July 18, 2019
(+++) SOUND MIXTURES
Moto Quarto: Chamber Music by David Nisbet Stewart, Emma-Ruth Richards, Joanne D. Carey, Allyson B. Wells, L. Peter Deutsch, Christopher Brakel, Clare Shore, Keith Kramer, and Mathew Fuerst. Trio Casals (Sylvia Ahramjian, violin; Ovidiu Marinescu, cello; Anna Kislitsyna, piano). Navona. $14.99.
Resonating Colours 5: Hong Kong Composers’ Guild—Music of Wong Hok-yeung Alfred, Chan Chin-ting, Lee Kar-tai Phoebus, Chen Yeung-ping, Ng Chun-hoi Daniel, Au Tin-yung Alex, and Wong Chun-wai. Navona. $14.99.
McCormick Percussion Group: Soli for Tuba, Zheng, Horn, with Percussion by Tyler Kline, Chihchun Chi-Sun Lee, Michael Standard, and Matthew Kennedy. McCormick Percussion Group (Robert McCormick, director; Joseph Alvarez, tuba; Haiqiong Deng, zheng, Jay Hunsberger, tuba; Eric Hawkins, horn). Ravello. $14.99.
The sound worlds of contemporary composers are as often expressed through new uses of traditional instruments as they are through use of non-traditional ensembles or a mixture of material from different cultures. Anthology discs make the differing approaches of various composers abundantly clear. The nine works by nine composers that are played by Trio Casals on a new Navona CD all use the instruments of a traditional piano trio, but each composer handles them – singly or in combination – in a different way. Three for Three by David Nisbet Stewart is a three-movement, three-instrument work that sounds a bit like a throwback to the mid-20th century, or a tribute to the composers who flourished then. It is acerbic rather than melodic and makes its points clearly, cleanly and not at inordinate length: the whole piece lasts just 10 minutes. Dark Radiance for Solo Cello by Emma-Ruth Richards is indeed dark, even dismal in sound, spinning out long lines alternating with abrupt chords or sounds in the extremes of the instrument’s range. Running six minutes, it matches Joanne D. Carey’s Piano Trio No. 2 in length, but Carey’s single-movement work is more varied structurally, not only because it features the sound of three instruments but also because Carey changes moods and tempos repeatedly and unexpectedly throughout. Heard next on the CD is Since Then by Allyson B. Wells, a more emotive work than those earlier on the disc and one that spins out the violin and cello lines to good effect. Sunset at Montélimar by L. Peter Deutsch, which at four minutes is just half the length of Wells’ piece, is even more emotionally expressive and sounds like a distinct revisiting of Romanticism and Impressionism – which, in its placement on this CD, gives it the feeling of a pause or interlude. Poem for Violoncello Solo by Christopher Brakel returns to a more-overtly-contemporary musical language, with thematic snippets here and there and abrupt contrasts of volume and mood. The two movements of Day Tripping by Clare Shore, “Peace at Dawn” and “Juniper Run,” are intended to reflect kayak paddling on two rivers. The water sounds come through clearly, with rather generic “reaction” music – now percussive, now lyrical – complementing them. Suspension of Disbelief by Keith Kramer is a journey of a different sort, into materials from Eastern music – common enough travel for today’s composers, here handled in the kind of Western contemporary context that involves stops and starts and unexpected silences. The CD concludes with Mathew Fuerst’s Totentanz, whose title is either wry or ironic: rather than a mournful dance of death, it is a rather upbeat (if rhythmically irregular) sonic mixture in which the piano’s percussive elements play a large part and the “trickling” sounds midway through could almost be those of one of Shore’s watery journeys. There is a fair amount in Fuerst’s work that is eerie and some material that is quite dissonant, plus the obligatory piano-pounding chord that is followed by exceptionally quiet string passages – just a few of the many effects that Trio Casals brings out with considerable skill here and throughout the CD.
