April 19, 2018
(+++) START WITH THE VOICE
Mark Abel: The Invocation; Those Who Loved Medusa; In the Rear View Mirror, Now; The Ocean of Forgiveness; The Benediction. Hila Plitmann, soprano; Janelle DeStefano, mezzo-soprano; Tali Tadmor and Carol Rosenberger, piano; Bruce Carver, percussion; Mark Abel, organ. Delos. $14.98.
Margaret Brandman: Cosmic Wheel of the Zodiac—A Song Cycle for the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac. Barbora Polášková, mezzo-soprano; Matěj Chadima, baritone; Petr Ožana, piano; Prague Mixed Chamber Choir conducted by Jiří Petrdlík. Navona. $14.99.
Joanna Estelle: Umori [Moods}; Susannah’s Lullaby; Language of a Rose; Moyi mamij [For My Mother]; Qu’est-ce que c’est la vie?(Hommage à Diana, Princesse de Galles); Abwoon d’bwashmaya [Aramaic Lord’s Prayer]; Water Canticle; La chanson de ton coeur [The Song of Your Heart]; Child of the Manger; Song for Abwoon. Navona. $14.99.
John Alan Rose: Piano Concerto “Tolkien Tale”; Old Father Time; 25,000 Years of Peace; Ticket to the Theater. John Alan Rose, piano; JungWon Choi, cello; Moni Simeonov, violin; Sing Rose, soprano; Tyler Bunch, narrator; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
Art songs are an acquired taste even for many listeners who otherwise enjoy classical compositions. Modern art songs are even more rarefied, with composers rarely content to write “pretty” music or to explore fanciful stories or idealized romance – seeking instead to find significance and communicate their seriousness to an audience. Thus, even when well-thought-out and well-composed, contemporary songs often require more of a listener than attentiveness and enjoyment of the music and lyrics: they mandate acceptance of the composer’s worldview and an unspoken agreement to share it, at least for the duration of the performance. Certainly this is true of the music of Mark Abel on a new Delos CD. Abel’s music, which like that of many contemporary composers includes jazz and rock elements, is firmly in the service of the words he chooses to set – by himself, Kate Gale and Joanne Regenhardt. In and of itself, the music is not especially distinguished or memorable – but it gains stature in supporting and enhancing the verbiage, which is clearly what matters most to Abel in these songs. The songs’ topics are modern to post-modern, tied to causes-of-the-day that provide immediacy (especially for those who see the causes the same way Abel does) but that are unlikely to give the material much staying power. However, as songs and song cycles exploring issues-of-the-moment, the material is effective. After some rather obvious musing about the uncertainty of life in The Invocation, Abel uses Those Who Loved Medusa not to explore any lasting truths but to support strictly contemporary views of rape and rapine. The well-considered use of percussion here is the song’s most-effective element. The three-song cycle, In the Rear View Mirror, Now, in which Abel himself plays the organ, is about attachments, both personal and to the world, and how they change and disappoint. Its second element, The World Clock, is especially narrowly focused, having to do with the city of San Francisco and specifically with the ways in which technology has changed it. Soprano Hila Plitmann handles all the songs with care and emotive skill, but even more striking is mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano’s delivery of the emotionalism of The Ocean of Forgiveness, the cycle on this disc that reaches out most strongly to listeners. This cycle works because, although Regenhardt’s words are partly inspired by specific locales, such as a desert area near San Diego, the words do not insist on topicality or on dealing with straitened concerns of the current sociopolitical environment. Instead, they use highly specific occurrences – as in Sally’s Suicide, the second of the five songs – to try to connect with listeners facing their own turmoil and life difficulties. Abel’s musical support of the words is particularly effective in this cycle, whose final song, Patience, would have made a genuinely thoughtful conclusion for the CD. Unfortunately, the disc includes one more song, The Benediction, and it is an altogether lesser piece, starting with the words “from sea to shining sea” and dwelling on the notion of a country “crying out for truth and reason.” The eventual statement that “open hearts must point the way” trivializes some genuinely troubling elements of modern life and makes the finish of this recording less trenchant than it could have been.
