01 Stravinsky Blu rayStravinsky – Rite of Spring: Ligeti – Mysteries of the Macabre; Berg – Three Fragments from Wozzeck; Webern – Six Pieces for Orchestra
Barbara Hannigan; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO3028 (lso.co.uk)

Some will want this album for the major work, the Stravinsky, while others will want to hear how the LSO will sound under their new music director, recently returned from Berlin. Still others, a lot of others, will want to hear what Barbara Hannigan is up to, particularly the outrageous Mysteries of the Macabre, which is a specialty of hers and has been recorded and videoed several times.

Hannigan is astonishingly versatile, a brilliant soprano singing what sopranos sing, in addition to works by 20th- and 21st-century composers, and is developing as a conductor (often while singing!). (There is, by the way, a revealing and fascinating documentary on another DVD, Barbara Hannigan Concert and Documentary from Lucerne (Accentus ACC 20327) published in 2014. In it she explains what Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre is all about. She is the chief of the secret police who is crazy, paranoid and hysterical, who cannot speak real words and gives orders to her squad, the orchestra, in indecipherable code. A crazy but serious piece, especially coming straight after the genuinely searching fragments from Wozzeck.)

The concert from January 15, 2015 opens with the Webern pieces in a performance that puts the likes of, say, a Boulez to shame. Finally to Le Sacre. The playing is measured, powerful and incisive throughout with accents and attacks quite audible, even in the ferocious but controlled tuttis. Both audio and video are most impressive and considering the repertoire, this Blu-ray disc packaged with a regular DVD is enthusiastically recommended.

02 Alice HoAlice Ping Yee Ho – The Mysterious Boot
Susan Hoeppner; Winona Zelenka; Lydia Wong
Centrediscs CMCCD 25018 (musiccentre.ca)

Prolific Toronto-based composer Alice Ping Yee Ho adds to her extensive discography with these five works for flute, plus cello and/or piano, brilliantly performed by three superb Toronto musicians: flutist Susan Hoeppner, cellist Winona Zelenka and pianist Lydia Wong.

Ho’s compositions often reflect her Chinese ancestry (she was born in Hong Kong in 1960). Asiatic Impression for flute, cello and electronic tape “evokes,” writes Ho, “sounds of Asiatic instruments and ancient tunes.” More “ancient” echoes appear in two works for all three players, but here they’re Greco-Roman. Seiren is the mythical songstress whose hypnotic melodies fatally lured sailors onto reefs. Ho gives the instruments roles: flute/alto flute (Seiren), cello (sailor), piano (sea), creating a turbulent tone-poem scenario. In The Mysterious Boot (subtitled Cothurnus, the boot worn by actors in tragic plays), the musicians employ many unconventional techniques, seeming to offer quirky, hypermodern commentary on an archaic drama.

Ho describes Coeur à Coeur for flute and piano “as an imaginary conversation between two voices…confessing their feelings to each other.” By turns lyrical, passionate, playful, ruminative and vehement, the flute emerges as the dominant voice. Suite for Flute and Piano (1992) is an early Ho composition (the other four date from 2014 to 2017). It’s an attractive, French-sounding piece, suggesting that Ho hadn’t yet found her own dominant stylistic voice, a voice that sings loud and clear in the recent works on this highly entertaining disc.

03 Scott Johnson Mind Out of MatterScott Johnson – Mind Out of Matter
Alarm Will Sound; Alan Pierson
Tzadik TZ 4021 (alarmwillsound.com)

I have read, with pleasure, books by secular-humanist philosopher Daniel Dennett on evolution (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), religion (Breaking the Spell) and consciousness (From Bacteria to Bach and Back). So I was curious to hear this 73-minute, eight-movement work by American composer Scott Johnson (b.1952), using as musical materials the pitches and rhythms of Dennett’s spoken words, recorded at a talk about Breaking the Spell and in interviews with the composer.

Johnson calls his technique, used in this and previous compositions, “speech melody,” adding that Mind Out of Matter contains “musical references ranging from Baroque recitative to retro funk grooves.” Dennett’s speaking style is conversational and Johnson’s instrumental score is conversational, too, lacking extended melodies or dramatic climaxes. Johnson repeats some of Dennett’s words and phrases many times, usually clearly heard but occasionally submerged under the colourful, ambulating music, mixing elements of classical, rock and jazz. It’s performed by Alarm Will Sound, 17 players on strings, winds, brass and percussion, including alto sax and electric guitar, conducted by Alan Pierson. In one movement, the musicians contribute a chanted chorus.

In Surrender, the longest movement, Dennett asserts that religions – “ideas to die for and kill for, even if it doesn’t make sense” – have, like biological organisms, evolved by natural selection.

Dennett’s books drew me to this music. If, in turn, listeners are led to read Breaking the Spell, Johnson’s composition will have helped increase their understanding of why people believe as they do.

