February 08, 2018


Felipe Perez Santiago: Chamber Music. Navona. $14.99.

Rosewood Café: Music of Celso Machado, Paulinho da Vida, Pixinguinha, Ástor Piazzolla, and Jacob do Bandolim. Margaret Herlehy, oboe; David Newsam, guitar; Henrique Eisenmann, piano; Fernando Brandao, flute; Negah Santos, pandeiro. Big Round Records. $14.99.

Mark Volker: Three Quotations; Dust to Dust; Echoes of Yesterday; Young Prometheus. Navona. $14.99.

     Although contemporary music almost inevitably springs from personal experiences, there are times when the intensity of a personal connection is above and beyond what listeners are likely to anticipate when hearing a work. That is the case with Hospital Suite (2012) by Felipe Perez Santiago, played by the Onix Ensemble on a new Navona CD. Perez Santiago wrote the music while waiting for a considerable period at a hospital where both his mother and his former girlfriend happened to be convalescing at the same time. Although both recovered fully, this chamber suite is not at all the sickness-and-fighting-through-to-health sequence that listeners might expect from the title. Instead, it is something of a nonmedical person’s response to the words tossed about casually by medical personnel in a setting where they are comfortable and the listener is definitely not. The four movements are called “Suprarenal,” “Vesiculobiliar,” “Neuroma de Morton,” and “Neurocardiogénico,” surely among the most unusual movement titles in recent music. And the work itself speaks of both the confusion that terms like these engender in those unfamiliar with them, and of the emotional roller coaster that friends and relatives find themselves on when loved ones are hospitalized and there is nothing to do but wait for news of their condition – which, when it comes, is often delivered in nearly incomprehensible language. The suite manages to communicate all this within a more-or-less-classical form (opening movement, slow movement, scherzo-like movement, finale); but the music itself is very heavily jazz-influenced and, indeed, is closer to jazz than to classical models. The jazz feeling pervades this CD, despite the differences among the works. El Ansia (1997/2016), originally for string quartet, is first heard here in an arrangement for saxophone quartet and piano, then in its original version. The Anacrusax Saxophone Quartet performs it with the lilt and somewhat mysterious sound befitting a piece inspired by a vampire movie; the Apeiron String Quartet does a good job with the original and somewhat paler version. La Candesauria (2009), performed by Camerata Metropolitana, is a somewhat meandering piece, full of gestures in all directions. Pengamat Busan (2013), whose title is Indonesian for “Man Contemplating the Moon,” is based on a specific painting and is well-played by the Tamiya Ensemble, which commissioned it; it has attractive elements but is overly given to repetitiveness. Exoesqueleto (2014), another work played by the Anacrusax Saxophone Quartet, is particularly redolent of jazz; it does, however, somewhat overstay its welcome. Maniquí (1996), for clarinet (Ismael Sánchez) and piano (Abdel Hadi Sabag), takes the woodwind to the extremes of its range around a more-central piano part. And Mal Timing (2010), performed by Camerata Metropolitana, is a very short, encore-like piece with an interesting juxtaposition of percussion with the ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano. All the music here is nicely constructed and well thought out, and Perez Santiago handles the instruments skillfully – with Hospital Suite the standout composition on the disc.

     The standout work on a Big Round Records release titled Rosewood Café is Café 1930 by Ástor Piazzolla, and jazz is very much the order of the day throughout the recording. Of particular interest here is the instrumentation, which features Margaret Herlehy on oboe throughout the disc – the oboe scarcely being an instrument typically associated with music of this type. Much more common is the guitar, and indeed, eight of the nine works here feature it, with David Newsam offering strongly accented and idiomatic performances that complement those of Herlehy very well indeed. The one work here without guitar, Choro Negro by Paulinho da Viola and Fernando Costa, features Herlehy with pianist Henrique Eisenmann, who also shows strength in performance and a sure understanding of the music. Most other works on the CD are duets for oboe and guitar, but two are for small chamber ensemble: Nachele Tempo by Benedito Lacerda, Pixinguinha and Fabio Oliveira (for oboe, piano, guitar, flute and pandeiro – a hand-frame Brazilian drum), and Diabinho Maluco by Jacob do Bandolim (for oboe, guitar, flute and pandeiro). This last work makes a first-rate contrast to Piazzolla’s, which is inward-looking and has genuine depth of feeling: Diabinho Maluco is a bright, bouncy, almost swaggering Latin dance piece. The personal expressions in evidence on this recording are as much those of Herlehy and Newsam as they are those of the composers: most of the music other than Café 1930 and Diabinho Maluco is pleasant but rather conventional, offering touches of warmth and brightness in expected places but not striving for any particularly strong emotional connection. It is the way Herlehy and Newsam handle the material that makes the recording an intriguing and ultimately convincing one.

     Emotional connection is the avowed purpose of the major Mark Volker work on a new Navona CD: Young Prometheus, an eight-movement suite drawn from a ballet that in turn is a reinterpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But the grand themes of the novel that led it to be subtitled “The Modern Prometheus” are nowhere present here: this is simply a story of bullying and of the difficulty of fitting into the modern world if one is young and deformed – the central character of the ballet is a disfigured middle-school student. The ballet characters are types, quite deliberately: only the protagonist has a name (inevitably, “Frank”), while the others are the Bully, the Cheerleader, the Jock, and so on. In the music, a chamber ensemble is used to characterize each individual. The ensemble consists of Carolyn Treybig, flute; Matthew Davich, clarinet; Alison Gooding Hoffman, violin; Stephen Drake, cello; and Kristian Klefstad, piano. The performance is fine, but the music, like the feel-good balletic work from which it is drawn, is somewhat obvious and superficial, as individual characters are limned by specific instruments and then combined in a section called “The Misfits” and, at the end, for an upbeat finale. The musical material is thin, but pleasant enough to hear. The three other works on the disc are quite different from Young Prometheus. The most-extended of them is Three Quotations, an attempt to illustrate and expand upon words by Robert Aitken, Sylvia Plath and – most interestingly – futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler, authors of Future Shock. The first movement, “Morning Chorus,” offers typical contemporary scene-painting of birdsong; the second, “I Am,” is an unsurprising set of struggles and eventual resilience. The most interesting movement is the third, which is indeed called “Future Shock,” and which neatly depicts constant motion and change over an ostinato that propels the music strongly along a track that eventually leads to a driving, dramatic but ultimately unresolved conclusion. The performers here are John McMurtery, flute; Nobuko Igarashi, clarinet and bass clarinet; Daniel Gilbert, violin; Craig Hultgren, cello; and Adam Bowles, piano. The remaining two works on the CD are shorter and intended to be expressive in very different ways. Dust to Dust, for string quartet (Katelyn Westergard and Alicia Enstrom, violins; Jim Grosjean, viola; Emily Nelson, cello) is a bit of expressionism involving a specific painting and the notion of mortality – it is thus appropriately, well, dusty, with smeared and swooning textures from which bits of portentous sound emerge. Echoes of Yesterday is for solo clarinet (Davich) with interactive electronics: the clarinet’s sound is passed to computer software programmed to respond to specific portions of the score in specific ways. Like many pieces of this type, the work seems designed more as a how-clever-I-am piece than as one intended to evoke an emotional reaction from human listeners – who are, after all, considerably less predictable in their responsiveness than computer programs.

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