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.

01_Hoeppner_American_FluteAmerican Flute Masterpieces
Susan Hoeppner; Lydia Wong
Marquis 774718141323

This CD is itself a little masterpiece: the six works on it by 20th century American composers, already recorded by many other flutists, are performed with such style, panache, and artistry that it is a welcome and justified addition to the catalogue.

The first track is the opening movement of Eldin Burton’s Sonatina. Susan Hoeppner’s phrasing is mesmerizing, to the point that I want to play this over and over again! Her interpretation of the Canzone from the second movement of Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto is serene and measured, but perhaps a little too dispassionate. The most wonderful moments in the entire CD, for me anyway, come in the second movement of Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata Op.23. Hoeppner and Lydia Wong build on the strength of each other’s playing to come to a thrilling and almost superhuman intensity. Their performance of John Corigliano’s Voyage, while embracing the simplicity of the piece, infuses it with great sensitivity and tenderness and at times intensity that arises entirely out of the sound and colour of the flute. Hoeppner and Wong give stirring performances of the last two compositions, Aaron Copland’s lyrical Duo for Flute and Piano and Robert Muczynski’s technically challenging Sonata Op.14.

This CD brings us definitive performances of music from an ongoing “golden age” of composition in the United States, which continues to thrive in the protective enclaves of universities despite the vicissitudes of these tumultuous times. Kudos to both artists; this CD is a winner.

02a_Tim_Brady_102b_Tim_Brady_224 Frames - Scatter
Tim Brady; Bradyworks
ambiences magnetiques AM 206 CD www.timbrady.ca


24 Frames - Trance
Tim Brady; Martin Messier
ambiences magnetiques AM 203 CD-DVD www.timbrady.ca

Tim Brady’s most ambitious composition to date must surely be 24 Frames consisting of a series of 24 movements each of which he identifies as a “frame.” Adding up to three CDs and a DVD (AM 905), it amounts to well over two hours of sometime meditatively calm and at other times challenging and exhilarating music. While a soprano voice, baritone sax, bass clarinet, viola, bass trombone and percussion make appearances one at a time in substantial though supporting roles, the through-line here is Brady’s writing for electric guitar and his masterful virtuoso playing in every section of his sprawling opus.

Indeed the 8’53” section called “Scatter – Frame 1” could easily stand as a self-contained work. Featuring the nuanced vocalise of Karen Young, her vocal performance is so densely processed at times that it becomes a virtual choir. Yet Brady reminds us that this is a human voice first and foremost, by having vocalist Young imitate a wow-wow pedal effect acoustically about halfway in. It only lasts a moment but for me it is such deft and delicate touches which impress the most in 24 Frames. At the end of this section the guitar’s distant bell-like sonorities admirably support Young’s soft cooing.

Frame 2 is subtitled “In Almost Unison” and it’s an apt description of the relentless tempo guisto and metrically complex character of the joint duo of guitar and baritone sax, marvellously played by Jean-Marc Bouchard. Frame 3 on the other hand, featuring Lori Freedman’s dramatic bass clarinet, has many more contrasting angles and emotional facets to it.

Frame 4 – “Still” is a highlight, a lyrical, spacey and languid essay in viola long tones, chords and slow, surprisingly moody mid-20th century melodic passages. It’s underpinned by a lexicon of exposed delicate electric guitar effects: I heard reverb, precise string harmonics, thick gong-like chords, chorus effects and perhaps even pitch-shifted other-worldly echoes. This is a gorgeous, satisfying movement that I’ll be returning to repeatedly.

Frame 5 partners the electric guitar with bass trombone, in several sections juicily modulated with electronic effects. Indeed an outstanding aspect of this movement, as well as several others, is the astonishing range of the blend between the acoustic sounds of the instruments and their sounds electronically morphed.

The sonic shape-shifting continues in Frame 6 which introduces percussionist Catherine Meunier into the mix. She plays the vibraphone and afterward the marimba joined by Brady’s electric guitar, providing a welcome crisp contrast to several of the previous atmospheric sections, many of which did not posses a definable pulse. Here we have melodic lines, many founded on broken arpeggios, which sometimes interlock between instruments. At other moments the duo sounds in melodic and/or rhythmic unison, set in an increasingly complex metric and spectral framework. This first CD culminates in a satisfying crescendo supported by a sort of electric guitar trill stretto perhaps referencing heavy metal.

Reviewing such an immense, assured and accomplished work – and I’ve only touched on about a third of it – is truly an insurmountable challenge given the constraints of this review. I hope my listening notes have successfully reflected the scope of Brady’s fertile compositional imagination, and my own pleasure and enthusiasm for the music in his multi-CD project.

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