June 19, 2014


Mohammed Fairouz: Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers”; Tahrir. Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; David Kravitz, baritone; David Krakauer, clarinet; UCLA Chorale, UCLA University Chorus and UCLA Philharmonia conducted by Neal Stulberg. Sono Luminus. $24.99 (Blu-ray Disc+CD).

Margaret Brouwer: Shattered Glass; Clarinet Quintet; Whom do you call angel now?; Lonely Lake; Arrangements for Blue Streak Ensemble. Sandra Simon, soprano; Daniel Silver, clarinet; Maia String Quartet; Blue Streak Ensemble. Naxos. $9.99.

Hampson Sisler: Israeli-American Festival Overture; Cantata for Living; Japan Tragedy 2011; Faiths Cohabiting. Soloists, chorus and orchestras conducted by Arkady Leytush. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Scott Brickman: Dear Darwin; Mayday Rose; International:Bridge:Peace. Nancy Ellen Ogle, soprano; Ginger Yang Hwalek, piano; electroacoustic instrumentation. Ravello. $16.99.

Sergio Cervetti: Unbridled; Plegaria y Danza; Mémoires du Paradis; …from the earth… Navona. $16.99.

     Composers often try to use music to further a particular social or political cause, but the results are rarely great music – think, for example, of Beethoven’s cantata, Der glorreiche Augenblick. These sorts of occasional pieces, written for specific occasions, persist into today, and if anything are becoming more grandiose and far-reaching, as in Mohammed Fairouz’ Symphony No. 3, “Poems and Prayers.” This is nothing less than a musical attempt to explore the apparently unending mess that is the Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, ending with a heartfelt plea for reconciliation in the form of a movement called “Memorial Day for the War Dead.” The work was commissioned by Northeastern University’s rather awkwardly titled Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development, and the symphony itself is on the awkward side. It is as well-meaning as it can possibly be – no doubt the organization that commissioned it is, too – but it is also an ungainly work, dutifully combining Jewish and Arab elements so as to produce a musical microcosm of a hoped-for real-world macrocosmic reconciliation. The work starts with the traditional Jewish Kaddish, a hymn of praise to God, sung in Aramaic; its later movements (there are six in all) include contemporary poetry by both Israeli and Arab poets: Mahmoud Darwish, Yehuda Amichai, Fadwa Tuqan. The fact that the work’s composer is Arab-American has a great deal to do with the work’s sensibilities and no doubt with the decision to commission it from him. There is skilled craftsmanship here, and there are even some lovely tunes, notably in the “Lullaby” movement, where mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke shares the spotlight with clarinetist David Krakauer.  Like Cooke, baritone David Kravitz sings with feeling and sincerity, and indeed the whole work is sensitive from start to finish. It is a gesture – and that is where it falls short. It is only a gesture, going through the expected paces to emphasize the similarities between Jews and Arabs (similarities that those perpetuating conflict deny), showing the depth of shared loss of the two sides (again, denied by those who have brought matters to their current state), and ending with a plea for reconciliation (considered impossible by those who view the others as implacable enemies). Well intentioned and well written, very well recorded – and presented in both Blu-ray and CD form, with digital copies included, to get the music out in as many ways as possible – the symphony is very ably performed by university forces directed by a sensitive and understanding Neal Stulberg. Fairouz’ work is sure to garner praise from all those favoring its sentiments – who are precisely not the people in whom those sentiments need to take hold for there to be any hope of lasting peace in the Middle East. The symphony is paired with Tahrir, for B-flat clarinet and orchestra, another work calling for unification of disparate cultures that outsiders consider closely allied but that members of both deem unalterably in opposition. The piece’s title refers to the Tahrir Square location where protesters gathered to demand change in Egypt. The work itself, a tour de force that Krakauer performs with aplomb, mixes elements of Arab music (principally rhythmic complexities and specific modes) with ones of traditional Jewish street music (of the klezmer type). Like the symphony, Tahrir reaches out effectively to those who are predisposed toward peace and mutual accommodation, feel-good beliefs that such people do not share at all with those who perpetuate the ongoing Middle East stalemate.