The mixture of Eastern and Western material in contemporary classical music tends to be thought of, at least in the West, as involving Western composers adopting Eastern scales and rhythms or including Eastern thematic elements in traditional Western forms. But as members of the Hong Kong Composers’ Guild show clearly on a Navona CD called Resonating Colours 5, the East may adopt Western elements just as skillfully and seamlessly as the West adopts Eastern ones; indeed, the boundaries of East and West have become blurred in our highly interconnected world. The nine works on this disc, by seven composers, all use Western instruments, and generally in traditional ways: there are two pieces for solo violin; one for solo piano; one for cello and piano; one for violin, clarinet and cello; one for string quartet; and one for orchestra. The remaining two works are slightly more unusual in instrumentation: one is for two guitars and the other, the most unusual of all, is for contrabass quintet. The oldest work here is not very old at all: it is November Winds, a string quartet by Ng Chun-hoi Daniel, and dates to 1991. A short, single-movement work, it is as dissonant and athematic as would be expected in modern music, with wind sounds more implied than duplicated. All the other music here dates to the 21st century. Night Poem for cello and piano (2001), by Wong Hok-yeung Alfred, is, harmonically and emotionally, reminiscent of earlier music, its expressiveness clearly presented. The two solo-violin pieces here, both by Chan Chin-ting, are Cross-Currents (2015) and Postcards (2017), the first of them a kind of étude pushing the violin to its tonal limits, the second a series of miniature declamations that also have the flavor of studies but spend more time exploring the instrument’s expressive capabilities. Pyrus Flower in Rain (2011), by Lee Kar-tai Phoebus, is for solo piano, using the instrument in minimalist mode to produce a slow-paced, drifting quality. Appearing next on the disc is the work for contrabass quintet, Chen Yeung-ping’s Stretch of Light (2013-15), which has the most exotic sound of anything on the CD despite its use of well-known Western instruments. Of course, a quintet of basses is scarcely a common feature in recitals, but the sound here is mostly quite far from the massed heaviness of which these instruments are capable: the music mixes the upper reaches of the basses with their lower ones in intriguing ways, and the linear-vs.-chordal construction is interesting as well. The sound ends up being rather monochromatic, however, and the piece feels longer than its 11 minutes – but its experimental nature is apparent throughout. Ng Chun-hoi Daniel’s Prelude II (Wuxing Interaction) dates to 2013 and is the work on the CD for two guitars. Unlike the composer’s two-decades-earlier string quartet, this piece is unashamedly tonal and – despite its use of percussive techniques such as tapping on the guitar body – is essentially melodic, interrelating the two instruments to good effect. Heard next is Dyeing (2017) for violin, clarinet and cello, by Au Tin-yung Alex. An attempt to replicate in music the process by which dyes change fabric colors, it mixes the aural qualities of the three instruments in ways that do not really blend particularly well, but that do draw attention to the differing sounds of which each participant is capable. The final work on the disc is the one for orchestra: Clouds in Twilight (2015) by Wong Chun-wai. This is almost pure Impressionism, a slow-paced work building bit by bit from a decidedly crepuscular-feeling opening into use of the full orchestra, both massed and in sections, expressively capturing the feeling of the piece’s title. Like anthology discs in general, this one is a mixed bag, in which different listeners will gravitate to different pieces and few will likely embrace all the music equally. However, everything here is well-performed, in some cases by the composers themselves, and the CD is an effective demonstration of the cross-pollination of Eastern and Western influences at a time when the world seems, musically if not politically, to be closer than ever before.
The use of traditionally Eastern instruments within traditional Western ensembles is particularly clear on a new Ravello CD featuring the McCormick Percussion Group, one of whose members plays the zheng. That is a Chinese zither known for some 2,500 years, but all the music here is quite recent, with two of the five works on the disc – both by Chihchun Chi-sun Lee – featuring the zheng prominently. Double Concerto for Tuba, Zheng and Percussion Orchestra (2015) moves from a first movement whose most salient element is gong-like sounds, to a second in which tuba and zheng are more prominently featured and contrasted, to a third in which percussive effects come not only from the percussion complement itself but also from the solo instruments. A sort of oom-pah humor in the finale is a welcome change from the usual ultra-seriousness of contemporary music. Lee’s other work here, Zusammenflusses (Confluence), dates to 2013, and it also shows the composer focusing on ways in which disparate sounds complement and contrast with each other. Here that means use of the vibraphone and cymbal playing with, and sometimes against, the zheng. The sounds themselves are the attraction here: the piece does not really go anywhere, but if it is static, at least it is stationary in an interesting place. Also on the CD is Loam, a 2017 concerto for tuba and percussion ensemble by Tyler Kline. This is a work that is intended to explore aspects of soil and tilling but that goes on much too long (half an hour) and with only intermittently involving use of the solo instrument: there is a pervasive pomposity about this four-movement piece that does not fit well with what is essentially a modest (if far-reaching) topic. Michael Standard’s Stamina (2018) is also a concerto, a three-movement one for horn and percussion quartet, but here at the modest and more-suitable length of 10 minutes. The movement titles are “Fracture,” “Rehabilitation,” and “Capacity,” and the musical structure is standard avant-garde stuff – the first movement breaks things apart, the second uses glissandos to pull elements together, and the third (which lasts just one minute) finally allows some aural progress, albeit in a strictly atonal and non-rhythmic sense. The sounds emanating from the instruments are of some interest even though the work as a whole is underwhelming. There is yet one other concerto on the CD, In Pursuit of Ghosts (2018) for tuba, percussion sextet, and piano, by Matthew Kennedy. Commissioned by and written for the McCormick Percussion Group – which plays it, and everything here, with considerable finesse and an impressive blend of individualism and ensemble – Kennedy’s work intends to reflect the journey through life and what is preserved or lost over time. Whether the philosophical framework comes through in the music is very much a matter of opinion, and the movement titles (“Heartland,” “Cat’s Cradle,” “Spirits”) help, at most, only a bit. As with any autobiographical or semi-autobiographical piece of music, what matters is whether the material connects as music with an audience that filters it through its own background and experiences. Kennedy is at least middlingly successful in making connections with listeners; for example, the mostly quiet and dour second movement makes an apt contrast with the brighter focus of the finale, although here too a quiet middle section brings with it a feeling of stasis. Like the other works on this CD, Kennedy’s has considerable interest for the sheer sound of the instruments performing it, even if – also as with the other pieces here – it is not always clear in what way that sound is at the service of the intended extramusical communication.