10 RipplesRipples
Clarion: Keith Benjamin; Melody Turnquist-Steed
Crystal Records CD961 (crystalrecords.com)

When I hear trumpet playing with organ, I am immediately in church, willingly or not, and there is no shortage of the expression that brings me there on this disc. Kansas City, MO-based duo Clarion, made up of trumpeter Keith Benjamin and Melody Turnquist-Steed on organ, has released a collection of works written for them by a range of contemporary American composers. 

The most current, or at least the youngest of these, is Adam Schoenberg (b.1980) a graduate of Oberlin College and the Juilliard School of Music. He now teaches composition and film scoring, which certainly shows in the bold and highly visual quality of Apollo, which aims in the first movement, Beyond, to depict the majesty of outer space. To my mind it’s fairly effective character-filled music that could evoke a mountainscape as readily as astral travel, but he does refer somewhat to Holst’s harmonies and even Mercurial playfulness here, so...

The second movement, Light, is prayerful and lovely, as American as Copland, and I’m back in church again. 

Not all the works are as strong, but I did enjoy Passing Illuminations by James Moberly, and Stacey Garrop’s Road Warrior comes across as the most daring and experimental, especially in using the organ to provide interesting and unusual effects. The title refers to a book written by the late Neil Peart, of Rush, who took to the road mourning the loss of a child and spouse. The connection is intentional: this and one other of the works presented refer indirectly to the death of Benjamin’s son to leukemia in 2010. Ripples spreading out from that event might well describe the impetus behind this loving collection of new works.

01 MosaiquejpgMosaïque
Ensemble Made In Canada
Independent 0 51497 14047 2 (mosaiqueproject.com)

Canada’s remarkable ethnic and scenic diversity is glowingly reflected in the stylistic diversity of the 14 pieces that constitute Mosaïque, each about four minutes long, drawing from classical, jazz, folk, pop and Indigenous idioms. The Mosaïque project was created by Ensemble Made In Canada, Western University’s superb ensemble-in-residence, comprising pianist Angela Park, violinist Elissa Lee, violist Sharon Wei and cellist Rachel Mercer. Since premiering Mosaïque in 2018, EMIC has performed the suite in every province and territory, as each province and territory is represented musically in one of the pieces.

Fourteen composers contributed to the project: David Braid, Barbara Croall, Julie Doiron, Andrew Downing, Vivian Fung, Nicolas Gilbert, Kevin Lau, Nicole Lizée, Richard Mascall, Samy Moussa, William Rowson, Darren Sigesmund, Sarah Slean and Ana Sokolović. Many of their pieces depict familiar features of Canada’s physiognomy: prairies, mountains, the icy North and lots of flowing water – rivers in Quebec, Manitoba, B.C., Yukon and Northwest Territories are referenced in six pieces. There are also echoes of Gaelic, Acadian and Métis folk music, aboriginal petroglyphs, canoe trips, a legendary Newfoundlander and Saskatoon ghosts.

Happily, all these disparate pieces fit together like tesserae, those tiny, coloured bits of stone, glass or ceramic that compose a mosaic floor, wall or ceiling. Here all the differently coloured musical bits have combined to create a vivid sonic “mosaïque” of our remarkable country, vividly performed by Ensemble Made In Canada. A truly wondrous achievement!

Listen to 'Mosaïque' Now in the Listening Room

02 TaktusMirrored Glass
Taktus Duo
Ravello Records RR8027 LP, CD and Digital (taktusduo.com)

The Taktus duo was formed in 2010 by Canadian percussionists Greg Harrison and Jonny Smith while pursuing master’s degrees at the University of Toronto. With musical influences ranging from classical to electronica, their stated mission includes making music “that crosses borders between genres…”. Their second album consists of very effective marimba duet arrangements made by the duo of key minimalist keyboard works by Canadian Ann Southam (1937-2010) and American Philip Glass (b. 1937).

Southam is represented by five pieces on Side A. The four from the piano work Glass Houses (1981, revised 2009) are constructed from short, primarily major-key tonal units. Possessing an overall lyrical quality, the composer slowly transforms melodies derived from only a few tonal chords. Inside those chords, in the evocative words of Musical Toronto, “a tone row gradually unfolds at the speed of a tulip blossom opening on a warm, sunny spring morning.” The fifth work is from Southam’s earlier and harmonically more adventurous Rivers I (revised 2004).

Side B features spirited, idiomatic Taktus arrangements of Glass’ well-known Music in Contrary Motion (1969) and pieces from Etudes (1994-2012). Throughout, the duo’s playing is both precise and nuanced, as is the quality of the accurate and warm-sounding recording. The use of processing to lengthen the decay on the percussive marimba sound is organic, never obtrusive. Harrison and Smith sensitively render the complex interplay of solo and accompanying voices with virtuoso panache in both sets.

This satisfying album promises a bright Taktus future.

