07 Heard in HavanaHeard in Havana
Third Sound
Innova Recordings 990 (innova.mu/albums/third-sound/heard-havana)

In 2015, the American Composers Forum sent a delegation of musicians and composers to Cuba. Their mission: to present a program of contemporary classical American music at the Festival de Música Contemporánea de La Habana. It was the first such concert to take place in Cuba since the Cuban Revolution. 

The ensemble chosen to perform was the newly formed New York City-based quintet Third Sound, comprising some of NYC’s top chamber musicians. In preparation, ACF and Third Sound held a national call for scores for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Heard in Havana showcases the ten works chosen, the product of a diverse group of composers from across the USA reflecting the variety of American classical composition today.

I admire much of the music of the truly international Kati Agócs. Though born in Windsor, Ontario and a JUNO Award winner, she retains three citizenships, American, Canadian and Hungarian (European Union). Her work embraces both her North American and Hungarian parental and musical lineages. Agócs’ elegant and elegiac 2007 Immutable Dreams II: Microconcerto [in memoriam György Ligeti] on this album is no exception. Writes the composer, it is a “miniature piano concerto… a tribute to my Hungarian roots and to György Ligeti’s influence.” I also hear multiple echoes of the music of another great 20th-century Hungarian: Béla Bartók. Agócs’ Microconcerto concludes with a haunting, musically enigmatic and gentle metacrusis. 

Summing up the album, there aren’t many common threads among the ten pieces chosen. But perhaps that’s the point. An abundant variety of artistic expression is a core value I can also get behind.

08 Chinary UngChinary Ung Vol.4 – Space Between Heaven and Earth
Various Artists
Bridge Records 9533A/B (bridgerecords.com/products/9533)

American-Cambodian composer Chinary Ung began his career writing music highly inspired by 20th-century modernist techniques in what was typical in the post-Second Viennese School climate. After a ten-year hiatus from composing to help with the Cambodian genocide and resultant refugee crises, Ung re-emerged to write in a new and highly personal compositional voice exploring cross-cultural practices. This is doubtless a by-product of Ung’s efforts to preserve Khmer traditional music during the Cambodian crises. In an effort to create a substantial document of Ung’s mature style, Bridge records has committed to a series of recordings of the composer’s mature works. 

In Volume 4 we receive a two-disc collection of five vastly original and accomplished chamber works. Ung has created a world of highly ritualistic gestures and mysterious auras. In the Grawemeyer Award-winning composer’s own terms, his mature style may be summarized as “futuristic folk music” – a term that aptly describes Ung’s use of quotation and evocation in a truly contemporary landscape. Throughout each piece, we as listeners are surrounded with entwined modal intricacies, suggestive drones, and shimmering percussive magic – all creating the elixir of undiscovered, and yet familiar, cultural scenery. This, together with world-class performances from the musicians, transports the listener to a place where time seems lost, and instead, sound pervades a sense of instance.

09 PBO Caroline Shaw Front CoverPBO & Caroline Shaw
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale; Nicholas McGegan
Philharmonia PBP-12 (philharmonia.org/product/shawcd)

Listen to this: an unexpected, lush, open-hearted triumph of a record featuring an oratorio and song cycle, written for period instruments by the singular, esteemed, Caroline Shaw (USA, b.1982). Recently, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra established a “New Music for Old Instruments” initiative, aimed at creating fresh works expressly for period instruments. The fruits are already being born, as radiant, alluring music by Shaw proves on this disc, featuring extraordinary artistic talents such as Anne Sofie von Otter.

Opening with a song trilogy, Is a Rose, this album immediately transports the listener to a vibrant, fantastical soundworld fashioned from bygone Baroque molecules, now re-energized anew. The terrific musicianship of the PBO and its longtime director, Nicholas McGegan is on full display here. Glorious sonorities complement von Otter’s soaring vocal lines. (This will be McGegan’s final recording with the orchestra.) 

And it just gets better: The Listeners, a full-scale oratorio by Shaw, is up next, brimming over with cosmic warmth and light. The libretto is derived from five centuries of English poetry, supplemented with recorded excerpts from Carl Sagan’s Golden Record, as launched into space in 1977. 

Oratorio is the ideal vehicle for Shaw’s creativity and an idiom that seems to be gaining newfound popularity these days amongst other composers. The genre’s inherent humanity is perhaps what remains attractive and we need it today more than ever, as our 21st-century world faces novel challenges, now in its third, disquieting decade.

10 PhilipGlass MusicinEightPartsPhilip Glass – Music in Eight Parts
Philip Glass Ensemble
Orange Mountain Music (orangemountainmusic.com) 

There is a type of sensual, corporeal and self-encompassing sensation that can occur with grand-gesture music – Eduard Hanslick’s “warm bath” of the symphony, for example. This visceral feeling is equally true here, as listeners are invited to slip in and immerse ourselves in this “new” Philip Glass work, which is actually a 1970 score that went missing, and accordingly, unrecorded, until surfacing at Christie’s Auction House in late 2017. 

