June 09, 2016
(++++) QUARTETS AND MORE
Abrazo: The Havana Sessions. Ansonica. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Fred Broer: String Quartet No. 8; Piano Pieces Nos. 2, 5, 6 and 8. New England String Quartet (Julia Okrusko and Nelli Jabotinsky, violins; Lilit Muradyan, viola; Ming-Hui Lin, cello); Karolina Rojahn, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Elliott Miles McKinley: String Quartet No. 7; Three Portraits. Martinů Quartet (Lubomír Havlák and Libor Kaňka, violins; Zbyněk Paďourek, viola; Jitka Vlašánková, cello); SOLI Chamber Ensemble (Stephanie Key, clarinet; David Mollenauer, cello; Ertan Torgul, violin; Carolyn True, piano). Navona. $14.99.
Loretta K. Notareschi: String Quartet OCD. Playground Ensemble String Quartet (Sarah Whitnah and Leslie Sawyer, violins; Donald Schumacher, viola; Richard vonFoerster, cello). Disegni Music. $10.
Last Lap: 21st Century Music for Trombone Ensemble. Tromboteam! (Jennifer Griggs, John Grodrian, Ben McIlwain and Sarah Paradis, tenor trombone; Craig Watson, bass trombone). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Ever since Haydn turned the string quartet into a conversational composition in which musicians wordlessly discuss, develop and resolve themes and arguments, the quartet and other chamber ensembles – sometimes string groups, sometimes not – have been excellent ways to communicate a wide variety of emotions. The conversational chamber approach eventually evolved into jazz, and the intermingling of jazz and classical musical elements remains today a fertile field for composers. A two-disc set from Ansonica, recorded in Havana not long after the initial warming of ties between the United States and Cuba and given the title Abrazo (“Hug”), shows this particularly well, nearly breathing a metaphorical sigh of relief at the dismantling of long-rigid political walls. The music here will be entirely unfamiliar to almost all listeners, but there is so much joy, bounce and ingenuity in so many of the pieces that listeners will be eager to make the acquaintance of the works and their composers. The first CD in this two-disc set opens with Hot Miami Nights and On an Autumn Day by Timothy Lee Miller, which serve as “cool jazz” introductions to the rest of the material. Next is Bugs & Gas by Don Bowyer, whose amusing style and elaborate syncopations belie the serious reason for the title: it was commissioned in honor of a man who spent his career decommissioning biological and chemical weapons. Jazz Instrumental Suite and Jazz Vocal Suite by Bunny Beck, both arranged by Juan Manuel Ceruto, are closely attentive to multiple Cuban styles in ways that may remind some listeners of Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. The second CD opens with Alarcón Madrigals, Book 3, by Roger Bourland, a work less Cuban in focus than multinational: it uses the bilingual poetry of Francisco X. Alarcón in five well-structured movements. Burlesque by John A. Carollo is another five-movement work, making a strong contrast to Bourland’s through lighthearted humor delivered by the unusual instrumental mixture of trumpet and guitar. Warm Winds in Havana by Margaret Brandman is a pure quartet – it happens to be for saxophones – and has some very evident and pervasive Cuban touches. Coloring with Water by Mel Mobley is also for brass, this time a trio, and proffers interesting sonic combinations throughout its brief duration. Finally, the release ends on a serious note about change, albeit not specifically involving the United States and Cuba. This is After the Fall by Michael Murray, which uses the poetry of Jodi Kanter to express the intensity of loss felt by so many after the terrorist murders in New York City on September 11, 2001. The title of the final movement, “Changing Home,” has resonance not only for all who remember that viciously murderous event but also, in the context of this release, for all who hope for a new and better era of interaction between Cuba and the United States, in spite of the profound political and philosophical differences that remain between the two countries and the checkered history of their relationship in the past.
