04 Modulation NecklaceModulation Necklace – New Music from Armenia
Various Artists
New Focus Recordings FCR244 (newfocusrecordings.com)

The Armenian diaspora retains strong ties to their ancient homeland. Six pieces from the last 20 years by five Armenian composers invite attention for their lucidity and mastery. Tonalities from Armenian folklore pervade the superbly performed and recorded song settings and tone poems for string and piano ensembles, duo, and piano solo. The album was crafted at the Armenian Music Program of UCLA, with help from the Lark Musical Society and the Dilijan Chamber Music Series, which commissioned four of the works. 

Tekeyan Triptych (2018), by Artashes Kartalyan (b.1961), sets three poems for mezzo-soprano and string quartet by Vahan Tekeyan (1878-1945), the most important poet of the Armenian diaspora. Novelette (2010), by Ashot Zohrabyan (b.1945), for piano quartet, is a searching dialogue for piano and strings. Michel Petrossian’s (b.1973) A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire (2017), a masterful movement for piano trio, refers to Moses’ biblical burning bush in honour of violinist and director Movses Pogossian, with references to an Armenian folksong. The lively Suite for Saxophone and Percussion (2015) is by Ashot Kartalyan (b.1985), the youngest of the composers. Artur Avanesov (b.1980) composed Quasi Harena Maris (2016), a compelling fantasy for piano quintet inspired by the Book of Job, and Feux Follets, a collection of short pieces. Avanesov is the admirable pianist for the entire program. 

Listen to 'Modulation Necklace: New Music from Armenia' Now in the Listening Room

05 Jin YinJin Yin
Civitas Ensemble (includes Canadian Winston Choi)
Cedille CDR 90000 193 (cedillerecords.org)

Chicago’s Civitas Ensemble is an unusual quartet: violinist/ leader Yuan-Qing Yu, cellist Kenneth Olsen, clarinet/bass clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom, all eminent members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, are joined by Canadian pianist Winston Choi, Roosevelt University’s piano-program head.

On Jin Yin (Golden Tone) they present five recent instrumental works by composers of Chinese heritage, offering world premiere recordings of works by Vivian Fung, Yao Chen, Lu Pei plus new arrangements of works by Chen Yi and Zhou Long.

Long’s Five Elements (2014) is the album’s longest work, its tonal richness bolstered by the addition of Yihan Chen (pipa), Cynthia Yeh (percussion) and Emma Gerstein (flute, piccolo). The Five Elements – metal, wood, water, fire, earth – were considered by ancient Chinese sources to be the building blocks of the physical universe. In his Five Elements, the composer represents each in turn. His programmatic music employs both modernist sonic gestures and percussive allusions to Chinese antique ritual music in the “metal” movement for example, employing effective tone-painting throughout the rest of the opus.

Canadian composer Vivian Fung’s Bird Song (2012) for showcases the virtuosity of both instruments, characterized by runs, intense rhythmic passages and exploration of improvisational moments. The title refers to the birdcalls of the opening and closing passages, to the sprightly tonal arpeggios in the central section and to the overall rhapsodic spirit of the violin writing. The ending is a haunting contrast to the rest of the work, marked by a sort of soft nostalgia. 

The other three works on Jin Yin have much to recommend them as well, altogether providing a full and fascinating 77 minutes of listening. 

06 APNMMusic from the APNM (Assoc. for the Promotion of New Music) Vol.1 & 2 (electronic)
Various artists
New Focus Recordings n/a (newfocusrecordings.com)

The Association for the Promotion of New Music (APNM) was founded in 1975, and is celebrating its long commitment to composers with this double release of acoustic, electroacoustic and electronic works by member composers

Volume 1: Chamber Music is mostly acoustic music performed by a variety of excellent musicians and ensembles. The opening work Wind Chimes, performed by composer/guitarist Stephen Dydo with Chen Yu on pipa, is a continuous colourful sound mix of the two instruments in 12 continuous sections each based on an early Chinese music mode. Thomas James describes his Odd Numbers as utilizing odd numbers to create “aggregate” rhythms, with piano soloist Sheila Simpson especially spectacular in the delicate sections. Love Joseph Hudson’s piano/electronics work Starry Night. The composer memorably orchestrates my own interpretation of the night sky with florid piano lines against held, calming, electronic sounds, weather changes with louder rhythms and forceful ticking, and clouds drifting by in the closing slow piano/electronics section. Other works are composed by Laurie San Martin, Elaine Barkin and Sheree Clement.

Volume 2: Computer + Electronic Music consists of eight contrasting compositions. Explosions, rapid-fire lines open Arthur V. Kreiger’s For Diane, with a plethora of interesting electronic sounds created on fixed audio media, while Adam Vidiksis’ Ouroboros features more current-day electronic sounds like plops and repeated rhythmic figures. Almost theatre/movie music, Stereo Fantasy by Maurice Wright is fully notated and performed by synthetic orchestra, complete with sparkling staccato lines, electronically generated strings and drones. Lots of contrapuntal conversations with noisy bangs, tunes and almost-live instrument sounds in Jeffrey Hall’s From the Winds of Avalon. More computer-generated instrumental sounds in Joel Gressel’s Deconstructing Maria. Works by Samuel Wells and Carl Christian Bettendorf combine electronics with live instruments, trumpet and viola respectively. 

