July 14, 2022


William Grant Still: Music for Orchestra. Zina Schiff, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Avlana Eisenberg. Naxos. $13.99.

Music for Alto and Soprano Saxophones by Glen Gillis, Richard Gillis, Barbara York, David Kaplan, James Cunningham, and Paul Suchan. Glen Gillis, alto and soprano saxophone; James Cunningham, didgeridoos, conch trumpet and percussion; Garry Gable, baritone voice; Wayne Giesbrecht, electro-acoustics; Richard Gillis, trumpet and flugelhorn; Bonnie Nicholson, piano; Satnam Ramgotra, tabla and drum kit. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).

Ledah Finck: In the Brink; Tania León: Esencia; Paul Wiancko: Ode on a Broken Loom; Suzanne Farrin: Undecim. Bergamot Quartet (Ledah Finck and Sarah Thomas, violins; Amy Tan, viola; Irène Han, cello). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     No matter how many works are discovered or rediscovered, there seems always to be a plethora of new ones to be explored and recorded, many for the first time ever – as is the case with three new releases that consist entirely of world première recordings. The orchestral music of William Grant Still (1895-1978) on a new Naxos CD is particularly appealing and particularly welcome, having been written by Still during a period of almost 50 years. It turns out that this is a time span in which, although Still’s style did not change very much, his solidity of orchestration and accomplished way with melodies and rhythms cemented a mixture of neo-Romantic and jazz-derived elements that proves highly recognizable as the disc progresses. It could be wished that it progressed a bit more – it runs just 60 minutes and consists entirely of short works, even though Still wrote five symphonies, nine operas, and other longer pieces. But listeners willing to settle for pleasantries rather than profundity will find a great deal to enjoy here and may even be moved to seek out other items by Still elsewhere. The disc opens with Can’tcha Line ’Em (a title smoothed out on the CD’s enclosure to “Can’t You Line ’Em”). Dating to 1940, the work immediately offers a fair sample of Still’s ability to incorporate African-American spiritual sounds into well-proportioned orchestral works. The piece has something of the aspects of a fanfare, comparing interestingly with another work placed later on the disc, Fanfare for the 99th Fighter Squadron (1945) – which runs less than a minute and makes its point well in that time span. Also here is the second of Still’s Three Visions (1936). It is called Summerland and, in the violin-and-orchestra form heard here, has a pleasantly languorous lyricism. Next on the disc is Quit Dat Fool’nish (1935), a bouncy piece (heard here in a violin-and-orchestra arrangement by D.P. Perna) that has an attractive dancelike lilt reminiscent of a hoedown. Then there is Pastorela (1946), at 12 minutes the most extended single-movement piece on the CD, and again a work heard in violin-and-orchestra guise. The piece is perhaps somewhat overextended, being effective enough at establishing a sylvan setting but dwelling there at somewhat too great a length. It is, however, nicely orchestrated, as are all these works – all of which receive engaging and genuinely idiomatic presentations by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Avlana Eisenberg, thus showing that Still, like other American composers including Ives, Copland and Bernstein, can be an effective international musical ambassador. The earliest work on this disc, dating to about 1918, is the three-movement American Suite, which includes a somewhat over-sweet “Indian Love Song,” a very nicely proportioned and thematically attractive “Danse,” and a concluding “Lament” that speaks more of pathos than of tragedy. The fighter-squadron fanfare follows this suite on the disc, and then comes Serenade (1957), a single-movement nocturne-like work that would be wholly appropriate as film music – as indeed would several of Still’s more-lyrical pieces. After this is the Suite for Violin and Piano (1943), arranged for violin and orchestra – which opens with a more rhythmically angular “African Dancer” than might be expected of Still, continues with still another pleasantly warm and heartfelt (if somewhat overlong) movement called “Mother and Child,” and concludes with a movement called “Gamin” that gives soloist Zina Schiff a few chances for some violin pyrotechnics – Schiff does a very fine job with each piece in which she has a chance to participate as soloist. The disc concludes with the latest work offered here, Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius (1965) – a piece that might seem curious on the face of it, since Sibelius’ music has very little in common with Still’s. For this work, though, Still seems to have absorbed some of Sibelius’ musical gestures and mixed them with his own: the work has a feeling of pastiche (although it is not one) through its sensitive mixture of grander and quieter elements, which recall elements of Sibelius’ music without actually drawing from any of it. There is a great deal more to Still than this release of shorter, previously unrecorded pieces indicates, but the CD can serve as a useful gateway to Still’s music and perhaps result in it becoming more widely known.

