September 29, 2016
(+++) CHAMBER SOUNDS AND EVOCATIONS
Rebecca Clarke: Trio for Violin, Violoncello, and Piano; Arno Babajanian: Piano Trio; Frank Martin: Trio sur des melodies populaires irlandaises. Lincoln Trio (Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; Marta Aznavoorian, piano). Cedille. $16.
Anthony Plog: Concerto No. 1 for Solo Trumpet and Large Brass Ensemble; Joel Puckett: The Shadow of Sirius—Concerto for Flute and Wind Orchestra; Jay Krush: Concerto for Bass Trombone; Jennifer Higdon: Oboe Concerto—For Solo Oboe and Wind Ensemble; David Maslanka: Desert Roads—Four Songs for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble; Adam Silverman: Carbon Paper and Nitrogen Ink—Concerto for Marimba and Wind Ensemble. Temple University Wind Symphony conducted by Emily Threinen. BCM+D Records. $12.97 (2 CDs).
Aleksandra Vrebalov: The Sea Ranch Songs. Kronos Quartet (David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Sunny Yang, cello); video and animation by Andrew Lyndon. Cantaloupe Music CD+DVD. $20.
Taylor Brook: El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan; Andrew Greenwald: A thing is a hole in a thing it is not; Kate Soper: Nadja. Kate Soper, soprano; Mivos Quartet (Olivia De Prato and Lauren Cauley, violins; Victor Lowrie, viola; Mariel Roberts, cello). New Focus Recordings. $17.99.
The creativity of performers in plumbing new works and bringing them to a wider audience knows no bounds – although the works themselves sometimes establish boundaries by simply being in-your-face (or in-your-ear) unappealing, as if some composers are determined to show how up-to-date they are by creating pieces to which only they and selected performers are likely to gravitate. That is certainly not the case with the composers represented on an excellent new Cedille release featuring the Lincoln Trio. Although most listeners will be encountering these works, and two of the three composers, for the first time, this is a highly intelligently assembled program featuring musicians – both performers and composers – who clearly have communication with the audience in the forefront of their minds. The concept here, as the CD’s title has it, is “Trios from Our Homelands,” and yes, that is a gimmick – but one that works very well indeed when the music is as good as it is here. Switzerland’s Frank Martin (1890-1974), from the homeland of violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, is the best-known composer on the disc, and his Trio sur des melodies populaires irlandaises (1925), if scarcely a work of great significance, is tuneful, artfully assembled and highly enjoyable to hear, the Irish melodies pervasive and handled by composer and performers alike with real flair. Trio for Violin, Violoncello, and Piano (1922) by Rebecca Clark (1886-1979) is also distinguished by tunefulness and fine crafting; it represents England, homeland of cellist David Cunliffe. The work is large-scale and emotionally varied, with a particularly affecting central Andante molto semplice that the players deliver with just the right combination of passion and clarity. The most-recent work here is the trio by Armenia’s Arno Babajanian (1921-1983), from the homeland of pianist Marta Aznavoorian. Dating to 1952, it is an impassioned piece with two slower, somewhat emotionally overdone movements (marked Largo and Andante) followed by a speedy finale that dispels some of the tension while refusing to let all of it evaporate. What is exceptional on this disc is not only the excellent playing but also the underlying thoughtfulness of the program, taking what could have been mere thematic gimmickry and turning it into a truly revelatory exploration of 20th-century musical thinking by composers in three very different parts of the world.
A high degree of thoughtfulness has also gone into the assembly of a program of wind concerti offered on a two-CD release from the awkwardly named BCM+D label. The letters stand for Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance, and it is that school’s musicians who are highlighted here, along with soloists from the Philadelphia Orchestra. All the music here is from the United States, all of it was written by living composers, and none of it has the emotional impact of the works played by the Lincoln Trio – but none of it seems intended to connect in that way. The six works are all showpieces of one sort or another, and it is the playing, more than the underlying material being communicated, that is most attractive. David Bilger is featured in Concerto No. 1 for Solo Trumpet and Large Brass Ensemble (1988) by Anthony Plog (born 1947), himself a trumpet player – and a rather demanding composer, on the basis of this work. David Cramer is soloist in The Shadow of Sirius (2010) by Joel Puckett (born 1977), which is based on the poetry of W.S. Merwin and offers considerable expressiveness, especially in the solo part. Blair Bollinger plays solo bass trombone in the 2007 concerto by Jay Krush (born 1953), which is a work requiring considerable virtuosity from an instrument not usually thought of as having much solo potential. Jonathan Blumenfeld is soloist in the 2008 concerto by Jennifer Higdon (born 1962), which likewise puts the solo instrument through considerable paces. Ricardo Morales plays solo clarinet in Desert Roads (2005) by David Maslanka (born 1943), in which the clarinet’s ability to match the range of the human voice is well-used to convey the sense of the songs that inspired the composer. And Phillip O’Banion plays marimba in Carbon Paper and Nitrogen Ink (2013) by Adam Silverman (born 1973), a work that stretches the solo instrument in some unexpected directions that are intellectually interesting even when they do not sound especially good. Through all the pieces, the Temple University Wind Symphony under Emily Threinen provides solid, well-balanced backup, resulting in a release that does its job as a showcase for the university’s music school very well indeed, while also giving listeners an opportunity to sample mostly well-made music for some expected solo wind instruments and some decidedly unexpected ones.