Listen to 'Mirrored Glass' Now in the Listening Room

03 Shostakovich 13Shostakovich 13 “Babi Yar”
Alexey Tikhomirov; Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Male Chorus; Riccardo Muti
CSO Resound CSOR 901-1901 (naxosdirect.com)

In January of 1970 Ricardo Muti conducted the first performance in Western Europe of Shostakovich’s controversial 13th Symphony written in 1962. The orchestra in Rome was the RAI Symphony Orchestra and the soloist was bass Ruggero Raimondi. One of Italy’s most highly regarded and enlightened artistic directors succeeded in securing a microfilm of the forbidden symphony and translated the poetry into Italian. A tape of the performance was sent to the composer who liked the translation. That very tape had been presented to Muti by Shostakovich’s widow as a gift a few months before this powerful performance in Chicago, making for a real sense of occasion. Muti certainly knows the music, as many of us who have seen the video of this same live performance of this thrilling, cantata-like symphony posted on YouTube will attest. The YouTube sound, of course, pales again this CD release. The CD booklet gives an account of how and why the symphony was banned. Here is an outline.

The symphony is set to texts by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The composer was drawn to his poem Babi Yar, written in 1961, that tells of the 1941 massacre of 34,000 Jews in 36 hours on a hillside in Kiev. Shostakovich selected four other poems for a five-movement symphony. The selection was made by Shostakovich and was in no way intended by the composer to be a song cycle. Upon its first performance on December 18, 1962 the work was immediately banned with no review. For Khrushchev and the Presidium and others whose antisemitism was ubiquitous, this was an open condemnation. Yevtushenko eventually undertook to emend Babi Yar so that not only Jews were slaughtered in Kiev, and that the Russian people fought the Nazis. There was however one more performance using the unchanged text two days after the first; Kirill Kondrashin conducted it in the Conservatory and that powerful performance was recorded and is available on all formats from Praga Digitals.

Audiences today are once again hearing Yevtushenko’s original poem.

04 Weinberg FluteWeinberg – Flute Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; 12 Pieces for Flute and Orchestra; 5 Pieces for Flute and Piano
Claudia Stein; Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra; David Robert Coleman
Naxos 8.573931 (naxosdirect.com) 

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) was a Polish-Jewish pianist and composer who came of age just as Europe was plunged into the inferno of the Second World War. Moving first to Minsk to escape the Nazi occupation of Poland, he subsequently moved to Tashkent and then, with some help from Shostakovich, to Moscow where he lived for the rest of his life. The music on this recording, composed between 1947 and 1987 is a window into the musical culture, nipped in the bud by World War II, emerging in the 1930s in Eastern Europe.

The first thing that struck me about Weinberg’s music was his prodigious mastery of technique. For example, the first movement of Flute Concerto No.1 is an exciting, dramatic and technically challenging dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. The second movement, an elegiac soliloquy for the flute, is supported by a simple but profoundly expressive chord progression played by the orchestra: the two movements couldn’t be more different, but both display equal mastery.

The first of the Five Pieces for Flute and Piano, begins by quoting the opening of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, but moves on seamlessly into Weinberg’s own wonderfully original and expressive flight of melodic invention.

Flutist Claudia Stein, pianist Elisaveta Blumina and the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Robert Coleman, are equally up to the challenges of Weinberg’s music. Kudos also to Naxos for introducing us to Weinberg’s music for flute.

05 Michael ByronMichael Byron – Bridges of Pearl and Dust
Ben Phelps
Cold Bllue Music CB0057 (coldbluemusic.com) 

This CD single features Bridges of Pearl and Dust, a 16-minute four-vibraphone work by “second-generation West Coast minimalist” American composer Michael Byron. It’s dense, contrapuntal and polyrhythmic music which generously rewards repeated listening.

I first met the Los Angeles-raised Byron at Toronto’s York University around 1973. He came to study composition with American Richard Teitelbaum, as well as to teach music. Byron had already studied with maverick composer James Tenney in LA, and had formed close musical friendships with influential post-modernist, minimalist composers Harold Budd and Peter Garland. At York Byron worked closely with music professor, composer, musician and biofeedback-music pioneer David Rosenboom. Very quickly Byron became an integral member of the vibrant mid-1970s Toronto avant-garde performing arts community. Byron moved to New York City a few years later, and there too found an influential place in the downtown experimental music scene.

Byron’s compositions are marked by those varied influences, yet even his earliest works project a unique musical voice. One reviewer called itshimmering minimalism.” The four vibraphones in Bridges of Pearl and Dust (2011), all played with élan by LA percussionist Ben Phelps, combine to express a complex, harmonically shifting sound field. Challenged on the first listening, I replayed the album four times. Over time, the logic and aesthetics of Byron’s musical imagination were revealed.

Filled with rhythmically percolating, interpenetrating melodic lines, the resulting tightly interwoven texture elicits, as the composer aptly put it, “a musical experience in the present tense.” And as I found out, one which richly rewards deep listening.

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