July 09, 2015
(+++) VARIETY IS THE SPICE
Moto Continuo: Music of Osias Wilenski, Nicholas Anthony Asciotti, Diane Jones, John A. Carollo, Robert Fleisher, and Brian Noyes. Trio Casals (Sylvia Ahramjian, violin; Ovidiu Marinescu, cello; Anna Kislitsyna, piano). Navona. $16.99.
Robert J. Martin: 100 Views of Mt. Fuji: 100 Pieces in 100 Minutes—Homage to Hokusai; stone & feather; Neely Bruce: Improvisations; Homage to Seb. Shirley Blankenship and Neely Bruce, piano. Ravello. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Tornado Project: Trios for Flute, Clarinet and Computer by Ricardo Climent, Robert Rowe, Paul Wilson, Andrew May, Eric Lyon, and Russell Pinkston. Elizabeth McNutt, flute; Esther Lamneck, clarinet. Ravello. $16.99.
A John Williams Celebration. Itzhak Perlman, violin; Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. C Major DVD. $24.99.
By the Red: Folk Songs from the Red River Valley. Mel Braun, baritone; Laura Loewen, piano; Fred Redekop, mandolin; Jay Taylor, bass; Greg Gardner, percussion. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Light of Gold: Cappella SF Christmas. Cappella SF conducted by Ragnar Bohlin. Delos. $16.99.
Anthology audio projects are inevitably searches for variety, hopefully within an overall context that makes both aural and intellectual sense to listeners. The context of Navona’s CD entitled Moto Continuo (not to be confused with moto perpetuo, although clearly related to it) is not, however, a singular one. Five of the six works are for piano trio – but the sixth, Robert Fleisher’s Ma Mère, is for cello solo. Three of the six tie into and comment upon earlier pieces: Fleisher’s is based on Jeux de Vagues from Debussy’s La mer, with Fleisher’s title and Debussy’s making a French pun (“mother” and “sea”); Brian Noyes’ Piano Trio is titled as being “in the spirit of Ave Maris Stella,” a 1975 piece by Peter Maxwell Davies; and Osias Wilenski’s Variations for Trio is based on a portion of Beethoven’s Große Fuge, Op. 130. One piece on this CD ties to an earlier work by the composer himself: Nicholas Anthony Asciotti’s Adirondack Tableau, adapted from his earlier Adirondack Suite. The remaining two works relate to the natural world but not to specific other pieces of music: Diane Jones’ Three Songs briefly portrays a city street scene, a mountain tableau, and a “Sky Song,” in which a spirit watches from above; and John A. Carollo’s Piano Trio No. 1 was inspired by the terrorist murders of September 11, 2001. Such a mixed bag of music produces, not surprisingly, mixed responses. Fleisher’s piece is rather incomprehensible for anyone who is not intimately familiar with the Debussy on which it is based. Noyes’ is less directly tied to the Davies piece in whose spirit it was written, although knowledge of that work certainly makes the rhetorical gestures of Noyes easier to comprehend. Wilenski’s trio stands well enough on its own so that even listeners not highly familiar with Beethoven’s Große Fuge can appreciate it – although Noyes’ second movement, in particular, gains in clarity if listeners do know the Beethoven. Asciotti’s piece is not particularly evocative of the Adirondacks, or indeed of any specific landscape, and comes across better if heard as absolute rather than image-focused music. Jones’ work, on the other hand, does make a genuine effort to reflect specific places, although it is rather obvious in doing so. And Carollo’s trio, whatever its impetus, is a work of some depth and strength, a touch long-winded but generally effective. This CD will be of most interest to people familiar with Trio Casals, which performs all the works with fine individual and ensemble playing.
