Best Contemporary Opera Recording 2017: Andriessen’s “Theatre of the World”

Louis Andriessen

Theatre of the World

Leigh Melrose, Lindsey Kesselman, Marcel Beekman, Steven van Watermeulen, Mattijs van de Woerd, Cristina Zavalloni, vocal soloists

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor

Nonesuch 2xCD

 

Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s 2016 opera, Theatre of the World, subtitled “A Grotesque in Nine Scenes,” is a fantastical portrait of Seventeenth century polymath Athanasius Kircher. Commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a recording of the live performance of this production was released in 2017 on Nonesuch.

 

In a nonlinear narrative propelled by effusively polystylistic music, played with assuredness and flexibility by LA Phil under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw, Kircher’s thwarted late life ambition to find a theory for essentially everything is vividly but quixotically depicted. Among the variety of formal and stylistic devices are Renaissance style counterpoint and dances, post-minimal figurations, neoclassicism in the mold of Stravinsky, and oodles of pop ranging from Latin dances to doo wop to Krautrock. Amplified voices alongside acoustic instruments (apart from an electric guitar and synthesizer) allowing for even the most muscular sections of the orchestration never to overwhelm the singing. The vocalists are uniformly up for the significant demands placed upon them by the score. Particularly fine performances are given by Leigh Melrose in the title role, Lindsey Kesselman playing the boy/Devil, and Cristina Zavalloni as a nun who corresponds with Kircher, serving as intellectual foil, inspiration, and even at times confessor.

 

On a quest for knowledge, Kircher and his companions are misled by the Devil and periodically waylaid by witches and an ominous executioner: hence the grotesqueries. The production’s visuals apparently evoke nightmarish vistas, like an entropic funhouse full of circus mirrors. While a video recording of the opera would be a fascinating document, particularly if the production team were able to further enhance already significant onstage use of multimedia, one still gets a strong sense of the its atmosphere from the audio recording alone. That said, even with libretto and booklet notes in hand, the quick shifts between characters and of plot, demeanor, sung language (I counted seven), and musical tropes makes Theatre of the World a formidable piece to ascertain. Those willing to provide an attentive ear will find themselves richly rewarded by Andriessen’s compelling use of the aforementioned plethora of material to stymy stale operatic conventions and, in their place, embrace a richly hued, multimedia theatrical environment. Theatre of the World is the most imaginative and ambitious piece that LA Philharmonic has commissioned and presented to date. Nonesuch’s excellent CD of it is my pick for Best Contemporary Opera Recording 2017.

Best Pop Recording of 2017: Björk – Utopia

Utopia

Björk

One Little Indian

 

Björk’s latest album is her longest (clocking in at 72 minutes) and her most daring yet. On past recordings, cadres of female musicians with fierce chops held sway – employing French horns and strings. This time out, a dozen Icelandic flutists are the ensemble of choice. Alongside them is the electronic musician Arca, in an enhanced role as collaborator rather than appearing, as he did previously, once the songs had already been written. These performers are augmented by additional classical musicians and singers, making for a heady mix of timbres.

 

Where Vulnicura was about personal devastation – Björk’s breakup with her then-partner artist Matthew Barney, Utopia is about the returning of equilibrium, healing, happiness, and even romance. Thus, these two efforts demonstrate both sides of personal vulnerability; the musical differences are stark. Vulnicura’s “Black Lake” is a dark meditation of despair, whereas Utopia’s “Arisen My Senses” contains sensuous melodic lines and an arrangement replete with bird-calls and flutes. The songs on Utopia are intricately designed, containing beautiful variegated textures crafted with tremendous artistry. But the music displays lightness of touch too; indeed, it often floats. Björk’s voice retains a formidable range, both in terms of compass and of the myriad demeanors she flexibly coaxes from it.

 

Much has been made about Utopia’s ornate melodies and lack of rhythmic propulsion in the press; I would suggest too much. “The Gate” may be an extended track, but it has one of the most soaring, viscerally moving tunes in Björk’s catalog. Likewise, a noteworthy example where propulsive beats play a role is the fascinating “Courtship,” in which Arca puts skittering percussion alongside the flute choir and then juxtaposed against it. In the midst of this mix of sounds, Björk’s voice sits mid-register and the lyrics venture into a narrative “storytelling” mode.

