April 10, 2014


Richard Danielpour: Toward a Season of Peace. Hila Plitmann, soprano; Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony conducted by Carl St. Clair. Naxos. $9.99.

Marie Nelson Bennett: Orpheus Lex. David Arnold, baritone; Wendy Baker, soprano; Nathan Bahny, narrator; New York Virtuoso Singers and Artemis Chamber Ensemble conducted by Harold Rosenbaum. Ravello. $14.99.

John Beall: Sonata for Viola and Piano (2004); Quintet for Piano and Strings (2009); Wondrous Love Variations (1999). Ravello. $16.99.

Richard Festinger: Diary of a Journey (2003); The Coming of Age (2003); Laws of Motion (2004); A Dream Foretold (2001). New York New Music Ensemble. Naxos. $9.99.

Frederic Rzewski: Piano Music—Fantasia (1989-99);Second Hand, or Alone at Last (2005); De Profundis, for Speaking Pianist (1992). Robert Satterlee, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Some Other Time: Music of Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss and Aaron Copland. Zuill Bailey, cello; Lara Downes, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

     Persian poetry, the shaping of a seven-movement oratorio, and an eclectic mixture of American and Middle Eastern sensibility are the foundations of Richard Danielpour’s 2011 Toward a Season of Peace. The world première recording of this work on Naxos shows it to be heartfelt, well made, and rather naïve; make that very naïve. Written in Danielpour’s typical neo-Romantic style, the piece is far more accessible than most contemporary music and thus far more communicative. It is intended to use the metaphor of springtime as an indicator of change and forgiveness, in the context of a work that explores violence motivated by religion. The piece is undoubtedly well-meaning, and it is performed with heartfelt involvement and authenticity by Hila Plitmann and the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony under Carl St. Clair. But there is something plaintive in the way in which Danielpour tries to assemble texts from ancient and often very lovely poetry in a way that elucidates and then overcomes vicious, ultra-violent, “God”-given terrorist murders. Peace is intended as the outcome, and a striving toward peace as the process of the oratorio; but it in the contrast between violence and peace that the latter really shines forth – think, in an admittedly different way, of the Mars and Venus sequential movements of Holst’s The Planets. What Toward a Season of Peace misses is the tremendous intensity and, for some, the undoubted attractiveness of indiscriminate mass murder as some sort of means to some sort of end. It is not Danielpour’s intention here to make destructiveness in any way attractive, but by choosing not to show how it could be so, he minimizes  the contrast between the reality of extreme violence and the hope of an end to it, creating a moderate and moderating work that does not fully reflect the topic on which it is built. Toward a Season of Peace is very well-made and often moving, but it falls short of an understanding of the impulses behind religion-based violence and therefore shortchanges the hoped-for peace that Danielpour wishes would supplant it.

     Orpheus Lex is also well-meaning and also somewhat shortchanges its topic, which is the old Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Marie Nelson Bennett, using a libretto by David Kranes, robs the story of classical allusion by turning it into a modern tale of a folk singer, complete with heaped-on meanings of poignancy and remembrance. What the story gains in contemporary impact through this treatment it loses in resonance, with its subtleties – and they are many – being largely subsumed within a libretto that insists on making the tale’s points obvious for a modern audience, accompanied by music that emphasizes those points without commenting on or expanding them. Like Danielpour’s oratorio, Bennett’s work – which is essentially an opera, in contrast to her oratorio, Once in Israel – uses solo voices well and chorus even better: the choral writing is particularly fine, and the New York Virtuoso Singers deliver it to very good effect on this Ravello CD. Because the story is familiar, it is hard to avoid seeing the changes that Kranes and Bennett have wrought by turning it into the tale of a retired folk singer in Idaho, looking back on his life in a way analogous to that in which Orpheus, in the original myth, looked back on Eurydice and thus lost her forever. But the Orpheus experience and that of the folk singer are not parallel, for a modern and rather superficial sense of the pathos of loss does not compare with the world-resounding misery of Orpheus after his fatal look, much less with the bard’s eventual fate and, not at all coincidentally, the fate of the music he made. The Orpheus tale is a story of music as well as one of love, and this is a reason it has attracted so many composers for so many years. Bennett simplifies it and brings it into easy-to-comprehend pop culture, but in so doing she and Kranes trivialize it as well. Orpheus Lex is nicely done as a dramatic production but is, at its core and in terms of meaning, rather vapid.