The two-CD Ravello set whose major work, 100 Views of Mt. Fuji, takes up even more than the 100 minutes its title claims (closer to 106), is really only for people who know the art of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) beyond his most famous portrayal of a huge foreground wave with Mt. Fuji in the background. In terms of pieces intended to evoke specific images, Robert J. Martin’s stands out for the precision with which he tries to translate Hokusai art into sound: every movement of Martin’s work bears a title that listeners must know in order to comprehend what the composer is trying to portray (A Fast Ascent, Purple, Evening in the Shadow of Fuji, Swimming Through Moonlight, Different Worlds, Lanterns Moving on the Mountain, and so on – and on). Listening to the music without knowing the movements’ titles is a lost cause: nothing coming from the piano (which Shirley Blankenship plays with a fine mixture of strength and delicacy) actually sounds much like what the titles say, so listeners must familiarize themselves with those titles and then try to understand why the composer wrote particular pieces to go with particular scenes. Certainly 100 Views of Mt. Fuji is a highly ambitious work, but it is not a particularly engrossing one on a strictly musical basis – listeners must actively engage themselves in relating concrete portrayals of scenes rendered by Hokusai with the necessarily abstract impressions delivered by music, which Leonard Bernstein once famously pointed out “does not mean anything.” A similar relationship between concrete and abstract is called for in Martin’s much shorter stone & feather, whose title shows the composer’s intention of contrasting heavier and lighter musical elements. Also on this recording are two works by Neely Bruce. Homage to Seb is another contemporary piece that harks back to something much earlier, in this case to the music of Bach, which Bruce treats as an opportunity to explore atonality in much the way that Bach so assiduously investigated tonality. The work is rhythmically interesting, if not particularly profound. Bruce’s Improvisations is a set of 13 short pieces in which Bruce, like Martin in his tribute to Hokusai, tries to guide listeners in specific directions by presenting them with titles that are keys to what the music is supposed to portray: Frost into Flame, The Vast Night Brooded, Across the Summer Grain, The Feline Sea, etc. Bruce’s work, like Martin’s, does not really pin down the visual images evoked by the titles, but listeners willing to strain a bit to hear what the composer intends will find those titles to be reasonably helpful touchstones.
The variety inherent in Tornado Project, a concept of composers Ricardo Climent and Paul Wilson, comes from the fact that all six pieces on Ravello’s new CD use the same basic sonic building blocks (flute, clarinet, and computer-generated sounds) and flow from the same foundational notion of winds and wood flying through the air. One of the keys in most of this music is that the instruments play against their inherent natures rather than in line with them: the clarinet, in particular, is a richly textured instrument with a particularly sonorous chalumeau lower region and a sometimes-uncanny ability to imitate the human voice – but in these works, it is generally thin, shrill, and given pointed (even pointillist) notes rather than the lyrical legato to which it more naturally gravitates. Using the computer to create the impression of chaos and color, all six composers here seem primarily interested in producing the same set of moods: now turbulent (like a windstorm), now ethereal (like a gentle breeze), now static, now eerie. The pieces sound different, to be sure, but not in any way distinctive enough for listeners uninvolved in the Tornado Project itself to choose one or more that stand apart from, much less above, the others. Perhaps this is just the sort of collaborative effort that Climent (who contributes Russian Disco) and Wilson (Beneath the Surface) intend. The other works here, all handled skillfully by Elizabeth McNutt and Esther Lamneck, are Robert Rowe’s Primary Colors, Andrew May’s Still Angry, Eric Lyon’s Trio for flute, clarinet, and computer, and Russell Pinkston’s e++. The Rowe and Pinkston pieces date to 2009, the other works to 2007, but all certainly fit within the Tornado Project concept. Listeners familiar with it will have a far greater sense of participating in this CD through listening to it than will ones who simply come to the disc, as it were, cold.
There is, in fact, a coldness to a great deal of contemporary music, as there was to the self-proclaimed electronic music of the mid-20th century and, indeed, to at least some twelvetone and aggressively atonal music dating back considerably further in time. This may be one reason that the overt, even overdone warmth of much film music proves irresistibly attractive not only to many listeners but also to many performers. The opening-night concert of the 2014/15 season of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was testimony to this attraction, offering an hour and a half of the decidedly tonal and very definitely warmly effusive music of John Williams. Yes, there is variety here, but it is the variety of the topics of the films for which Williams has written, not any significant variety in the orchestrations or the basic handling of melodic (very melodic) material in an entirely tonal universe. The new C Major DVD of this concert, which features enthusiastic playing by the orchestra under the always-enthusiastic Gustavo Dudamel and includes Itzhak Perlman making another of his many upbeat appearances, is a treat for fans of Schindler’s List, Fiddler on the Roof, Catch Me if You Can, Amistad and, emphatically, Star Wars. There is also a cleverly constructed occasional piece here called Soundings, in which Williams writes a work for the Walt Disney Concert Hall where this concert took place – and specifically designs some of the music to reverberate in a way that makes the hall itself seem to be a participant in the performance (which, in truth, every venue is, although normally not this explicitly). There is something facile about Williams’ music (and, as well, about some of Perlman’s playing and Dudamel’s conducting here) – yes, there is occasional depth to what Williams writes, but this music is mostly surface-level flash whose gestures are clever and calculated rather than motivated by any particularly deep impulse. Indeed, in a sense, all these works are occasional music, the occasions being the movies for which Williams created most of the pieces heard here. The familiar tunes will certainly be enjoyable for the films’ fans, and even the unfamiliar Soundings will lie comfortably in the ears of those who have not previously heard it. There is never anything challenging in Williams’ music, nor is there meant to be: it serves a specific purpose, and serves it well. The interviews offered on the DVD with Williams, Dudamel and Perlman tend to give the material more gravitas than it really deserves, but that is somewhat forgivable in the course of what is, after all, a “tribute” concert. Best to take neither the words nor the music itself too seriously.
