November 08, 2012

(+++) MUSICAL MIXTURES


Delius: Appalachia—Variations on an Old Slave Song with Final Chorus; Sea Drift. Leon Williams, baritone; Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and The Florida Orchestra conducted by Stefan Sanderling. Naxos. $9.99.

Pater Noster: A Choral Reflection of the Lord’s Prayer. The King’s Singers. Naxos. $9.99.

Patricia Van Ness: Requiem; The Voice of the Tenth Muse. Sanford Sylvan, baritone; Ruth Cunnigham, soprano; Coro Allegro conducted by David Hodgkins. Navona. $13.99.

Lock & Key: Chamber Works by Scott Pender, R. David Salvage, Daniel Perttu and Malcolm Hawkins. Navona. $14.99.

Quadrants: Modern String Quartets by Marie Incontrera, Michael G. Cunningham, Alan Beeler, Ulf Grahn and Virgil Thomson. Navona. $14.99.

Andrew May: Music for Instruments and Computer. Ravello. $15.99.

Herbert Deutsch: From Moog to Mac. Ravello. $14.99.

      There are many ways to create something new in music by juxtaposing elements in unexpected or unusual ways. One well-known approach is to take someone from one culture and immerse him in another, as occurred with Dvořák during his time in the United States and, in ways much less frequently noted, with Frederick Delius during his time overseas.  Delius lived in Florida and Virginia in the 1880s and 1890s, creating several works intended to evoke the American South while still communicating through his own gentle impressionistic idiom. One of those pieces, Appalachia (1896-1903), has all the usual languid, expansive sound of Delius’ better-known music, but puts his leisurely form of expression at the service of a slave song from which Delius creates 14 variations after introducing it on an English horn (the same instrument that Dvořák used for the theme of the Largo in his “New World” symphony).  This is very broad music whose shape emerges slowly and with considerable expansiveness, portraying a Southern dawn at the start and moving through a series of emotions that last well over half an hour.  Stefan Sanderling shapes the music well and keeps it moving nicely, although as with much Delius, the overall feeling is often more of stasis than of motion.  Sanderling also does a fine job with Sea Drift (1904), a work for baritone, chorus and orchestra based on the poetry of Walt Whitman.  Whitman’s sea images have proved irresistible to many composers, notably including Delius’ fellow Englishman, Ralph Vaughan Williams. For Delius, Whitman provided an opportunity to evoke Nature in ways thoroughly reflective of Delius’ predilections for orchestration: solo harp, woodwinds and other gentle touches pervade a piece that in Whitman’s poem (from Leaves of Grass) is about impermanence and loss, but for Delius is more focused on the ebb and flow of life and its mysteries. Well sung and well played, both these works show a side of Delius not often heard.

      Another vocal approach to creating a new sound is the one used by The King’s Singers on a fascinating CD called Pater Noster. Subtitled “A Reflection on the Lord’s Prayer,” the disc features seven sections, each based on one line from that well-known evocation, from “Our Father, who art in heaven,” to “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  For each line, there are from three to six short choral settings, commentaries or interpretations, by composers from Heinrich Schütz, William Byrd and Henry Purcell to John Tavener, Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky. The CD, which is exceptionally well sung, is both intriguing and peculiar, its juxtapositions of musical styles being sometimes revelatory and sometimes simply strange.  This is partly a matter of the different time periods from which the pieces come and partly a matter of their very different styles: Schütz and Byrd or Stravinsky and Francis Poulenc sound rather odd when heard one after the other, no matter the similarity of their subject matter.  The King’s Singers begin and end the disc with plainsong, creating a sort of “framing tale” for their musical exegesis of the prayer’s clauses. This is certainly a CD for a highly specialized audience – one interested in top-notch choral singing, in multiple interpretations of religious messages, and in unexpected and aurally challenging differences in the sound and structure of works on similar topics. It is an exhilarating experience for a limited group of listeners.

      The same may be said of the new Coro Allegro CD of music by Patricia Van Ness, but for different reasons.  The King’s Singers have sung Van Ness’ music, and indeed comment on the CD package that it “is universally well-received,” but they are not the performers here – the disc features Coro Allegro, a “cause” chorus made up of members and supporters of Boston’s LGBT community.  The Voice of the Tenth Muse plays into the sociopolitical background and orientation of the chorus, being based on the works of Sappho, but it is a work of sufficient drama and musical interest to be attractive on its own terms – although it is perhaps a bit long-winded.  Ruth Cunningham handles the solo parts well here, and Sanford Sylvan is even better as the soloist in Requiem, a heartfelt work that does not exactly follow the traditional Requiem Mass but instead brings a personal perspective to death and the consolation of those left behind.  Although longer than The Voice of the Tenth Muse, Van Ness’ Requiem feels more intimate and immersive – not exactly pleasant, given its subject matter, but thoughtful and contemplative.  Van Ness’ style may not be to all tastes, but those who find it attractive will deem this disc a success, quite apart from any social or political cause it may be seeking to advance.

