08 Kate AmrineThis is My Letter to the World
Kate Amrine and various artists
Innova Recordings 042 (innova.mu)

It is almost too apt to be reviewing trumpeter/composer Kate Amrine’s new release in the COVID-19 era. Whatever new power music has developed within our collective, it has always drawn us into shared experience. This message from a millennial asks all of us to please reflect on the harm we bring on ourselves. How can the tracks of this disc bend our path away from mutually assured destruction, one is forced to wonder. One supposes: through hope.

Amrine’s own piece, What Are We Doing To Ourselves, addresses climate change and degradation through a combination of electronic underlay made of the recorded sound of a forest fire, simple melodic fragments that join the voices of alto flute, trumpet, viola and cello, and an almost childlike recitation of the text of a suicide note. This latter document was left for media by an activist lawyer who set himself on fire in an act of protest. Heavy stuff. Her very short title track eloquently quotes Emily Dickinson with a bucket-muted trumpet nearly overshadowing the text.

The next track, Thoughts and Prayers, by Kevin Joest, addresses gun violence. A single trumpet line accompanies all-too-familiar news chatter reacting to various mass-murders. My Body My Choice by Niloufar Nourbakhsh, uses the words of the title in a chant rising towards the final bars of a processional featuring trumpet and electronics. 

Sandwiched in among the earnest messages is a clever and entertaining track (omitted in the liner notes): Close Fight sets up a funky dance number using a post-fight interview with a boxer whose cocky answers are chopped into rhythmic bits, and played to by the band. This is such an excellent antidote, it’s why we need to support these young creators like Amrine. I wanted it to go on. We all need it, to go on.

10 Sunny KnableSong of the Redwood-Tree
Scott Pool; Natsuki Fukasawa; Stefanie Izzo; Gina Cuffari; Xelana Duo; Sunny Knable
MSR Classics MS 1749 (sunnyknablecomposer.com)

American composer, pianist and educator Sunny Knable’s four works here illuminate the many sound possibilities that the bassoon produces as a lead instrument and in ensemble. The three-movement title track Song of the Redwood-Tree for soprano, bassoon and piano is based on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. A California Song opens with bassoonist Scott Pool’s beautiful held notes, pianist Natsuki Fukasawa’s contrapuntal lines and soprano Stefanie Izzo’s high pitches. Death-Chant is understandably more atonal with dramatic high vocal pitches, and Golden Pageant features more tonal cadences, and piano/vocal unisons. 

Tango Boogie combines a bit of tango and swing in a surprising gratifying sonic mix played by the alto saxophone/bassoon Xelana Duo. Double Reed on Charles Wyatt’s poem To the World’s Bassoonists showcases Knable’s understanding of the breath control required to play reed instruments, as he performs on the accordion with soprano/bassoonist Gina Cuffari. Its second movement Tragic Bassoon is especially noteworthy with the solo bassoon melody above the left- and right-hand accordion-held chords and vocal backdrop creating a memorable sound. Lots of familiar true-to-life sounds in The Busking Bassoonist as Pool and Fukasawa perform such Knable-created city-sound effects as trilling birds, rhythmic marching and a distant subway piano pedal echo. 

Knable clearly understands the bassoon’s vast possibilities beyond its traditional instrumental setting. His compositional expertise grounds his explorative instrumental creations and answers his own question “Why does this work have to exist?” Because it is great!

11 Sandbox PercussionAnd That One Too
Sandbox Percussion
Coviello Contemporary COV91918 (sandboxpercussion.com)

Brooklyn NY Sandbox Percussion ensemble members Jonny Allen, Victor Caccese, Ian David Rosenbaum and Terry Sweeney have created long-term close collaborations with the composers who write for them, resulting in smart, diverse, challenging contemporary musical works. Their debut release features four of these.

Andy Akiho’s Haiku 2 observes the 5-7-5 haiku form with minimalistic repetitive hits coupled with tuned percussion sounds. Each movement of David Crowell’s Music for Percussion Quartet was inspired by different environments. Mov. I - Fluctuation and Mov. III - Oscillation feature polyrhythms on drums and vibes, creating a busy city sound. Mov. II - Sky, with its slow meditative ringing vibes and hypnotic repetitive tonal sequences perhaps sound like the sky at dusk. Low resonances abound in Mov. IV – Landscape. Composer/vocalist Amy Beth Kirsten performs her composition she is a myth with great tonal colour on multiple tracks, with Sandbox playing opening percussion like paper, sandpaper and scratches, and subsequent toe-tapping rhythms. Thomas Kotcheff’s not only that one but that one & that too is divided into three parts, each focusing on a different percussion type. Part I features wooden instruments with the opening attention-grabbing “what is this” woodblock taps leading to a wooden percussion sound panorama of pitch and rhythm. Part II is all about drumming rhythms and rolls, while in Part III, pitched metal instruments and finger cymbals create calming effects.  

Sandbox Percussion plays brilliantly with musical accuracy and nuance.

