Lewis Spratlan – The Architect

Architect

Composed by Lewis Spratlan

with electroacoustic music by John Downey and Jenny Kallick

Libretto by Jenny Kallick

Navona Records CD/DVD

Pulitzer prizewinning composer Lewis Spratlan, abetted by electronics from John Downey and Jenny Kallick, crafts an elegant meditation on creativity in the chamber opera Architect. It is based on the ideas and life story of 20th century Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn. The avant electronics palette of Downey and Kallick is well integrated into the score: Spratlan balances elements of traditional orchestration with a conspicuous amount of percussion that helps to bridge the divide between the acoustic and electronic elements.

Three singers are called upon to play five roles; in addition to the title character there are the Guide, the Engineer, the Healer, and Woman. Spratlan is known for the quality his vocal music – his opera Life is a Dream was the winning work for the aforementioned Pulitzer. While the demands of Architect on the singers are significant, the composer always writes so well for the voice that they sound terrific. He also knows how to pick an excellent cast of singers. Baritone Richard Lalli and tenor Jeffrey Lentz both bring vivid characterization and musicality to their respective roles. Soprano Julia Fox exhibits laser beam accuracy and evenness of sound throughout a wide range, even when the vocal lines she is required to sing are quite angular. The Navona release, generously stuff with information and extras, is an ideal complement to the multidimensional view of the creative life provided by the opera.

Jeremy Denk’s Goldberg Variations

 

File Under Best CDs of 2013

J.S. Bach

Goldberg Variations

Jeremy Denk, piano

Nonesuch CD

 

Pianist Jeremy Denk is a versatile and thoughtful artist. But any pianist, no matter how prodigious his or her skills, must view recording the Goldberg Variations as a Mount Parnassus type of achievement. So many fine recordings already exist – do we need more? Denk’s rendition suggests there is room aplenty for new interpretations of this late work by J.S. Bach.

I recently played several versions of the piece for students of mine who were studying it. They were all impressed by Glenn Gould’s virtuosity, but suggested that he sounded like “a client of Walter White” in terms of tempo choices. Like me, they instead found Denk’s tempi to be “Goldilocks choices:” just right. He is sensitive to the overall pacing of the suite and provides the piece with a long range trajectory that allows for moments of delicacy and others in which the counterpoint flies fast and furious. There is a rhythmic suppleness to his playing that is most attractive. Another reason this is a “Goldilocks choice”: Denk is not trying to fool you into hearing a harpsichord, but his piano-playing is informed by period practice. That won’t make some of the more intransigent purists on either side happy, but to me it sounds “just right.”

-Christian Carey

BMOP Plays Druckman

lamia

File Under Best CDs of 2013

Jacob Druckman: Lamia

Lucy Shelton, soprano;

Boston Modern Orchestra Project,

Gil Rose, conductor

BMOPsound

 

In the early 90s, I sang a small role in Jacob Druckman’s opera Medea in the Juilliard Opera Center’s semi-staged production of it. I was struck by its synthesis of old and new, and demanding yet felicitous writing for the voice. Later I worked with Druckman at the Aspen Music Festival and saw him again in a masterclass at Boston University. At the latter he seemed unwell, but retained his charisma and sense of humor. Little did I know that he was terminally ill with cancer; he passed away some months later. Although my contacts with Druckman were brief, I miss him. Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s portrait disc devoted to Druckman is a pleasing way to renew, or begin, one’s acquaintance with his potent music.

 

Druckman died a decade and a half ago, yet his influence is still palpable for  contemporary classical composers. In the 1980s, his work exemplified the modernists’ version of postmodernism. Contemporary dissonances coexist with past practices; many of his compositions incorporate influences ranging from mid-century Americans such as Copland at his most modern, late Romantic masters such as Strauss, whose orchestrations he often praised, and early baroque opera. Indeed, several of his pieces recompose the latter material, leaving it recognizable but significantly changed and thoughtfully re-orchestrated. Two of these works, a suite of material from Charpentier’s Médée (hear a stream of a short excerpt from the suite on our blog’s Tumblr page) and an aria by Francesco Cavalli, appear on BMOP’s Druckman recording. Conductor Gil Rose and the group do a fine job giving both the “old” and “new” sensibilities of Druckman their due, in one piece mimicking aspects of a period ensemble and in the next hefting a sound three times that size.

 

All of Druckman’s work, whether it contains pre-existing material or not, displays a singularly incisive yet colorfully deployed harmonic language. And one is struck again and again by his masterful orchestrations. That Quickening Pulse is the perfect curtain-raiser; an orchestral overture that shimmers and thums with passionately played percussion, corruscating wind and brass lines, and icy string verticals, leavened with still more (pitched) percussion. Both low and high brass chorales articulate formal divisions, leaving skittering lines from the other sections as a written out echo chamber in their wake. Nor Spell Nor Charm is a fetching, indeed beguiling, work that started out life as a song for mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani; after her own terminal illness, it became a memorial work that retains the beautiful lines Druckman imagined the singer would perform, but set instead for orchestra (with a vintage eighties Yamaha synthesizer featuring prominently).

 

The disc’s title composition features vocalist Lucy Shelton, who is called upon to sing in four different languages: Ovid in Latin, folk conjurations in French and Malay, and a snippet from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde auf Deutsch. The narrative shifting through this cultural and linguistic kaleidoscope is the story of Lamia, an unfortunate Queen from ancient Libya whom the gods transform into a child-eating daemon. It has resonances with another long-time interest of Druckman, the story of Medea, and presages some of his later work using that tale. It also features spatial notation in places, allowing for a certain amount of rhythmic flexibility. Shelton is an excellent interpreter of Druckman’s music, capturing its emotional volatility, earthy incantations, and soaring climaxes with vocal assuredness and consummate expressivity.

