02 Harrison concertosLou Harrison – Violin Concerto; Grand Duo; Double Music
Tim Fain; Michael Boriskin; PostClassical Ensemble; Angel Gil-Ordóñez
Naxos 8.559825

This splendid CD contains two masterworks by Lou Harrison. I’m a long-time fan of Harrison and his mentor Henry Cowell, who introduced Harrison to both world music and John Cage, with whom Harrison would co-compose Double Music. (I was privileged to meet all three.)

In the first two movements of his Arabic-tinged Concerto for Violin and Percussion, the violin weaves sinuous melismas over punctuating percussion. They were composed in 1940 and revised in 1959, when Harrison added the finale, which offsets their fervent lyricism with a spirited belly-dance. Throughout much of the 20-minute concerto, Tim Fain has to play in the violin’s upper register; he does so, brilliantly.

The five-movement, Indonesian-influenced Grand Duo for violin and piano (1988) lasts 35 minutes. New to me, I found every minute enthralling. The violin’s long lines suggest a suling flute floating over the gamelan-like piano accompaniment provided by Michael Boriskin. A long, misterioso Prelude is followed by the up-tempo Stampede and gentle A Round. Air, the longest movement at nearly 11 minutes, is deeply downcast, similar in mood and impact to a Shostakovich Adagio. The Duo ends with the brief Polka, a lighthearted Europe-Indonesia hybrid. A great piece!

Double Music (1941), for which Harrison and Cage each independently wrote the music for two of the four players, is a long-standing percussion staple. Gil-Ordóñez’s meditative seven-minute interpretation takes over a minute longer than my swinging, Cage-conducted LP version. Different, but effective.

Heartily recommended!

03 Jennifer HigdonJennifer Higdon – All Things Majestic; Viola Concerto; Oboe Concerto
Roberto Díaz; James Button; Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.559823 

Celebrated American composer Jennifer Higdon’s music has a personal voice linking to major 20th-century American composers. Her complex but meticulously scored suite All Things Majestic (2011) is more than ably represented on this disc by the Nashville Symphony under renowned conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. Hiking in the Grand Teton Range gave rise to titles and musical realizations, according to the composer. The orchestra of Music City goes from strength to strength in this work: inducing a majestic effect in the polytonal parallel chord streams of the first movement; shimmering exquisitely in different registers from which solo string figurations emerge in the following String Lake. Snake River, the third movement, is short and effective with fast runs leading into the rapids, while the closing Cathedrals features pitched percussion and harp in ethereal splendour.

Guest Chilean-American soloist Roberto Díaz’s full, well-rounded tone pervades the Viola Concerto (2014). The opening movement was to me unconvincing compositionally; its major-scale (pandiatonic) harmony seems too prevalent, as is the falling seventh interval in the viola. The second and third movements, though, are successful with witty and complex rhythms, including irregular subdivisions of the beat reminding me of today’s electronic dance music. In the pastoral opening of the one-movement Oboe Concerto (2005), Nashville principal oboist James Button’s rich timbre suffuses an extended melodic line. A contrasting motivic and rhythmic section gradually emerges with quirky orchestration, creating sparks that energize the rest of this convincing work.

04 PiccoloworksPiccolo Works
Natalie Schwaabe; Jan Philip Schulze
metier msv 28562 (divineartrecords.com)

Shrill, raucous, vulgar, strident! All too easily these adjectives seem to attach themselves to, and prejudice us against, the hapless piccolo. Yet for Piccolo Works, Natalie Schwaabe’s excellent debut CD, these notions are utterly debunked. From the outset this outstanding piccoloist of the Bavarian Radio Symphony (a world’s top-ten orchestra) presents a challenging and varied program of 21st-century delights, delivered with impeccable intonation, rhythmic precision, sensitive musicianship and finesse.

The opener, Levante Gyöngyösi’s Sonata for piccolo and piano (2007) (rapidly becoming a staple of the canon), shows ample clarity and energy of ensemble playing with collaborator Jan Philip Schulze. This sparkling, polished team has much to offer in interpretation and excitement. Amidst the other composers’ works are two originals composed for Schwaabe: Gert Wilden’s sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jazzy, always melodic two and a half piece and Kanefzky’s charming Pied Piper of Hamelin for flute/piccolo and narrator. Here the piccolo appears only as the magical voice of the piper’s instrument while Schwaabe’s nuanced command of the flute belies any myth that piccoloists are somehow less accomplished flutists. Unfortunately for unilingual audiences, Schwaabe’s narration is in German.

