June 23, 2022


Samuel Adler: To Speak to Our Time; A Hymn of Praise; Let Us Rejoice; My Beloved Is Mine; Choral Trilogy; Psalm 23; How Sweet the Sound. Gloriæ Dei Cantores conducted by Richard K. Pugsley. GDC Recordings. $19.99 (SACD).

Tom Flaherty: Shepard’s Pi; Threnody; Under the Weather; Recess; Violelation; Mixed Messages; Release. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Paul Lansky: Textures; Brad Lubman: Tangents; Michael Laurello: Big Things. icarus Quartet (Larry Weng and Yevgeny Yontov, pianos; Matt Keown and Jeff Stern, percussion). Furious Artisans. $16.99.

     Here are recordings that rapidly dispel any notion of “contemporary classical music” being all of a type. In fact, while some of the works heard on these releases will certainly fit most listeners’ expectations of avant-garde music – for better or worse – one of the discs will surprise audiences with the extent to which it is steeped in distinctly old-fashioned and very moving and meaningful approaches to sound and emotional communication. Indeed, the choral music of Samuel Adler, although it often partakes of rhythmic and harmonic techniques developed in the 20th century and persisting into the 21st, quite deliberately puts the communicative potential of words first and foremost so as to draw the audience into a sound world filled with meaning and expressiveness. The newest recording of Adler’s music by the splendid Gloriæ Dei Cantores vocal ensemble is nowhere clearer in this regard than in the eight sections of To Speak to Our Time, a work commissioned for the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938) – a time when Adler and his father barely escaped the Nazis, taking with them bags filled with sheet music. The horrors of the depredations of that night are modulated (pretty much literally) in Adler’s work, which dwells not on fear and terror but on overcoming adversity and, even while mourning, finding a way to look ahead to the future and above toward God. To Speak to Our Time includes settings of two Psalms (Nos. 111 and 121) among its movements, and the work’s totality ranges through emotions from pain (expressed using some notable dissonance) to affirmation and hope. Under Richard K. Pugsley, Gloriæ Dei Cantores attains and sustains remarkable sensitivity in interpreting Adler’s music, whose instrumental interludes heighten the emotive elements of the choral material even further. Adler is well aware of the ensemble’s quality and sensitivity: another work on the new GDC Recordings disc, My Beloved Is Mine, was written specifically to celebrate Adler’s relationship with the chorus, on the occasion of Gloriæ Dei Cantores’ 25th anniversary (2013). The remaining works on this very well-recorded SACD express many of the same themes as To Speak to Our Time, but in more-compressed form. A Hymn of Praise is a forthright affirmation of the goodness of God; Let Us Rejoice has a uniquely exuberant sound, thanks to scoring for women’s voices and handbells; Psalm 23, set in both Hebrew and English, is given an especially comforting setting for its familiar words. Also here is the more-extended Choral Trilogy, whose three parts move from the well-known lament about a believer fearing being forsaken by God to, in the last movement, a praise-filled affirmation of God’s essential goodness and worthiness to be celebrated with great joy. The final piece on this disc is a quieter and, in its own way, even more moving celebration: How Sweet the Sound is Adler’s setting of Amazing Grace, and it is filled with a sense of uplift that permeates words and music alike. To be sure, modern vocal music, especially modern sacred vocal music, is not to all tastes, so this disc is somewhat self-limited in audience reach by the very nature of its contents. But it is certainly not limited by its sonic accessibility and the tremendous attentiveness to detailed expressiveness brought to the music by composer and performers alike. Indeed, the main complaint about the recording by those who will find it gorgeously captivating in sound and meaning will be that, at less than 50 minutes, it is simply too short.

