October 27, 2022


Copland: The City; Silvestre Revueltas: Redes. PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Naxos. $13.99.

Mark Abel: Trois Femmes du Cinema; Two Scenes from “The Book of Esther”; Reconciliation Day; Out the Other Side; The Long March; 1966. Hila Plitmann and Isabel Bayrakdarian, sopranos; Kindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano; Dominic Cheli, Carol Rosenberger, Sean Kennard, and Jeffrey LaDeur, piano; Dennis Kim and Adam Millstein, violin; David Samuel, viola; Jonah Kim, cello; Max Opferkuch, clarinet; Jeff Garza, horn; Christy Kim, flute. Delos. $16.98 (2 CDs).

James Cook: Liebestod Symphony. Helen Lacey, soprano; Paul McKenzie, piano. Diversions. $13.99.

Music from SEAMUS, Volume 31. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The importance of sound to the effectiveness of movies can scarcely be underestimated. There may not have been synchronized sound before Don Juan in 1926 and The Jazz Singer in 1927, but film studios and filmmakers alike already knew the importance of audio elements to the moviegoing experience. As early as the 1930s, films were using sound in highly creative ways, in some cases employing music commissioned from such great composers as Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The importance of the musical component to movies’ effectiveness is especially clear on a Naxos CD featuring the music from Redes (1935) and The City (1939). The disc is sort of a re-release: it contains the films’ soundtracks as originally heard when the movies themselves were released as DVDs. The PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez handled the accompaniments with its usual excellence in DVD form, and there is something extra-satisfying, in a different way, in hearing the music on its own, without the “distraction” (so to speak) of the visuals for which the audio was originally designed. Interestingly, in Redes, there is little overlap of dialogue with music, meaning the music itself carries important elements of the story, a product of the Mexican Revolution that focuses on victimized fishermen. There are concert suites of Silvestre Revueltas’ music created by him and Erich Kleiber, but hearing the music as a totality – which runs only 34 minutes – is more involving, even without knowing the story. There is a well-designed musical arc to the material that gives the nine sections a sense of forward motion toward a dramatic conclusion that, in the film, makes a strong political point, and on its own makes a strong aural one. Copland’s music for The City is even more impressive. The film was made for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and contains no dialogue whatsoever: the whole thing is visuals plus music, with narration by Francis Guinan providing story continuity. No suite from The City was ever made, making the opportunity to hear the whole film score – which, like that by Revueltas, runs 34 minutes – a particularly important one. The City, like Redes, is essentially a film fraught with political messaging, a fact that means this CD, in a sense, takes the music out of context. In a broader sense, though, given the datedness of the political messages of both films, the disc shows the storytelling power of music created originally for movies, presenting material of strength and character that may be on the simplistic side when compared with concert-hall music, but that affirms the storytelling prowess of the composers even without the presence of the visuals they illustrated.

     Theatricality is prominent on a new Delos release featuring a potpourri of music by Mark Abel (born 1948), performed by a wide variety of singers and instrumentalists. Abel himself wrote the texts for Trois Femmes du Cinema (Anne Wiazemsky, Pina Pellicer, and Larisa Shepitko) and 1966. Kate Gale wrote the words for Two Scenes from “The Book of Esther.” These voice-and-instrument pieces are interspersed with chamber works for instruments only. The release is quite obviously a feast for existing fans of Abel’s music, but even for them, its hour-and-a-half of mixed material, of different vintages, is a bit much – listeners will likely enjoy listening to individual works here more than trying to hear the entire two-CD set straight through. The topics of the music can also be on the abstruse side, by design. The three women of the cinema who are profiled by Abel, for example, were participants in art films of the 1950s through 1970s; without knowing their movie roles, preferably through actively seeking them out, listeners may have difficulty connecting Abel’s musings on their talents with the musical accompaniment. As for 1966, it is a highly personal work in which Abel tries to capture, or recapture, his feelings about the year of the title and the way it felt to be 18 years old at that specific time. The material on the Biblical story of Esther sounds somewhat operatic, and in fact what is heard here is part of an opera on which Abel is working: the soprano voice represents Esther; the mezzo-soprano is Vashti, the queen ousted by King Ahasuerus in favor of Esther. All the vocal works are well-written from a musical standpoint, the interplay of voice and modest instrumentation handled adeptly, and the performances sensitive to Abel’s dramatic and emotional concerns. The non-vocal elements here come as something of a relief from the vocal ones, even when their mood is rather dour and downcast, as is the case with Reconciliation Day. This viola-and-piano duet is melancholy without being sour, and has a feeling of uneasiness throughout. Out the Other Side, for violin, cello and piano, is brighter, with a compressed feeling and a significantly more-upbeat ending than Abel usually composes. The Long March, for flute, horn and piano, mixes the instruments in interesting ways, centering on the piano and having the flute and horn dance around the keyboard elements – or, more accurately, march and occasionally stumble around them. This release is a specialty item, to be sure, being in effect an “Abel sampler” that showcases his handling of chamber music both with and without vocal elements. For fans of his music, it will be a must-have – if not one for modern-classical-music lovers in general.

