August 11, 2016


Havana Moon. TransAtlantic Ensemble (Mariam Adam, clarinet; Evelyn Ulex, piano); Liana Gourdjia, violin; J.P. Jofre, bandoneón. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Ferdinando De Sena: Spalding’s Bounce; Deceptive Clarity; Pulsonic Turn; Art Market; Lasting Virtue; Eyes of Resurrection; Anima Mea; The Wind from the Fire. Navona. $14.99.

Miguel Chuaqui: Confabulario; Saturniana; Trance; Blues en el Corazón. Ravello. $9.99.

MODES: Society of Composers, Inc., Volume 30. Navona. $14.99.

     It has become commonplace for contemporary “classical” composers to produce music that is often not recognizably “classical” in any meaningful sense. Instead it is “crossover” music, with a shape and heritage of its own – or rather multiple heritages, since it draws on some mixture of “world music” (that is, non-Western, non-European material), jazz, popular tunes, rock, blues; the list goes on and on. Listeners attracted to this sort of musical blend have a great many places to find it: one of the issues with the style (for composers if not necessarily for an audience) is that it sounds so similar no matter who has put a particular set of influences together. There is generally very little distinctive about blended music by Composer A vs. that of Composer B, and this can actually be good for listeners, who can seek out works by unfamiliar composers with some assurance that they will find the style congenial. But it can be off-putting for listeners not (or not yet) enamored of the combinatorial approach, who cannot be quite sure where to turn for samples of this type of music. Some releases do try to make it easier to approach musical blends. Havana Moon from Steinway & Sons, for example, mixes a couple of short, evocative, authentically Latinate piano works by Heitor Villa-Lobos (Skyline of New York and Valsa da Dor) with Latin-influenced pieces by three contemporary composers. The three are Paquito D’Rivera (born 1948), who contributes The Cape Cod Files (four movements), Habanera, Contradanza and Vals Venezolano; Miguel del Águila (born 1957), whose Tango Trio, Nocturne and Silence are heard here; and bandoneón player J.P. Jofre (born 1983), whose works on this CD are Sweet Dreams and Primavera. Several of the pieces are world première recordings, and all are quite well handled by performers who are clearly comfortable playing “fusion” music whose Latin traditions blend with a mellow jazz sound and, frequently, pleasantly rhythmic dancelike melodies. The Villa-Lobos miniatures are pleasant enough, but it is D’Rivera’s The Cape Cod Files, two movements that open the CD and two that close it, that offers the widest variety of moods and the most interesting instrumentation. The remaining pieces here are pleasant enough but rather forgettable, with little sign of compositional distinction among the works or their composers.

     Despite his Latin-sounding name and his longstanding association with the University of Miami School of Music, Ferdinando De Sena was actually born in Brooklyn, New York. The Latin influence and orientation of his chamber music is nevertheless quite pronounced, as are elements taken from pop music: De Sena was a pop/rock vocalist and keyboard player in the 1970s and 1980s. A new Navona CD showcases De Sena’s compositional versatility in eight short works for varying instrumental combinations. Spalding’s Bounce features Philipp Staeudlin on tenor saxophone, Javier Caballero on cello, and Karolina Rojahn on piano; it has a kind of bebop flair and is intended as homage to jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding. Deceptive Clarity, for flute (Diedre Viau) and guitar (David Ross), blends overtly Latin guitar elements with other styles, including jazz and pop. Pulsonic Turn features Maria Wozniakiewicz on violin, Rane Moore on clarinet, and Rojahn again on piano, in a meandering, gestural atonal stylistic mixture. Art Market is electronic music, with De Sena himself producing the synthesizer sounds that he combines and recombines into six voices. Lasting Virtue for flute (Viau) and viola (Peter Sulski) is interesting mainly for the sonic contrast between the instruments. Eyes of Resurrection features contrasting sound worlds as well, here between violin (Julia Okruska) and harp (Molly McCaffrey). Anima Mea goes in a somewhat different aural direction, using the subtle differences in sound between flute (Sarah Brady) and alto saxophone (Philipp Staeudlin) to good effect. And The Wind from the Fire seeks an impressionistic interpretation of its title, using the unusual combination of mandolin and mandola (Rafael Ramirez) with guitar (Jorge Gomez Abrante). De Sena’s music is more clever than emotive, its evocative sound worlds showing the composer’s interest in various compositional forms but not being particularly focused on communication with listeners.

