April 25, 2019
(++++) THE ONCE AND FUTURE MODERNISTS
Philip Glass: Perpetulum; David Skidmore: Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities; Peter Martin: Bend; Robert Dillon: Ordering-instincts; Gavin Bryars: The Other Side of the River. Third Coast Percussion (David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors). Orange Mountain Music. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Victoria Bond: Instruments of Revelation; Frescoes and Ash; Leopold Bloom’s Homecoming; Binary. Chicago Pro Musica. Naxos. $12.99.
Kinan Azmeh: Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra; Ibn Arabi Suite; The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea; Kareem Roustom: Clarinet Concerto—Adrift on the Wine-Dark Sea; Zaid Jabri: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra; Dia Succari: Paroles—Suite for Clarinet and Orchestra. Kinan Azmeh, clarinet; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Manuel Nawri. Dreyer Gaido. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Copland: Appalachian Spring—Suite; Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé—Suite No. 2; Stravinsky: Firebird Suite. Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $18.99.
Minimalist music would be more readily dismissible if it did not occasionally stop taking itself so seriously. But give credit to Philip Glass, a master of the form: although much of what he has created sounds like New Age-y background music (which is readily dismissible), Glass often proffers a glimmer, or more than a glimmer, of amusement and cleverness that sets his work apart from similar material by other composers. Such is the case with Perpetulum, Glass’ first-ever work for percussion ensemble – and one whose portmanteau title (“perpetual” plus “pendulum”) gives a pleasant hint of its structure and approach, and of the fact that it is quite an enjoyable piece that does not include any deep emotional or intellectual material or expect major analysis from the audience. Third Coast Percussion, which commissioned Perpetulum, is an avant-garde group that also does not take itself too seriously (at least not all the time), and the pairing of these percussionists with this music is exceptionally apt. Perpetulum is in three movements plus an extended and very interesting three-minute cadenza; the work as a whole runs about 22 minutes and, like much of Glass’ music and minimalist music in general, is hard to pay attention to for its entirety, since its endless swells, arpeggios and repetitive themes (and non-themes) quickly blend into each other. But the character of percussion, especially keyboards such as marimba and xylophone contrasted with drums and similar instruments, is such that the sound itself provides variety in Perpetulum in a way that keeps the work interesting – which it would not be to nearly the same extent if played by, say, a string quartet. Orange Mountain Music, Glass’ own label, offers Perpetulum as part of a fascinating (if rather uneven) two-CD collection of percussion works, most of the rest of which were created by Third Coast Percussion members themselves. The only work by an “outsider,” Gavin Bryars’ The Other Side of the River, is the least-interesting piece here, going on as long as Perpetulum but lacking the cleverness and variability-within-sameness that make the Glass opus intriguing. The longest work on this release, though, is neither by Glass nor by Bryars but by David Skidmore. Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities runs 35 minutes and takes up the whole of the first disc in a series of seven sketches with such intriguing titles as “Torched and Wrecked,” “Don’t Eat Your Young,” and “Things May Be Changing (But Probably Not).” The use of titles of this sort is typical in contemporary music and often takes the place of genuine cleverness in the music itself; but not here. These are pieces that take Third Coast Percussion through many paces and many pacings, showcasing the instrumental complement in a wide variety of sound mixtures, tempos and rhythms. It is as interesting in its way as Perpetulum is in Glass’ way. Two shorter works fill out the recording nicely, and both show how members of Third Coast Percussion take their music-making seriously but do not seem to take themselves seriously all the time: Peter Martin’s Bend is relentlessly bouncy and upbeat, while Robert Dillon’s Ordering-instincts has a kind of witty insistency about it that comes through very well. Listening to this entire release straight through may not be the best idea – an hour and a half of percussion ensemble is a bit much – but by and large, the individual pieces are worth hearing on their own and worth returning to repeatedly.
Third Coast Percussion is Chicago-based, and the Chicago area is something of a hotbed of modern classical music: a new Naxos CD of chamber works by Victoria Bond shows this clearly, with first-rate performances by Chicago Symphony members playing as Chicago Pro Musica. Actually, only two works on the disc were recorded in Chicago; the other two were done in New York – and the recording dates range from 2012 to 2016. But wherever and whenever the recordings were made, they clearly show Bond’s style and her approach to chamber-sized ensembles. Bond is nearly a decade younger than Glass – she was born in 1945, he in 1937 – and stylistically very different, but her style is quite as fully formed as his, if not so immediately distinctive. Like the Skidmore piece on the Glass-focused release, one of the works here is in seven sections: Frescoes and Ash (2009) uses clarinet, strings, piano and percussion – in varying combinations – to paint musical portraits of the ancient city of Pompeii, its doom by volcanic eruption, and (to a lesser extent) its place in the modern world. The work, which is about the same length as Glass’ Perpetulum, has an intriguing final movement called “Ash” that Bond turns into a meditation on human mortality. This works particularly well because Bond is essentially a tonal composer, so her works can and do evoke emotional responses effectively. She is also skilled in managing the sounds of this small instrumental complement, whether in the virtuoso requirements of “The Sybil Speaks” or in the intriguing violin-and-bass duet in “Chiron Teaches Achilles to Play the Lyre” – a case in which the instruments particularly neatly encapsulate the characters. Just as substantive as her Pompeii pictures is Bond’s Leopold Bloom’s Homecoming (2011), a song cycle for tenor (Rufus Müller) and piano (Jenny Lin) based on James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bond handles the voice and piano parts well, and the performers do a good job with the material, but the stream-of-consciousness text becomes rather wearing to hear after a while, and the cycle comes to seem overly long, if not quite interminable. More successful, and not just because it is shorter, is Instruments of Revelation (2010), a three-movement set for winds, strings and piano based on three Tarot cards: “The Magician,” whose meaning of ambiguity is neatly encapsulated through quick juxtapositions of solemnity with verve; “The High Priestess,” representing wisdom and secrets, with music that starts calmly enough but then becomes impassioned; and “The Fool,” both mystic and lunatic, with music that appropriately contrasts chaotic elements with amusing ones. Here and in the Pompeii miniatures, Bond shows her skill in short-form portrayals: musical visualizations neatly captured. The CD concludes with Binary (2005), a work for piano solo (Olga Vinokur) whose bright liveliness, based on the Brazilian samba, ends the disc pleasantly.