     It is lovers both of Wagner’s music and of modern interpretations/reinterpretations of his music dramas – a rarefied group, to be sure – who will be most interested in the James Cook song cycle, Liebestod Symphony, on a new Diversions CD. The five songs making up this not-really-symphonic work have words by Cosima Wagner, A.C. Swinburne, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Sidney Lanier, and John Janeway. Originally scored for soprano and orchestra and heard on this disc in an arrangement for soprano and piano, this half-hour cycle is about both Tristan und Isolde and the man who composed the opera. Indeed, Cook (born 1963) focuses more on Wagner than on the opera: the first four songs all set poetry about the composer. The music, like much of Wagner’s, is tonal but pushes the bounds of tonality: Cook has clearly studied Wagner and absorbed, to some extent, the harmonic world in which his later operas, such as Tristan, exist. Neither the poetry nor the music, however, is particularly revelatory of anything about Wagner the man or Wagner the composer. The piano carries much of the mood of the material, especially in the first four songs, Eulogy, Romanza, Venetian Requiem, and Westward Home. The fifth song, Sacred Love-Death, makes it clear from its title that its subject is the topic explored by Wagner in Tristan, and Cook’s music here has more sensitivity and warmth than in the earlier songs – although it would likely sound better in orchestral form than on piano. Helen Lacey sings feelingly, and Paul McKenzie’s piano accompaniment – which often assumes the leading role – is sensitive and emotionally involved. The whole song cycle, though, is a bit odd. It is hard to know for whom, other than himself, Cook wrote it: it sheds no great light on Wagner or Tristan, and seems mostly the creation of someone who, himself an opera composer, wants to pay modest homage to a far greater one. Liebestod Symphony does not, however, actually incorporate material by Wagner, as (for example) Bruckner did in the original version of his Symphony No. 3, which is dedicated to Wagner. Liebestod Symphony comes across as Cook’s musical thoughts on Wagner, expressed through settings of the words of other people. That is fine for what it is, but the whole cycle is thin in content and seems content to reach out to a very, very limited audience.

     Some contemporary composers are seeking new ways to produce works of dramatic impact or to comment on matters of importance to them. For those who use electronic and electroacoustic means to those ends, the SEAMUS conferences of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music of the United States is the place to be, to be seen, and to be heard. A New Focus Recordings release of Volume 31 from SEAMUS includes nine works that, in some cases, aim for the dramatic; in some, employ the human voice; and in some, go entirely their own way. Brian Riordan’s Succubus, for example, employs soprano voice (Anna Elder) and electronics to create what may be an impression of the creature of the title – here, a being expressing itself through screeches and shrieks and door-closing creaks, through nonsense syllables and voice-over-voice overlays that eventually produce a whole set of choking sopranos. On the other hand, the awkwardly titled and sometimes wind from the south, in memoriam Robert Gregory (2020) – no capital letter at the start, a typical affectation for some contemporary works – is based on an audio recording by poet Robert Gregory and incorporates Gregory’s altered and occasionally unaltered voice, but focuses mainly on electronic sounds that are intended to expand and express the poem’s thoughts about the aftermath of a loved one’s death. Most of the pieces on this disc, though, fall into the “go entirely their own way” category, and without knowing the composers’ intentions, it can be very hard to discern the reasons for their use of particular electronic and electroacoustic sounds and patterns. Think by Jon Fielder, for example, is supposed to portray schizophrenia, but its disconnectedness and nonsensical speech could just as well fit into Succubus. Maggi Payne’s Heat Shield includes electronically modified or created insect sounds as well as white noise and other artificial audio forms. Convergence by Douglas McCausland is for augmented double bass plus electronics, but it is never quite clear why the enhanced and expanded growls of the acoustic instrument are needed, since pure electronics could easily make the same noises. Always and Forever by Nina C. Young is the shortest work here and, partly as a result, among the most effective. Its resonances and vaguely choral sounds seem always to hint at some deeper meaning, although what that may be is never quite clear. Sonic Crumbs, by Eli Feldsteel and Kerrith Livengood, employs two different sets of electronics, one for each composer/performer, with some audible interaction of differing approaches making the work interesting even though, in the long run, there is not enough differentiation between the electronics to produce a sense of duality. Becky Brown’s dark parts (another no-capital-letters title) is the second-shortest work heard here, using some irritating (apparently deliberately irritating) scratchy sounds in contrast to women’s voices clearly saying the word “inside” – although what is inside what is, unsurprisingly, never clarified. The last work on the disc is David Q. Nguyen’s Whale Song Stranding, and at 11 minutes it is also the longest piece here. As might be expected, it contains some vaguely water-like sounds that go on and on, with many sorts of repetitive clangs and bangs and occasional silences that loom larger because they interrupt so much of what is happening. Music of the sort heard on this disc is very avant-garde and very much for members of the self-proclaimed avant-garde: it neither reaches out to nor seeks to engage anyone beyond the cognoscenti. As examples of what is being done at SEAMUS now, this disc, like its predecessors, is interesting. But there is nothing on it that really bears repeated hearings, and nothing that will convince the not-already-convinced that music conceived and produced at SEAMUS reaches out, or is intended to reach out, beyond a tiny core group of aficionados.

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