03 Tymoczko Rube GoldbergDmitri Tymoczko – Rube Goldberg Variations
Flexible Music; Atlantic Brass Quintet; Amernet String Quartet
Bridge Records 9492 (bridgerecords.com)

Mid-career American composer and music theorist Dmitri Tymoczko’s music exhibits an attractive blend of jazz, Romanticism and rock, as well as influences from film and cartoon soundtracks. Demonstrating sonic imagination and frequent nods to past composers, his work appears to be equally at home in the American concert hall modernist and popular music streams, a compositional style which has been dubbed polystylistic.

Rube Goldberg Variations, the central work on this album, refers both to a certain J.S. Bach keyboard work, and to the American cartoonist known for his illustrations of machines designed to perform simple tasks in baroque, convoluted ways. The four-movement, 19-minute Variations is scored for brass quintet and prepared piano. In its movement titles Tymoczko refers to his musical ancestor Igor Stravinsky, to kinetic sculpture and to his experiences of fatherhood. Rhythmically and sonically engaging, the prepared piano part in the first movement, To a Leaf, refers to its inventor John Cage. The brass quintet flutters along with idiomatic fanfare-like wind polyphony contrasted by contrapuntal brassy sustained chords. Stravinsky Fountain is another effective movement, with its shards of jazz in a syncopated early-20th-century style, and references to the dedicatee composer’s adoption of it in his concert works. This single movement is a satisfying complete musical statement.

The other album works, S Sensation Something (string quartet and piano) and I cannot follow… (chamber ensemble), are more conventional in instrumentation and form. They are not however without the melodic invention and easygoing charm with which Tymoczko brands his mature scores.

04 Feldman for CageMorton Feldman – For John Cage
Erik Carlson; Aleck Karis
Bridge Records 9498 (bridgerecords.com)

For John Cage (1982) scored for piano and violin is late-period Morton Feldman (1926-1987). That typically means a very lengthy work in a single continuous movement – more than 71 minutes in this recording – that explores a glacially paced musical development and very quiet sound levels.

In a 1982 lecture Feldman asked, “Do we have anything in music … that just cleans everything away?” For John Cage offers his answer. A tribute to one of Feldman’s most enduring personal and professional relationships, it’s a platform for his musical concerns at the time. These include translating meaningful visual and textural effects he found in Turkish regional carpets into musical patterns and sonic gestures. The two musicians, violinist Erik Carlson and pianist Aleck Karis, render the composer’s ideas with precision and delicacy in equal measure.

Feldman was a frequent visitor to Toronto during the 1970s when he taught at the University of Buffalo. Later he married his Canadian composition student Barbara Monk, who established a home in midtown Toronto where she held soirees after her husband’s death. While attending two of these soirees, I was particularly fascinated by the walls covered with kilim carpets, a physical reminder of a source of Feldman’s late period inspiration.

Leaning toward a minimalistic aesthetic in its use of subtly varied melodic phases and a restrained abstract formalism, don’t expect tunes you can hum along with, or grooves to tap your toes to here. While this music will be challenging for some listeners, I personally find it a searching, engaging and rewarding listen.

06 Wind ConcertosWind Concertos: Ticheli; Warnaar; Ranjbaran
James Zimmermann; Leslie Norton; Érik Gratton; Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.559818 (naxos.com)

Three very different, recent (2010-2015), ear-catching concertos in the traditional fast-slow-fast three movements, by three composers born in the 1950s, each referencing earlier music, receive vibrant performances from Nashville Symphony principals James Zimmermann (clarinet), Leslie Norton (horn) and Érik Gratton (flute).

In his Clarinet Concerto, Frank Ticheli, who teaches at the University of Southern California, pays homage to American composers in movements titled Rhapsody for George, Song for Aaron and Riffs for Lenny, adding some recognizable quotations and paraphrases to flavour his original, engaging takes on his illustrious predecessors. It’s a pops concert natural!

Michigan native Brad Warnaar wrote his Horn Concerto for the instrument he played in the Toronto Symphony and other Ontario orchestras in the 1970s, before relocating to play in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and, he claims, “over a thousand film scores.” Warnaar says his concerto embraces everything from rock to atonality, but I hear only very accessible, enjoyable, tonal mainstream music in the minimalist-energized Tintinnabulations, the ruminative Elegies, Lamentations and the jaunty Tarantella, including subtle quotations from Mozart, Brahms and Richard Strauss.

Juilliard faculty member Behzad Ranjbaran, born and raised in Iran, emulates what he calls the “mystic, melancholic” tone of the ney (Persian end-blown reed flute), enhancing the exoticism of his hybrid Iranian-Western Flute Concerto. Extended meditative passages (the Adagio cantabile is a real beauty) are offset by the sparkling finale.

These world-premiere recordings should help all three very entertaining concertos become, deservedly, part of today’s active repertoire.

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.

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