If Bond stays firmly, or at least moderately firmly, in a tonal universe, Kinan Azmeh sticks to one in which sounds of different cultures are paramount and tonality, although often present, is largely incidental. It is hard to escape the notion that Azmeh, like Third Coast Percussion, does not always take himself entirely seriously, especially in light of his Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra, in which he pulls, nudges and shoves his clarinet all over the place in a manner perhaps loosely derived from jazz but decidedly non-jazzlike in effect. The work comes across as a sort of “song of myself,” giving Azmeh plenty of opportunities to show all the things he can do with and on the clarinet. Like most of the other music on this (+++) Dreyer Gaido release, it may be more enjoyable for Azmeh’s fellow clarinetists than for listeners in general: there is a certain sense of showing-off throughout, not only in Azmeh’s own music but also in three clarinet-and-orchestra works, all written for him by Syrian composers, that take up the second of the two discs. All those concertos draw to some extent on Syrian music, which, like other music of the Middle East, has cadences and rhythms that sound different and exotic when compared with Western, specifically European music. The differences are more formal than communicative, however: all the pieces here give Azmeh plenty of opportunities to show off his virtuosity – that seems to be their primary reason for being – and also provide at least periodic moments of soulfulness and emotive distinction that Azmeh fully explores (and, in fact, exploits). Azmeh seems to be a performer who would be more effective in person than when heard on a recording: his involvement with the material is almost palpable even when unseen, and it is hard to escape the notion that he and the other composers represented on this recording know that his skill lies as much in his on-stage presence as in the quality of the musical material he offers. That impression is heightened through the most-interesting piece heard here, which Azmeh wrote for himself and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea is both a tour de force for the two performers and an occasionally wistful, even tender exploration of the similarities of and differences between the sonorities of their instruments. Clarinet and cello here seem to have a very close sonic relationship, and the way Azmeh and Ma merge, then contrast their instruments tonally and rhythmically is fascinating and definitely ear-catching. Ma is himself a considerable stage presence, even a showman, and has become more so in recent years; the way he matches Azmeh in this piece makes it likely that the two would play well off each other (not just play well with each other) in a visual sense. They share warmth and stylistic certainty on their respective instruments in a way that makes The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea more intriguing in its impressionism than are most parts of the other pieces heard here. Manuel Nawri leads the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin with clarity and firmness in all the works, and if the accompaniment tends to be a bit characterless from time to time, that is likely because Azmeh and the other composers keep the musical spotlight trained so strongly on the clarinetist – who clearly enjoys being front-and-center as much as possible.
It is worth pointing out that contemporary composers, no matter how far they reach for new approaches and in what direction, are simply doing what other composers did when they were in the vanguard of musical modernity. The works of Copland, Ravel and Stravinsky on a new Recursive Classics CD, although they are now in or close to the standard repertoire, show this clearly – all the more so in the beautifully balanced and excellently played renditions by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony under David Bernard. This (+++) release would have very clearly been a (++++) CD if the producers had only chosen to offer more of the music and to position the whole disc as being ballet music instead of calling it “Symphonic Dances,” a title that is scarcely helpful or accurate. The CD is not really short – it runs 65 minutes – but the entirety of Appalachian Spring, for example, lasts only 15 minutes longer than the suite recorded here; it would have fit on the disc without difficulty. This in no way minimizes the excellence of the performances, but there is a pervasive sense of the dances (that is, the ballet music) being taken out of context throughout the disc. What the CD does offer, though, is commendably rhythmic and aurally attractive versions of ballets that differ not only in national origin (U.S., France, and [essentially] Russia) but also in the time periods in which they were written and in which they broke new musical ground (Copland’s work was first heard in 1944; Ravel’s in 1912; Stravinsky’s in 1910, with this suite dating to 1919). Copland’s folklike “American” music, much better known than his thornier and more-modern-sounding works, represented in its time an elegant merger of European classicism with a rather naïve view of the United States’ past. Ravel’s ballet, which is the longest work he ever wrote, merges Impressionism and very lush harmonies with Wagnerian elements in its use of leitmotifs. And Stravinsky’s breakthrough ballet takes the sound world of Rimsky-Korsakov toward and into a new century in which acerbity and striking rhythms would come to dominate a great deal of music (The Rite of Spring came only three years later). This recording conveys a sense of “innovation light” to the music by presenting the material as excerpts rather than in context. But that in no way detracts from the high quality of what is offered here: the performances are exemplary, and it is regrettable that Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony do not offer even more of music that was, in its time, very forward-looking indeed.