May 31, 2018


Victoria Bond: Soul of a Nation—Concerto Portraits of Presidential Character. Frank Almond, violin; John Bruce Yeh, clarinet; Mark Ridenour, trumpet; Gabriela Vargas, flute; Roosevelt University Chamber Orchestra conducted by Emanuele Andrizzi; Chicago College of Performing Arts Wind Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires. Albany Records. $16.99.

New Standards: Music for Bassoon and Piano. Ann Shoemaker, bassoon; Kae Hosoda-Ayer, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

New Works for Viols, Voice, and Electronics. Kristin Norderval, soprano; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; Valeria Vasilevski, narrator; Parthenia (Beverly Au and Lisa Terry, bass viols; Lawrence Lipnik, tenor viol; Rosamund Morley, treble viol). MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Many contemporary composers, and contemporary performers who focus on works of today and the recent past, seem always to be searching for new ways to use music, ways to make connections sometimes with listeners, sometimes with fellow performers, and sometimes with society at large so as to make social or political points. And at least some composers working today draw directly on music of the past as a model, or a lens through which to see what they want listeners to observe. The four presidential-focused concertos by Victoria Bond (born 1945) on a new Albany Records CD quite clearly have Copland’s Lincoln Portrait as a model – Bond herself says so – but they also, and rather more interestingly, adapt Charles Ives’ approach of including familiar, even homespun music within the newly composed material. In Bond’s works, for example, this results in providing aural touchstones for a musical study of Theodore Roosevelt by including, among other tunes, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” These four concertos are in fact studies rather than tributes, along the lines of Ives’ portraits of transcendentalists: all four Bond pieces include words by Myles Lee that take a rather too-modern perspective on the presidents and tend to judge them by inappropriately contemporary standards. Like Lincoln’s own words in Copland’s work about Lincoln, Lee’s writings about these four presidents are intended as scene-setters, but they also come across interpretatively in ways that are rather grating and add little, if anything, to Bond’s music. The music itself is intelligently and often cleverly constructed. The sequence on the CD is a personal rather than chronological one. The violin-and-strings concerto, Soul of a Nation, is in some ways the most interesting piece: it focuses on Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s only polymath president, and incorporates music by Corelli that Jefferson kept in his library at Monticello. Henry Fogel is the narrator here, with violinist Frank Almond and the Roosevelt University Chamber Orchestra conducted by Emanuele Andrizzi. The music of this piece is heartfelt and often soulful, exploring greater depths than Bond probes in the other concertos. The Jefferson work is followed by The Indispensable Man, the title referring not to Lincoln but to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the one president here whom Lee appears to admire unreservedly. David Holloway narrates and John Bruce Yeh is the clarinetist in a work whose jazzy riffs and bouncy percussion meld, sometimes a touch uneasily, with Big Band sounds. The ensemble parts here and in the remaining concertos are very well played by the Chicago College of Performing Arts Wind Ensemble conducted by Stephen Squires. The third concerto, The Crowded Hours, focuses on Theodore Roosevelt and features Ray Frewen as narrator and Mark Ridenour on trumpet. Percussion plays a significant role in this rather martial work, interspersed with popular tunes of Roosevelt’s time. Last on the CD is Pater Patriae, narrated by Adrian Dunn, featuring Gabriela Vargas on flute, and focusing on George Washington. Here the music, which includes 18th-century fife-and-drum tunes, is jauntier and generally more unsophisticated in sound than that of the other concertos, presumably to make Washington come across as a man of strength and moral clarity but also making him seem rather superficial. Of course, every generation has different heroic figures, and every musical generation delineates its subjects differently: Ives was as much a man of his time, in this sense, as Bond is a woman of hers. If there is something rather too studied in some of Bond’s music (and much of Lee’s verbiage), it does not detract from the very fine construction of all these works and the genuinely interesting material that appears in all of them, from time to time if not from start to finish.

