November 15, 2012


Kenji Bunch: Boiling Point and other works. ALIAS Chamber Ensemble. Delos. $16.99.

Elizabeth Vercoe: Kleemation and other works. Navona. $16.99.

Curt Cacioppo: Wolf; Kinaaldá; Scenes from Indian Country. Navona. $13.99.

David Tanner: Pocket Symphony; Tango of the Lemons; I’ll Come to Thee by Moonlight; Tyger; José Elizondo: Estampas Mexicanas; Danzas Latinoamericanas; Leyenda del Quetzal y la Serpiente. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský and Vit Micka; Millennium Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Ian Winstin. Navona. $16.99.

      Although contemporary classical or sort-of-classical music may not be to all listeners’ tastes, it has certain elements that make it highly attractive, including a level of cleverness in structure and a willingness to reinterpret classical models by incorporating other forms of music and sound into them.  Violist Kenji Bunch – who is also a bluegrass performer – is particularly clever in Boiling Point, the title piece on a Delos CD of five Bunch works.  The composer uses a teakettle on stage as an integral part of the piece – and no, this sort of thing is nothing new (think of Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter), but Bunch makes the length of the piece dependent on the amount of time it takes for the water in the teakettle to boil.  The music itself starts gently and builds to a kind of hard-rock ending; that would be the “boil.” The whole thing is a little too clever for its own good, but it is quite listenable and is very well performed by members of the excellent ALIAS Chamber Ensemble. And it stands in strong contrast to the quietly meditative Luminaria, for violin and harp, inspired by the tradition of lighting luminaria and also by the memorials after the World Trade Center terrorist murders.  String Circle is a more ambitious work, its five movements inspired by five traditions and five playing styles of strings in the United States; Bunch himself plays second viola here.  The movements are self-descriptive: Lowdown, Shuffle Step, Ballad, Porch Picking and Overdrive. There is conceptual cleverness in the other two pieces on this CD: Drift does in fact drift among clarinet, viola and piano, as themes come and go but never really turn into anything – Bunch says this reflects lost compositional ideas, which of course are not “lost” at all, since they have turned up here. And 26.2, for string trio and French horn, is a tribute to the New York City Marathon – not exactly a tone poem, but something more or less along those lines.  Bunch’s music is eclectic, not only in its classical roots but also in its reaching into non-classical forms of music for inspiration.  When as well played as it is here, it is unpretentiously enjoyable.

      There is considerable cleverness in Elizabeth Vercoe’s music as well – in her case, in the works’ titles as much as in their structure. Kleemation, a piece for flute and piano that lends its title to the new Navona CD of Vercoe’s works, is the cleverest of all: Klee is Swiss artist Paul Klee, whose name is pronounced “clay,” so Kleemation is a pun on “claymation,” a form of animation using sculpted figures – as in the famous Ray Harryhausen movies and, more recently, the Wallace & Gromit series. The piece’s five movements are based on five Klee drawings, and they do, in effect, “animate” those drawings, making the title doubly appropriate.  Indeed, much of Vercoe’s music is on the animated side, including the three Irreveries from Sappho for mezzo-soprano and piano and Despite Our Differences #1 for chamber ensemble.  But there is sensitivity in Vercoe’s works as well, in the four short movements of To Music for solo flute and in Herstory II: 13 Japanese Lyrics for soprano and chamber players.  To Music uses poetic titles for each movement, but no voice, while Herstory II is a vocal work, but both communicate in similar ways, with a variety of moods in which gentleness is a significant element.  There is also a solo-piano Fantasy here that shows Vercoe’s ability to write, when she chooses to, in a fairly straightforward classical form.

      Curt Cacioppo offers a Fantasy as well on another new Navona CD: it is the first part of Kinaaldá, subtitled The Rite of Changing Woman, and is followed by a Theme and Variations.  The subject of this piece resembles those of some works by Vercoe, but Cacioppo’s inspiration is quite different: he seeks to evoke Native American experiences and images through classical forms and by use of a traditional string quartet.  Kinaaldá comes across as a modern version of a Baroque Suite, the opening Fantasy standing in for the old Ouverture and the short, dancelike elements of the Theme and Variations taking on the role of dance movements. Cacioppo’s use of three Courantes reinforces this impression.  The other two works on this CD also evoke the Native American experience. Wolf does so quite directly: it is a setting for soprano and piano of an emotional poem by Peter Blue Cloud; here Cacioppo himself is the pianist. Scenes from Indian Country, for chamber orchestra and solo flute, rounds out the CD with three movements that evoke Native American history and themes directly, from the opening “Invocation and Dance of the Mountain Gods,” through “Raven Lance (Beloved Emblem),” to the concluding “Crying for Justice (Old Petitions),” which ends the work with a sense that the tribulations of Native Americans are far from over.

      The Cacioppo CD is entitled Laws of the Pipe, to indicate its Native American focus, and a new Navona CD of works by David Tanner and José Elizondo is called Of Birds and Lemons to indicate some, but by no means all, of its content. This is one of those discs with few unifying factors (as its title actually indicates). Tanner and Elizondo write in different styles, and the specific works presented here by each of them are also quite different from each other.  Elizondo’s pieces, which all draw on Latin American rhythms and dances, are somewhat more unified conceptually than Tanner’s, which range from the attractively upbeat Pocket Symphony, which sounds as if it should be a miniature but in fact runs a respectable 20 minutes, to Tango of the Lemons, which shows Tanner to be quite comfortable with dance forms (the symphony contains a dance, too: a waltz).  The other Tanner pieces here are inspired by poetry, and there is some attractive writing for French horn in I’ll Come to Thee by Moonlight.  These Tanner and Elizondo orchestral works are moderately interesting without ever becoming particularly compelling – they will be of greatest attractiveness to listeners already familiar with at least one of the composers and interested in hearing some contrasting music by both of them.

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