06 McCormick PercussionSoli for Tuba, Zheng, Horn, with Percussion
McCormick Percussion Group; Robert McCormick
Ravello Records rr8014 (ravellorecords.com)

The award-winning Florida-based McCormick Percussion Group specializes in interpreting non-mainstream percussion scores, often collaborating with guest non-percussionists. Its latest album presents five works by four American composers featuring one or more non-percussion soloist backed by the forces of the MPG, the size of a modest orchestra.

Album opener Loam by Kentucky composer Tyler Kline is a substantial four-movement concerto for tuba and percussion ensemble. Metaphorically, it seeks to convey the notion of natural cycles: the earth being tilled, life being born from the soil and ultimately returning to it after death. Prize-winning Taiwanese-American composer Chihchun Chi-sun Lee’s attractive Double Concerto for Tuba, Zheng and Percussion Orchestra is perhaps the first work scored for these instruments. She effectively juxtaposes the expressive upper register of the plucked strings of the zheng with the lower wind tones and multiphonics of the tuba, the texture filled in by the spatially arrayed percussion sounds. While the first movement blends colour, timbre and gesture among these disparate instruments, movement II focuses on tuba and zheng solos. The final movement balances all three forces in an energetic finale.

Lee’s other score on the album, Zusammenflusses (Confluences), is a duet for zheng and percussion, distinguishing it from the concerto forms of the other works on the album. Using a non-tonal language, Lee deftly counterposes the differences and similarities between the plucked and bowed zheng, vibraphone and various cymbals.

This album, a journey into unexpected combinations of sounds and cultures, is one well worth taking in.

07 Bellido Symphonic CanvasJimmy López Bellido – Symphonic Canvas
Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; Miguel Harth-Bedoya
MSR Classics MS 1737 (msrcd.com)

Two novels, written nearly 400 years apart, inspired these two works, both from 2016, by Jimmy López Bellido (b.1978), composer-in-residence of the Houston Symphony.

Miguel de Cervantes’s final literary creation described two Scandinavian nobles’ adventurous pilgrimage to Rome. López Bellido says his Symphony No.1 – The Travails of Persiles and Sigismunda wasn’t intended to portray the novel’s events, but “to convey [its] spirit, greatness and humor.” Nevertheless, the four-movement, 45-minute symphony contains many dramatic “events” – eerie forebodings leading to garishly scored, violent climaxes. The Latino-tinted third movement provides the only “humor” – jazzy and snarky.

In December 1996, Túpac Amaru terrorists took hundreds of people hostage after storming a reception at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, López Bellido’s native city. His 2015 opera, Bel Canto, was based on Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel of the same name, itself based on the four-month-long hostage crisis. The three-movement, 30-minute Bel Canto – A Symphonic Canvas, encapsulates the opera. Perú, Real and Unreal begins with the Overture and ends with the climax of Act I, the shooting of diva Roxane Coss’ accompanist. La Garúa depicts an enshrouding fog and several hostages’ plaintive emotional outpourings. The End of Utopia derives from the final scene, the attack that frees the hostages and Coss’ anguished aria, here “sung” by a trumpet, over the desolation.

Both works show López Bellido has clearly mastered the knack of building suspense and effectively ending it with climaxes of exceptional sonic power and brilliance.

08 Feldman box front coverMorton Feldman Piano
Philip Thomas
Another Timbre at144x5 (anothertimbre.com)

2019 marks the 20th anniversary of John Tilbury’s signal All Piano, a four-CD set approaching almost all of Morton Feldman’s piano music. Here the younger Philip Thomas presents a five-CD, six-hour set of even more of these works. There’s a direct lineage: in 2014, the two pianists recorded Two Pianos and other pieces, 1953-1969 (also on Another Timbre), covering Feldman’s works for multiple pianos and some for pianos with other instruments.

Thomas explores the breadth of Feldman’s solo piano music, omitting only a few student pieces from the 1940s, while resurrecting others, like an archival minute-long Untitled piano piece, dated 1947, for a glimpse of Feldman’s nascent vision. There are also transcriptions of two pieces with lost scores, including the piano part in the soundtrack for the film Sculpture by Lipton.

Thomas brings a reflective depth to the work, emphasizing the composer’s preoccupation with sonic detail. Although Feldman didn’t alter the piano’s physical character like his colleague John Cage, he explored its sonic character and notation with a unique depth, including silent fingerings to create harmonic resonance, varied approaches to grace notes and allowing sounded notes to decay in full, the sounds isolated and appreciated individually.

While sometimes developing a kind of dislocation – even writing two-hand parts as if they were synchronous, then instructing that they be played separately – Feldman put a new emphasis on attack, duration and decay. There’s great detail in Thomas’ 52-page liner essay, including his description of a year-long recording process with producer Simon Reynell that emphasizes the music’s sound from the performer’s perspective and suggests the albeit quiet music be played loud enough for all its detail to emerge.  

Landmarks and masterworks will draw attention first. Disc One creates an immediate overview, gathering significant pieces that run throughout Feldman’s career and last between 22 and 27 minutes, from 1959’s diverse Last Pieces, to 1977’s Piano with its greater formal concerns and his final Palais de Mari (1986), with its geometric construction and enduring resolution. Still more commanding are the late and large-scale Triadic Memories and For Bunita Marcus, vast explorations of form and scale that can suggest compound bells.

