October 18, 2018


Bernstein: Symphonies Nos. 1-3; Prelude, Fugue & Riffs. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, mezzo-soprano; Beatrice Rana, piano; Nadine Sierra, soprano; Josephine Barstow, speaker; Coro e Voci Bianche dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Alessandro Carbonare, clarinet; Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia conducted by Antonio Pappano. Warner Classics. $26.98 (2 CDs).

Sisters in Song: Opera, Songs and Spirituals. Nicole Cabell and Alyson Cambridge, sopranos; Lake Forest Symphony conducted by Vladimir Kulenovic. Cedille. $16.

Hayes Biggs: Pan-fare; When you are reminded by the instruments; Inquieto (attraverso il rumore); The Trill Is Gone; Fanfare for Brass and Percussion; E.M. am Flügel; Wedding Motet—Tota Pulchra Est/Set Me as a Seal upon Thine Heart; Ochila laEil. Navona. $14.99.

Spectra, Volume 2—Music of Elizabeth R. Austin, John Alan Rose, Juliana Hall, Ryan Jesperson, Frank Vasi, and Nancy Tucker. Navona. $14.99.

     There was very little that was conventional in Leonard Bernstein’s thinking about where the lines between classical/serious and pop/Broadway music should be drawn – if indeed they should be drawn at all. Bernstein (1918-1990) had at least as many successes in theater, West Side Story being the best-known, as in the concert hall, if not more. His classical-style music tended to be erudite and sometimes mentally as well as aurally challenging, as in Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. And much like another famous 20th-century American musician, Aaron Copland, Bernstein found that his popular works tended to eclipse ones that were more difficult for audiences to grasp but that were deeply imbued with what he deemed to be the crucial elements of his musical thinking. Bernstein’s three symphonies, which receive excellently played and heartfelt renditions on a new Warner Classics release featuring Antonio Pappano and Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, stand in many ways as pinnacles of Bernstein’s classical thinking – and as examples of his non-traditional handling of traditional forms. The first and third are vocal works and are deeply imbued with Bernstein’s Jewish heritage. As such, they use languages that concert audiences rarely hear, Hebrew and Aramaic, and their topics turn them into something between declamation and oratorio. No. 1, “Jeremiah,” dates to 1942 and is in three movements titled “Prophecy,” “Profanation” and “Lamentation.” A wartime work – premièred, interestingly, in a mosque – it has little of the Sturm und Drang of many other World War II orchestral pieces, taking a more-inward and rather depressive stance on events of the day by using such Biblical phrases (in Hebrew) as, “All her [the city’s] friends have dealt treacherously with her; they are become her enemies.” Skillfully orchestrated and boasting a large percussion section that Pappano uses to particularly fine effect, the symphony is decidedly on the dour side, although there is considerable beauty in some of the vocal material as sung by Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (1963/1977) is called the “Kaddish,” using text from the eponymous Aramaic-language Jewish prayer for the dead. Dedicated to the memory of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated just weeks before the work’s première, the symphony is even more expansive than No. 1, using both a mixed choir and boys’ choir – plus two voices, a soprano and a narrator – as well as, yet again, a very large orchestra that in this case requires four percussionists. The narrative of the three-movement “Kaddish” begins with the prayer but soon turns into a confrontational argument between the speaker (Josephine Barstow) and God (a one-sided argument: God never replies). After raging at God for the injustices of the world, the speaker attains a level of calm and offers to comfort God as God has previously comforted humans: the lullaby sung in the second movement by the soprano (Nadine Sierra) is gentle and compassionate. The third movement has God dreaming as the narrator creates scenes from the human imagination, then exhorts God, “Believe! Believe!” The work is philosophically ambitious and musically quite varied, not always fully coherent but certainly heartfelt – and demanding of both performers and listeners.