There is an underlying communicative impulse to all the works on the Temple University release, even when it does not come through especially clearly; this is very different from the sort of communicative experience sought by Aleksandra Vrebalov, the Kronos Quartet and Andrew Lyndon in a Cantaloupe Music release called The Sea Ranch Songs. The Sea Ranch is a 1,300-person community in Sonoma County, California, that proclaims itself “environmentally planned.” It is 94% white and 83% age 45 or older, so it is quite clearly an enclave – and there is nothing wrong with that at all, except to the extent that the community promotes itself as a kind of utopian haven for a world that looks very little like The Sea Ranch itself. There is some wonderful architecture in the community, and its views of the Pacific Ocean are remarkable, helping explain why it is a popular spot for day trips and overnight vacationers. And this is undoubtedly a very carefully planned community – one whose meticulousness, however, would not work on a larger scale. Vrebalov’s music and Lyndon’s visuals are hagiographic in the extreme, treating The Sea Ranch not only as a kind of paradise on Earth but also as the sort of place to which people everywhere should aspire. The music starts by portraying the Pomo Kashia Indians who lived long ago in the area, then deals with early Russian settlers who lived harmoniously with the Indians instead of displacing them, and then celebrates the area’s planning, development, environmental awareness, and so forth. Vrebalov admits in the booklet notes to the recording that The Sea Ranch “might be utopian” on a global scale, but argues for its “urgent relevance in our wounded world.” This recording project does not, however, come across that way: what emerges is the sense that people everywhere should live this way and only fail to do so because they are ignorant or misguided (and, by the by, do not have land available right on the Pacific Ocean). The beauty of The Sea Ranch is impressive, and the DVD in this set makes it abundantly clear. Vrebalov’s music, though, is hopelessly naïve and almost desperate in its attempt to be important and meaningful in ways that composers less freighted with sociopolitical baggage (such as Clarke, Babajanian, Martin and those represented on the Temple University recording) achieve more clearly and cleanly. The physical loveliness of The Sea Ranch and the attractiveness of some of Vrebalov’s music lead to a (+++) rating for this release, but it will certainly not be for all tastes and is likely to inspire as much cynicism as admiration in listeners and viewers who find the whole recording, and The Sea Ranch itself, to be hopelessly self-important.
Even more limited in audience and even less inclined to compromise in any way to reach a wider group, a new Mivos Quartet release on the New Focus Recordings label shows a great deal about the gap between listeners in general and contemporary composers who write primarily for themselves and those who think just as they do. If The Sea Ranch Songs is overdone on the utopian scale, the three works offered here are overthought on a different scale altogether. They are uniformly well-made within the strictures that the composers set for themselves, but they are so hyper-intellectual and so lacking in any of the emotional connection of which music is capable that listeners are likely to be bored, puzzled or fed up in short order by what they hear – in more or less equal amounts. This state of affairs comes through especially clearly in Nadja (2013-2015) by composer/soprano Kate Soper. The three movements offer poems by authors whose works could scarcely be more different: Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Ovid; and André Breton. In her composition and her performance, Soper manages to make all the poetry sound essentially identical – a remarkable accomplishment, although scarcely one that most listeners will find worthy of celebration. The other pieces here are similar in both cerebral heft and emotional vapidity. Taylor Brook’s 2013 work, whose title translates as “The Garden of Diverging Paths” and is taken from another literary source, a short story by the remarkable Jorge Luis Borges, imagines six ways in which musical history might have diverged from the path it took in our world. That leads Brook to create six movements intended to show where music as we know it might have gone, but did not. This is an intriguing thought experiment, and the movements’ titles lend hope that it might be an audible one as well: “Altercation,” “Pedals,” “Strumming,” “Following,” “Lament” and “Coils.” But in practice, very little of the erudite underpinning of the music comes through: performers – including the very adept members of the Mivos Quartet – will certainly see the ways in which these miniature tone poems explore alternative realities, but it is asking too much of any but a very esoteric audience indeed to expect listeners to be able to follow and understand just where this music is supposed to be going. The third work on the CD, Andrew Greenwald’s A thing is a hole in a thing it is not (2010), is one of those portentously titled pieces that are supposed to mean a great deal – which perhaps it will to people who are highly familiar with Carl Andre, the American minimalist artist from whom the title is taken. Or perhaps not even the cognoscenti will see how the extreme sonic environment of this work, whose 11 minutes seem nearly interminable, relates to Andre’s production. The point is not that any of these pieces is misguided – indeed, they are all taken just where the composers want to take them, and the Mivos Quartet delves into the material with enthusiasm and in grand style, a major reason the CD gets a (+++) rating. But the extreme dryness of the material, the complete lack of understanding or caring that not everyone who might hear this music functions at the rarefied level of those who created it, makes this CD into a self-referential exercise whose communicative potential is confined to those “in the know,” who will congratulate themselves that they “get” so much more than lesser mortals do. Unfortunately, preaching to the choir produces few converts to one’s beliefs – although it is by no means clear that these composers are reaching out to anyone who is not already convinced of the importance of what they are producing.