April 10, 2014
(+++) PERSONALIZED DEBUTS
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; John Adams: Violin Concerto. Chad Hoopes, violin; MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi. Naïve. $16.99.
Svjetlana Bukvich: Before and After the Tekke; You Move Me; Sabih’s Dream; Over Water Over Stone; Six Letters. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Alexandra Ottaway: The Jakob Trio; Radio Silence Quartet; Four Choral Pieces; The Merlin Études; The Zen Sutras. Navona. $16.99.
Juan Álamo: Marimjazzia. Juan Álamo, marimba; UNC Percussion Ensemble. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Anne Vanschothorst: Works for Harp. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Many modern première recordings focus not on music that has never been offered before but on artists offering works that range from the well-known to ones created by the performers themselves. There is a celebrity-ization of music that has gone beyond the pop-music world, where it has long been common, to classical music and to the increasing number of eclectic compositions that mix multiple musical forms into what composers hope will produce a unique experience and unique voice. Some debut recordings are merely curious, such as Chad Hoopes’ for Naïve. It lists the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor as “No. 2” in an odd bow to the very early one in D minor; but yes, the one Hoopes plays is the concerto that has been famously described as not the most difficult work of its type to play, but the most difficult to play well. Hoopes’ performance shows the truth of this description. It is technically excellent, swooning in all the right places and smoothing all the others, with the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kristjan Järvi staying firmly, perhaps too firmly, in the background throughout. But the performance is curiously uninvolving: the work’s beauties are put on display, but its soulfulness is not. It is tempting to suggest that this reflects the 19-year-old Hoopes’ lack of maturity, but this is not necessarily so – it is equally likely to reflect an unfortunate increasing focus on the performer rather than the underlying music. A great performer delves into a great work, such as this concerto, in a way that makes the music rather than the performer himself or herself the star. Hoopes does not do this, and he and his contemporaries may no longer consider it necessary to do so. The pairing of the Mendelssohn with the interesting but scarcely great 1993 concerto by John Adams confirms this. These two works do not make for any particularly meaningful musical juxtaposition, but they are effective as a performer juxtaposition, since both focus heavily on the soloist (who plays almost nonstop throughout the Adams) and therefore both shine the spotlight in the same place if the performer chooses to have it do so. The Adams concerto lends itself better to this sort of treatment than does the Mendelssohn, and here Hoopes’ technical prowess is just what the music calls for – this is a strongly rhythmic piece, and Hoopes seems more comfortable with its angularity than with the sweetness and smooth flow of the Mendelssohn. Hoopes is a player of considerable skill who, at the moment, puts his ability more at his own service than at that of the music – a better approach for Adams than for Mendelssohn.
Svjetlana Bukvich’s debut all-Bukvich CD on Big Round Records has an even stronger focus on a single person, despite the fact that Bukvich herself is only one of the performers. For here the music is by Bukvich herself, and her role in interpreting it is absolutely central: she performs as narrator and voice and on piano, synthesizer and a variety of electronic instruments and tracks. Her work is electro-acoustical and an often bewildering and rather misshapen blend of influences. Clearly she draws on rock and jazz, but old-style electronic music (whose proponents always consider it newfangled) also features here, and so does that catchall form called “world music.” As often in modernistic works, the titles of Bukvich’s compositions are intended to call forth images and meanings that are not necessarily conveyed by the music itself. In this instance, there are differentiations among the pieces as well because they are set with different lyrics, and there are some differences of orchestration as well: Over Water Over Stone features a trumpet, for example, while Sabih’s Dream and Before and After the Tekke have a traditional violin among the electronic instruments and sounds. The issue with the music, though, is that it would be easy to rearrange all the titles and still get the same effect – none of these works really sounds significantly different from any of the others, and the topics (largely of love and loss) are similar throughout. This is a short CD, just 43 minutes, but seems longer than it is because of the many similarities among the works as well as within individual pieces. It is clearly neither for all tastes nor intended to reach out to large numbers of listeners.