Quartet usage is more straightforward on a new Navona CD of music by Fred Boer. The composer’s String Quartet No. 8 is music that sits comfortably in the mainstream of contemporary quartet writing, being generally atonal and moderately acerbic. It features longstanding quartet elements, such as solo passages contrasted with unison ones, and uses a recurrent approach in which orderly, even rather banal elements, such as an ostinato, are set against more angular and argumentative ones. The juxtaposition of energy and lyricism is clearest in the final movement, but all three use this compare-and-contrast approach to some degree. The music is well-made and well-played by the New England String Quartet, but it is not especially memorable. It is paired on the disc with four solo-piano works performed by the ever-diligent Karolina Rojahn, one of the strongest performing advocates of contemporary music for piano. Like the quartet’s movements, the piano works are studies in contrast: No. 2 contains multiple mood changes, No. 5 uses an ostinato-like bass theme and a brighter treble one, No. 6 is playful and makes much use of the instrument’s extreme registers, and No. 8 – the longest piece by far, running 12½ minutes – is mostly dark-hued and agitated until its unexpectedly ethereal ending. Like the quartet, the piano pieces are well-constructed and show strong command of modern compositional techniques, without bending over backwards to sound “different” for the sake of modernity. But also like the string work, those for piano are not especially involving or memorable: they contain interesting elements, but even the shortest seem to go on longer than their elements justify. This is therefore a (+++) CD that will mostly interest listeners already familiar with Boer’s works.
The situation is somewhat similar as regards the music of Elliott Miles McKinley on another (+++) release from Navona. Here, however, the String Quartet No. 7 (2013) has more colors and shows more influences from varying sources, and it is also substantially longer than Boer’s String Quartet No. 8 or most other quartets, whether contemporary or not. McKinley’s work runs no less than 45 minutes, offering six movements whose titles are supposed to evoke their content and, indeed, actually do so to a greater or lesser extent. “Cathedrals of Light and Shadow” opens the piece and features chords of stacked fifths – the stacked-chord approach is a longstanding one in 20th-century music, and still popular with some composers. “Scherzo and Fugue” offers just what its title says, and “Three Vistas” contrasts a recitative-like section with more of the stacked fifths. “A Little Dance” moves from a pizzicato opening to a kind of slow dreaminess. “Riding into the Sky,” the longest movement, is most interesting for its strong jazz influence. The brief “Coda: Toward an Endless Golden Sunset” brings back the stacked fifths and eventually, unsurprisingly, fades away. The work is played by the Martinů Quartet, which commissioned it in memory of the ensemble’s founding violist; the work is not particularly viola-weighted, but treats all the instruments more or less equally in longstanding quartet tradition. It is accompanied on the disc by Three Portraits (2012), another work here performed by the group that commissioned it, in this case the SOLI Chamber Ensemble. Like the quartet, this is a more-extended piece than might be expected, lasting more than 28 minutes. And even more than the quartet, this work displays multiple influences in three movements that are all called “Watercolor” and are associated with three months of the year: July, August and September. The contrasts among the movements are the most attractive element of this work: July’s, marked “warm and breezy,” features trills and chords against one ascending theme and one that descends. August’s, marked “reggae-pop,” mingles those two styles in rather ingratiating fashion. September’s, marked “groove variations,” features lively electronics contrasted with mostly static entries from the instruments, and ends in a playful mood. There is much pleasure in McKinley’s music, which does, however, tend to outlast its welcome: the enjoyment wears down before the pieces’ conclusions.
