November 07, 2019


Mira J. Spektor: Songs. Sarah Mesko, mezzo-soprano; Brent Funderburk, piano; Michael Laderman, flute; Brian Sanders, cello; Stephen Benson, guitar. Navona. $14.99.

Harmony of Dissonance: Traces of Croatian Traditional Singing. Jazz Orchestra of the Academy of Music in Zagreb conducted by Saša Nestorović; Harmonija Disonance [sic] Ensemble led by Joško Ćaleta. Navona. $14.99.

American and Estonian Choral Music: Works by Evelin Seppar, Kile Smith, Pärt Uusberg, Gregory W. Brown, and Maria Körvits. Voces Musicales conducted by David Puderbaugh. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Akemi Naito: Emily Brontë—Through Life and Death, a Chainless Soul; The Woman in the Dunes; Five Waka Poems by Saigyo. Ravello. $19.99 (CD+DVD).

     Contemporary composers of vocal music draw on the widest possible sources of inspiration and use them to create songs and other works whose sound and effects can be equally widely varied. Mira J. Spektor, for example, sets texts in two languages, English and French, and poems written as long ago as the Middle Ages and as recently as the 21st century (by Spektor herself). Yet her pieces on a new Navona CD, mostly for voice and piano, are tonal and highly traditional in sound, making them instantly accessible. The spiritual quality of the first two songs on the disc, Sunday Psalm (words by Phyllis McGinley) and Quiet (words by Lily Nussbaum), is complemented by the very clear enunciation of mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko, while pianist Brent Funderburk provides a delicate and mostly quiet accompaniment. The accompanying instrumentation is different for Four Songs on Poems by Ruth Whitman – here the voice is backed up by flute and cello – but the basic structure of the music is similar: Spektor is concerned primarily with vocal clarity and verbal expressiveness, although she does delve into some rather operatic delivery, including a vocalise, in the second song, The Phoenix. Voice and piano are together again for Irreverent Heart (words by Yip Harburg), and then there is a blend of voice and guitar in Let Us Sing, a setting of anonymous words that alternates slower and more-exuberant sections. The next work on the disc reverts to voice-and-piano mode: Three French Songs has texts by the 13th-century poet Rutebeuf; by Anna, Comtesse de Noaille; and by Spektor herself. The quicker pacing of the first song leads to a slower-moving second one and a third in which Spektor’s rather straightforward words are delivered by Mesko with a touch too much trilling of the r’s. Then there is a voice-and-cello vocalise called Voice in the Wind, taken from a film called Double Edge. This might have worked well enough for the film’s end credits, but without visuals, its five-minute length – it is the longest track on the disc – is quite a bit too much. The following song, also for voice and cello, is Some Would Marry Winter (words by Diane Ackerman), and it is suitably quiet and withdrawn; it contrasts with the concluding White Road of Summer (words by William Dickey) for voice and piano, which is more upbeat although scarcely fast-paced. Indeed, there is nothing very lively on this CD: almost all of it is at a moderate tempo or slower, resulting in a certain sameness of sound that makes it more enjoyable to hear the songs one or a few at a time, rather than listen to the disc straight through from start to finish.

     The Navona CD called Harmony of Dissonance is also a lot to handle at a single setting: 31 tracks – yes, 31 – mostly of polyphonic singing of traditional songs from various parts of Dalmatia: islands, coast and inland areas. The arrangers of the music, Zoran Šćekić and Joško Ćaleta, are, respectively, a jazz guitarist and an ensemble leader and ethnomusicologist. Their interests show clearly in these arrangements, which are quite heavily jazz-inflected even though the songs come from oral traditions that long predate jazz. Some of the songs are presented mostly as solos, others for a cappella chorus. Some are given settings that will sound traditional to listeners familiar with Western music, while others use cadences and harmonies that sound more like declamation or ancient chants. The asserted differences among the songs from various areas of Dalmatia will scarcely be clear to any audience that is not already familiar with music of this region; whether even those who do know music from this geographical area will be sensitive to the variations among the pieces is hard to know. It is also difficult to be sure to what extent the vocal settings reflect the oral traditions from which many of the texts come, and to what degree the arrangements reflect the studies and interests of Šćekić and Ćaleta. The instrumental interludes that crop up from time to time are generally more accessible, in their forthright jazziness, than the vocal tracks, although the arrangers certainly try to mix things up by having voice-only pieces, instrument-only ones, ones that mix voices with instruments, ones that have the chorus singing in its entirety, ones in which various choral sections sing to or against each other, ones in which single voices lead or contrast with massed ones, and so forth. There is also an attempt here to intersperse longer pieces with shorter ones: on average, the tracks run about two minutes, but several last less than a minute (one runs only 21 seconds and another lasts just 29), while two run five-minutes-plus and others are in the four-to-five-minute range. All this is to say that considerable effort has gone into packaging this music, which will be very obscure to virtually all non-Dalmatian listeners, in as attractive a way as possible. The mixture of ensemble instruments helps with this: there are five saxophones, four trumpets, three violins, three trombones, piccolo, flute, clarinet, bass trombone, piano, electric guitar, double bass and drum set in the tracks featuring the Jazz Orchestra of the Academy of Music in Zagreb. For all the effort that has gone into making the CD presentation attractive, though, this is ultimately a recording of extremely limited range and interest, one that listeners eager to explore the traditional music of Dalmatia/Croatia will embrace but scarcely one that is likely to reach out to a wide audience.

