07_saariahoSaariaho – Works for Orchestra
Various Orchestras
Ondine ODE1113-2Q

There must be something in the water in Helsinki. For a country of just over five million people, Finland seems to produce a disproportionate amount of musical talents — instrumentalists, vocalists, conductors and composers. Kaija Saariaho is no stranger to Toronto audiences: the COC produced the hauntingly beautiful L’amour de loin this season, along with notable performances by the TSO and Soundstreams.

In a sparsely populated Nordic country, an artist feels connected to nature and light (or the lack thereof). Many of the works on this compilation — Lichtbogen, Solar, Orion, Notes on Light — look to the cosmos, and Saariaho’s writing is starkly beautiful. Her use of electronics is meticulously intertwined and delicately masterful — undoubtedly the result of her time at IRCAM in Paris, and the influence of spectralism pioneers Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey. But it is the diptych Du cristal and … à la fumée that confirms this composer’s inimitability: as in a crystal, macroscopically the structure seems complete, but upon closer inspection, we see not only detail, but growth. Her polymorphic textures progress like an ethereal sublimation.

Saariaho’s connection to the voice is mesmerizing: she integrates text into her orchestrations in a strikingly unique way. Cinq reflets de “L’amour de loin” revisits the music from the opera, but in her process, she has created a completely new work. Grammaire des rêves sets poems of French Surrealist Paul Éluard (not to be confused with her other great vocal work, From the Grammar of Dreams). The voice is treated as instrument, and the ensemble as voices in a texture that rivals (and perhaps surpasses) the great vocal works of Berio. Of all the fantastic singing, I would be remiss not to mention Mirage, featuring the powerful lyric soprano Karita Mattila, whose luminous sound is more often heard in the world’s leading opera houses.

For me, the highlight of the set is undoubtedly cellist Anssi Karttunen, who lends his acrobatic and nuanced virtuosity to four substantial works. But it is difficult to single out a star player on this Finnish powerhouse team that includes conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic), Jukka-Pekka Saraste (with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra) and Hannu Lintu (leading the superb Avanti! Chamber Orchestra).

I could say that Saariaho’s orchestral writing fuses the stark grandeur of compatriot Sibelius, with the stratified texture of Stravinsky, with the slowness of process heard in Ligeti — but it would not do her music justice. Over 20 years of music on four discs reveals a distinguished voice in contemporary orchestral writing; I look forward to hearing the next 20. And she is welcome back to Toronto anytime.

01_Julian_WachnerWachner, Julian – Triptych;
Concerto for Clarinet
Scott Andrews; McGill Chamber Orchestra; Julian Wachner
ATMA ACD2 2319

Sparked by multiple talents of composer-conductor Julian Wachner, this disc succeeds on all fronts! In Triptych, commissioned for the 100th anniversary of St. Joseph’s Oratory, organist Philippe Bélanger and Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain offer an exciting, insightful performance. Out of orchestral chaos the organ enters with chordal grandeur in the introductory “Logos.” An introspective two-part organ passage plus its aggressive string response become the bases for the following allegro. I was especially struck by the quiet return of the organ passage over a pedal note, now continued effectively with chimes. Bélanger and selected instrumentalists are beautifully reflective again in the middle movement “Agape,” the violins serene and inspired in the closing melody. The organist shines in the final “Angelus,” building steadily with the orchestra through tricky metre changes to a great, moving conclusion. Himself a virtuoso organist, Wachner has created long sonorities, repeated chords, and busy passages that are static harmonically to suit the highly reverberant space. Producer Johanne Goyette and engineer Anne-Marie Sylvestre deserve special mention for the sonic results.

On a lighter plane, Wachner’s eclectic Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra receives loving treatment from St. Louis Symphony principal clarinettist Scott Andrews and the McGill Chamber Orchestra. Andrews’ clarinet manages to be Coplandesque, jazzy, klezmerish and more in the expressive introduction and motoric allegro. Highly recommended.

01_Childs_PlayChild’s Play – Stories, Songs and Dances
Kelly Johnson
Potenza Music PM1014

The crossover set of American contemporary music which features solo clarinet and at the same time appeals to the young (the post-infant, pre-tween) crowd, must be very small indeed. To hold any appeal for wee ones, the music must have a degree of bounce and action. These qualities can be found in the more rhythmically intricate offerings on Child’s Play, a well-executed selection of challenging pieces recorded by Kelly Johnson.

As judged by my own four year old, the more action the better. He lost interest quickly during the more languid pieces, and had no time at all for the cutesy revisionist nursery tales called Story Hour, by composer Phillip Parker. No wonder. Poet Sara Hay ought to know that irony is a tricky sell with children. Kids laugh at The Simpsons, but most only start really getting the humour when they leave childhood behind.

Johnson has a deft technical ability, her rhythm is tight and her tone fluid. She has a good stable of collaborators, notably Drew Irwin as the violinist in the opening duo. Another work by Phillip Parker, Merry Music sounds like Bernstein and Milhaud had drinks and then went dancing. Parker’s Grooves is also successful if once again derivative, this time of jazz and rock styles (Sultry Waltz should have been called “Take Five Plus One”).