Enjoyment is not at all the point of Loretta K. Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD, yet another work commissioned by the performers who have now recorded it – in this case, the Playground Ensemble String Quartet. Notareschi here uses not the conversational elements of quartets but their personal ones, employed not by Haydn or Mozart but by Beethoven in some of his quartets and thereafter by many other composers. Notareschi’s work is highly personal and was written for specific purposes – therapeutic ones. It is intended to reflect Notareschi’s experience with postpartum OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and to draw attention to the condition, which is estimated to affect up to 5% of mothers. Like other trauma-related disorders, such as PTSD, postpartum OCD has distinctive characteristics that nevertheless differ from individual to individual. Notareschi seeks a musical way to display hers and at the same time to draw attention to the condition as it manifests in general. Thus, the four-movement quartet starts with “Intruders,” which aims to showcase the intrusive, obsessive thoughts that are characteristic of the disease and is accordingly full of sudden, violent outbursts. “You Must Think I’m Made of Candy Glass” is a repetitive movement based on the verbal and musical patterns that Notareschi felt compelled to produce obsessively in her mind during her bout with postpartum OCD. “Shame,” the most deeply felt movement, is an expression of the grief and despair the composer experienced because of the condition. “A Second Delivery” brings a message of hope at the end, asserting Notareschi’s recovery while at the same time indicating that it was not easy. Unlike many highly personal pieces, String Quartet OCD works rather well as music, the story arc of disease and recovery fitting fairly neatly into four-movement form. The parallels between music and events in Notareschi’s life are not apparent without knowledge of what she went through, but the music makes it clear that trouble of some sort has been encountered, has led to suffering, and has eventually been overcome. The way in which Notareschi communicates her feelings through music is not, in truth, especially distinctive; that reality, plus the fact that the 20-minute quartet appears as the sole work on a Disegni Music CD, means that this is a (+++) release whose advocacy elements are as likely – or more likely – to be attractive to buyers as are its strictly musical ones. The performers handle the quartet with feeling and intensity, with the result that listeners who do feel a commitment to the cause of postpartum OCD may nevertheless find they do not want to relive Notareschi’s experience through this music particularly often.
The quartet – actually a quintet, but who’s counting? – is more unusual in its makeup on a new MSR Classics CD featuring the whimsically named Tromboteam! Yes, the name comes with an exclamation point. Actually, this group does perform quartets, such as the James Kazik Trombone Quartet No. 3 heard on this CD. But it also performs in other configurations. All the works here were commissioned by the performers in a single year, 2013, so certainly they have kept composers (and themselves) busy. The whole project started as a Kickstarter campaign – the crowdfunding concept is an intriguing new development for music and musicians, along the lines of self-releasing CDs, now commonplace but much less frequent a few tears ago. The performers gave the composers little direction for their music, beyond time guidelines, so it is no surprise that the works here are of variable intent and quality. In addition to Kazik’s, which is lighthearted (one movement is labeled “Scherzo-ish”) and swift (four movements in nine minutes), the pieces are Kevin McKee’s Last Lap, which gives the disc its title; Nicholas A Drake’s Fanfair Play; Polina Nazaykinskaya’s Pavana; Inez S. McComas’ Spinner; Greg Danner’s three-movement Ice Cream City; Dorn Younger’s Five Cousins; Kathryn Salfelder’s Fanfare and Fugue; and Alan Thiesen’s three-movement Crescent City Postcards. The composers were mostly born in the 1970s and 1980s – the exceptions being Danner (born 1958) and Younger (1940-2015) – and the music shows both the verve and the stylization affecting (or afflicting) classical works by creators of a certain age. What unites the works, admittedly tenuously, is a certain flair for exploring varying sound worlds within the restrictions of trombone capabilities. The pieces call on varying performance techniques to achieve their aural differences, and the performers rise to every occasion with skill and, apparently, good humor. Indeed, the whole CD is bright and upbeat, even when individual elements aim at somewhat deeper emotions (for instance, the third movement of Kazik’s quartet is marked “Tribute,” and the second movement of Thiesen’s work is called “All Last Night Sat on the Levee and Moaned”). Over an hour of Tromboteam! is rather a lot – after a while, a listener may wonder if the punctuation ought to be a question mark rather than an exclamation point – but there are many individual highlights in this (+++) CD, and the exhilaration underlying the whole project comes through to a considerable degree. It would be stretching things to suggest that these trombone quartets and quintets are conversational in the sense of Haydn’s string quartets, but many do show an awareness of where small-ensemble music has come from, even as they seek to move it into new territory.