December 06, 2012


Michael Mauldin: The Last Musician of Ur. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $2.99.

Amos Elkana: Casino Umbro; Arabic Lessons; String Quartet No. 2; Tru’a. Meitar Ensemble, Israel Bach Soloists, Israel Contemporary String Quartet and others. Ravello. $14.99.

New York Moments: Music of William Toutant, Frank Campo, Liviu Marinescu, Daniel Kessner, Dan Hosken and Gernot Wolfgang. Tapestry Ensemble. Navona. $16.99.

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess (excerpts); David Nisbet Stewart: Piano Concerto; Suite for Piano-Brass Quartet. Tower Brass Quintet, Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský, and others. Navona. $12.99.

      Here are discs whose music takes listeners to some very interesting places and times.  Most interesting of all is Ur, the ancient Mesopotamian city-state in what is now Iraq.  The earliest stringed instrument ever discovered, the Gold Lyre of Ur, was a treasure of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad until looters damaged it in 2003.  The next year, British harpist Andrew Lowings created a replica of the lyre – a playable one – and that is the inspiration for Michael Mauldin’s The Last Musician of Ur.  This is a seven-minute tone poem intended to reflect the Gold Lyre’s provenance and bring some contemporary concerns to the ancient instrument through a longing for peace that has yet to come in modern times to the Middle East.  Certainly a very specialized work, using mostly expected orchestral sonorities, The Last Musician of Ur nevertheless has more than a few hints of the exotic and is an unusual attempt to transport listeners to a time and place of which very little is now known.  The $2.99 price for the CD is not an error: the work stands alone on the disc, making the cost reasonable.

      Elsewhere in the Middle East, yearnings for peace and understanding are differently expressed in the works of Israeli composer Amos Elkana, especially in the 15 movements, most of them very short, of Arabic Lessons. There is nothing polemical in this work for three sopranos and chamber players (including percussion): Michael Roes’ text (whose movements are titled and sung in three different languages: Hebrew, German and Arabic) offers an interesting amalgam and contrast of sounds while showing the considerable overlap of sentiments felt by speakers of all the languages.  Casino Umbro is a similar amalgam-cum-contrasts, but a purely instrumental one, using Baroque instruments (harpsichord and two violas da gamba) along with modern ones (piano, flute and violin) in an overall setting that has more in common with jazz than with either Baroque or contemporary classical music.  Although it is more involving sonically than thematically, its 10-minute length means it does not overstay its welcome.  Nor does Tru’a, which is the same length but is very different in aural effect, using solo clarinet (very well played by Richard Stoltzman) and orchestra in an attractive, fantasy-like spinning of fanfares mixed with lyrical sections.  These three works all have combinatorial elements; those are less present in the fourth piece here, Elkana’s String Quartet No. 2.  This is a five-movement piece that is essentially classical in structure and contemporary in sound – well-made but not especially innovative, and not presenting a particularly well-differentiated compositional voice. Elkana is a skilled composer with some interesting thoughts about blended sonorities and sensibilities, more absorbing when he combines disparate elements than when, as in the quartet, he follows traditional models more closely.

      Traveling from the Middle East to New York City with the mere switch of a CD, listeners will find a mixed bag of works by half a dozen composers on the Tapestry Ensemble’s New York Moments. The disc’s title is also the title of the group’s first commission, written by Gernot Wolfgang. This is a CD of commissions; that is what unites it, to the extent that anything does. The performances by oboist Richard Kravchak, clarinetist Julia Heinen, cellist Ovidiu Marinescu, and pianist Dmitry Rachmanov give it some unity, too, and are uniformly self-assured and quite fine.  The music, though, is of varying quality and interest.  The three city portraits that make up Wolfgang’s work are all right but nothing special – portrayals like this have been done many times, with those by Leonard Bernstein (in On the Town and elsewhere) being more effective and still sounding quite up-to-date.  Dan Hosken’s short Three Pieces for Oboe, Clarinet, and Piano is pleasant and not especially distinctive music, less involving and less innovative than William Toutant’s Three Peccadilloes for Oboe/English Horn, Clarinet, and Piano, which overcomes its somewhat overdone title to offer some real aural interest (and performance challenges).  The three other works on the disc are single-movement fantasies or quasi-fantasies, each having some attractive moments but none being totally convincing from start to finish.  They are Frank Campo’s Dall’ombra alla Luce (From the Shadows to the Light), Liviu Marinescu’s Resonance, and Daniel Kessner’s Undercurrent/Current – the most extended of these three pieces, but one that somewhat overstays its welcome.  All the works here effectively highlight the performers’ skills and lie well on the various instruments, but several sound as if playing them brings greater pleasure than listening to them.

      Mix the contrasts and mergers of Elkana with the adept instrumental forays of the composers whose works are offered on New York Moments and you have a disc somewhat along the the lines of Convergence, that being the title of a very interesting CD featuring compositions by George Gershwin and David Nisbet Stewart.  Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess excerpts – seven of them – are a salutary contrast to much of the self-conscious modernism that permeated classical music in the decades after Gershwin’s death. They also show that today’s highly jazz-influenced composers can still learn a thing or two from what Gershwin did: there is nothing self-conscious or overtly imitative in Gershwin’s use of the jazz idiom, but he pulls it so effectively into the classical-music world that it sounds as if it always belonged there.  It would have been even more engrossing to contrast Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F with Stewart’s concerto, but the Stewart work has much to recommend it even without that juxtaposition.  Martin Levicky handles the solo part well, and the piece as a whole – in traditional three-movement form, including a first movement that (also in line with tradition) is more extensive than either of the others – has a contemporary sound but does not shy away from melodiousness and even a degree of emotional expression.  Its themes do not flow with the naturalness of Gershwin’s, and it has more self-conscious moments, but it is a work worth hearing more than once, and a concerto that stands well on its own foundation.  The Suite for Piano-Brass Quartet is intriguing, too, being a six-movement work akin to Baroque suites in its preponderance of dance movements (although it opens with a brief Fanfare rather than an extended Ouverture).  The chosen dances give the work both an up-to-date feeling (Jitterbug) and a clear reference to the past (the concluding Giga). The use of a piano anchors the suite firmly in modern times, but the clarity and balance of its movements recall earlier ages – although Baroque composers were not accustomed to employing a keyboard with brass instruments alone (two trumpets and trombone). The journey here is to the past by way of the present, and it is a sonically engaging one.

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