     The use of a folk connection is equally explicit, albeit in a different way, on a Ravello disc called “Appalachian Inspiration: Appalachian Chamber Music, Vol. 3.” The two “Appalachians” should be more than sufficient to tell listeners that John Beall, who has been composer-in-residence at West Virginia University since 1978, has been heavily influenced by folk tunes and has found many ways to adapt them to and within classical forms. The three works here all show the blending to good effect. Sonata for Viola and Piano uses phrases from a folk song called The Rejected Lover as its primary thematic basis, presenting them in traditional three-movement structure and using considerably modified sonata form. The performance is a family affair, with Beall’s son, Stephen Beall, on viola, and the elder Beall’s wife, Carol Beall, as pianist. Both clearly understand the music and are comfortable with it, resulting in a strong and heartfelt performance. The same two players collaborate on Wondrous Love Variations, which combines the hymn of its title with a folk song called Tender Thought to produce a work that is rather too sweet for its own good but is nicely formed and pleasantly presented. The most ambitious work here is somewhat less successful. Quintet for Piano and Strings is a four-movement piece tied to a poem called “December among the Vanished” by W.S. Merwin and utilizing instrumentation inspired by Schubert’s magnificent “Trout” quintet: Mikylah Myers McTeer on violin, Andrea Priester Houde on viola, William Skidmore on cello, Andrew Kohn on bass, and James Miltenberger on piano. The poem is not recited, and it is not well enough known to influence listeners’ perception of the quintet unless they already know it, so Beall’s attempt to tie music and poetry together is somewhat less than successful. The music itself is sometimes tender, sometimes brisk and bright, but it is not particularly consequential, although it is played quite well and quite fervently.

     There is plenty of fervor in the chamber music of Richard Festinger as well. A new Naxos CD offers works for various combinations of instruments and, in the case of The Coming of Age, for voice as well: soprano Jo Ellen Miller presents poetry by Denis Johnson with considerable sensitivity, although the words themselves are not especially evocative. Festinger’s settings are interesting, though, because in addition to a piano (played by Margaret Kempmeier), they call for a violin (played by Sunghae Anna Lim) – thus lending the songs the aural effect of a trio in which one instrument just happens to be the human voice; and this trio even involves a conductor (Harvey Sollberger). The other pieces here are non-vocal.  Diary of a Journey sets percussion (played by James Baker) against an ensemble including Linda Quan, violin; Lois Martin, viola; Christopher Finckel, cello; Jayn Rosenfeld, flute; Jean Kopperud, clarinet; and Stephen Gosling, piano – all conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky. This is scarcely the usual makeup of a sextet, and the single-movement work is itself far from typical: it is filled with contrasting propulsive and quiet, almost entirely still sections, as if the journey of its title is one that the journeying person is not completely sure about undertaking. The percussion lends the piece more spirit than it would otherwise have. Laws of Motion is centered on the cello (Finckel), with an exploration of the instrument’s many moods and capabilities set against an ensemble consisting of viola (Martin), flute (Rosenfeld), clarinet (Kopperud) and piano (Gosling) and conducted by Milarsky. A Dream Foretold is a more-modest work, including only cello, flute, clarinet and piano – a sonic combination that produces some surprises in a work characterized by more contrapuntal sections than Festinger offers in the other pieces here.