 

It is hard to choose among BMOP’s many excellent recordings: call this one something of a sentimental favorite that comes highly recommended.

 

-Christian Carey

The Edge of Light (CD Review)

Over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting some of the recordings we feel are “Best of 2013” material. Have others you like as well or better? Send us playlists in the comments section – or CDs in the mail!

 

File Under Best of 2013

The Edge of Light

Gloria Cheng, piano; Calder Quartet

Harmonia Mundi

Pianist Gloria Cheng’s first CD release, from 1995, was a recording of Messiaen’s music for Koch. Her interpretations of the French composer’s works have only grown richer with time, as evidenced by her latest recording, The Edge of Light, for the Harmonia Mundi imprint. The centerpiece of its program is the Preludes. Composed in 1929, they were only performed privately until their debut in a 1937 recital. Of course, Debussy’s Preludes loom large and undoubtedly influenced Messiaen.  That said, it is extraordinary how refined and singular the younger composer’s aesthetic is by age 21.

We get a taste of the birdsong that will figure prominently in a great deal of Messiaen’s music. For instance, he replicates the cooing of a dove in “La Colombe.” Elsewhere, the wind is depicted in “Un reflet dan le vents.” Sometimes the natural world is eschewed in favor of the subconscious or inward-turned expression-filled emotional terrain, as on the beguiling “Les son impalpables du rêve.” Cheng seamlessly inhabits each of these moods, finely executing the multi-faceted textures and playing styles that evoke them. The Calder Quartet joins Cheng for Messiaen’s brief and mercurial Piéce for piano and string quartet (1991), a late work that captures a wide range of emotions, from brittle and incisive to languidly mystical, in just three-and-a-half minutes.

The quartet’s lower half, Jonathan Moerschel and Eric Byers, also collaborate with Cheng on Kaija Saariaho’s trio Je sens un deuxième Coeur. Cast in five movements and composed in 2003, it sounds like an extension of Messiaen’s “color chords,” suggesting that these complex harmonies presaged spectralism and other explorations of resonance and timbre undertaken later in the 20th (and into the 21st) century; its second and fourth movements remind one more than a little of punctilious passages in the aforementioned Messiaen quintet. Not only does it pair well with Messiaen, the trio is a dazzling work in its own right.

Cheng also presents debut recordings of two of Saariaho’s solo piano pieces, both written in the last decade. Prelude is filled with limpid gestures and post-Impressionist harmonies; but these are given a strong tinge of postmodernism, set as they are against muscular arpeggiations and strongly articulated verticals. The Ballade seems to operate a bit less in conversation with the early 20th Century. It pits sonorous bass tolling against feverously repeated notes in the treble register. When its own arpeggiations arrive, there is a more portentous sensibility found in the Ballade’s gestures and harmonies. Cheng rendering of these disparate pieces is both fluid and fluent. This is my favorite recording of hers to date, and that’s a tall order. Recommended.

Symphony Space Celebrates Lutoslawski

ACME10_byRyuheiShindo

Photo: Ryuhei Shindo

 

A bit of cheering for the “home team,” as ACME played on our last Sequenza 21 concert.

 

Last Friday, December 13, Symphony Space’s In the Salon Series celebrated Lutoslawski’s centenary with American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) – for this concert comprised of Caleb Burhans and Caroline Shaw, violins, violist Nadia Sirota, and cellist Clarice Jensen – and Lutoslawski scholar and composer Steven Stucky. Symphony Space’s Artistic Director Laura Kaminsky was on hand for an onstage conversation about Lutoslawski with Stucky.

 

As I mentioned in my Musical America review of In the Salon’s previous installment, a concert featuring piano music by Bernard Rands, these events are my favorite kind of outreach: the programs are well-curated with fine music, and the conversational tone of the interview doesn’t lead to the participants ever talking down to the audience. Instead, they had substantive things to say about the music. Like Rands, Stucky is an excellent talker; the many residencies he’s held have served him in good stead; he knows how to connect well with an audience. It was also impressive to learn from someone such as Stucky, who has the details of seemingly each piece in a composer’s catalog and the biographical details surrounding them at his fingertips. Kaminsky was well-prepped too.

 

ACME played three pieces by Lutoslawski and two by Stucky. Stucky acknowledged that the works selected, a string quartet titled Nell’ombra, nella luce and Dialoghi, a set of variations for solo cello, owe a debt to Lutoslawski: but not in any sort of overt troping or near-quotation. Instead, both composers are interested in exploring texture, in evolving timbral events, and both have the capacity for great delicacy contrasted with ferocious musical passages.

Dialoghi, in particular, with its myriad effects and considerable technical demands, was an excellent showcase for Jensen.

 

The cellist was still more impressive in Lutoslawski’s challenging and mercurial Sacher Variations, embodying the work with commitment and impressive authority. Occasionally I found the composer’s earlier, folk-music inspired duo for viola and cello, Bukoliki, to be rendered a bit coolly. ACME’s performance of Lutoslawski’s String Quartet, a punctilious and often craggy high modernist masterpiece, was in contrast a visceral experience; in its best passages, redolent with searing intensity.

 

One hopes that Kaminsky will continue to organize In the Salon events; they are a bright spot on the Upper West Side’s musical landscape.