     If Adler (born 1928) hews closely to the expressiveness of an older time even while incorporating comparatively up-to-date techniques into his music, Tom Flaherty (born 1950) engages in developing the sorts of compositions that listeners are more likely to think of when contemplating the “contemporary music” label. Although Flaherty is a cellist, his performances in seven of his 21st-century works on a recent New Focus Recordings CD are on electronics – and in the pieces using cello, someone else handles the instrument. Flaherty is thoroughly comfortable with the sort of avant-garde combinatorial approach that applies electronics along with traditional acoustic instruments – and some less-than-traditional ones – and mingles the non-electronic elements of pieces in ways designed to draw attention to sound for its own sake, rather than to any readily audible communicative objective. Not surprisingly in the case of certain avant-garde music, Flaherty is at least as focused on the methods he employs to create pieces as on the way those pieces come across to listeners. He is also fond, as many contemporary composers are, of titles designed more for cuteness or cleverness than for comprehensibility. All these characteristics are notably present in the first work on this CD, Shepard’s Pi, in which Flaherty performs with Genevieve Feiwen Lee – who plays toy piano. Of course, Leopold Mozart beat Flaherty to toy-piano writing by a couple of hundred years, but Flaherty uses the instrument in strictly modern ways. The work’s title refers to an acoustical phenomenon called the Shepard scale – listeners seeking to comprehend this piece will need to familiarize themselves with it – and also to the number pi, which is referred to in various ways throughout the work. Oh – and the work’s title is, of course, a pun on shepherd’s pie, so listeners should probably know something about that as well. The piece certainly contains some interesting sonic elements, but it is so weighted with layers of meaning that it is unlikely to reach out to more than a very limited number of listeners – a reality that will likely disturb Flaherty not at all. The other works on the disc are equally self-limiting, self-engaged and (often) self-important. Threnody pairs Flaherty’s electronics with a cello performance by Maggie Parkins that is processed, reprocessed, distorted, transformed, and generally pulled hither and thither in the service of a musical narrative that, as indicated by the work’s title, is intended as a lament – at more than 12 minutes, a very extended one. And so it goes through the remainder of the CD. Under the Weather combines Flaherty’s electronic water sounds with viola (Cynthia Fogg) and organ (Mark Winges). Recess was written for and is performed by the Eclipse Quartet (Sara Parkins and Sarah Thornblade, violins; Alma Lisa Fernandez, viola; Maggie Parkins, cello), with Flaherty’s electronics accentuating elements of movements called “Spin,” “Swing,” and (most effectively) “Tag.” Violelation, with its portmanteau title another example of attempted amusement, mixes electronics with viola (Fogg), having some of the same sound world as Under the Weather but with differing rhythms. Mixed Messages – a descriptive phrase that could be used for any of the works on this disc and in fact is the release’s overall title – includes violin (Thornblade) and piano (Vicki Ray) in one of the most-effective pieces on the CD, thanks to its wide range of tempos, rhythms and textures, and Flaherty’s willingness to make his points here without belaboring them. The final work on the disc, Release, is played by “The Smudges” (Jeff Gauthier, violin; Parkins, cello). Flaherty’s electronic heightening effects are rather prosaic here, and the piece has a static quality even though, objectively, there is a lot going on in it. Taken as a whole – or, for that matter, taken individually – these works so firmly fit most listeners’ associations with the notion of “avant-garde contemporary music” that their audience is pre-selected: those who like the approach of Flaherty (and many other modern composers) will enjoy them, while those who do not will sit this one out.

     It is not only the use of electronic modification that frequently characterizes contemporary music – the combination of unexpected sounds and/or instruments is another frequent element. It is that combination that underlies the performances of the icarus Quartet – which, yes, uses a small letter at the start of its name, even though it is named for the mythical character Icarus (this sort of affectation is one thing that people not firmly committed to the avant-garde tend to find silly, if not pretentious). The quartet includes two percussionists and two pianists – which is unusual but not wholly outré, given the fact that the piano is essentially a percussion instrument activated by a keyboard (much as the organ can be viewed as a keyboard-activated wind instrument). A new Furious Artists CD gives the quartet plenty of chances to showcase the multifaceted sound combinations of its particular instrumental mixture: the three composers represented all find interesting methods of musical assembly and contrast. Half of the hour-long CD is devoted to Paul Lansky’s Textures, whose effectiveness is largely tied to its eight-movement form: no individual movement overstays its welcome, and each of them is an exploration of different elements of the piano/percussion combination. Some movement titles point toward specific sounds (“Striations,” “Slither”), while others are more abstruse (“Soft Substrates,” “Round-Wound”); and in fact, many titles could be swapped without confusing the audience, since the relationship between title and music tends not to be especially clear. Nevertheless, by creating points of demarcation for changes of sound, tempo, rhythm and combinatorial aspects of the instruments, and by avoiding belaboring the points of its individual sections, Textures weaves some interestingly varied musical creations. The two other works on the CD are single-movement pieces that tend to find themselves and, specifically, their compositional techniques, overly fascinating – a characteristic of some contemporary classical music, although certainly not all. Thus, Michael Laurello’s 10-minute Big Things is at first essentially a series of dissonant ostinato passages; these then give way to rhythmic disharmony of various kinds, assembled with an aleatoric feel and with elements of quiet and repetitive minimalism that contrast with jazzlike sections that produce an improvisational impression. Individual sections of the work use the instruments skillfully, but the piece as a whole never develops any particular direction. That is even truer of Brad Lubman’s Tangents, which is twice as long as Laurello’s work and something of a chore to endure. Lubman’s is one of those start-and-stop pieces in which momentum is gained only long enough to pause it. Sections are disconnected from each other, and there is little sense of forward motion or development as Tangents progresses: it sounds as if it is fun to play, and seeing it performed might well be more engaging than simply hearing it, but the audio on its own is all about technique and sound-for-its-own-sake rather than any apparent reaching-out to an audience. Indeed, while contemporary composers are by no means monolithic in their approaches to creativity, it is fair to say that one dividing line among them lies between those whose primary focus is audience communication (clearly Samuel Adler’s orientation) and those who focus more on compositional methods and/or the performers who bring their works to life.

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