April 24, 2014


Bright Sheng: The Song and Dance of Tears (2003/2013); Colors of Crimson (2004); The Blazing Mirage (2012). Hong Kong Philharmonic conducted by Bright Sheng. Naxos. $9.99.

Jocelyn Morlock: Music of the Romantic Era; Cobalt; Disquiet; Asylum; Oiseaux Bleus et Sauvages; Golden; Solace. Centredisques. $16.99.

Sean Hickey: Cursive; Ampersand; Dolmen; Ostinato Grosso; Pied-a-terre; Reckoning; Hill Music—A Breton Ramble; The Birds of Barclay Street. Philip Edward Fisher, piano; Julia Sakharova, violin; Brandon Patrick George, flute; Anne Lanzilotti, viola; Meredith Clark, harp. Delos. $16.99.

Glenn Kotche: Adventureland. Cantaloupe Music. $16.99

     Titles in classical music were in the past intended mostly to describe the forms in which the music was written – symphony, partita, concerto, quartet, and so on. Even opera titles were simply ways of identifying a work by its focus or primary character: Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Flying Dutchman. But as form itself broke down and evolved in the 20th century, the titles of musical pieces came increasingly to attempt to describe to the audience what it should experience in a work – what listeners should get out of the music, based on what a composer intended to put it. This was particularly true of program music, such as Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote – the work that famously led Leonard Bernstein to comment, during one of his Young People’s Concerts, that music does not mean anything (after which Bernstein concocted a silly scenario that the Strauss work could relate to just as well as it relates to the composer’s intended scenario). But over time, and as music became both sparer and denser, more complex and more difficult to latch onto in ordinary aural terms (compared with the ease of comprehending, say, sonata form), composers started to rely more and more on using titles to “explain” their works to the audience.

     It is now increasingly difficult to figure out what to say about many classical or sort-of-classical pieces (“sort-of” because the blending of musical traditions has also increased exponentially in recent decades). Works may or may not evoke the emotions associated with their titles, or may express them for some listeners but not for others. Is a work a success because it moves or engages people in a way that has nothing to do with the composer’s intentions, on the basis of which the work got its title? Or is success measured by how well a composer fulfills the promise inherent in what the work is called? These are philosophical issues rather than ones involving musical enjoyment, but they are germane to recordings of modern works, because so often the auditory landscape of the music is trekkable only with a guide of some sort – and a work’s title is the sole guide that listeners are likely to have, unless they make it a point to study a work’s provenance before listening to it (an unreasonable expectation that some contemporary composers nevertheless appear to consider reasonable).

     So the recent music of Bright Sheng on a new Naxos CD is intended to be guided by its titles, but its effectiveness for listeners will lie in their emotional (and, to a lesser extent, intellectual) response to the music’s sound, which is uniformly a blend of the Chinese and the Western – this is Sheng’s style. The Song and Dance of Tears is in effect an interpretation of Chinese folk music, in which Sheng does some of the same things that composers such as Bartók and Kodály did with Hungarian music, arranging and enlarging while staying true to the music’s roots. The difference is that Sheng includes traditional Chinese instruments along with those of a Western orchestra: pipa (played by Hui Li) and sheng (Tong Wu) in addition to cello (Trey Lee) and piano (Sa Chen). There is musical fusion in The Blazing Mirage as well – the title refers to art preserved in the Dunhuang Caves, but what listeners will hear is a melding of musical styles with a particularly important role for cello (Lee again). As for Colors of Crimson, the title does point to something impressionistic, if somewhat monochromatic, but not specifically to the marimba (played by Pius Cheng) that is at the center of the work and whose sound Sheng here tries to expand into unfamiliar territory and to contrast with the colors of the orchestra.

     A blend of sonorities is also common in the music of Jocelyn Morlock, who mixes influences as disparate as those of Ravel and Balinese gamelan. Morlock’s work on a new Centredisques CD is primarily orchestral, her mostly one-word titles designed to direct listeners toward specific emotional and interpretative central points but not really doing so in any particularly meaningful way. For example, you could flip the titles of Music of the Romantic Era and Oiseaux Bleus et Sauvages without having any impact on the effect or effectiveness of these two 11-minute concert overtures for orchestra. Asylum is a chamber piece and Golden a small-orchestra one featuring oboe, but there is nothing inherent in their musical communication to reflect their titles – nor is there in Disquiet for orchestra, Cobalt for violin and orchestra, or Solace for violin, cello and orchestra. Morlock’s music, all here written in the period 2001-2010 and performed by a variety of ensembles and soloists, has a number of effective moments, with more-emotive melodies and greater lyricism than will often be found in contemporary music. The music’s titles, however, are not particularly helpful guides to what Morlock is trying to communicate.

     Sean Hickey’s classical influences are some of the same ones that inform Morlock’s music, although gamelan is absent. Hickey has a sure grasp of older musical forms, as shown particularly in Ostinato Grosso but also in the other chamber works on a new Delos CD. Yet here too, the alleged guiding lights of the titles are of little help in following, understanding or reacting to the music – except, interestingly, in the case of Ostinato Grosso itself, that being the one work whose title describes a form rather than an expected emotion or bit of scene-panting. Several of the other titles are clever – notably Cursive and Ampersand – but they do not really help listeners listen. Actually, guideposts are somewhat less needed in Hickey’s music than in that of many other of today’s composers, since his works are generally accessible and less inclined than those of many other composers to display compositional technique for its own (or the composer’s) sake. And Hickey does not hesitate to indulge in a bit of surprise here and there: The Birds of Barclay Street, for example, is not merely a collection of imitative chirps and coos.

     In many ways, the simple title Adventureland stands as a viable one not only for Glenn Kotche’s new Cantaloupe Music CD but also for a great deal of contemporary music. Kotche, a percussionist, here offers a variety of works that showcase his own skill in collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, Gamelan Galak Tika and the group called “eighth blackbird.” There is certainly something sonically adventurous here, although not really more so than in other sort-of-classical, sort-of-jazz, sort-of-blended music. The disc’s overall title is actually more useful than the titles of its individual components, which include Anomaly Movement 1 through Anomaly Movement 7, with those seven movements interspersed with seven others called Haunted Dance, Traveling Turtle, Haunted Hive, Haunted Furnace, Haunted Viaduct, Haunted Treehouse and Triple Fantasy – none of which titles is particularly explanatory or evocative of anything at all in the music itself. There is some fun and adventure here, and the playing is particularly fine, the musicians seeming to be quite comfortable with each other as well as with the compositions. But there is nothing in the titles to attract new listeners to the CD, and nothing specific in them to intrigue listeners who already know Kotche and want to hear more from him. Adventureland would lose little, if anything, if its 14 tracks were simply numbered 1 through 14; and contemporary music in general would lose little by forgoing clever titles and aiming to have the music itself tell listeners what the composer is trying to say.

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