     Bond reaches out to a broad American audience with her presidential concertos. Ann Shoemaker seems more interested in reaching out to other performers – bassoonists who, like Shoemaker herself, would like to find some additional works to play. The result is an MSR Classics release that is a musical hodgepodge, containing material written as long ago as 1899 and as recently as 2007, most of it falling into the salon-music category through pleasant construction, some mildly memorable tunes, and very little that is aurally challenging. Performance challenges, however, abound, and Shoemaker surmounts all of them to excellent effect: this is really a CD for bassoonists and for listeners interested in seeing just how much the instrument (whose range is considerably wider than most people realize) can do both expressively and virtuosically. The oldest work here, 3 Pièces pour basson et piano by Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), is one of the most engaging, giving the bassoon plenty of chances to sing warmly and sweetly, setting a quiet and contemplative mood to fine effect. The Koechlin work contrasts very pleasantly with the three more-outgoing ones that follow it on the disc and focus on the bassoon’s more-playful side. These are Etude No. 5: Variations on “Streets of Laredo” for solo bassoon (1982) by John Steinmetz (born 1951); Brightening for bassoon and piano (2007) by Marcus Karl Maroney (born 1976); and Scherzo in G minor for bassoon and piano (1948) by Oleg Miroshnikov (born 1925). In the Maroney and Miroshnikov works, and the others here that use piano, Kae Hosoda-Ayer does a fine job of backing Shoemaker up while allowing her to stay firmly in the limelight; the recording adds to this effect by placing the bassoon prominently front-and-center. Other works here have a distinctly French flavor (whether or not written by French composers) and a fair amount of élan: Neuf Pièces Breves pour basson et piano (1965) by Pierre Max Dubois (1930-1995); Variations Concertantes pour basson et piano (1970) by Ida Gotkovsky (born 1933); and Suite pour basson et piano (1957) by Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986). Dubois’ work most thoroughly explores the bassoon’s many moods, from an opening Pomposo to a Pastorale to an Adagio that contrasts nicely with the succeeding Giocoso. Also nicely contrasted on the CD are the two parts of Sicilienne et Allegro Giocoso pour basson et piano (1930) by Gabriel Grovlez (1879-1944), followed on the disc by the more monochromatic Black Anemones by Joseph Schwantner (born 1943) – a work written for voice and piano in 1980, transcribed for flute and piano in 1991, and here showing the bassoon’s ability to replicate both vocal elements and the characteristics of a higher woodwind. The fact that none of the composers heard here is particularly well-known (only Koechlin and perhaps Tansman will be familiar names to most listeners) shows how far-ranging Shoemaker had to be in her search for new and/or neglected bassoon repertoire. It would be nice to report that she found some genuine gems, but in fact the works here are more of the semi-precious variety: bassoonists may well want to incorporate some of them into recitals, but the CD is unlikely to repay everyday listeners through multiple hearings – the material, while generally quite pleasant, offers little to bring an audience back repeatedly except for the high quality of Shoemaker’s playing.

     The sheer sound of another MSR Classics release is also its main attraction. This is a CD of world première recordings of contemporary works for Renaissance viol consort – quite a concept! – plus an electronically enhanced version of the 850-plus-year-old chant Alleluia, O Virga Mediatrix by Hildegard von Bingen. This piece opens the CD and sets up its female orientation: all the works are by women composers, a fact far less relevant than the pieces’ thematic focus on storytelling. What the viol ensemble Parthenia does to and with the gorgeous von Bingen chant will be very much a matter of taste; but then, so will all the works here, even though the chance to hear a Renaissance viol consort in pretty much any repertoire is a highly welcome one. Nevertheless, listeners should know that none of the composers here pays any particular attention, much less tribute, to historical works for viol consort: this is decidedly modern music that uses the viols (and, yes, electronics) in strictly contemporary ways. Nevertheless, sensitivity to the intimate sound of viols is evident in some of the music. In particular, From a Fairy Tale (2013) by Frances White, from a story by James Pritchett, explores and exploits the otherworldly aspects of the viols’ sound to fine and suitable effect. Thorns for viol quartet and bass-baritone (2013), by Tawnie Olson, is also unaffected and direct, with a finely honed performance by Dashon Burton adding to the effect of a piece that does not overstay its welcome. The other two works on the CD are somewhat thornier than Thorns, and they are the longest pieces on the disc. White’s A Flower on the Farther Side (2010), for viol quartet and electronic sound, seems rather self-conscious in its integration (or dis-integration) of the centuries-old instruments with the usual parade of electronics. And the longest piece here, the four-movement Nothing Proved Can Be (2008) by Kristin Norderval, for viol quartet, soprano, and interactive audio processing, is the most curious – intellectually fascinating but emotionally rather vapid. The issue here has to do with content as well as sound: the words are those of Queen Elizabeth I, the topic no less than her rise to and retention of power and the sacrifices and ruthlessness required of her. The use of instruments of Elizabeth’s era to set her own words gives the work a kind of time-capsule quality and a sense of solidity, but the actual music and the audio processing used to enhance (or at least alter) it create a disconnect between what is being said and explored, on the one hand, and the way things are being said and explored, on the other. The result is a work of undeniable complexity whose intricacy of thought and design is clear but whose impact is less visceral that Norderval surely intends it to be. The members of Parthenia play this and all the other pieces here – all written and premièred by the ensemble – with commitment and, when called for, considerable beauty. The verbal participants – Burton, Valeria Vasilevski and composer Norderval as a soprano – evince a strong sense of commitment to the material and a high level of comfort with these works’ style. The CD is a fascinating foray into nowadays little-heard sonorities that are reinterpreted in a strictly up-to-date context – a disc for a rarefied audience that will find the material sometimes charming, sometimes thought-provoking, and sometimes, however improbably, both at once.

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