The new all-Alexandra-Ottaway Navona CD is a similar debut with similar pluses and minuses, and is even of similar length (41 minutes). But Ottaway has clearer classical antecedents, and two of the three vocal portions of her music are choral rather than for solo voice. Ottaway offers two very short all-instrumental pieces here, a trio for clarinet, bassoon and piano and a quartet for flute, violin, cello and piano; each is a two-movement work with fanciful titles (“Jakob in Blue” and “Jakob Flying” for the trio, “Radio Silence” and “Radio Silence II” for the quartet). The dozen songs for solo voice and piano called The Merlin Études are more or less in the classical art-song tradition, although they certainly do not sound like most of their predecessors: Ottaway’s musical language is defiantly serial and atonal in what is now a rather old-fashioned way, and none of her half-minute to minute-long songs is especially notable for expressiveness. The two choral works on this CD, performed by the New York Virtuoso Singers under Harold Rosenbaum, are the most interesting pieces here: a couple of the Four Choral Pieces for chorus and piano have some depth to them, notably one based on poetry by John Donne; and the seven movements of The Zen Sutras, for chorus and chamber ensemble, are alternately engaging and overdone, with some interesting aural effects attained by mixing, among other things, xylophone, vibraphone and marimba. Again, this is scarcely music for all or even most tastes, but it does have its moments.
Speaking of marimba, that instrument is the star of the awkwardly titled Marimjazzia, the debut Big Round Records album from marimbist Juan Álamo – who also composed six of the eight works on the CD. Once again, the “debut” element here focuses on performer as much as on music, and once again – as on the Ottaway CD – multiple influences from classical music are in evidence in Álamo’s works, which also draw heavily on jazz, a medium in which the marimba excels. Just how much it excels is evident from the Álamo arrangements of the two pieces here that the marimbist himself did not write: Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby and Mongo Santamaría’s Afro Blues. Álamo’s arrangements involve his marimba with the very fine UNC Percussion Ensemble, whose mixture of instruments keeps all the works on the CD interesting even when the music itself tends to sound very much alike, as several of Álamo’s pieces do. The Evans and Santamaría arrangements are actually high points of the disc: they are sensitive and involving even though they are the shortest pieces offered. Álamo’s own music tends to be somewhat discursive and rambling, likely most enjoyable for jazz fans who enjoy hearing musical meanderings down a variety of roads and byways. The use of such instruments as conga, shakers, and güiro (an open-ended, hollow gourd with parallel notches cut in one side, played by rubbing a stick along the notches to produce a ratchet-like sound) gives a Latin flavor to much of the music, Álamo’s intention apparently being to reflect his native Puerto Rico. To listeners, much of this music will be pleasant and undemanding.
The jazz elements are also prominent on the Big Round Records debut of another composer-cum-performer, Anne Vanschothorst. But the harp music composed by this Dutch musician has a very different effect from that of Álamo’s works. The 11 pieces here are mostly in the pop-music time span of three or four minutes, and do tend to some sameness of sound except when Vanschothorst, like Álamo, introduces some intriguing instrumental combinations – here, in particular, trumpet and viola da gamba. The production of this disc clearly shows pop-music roots, since Vanschothorst’s harp was recorded separately and the other instruments were overdubbed, their players reacting to Vanschothorst’s performance and putting their own spin on it. The result is jazzlike without having the freewheeling spontaneity and thematic push-and-pull of the best jazz, since Vanschothorst in effect “hands off” to the other players but cannot take handoffs back from them. Technical elements aside, the music is often intended to evoke and explicate elements of nature: three works’ titles refer to trees, three others to birds. But there is nothing particularly emotive about any of the music, and nothing to prevent title-swapping – no work reflects its label intimately enough so that listeners will realize what Vanschothorst is getting at without the benefit of the label she bestows. Nevertheless, it will be interesting – for some listeners, although scarcely all – to hear the many ways in which a harp can lead or be incorporated into contemporary music that comes across primarily as jazz but that retains a certain level of classical sensitivity, if not formal style.