     Margaret Brouwer also tries to address matters relating to the Middle East and the forces of war and violence in some of the works on a new Naxos CD called Shattered. Brouwer is at least as concerned about, and dismayed by, the United States as by any other country, using Shattered Glass (2007) to express anger at what she sees as U.S. aggression overseas. The work is entirely instrumental, so its intent of expressing frustration about the United States will be known only by listeners who make it a point to find out its extra-musical meaning: the music itself, while certainly reflective of upset and hostility, does not specifically and unequivocally deal with any particular subject matter. Likewise, the Clarinet Quintet (2005), intended by Brouwer to express her feelings about American policies and actions and also to comment on the 9/11 terrorist murders in New York City, does not address her concerns in any forthright way, although here the inclusion of Middle Eastern sounds amid the strictly contemporary Western rhythms and harmonies, and the use of a soprano voice in one movement out of four, at least make a pass at showing aurally what subject matter has here inspired the composer. It is difficult to know how Brouwer really feels about the murderers who blew up and burned to death so many people in 2001 in the name of their god, and who continue to destroy women, children and civilization whenever and wherever they can. The post-9/11 David Adam poem, An Angel’s Song, is the basis of the affecting second-movement Adagio of the quintet, and here the image of the crying angel, lamenting humanity’s woes while the clarinet intones a long legato passage, is deeply moving. But the setting of the same poem in Whom do you call angel now? (2005) is altogether starker and therefore more ambiguous: Brouwer certainly condemns what she sees as American adventurism overseas, but her attitude toward the mass murder of Americans seems more formulaic and less heartfelt. Brouwer is quite capable of communicating effectively, touching an audience directly, deeply and with sensitivity, when she wants to: Lonely Lake (2011), with its wistful and thoughtful hope for a better future, makes its points eloquently. But to the extent that Brouwer tries for direct sociopolitical commentary, her music has a sense of ambiguity and fence-straddling that does not serve the audience with much understanding. It is just as well that this CD concludes with the well-orchestrated and interestingly colored Arrangements for Blue Streak Ensemble (2011), in which Brouwer focuses on the great music of the past rather than the unsettling geopolitical realities of the present day.

     Geopolitics looms large as well in a new MSR Classics release, entitled Trans-Cultural Bonding, of music by Hampson Sisler – and here as in other well-intentioned (and well-made) music intended to evoke understanding and comprehension of the cross-currents of world events, it is hard to fault the quality of the music but equally hard to deem it a successful foray into building or mending fences. Sisler, like Fairouz and Brouwer, sees the many complex and interrelated Middle East conflicts as defining elements of our time, and in Faiths Cohabiting (2012), he tries to come to terms with the religious factors that pervade them all. In four movements – “Hebrew,” “Christian,” “Muslim” and “Finale” – Sisler attempts to show musically both the distinctions among the great Abrahamic faiths and their similarities. The work is effective on a purely musical basis and as tone-painting of a sort, but it is ironic that the Middle East trauma runs so deep that the fact that the orchestra here is the Jerusalem Symphony would likely prevent many non-Israelis in the troubled region from appreciating Sisler’s work on its own terms (it is worth remembering that the music of Wagner is still enormously controversial in Israel, although no longer banned outright). The more overtly upbeat Israeli-American Festival Overture (2013), performed by the Israel Symphony Orchestra, makes less of a sociopolitical statement; it too is a well-made piece that works well on a purely musical basis. Japan Tragedy 2011, for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra (here, the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony) has less to offer: its sentiments are tied directly to the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima – it was written in the year in which the events occurred – but while there is nothing to fault in what Sisler has to say here, neither is there anything particularly new or striking in the sentiments or the music in which they are expressed. The greatest outreach among the pieces here, all of which are world première recordings, is in the earliest of the four works: Cantata for Living (1974), in which a vocal quartet, chorus and orchestra (the New Symphony Orchestra of Israel) present some life lessons and life thoughts that are tied to no specific time or place and that, as a result, reach beyond particularity of experience in a quest for the universal. The six movements’ titles neatly encapsulate the work’s arguments and its progress: “New Year, New Day,” “Interactions,” “Outcomes,” “Commemorations,” “Flirtations,” and “Maturity.” Arkady Leytush leads all the music and all the ensembles with empathetic understanding of Sisler’s musical approaches and his ideas. If those ideas are unlikely to have much real-world impact, that is simply a lesson in reality – sort of an added, unspoken element of Cantata for Living.