     Between these vocal symphonies, Bernstein’s Second, “The Age of Anxiety” (1949/1965), lacks vocal elements but retains the individual-against-the-mass structure through extensive use of a solo piano. It also includes a pianino (small upright piano). It is the most complexly structured of Bernstein’s symphonies, being in two parts, each of which includes three sections – with the second and third sections of Part One each broken down into seven subsections. The title sounds evocative of the modern age as a whole, but in fact reflects the work’s genesis as a musical interpretation of W.H. Auden’s poem of the same name (Auden did not much care for the music). The frequent tempo and rhythm changes of the symphony – which, like the other two, is orchestrated with considerable skill – keep the work interesting, and certainly Pappano and pianist Beatrice Rana handle it with understanding. But only listeners who know Auden’s poem will really get the point of much of the symphony, so closely does it reflect specific elements of Auden’s work. The music does contain considerable jazzy elements, and those are appealing in their own right – and indeed, Bernstein’s incorporation of jazz into his scores is one of his most attractive attributes. This melding of jazz with classical elements is scarcely unique to Bernstein, but he handled it with unusual flair, as in Prelude, Fugue & Riffs (1949), which explicitly mixes classical material (the first two movements) with jazz (the third). This is a clarinet concertino that makes an excellent encore after the three symphonies; and if Alessandro Carbonare does not play with quite as much flair as Benny Goodman, to whom Bernstein dedicated the work, he certainly handles the material stylishly and is ably abetted by Pappano. This is a highlyworthwhile release for listeners who know Bernstein’s symphonies only from the composer’s own performances: Pappano’s readings are different in many points of emphasis, bringing out a variety of subtleties. And listeners who do not know the serious/classical side of Bernstein at all will find this recording revelatory.

     There is nothing so substantive musically on a new (+++) Cedille CD called “Sisters in Song,” but there is a great deal of listening pleasure for anyone who simply wants to hear the intertwining voices of two first-rate sopranos. This is a short CD of short pieces, 14 of them adding up to about 49 minutes of music, and it is clearly intended to showcase the ways in which the voices of Nicole Cabell and Alyson Cambridge both blend and differ. It does that quite well, both in opera excerpts and in various song and spiritual arrangements by Joe Clark. The repertoire choice is apparently highly personal to the singers; indeed, the whole CD is the sort of product that one might pick up after hearing a joint recital by the performers. From the opera world come the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakmé, the Evening Prayer from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, and two excerpts from Mozart’s Così fan tutte. They are “Ah guarda, sorella,” for Cabell and Cambridge alone, and “Soave sia il vento,” in which the sopranos are joined by baritone Will Liverman, whose rich-toned voice nicely complements theirs. The four songs here are Del Cabello más Sutil by Fernando J. Obradors, Claire de Lune by Gabriel Fauré, Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria, and the traditional Black Is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair). These songs’ music, thanks in large part to Clark’s arrangements, fits very effectively with the five spirituals: There Is a Balm in Gilead; Oh, What a Beautiful City!; Ain’t That Good News; Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child; and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. Taken as a whole, the musical potpourri is not particularly attractive or unattractive – the specific pieces are is a sense irrelevant to the overall sound of this disc, which has clearly been assembled with care and targeted strictly at people who either know one or both of the sopranos already or who are simply pleased by the opportunity to hear paired voices of similar range but very different heft and vocal quality.

     The two vocal works on a new (+++) Navona CD of music by Hayes Biggs show modern approaches to liturgical texts that are quite different from those of Bernstein or those in the spirituals sung by Cabell and Cambridge. One Biggs work, Ochila laEil (1999), uses Hebrew, but quite differently from the way Bernstein does, and for quite different purposes. This text is taken from services at which the cantor asks permission to pray on behalf of the congregation – and Biggs extensively uses a French horn, apparently to represent the cantor, before any vocal material enters. The horn sounds as if it is asking with more and more passion to speak for the congregation – and when vocals do enter, they are from a chorus (the Florilegium Chamber Choir conducted by JoAnn Rice). After the text, the horn returns again to close the piece as wordlessly as it began. The other vocal work here, Wedding Motet (1998), is a short piece (half the length of the 14-minute Ochila laEil) in which various words from the Song of Songs are set in variegated fashion to music whose multiplicity of approaches prevents smooth emotional flow but offers a series of little stylistic surprises, all handled neatly by the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective conducted by Ben Arendsen. The other six, non-vocal works on the CD also showcase the considerable variability of Biggs’ music. Two are solo-instrument works: The Trill Is Gone (2013), a lighthearted tribute to composer Edwin London (1929-2013) for tenor saxophone (Andrew Steinberg), and E.M. am Flügel (“Eric Moe at the Piano”), a piece from 1992 tailored to the style of Moe, who performs it here. There is also a work for violin (Curtis Macomber) and piano (Christopher Oldfather) called Inquieto (attraverso il rumore), which dates to 2015 and whose title translates as “Disquiet (amid the noise).” Here and throughout the CD, Biggs is apparently seeking a level of profundity and philosophical inquiry that, however, is never supported by the specifics of the music in the way that Bernstein’s musical thinking invites other forms of thoughtfulness. Biggs is somewhat more interesting when he does not appear to be trying quite so hard, as in the bright and energetic Fanfare for Brass and Percussion (1989), a short curtain-raiser of a piece that has more complexity of design than is usual in fanfares, and wears it well. Also short and interesting is Pan-fare (2007), in which the Moravian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Petr Vronský, is joined by Desiree Glazier-Nazro on steel pan, pedal bass drum, and tambourine. There is something intoxicating in the very varied percussive sounds here (the work also includes vibraslap, bongos, congas, marimba, Chinese opera gong and more); and even if there is nothing particularly meaningful in the piece, its gestural, outgoing nature is infectious. But when Biggs strives for meaningfulness, he tends to over-complicate. That is the impression created by When you are reminded by the instruments (1997), its title taken from a Walt Whitman poem and its septet scoring (oboe/English horn, clarinet/bass clarinet, French horn, violin, viola, cello, and bass) used to create a sound far removed from what listeners will likely expect from this instrumental complement – but little that will surprise an audience accustomed to the ways in which some contemporary composers prefer to extend the sound of traditional instruments into new and different realms, if scarcely more sonically pleasing ones.

