September 13, 2018


Alla Zingarese. Civitas Ensemble and Gipsy Way Ensemble. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).

Kenneth Fuchs: Piano Concerto, “Spiritualist”; Poems of Life for Countertenor and Orchestra; Glacier—Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra; Rush—Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra. Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, countertenor; D.J. Sparr, electric guitar; Timothy McAllister, alto saxophone; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.

Jeff Beal: House of Cards Symphony; House of Cards Fantasy for Flute and Orchestra; Six Sixteen for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra; Canticle for String Orchestra; Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. Sharon Bezaly, flute; Jason Vieaux, guitar; Norrköping Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jeff Beal. BIS. $39.99 (2 SACDs).

FLARE: Society of Composers, Inc., Volume 32—Music by Vaibhav Mohanty, Robert Anton Strobel, Keith Kramer, Matthew J. Jaskot, Jonathan Graybill, Gabriel Mălăncioiu, Jacob Thiede, and Mark W. Phillips. Navona. $14.99.

     Infectious and relentlessly upbeat, the first CD of a two-disc Cedille release called Alla Zingarese pours forth pretty much everything a listener could want of what is traditionally considered “gypsy style.” There are fiddling and speed and attractive tunefulness and swooning melodies and more fiddling and so much enthusiasm in the playing that it is almost impossible not to smile and fight the urge to get up and dance (or, perhaps, not fight that urge). The dual ensembles on this disc – violin, clarinet, cello and piano from Civitas plus violin, viola, string bass and cimbalom from Gipsy Way – together comprise a chamber group unlike any other, with virtuosity to spare and joyfulness that is pervasive. The fact that three of the tracks on this CD are arrangements and reinterpretations of very-well-known classical pieces – Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 and Rondo alla Zingarese from the Piano Quartet in G minor, and Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen – only makes the boldness of the combined groups stand out further. This is an experiment in musical merger that is as delightful as it is bold. True, the material overstays its welcome a bit: there is only so much fire and explosive ardor that most listeners will be able to take before aural exhaustion sets in. And not all the works are equally interesting – for example, the piano becomes almost an afterthought in this Rondo alla Zingarese. Still, every piece on this disc offers its own set of pleasures, from Georges Boulanger’s Sérénade Tzigane to Jenő Hubay’s Hullámzó Balaton, Lukáš Sommer’s Gipsy Odyssey and Pavel Šporcl’s Gipsy Fire (Šporcl is the virtuoso violinist who heads the Gipsy Way Ensemble). There is little to choose from stylistically among several of the works, but every one of them offers a good time in its own way. The second Alla Zingarese disc, on which only the Civitas Ensemble is heard, is not quite as effervescent. It includes a nice version of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, an effective enough handling of David Popper’s imitative Hungarian Rhapsody for Cello and Piano, and a rather disappointingly thin arrangement of Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1. These are intermingled with Dža More for Solo Violin by Sylvie Borodová, which is quite well played but not very substantial; Sommer’s Cigi-Civi, which is rather ill-fitting with the rest of the release in terms of its approach and impact; and Leó Weiner’s Peregi Verbunk for Clarinet and Piano, which uses the instruments well but is not especially memorable. The totality of the two-CD set, however, is memorable, and even if not every element gels, enough of them do so that listeners – especially ones willing to pick and choose among the works instead of listening to either disc straight through – will have a grand time with the material and will end up pleasantly breathless at the sheer audacity of all the hyper-virtuosity on display.

     There is also a blend of forms and sounds on a new Naxos release featuring music by Kenneth Fuchs (born 1956), led by JoAnn Falletta with her usual conductorial sensitivity and panache. All four works here are substantial ones. The “Spiritualist” concerto from 2016 is subtitled “After Three Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler” and is intended to reflect those works’ effects on the composer. Pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who requested the concerto, performs it admirably, but listeners unfamiliar with the specific Frankenthaler works underlying the music, or at least with Frankenthaler’s overall oeuvre, will not get the full effect of the piece. It is cast in the traditional three movements, but without clear connections among the three – those are intended to come from knowledge of the inspirational paintings. Poems of Life (2017) makes its points somewhat more clearly, simply because its five sections include 12 short poems by Judith G. Wolf that are sung with considerable beauty by countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen. Just listening to Cohen’s voice, even without paying significant attention to the words, provides a meaningful listening experience. Also here are a five-movement concerto for electric guitar (2015) and a two-movement one for alto saxophone (2012). Glacier, intended to represent the feelings generated by the sight of gigantic masses of ice, is the more-interesting work, if only because many of the electric-guitar sounds are so unexpected in an orchestral context – especially when, somewhat surprisingly, they blend in instead of standing out. Rush is pleasant enough and offers an enjoyable sonic contrast to Glacier, but is more ordinary thematically and aurally and at times seems more extended even though in fact it lasts only two-thirds as long as Glacier. Falletta’s enthusiasm for all the music is evident throughout, and the London Symphony Orchestra’s first-rate playing gives all the pieces a sheen that serves them well.