     The world première recordings performed by the Voces Musicales chamber choir, conducted by David Puderbaugh, on an MSR Classics CD, also provide an opportunity to explore less-familiar vocal territory – although since some of the works are American, they provide a good vocal counterbalance to the ones from Estonia. Actually, the music from Estonia – by Evelin Seppar (born 1986), Pärt Uusberg (born 1986), and Maria Körvits (born 1987) – does not have a sound much different from that of the American works by Kile Smith (born 1956) and Gregory W. Brown (born 1975). This is partly because all five composers handle the choral idiom in a similar way, and partly because the choir approaches all the material with a similarly attractive blending of massed voices and contrast between vocal lines for different voice ranges. The Estonian material may also sound similar because all three composers are of the same generation. Be that as it may, there is a pervasive similarity among the works here, with the choral forces marshalled in similar ways pretty much throughout – with the result that the occasional use of a solo, as in Uusberg’s Uni, stands out distinctively. The very smoothness of the chorus tends to lull a listener to this CD, as does the fact that the music is almost wholly tonal (lending piquancy to the occasional dissonance, for example in Brown’s Then). It would be reasonable to expect this disc to be something of a patchwork, drawing as it does on two nations’ music and works by five composers. But in fact, the CD shows far more about the closeness of the contributors than it does about their differences. Indeed, the primary fault that an audience may find with the disc is that the handling of all the music is so smooth, the choir’s singing so even and so well-balanced, that after a while the works tend to blend into each other in a way that the composers certainly did not intend. Far less exotic than the CD of Croatian material, this is a disc that affirms the musical closeness of disparate cultures that have many superficial differences but that, at least when it comes to this music and these performers, have far more in common than anything that divides them.

     Words are used to very different effect by Akemi Naito on a new Ravello CD+DVD release. One work here uses the mezzo-soprano and piano setting generally favored by Spektor, one the choral approach of the discs of Estonian/American and traditional Croatian music, and one is wholly instrumental although inspired by words. Emily Brontë—Through Life and Death, a Chainless Soul (2017), described by the composer as “a poetic mono-opera,” features mezzo-soprano Jessica Bowers and pianist Marilyn Nonken. It is presented both as audio and as a DVD featuring the art of Toshihiro Sakuma. The DVD’s presentation, using the art installation, gives a better feel for Naito’s conception of the piece, but the basic structure is clear enough simply from the music, which includes six poems by Brontë and an excerpt from her My Comforter. The approach here is operatic by design, almost self-consciously so, including spoken words as well as ones set in a traditionally operatic manner. The clarity so fundamental to the Spektor disc is absent here – not that the settings are unintelligible, but they are harder to follow, and the voice is used somewhat acrobatically and also is sometimes overcome by the piano. The recording has a fair amount of echo, likely a function of the performance venue, and this does not help the intelligibility of the words. The periodic quick switches between straightforward speech and elaborately sung words can also make the text difficult to follow. The musical sound is mostly tonal and fairly easy to absorb – and contrasts strongly with the sound of Five Waka Poems by Saigyo (2011). This uses texts by the Japanese monk-poet Saigyo (1118-1190) as performed by the University of Illinois Chamber Singers conducted by Andrew Megill, with William Moersch on marimba providing highly atmospheric instrumental material that deftly evokes Japan without sounding slavishly imitative of that nation’s music. The gentle flow of the poetry and the short length of the piece – a total of just nine minutes – together add up to a satisfying and often intriguing sonic experience that does not overstay its welcome. The third work on this disc also has a Japanese origin, but it does not use words. The Woman in the Dunes (2012) was inspired by Kono Abe’s 1962 novel of the same name; it is written by Naito for solo percussionist (Gregory Beyer). Of the three works on this CD, this one has the most consciously “modern” sound, using a wide variety of percussion instruments – including no fewer than 20 Thai chromatic gongs. The mixture of tuned and untuned percussion is sufficient to give the music an attractive sound palette, but as is often the case in works based on a specific source, it is necessary to know Abe’s novel to get the full effect of what Naito is striving to communicate. Heard simply as music, without the literary gloss, this piece certainly has attractive elements, but at a length of more than 18 minutes, it does not really sustain satisfactorily. It would likely be more effective if performed within a theatrical context, which is how it was originally conceived. Still, some portions of it capture the ear even if not the emotions – a statement that actually applies to an extent to most of the music on this disc.

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