January 17, 2013

(+++) PERSONALIZATIONS


Alex Lubet: Reliquary Dances; Eight Ouds. Alex Lubet, acoustic guitar. Ravello. $13.99.

Sparky Davis: …and One Last Waltz; Symphony in B-flat; Fantasy Sonata. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vít Micka and Petr Vronský; Karolina Rojahn, piano. Navona. $16.99.

Juan Sebastián Lach Lau: Islas. Navona. $13.99.

Sergio Cervetti: Keyboard3—Works for Piano, Harpsichord & Organ. Karolina Rojahn and Sergio Cervetti, piano; Maria Teresa Chenlo, harpsichord; Karel Martinek, organ. Navona. $14.99.

Turlutte et Reel. Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer La Nef; Suzie LeBlanc, soprano. ATMA Classique. $18.99.

Jeffrey Stadelman: Messenger; Nine Bagatelles for Piano and Recorded Sound; Evans House; Koral 19. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský; Jeffrey Stadelman, piano; Elizabeth McNutt, flute. Navona. $15.99.

      Now that all bets are essentially off on how to produce classical music – and how to define it – composers have come up with a remarkable number of ways to create highly personalized approaches to musical creation. Many are so personal that they seem self-referential – and it can be hard to tell whether the composers want to reach out to an audience or simply express whatever they may have to say, not particularly caring whether anyone else pays attention.  Indeed, in many instances composers write music for themselves to perform, which is certainly nothing new but which these days carries a greater aura of inward focus than self-performance did in the days of the great virtuosi. The highly personal nature of many modern classical works makes it difficult to analyze them, much less recommend them, for it is inescapably true that they are saying just what their composers want to say – but whether that is something that listeners want to hear will be up to each individual to decide.

      Thus, guitarist Alex Lubet is certainly an accomplished performer, and he definitely knows his way around the steel-string acoustic guitar that he uses on his new Ravello CD. Furthermore, he is a composer who, like many today, finds traditional Western classical music far too constricting for his taste, instead reaching for Eastern influence and combining it with elements of jazz, notably the blues.  Lubet is influenced by electronic sounds, too, although he does not use them in these works – however, the nature of the harmonies and disharmonies that he produces, including some that Doppler in and out of the listener’s consciousness, shows that he hears things in a distinctly modern way and then interprets them in works that are eclectic, difficult to pin down, and often startlingly unlike other pieces for guitar. It is a bit hard to realize sometimes that it is a guitar producing the sounds that Lubet creates. Whether his decidedly interesting musical thoughts will have wide appeal, though, is by no means certain.

      Likewise, Spark Davis pulls in some nontraditional sounds in his works, in his case quite overtly. A piece such as …and One Last Waltz recalls, in its title, Ravel’s La Valse, which is traditionally considered a sort of ”waltz to end waltzes.” But Davis’ sound world is so different from that of Ravel that his vision of the waltz seems to come from another planet, not just another time. Davis’ pieces follow, on their surface, traditional classical models: waltz, symphony, sonata. And there is nothing cutesy about the traditional movement designations: Maestoso, Adagio, Allegro Moderato, Presto and variations thereon. But Davis surprises in how he pulls the music together: he has clearly absorbed atonality as well as traditional harmonic structures and has tried to forge a synthesis in which the two approaches, generally seen as polar opposites, can somehow be reconciled. The result is somewhat strange to the ear, as if these works are almost consonant and almost dissonant without being fully committed to either style. They become as much an intellectual puzzle as a form of emotional communication – and perhaps that is just what Davis intends.

      The intentions of Juan Sebastián Lach Lau are clearer, although that does not necessarily make his music more communicative. The Navona CD called Islas includes six works for various instruments – including computers treated as instruments in well-worn mid-20th-century style. And the works’ titles, unlike those of Davis, are quite deliberately modern and occasionally unpronounceable.  These pieces pay homage to Cage, Ligeti and other composers celebrated for the way they redefined music as much as for their actual works. Lach Lau seems to see his compositions as islands of isolation – hence the CD’s title – within an overall oceanic framework that somehow connects them. This may be an attractive philosophical idea, but whether it makes his works any more strongly communicative is uncertain. Lach Lau’s Mexican heritage does occasionally peek through in these pieces, although more in their titles than in their handling of notes. And it is certainly true that Lach Lau extracts forms of sound from instruments that make them acoustically interesting, as in the percussion piece rzw + Continuidad Paralela, which Salvatore Novello handles with considerable aplomb.  But like Cage – to whom Blank Space for clarinet and piano seems to pay homage – Lach Lau often seems more interested in having instruments bring forth sounds beyond those they were intended to produce, rather than in having those sounds become expressive in a way that communicates clearly with an audience.

