle segment of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben but fought with 21st-century weapons.

For me, the other standouts in this album are the feverish Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto. Violinist Joe Puglia evokes references to Berg’s Violin Concerto amid orchestral hints of Mahler. The Double Concerto, with soloists Harmen de Boer and Harry Sparnaay, offers touches of humour, impressionistic colours and sustained passages of quasi-tonal lyricism.

06a de Raaff Entangled TalesThere’s more to admire on The Entangled Tales CD, containing de Raaff’s Cello Concerto, Entangled Tales and Symphony No.3 “Illumination…Eclipse.” The Cello Concerto reveals a very different side of de Raaff, as brooding, songful emotionality replaces brash busy-ness. Here, the dynamics are subdued, the orchestral textures leaner but darker. In five connected movements lasting half an hour, the inward-looking, penumbral concerto receives a haunting performance by Marien van Stallen, the cellist for whom it was written, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Entangled Tales, an eight-minute synopsis of de Raaff’s penchant for assertive declamations and vivid sonorities (similar to Unisono) was commissioned by the Boston Symphony, premiered at Tanglewood and subsequently incorporated into his Symphony No.1 “Tanglewood Tales.” It’s performed with suitable high energy by Neeme Järvi and The Hague’s Residentie Orkest.

De Raaff’s 30-minute, three-movement Symphony No.3 is performed by Het Gelders Orkest under Antonello Manacorda. As its subtitle suggests, it deals with contrasts of light and dark, beginning with two piccolos and tinkly percussion creating eerie, electronics-like sounds, followed by a sudden descent into the orchestra’s dark timbres of brass and percussion. The struggle continues throughout, with quiet, plaintive solos and duos alternating with powerful tutti outbursts. The symphony ends with gentle chords played in mid-range instrumental registers, suggesting a final resolution of synthesis and reconciliation.

I recommend the Entangled Tales CD for anyone wanting an introduction to this significant 21st -century compositional voice.

07 JeneyZoltán Jeney – Wohin?
Various Artists
BMC BMC CD 240 (bmcrecords.hu)

Wohin? gives international listeners a valuable insight into the postmodernist Hungarian concert music composer Zoltán Jeney (b.1943), featuring recent works for solo piano, voice, cello and piano, string quartet and orchestra. Jeney has been a major voice in Hungarian concert music circles since the 1960s. In 1970, in collaboration with five other leading Hungarian composers, he cofounded the influential group Budapest New Music Studio, which introduced the aesthetics and music of John Cage and Minimalism at its public concerts.

The most provocative work on this album is the title track, Wohin? (German for “Where?”) A five-minute orchestral score featuring a truncated chorus in its last 30 seconds, it’s his response to the Allied invasion of Iraq. Jeney offers a withering parody in his postmodern mashup of recognizable bits of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. As the anthem of the European Union proclaiming that “All people will be brothers,” Jeney couldn’t have chosen a better subject with which to convey his deeply ironic view of the war.

Pavane (2007) for orchestra, the last and most substantial work here, employs a 128-note melody derived from a fractal series. Its first section recalls Ligeti’s Atmosphères with amorphous, shifting orchestral textures and tight heterophony. The second section, characterized by jagged polyphonic lines is brief, succeeded by a much longer final movement featuring a continuous, harmonized melody. The music builds into a kind of halting secular chorale – punctuated by irregular percussive accents – fading out on a quiet yet ultimately unsettled unison.

08 EotvosPeter Eötvös – String Quartets: The Sirens Cycle; Korrespondenz
Audrey Luna; Calder Quartet
BMC BMC CD 249 (bmcrecords.hu)

Péter Eötvös (b.1944) is a highly respected Hungarian composer of operas and large ensemble works. Musical director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain from 1979 to 1991, he has guest-conducted top European orchestras. The sirens of Homer’s Odyssey have inspired works of writers and composers, including Jörg Widmann, whose excellent Island of the Sirens for solo violin and strings was reviewed here in March 2014. Eötvös joins their company with The Sirens Cycle (2015/16), a complex work operating in a number of dimensions including pre-compositional spectral analysis of the spoken text. Even in this engaged recording by coloratura soprano Audrey Luna and the Calder Quartet, the work is overwhelming and only reveals its secrets gradually! The soprano has an attractive timbre and a three-and-a-half-octave range, here applied, using both conventional and extended vocal techniques, to singing and declaiming texts by Joyce (from Ulysses), Homer and Kafka. By turn they are startling, humorous, erotic and finally dispiriting, as the sirens mysteriously disappear.

In both the above composition and Correspondence: Scenes for String Quartet (1992), the American Calder Quartet displays mastery of extensively used instrumental techniques including harmonics, by-the-bridge (sul ponticello) bowing, and pizzicato; glissandi become almost speech-like at times. The latter bring us to the unspoken text of the work, which is from correspondence between W. A. Mozart and his father Leopold in 1778. Derived in part from a method of assigning vowels to intervals, the uncanny effect is that instruments strive for but don't attain speech.

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