01 Linda SmithLinda Catlin Smith – Dark Flower
Thin Edge New Music Collective
Redshift Records TK543 (redshiftmusicsociety.bandcamp.com)

Toronto composer Linda Catlin Smith has enjoyed a long professional career attracting important commissions from soloists, ensembles, orchestras and choirs. Her strongly flavoured music has attracted increased international attention in recent years.

Founded in 2011, Thin Edge New Music Collective is dedicated to commissioning concert music and presenting the work on Toronto and international concert stages.

Dark Flower, TENMC’s freshman six-track CD, is a portrait album of Smith’s works, impeccably produced by contemporary music industry veteran David Jaeger. Seven outstanding Toronto musicians are featured: Cheryl Duvall (piano), Anthony Thompson, (clarinet), Nathan Petitpas (percussion), Ilana Waniuk (violin), Aysel Taghi-Zada (viola) and cellists Amahl Arulanandam and Dobrochna Zubek.

In a recent interview Smith reflected on her compositional process. “I often feel that the work emerges like the development of a photograph. Dark Flower [for piano, violin, viola, cello] for instance: I started with the idea of rolled low register piano arpeggiations in a bed of string chords – that was the starting point, just that one image. And that’s enough for me ….”

At 26 minutes, Dark Flower (2020) is the album’s largest work. Its contained emotion, often expressed through restrained, soft melodies, harmonies, textures and silence, achieves a delicate balance between the old – I hear Renaissance and 20th-century music echoes – and our age’s complexity. TENMC’s dedicated ensemble playing maintains an admirable equilibrium between the various musical threads throughout this masterful work’s substantial arc. 

Remarkably, the entire album sustains a sensuous, intimate mood which sometimes shades into an iciness. That may seem contradictory, yet it’s where Smith’s music ultimately flourishes.

02 Cheng DuoPortrait
Cheng² Duo (cello; piano)
Centrediscs CMCCD 33223 (cmccanada.org/product-category/recordings/centrediscs)

The internationally acclaimed Canadian siblings, cellist Bryan Cheng and pianist Silvie Cheng – the Cheng² Duo – having thrillingly recorded French, Spanish and Russian repertoire, here revisit their Chinese and Canadian roots, including commissions from four composers of Asian ancestry, three of them Canadian Juno-winners and nominees.

Portrait of an Imaginary Sibling, says Dinuk Wijeratne, describes “a young person of precocious and mercurial temperament,” the cello wandering aimlessly before joining the piano in driving rhythmic abandon. Vincent Ho says his music often reflects the Canadian Prairies’ “gusting winds, birds, lakes, even the stillness of winter.” His Horizon Images begins with Prairie Song, the cello lyrically expansive over intermittent piano splashes. In Soleil différé, the cello disturbingly evokes what Ho calls “vocal wails and sighs” over irregular piano punctuations. Windstorm’s aggressive propulsion requires – and receives – extreme rapid virtuosity from both musicians.

Two short pieces by Alexina Louie – Pond Mirrors Bright Sky and Wild Horse Running – feature raucous, abrupt accents, the “horse” bucking continually until finally galloping off. American Paul Wiancko’s 23-minute Cello Sonata No.1 “Shifting Baselines,” by far the CD’s longest work, somewhat outlasts its sparse, repetitive materials.

The CD includes two 20th-century Chinese standards. The Chengs’ arrangement of Hua Yanjun’s lament, Moon’s Reflection upon a Spring, employs bent notes, glissandi and sonorities imitating traditional Chinese instruments, while their breathtaking arrangement of Huang Haihuai’s Racing Horses, replete with headlong hoofbeats and screeching whinnies, should become (if not already) the fabulous duo’s signature encore piece.

03 MetamorphosisMetamorphosis
Saxophilia Saxophone Quartet
Redshift Records TK526 (redshiftrecords.org)

Saxophilia is a Vancouver-based saxophone quartet active since 1996. Metamorphosis is their second album which showcases a diverse selection of works from five Canadian composers. The title piece Metamorphosis (Fred Stride) contains four movements which demonstrate the quartet’s ability to play exciting and complex lines with great clarity and intensity. Violet Archer’s Divertimento, originally written for the Edmonton Saxophone Quartet in 1979, displays the influences of her studies with Bartók and Hindemith. The sonorities are modernist and bracing. Beatrice Ferreira’s five-movement Nightmare Fragments offers quick and delightful trips to the world of dreams. With descriptive titles like Three Witches on My Bedsheets and The Taxidermist’s Hallway, it is not surprising this piece has recently been used as a score for a short film with a burlesque dancer. 