     The blending is one of media and venue when it comes to a new two-SACD set of music written and conducted by Jeff Beal – music that, as it happens, also makes considerable use of electric guitar (as well as bass guitar, drum kit and flugelhorn). Although the overt presentation of the material is symphonic, this is really made-for-TV music, specifically composed for the Netflix series House of Cards. The well-regarded series about the deviousness of the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. – scarcely an underexplored topic – is attractive to its audience in part because Beal’s music so effectively sets some scenes and underlines others. Thus, this release is directed almost exclusively at House of Cards fans, who will be able to attach specific scenes and plot points, or at least a general aura of the show, to the various works. The entire first disc of the release holds the House of Cards Symphony, which is an astonishingly bold arrangement of the series’ material: at 83-plus minutes, it is the length of some of Mahler’s works without an iota of Mahler’s organizational skill, emotional intensity or structural brilliance. More an extended suite than a dramatically cohesive symphony, the piece sprawls and propels and insists on its many themes and moments of drama, and it goes on and on to such a degree that anyone who is not deeply enamored of House of Cards will quickly start to wonder what all the fuss is about. Even some devoted viewers may find this piece a bit much to take. The works on the second disc, especially the two featuring the flute, are much more congenial. The better of the flute works is the concerto, which gives Sharon Bezaly – an excellent flautist – plenty of opportunities to explore the instrument’s emotional range, which Beal correctly perceives to be far wider than it is often thought to be. The concerto’s finale, in particular, uses the flute in virtuoso ways that almost seem to go against the grain of the instrument – but in Bezaly’s hands, they come across as simply an extension of its usual sound and of typical flute technique. House of Cards Fantasy is less gripping than the concerto, perhaps because of its close ties to the music of the TV show, but it is simply an encore-length piece (although not placed at the end of the disc) that comes across nicely, if rather forgettably. Canticle, for string orchestra, is not much longer, and it too is nicely composed, but without having any especially distinctive or distinguished content. Six Sixteen is more interesting in its setting of guitar against a chamber orchestra: it is not quite a concerto but not quite an obbligato piece, either, lying somewhere in the middle and containing elements that even people who are not fans of House of Cards will be able to enjoy. On balance, the self-limited works here – the ones tied most strongly to the TV program and thus aimed almost entirely at the show’s fans – take up more time but are less interesting than the rest of the material.

     There are contrasts aplenty in the latest Navona anthology release featuring music by members of the Society of Composers, Inc. And several of the pieces on the CD called FLARE contain contrasts within themselves, along with blends of traditional Western music with music from elsewhere – a typical style among many contemporary composers. Vaibhav Mohanty, for example, mixes jazz and Indian music with Western material in his Rhapsody No.1 for alto saxophone and piano; Jonathan Graybill tries to translate Cherokee mysticism into music in the solo-piano work Tsigili'I: Black-Capped Chickadee; Gabriel Mălăncioiu uses soprano and violin to try to communicate mysticism of a different sort in Song of the Avadhut; Mark W. Phillips incorporates jazz and blues into classical elements in the five short movements of Dreams Interrupted; and Jacob Thiede's When All Else Fails (Take Your Time) offers a very unusual blending and contrast by mixing a tuba with computer-generated tones. All these works deserve to be classified as experimental, and it is hard to imagine any of them, much less all of them, being of interest to a wide audience. Like the many earlier volumes in this series, this CD is primarily a showcase for the composers themselves and those who know them – and an opportunity for diehard fans of the latest contemporary trends and fads in music to hear some methods of implementing those approaches. The experimentation appears in every work on the disc, which also includes Refugees for solo piano by Robert Anton Strobel, L’etere del Tempo for oboe and piano by Keith Kramer, and Rejuvenated (Variations on a Youthful Theme), for solo piano, by Matthew J. Jaskot. Whether written for a single instrument or as many as Phillips’ work needs (13 performers, two of them on percussion, plus a conductor), every piece here seeks to make its musical mark by combining and contrasting instruments and musical materials in unusual ways. The techniques of the composers vary widely: for example, Kramer’s piece is “based on the second order all-combinatorial hexachord 6-7 [012678], which is the same set demonstrated by Messiaen’s fifth mode of limited transposition,” while Jaskot’s is a comparatively traditional work of theme and variations (although the theme does not appear until after the fourth variation). The overriding question for all the works, though, is what they seek to communicate and how effectively they do so. In that respect, this 32nd SCI compilation, like the ones before it, is very much a mixed bag, intended primarily, it seems, to showcase techniques rather than to attempt any significant joining of sensibilities between the composers and any but the most-limited audience.

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