Feldman’s relative miniatures, however, are just as significant: the collaborative nature of his music, including unspecified durations and sequences, clearly inspires Thomas. It’s most notable in Intermission 6 (1953), with the performer determining order and repeats. Thomas provides three versions of the piece, one in the published score, two of his own design, one of those with repetitions, the three running from less than five to over 11 minutes.

Feldman produced one of the most resonant and intimate bodies of 20th-century piano music, conditioning and opening time in the process. Philip Thomas is an ideal collaborator.

01 Michael ColgrassMichael Colgrass – Side by Side; Letter from Mozart; The Schubert Birds
Joanne Kong; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose
BMOP Sound 1064 (bmop.org)

You receive a letter from “your favourite composer” signed “Your friend, Mozart,” requesting a 20th-century take on his style using extra percussion which “in my day wasn’t dignified.” The resulting 15-minute Letter from Mozart (1976) is a wonky, percussion-heavy series of dreamlike, stream-of-unconsciousness episodes, a drug-induced merging of the 20th and 18th centuries, requiring two conductors to avoid complete chaos. It’s great fun!

Side by Side (2007) presents Joanne Kong playing both piano and harpsichord, set 90 degrees to each other. To balance the disparate instruments, Colgrass first muted the piano strings, then amplified both to compete with the orchestra. Colgrass never severed his roots as a jazz drummer, so the 24-minute concerto exploits the percussive qualities of both keyboards and orchestra.

Colgrass wrote that The Schubert Birds (1989) is “a crazy quilt of theme and variations… based on Franz Schubert’s Kupelweiser Waltz, a little-known piano piece.” The title refers to “Schubert as a bird who spent his life singing, surrounded by a circle of others who… sang with him.” Like the CD’s other two works, the 19-minute piece revels in kaleidoscopic fragmentation and glittering sonorities.

The prolific, always-inventive Colgrass, the 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winner who died at 87 this past July, is less well-represented on disc than he should be. A Chicago native, he’d lived in Toronto since 1974, yet titled his 2010 memoir Adventures of an American Composer. Please, record companies, give us more CDs of the adventurous Michael Colgrass!

02 Lands End EnsembleKickin’ It 2.0
Land’s End
Centrediscs CMCCD 26819 (musiccentre.ca)

Two works by Vincent Ho, artistic director of Calgary’s Land’s End Ensemble, bookend this CD that spotlights as soloists the ensemble’s three musicians. First, cellist Beth Root Sandvoss performs Morning Sun, a lyrical, somewhat melancholy piece, just under four minutes long, that Ho composed while watching a sunrise in California.

In Derek Charke’s Tree Rings, violinist John Lowry and Ben Reimer on marimba depict a tree’s life under ever-changing weather conditions. The music’s moods and energies keep changing, too; it’s compelling listening throughout its own 11-minute “life.” Stelco is Omar Daniel’s “homage” to industrial machines and the Canadians “who risk life and limb” operating them. Pianist Susanne Ruberg-Gordon and Reimer on vibraphone manufacture ten minutes of metallic percussion, ranging from near-subsonic vibrations to pile-driver pounding, with clanging piano bass notes. The trio reunites in Analía Llugdar’s seven-minute Don Liborio Avila, based on a portrait of an old man in a small Argentinian town. “But,” says Llugdar, “violence haunts the picture.” The music is violent, too, the ensemble simulating angry electronic bursts, buzzes and squeaks.

Ho writes that Kickin’ It 2.0, performed by the ensemble plus Reimer on drum kit, was inspired by “Squarepusher, jazz, gamelan music, Chinese folk music and the crime novels of James Ellroy.” Ellroy’s novels notwithstanding, Ho’s 20-minute, four-movement work offers jazzy aggression, gentle gamelan-like tinkles, a drum-dominated cadenza and a powerful, sustained motoric finale, ending a fascinating disc that gathers steam (and steam engines!) from start to propulsive finish.

03 Carmen BradenCarmen Braden – Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 27119 (musiccentre.ca)

The idea of north is central to Canadian composer Carmen Braden’s latest release, titled Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars. The imagery of shimmering icy planes at dusk – an impression imbedded within all Canadians whether physically experienced or not – is ever present in Braden’s writing for various chamber ensembles. But this imagery is not obvious, nor is it obfuscated through artistic trickery. Braden’s music is clear, and it is bright. It drifts, lingers, dances, and breathes at rest. It is at once far and near – a personal representation of a liminal landscape that is at once distant and comforting. One true gift (among many) on the release is the second movement from a piece titled Raven Conspiracy. Braden gives this movement the subtitle of Waltz of Wing and Claw. This music, written for strings, paints the density and impossible geometry of the dream cloud of birds – that dark unbroken remoulding of the sky against sun, ice and smoke. This recording is captured psychogeography – a process that asks us to embrace the playfulness of our surroundings, and to drift among those places without cause. It is clear that Braden is trying to provide a portrait – but also a release – between life and surroundings. With a wide range of instrumentations, colours, and ambiences, the sounds on this recording will haunt and comfort – much like the strange beauty of the northern terrain.

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