February 11, 2016


Steve Reich: Mallet Quartet; Sextet; Nagoya Marimbas; Music for Pieces of Wood. Third Coast Percussion (Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, David Skidmore). Cedille. $16.

Roberto Sierra: Sinfonía No. 3, “La Salsa”; Beyond the Silence of Sorrow; Borikén; El Baile. Martha Guth, soprano; Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maximiano Valdés. Naxos. $12.99.

Joseph Koykkar: Panache; Interfacing; Inside Out; Keyboard Dances; Double Take; Streets and Bridges; Triple Play. Ravello. $14.99.

     Fans of vibraphones and marimbas, fans of the incessant beat of rock music, fans of minimalism, fans of slow-developing thematic material, fans of rhythm above harmony, will all be fans of the new Third Coast Percussion recording of Steve Reich’s music on the Cedille label. This is very definitely “fan” music, the entire CD making no attempt to reach out to anyone not already convinced that Reich’s way is the right way and that Third Coast Percussion’s blend of classical and pop sensibilities and performing styles is as good as it gets. The actual performance is excellent, the four percussionists handing off to or blending with one another with a smoothness that is almost intuitive. But the primary effect of the CD is of an hour of mostly the same thing. Reich’s pulsing rhythms, so repetitious that even telling the difference between the first movements of Mallet Quartet and Sextet (both marked “Fast”) is by no means easy, comes across in a kind of NewAge-y absorptive way, inviting contemplation by those committed to Reich’s techniques and boredom by those who remain unconvinced. Melodic lines have never much interested Reich, with the result that his music seems particularly appropriate for a percussion ensemble; and, again, the playing here is first-rate. But the music rarely goes anywhere – and when it does inch toward a goal, it does so in miniscule steps. This is exactly what Reich wants, and simply hearing the ongoing rhythmic beat of the percussion on this CD is a hypnotically involving experience. Yet the underlying sameness of the material eventually becomes a distraction: it is hard not to wonder, at some point, whether anything is going to happen beyond the repetition. As usual in Reich, something does happen, or some things do, but it takes a long time (measured experientially, not always by the clock) for occurrences to occur. Sonically, the most intriguing work here is Music for Pieces of Wood, which – despite overstaying its welcome – offers some blends and contrasts not heard in the other works. Reich has many fans, and Third Coast Percussion’s members are clearly among them. This CD will not likely create any new ones, but it will firm up the commitment of those already enamored of the Reich ethos.

     The musical blendings in the works of Roberto Sierra on a new Naxos CD consist partly of rethinkings of old forms and structures and partly of new uses of contemporary approaches, Reich’s included. It is easy to see some Reich influence in Beyond the Silence of Sorrow (2002), a setting of six poems by N. Scott Momaday for soprano and very restrained orchestra. The orchestra’s firm delegation to the background leaves it to Martha Guth to declaim the poems, which are really chants, and she does so quite well – to music that acknowledges its minimalist roots through the soprano’s repetitive melody as well as the fading-into-background nature of the accompaniment. The work itself is effectively lyrical, drawing parallels between the fecundity (or lack of it) of land and that of women, ranging from the opening Prayer to the Land through movements called About Me Like a Robe, To Tell You of My Love, A Cradle for This Child, Little Newborn and The Woman Who Walked Here. This is a cycle about love and loss, about fertility and barrenness, about growth and emptiness, the chanted nature of the material lending it an almost mystical aura. The sensitive playing by the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra under Maximiano Valdés helps frame the emotional content. The other major work here is Sinfonía No. 3, “La Salsa” (2005), and here there is some apparent influence of Astor Piazzolla, the Argentinian tango composer who worked both with the dance in its original form and with it in a transformative, concert-hall way. Sierra does something analogous here with a habanera, two danzas by Juan Morel Campos, and line dances from a celebration called the jolgorio. Taking some of the dances’ rhythms at face value while stretching and playing with others, Sierra offers a mixture of stylization and personal interpretation of the dance forms, with particular attention to the works’ rhythmic strength – nicely handled by the orchestra. The CD also includes two works that mix older classical forms with twists of various sorts. El Baile (2012) is a theme and variations based on Bach’s name (the notes B-flat, A, C and B natural) and including references to popular Puerto Rican dances – a rather odd combination that sounds a bit over-clever but has some affecting moments. And Borikén (2005) looks back to Bach’s time not for the composer’s name but for a form he used, the chaconne. The work’s title refers to the original name of Puerto Rico, and the music includes popular and folklike tunes laid atop the Baroque structure. Here too the mixture is a bit forced, but the sound of the work is pleasant and colorful and its overall effect is a positive one.

     Dances of mixed provenance are also among the works featured on a new Ravello CD of the music of Joseph Koykkar. Keyboard Dances (performed by pianists Todd Welbourne and Ilia Radoslavov) includes blues, rock and a bit of boogie-woogie. But Koykkar does more than mix musical genres: he expands them by incorporating computer-generated sounds, as in Triple Play and Interfacing (both featuring solo pianist Welbourne). The rhythmic intensity of Koykkar’s music is ever-present, if not especially distinctive; and the use of electronic or computer-generated sounds is also nothing really new anymore. But Koykkar strives mightily to use multiple techniques and sonic displays for carefully thought-out purposes – Streets and Bridges, for example, is a set of three piano pieces (played by Jeri-Mae Astolfi) intended to represent specific places in Milwaukee. Aside from the four piano works, this CD includes three for chamber groups. Panache, played by the Relâche Ensemble (Bob Butryn, clarinet and bass clarinet; John Dulik, piano; Chris Hanning, percussion; Jon Gaarder, bassoon; Michele Kelly, flute; Ruth Frazier, viola; Douglas Mapp, bass; Lloyd Shorter, oboe and English horn), is bright and upbeat, with distinct jazz rhythms and something of the feeling of a score for a TV show. Inside Out, performed by the Chicago Saxophone Quartet (Wayne Richards, soprano sax; Paul Bro, alto sax; Leo Saguiguit, tenor sax; James Kasprzyk, baritone sax) contrasts a bright, sometimes frenetic first movement with a warmer but still propulsive (if somewhat repetitive) second.  And Double Take, another Relâche Ensemble performance, combines a touch of swing with some film-music sensibilities and a variety of neatly managed percussive effects. Koykkar tries hard to be innovative and succeeds only intermittently, but much of his music is eminently listenable even if its combination of forms and influences is not especially novel.

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