Like much of Glass’ work, repetition, in this case dynamically intensifying and iteratively building over eight parts, takes on a hypnotic effect, lulling attuned listeners to an otherworldly place of self-reflection and meditation. It is precisely this sort of self-reflexivity that gloms onto Glass’ sometime identification as a post-modern composer, as the repetition brings with it a type of sameness that allows the mind to wander and find its own truths, experience and beauty within the music. In this way, Music in Eight Parts, reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s (another artist who bristled with the postmodern label) unfinished, and posthumously released, The Pale King, where the banal minutiae of the everyday vocational routine of Peoria-based IRS collectors during the 1980s is presented with such intricate detail that readers are potentially swept away to a higher level of mindfulness and consciousness. 

While Music in Eight Parts may be a composition from the Nixon era, this recording (remote assembling?) is truly of the 2020 pandemic age, with all parts recorded separately by Philip Glass Ensemble members, and then produced, mixed and mastered by Michael Riesman, without togetherness, in-person interaction or “performance,” at least not in the way that many have traditionally understood that term. However, despite the appropriate and necessary distanced and clinical construction of how the recording came together, the result is warm, inviting and well worth adding to your music collection.

11 William SusmanWilliam Susman – Scatter My Ashes
Octet Ensemble
belarca belarca-004 (belarca.com) 

Let us begin with props where they are deserved. OCTET, the ensemble dedicated to performing William Susman’s music, and possibly others’ as well, is a good bunch of players. Their work on this just-released collection is fine and tight, although there occur a few instances of pretty rough intonation, notably toward the end of Triumph, the third movement of Camille. Among the instrumentalists, of whom the composer is one, a vocalist adds the human voice to the collective timbre. Mellissa Hughes more than meets the requirements; the beauty of her tone draws my ear to her and everything sounds like a song. There are in fact two song cycles on the disc: Scatter My Ashes and Moving to an Empty Space. Hughes delivers the text of Sue Susman, the composer’s sister, with remarkable clarity, and recording engineer John Kilgore does well to balance voice with ensemble. 

Susman’s a kid in the candy store when it comes to rhythmic groupings, and it’s fun to follow along as he keeps dipping into one jar after another of irregular divisions of regular bars. The music is consistently upbeat, chipper, heartening. Consistency is not entirely a virtue, however, and one of the record’s faults is with the tonal palette of the music. He favours a kind of colouristic minimalism, tending toward bright polytonal alternating sound plateaus. Usually two per number. Often sounding very like the ones used in other numbers. Which begins to wear. On the ear. Like a series of incomplete sentences. Used for critical effect. 

The third piece, Susman’s Piano Concerto breaks the mould at least in terms of variety of texture and tonality. Although he begins the piece with the same trope as he uses in Triumph (a C-major scale building into a cluster), by placing the piano in the role of soloist, he gains more freedom to explore textural possibility. And the second-to-last song, Begging the Night for Change (aptly) manages to step away from the narrow range of keys/tonalities favoured, and is to my mind the most effective piece on the disc.

12 Peteris VasksPēteris Vasks – Works for Piano Trio
Trio Palladio
Ondine ODE 1343-2 (naxosdirect.com/items/vasks-works-for-piano-trio-526894)

When Pēteris Vasks, Latvia’s preeminent contemporary composer, visited Toronto in the mid-1990s, he left me with vivid memories of his intensely gripping String Symphony (“Stimmen”) and his no less intensely gripping handshake.

This CD begins with the 15-minute Lonely Angel (2019), Vasks’ rearrangement of the Meditation from his String Quartet No.4 (1999). Vasks writes, “My guardian angel has had to do an awful lot of guarding during periods of my life… Sometimes even he must feel like it is all just too much.” This is pensive music, with long, soulful string lines over gentle piano ripples and bell-like notes.

Vasks writes of Episodi e canto perpetuo (1985), “It is like the hard road through evil, delusion and suffering to a song centred in love.” In eight movements, the 28-minute work encompasses restless turbulence, hushed solemnity, heavily rhythmic coarseness and a prolonged cry of anguish that finally fades away.

Plainscapes (2011) is Vasks’ rearrangement of a 2002 composition for violin, cello and chorus. He writes, “This is in late spring… after this rising of nature, a sense of infinity and eternity with those immense starry heavens, returns to the music.” The 18-minute piece begins with soft rustlings suggesting (to me) a forest at dawn and crescendos to a life-affirming climax and the clamour of nature untrammelled, subsiding as nightfall brings stillness.

These compelling, expressive works are thrillingly performed by Trio Palladio, each member a leading Latvian soloist. Strongly recommended!

Back to top