Margaret Brandman’s Cosmic Wheel of the Zodiac comes at major issues of life in a different way – twice, once through solos and duets and once using a chorus to present the same musical material. Like Abel, Brandman goes beyond traditional classical music not only through extended harmonies but also by incorporating jazz and other styles, such as swing. The music itself is more interesting on this Navona CD than is the case on the Abel disc, partly because the words are of less consequence: they were written by an astrologer (Benita Rainer) and are supposed to present the characteristics of people born under the various sun signs. In strictly musical terms, it does not matter whether the lyrics are nonsensical, since Brandman uses them as a jumping-off point for a series of songs whose moods include the quiet and meditative (Libra), expansive (Sagittarius), bright and energetic (Capricorn), mysterious (Aries and Pisces), upbeat and light (Cancer), and more. The double performance of the material is rather odd: the cycle runs a bit more than 30 minutes in both versions, and the pacing of the individual songs is pretty much the same, with the choral version slightly longer and the solo-and-duet version offering easier-to-understand words. It is certainly not necessary to accept any of the tenets of astrology in order to enjoy the contrasting personality characteristics presented by Brandman (who apparently does take the material seriously). But listeners may well wish for somewhat more contrast among the songs: the pacing does vary, but the overall feel of the musical material is much the same throughout the cycle. Listeners familiar with Holst’s The Planets will know it is possible to characterize mythic and cosmic beings and features in highly differentiated ways, even without spoken words. Brandman’s songs offer fewer contrasts – which may encourage listeners to enjoy and relate to whichever ones fit their individual tastes, just as it is possible to select any horoscope one may wish and find elements in it that appear to fit one’s personality well.
Joanna Estelle’s music on another new Navona release has a more-personal feel throughout, as if the songs here reflect her own life even when ostensibly dealing with other matters. Listeners whose emotions gravitate to Estelle’s will find these works especially congenial, and not only in terms of the words that are sung: the first piece on the CD, Umori [Moods], is for piano solo, and its 10 very short sections clearly reflect and express their titles (“Ardent,” “Determined,” “Energetic,” “Whimsical,” “Shimmery,” “Repentant,” “Reflective,” “Wistful,” “Solemn” and “Hopeful” – no ambiguity anywhere here). The vocal material is similarly straightforward: Susannah’s Lullaby, subtitled “This Is a Face of Love,” offers an idealized portrait of family life; Moyi mamij [For My Mother] is simple and expressive; La chanson de ton coeur [The Song of Your Heart] is simple and happy; Child of the Manger is a moving choral carol, one of several works here with overt religious connotations; and so on. Unlike composers such as Abel and Brandman, Estelle works in what is essentially a pure tonal medium. Like Abel, she often sets her own words, although in two pieces here, Abwoon d’bwashmaya [Aramaic Lord’s Prayer] and Song for Abwoon, she uses Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus – in an attempt to connect New Testament times with today’s world. Estelle has some interesting ideas about instrumental support for her words: Abwoon d’bwashmaya [Aramaic Lord’s Prayer], for example, is for soprano and cello, while Moyi mamij [For My Mother] is for soprano and baritone with cello and piano. The highly personal nature of the material on this CD means it will have strong connections for some listeners but little appeal for others.
The only vocal piece on a Navona disc featuring the music of John Alan Rose is much more theatrically structured and much less personally intense. It is Ticket to the Theater, a very post-modern sort of stage-oriented work (albeit with faint echoes of Mozart’s The Impresario). In Rose’s piece, a narrator expects to host a performance that, it turns out, does not exist, so a soprano and orchestra “improvise” a formulaic theatrical plot from scratch, and the whole thing eventually ends with a “Waltz of the Ushers, Janitors and Custodians.” The concept is silly and overdone and quite funny, with pompously delivered lines such as “tragedies remind us of the impermanence of life” being quite appropriately (in context) overmatched by meaningless singing and instrumental elements. Thankfully, the work does not overextend its welcome, lasting only about 17 minutes. Rose’s whimsicality is less in evidence in the remaining, purely instrumental works on this disc, although there is some playfulness in the first movement of his Piano Concerto “Tolkien Tale,” a movement that Rose says he composed after reading The Hobbit. The concerto’s second movement is quite short, really just a brief and warm intermezzo preparing the way for a forceful finale that is a tad on the pretentious side, at least until matters lighten up considerably toward the end. Between the concerto at the start of the CD and Ticket to the Theater at its end are two extended single-movement works. Old Father Time, for cello and orchestra, uses the solo instrument both in the forefront and as first-among-equals in the ensemble, with Rose focusing on the cello’s capacity for warmth as well as its exceptional range. Yet the work, although well-wrought, never quite seems to have a specific point of view or to be on a journey to anywhere in particular; as a result, it seems dragged-out beyond the capacity of its ideas. More unusual structurally, 25,000 Years of Peace features a two-minute solo-violin introduction that sounds like an out-of-place cadenza – followed by what is almost a pastiche of musical styles that are vaguely Copland-esque or Ivesian, hymnlike, and somewhat self-consciously dissonant. This is a work that repays at least a second hearing in an attempt to figure out just what the composer is trying to do – although a listener may well conclude, after that rehearing, that the piece is more form than substance. This CD does not start with the voice – instead, it concludes with it – but it certainly shows ways in which vocal works as well as purely instrumental ones can be used by today’s composers in uniquely communicative ways, even if not necessarily in a manner that will connect effectively with audiences that are not already predisposed to enjoy serious contemporary compositions.