     Chilean-American composer Miguel Chuaqui has a stronger focus on emotional connection in the four works on a new Ravello CD. Confabulario, written in 2012 for wind quintet, takes the traditional notion of chamber music as conversation to an extreme. Its first movement, “Rapsodia,” focuses on the differences among the participating instruments, while its second, “Concertación,” seeks confluence if not exactly harmony, and eventually attains it. It is well-presented by Lisa Byrnes, flute; Robert Stephenson, oboe; Lee Livengood, clarinet; Stephen Proser, French horn; and Lori Wike, bassoon. The other pieces on the disc are all solo works, although electronics figure in them as well. Saturniana (2009) is for bass trombone (Donn Schaefer) and sounds almost like a parody of contemporary music in its determination to take the instrument to the extremes of its range so that at times it barely sounds like what it is. Trance (2010) does something similar with cello (Madeleine Shapiro): it is a work showcasing this warmest of strings as a percussion instrument. Blues en el Corazón (2009) is less self-involved and more artful, its three movements for piano (Marilyn Nonken) straddling various harmonic techniques and producing frequently intriguing dips into traditional blues writing in contrast to other sections that play with and at times deliberately forsake the blues model. There is some emotional as well as intellectual heft here.

     Chuaqui’s overt forays into Latin music are only occasional, and such approaches are even less pronounced on the latest Navona CD featuring works from the Society of Composers, Inc. The one genuinely Latinate piece here is within the Five Songs of Love by Arthur Gottschalk: the final song uses words by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The cycle features mezzo-soprano Karol Bennett with the Gotham Quartet (Quan Jiang and Lun Jiang, violins; Sheila Browne, viola; Cheng-Hou Lee, cello). The setting for voice and string quartet is an interesting one, and the five songs have some intriguingly different poetic voices (the first four are by Langston Hughes, Shel Silverstein, Malcolm Brodwick and Mina Loy). Gottschalk’s piece is the highlight of a disc that otherwise seems designed to show listeners just how contemporary “contemporary” can be. As Far as Possible by Karen Keyhani, with Elena Schwarz conducting a chamber group called Ensemble MATKA, shows the Iranian composer’s fluidity of style and interestingly incorporates the Persian santour. Robert A. Baker’s Valence III for oboe (Howard Niblock), cello (Miyoko Grine-Fisher) and percussion (Alexy Rolfe) explores the instruments’ varying sounds but not their expressive capabilities. Nolan Stolz’ Princess Ka‘iulani (he mele ho‘oipoipo) is a work for solo flute (Melanie Chirignan) that produces sounds by having the performer sing and speak Hawaiian words and phrases into the instrument; the result is merely odd. Melodía sin melodía (stereo mix) by Benjamin D. Whiting is one of those self-directed electroacoustic mixes of interest primarily to other makers of electroacoustic mixes. A Mournful Cry by Yip Ho Kwen Austin features Chiu Tan Ching on guzheng, mixing that ancient zither with poetry from China’s Song Dynasty of the 10th to 13th centuries. And Acoustic Field by Chin Ting Chan, performed by a group that calls itself “Nonsemble 6/Melos Music,” uses techniques developed by Olivier Messiaen to extend modernity even farther, largely for its own sake. Like many CDs of this type, this disc seems designed primarily for the composers themselves, their colleagues and friends and families; the music tends to be defiantly insular, making no attempt to reach out to a general audience or in any way persuade potential listeners that there is something worth hearing here. These are mostly technical explorations rather than attempts at any sort of emotional connection – works that are crafted rather than felt, no matter what their provenance may be.

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