In the same way, the professed emotions of most folk music are not to be taken too seriously, even when delivered in exaggerated form (perhaps especially then). The 15 offerings on a new release from Big Round Records provide evidence of this. There is certainly a striving for variety here: although most tracks are songs sung by baritone Mel Braun, with fine piano accompaniment by Laura Loewen and interesting periodic interjections by Fred Redekop, Jay Taylor and Greg Gardner, there are some instrumentals to break things up (The Agony of the Dance, for instance, and Meet Big and Dinky, that being the name under which Redekop and Taylor perform on mandolin and bass), and some unexpected arrangements (Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie for soloist and chorus). Most listeners will likely be highly familiar only with Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie and Red River Valley: the remaining music contains some surprises. The intended setting of the disc is not the Red River Valley of Texas but that of Manitoba, Canada; as a result, the folk music presented, although some of it dovetails with U.S. “cowboy culture,” also includes material that is French Canadian, German Mennonite, Scots, and drawn from the aboriginal Métis people. The emotional compass of the works is not especially wide or deep, but these pieces certainly do draw, at least in a superficial way, on the things that make people human no matter where they live: love, sacrifice, exile, determination, and (perhaps above all) humor. Nine of the 15 tracks come from traditional sources, but whether the music has been around for centuries or was composed recently, it all sounds simple, straightforward, tuneful and easy to hear – lacking any particular profundity, perhaps, but all the more pleasing for not claiming to possess any. One notably successful Scotsman, Andrew Carnegie, once said, “There is little success where there is little laughter,” and certainly this CD cannot be said to lack that particular element of accomplishment.
And how, then, does one seek variety and success in a 20-track release focused entirely on the same subject, Christmas, and sung a cappella throughout? Ragnar Bohlin, who founded Capella SF in 2014 and directs it on its new Delos recording, comes up with an intriguing approach by mixing not only languages (as on By the Red) but also musical time periods, works familiar and unfamiliar, and the secular with the sacred. To the pieces by notable composers (Praetorius’ Psallite unigenito, Britten’s Balulalow and This little babe) are added traditional sacred and worldly songs and even a spiritual (Go Tell It on the Mountain in Bohlin’s own arrangement). Silent Night is juxtaposed with Ding, dong! Merrily on high, and a CD that opens with Veni, veni, Emmanuel (also in a Bohlin arrangement) concludes 57 minutes later with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. There is even a piece composed especially for this choir and receiving its world première recording: Fredrik Sixten’s There is no rose (which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the longest work on the disc). The singing is uniformly smooth, elegant and beautifully blended, whether the choir is holding forth in Latin or English, in centuries-old music or contemporary works. Although quite clearly a winter-season disc, this CD’s release in summer shows Bohlin’s determination to make Cappella SF a choir for all seasons – a clichéd notion that has more-than-usual applicability here. It is true that even when music is sung this well and varied as much as possible within its context, some listeners will find that the sameness of the choir’s overall sound wears on the ears a bit or blends into the background – although that can be a reason to enjoy the disc on several hearings rather than straight through. Christmas music itself is not universally appealing, nor is a cappella singing, so Light of Gold is by definition intended for some listeners and not for others. Yet it will certainly bring joy, if not to the world, then to quite a few music lovers within it.