March 02, 2023


Mozart: Symphony No. 40; Serenade in G, K. 525, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”; Vivaldi: The Four Seasons—Summer; Bassoon Concerto in E minor, RV 484; Holst: St. Paul’s Suite; Bach: Violin Concerto No. 1; Violin Sonata No. 3—Adagio. Ontario Pops Orchestra conducted by Carlos Bastidas. OPO. $15 (2 CDs).

New Music for Brass Trio by Lauren Bernofsky, Erik Morales, Ivette Herryman Rodriguez, Jeff Scott, Dorothy Gates, and Shanyse Strickland. Lantana Trio (Raquel Samayoa, trumpet; Stacie Mickens, horn; Natalie Mannix, trombone). MSR Classics. $14.95.

Lei Liang: Hearing Landscapes; Hearing Icescapes. Lei Liang, electronics; David Aguila, trumpet; Teresa Diaz de Cossio, flute; Myra Hinrichs, violin. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The phenomenon of “greenwashing” has become well-known as organizations (usually but not always corporations) create publicity trying to prove how environmentally friendly they are, but do not make any actual significant contribution to environmental responsibility. There is a similar occurrence in the arts that could be called “diversitywashing,” although there is not any such term in common use (yet). Even in its most-benign form, this notion – whatever one labels it – consists of drawing attention to how “inclusive” an organization claims to be, with the implication that this “inclusivity” is a reason to fund or attend that specific group’s endeavors. This is a genuinely unpleasant concept that undermines the enormously high quality exhibited by musicians of all races, ethnicities, gender preferences, or whatever “diversity” may be in the spotlight at a given time. Auditions for professional ensembles are traditionally “blind,” with the musicians not visible to the judges, specifically to ensure that selections are made based on quality of performance rather than for extraneous and irrelevant reasons. It greatly demeans anyone who becomes a member of a professional (or semi-professional) orchestra to imply that he or she was selected for “diversity” purposes rather than for an ability to perform music at the highest level. Yet out of a sense of political correctness or because of some other misguided reasoning, many arts groups push the “diversity” button at every opportunity – as the Ontario Pops Orchestra does by calling its new two-CD release “Breaking Barriers” and focusing on soloists Yanet Campbell Secades, Tanya Charles Iveniuk, and Marlene Ngalissamy because of their heritage and skin color rather than the high skill they exhibit on violin (Secades and Iveniuk) and bassoon (Ngalissamy). However well-meaning all this may be, it is also somewhat absurdist when considering CDs, on which the performers are invisible and their capabilities must stand on their own. It is hard to imagine any reason to own this release because of the background or skin color of the soloists – or, for that matter, the background (Colombian) or skin color (white) of conductor Carlos Bastidas. The music needs to stand on its own; the performances must speak for themselves.  And the works chosen for this debut recording by the Ontario Pops have to speak more loudly than other pieces would need to, because all six items are standard-repertoire works with many fine recordings available. The good news in this is that all the performances here are quite good, and listeners who would like to own this specific grouping of material (which admittedly is a rather odd combination) will find the Ontario Pops versions more than satisfactory. Mozart leads off both CDs, with the stately Minuetto a highlight of Symphony No. 40 – although the Allegro assai finale is taken rather too slowly. In Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the first movement is a bit heavy and the second definitely of the Romantic persuasion – a rather old-fashioned way to handle the music, but one that works well for listeners who enjoy this approach. Here too, though, the finale is on the slow side, lacking a certain joie de vivre. Back on the first disc, Vivaldi’s “Summer” starts quite languorously – this is an emotive but not historically informed performance – but sounds quite good, and here the finale is the high point. Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, which concludes the first CD, starts with strong rhythmic emphasis, continues with pleasantries in both middle movements, and concludes with a really rousing finale: this is the most “pops-like” work on either disc, and it comes off with the most ebullience and stylistic panache. On the second CD, Mozart is followed by some somewhat heavy-sounding Bach, the slow movement of this concerto being more downbeat and draggy than it needs to be. The finale is the best of the movements, with pleasant lilt and verve. The concerto is followed by the Adagio from Bach’s third violin sonata (in C, BWV 1005), which is played sensitively but with a bit too much Romantic inflection. This disc concludes one of Vivaldi’s three dozen bassoon concertos, which contrasts interestingly with the Bach concerto: both are in minor keys (Bach’s in A minor, Vivaldi’s in E minor), which are less than common in both composers’ music. The Vivaldi, like the Bach, tends to plod a bit, although the second movement’s expressiveness is welcome despite being somewhat overdone. The finale, jaunty even though it is in the minor, is a nice blend of warmth and virtuosity. Everything on both CDs is well-played and can stand on its own from a performance perspective – sociopolitical posturing is unnecessary, and is even counterproductive in asking potential listeners to pay attention to something other than the music itself. Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach and Holst are quite enough, on their own, to attract an audience to the Ontario Pops Orchestra. 

