02 venom of loveAlice Ping Yee Ho – Venom of Love
Alice Ping Yee Ho; Vania Chan; Patty Chan; Lulu
Leaf Music Digital (leaf-music.ca)

One of Canada’s most acclaimed composers, two-time JUNO nominee and Dora Mavor Moore Award winner for Outstanding Original Opera, Alice Ping Yee Ho, has gifted us with a gorgeous work that almost defies characterization. This 60-minute composition deals with elements of fantasy and eroticism from a primeval, magical world; a musical composition for ballet based on the Legend of the White Snake, one of China’s Four Great Folktales. 

The work is compiled as 20 tracks inside four acts, which serve to guide the listener along the extraordinary journey as we turn the pages of an epic-sized book of fantasy and desire, love and rivalry between mortals and spirits, and finally the ultimate sacrifice for eternal love. 

Fusing synthesized and acoustic instrumental sounds with soprano voice and percussion, this work is a dramatic dance/opera/musical theatre composition telling an ancient myth in contemporary form. The music sweeps us up so deftly we are captive travellers inside dripping caves; clusters of tonalities are richly layered with electronics and we imagine shimmering dragons, writhing snakes, and hear spectacular sounds of animals, bats and water, evoking the hues of brilliant blues, greens and greys. Of special mention is lyric coloratura soprano Vania Lizbeth Chan’s voice that somehow manages to hold warmth and charm while soaring at stratospheric heights.  

Commissioned by Toronto’s Little Pear Garden Dance Company in 2014, the music is so evocative I almost feel like I’ve already seen the ballet, but I’ll be sure to be in line for that production when it comes back to a live stage in the future.

Listen to 'Alice Ping Yee Ho: Venom of Love' Now in the Listening Room

03 Jaap Nico HamburgerJaap Nico Hamburger – Piano Concerto
Assaff Weisman; Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal; Vincent de Kort
Leaf Music LM238 (leaf-music.ca)

Composer Jaap Nico Hamburger’s first CD release is a Leaf Music recording of his Piano Concerto performed by Orchestra Métropolitain de Montréal under the direction of Vincent de Kort, with soloist Assaff Weisman. Set in the traditional three-movement concerto form, the piece opens with a mysterious orchestral introduction where the piano is welcomed into the texture through a Mahlerian sensibility. The second movement unmistakably recalls Prokofiev in its playfulness and tricky rhythmic attitudes. This almost schizophrenic hyperactivity is interrupted by a serene landscape evoking tragedy or loss. The boisterous activity quickly returns to provide somewhat of a rollercoaster for the listener. Throughout the third movement, sparse bells and undulating strings paint a menacing atmosphere for the final moments of the piece. 

Weisman handles the virtuosic writing with extreme touch and sensitivity. With the concerto being only 22 minutes, one is perhaps left wanting more of a featured moment for the pianist, such as a cadenza – especially considering the fact that the piece is in the traditional three-movement form. The orchestra and soloist deliver a top-notch performance of a work that will please those who enjoy new sounds created in a Late-Romantic style.

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04 Cheryl Frances HoadCheryl Frances-Hoad – The Whole Earth Dances
Various Artists
Champs Hill Records CHRCD152 (champshillrecords.co.uk)

This, the second Champs Hill CD of chamber music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980), a much-performed British composer in all genres, features nine works dating from 1998 to 2017, none longer than 14 minutes. Short – but not sweet!

This music, although seemingly easy to follow, is anything but easy listening. Eschewing prettiness and warmth, these pieces’ beauties are austere and angst-ridden. Within predominantly slow tempi, strong accents mark the ways forward, but the clearly defined instrumental lines wander uncertainly amid unclear, undefined tonal centres.

The disquiet thus produced reflects Frances-Hoad’s imagery in describing her compositions: “so much of the Earth is being polluted, fracked and deforested” (the CD’s title piece, The Whole Earth Dances, for piano quintet including a double bass, as in Schubert’s Trout); “a dystopian future in which the technology we have come to rely upon kills us” (Game On for piano and electronics); “I incorporated the Dies Irae plainchant – Day of Wrath – as a reminder of the inevitable” (The Prophecy for cello and piano); “a women who kills her two children to spite her husband” (Medea for solo flute); “[Dante’s] description of sinners submerged neck-deep in rivers of boiling blood” (My Day in Hell for string quartet).

Disturbing, uncomfortable, but always holding my attention, these works often reminded me of the sparse, haunted atmosphere of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. If you’re in the mood for feeling moody, you’ll enjoy this CD, as I did.

05 Kontogiorgos CentaursGeorge Kontogiorgos – Dancing with Centaurs
Stathis Mavrommatis; Orchestra of Colours; Miltos Logiadis
Naxos 8.579047 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313904778)

Composer George Kontogiorgos’ illustrious tonal melodies highlight this Global Music Award-winning release with four works inspired by Greek traditional songs/mythologies, juxtaposing tonal and atonal sounds, pentatonic scales, Romanticism, minimalism, jazz and pop soundscapes. Saxophonist Stathis Mavrommatis and pianist Christina Panteli rise to the occasion to master and perform these dense, challenging, stylistically diverse works with technical and musical aplomb!

The ten-movement Dancing with Centaurs (2014), for soprano saxophone and piano, superimposes ancient Hellenic traditional music ideas with Romantic tonality to musically describe these Greek mythical creatures. The second movement Idyllic starts with fast descending piano lines and then smooth sax notes lead to more tonal song-like melodies. The third movement, Dancing with Centaurs, is folk-flavoured with subtle tango undertones and high-pitched squeaky sax. There is a breathtaking change in mood by a slower, reflective sax solo and piano chords in Meditation. Jazz undertones, repeated single sax tones and marching piano groove add to the atmosphere in Battle of the Centaurs.