Rodney Sharman’s Homage to Robert Schumann is a meditative piece with long tones and ghosted chord fingerings which uses the first two notes of a Schumann song as an ideé fixe. This piece is an elegant departure from most saxophone quartet works which highlight the players’ dexterity. Finally, David Branter (who plays tenor saxophone in the quartet) wrote Four Stories which conjures up the history of saxophone quartet music and includes quartal harmonies, blues, bebop and microtonal sections.

04 FolksMusic 6thOct20231500X1500Folks’ Music
Chamber Choir Ireland; Paul Hillier; Esposito Quartet
Louth Contemporary Music Society (louthcontemporarymusicsociety.bandcamp.com/album/folks-music)

Founded in 2006, the Louth Contemporary Music Society in Dublin is a visionary Irish presenter of contemporary concert music. It’s latest album, Folks’ Music, bookends British composer Laurence Crane’s String Quartet No. 2 with substantial new choral works by Canadian composers Cassandra Miller and Linda Catlin Smith authoritatively performed by the Chamber Choir of Ireland, conducted by Paul Hillier. Then it offers the same works in a binaural mix. 

Crane’s String Quartet, eloquently played by the Esposito Quartet, mostly eschews overt dramatic gesture. Quoting classical-era cadences, he deftly deconstructs them in various ways, not neglecting to add the occasional ironic musical twist. 

In her The City, Full of People Miller uses the concluding Latin refrain from Thomas Tallis’ 16th century choral setting of Lamentations (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God”) as her sole text, illustrating it with dense sonic textures inspired by Tallis’ score. With the choir positioned around the audience in six groups. the voices appear to swirl around the listener. 

Smith chose numerous epigrammatic poetic fragments by Emily Dickinson, many scribbled on the backs of envelopes, for her masterful choral work Folio. From Dickinson’s deepest feelings – recorded single-mindedly on paper scraps – Smith constructed a fragmented interior monologue with themes ranging from despair to the peaceful acceptance of the final line, “This has been a beautiful day.”

Underneath the contemporary beauty and compositional complexity of Smith’s choral setting of the text, her music has a forthrightness, order and onward motion. It suits Dickinson’s own complex New England character very well.

05 Azrieli New Jewish MusicAzrieli Music Prizes – New Jewish Music Vol.4
Sharon Azrieli;Sepideh Raissadat; Naomi Sato; Zhongxi Wu; Orchestre Metropolitain; Nicolas Ellis
Analekta AN 2 9264 (outhere-music.com/en/labels/analekta)

Prize-winning compositions by 2022 Azrieli Music Prize laureates are firmly placed within the contemporary classical music realm, yet embrace an array of cultural and musical languages. Compositional excellence and innovation are showcased abundantly here but it is a combination of the abstract and visceral elements coupled with meaningful subjects that makes these pieces stand out. 

Shāhīn-nāmeh, the song cycle by Iranian/Canadian composer Iman Habibi, opens the album in a way that is both lyrical and strong, much like its subject. Written for classical Persian soloist and Western orchestra and based on the astonishing poetry of the 14th-century Judeo-Persian poet Shah Shirazi, the composition depicts the tale of Esther and delves on the themes of love, spiritual struggle and devotion. Soloist Sepideh Raissadat’s performance (voice and setar) is enchanting; her voice laments, dances, yearns, commands and pleads, bringing the heart of humanness into focus.

The winner of the Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music, Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord by Israeli composer and conductor Aharon Harlap, is dramatic in narrative and grand in execution. This large-scale work for orchestra and soprano uses the settings of five psalms, great musical gestures and dramatic phrasing to underscore trueness, reverence and the intensity of one’s faith. Soprano Sharon Azrieli delivers a powerful performance in collaboration with Orchestre Métropolitain and conductor Nicolas Ellis.

Rita Ueda’s Birds calling… from the Canada in You delivers quite different conceptual and musical language. Here we have a primarily atmospheric and textural piece that incorporates clusters of birdsongs of 450 bird species found in Canada. In this uniquely structured concerto for shō (Naomi Sato), suona/sheng (Zhongxi Wu) and Western orchestra, Ueda utilizes contemporary techniques to create a mesmeric environment, one that is quite distinctive and, at times, surprising.

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