     The whole “barriers” thing comes up again on an MSR Classics release of recent music for brass trio, all six pieces being world première recordings. The disc’s overall title, taken from one of the pieces on it, is “Crossing Barriers,” and this presumably refers to the fact that the Lantana Trio is all-female (its members are on the faculty of the University of North Texas). Again, though, potential listeners will likely focus more on the music than on the gender of the people performing it – which makes perfect sense. The pieces come across quite differently despite having some compositional elements in common through their contemporary handling of instrumental sounds. The three-movement Trio for Brass (2002) by Lauren Bernofsky (born 1967) is assertive in its dissonant elements but at its most engaging in the Berceuse second movement. The five very short Black Bayou Vignettes (2019) by Erik Morales (born 1966) bear the neat titles Madly, Sadly, Wildly, Weirdly, and Finally! The conclusion is not quite as emphatic as that exclamation point would imply, but there is some clever tone-painting throughout, especially in the faster movements. Adagio y Danza (2021) by Ivette Herryman Rodriguez (born 1982) provides a suitable contrast between its two movements, although the first is less expressive and the second less danceable than might be expected. The work that gives this CD its title, Crossing Barriers (2021) by Jeff Scott (born 1967), is a three-movement exploration of or comment upon three cities, two in South America (in Ecuador and Brazil) and one in Africa (in Uganda). The music does not appear particularly reflective of local folk tunes or forms of expression: it is more of a personal exploration of and response to the locales and the people living in them. The interweaving of the brass is handled with considerable sensitivity here, and the flow of the middle movement (about Kampala, Uganda) is particularly attractive. Between Friends (2019) by Dorothy Gates (born 1966) is a three-movement trio that is more harmonically old-fashioned than other works on this disc – and often more rhythmically adventurous. The lyricism of its central Andante cantabile is communicated especially well. The disc concludes with A “B.O.P.” (Beats of Power) (2021) by Shanyse Strickland (born 1991). The irregular rhythms and quickly varying themes and tempos make for a strong contrast with Gates’ work and provide a somewhat acerbic conclusion to a CD of uniformly high-quality performances of music that is quite capable of standing or falling on its own, without the need of any particular societal gloss.

     The concern of a New Focus Recordings CD of the music of Lei Liang (born 1972) is more on linkages than on barriers; but here too there are overriding non-musical elements that listeners are expected to accept and internalize without necessarily letting the music speak for itself. Indeed, in Hearing Icescapes, Liang tries to suggest that music must not speak for itself but must respond to wider circumstances. This work, which takes up nearly an hour of this hour-and-a-quarter-long disc, uses a trio, but here there is only one brass instrument, trumpet, along with flute and violin. And the sounds of the trio are subservient to those recorded in the waters near Alaska and subsequently modified by Liang to try to express his concern for a threatened environment. Hearing Icescapes is very, very long – one is tempted to call it glacial, with pun intended – and is designed to communicate the sounds of ice, wind, water, animal communications and the overall fabric of the Alaska environment in its first portion, “Call.” The even longer second portion, “Response,” is where the trio comes in, with the musicians improvising sounds inspired by those heard in the first part of the work – Liang’s intent being to have performers respond to their environment and, by implication, have the audience understand the necessity of human response to environmental degradation and risk. This is a lot to expect of music – and of audiences – and it cannot be said that Hearing Icescapes is particularly effective as music. But it seems not to be intended to be heard as a purely musical experience: Liang tries throughout to interconnect the world of music with the world at large, and it is for listeners for whom that connection works that this very extended piece is clearly intended. The other work on this disc, Hearing Landscapes, is more modest in scale: three movements totaling 20 minutes. Here Liang uses the human voice as a jumping-off point for electronic modifications intended to reflect and comment upon “High Mountain,” “Mother Tongue,” and “Water and Mist.” The genesis of this work is complex, and listeners who know it will get far more from Liang’s music than will those who do not. Hearing Landscapes draws on the paintings of Huang Binhong (1865-1955) and also on Chinese folk singer Zhu Zhonglu (first movement); mid-20th-century comedians Hou Baolin and Guo Qiro (second movement); and musical performer Wu-jing Iüe, a master of the plucked seven-string guqin (third movement). Liang manipulates the sounds and recordings of these various artists in multiple electronic ways, intending to produce an overall impression of and tribute to Huang Binhong’s landscapes. None of this is likely to be apparent, much less clear, to listeners who do not know the building blocks of Hearing Landscapes. So this work – like the disc as a whole – must be regarded as a very rarefied production, intended for cognoscenti who are interested not only in Liang’s musical and electronic thoughts and manipulations but also in the ideas and plans that are foundational to his creativity.

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