     The main thing that listeners will come to know from the third SaxSpectrum recording on MSR Classics is that this two-CD set – like SaxSpectrum 1 of 2009 and Sax Spectrum 2 of 2014 – is a kind of ensemble offering, focusing primarily on saxophonist/composer Glen Gillis (born 1956) while including compositions by a number of people with whom Gillis clearly finds it congenial to work. Two of the composers have died since the second SaxSpectrum was released, so further entries in the series – if there are any – will have to differ from the first three, in which all the works not written by Gillis were written for him or commissioned by him. In any case, with the aim of SaxSpectrum being to showcase the saxophone as a worthy solo instrument for contemporary music, including music incorporating exotic sounds and electronics, this (+++) release will appeal to saxophone players and enthusiasts, if perhaps not to a more-general audience. The works come across as exploratory ventures into the saxophone’s capabilities and the manners in which it can be mingled with other instruments, but few of them are highly attractive in their own right or seem as if they are pieces to which audiences will want to return again and again. Gillis himself wrote most of the music: Divergence (2018), Homage (2021), Cartoon Duo (2021), Suite (2020), Lament (2020), and Capriccio (2020). The first and earliest of these is an extended work that essentially encapsulates all the techniques and approaches that Gillis offers in the rest of the music heard here. It is an impressive piece that clearly shows the capabilities of both Gillis and his instrument, but it has something of the feeling of an academic advocacy work, designed as a showcase for saxophone and saxophonist rather than as music whose primary purpose is audience communication. The Suite of seven short movements is actually more interesting to hear, thanks to its multiple moods. Indeed, the other short pieces by Gillis himself are all comparatively appealing – and so are three works written by Gillis with James Cunningham (born 1954): Fanfare (2019), Walkabout (2019), and the eight-movement Cosmic Suite (2021). Cunningham performs on didgeridoos and conch trumpet (as well as percussion), and the unexpected and often exotic sounds of these pieces often seem to be their main reason for being. That makes them intriguing to hear once (although the Cosmic Suite, at 32-plus minutes, is too much of a muchness); it does not, however, turn the works into more than curiosities, which show the neat ways in which instruments such as saxophone and didgeridoo can be mixed and matched, but having shown that, turn out not to have much more to say. The remaining pieces by Gillis’ colleagues are all nicely constructed, with Three Odd Dances (2020) by Barbara York (1949-2020) being the most interesting. The shortest work here, Proverb (2014) by David Kaplan (1923-2015), has staying power beyond its two-minute duration. Bells of the Hours (2020) by Paul Suchan (born 1983) and Forever & Ever (2013/2020) by Richard Gillis (born 1955) also have appealing elements. There is quite a lot of saxophone music here, nearly two hours of it in all, and it is really a bit much to sit through from start to finish. Clearly Glen Gillis is an effective advocate for the saxophone in contemporary guise, and other performers on the instrument may here find pieces (or movements of pieces) that they would enjoy including in their own recitals. From the viewpoint (hearpoint?) of a general audience, however, SaxSpectrum 3, like its two predecessors, is somewhat too rarefied and specialized to be fully convincing.

     The four world première recordings by the Bergamot Quartet on a New Focus Recordings CD are also likely to appeal only to a specialized audience, even though three of the four use the highly familiar instrumental ensemble of a string quartet. Ledah Finck’s four-movement In the Brink goes a step beyond strings by including a drum set (played by Terry Sweeney) and a variety of vocalizations – elements often employed in contemporary music, especially in works that, like this one, are intended to reflect societal troubles and fragmentation. The second movement, “Flood of Ashes,” takes the societal commentary furthest and uses the drum set most intensely, while the third, “Human Nature,” opens with the sound of eructations and squeaking doors and is exactly the sort of presentation that seeks to draw attention to how up-to-date its sensibilities are. The other pieces on the disc have their own avant-garde approaches. Paul Wiancko’s Ode on a Broken Loom has some effective string writing and a comprehensible form (the initial intensity returns at the end), although it seems more an exercise in performance technique than a communicative piece. The three-movement Esencia by Tania León includes “Agua de Florida,” which mixes intense and laid-back elements; “Agua de Rosas,” which contrasts higher and lower string sounds, pizzicato and legato elements; and “Agua de Manantial,” which tosses out various melodic fragments and allows some brief expressiveness in the middle of the proceedings. Exactly what all this is the “essence” of is never quite clear, but the rhythms and textures are often interestingly interwoven. The shortest work on the disc, Suzanne Farrin’s Undecim, is mostly gestural, contrasting high and low notes, runs and static notes, chords and single notes – it explores string capabilities but does not really take the audience anywhere. This (+++) CD is quite well-played by the ensemble, but like many discs consisting entirely of newly composed music (often with an advocacy component), this one seems designed for a small group of committed cognoscenti who will embrace the sound and approach without expecting a wider set of listeners to become engaged with the music – and without much caring whether other people do or not.

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