A fabulous collection of acoustic and electronic compositions showcasing the talents of APNM’s members and the organization’s multi-decade work supporting new music.

Listen to 'Music from the APNM (Assoc. for the Promotion of New Music) Vol.1 & 2 (electronic)' Now in the Listening Room

07 Etereo New Music for FluteEtereo – new music for flute
Lindsey Goodman
Navona Records nv6265 (navonarecords.com)

From the outset, in Josh Oxford’s for solo flute, Lindsey Goodman demonstrates she is a flutist who has it all. With a palette of luscious tone colours and engaging phrasing, she easily negotiates the many different flocalizations, bluesy thirds, glissandi, flutter tonguings and tongued pizzicato, all the while maintaining a compelling, rock-solid beat. This track alone is worth the investment.

Yet what follows is of equal merit. The next four tracks are also for solo flute. Bruce Babcock’s is moody with flashes of technical display. Steven Block’s offers moments of two-part writing with harmonic overtones defining an ostinato and regular tones, a brief melody. While Goodman’s performance engages us in both Taurins’ Gand for alto flute, the obvious quotations from Varèse’s are neither mentioned nor explained in the scanty online program notes.

Using fixed media with effective employment of stereo panning, Mara Helmuth’s programmatic reveals spurts of flitting about and flapping wings. The most hauntingly lyrical work is Alla Elana Cohen’s four-movement , ably accompanied by pianist Robert Frankenberry. The penultimate track, by Peter Castine, opens serenely, becoming increasingly more agitated as first the cello dialogues in counterpoint with the alto flute, and later as the crotales and toy piano enter. Jennifer Jolley’s , a rhythmic tour-de-force spectacularly played by the flute/cello/piano Leviathan Trio, closes one very impressive, boundary-pushing collection of new music for flute.

08 Casals TrioMoto Celeste
Trio Casals
Navona Records nv6266 (navonarecords.com)

Moto Celeste is the fifth installment of Navona Records’ MOTO series featuring the Trio Casals. Conductor/cellist/composer Ovidiu Marinescu, violinist Sylvia Ahramjian and pianist Anna Kislitsyna are outstanding gifted musicians who together create a tight, musical, technically virtuosic chamber trio sound. Here they perform eight new compositions, all listener-friendly, drawn from an eclectic mix of musical ideas.

Each work is a masterpiece in its own right. Highlights include the opening track, Earth Rise, by Diane Jones. Inspired by the sun, moon and earth, the opening piano high-pitched slow sparkling tinkles lead to matching melodic phrases on all instruments, a slower reflective cello solo and a moving, almost romantic, planet dance. Quick change to a rockin’ rhythmic work, Los Ritmos Para Tres (Rhythms for Three) by Edna Alejandra Longoria, a fun mix of jazz, rock and contemporary music rhythms and lines. Cellist Marinescu’s amazing almost athletic performance of his own composition Sunt Numai Urechi (I’m All Ears) for solo cello is flawless. An exciting flamenco-guitar-inspired virtuosic work, he almost sounds like two performers as he tackles his fast, circling, chromatic melodies, lyrical sections, high pitches and changing mixed metres. Canadian composer Joanna Estelle’s brief, yet sweet, tonal Faraway Star, is a programmatic piece of star-crossed lovers – female violin, male cello and piano narrator, played with clarity and storytelling precision. 

Compositions by Christina Rusnak, Chad Robinson, Clive Muncaster and Eliane Aberdam complete this memorable recording.

09 Ex MachinaEx Machina
Donald Sinta Quartet
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0133 (brightshiny.ninja)

Formed in 2010 and named after their mentor, a University of Michigan saxophone professor, the Donald Sinta Quartet is an exciting award-winning modern ensemble featuring saxophonists Dan Graser (soprano), Zach Stern (alto), Joe Girard (tenor) and Danny Hawthorne-Foss (baritone). In their second recording, the tight virtuosic classical/contemporary music group performs seven new works, six of them premiere recordings.  

The seven-movement Ex Machina, by American Marc Mellits, is a funky, minimalistic work exploring his self described idea “to express the beauty locked within machines.” Machine I (Let the Funk Out) sets up this idea with minimalist machine-like grooves. The contrasting slower Machine II (Flowing) features long ascending and descending lines, with a slightly rhythmic backdrop. Love the choppy sudden change to rhythmic machine-like industrial sounds in Machine IV (Dancing a Mean Ghastly Dance) performed with aplomb. No surprise Machine VII (Aggressive & Funky) ends with a final held honkin’ chord. Mellits’ other work here is the swirling, syncopated Black. 

Richard Chowenhill’s slower In Solitude I Sit is a refreshing reflective change with its lengthy held drone notes and higher pitches, all played with great breath control. No background rhythms enhance the calmness. Touches of Middle Eastern and klezmer-flavoured sounds in Chris Evan Hass’ faster Volcanic Ash are performed to style. Works by Suby Raman, David Biedenbender and Mischa Zupko feature memorable challenging rhythms, swirling lines and contrasting dynamics.

These talented, technically astute, rhythmic and musical saxophonists shine throughout.

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