      More common than the juxtaposition of musicianship and sociopolitical issues is the simple creation of an anthology – that is, a mixture from which listeners may hope to extract at least some material of interest, even if they do not enjoy the whole thing.  Anthologies such as Lock & Key and Quadrants have their own self-imposed limitations: since most, if not all, the music they offer is unfamiliar, it is hard to know who is expected to buy the CDs, it being rather unlikely that most potential listeners will be familiar with all the composers represented.  These two discs are for chance-takers who want to explore the ways in which chamber music is being produced and extended by contemporary composers.  Of the four works on Lock & Key, two are sets of brief movements and two are extended single-movement pieces. The latter are Scott Pender’s In the Time Before, for piano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and vibraphone, and Daniel Perttu’s Gloamin: A Fantasy for Flute and Piano.  Pender’s piece is the more successful of the two, largely because the wider instrumental variety creates a broader sound palette that sustains interest more easily.  Perttu’s work, although nicely played, tends more to the monochromatic (or duo-chromatic), with the result that it seems longer than Pender’s piece even though in fact it is not.  Along with these works, the CD offers Bonjour Ma Petite by Malcolm Hawkins, a rather amusing set of five short movements for string quartet plus double bass and piano; and a series of brief works called Albumleaves for solo piano by R. David Salvage, of which Must It Be? Albumleaf 45, its title recollecting Beethoven’s Muss es sein? from the String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135, is particularly interesting. Three Jefferson Pieces (Albumleaves 15-17) make a nice mini-suite, while five other works create a set of differing moods. As is typical of anthologies, Lock & Key has music of varying interest levels and appears to lack a strong unifying theme, but listeners will likely find at least some pieces here to enjoy.

      There is a theme in Quadrants, since all the works are string quartets, but the contrast among the pieces here is substantial.  Virgil Thomson’s four-movement String Quartet No. 1 is the most traditional in concept, the most poised and ultimately the most convincing of the pieces, although Michael G. Cunningham’s three-movement String Quartet No. 5 also has commendably strong structure and harmonic interest. Alan Beeler’s String Quartet No. 2, though, is more of a trifle, its four movements over almost before they have begun (the third lasts less than one minute) and its musical development minimal. There are also three single-movement pieces here, all of them rather self-consciously “modern” in their titles and approaches and none of them especially impressive – they are well enough made, but seem to lack conviction. One is Beeler’s Quartet 2000, the second is Limbic Breath by Marie Incontrera, and the third is The Timeless Lines of Time by Ulf Grahn. It sometimes seems as if contemporary composers lavish more attention on their works’ titles than on their musical contents; certainly there is nothing in these pieces to show clearly why they bear the designations that they have.  As with Lock & Key, though, listeners to Quadrants will likely enjoy at least some of these works.

      Whether or not Andrew May’s music is enjoyable will depend on how listeners feel about a type of juxtaposition that was all the rage in much of the 20th century but has been less popular with composers in more recent times: the mixture of traditional instruments with electronic ones – more specifically, in May’s case, computers.  The six pieces on this CD, whose title is Imaginary Friends, give a considerable workout to the soloists and, in one case, to a chamber ensemble. Shimmer for piano and electroacoustic music (2002) features Shannon Weinstein; Chant/Songe for clarinet and computer (2004) uses F. Gerard Errante; Retake (2001) and The Twittering Machine (1995), both for flute and computer, are with Elizabeth McNutt. May himself plays the five-string electric violin in Ripped-Up Maps for solo instrument and computer (1996/2011), and the only work here in which human soloist and computer both sound as if they belong.  And then there is Vanishing for ensemble and computer (2000), the longest and most elaborate of all these pieces, in which May conducts a group that includes flute, piccolo, percussion, two violas, two cellos and vocal samples, the whole coming across as a hodgepodge of sound that veers close to the line of self-parody and sometimes, apparently not intentionally, steps over it.  Electronic music of the mid-20th century was sometimes mocked and dismissed for ignoring the audience and simply indulging its composers, and Vanishing has, unfortunately, some of that flavor.  The other works here will likely be an acquired taste for most listeners, if not all, and a 75-minute-plus dose of May is quite a lot to take even for those for whom electronic/computer music is a pleasurable acoustic experience.  Structurally, the works are more seamless in integrating human and computer elements than were their electronic-music predecessors – the technology has, after all, advanced quite a bit.  But the pieces still come across as more self-indulgent than inviting.

      A more interesting, if in some ways cruder, melding of electronic and traditional sounds is heard on From Moog to Mac, a fascinating compendium of works written by Herbert Deutsch for the analog synthesizer first manufactured – imagine this – some 60 years ago. Deutsch has been involved with Moog music from the beginning, and his Jazz Images, A Worksong and Blues, heard on this CD, is the first piece ever composed using the synthesizer’s sounds.  That makes the disc of historic interest – and in fact, the CD looks even farther into the electronic-music past with Deutsch’s Two Songs without Words for Theremin and Piano, the theremin being the prototypical electronic instrument, dating to 1928 (!) and being played without physical contact.  This CD shows just how ambitious Deutsch (born 1932) has been over the years in creating electronic music in which the electronic elements were not the point, or not the primary point.  For Jazz Images, A Worksong and Blues, for example, he performs on trumpet and piano.  Fantasy on “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child” features John Marshall on alto and soprano saxophone.  Several of the pieces include narration, such as the intriguing Prologue to King Richard III.  Also here is an odd work called The Abomination in which Bob Moog (1934-2005) himself narrates and also performs on the prototype synthesizer – itself deemed an abomination by some musical conservatives. The theremin-and-piano works (performed by Darryl Kubian and Nancy Deutsch) are actually rather mild when compared with some of the other music here – and just about all these works sound more mainstream today than do those of later electronic-music composers and of 21st-century figures such as Andrew May.  Whether the Moog synthesizer should now be deemed “mainstream” is a question more philosophical than musical.  Whatever its place in music and musical history, though, there is no question that Deutsch is a towering figure in its development: he and Moog worked on the synthesizer together, and it was Deutsch who created the instrument’s keyboard interface as well as many works for it. The merging of traditional sounds with those of the Moog synthesizer no longer seems as outré today as it did in the 1960s, and as From Moog to Mac shows, Deutsch deserves to be called the Grand Old Man of this particular field – although, even at 80, he would likely bristle at the designation.

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