Eric Mandat’s piece The Moon in My Window was inspired by one of the great understated works written for the disc’s target demographic: Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. Mandat’s music is direct and fun for kids, and danged difficult to boot. It features extended techniques that Johnson (the performer, not the children’s author) handles with only occasional trouble, mostly with impressive ease.

Packaging notwithstanding, this is not so much a children’s disc as it is a resource for clarinettists looking for new and difficult recital repertoire from the United States. Is it just me or does most of it sound the same?

02_Sax_QuartetPhilip Glass; Michael Nyman –
Works for Saxophone Quartet
sonic.art Saxophone Quartet
Genuin GEN 11222

The second recording of sonic.art Saxophone Quartet (based in Germany) features minimalist music of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman.

Glass’ String Quartet No.3 “Mishima” is a suite of music from a film documentary about a novelist who — fearing an increasing Western influence in Japan — embraced a samurai life that ended in a ritual suicide. I do not find Glass’ music programmatic, but as concert music it exudes the “high minimalism” of the composer mid-career. The homogeneity of the saxophone quartet lends itself well to transcription, especially considering that the artists can circular breathe.

With writing that is much more idiomatic, and allows the individual players to diverge from the texture as soloists, Glass’ Saxophone Quartet is a reworking of the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra. I find the lack of orchestral accompaniment to be more intimate, as the writing is more contrapuntal than we might normally expect from Glass. (I compared this with the Raschèr Quartet recording with orchestra, on Nonesuch).

Songs for Tony by Michael Nyman also features previously composed Nyman material, although the work is originally for saxophones. Again, the individuals shine in aria-like sections, and in the last two movements the alto switches to baritone; the deep sonority is haunting and mournful.

This is excellent saxophone quartet playing. Clean articulation and superb intonation help to explain sonic.art’s numerous accolades, including Best New Ensemble at Germany’s Jeunesses Musicales in 2010.

Concert Note: Reviewer Wallace Halladay is the featured saxophone soloist with Orchestra Toronto in concertos by Glazunov and Yoshimatsu on April 15 in the George Weston Recital Hall at the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts.

03_Cage_Variations_VIIJohn Cage – Variations VII
John Cage

In October 1966 the series “9 Eve­nings: Theatre & Engineering” took place at New York City’s 69th Regiment Armoury. A collaboration between ten New York artists and 30 engineers and scientists from Bell Telephone Laboratories, the performances featured dance, music and theatre. All were documented, and are now released in a series of ten DVDs.

Variations VII by John Cage is an important archival, educational and entertaining DVD release from this artistic happening. Cage wanted to use “only those sounds which are in the air at the moment of performance” so ten hooks-off telephones were positioned around the city to pick up the “music” and fed into a sound modulation system, along with six onstage contact microphones.

The resulting performance is filmed with sensitivity and detail. Watching Cage and his engineers manipulate, mix and alter the latest technology amidst the monstrous amount of cables on tables is a feat of coordination and a modern dance piece in itself. The power of the “soundscape” of musical sounds and lighting is reflected in the amazing clips of audience member facial reactions. Most amazing is how the sense of the vast space of the Armoury setting is captured on film.

A documentary section includes recent interviews with some of the participants and a lengthy audio-only track of the music.

Cage’s pants apparently started smouldering from the stage lights during this performance. This DVD is equally hot and smouldering in its successful documentation of the great John Cage.

Editor’s Note: This year marks the centenary of John Cage who was born on September 5, 1912, and we anticipate a wealth of recorded material and live performances celebrating the iconic composer/philosopher in the coming months.

04_Mativetsky_CyclesCycles – New Music for Tabla by Ledroit, Lizée, Paquet, Hiscott & Frehner
Shawn Mativetsky; Marie-Hélène Breault; Catherine Meunier; Xenia Pestova;
Windsor Symphony Orchestra;
Brian Current
ombu 1015

Montreal percussionist Shawn Mativetsky has made a specialty of performing on the tabla (twin hand drums), not only in music indigenous to its Hindustani (North Indian) roots but also with dance, Western instruments and orchestras. As a leading Canadian disciple of the renowned Sharda Sahai he has serious tabla street cred. On Cycles however Mativetsky presents his culture mash-up side in six commissions dating from the last decade by mostly Quebecois composers. The works admirably showcase his timbral, temporal control and musical sensitivity on the tabla alone, and as supported by a series of duo, chamber music and orchestral forces.

While individual pieces variously draw inspiration from Western and Hindustani musical sources, they also clearly reflect the personalities and musical aesthetics of their composers. Metal Jacket (2005) for tabla & harmonium by the busy Montreal composer Nicole Lizée is an excellent example. This smart, crafty and playful work pushes boundaries of groove, drone, repetition, phrase augmentation and diminution — all essential features of traditional Hindustani music — and overlaps them with characteristics found in electronic mediated music: glissandos, fades and extreme distortion effects.

Mativetsky’s project reflected on this CD is not unlike that of other Canadians who have combined musical instruments and genres from afar and presented them alongside the classical music traditions of the “West.” Toronto’s Evergreen Club Gamelan’s 1980s pioneering work and that of the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra in the 2000s come to mind. Cycles will delight both world music and new music aficionados alike.

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