     A (+++) Navona anthology disc featuring six members of Connecticut Composers, Inc. includes one vocal work and one that could be described as almost vocal. Here too there are composers intrigued by the human voice and looking for ways to incorporate it, or at least make reference to it, in music with a distinctly contemporary feel. The vocal piece here is Bells and Grass (1989) by Juliana Hall, and while its poetry is scarcely unusual – the five works are by Walter de la Mare – the setting is out of the ordinary. It is for soprano (Julia Broxholm) and oboe (Margaret Marco) – no piano here. The unusual combination lends the work an unexpected coloration that is quite pleasant and that reflects nicely the small touches of intimate experience on which the poetry dwells. The almost-vocal piece is B-A-C-Homage (2007) by Elizabeth R. Austin, which is written for viola (Laura Krentzman) and piano (Erberk Eryilmaz) and which uses the notes represented by Bach’s name (B-A-C-B flat) as a compositional technique. Bits of actual Bach drift through the two movements, the first of which shares its title with the work as a whole. But the second movement is the almost-verbal one. It is called Ich bins, Nachtigall, a reference to a Rainer Maria Rilke fragment whose first line translates as “I am the one, Nightingale, of whom you sing.” The bird-focused words, although not actually sung, are the reason for the birdlike sounds heard in the movement, which really make sense only if listeners know the Rilke inspiration. Also on the CD is another work inspired by literature, Sleepy Hollow Suite (2007) by John Alan Rose. Heard here in a version for solo piano, the work is largely programmatic, its three movements focusing on several characters from the well-known story and on the climactic encounter between Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. The inspiration is Greek mythology in Icarus (2017) by Ryan Jesperson, and this is a work designated as being for alto saxophone (Joseph Abad) and piano (Marko Stuparevic); but in reality it is for a processed version of the instruments, with overlays of additional material on the basics. Whether or not this makes the music connect any more meaningfully with the story of the youth who disastrously flew too close to the sun will be a matter of individual listeners’ opinion. Random Thoughts (2014) by Frank Vasi is for saxophone quartet (David Langlais, soprano; Will Cleary, alto; Vasi himself, tenor; Tim Moran, baritone) and has some attractive combinatorial sounds that nicely complement compositional techniques such as playing 4/4 and 6/8 time against each other in the second movement and producing some (literally) offbeat jazziness in the fourth and last one, which is entertainingly titled “Picasso’s Rag.” In fact, it is the entertaining nature of Vasi’s piece and of the two by Nancy Tucker that is the most attractive element of this variegated disc. Tucker offers two very short works, Escape of the Slinkys (2004) for 6-string guitar (Tucker herself) and marimba (Tom Dest), and Grasshopper’s Holiday (2001) for 6-string guitar solo (Tucker again). The latter features such enthusiastic plucking and strumming that, like certain country music, it encourages listeners to bounce along with it. There is effortless-sounding joy in these two little pieces, which thus stand in pleasant contrast to the generally serious – indeed, often overly serious – tone of so much contemporary classical music, whether vocal or instrumental.

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