Mower’s Sonata, the perilous multiphonics of Donatoni’s NIDI Mikalsen’s starkly brutal Huit ilium where Schwaabe’s fluid control of even the highest notes is dazzling, and the Canadian Derek Charke’s wrenchingly sad Lacrymose round out this utterly brilliant CD. If this recording were to become essential listening, it would surely unfetter the piccolo from its enduring prison of prejudice.

06 FarahTime Sketches
John Kameel Farah
Neue Meister 03009045NM (johnfarah.com)

John Kameel Farah is a composer, pianist and visual artist who these days makes his home in both Toronto and Berlin. His piano-centric compositions have long attracted attention. During his University of Toronto music student years he twice received the Glenn Gould Composition Award.

Farah’s musical influences are extremely broad and cosmopolitan. They embrace the musics of Renaissance keyboard composers, J.S. Bach, Arabic maqam, Schoenberg and Ravel, as well as that of the minimalists, free improvisation and vernacular genres such as drum and bass. He performs all of them with precision and panache. Even more surprising, perhaps: in Farah’s live solo concerts he often deftly mixes many of these seemingly disparate elements, performing on piano, harpsichord, organ, synthesizer and computer. While his concerts primarily focus on his signature hybrid of composition, improvisation and electronic music, he often adds classical works, lending his programs a Euro-American historical perspective.

There is much to listen to and savour in Time Sketches. The relatively contained Behold! for piano and pipe organ is the example I’ll choose to talk about today. Set in a 20-beat metric cycle, it echoes the musical vocabulary developed mid-century by the American minimalists. The effect of the music is somewhat counterintuitive; it’s lilting and soft-spoken. Ending on a single, surprisingly gentle, middle-octave B-flat on the piano, it reminds this listener of mid-career Terry Riley’s keyboard music. Farah had private lessons in 1999 with that pioneer minimalist master, and Behold! is a worthy miniature addition to the minimalist music canon.

I recommend Time Sketches as a worthy addition to your quality listening time.

Grace
Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan with Jennifer Moore & Sanctuary
Artifact Music ART 041 (artifactmusic.com)

Bridge
Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan
Independent (evergreenclubgamelan.ca)

07a Evergreen Grace30 plus years of performing, composing and commissioning works together has completely immersed the Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan in the sonic possibilities of their unique orchestra. Two recent CD releases provide ample evidence of the maturity of their sonic palette.

Grace is a live collaboration with the Sanctuary Trio (bass clarinet, cello and pipe organ). These very unique timbres create an inspiring range of compositional possibilities that are fully explored in the three pieces that make up this recording. Bill Parsons’ Translating Grace immediately pulls us in with a softly insistent, offbeat time-keeping underpinning a series of two-note motifs on the gamelan’s various tuned percussion instruments. The texture becomes quietly denser as drums, higher melodies and suling (bamboo flute) all join in. It all slowly unravels and ends with a percussive burst that repeats and fades, echoing into the distance. We have now entered another realm… Low and ominous tones from the cello and bass clarinet underpin the sober truth-telling of the vocalist. This static, sombre mood alternates with blithe suling interjections over gamelan textures, and a loping, Dolphyesque bass clarinet solo.  Dreamlike textures and odd time signatures keep us adrift. The vocalist reminds us: “Before Grace, everything slips away.”

The pairing of the ECCG with the Sanctuary Trio in this setting creates a wonderfully lush and warm environment. Jeff Reilly’s Meditations on Innocence delves deep into the textural possibilities of this pairing, while using ample space in the music to fully exploit the acoustics of the cathedral used for this live recording. Space is a palpable part of the texture of a slow gong ostinato, over which bass clarinet and cello take turns giving voice to the silence.

Mark Duggan’s Language of Landscape begins deliberately off kilter, sounding like the wind pushing through chimes. Though the work stays very abstract, it is no intellectual exercise. It is full of feelings of questioning and yearning, expressed mainly by the cello and bass clarinet. Repetitive textures imply urban or mechanized environments. A slow one-note chiming mantra is the underpinning of dense organ clusters reminiscent of the Japanese shō. This all gives way again to fragments and gestures and is brought to a close by the organ.

07b Evergreen BridgeThis recording is a great document of the musical sensitivities the two ensembles bring, not only to each other but to the environment in which they performed.

The ECCG’s recording Bridge is an ambitious project, years in the making. Citing various Indonesian sources as inspirational starting points, original lyrics were composed, and arrangements using the gamelan as well as western strings, guitars and turntables were written. The music is definitely accessible to those not familiar with the sounds and structures of Indonesian music; striking the right mood between instruments and sensibilities is the real accomplishment here. However, the inclusion of an arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now seems transparently aimed at getting airplay (Canadian content x2!). Though cleverly arranged, it is rather saccharine, and I find it disruptive to this collection of otherwise interesting experiments.

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