Listen to 'And That One Too' Now in the Listening Room

01 LutoslawskiLutosławski – Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 1332-5 (naxosdirect.com)

There’s no mystery why Polish composer Witold Lutosławski’s Symphony No.3 from 1983 has been recorded so frequently. It’s an influential work. And, as this new recording with Hannu Lintu conducting the Finnish Radio Orchestra demonstrates, it’s a truly exciting work, full of delights and surprises. 

It starts with a definitive burst of four rapidly repeated E’s, which keep returning right until the end. That motif is the last thing heard. Lintu, who has conducted the Toronto Symphony in a number of memorable concerts during the past decade, brings out the sharp contrasts that make Lutosławski’s music so dramatic. In the semi-improvised sections, where Lutosławski stipulates what notes are played but allows the musicians the freedom to choose the rhythms, the orchestra creates unearthly sounds that shimmer with twists and slides. 

But it’s the contemplative passages that show the real strength of this recording – its open-hearted embrace of the lyricism that make this work so moving. Lintu’s interpretation easily measures up to the fine recordings from Solti, who commissioned the work, Salonen, who made the first recording, Wit, Barenboim and Lutosławski himself.

With a colourful performance of Symphony No. 2 from 1967, Lintu wraps up his set of Lutoslawski’s four symphonies. Like the third, this symphony is in two connected sections, here called Hésitant and Direct. The scale is less grand. But the impact just as powerful, and the performance is every bit as rewarding.

02 Rose PetalsRose Petals – Canadian Music for Viola
Margaret Carey; Roger Admiral
Centrediscs CMCCD26319 (cmccanada.ort)

The oldest and longest work on this CD, Jean Coulthard’s 17-minute Sonata Rhapsody (1962), filled with moody introspection and intense yearning, makes an auspicious beginning to violist Margaret Carey’s “hand-picked” collection of Canadian compositions,

Three pieces are for solo viola: Jacques Hétu’s Variations, Op.11 is predominantly slow and songful, occasionally interrupted by rapid, virtuoso passagework; in 19_06, Evelin Ramón combines intricate, electronics-like viola sonorities with vocalizations by the soloist; Howard Bashaw’s Modular 1, the first movement of a longer work, is a tightly rhythmic study in repetition, sustaining momentum throughout its four-minute duration.

Pianist Roger Admiral, heard in Coulthard’s piece, also collaborates in three other works. Ana Sokolović’s Toccate, another four-minute essay in motoric rhythms, strikingly (pun intended) evokes the sounds of the cimbalom and Serbian Gypsies.

The CD’s title, Rose Petals, is taken from the titles of a poem and a painting by Carey, both reproduced in the booklet. They, in turn, inspired Sean Clarke’s The Rose, commissioned by Carey. Clarke writes that in it, Carey also sings fragments of the poem but I found these inaudible. Nor could I discern much in the way of structural or expressive coherence amid the music’s disconnected, brutal fortissimo chords.

Laurie Duncan describes the first two movements of his Viola Sonata as “melancholic” while “the third movement, Jig, is unexpectedly gay and joyous.” It’s a substantial, satisfying conclusion to this adventurous traversal across highly disparate compositional approaches and aesthetics.

03 Louis Philippe Bonin Un VeloUn Vélo, une Auto, un Boulevard et de la Neige
Louis-Philippe Bonin
ATMA ACD2 4041 (atmaclassique.com)

This digitally released album of saxophone and piano music combines classic saxophone repertoire with a few surprises. The performances by both Louis-Philippe Bonin (alto saxophone) and Catherine Leroux (piano) achieve an excellent balance of clean technique and precise emotion. Bonin’s tone is lean yet full and he makes many technically difficult passages seem effortless. Leroux’s playing is articulated and balanced while lending a spark when required.

The album contains five works, two of them more traditional saxophone sonatas, one by William Albright (1984) and the other by Fernande Decruck (1943). Florent Schmitt was a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel and the beautiful Légende, Op.66 (1918) is reminiscent of those composers’ tonality. One of the surprises, Kristin Kuster’s Jellyfish (2004) is a three-movement piece capturing the movements of different types of jellyfish; the various swirls and bursts of sound paint a perfect sonic portrait of these creatures.

The title composition, Un Vélo, une Auto, un Boulevard et la Neige, by Félix-Antoine Coutu (2018) was commissioned by Bonin and brings classical saxophone music into the social media arena. In a December 2017 Facebook post, a blogger called a cyclist a “jerk” for riding on the street in the newly fallen snow and “zigzagging” in front of the writer’s car. The post caused quite an outcry on social media and Coutu’s piece is based on five of the more than 500 Facebook responses and the “variety of rhetorical devices” people used to express their opinions. The work effectively presents these five rhetorical “movements” and Bonin’s playing artfully mimics and embraces this social media conflict.

Listen to 'Un Vélo, une Auto, un Boulevard et de la Neige' Now in the Listening Room

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