     There are surprises as well on the new Naxos disc of music by Frederic Rzewski – or maybe “shocks” is a better word when it comes to De Profundis, for Speaking Pianist. Described by Rzewski as a “melodramatic oratorio,” the work is certainly melodramatic enough, but whether it deserves the same label as Danielpour’s Toward a Season of Peace is at best a matter of opinion. De Profundis is one of those self-consciously modernistic works in which the job of the pianist does not primarily involve playing the piano: Robert Satterlee must hit the instrument and himself, sing, hum, whistle, recite, and even blow a horn of the type favored by Harpo Marx. What Satterlee recites, apparently without a trace of self-consciousness or a sense that there is anything particularly peculiar here, is text written by Oscar Wilde while Wilde was imprisoned. It is unclear whether Rzewski thinks the title of De Profundis has anything to do with profundity – it in fact means “from the depths,” and the work does sound like something conceived rather hellishly. It tries to be “deep” in the sense of being meaningful, but its surface-level bizarrerie makes it virtually impossible to take its intended seriousness seriously. De Profundis is the major work on this CD, taking up more than half the disc’s length; but Fantasia, the shortest of the three pieces offered here, also shows signs of being deliberately obscure. In fact, Rzewski says that in his 1999 revision of a work originally written 10 years earlier, he deliberately obscured the piece’s central tune, “kind of stomping on and smudging everything.” And why? Simply because he wanted to – which is of course a composer’s prerogative. In a similar vein, it is a listener’s prerogative to decide that a stomped and smudged work has nothing particular to say, except perhaps “look how clever I am and what I can do.” This is not much of a message, except in a self-referential sense. For listeners beyond Rzewski himself, the most intriguing work on this CD will be Second Hand, described as “Six Novelettes for piano, left hand.” Although no one will ever confuse any of this music with that of Schumann’s eight Novelletten of 1838, there is a certain level of novelistic drama in these brief pieces. There is also a pleasant sense of their being “novel” in the sense of new: they require tremendous virtuosity from the left hand, and Satterlee, for whom they were written, obliges with a performance so, ahem, dexterous as to be musically quite convincing. Few listeners will likely want this CD for Second Hand alone, but even fewer will be captivated by the other works here, which appear to show Rzewski being interested primarily in communicating with himself, to the exclusion of, or at least quite indifferent to, any larger audience.
     There is, on the other hand, not the slightest question about the extent to which cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Lara Downes are reaching out to a wide audience on a new Steinway & Sons disc called Some Other Time. This is an hour of music drenched in nostalgia and “popular” in the sense, most of the time, of being very much intended for consumption by the largest possible number of people. The original music and transcriptions heard here are mostly easy to listen to and generally slight – the two Copland works, for example, are Simple Gifts (best known from Appalachian Spring) and Long Time Ago (which is the final piece on the disc and an apt ending for it). And there is a pleasant interconnectedness among the works: a short one by Bernstein is For Lukas Foss, a brief one by Foss is For Lenny, and another brief Bernstein piece is For Aaron Copland. Actually, there is more “serious” Bernstein (as opposed to “popular” Bernstein) here than usual: yes, the CD includes Dream with Me, Some Other Time and In Our Time, but it also includes the Clarinet Sonata, a substantial work that deserves to be better known – and that is certainly effective in this version for cello and piano. Foss’ Capriccio for Cello and Piano is also a piece of some depth, and although one Barber work here, Sure on This Shining Night, is rather trivial, the other, his Cello Sonata, is anything but: it is impressive in construction and really shows the skill with which Bailey and Downes plumb some genuine musical depths. The CD as a whole is more clever than substantive, but it is exceptionally well played: both performers treat the lesser works with the same care and skill that they bring to the more-imposing ones. Not every track here will appeal to every listener, but the disc as a whole is certainly intended to reach out both to audiences interested in very well-played classical music and to those who would like to hear something beyond the standard repertoire and written in a more overtly popular vein.

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