03_harrisonLou Harrison - Scenes from Cavafy

Gamelan Pacifica; Jarrad Powell

New World Records 80710-2 (www.newworldrecords.org)

The long list of non-Indonesian composers who have been intrigued and inspired by the instruments and music of the gamelan (an indigenous Indonesian orchestra) goes back some 250 years. Starting with Jean-Philippe Rameau in the 18th c., the lineage continues with Debussy and led to compositions by the Canadian Colin McPhee, and to works of Steve Reich and to many more musicians active today.

There was no more eager convert to the gamelan as a Western musical resource however than the American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003). As well as composing dozens of works for various types of gamelans, Harrison served as a generous mentor to a generation of musicians who have subsequently taken the gamelan music model into their own musical domains. These include Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan and Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica.

The top-notch musicians of the latter perform definitive versions of the three large-scale Harrison works for Central Javanese style gamelan on this album. The Seattle composer and expert gamelan musician Jarrad Powell convincingly directs the extended ensemble of instrumentalists, choir and vocal soloists in the three works here.

The Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (1987) is the most substantial of the eight Harrison works combining Western solo instruments and the gamelan. The piano is retuned to match the gamelan instruments. This is an effect which provides bracing listening at first, but to which friendly ears warm by the slow cantabile movement, a Harrison specialty.

A Soedjatmoko Set (1989) illustrating Harrison’s mature gamelan style, features Jessika Kenney, an outstanding American soprano. She manages the most difficult of musical tasks: to convincingly nail a sort of magical amalgam of both Javanese and late 20th c. American vocal style, articulation, timbre, intonation and mood, at the same time. Together with the excellent liner notes, this recording is a fitting tribute to Harrison’s ideal of the peaceful coexistence of world music cultures, demonstrated here at a very high level indeed.

01_james_harleyNeue Bilder - Music of James Harley

New Music Concerts; Robert Aitken

Centrediscs CMCCD 16010

One of the benefits of the endangered CD format is illustrated by the release of compilations such as this revealing in-depth look into the oeuvre of Canadian composer James Harley (b.1959).

On one hand we have detailed programme and biographic notes in the booklet allowing one-stop exploration of the creator’s mind and life leading up to compositions spanning 22 years. On the disc, we have the star performances of Toronto’s venerable New Music Concerts (NMC). Celebrating 40 years of dedication to new music this season NMC’s musicians consistently present interpretations of a high level, and these performances – many recorded live – live up to those standards of excellence. As a stellar example, NMC co-founder and internationally renowned flutist Robert Aitken’s brilliant performance of Harley's early solo flute piece Portrait (1984) is a demonstration of virtuosity in the service of the composer’s lyrical musical vision.

While the spirit of the Second Vienna School is alive in the eloquent and elegant music of Harley’s composition Neue Bilder (1991), the notes reveal that the work is actually based on the music of an earlier Austrian composer. “Algorhythmically” transforming abstracted material from an illustrious aria from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, this work is a testament to the magical possibilities inherent in musical metamorphosis in its many forms.

Judging from the five works here Harley, who presently teaches Digital Music at the University of Guelph, has a rare gift for sustained melodic line. The passionate flute and cello solos in Epanoui (1995) and the breathy, delicate bass flute exhalations in Tyee (1995) provide ample evidence of that. It’s a gift I appreciate receiving, repeatedly.

02_hamelinMarc-André Hamelin - Études

Marc-André Hamelin

Hyperion CDA67789

Up to now, the Montreal-born Boston-based pianist Marc-André Hamelin has been rightly regarded as something of a pianistic supernova, a musician whose technical prowess and innate musicality have gone hand in hand with his efforts at promoting piano music by lesser-known composers. But with this new Hyperion recording, titled simply “Études” we see him in a new role, that akin to a 19th-century “pianist-composer.” The CD is comprised of original material written over a 24- year period, featuring 12 Etudes in all the minor keys, Little Nocturne, five movements from a set of pieces titled Con intimissimo sentimento, and finally, a Theme and Variations.

Of the twelve études, eight are based on works by other composers, along the lines of Godowsky’s re-creations of the 24 Études by Chopin. For example, the first in the set, written in 1992, is based on the Chopin Étude Op.10 No.2, while the third is a clear adaptation of the famous Liszt-Paganini étude La Campanella – but very much taken a step further! These pieces are breathtaking in their virtuosity – amateur pianists such as myself can only marvel at the brilliant technique displayed here, which at the same time demonstrates such subtle nuances of tone and colour. The Little Nocturne from 2007 provides a languorous contrast to the pyrotechnics of the études, while the pieces from Con intimissimo sentimento are quietly introspective, showing a wholly different side to Hamelin’s creative style. Over the years, more than a handful of composers have written music expressing their love for a “significant other” and Hamelin is no exception. His Theme and Variations (“Cathy’s Variations”) is a poetic and intimate love-song honouring his fiancée Cathy Fuller.

