November 20, 2014


Christina Rusnak: Chat; Chill; Highline. Big Round Records. $12.99.

Kim Halliday: Halflight and other works. Ravello. $14.99.

Gerald Cohen: Works for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble. Navona. $16.99.

Paul Osterfield: Sound and Fury and other chamber music. Navona. $14.99.

     The PARMA Recordings labels – Navona, Ravello and Big Round Records – provide useful and consistently well-played samplings of music that is available elsewhere only rarely, if at all. Collectively, the labels not only show the continuing dynamism of today’s classical composers but also give interested listeners a chance to hear the many ways in which composers, whether they self-identify as “classical” or not, make use of the increasing hybridization of musical forms. For various reasons, these recordings are not usually the sort that will attract a wide audience, but as niche products, they are almost always of interest to listeners already familiar with the composers and/or the forms in which they choose to work. For example, few listeners who do not know Christina Rusnak’s esthetic will want to spend $12.99 for 26 minutes of her music arranged for big band and large jazz ensemble. But this Big Round Records release will be attractive to people who respond to Rusnak’s atmospheric compositional sense and the ways in which she tries to reflect aspects of modern life through instrumentation. Thus, Chat uses instruments to represent intermingling human voices and experiences as found in Internet chat rooms. Chill is intended to showcase “cool jazz,” with jazz’s typical mixture of relaxed sections and livelier ones with a “swing” feeling to them. Highline is designed to represent outdoor spaces and the opportunities they offer in a crowded urban environment for reflection and aimless wandering. The works are pleasant to hear even without knowing their intended topics, and they sound quite good in these arrangements by Dave Richards.

     Kim Halliday’s music is influenced more by rock than jazz and is most often heard at the movies, for which he often composes. A new Ravello CD offers 17 short tracks by him, some vocal and some instrumental, with elements drawn from film, rock and electronic music. Halliday himself performs on guitar and is responsible, with Martin Lister, for the arrangements, loops and programming that are central to all this music. Lister, the disc’s producer, is also heard on keyboard and drums, and several other performers get “vox” credits for specific tracks: Angie Giles, Laura Glover, Dave Maybrick, and Lara and Alexis Siougas. The technical elements of this music are more central to its effect than the specific performers, and there is not all that much to distinguish any particular track from any other except for different instrumental emphases and changing uses of physical and electronic sounds. The tracks’ titles are supposed to point listeners in particular aural directions – “Cold Moon,” “Creepers,” “Hellingly Hospital,” “Deluge,” “7 Deaths” and so forth – but these are at most indications of atmosphere, not topics to which the music adheres slavishly. The pieces suggest emotions of various sorts without ever delving into any of them particularly deeply – a not-surprising state of affairs for a film-music composer – and will mainly interest listeners who find their combinations of form and instrumentation intriguing.

     The instrument that is the primary focus of a new Navona CD of music by Gerald Cohen is the clarinet. Cohen’s music here shows jazz and traditional-Jewish influences as well as an appreciation of elements of classical forms. Vasko Dukovski is the clarinetist in all four works on the disc, and Alexandra Joan appears as pianist in them all. Two of the four pieces are in single movements: Variously Blue for clarinet, violin (Jennifer Choi) and piano, and Grneta Variations for clarinet duo (Dukovski and Ismail Lumanovski) and piano – the trio collectively called the Grneta Ensemble. Both of these one-movement works are in variation form, the first using a strongly blues-influenced theme and the second designed to highlight interplay between the two clarinets as well as among the three-performer ensemble. Also on this CD, the Grneta Ensemble performs Sea of Reeds, which the composer calls “Five Songs for Clarinet Duo and Piano” and which changes five Jewish, Hebrew-language vocal works that Cohen has written into instrumental clarinet showpieces. There is strong Jewish influence as well in Yedid Nefesh for clarinet, viola (Maria Lambros) and piano. Based on a Sephardic song, the five-movement work explores the melody in considerable detail, from the inward-looking to the exuberant. This is the longest work on the disc, nearly twice the length of any of the others, and gives Cohen the chance to take a single kernel of an idea and run it through some very wide-ranging paces indeed. The use of viola makes this a particularly mellow-sounding piece, with the string instrument complementing the clarinet’s range to fine effect. The disc will be of particular interest to clarinet fanciers and to listeners interested in the adaptation of Jewish melodies and songs to a series of trios with differing instrumental makeup.

     Two of the four works on a new Navona CD of the music of Paul Osterfield are also trios, but here the composer’s inspiration lies in nature and in specific performers’ capabilities rather than in a particular religious or cultural context. Sound and Fury was written for and is here played by the Blakemore Trio (Carolyn Huebl, violin; Felix Wang, cello; Amy Dorfman, piano). It is a three-movement work of considerable contrasts, using lyricism as a springboard to virtuosic and intensely rhythmic passages. Smoky Mountain Autumn, also in three movements, is an attempt to portray Tennessee nature scenes, its three movements designed to be musical visions of the region’s fall foliage, as interpreted through the sounds of violin (Andrea Dawson), horn (Angela DeBoer) and piano (Lynn Rice-See). There is nothing particularly distinguished in the tone painting here, but the music is certainly well-crafted. So it is as well in Kandinsky Images for violin (Michael Jorgensen) and piano (Caleb Harris) – a piece intended to interpret four of the painter’s works in musical terms. The work does not stand on its own particularly well, although listeners familiar with the specific Kandinsky paintings will enjoy deciding for themselves how well Osterfield has reflected them. Pianist Harris is both the performer and the person for whom Osterfield wrote the final work on this CD, √Čtudes for Piano, Book 1, an interesting set of six pieces in which, as the title indicates, the composer sets out to give pianists chances to display their prowess – specifically, in syncopation, arpeggiation, runs, chords and other elements of keyboard performance. These works do not extend significantly beyond the “display” range: there is not much musical meat on their bones, aside from the technical elements they showcase. But they are, like the rest of the music on this disc, well-constructed by a composer who has filtered the influences of the past through his own clear sensibility.

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