Ringtone (2016) for alto saxophone and piano is an amusing take, with simple cyclical melodic sax and piano lines mimicking different phones ringing simultaneously. Concertino “Testosterone” (2015) adds a string section to the duo. Solo alto sax Night Walk (2017) has a free improv jazz feel and slight tonal pitch changes at ends of phrases.

Kontogiorgos’ understanding of his personal musical influences and the infrequently heard saxophone/piano instrumentation along with great playing makes for illuminating listening.

06 DesordreDésordre: György Ligeti – Etudes; Trio
Eric Huebner; Yuki Numata Resnick; Adam Unsworth
New Focus Recordings FCR269 (newfocusrecordings.com)

For American piano marvel Eric Huebner, myriad talents have ignited a multi-faceted career of unwavering performance prowess, equal in measure as soloist, chamber player and orchestral pianist. Huebner remains one of the most active keyboardists of his generation and if you don’t already know his work, you really should.

A latest release featuring music by György Ligeti offers a homecoming of a kind. Fiendishly demanding contemporary repertoire has always been Huebner’s specialty but at the heart of his musical muse is a longstanding association with Ligeti. Huebner believes the Études to represent “an entirely new musical language… fusing together disparate elements.” Ligeti came to challenge himself – his own compositional craft – later in life when he penned these works. 

Remarkably at home in these scores, Huebner puts his dazzling arsenal of abilities on full display, sculpting timescales and wielding rhythmic idiosyncrasies all with a veteran expertise and panache. His is a deft touch, keenly born of an exceptional musical ear and fine sense for textural expression (arguably a prerequisite in the successful interpretation of any piece by Ligeti). Rising to the challenges, Huebner writes of “laying bare the music’s intricacies and keeping pace with its extreme technical demands while expressing its joy, poignancy and, at times, melancholy.” 

Ligeti’s horn trio reveals even more of the composer’s unusual universe. It is a cosmos that glimmers benevolently in the care of dedicated artists like Huebner, Yuki Numata Resnick and Adam Unsworth.

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Edward Smaldone – Once and Again
Various Artists
New Focus Recordings FCR 258 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Knehans; Smaldone – Double Portrait
All of the Above; HU Jianbing; Wiliam R. Langley
Ablaze Records ar-00053 (ablazerecords.net)

07a Edward SmaldoneThe music of composer Edward Smaldone (b.1956) is firmly rooted in the modernist tradition of what for decades in the 20th century formed the mainstream of American academic “classical” music. It was a lineage severely disrupted, though not wholly extinguished, by numerous new approaches to concert musical experiment including indeterminacy, acousmatic and electronic sound, transethnicism, minimalism and free improvisation, among many others. Smaldone’s own output has nevertheless steadfastly retained close ties with the compositional modernism of his teachers, George Perle and Ralph Shapey, though this mid-century American aesthetic was also modified by admixtures of jazz. With the release of two new albums, we can listen in to the music Smaldone has been composing over several decades. 

Edward Smaldone: Once and Again presents five well-crafted compositions written between 1986 and 2014: a collection of chamber music, two song cycles and a string orchestra work. They collectively showcase Smaldone’s diverse sources of inspiration ranging from the Renaissance/Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi and American modernist Perle, to jazz giants Ellington and Monk. The liner notes highlight the implications of these influences, contrasting the “’classical’ values of motivic and formal cohesion and development,” with “’modernist’ values of capturing an improvisatory sensibility, asymmetry, and irregularity.” 

The two multi-movement song cycles on the album provide keys to Smaldone’s work. The dramatic Cantare di Amore (2009) – with links to Monteverdi – provides soprano Tony Arnold plenty of room for declamatory drama, supported by sprightly supporting harp and flute writing. Letters from Home (2000/2007/2014), sung by soprano Susan Narucki, uses a five-part narrative of period letters providing a snapshot of mid-century American women’s lives, effectively framed by flute, clarinet and piano. Duke/Monk (2011) for clarinet and piano on the other hand is a contrasting two-part tribute to Ellington and Monk, the American jazz masters’ voices eloquently filtered through Smaldone’s idiosyncratic aesthetic.

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07b Knehans SmaldoneSmaldone shares space with his composer colleague Douglas Knehans on the 2-CD album Knehans Smaldone: Double Portrait. He is well represented by four chamber music works performed by the virtuoso young ensemble All of the Above. Smaldone’s Suite (1992, 2001) played by violinist Scott Jackson and pianist Matthew Umphreys is a standout. The astringent score makes considerable technical and emotional demands of the violin soloist right from its opening cadenza to Stephane’s Dance, its Grappelli-like, jazz-imbued third movement.  

Three Scenes from The Heartland (1994) for solo piano is a sensitive work for the instrument drawing particularly on its jazz legacy. Receiving a definitive performance by Umphreys, Scenes is marked by a wide range of responses to the vast American landscape, both geographic and human, the Heartland of the title. Smaldone writes about “unbridled optimism, freedom of spirit, ingenuity, grit and determination” that lies within the American spirit, “yearning for the new, the unknown,” in the final movement reflecting on “the exultation of reflection in its quiet, motionless close.” 

Whether you share his personal view of the American journey, the call for renewal embedded in this emotional, and perhaps nostalgic, music may well resonate with your own search for meaning and connection during this challenging time.

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