01 Sound of Silent VoicesThe Sound of Silent Voices – Children’s Poetry from the Holocaust Reflected in Musical Compositions by Young Composers
Ton Beau String Quartet; Gershon Willinger; Zachary Ebin
Independent (silentvoicesproject.zacharyebin.com)

A few years ago, violinist, music educator and founder/artistic director of the Silent Voices Project, Zachary Ebin, was doing some research at York University and happened upon I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of Jewish children’s drawings and poems, created from 1942 to 1944, during their imprisonment in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

With the knowledge that only about 100 of the 15,000 children sent to Theresienstadt survived, combined with being deeply affected by the children’s heart-wrenching poetry, Ebin was inspired to find a way to keep their voices alive. His idea of having contemporary, young composers create musical works based on that poetry was the genesis of the Silent Voices Project and this ensuing CD.

Fourteen composers, from Toronto, Waterloo, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago, aged 10 to 20 (not unlike the young poets in Theresienstadt) participated. With their astonishing and profoundly moving works, each of them has demonstrated remarkable skill, dignity and maturity beyond their years. Performing their stirring trios and quartets on The Sound of Silent Voices is Toronto’s outstanding Ton Beau String Quartet. Gershon Willinger, who at age two was among the youngest children liberated from Theresienstadt, provides another layer of gravitas, reciting each poem prior to its musical reading.

This is an exceptional project, a heartfelt labour of love and respect. These evocative young voices – both the poets and the composers – deserve our attention. Set aside some quiet time to listen to The Sound of Silent Voices.

02 Jeff ReillyTo Dream of Silence
Jeff Reilly
Sanctuary Concerts SCCD005 (jeffreilly.ca)

To Dream of Silence, featuring Jeff Reilly both as composer and bass clarinetist, and including one new work by Christos Hatzis, defies easy categorization. The music was inspired by a series of dreams, described in brief prose poems that are narrated as part of the tracks. There is no obvious rhythmic/melodic reference between the words and Reilly’s music, which is often gauzy background harmony supporting rhythmic melodic fragments played by Reilly and punctuated by bells and other percussion. The notes mention accompanying “sound sculptures,” the work of blacksmith John Little. It isn’t clear where Reilly’s music leaves off and the sound sculptures pick up, but perhaps it doesn’t matter.

The work on this disc is highly listenable, and the narrative of the dreams is cryptic enough to grab my interest. I’m unsure whether I’d prefer to simply read the narration, though I am sincerely put off by the announcements of the dream titles, which distract from rather than enhance the music. Your Dark Beauty is rife with Freudian overtones. Eighty Steps, Endless Chambers, and Food for a Soul are dreams that seem to conjure a child’s memories of his home, from a variety of perspectives. Taken together, the series verges on nightmare, with a particular fixation with death. That’s not to say there is only terror; there is some serenity, but unease overrides. What does one imagine Fishing to mean, when what one hooks is an angel?

Reilly, as performer of his own works, creates curious and beautiful effects within a mist of studio-produced sounds. In Hatzis’ Extreme Unction the production is cleaner and the narrative element is entirely musical. This remarkably beautiful elegy for the composer Gustav Ciamaga fits in well with the sombre tone of the disc.

Listen to 'To Dream of Silence' Now in the Listening Room

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.

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