For anyone who is sceptical about “pianists who compose” this disc is a highly worthy addition to the catalogue. We were always aware of Mr. Hamelin’s supreme gifts at the keyboard, but now he has now shown us another dimension of his talents.

03_mack_imprintsImprints - Music by Colin Mack

Various Artists

CanSona Arts Media CAM 09001 (www.cansona.com)

This 25 year retrospective disc presents profiles of Ottawa composer Colin Mack in chamber music, songs and solo piano pieces. Mack has a confident ear, writes sensitively and idiomatically for instruments and voice, and creates arresting moments. Performances are distinguished throughout.

The atonal Starry Night for piano is particularly successful. Beautiful handling of the instrument’s resources seems to evoke not only stars but supernovas, constellations, and more mysterious astronomical phenomena. The 12-part structure derived from the signs of the zodiac is reflected in a variety of contrasting sections, clearly delineated in the convincing performance by Shoshana Telner.

The modest Piano Trio: In Memoriam Dimitri Shostakovich is an apt tribute. Only settings of Gwendolyn MacEwen poems in Shadow-Maker disappoint, despite their moving performance by soprano Doreen Taylor-Claxton. For example Dark Pines is more than a nature poem. It turns an iconic Canadian image upside down, suggesting hidden depths, dark and dangerous. Here Mack’s conventional tonal language feels too timid for MacEwen’s mystical depth and ironic bite.

But Winterseen for flute, percussion, and piano, ably performed by Robert Cram, John Wong, and Claudia Cashin-Mack, makes a fine conclusion to the disc. Evocative vibraphone writing begins a transformation: from winter to spring. Jazz-accented gestures move us forward, then magical resonances of an electronically-enhanced flute. An exciting ostinato-based conclusion enacts the bursting forth of spring’s new life. I hope that this disc will bring to listeners’ notice a composer definitely worth hearing.

04_lutoslawski_nmcLutosławski's Last Concert

Fujiko Imajishi; Valdine Anderson; New Music Concerts; Witold Lutosławski

Naxos 8.572450

The late Polish composer, Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) enjoyed well deserved recognition and his music was regularly performed and recorded by the world’s greatest orchestras and instrumentalists. A new Naxos CD features an elite group of Toronto musicians, the New Music Concerts Ensemble, under the direction of the composer recorded at a live concert in the Premier Dance Theatre on October 24, 1993.

The program opens with the Partita for violin and orchestra (1988) with brilliant playing by Fujiko Imajishi. Lutosławski’s complex textures are made transparent by both the crisp ensemble and a well balanced recording. The quiet and haunting Interlude (1989) was written as a bridge between Partita and an earlier concerted work for violin, Chain 2 (1985), which follows. Once again Imajishi provides a stunning performance.

Soprano Valdine Anderson also shines as she easily manages the nine delightful and quirky songs comprising Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990) in a voice ranging from the purity of a boy soprano to broad operatic proportions.

Like Chain 2, Chain 1 (1983), the final work on this disc, is an amusing piece full of vitality and humour, somewhat reminiscent of Poulenc or even Stravinsky, executed to perfection by members of the group.

Lutosławski died at the age of 81 a few months after this concert was recorded for broadcast by the CBC and this Toronto performance was his last conducting appearance anywhere. The recording has plenty of atmosphere, taking the listener right into the theatre. Originally released independently in 1998, it speaks well of founding director Robert Aitken and his New Music Concerts Ensemble that Naxos has chosen to bring this valuable document to international attention.

01_mcintoshPinnacles - Music of Diana McIntosh

Various Artists

Centrediscs CMCCD 15810

The CD cover picture of composer/pianist Diana McIntosh standing on Ophidian Glacier says it all – she loves the great outdoors. Her compositional inspirations range from Canadian glaciers to the peaks of Kilimanjaro in this intriguing new release.


McIntosh evokes nature's wide open spaces through her use of her wide open melodic intervals. (An interval is the distance between two adjacent notes). Any listener still wary of new music's dissonant qualities will quickly be won over by her use of sound to evoke images of natural beauty.


McIntosh is also an excellent pianist who is continuing the centuries old tradition of the composer performing their own works. Like popular music's singer/songwriters, nobody really plays her music better than McIntosh herself. However, she has guided the other featured instrumentalists to interpret perfectly. Of special note is violinist Karl Stobbe in the opening chamber music track Approaching Kilimanjaro, and to no surprise, the composer's longtime collaborator, local percussion superstar Beverley Johnston in the duet Uhuru Kamili. Only McIntosh's spoken text/narration in From Wapta Ice is slightly over the top in its emotive qualities, and could be more understated to better fit in with her musical sensibilities.


The good people at the Canadian Music Centre’s Centrediscs have yet again produced a high quality release. “Pinnacles” showcases the music of Diana McIntosh at the pinnacle of her artistic career.


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