     Scott Brickman’s electroacoustic International:Bridge:Peace (2003) is, intentionally or not, a somewhat more accurate portrayal of matters of geopolitical conflict than the works by Fairouz, Brouwer or Sisler. It is one of those Babel-like works in which the composer mashes together spoken words, sung texts, sampled sounds and other noises, layering and combining and altering and calling the result “music,” which it is under a sufficiently stretched definition. The overall sound of the work is one of confusion, its overall feeling an attempt to bring order from chaos – and of course the work is carefully ordered, since its elements are selected and assembled by the composer. Although not especially distinguished in sound or effect, the work is worth listening to in juxtaposition with one such as Fairouz’ Third Symphony, since Brickman, intentionally or not, places the larger and more-ambitious work in what feels like a real-life context. The Ravello CD also includes another electroacoustic work, Mayday Rose (2006), one of those self-consciously self-indulgent pieces: it contains fewer than 100 notes, with the composer deciding for himself (and any audience) just what a “note” is. The most interesting piece here, however, is Dear Darwin, a set of 26 songs arranged as an abecedarium. Written in 2012 for soprano and piano, using poetry by Kathleen Ellis, Dear Darwin does not wade at all into continuing arguments about evolution, and in fact focuses more on Darwin the man and scientist than on On the Origin of Species or The Descent of Man. Darwin was in fact a man whose interests were wide-ranging, and this music is thus appropriate in its scope, including (in appropriate alphabetical placement) “Double Crosser,” “Kissing in Indonesia,” “Quotidian Sunday,” “Underutilized Species,” and so forth. Perhaps in tribute to the multifaceted Darwin, Brickman gives soprano Nancy Ellen Ogle and pianist Ginger Yang Hwalek multiple roles: sometimes they collaborate in art-song manner, but more often they are somewhat at odds – the piano imitates or supports the voice but also contradicts it, provides harmonic support, underlies it or undermines it. The 45-minute work feels somewhat on the long side, even though many individual movements last less than a minute, but there is some thoughtfulness here as well as some cleverness.

     Sergio Cervetti is thoughtful and clever, too, but Unbridled, his overt attempt to declaim musically on the financial excesses of American capitalism, is really a bit much. Written in 2013 for string quartet and performed on a Navona CD by the New England String Quartet (Julia Okrusko and Klaudia Szlachta, violins; Lilit Muradyan, viola; Minghui Lin, cello), the three-movement piece is quite explicit in what it seeks to portray and comment upon: “Unbridled Capitalism,” “Greed Unchecked” and “Derivatives.” The music is fine, but there is nothing in it that convincingly relates to the titles of the work and its movements – music simply is not a very effective form of direct sociopolitical commentary. The other works here are more interesting. Despite its unwieldily punctuated title, …from the earth… is quite intriguing. This 1973 chamber work uses five notes from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde as the foundation of a series of transformations (actually, this work could be called “Derivatives”!). Cervetti produces new melodies, harmonies and musical structures from the Mahlerian kernel, and although the piece goes on rather too long (15 minutes), it has many effective moments. Cervetti himself performs here on electric organ and also conducts an ensemble consisting of Jon Deak, contrabass; Garret List, trombone; Natalie Ghent, viola; Jon Gibson, flute; Bryant Hayes and Dan Goode, clarinets; Gene Scholtens, bassoon; and Jerry Pav, oboe. The odd instrumentation is actually used to good effect. The other works on this CD are somewhat more straightforward. Plegaria y Danza, written in 1994 for solo violin and well played by Israel Chorberg, is simply a prayer and dance, as its title says; the movements are effectively contrasted, if not particularly distinguished. Mémoires du Paradis (2012), for piano trio, is subtitled Cinq Morceaux d’après Salvador Dali, and in fact has a double derivation: the five Dali paintings that inspired Cervetti were themselves inspired by scenes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The movements’ French titles translate as “The Temptation,” “Innocent Sleep,” “The Tree of Life,” “The Flight of Satan,” and “The Kiss.” And although none of the music directly portrays or reflects the specific paintings or the poetry on which the paintings are based, Cervetti gives pianist Karolina Rojahn, violinist Ethan Wood and cellist Leo Eguchi plenty of interesting ways to mingle, contrast and generally converse about themes and harmonies. This sort of nonpolitical conversation is one that music does do well.

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