04 Make ProjectThe Make Project
Veryan Weston
Barnyard Records BR0344 (barnyardrecords.com)

The Make Project presents pieces realized in Toronto in 2015 by English pianist-composer Veryan Weston with Christine Duncan, Jean Martin and three ensembles, including Duncan’s 45-member Element Choir. The music is a stunning synthesis of two concepts: one is Duncan’s conduction method in which the large choir creates spontaneously in response to her hand signals; the second is Weston’s Tesselations, works he’s been developing since 2000 in which performers move through the 52 possible pentatonic scales, altering one note at a time.

For Tesselations IV, Weston has added 52 corresponding texts, all from women writers and each containing the word “make,” which triggers the shift to the next scale. The authors range through the centuries, from Julian of Norwich to Margaret Atwood, and include telling words whether on creativity (Simone de Beauvoir: “On paper, I make time stand still”) or politics (Emma Goldman: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”).

The first piece, the four-minute Hidden Meanings, has a nine-voice women’s a cappella choir creating luminous layers of words and voices with overlapping texts. The second, Hidden Words, is an eight-minute instrumental improvisation with Weston, producer/drummer Martin and four strings (violinists Josh and Jesse Zubot, violist Anna Atkinson and bassist Andrew Downing) that possesses a spiky, Webern-esque clarity.

Then the forces assemble – the musicians, the Element Choir, solo voices Felicity Williams and Alex Samaras – for the 32-minute Tesselations IV (Make), a work of great depth and scale that moves through various combinations of choir, sextet and soloists with expanding meaning and a series of luminous textures. It’s brilliant work that combines genres and techniques to create its own world.

05 SteveSwelCD007Music for Six Musicians: Hommage à Olivier Messiaen
Steve Swell
Silkheart SHCD 161 (silkheart.se)

Taking the post-modern concept of saluting favoured musicians without recreating their work, trombonist Steve Swell convened a sextet of New York improvisers to play five of his compositions expanding on the work of French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Extrapolating Messiaen’s complex harmonies, rhythms and melodies to the 21st century, this 76-minute suite manages to replicate orchestral verisimilitude with violist Jason Kao Hwang, cellist Tomas Ulrich, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, keyboardist Robert Boston and drummer Jim Pugliese.
Boston’s ecclesiastical organ fills create the perfect environment for a sly takeoff on Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, titled Sextet for the End of Democracy. Quiet but sardonic like the 1941 classic, this piece features appropriate aviary cackles from the strings and plunger variables by Swell. Contrasting melodic cello and astringent reed timbres contribute to the juddering swing as the tune climaxes with swelling organ pulsations. Comparable transformations advance the other tracks, with the polyphonic and nearly atonal final Exit the Labyrinth filled with squeaking strings and blowsy horns reaching a passionate crescendo; and Joy and the Remarkable Behavior of Time outright jazz, matching drum shuffles and pseudo-tailgate trombone with cascading piano chording.

Tellingly it’s the nearly 25-minute Opening track which sets up compositional tropes from the dynamic to the compliant, with as many dual contrapuntal challenges and pseudo-romantic tutti outbursts as solos that measure technique against inspiration. More than a Hommage, the performance demonstrates how considered inspiration can create a work as memorable as its antecedent(s).

01 Beckwith CallingJohn Beckwith – Calling: Instrumental Music 2006-2016
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 24917 (musiccentre.ca)

Canadian composer, music educator and writer John Beckwith segued into his tenth decade last year with a fertile 70-year back catalogue, which includes well over 130 major compositions covering solo, choral, stage, orchestral and chamber genres. Calling, an album of his newest instrumental works, demonstrates that his inquisitive sonic imagination and desire to express it with both conventional and unconventional instruments and unusual sound textures shows no signs of ebbing. Let’s listen in on just two of the seven works therein.

A choice example of Beckwith’s exploration – framed within a modernist aesthetic – is his Fractions (2006), scored for Carrillo piano and string quartet. With 97 keys packed within its single octave, the Carrillo piano is tuned in 16th tones. While it looks like a conventional upright, it certainly doesn’t sound like one. In Fractions, linear melodies snake expressively, almost appearing to pitch bend over the dramatic gestures and elegiac statements provided by the Accordes String Quartet. Heightening the microtonal tension even more, two members of the quartet tune their instruments a quarter tone higher than the other two. The result is a compelling and sometimes haunting listening experience.

Quintet (2015) also questions conventional instrumental groupings. Beckwith scores it not for a standard woodwind, brass or string quintet, but rather opts for a mixed ensemble: flute, trumpet, bassoon, viola and string bass. Performed by members of Toronto’s venerable New Music Concerts, the oft jaunty work satisfyingly completes this musical survey by a composer in his prime.

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