      Sergio Cervetti, on the other hand, is certainly trying to communicate, and uses three different keyboard instruments and a firm knowledge of traditional classical-music compositional elements to do so. The rather awkwardly titled Keyboard3 has a surprisingly religious bent in several works, including Seven Farewells to Paradise for piano and In Principio Erat Verbum for organ; but the religion here is better described as spirituality and a feeling of oneness and connection than the form of organized religion that inspired composers of past centuries. Cervetti interestingly mixes these works inspired by olden themes with ones that have an air of distinct newness about them, such as Hard Rock for harpsichord (an interesting juxtaposition of modern theme with old instrument) and Tres Estudios Australes for piano, which attempts to deal with issues such as the continuing ownership dispute over the Falkland Islands and “the hole in the sky of the Antarctic.” The two remaining pieces here – Alberada and Candombe, both for harpsichord – are, like all the works on this CD, well and interestingly made, expansive in their emotions, and nicely balanced between the techniques of the past and the sensibilities of the present. There is a certain sense in which Cervetti seems to be trying too hard to be too many things to too many people – the opposite of the impression left by composers who seem to be speaking mainly to themselves. But he certainly does try to tell listeners something, and what he has to say musically about the ways in which old and new forms blend, complement each other or push each other out makes for interesting listening.

      Old forms are paramount in Turlutte et Reel, too. This ATMA Classique CD offers a 13-track compendium from previous releases performed by Les Charbonniers de l'Enfer La Nef with soprano Suzie LeBlanc.  The combination of old and new is very much apparent here, as the works themselves represent a musical journey to Quebec and into the world of Acadian traditional music.  Just about everything on the disc is bright, upbeat and festive, including turluttes (wordless songs), reels, waltzes and folk songs.  The target audience here seems to be existing fans of the performers and of this particular element of Canadian heritage: the CD is a simple and simply (indeed, cheaply) packaged compilation that sounds fine but does not seem particularly interested in reaching out to and making converts of potential new listeners. It is also on the short side for a rather high-priced disc – not as short as the 43-minute Lubet CD, but at 53 minutes about the same length as the one featuring works by Lach Lau. Fans of French Canadian history and culture seem to be the sought-after listeners here.

      Navona’s new Jeffrey Stadelman disc is also in the 53-minute range, but here the reaching out is of a different sort. This is a CD that in some senses sums up the ways in which modern classical composers look both back and forward, pick and choose among techniques, and combine disparate sounds and sound patterns generated from a wide variety of sources. The three Stadelman pieces on this disc take very different approaches to musical construction and to an awareness of the past. Messenger is an extended three-movement orchestral work that is a bit like an updated version of the Baroque suite, except that it uses entirely modern sounds and is structured on a symphonic scale (although no one would call it a symphony). Much of it is aurally jarring; tempos range from galloping to still; and the three movements seem to require the orchestra to do just about everything that every instrument can in the space of 33 minutes. It is a difficult work to absorb; whether it is worth repeated hearings to ferret out its meanings will be very much a matter of taste. Nine Bagatelles for Piano and Recorded Sound stands at something of an opposite extreme, with six of the nine movements lasting less than a minute. This is a kind of modern version of the “conversation” concept of chamber music, except that here the conversation is between the piano and distorted electronic sounds – and this too is an odd work that is less than immediately accessible and does not seem intended to be. Evans House, for solo flute, shows that Stadelman can write music purely for a traditional instrument when he chooses, although this is scarcely a soothing work of the sort that listeners may assume would spring forth from the flute; and Koral 19 shows Stadelman doing going pretty much in an opposite direction – the work is entirely electroacoustic and identified as one fragment among hundreds within a larger piece.  Stadelman’s pieces do not really reach out to listeners at large – they seem mainly to be expressive of his own experimentally minded compositional style, which mixes a wide variety of techniques and ideas to create pieces that are quite different from each other and do not fit neatly into any particular musical category. But that is simply an extreme version of what many other modern classical composers are creating as they pull from the past while marching into a future that may or may not include the building of an audience for their works.

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