 

Many stories are told in the course of Utopia. Often, they mirror the vocalist’s own experience of reentering the world of dating and relationships. That Björk at times approaches the idea of love with trepidation and at others with jubilation makes her willingness to share lyrics based on autobiography all the more touching.

 

In a year filled with revelations of abuse and betrayal, Utopia reminds us that just around the corner from desolation can be restoration and healing; one hopes many will take solace from the album’s message. I do, and In my opinion, it is the best pop recording of 2017.

 

 

 

Rebekah Heller – Metafagote (Recording review)

tun006_cover-540x0

Metafagote

Rebekah Heller, bassoon and electronics

Tundra, 2017 (digital release)

 

Bassoonist Rebekah Heller, a member of ICE, released Metafagote, her second solo album, in 2017 on Tundra. Featuring premiere recordings of four works written for Heller by Rand Steiger (Concatenation), Dai Fujikura (Following), Jason Eckardt (Wild Ginger), and the title composition by Felipe Lara, Megafagote supplies Heller with ample opportunities to demonstrate the bassoon’s entire bag of extended techniques, from multiphonics to microtonality, as well as various live electronic manipulations. That said, one never feels that the plethora of effects on display are mere showpieces; all four composers are working on extending the bounds of the instrument. There also is a significant interest demonstrated in spatiality which features in different ways in each of the pieces.

 

Steiger’s live electronics supply echoing canons and additional resonance to Heller’s bassoon. Following is a follow-up piece to the hard-driving Calling, written by Fujikura for Heller in 2011. This time around, angular melodies that span the compass of the instrument, beginning gently but picking up speed and energy over time, are hauntingly evocative. Eckhardt’s Wild Ginger employs many of the aforementioned extensions, but does so in a seamless way, using them to inflect asymmetrical groupings of melodic cells that variously congregate and concatenate i. Partway through, the interruption of rests and sustained pitches add other elements of tension, leading way to a low-register eruption that Heller unleashes with fulsome power. The closing section contrasts this with pitch bends and multiphonics in the bassoon’s upper register. It is a most persuasive piece.

 

Lara’s work is for live bassoon alongside a half-dozen pre-recorded bassoons. The chords and shrieking glissandos emitted from the tape part create an uneasy shadowing of a solo part that often departs from its prefabricated brethren on extended flights of fancy, but occasionally touches down to intone alongside them. Percussive articulation, wide pitch bends, trills, and a brusque gestural palette combine to make this a dramatic showpiece with which to end a compelling recording.

 

Heller’s advocacy for the bassoon, and her staunch commitment to expanding its repertoire, are laudable. Her playing is both detailed and thrilling throughout. Metafagote is one of my “Best-of” solo recordings of 2017.

 

 

 

Alexei Lubimov Records C.P.E. Bach

Tangere

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Tangere

Alexei Lubimov, tangent piano

ECM 2112

Sort of a hybrid in sound between harpsichord and fortepiano, the tangent piano had its heyday in the second half of the Eighteenth century; they are relatively few of them left in existence. While they are no match for the volume and intensity possible with a fortepiano or modern piano, the tangent piano often had a number of different devices with which to create dynamic nuance. Alexei Lubimov decided for his latest ECM recording to employ a modern replica of a tangent piano built by Belgian craftsman Chris Maene. He felt that it had the ideal variety of shadings and tone colors with which to interpret the work of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a composer whose works Lubimov has in recent years championed.

C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788), one of J.S. Bach’s sons, was one of the most famous composers of the latter half of the Eighteenth century. Eclipsed by his father’s revival in the Nineteenth century, C.P.E. Bach is currently experiencing something of a revival of his own. A recent issue of Gramophone was devoted to his music. The piano concertos and solo piano works are being programmed again with greater frequency (dare one hope that his vocal and chamber music are next?). With Lubimov’s Tangere, listeners are afforded the double delight of hearing a fine cross section of the composer’s work played on a beguiling and multifaceted instrument.

C.P.E. composed keyboard music in a plethora of  styles and idioms. His most formidable pieces, two Fantasies in D#-minor and C-minor respectively, bookend the collection, replete with fluid tempo changes and florid runs. There are also a pair of sonatas, in three-movement versions of the form: fast-slow-fast, omitting the dance movement. The D-minor has a brilliant first movement that propels that the work forward, while the G major sonata relies on a three-chord pattern that Lubimov shapes with considerable delicacy. Pieces for left and right hand alone likewise are treated with sensitivity. Two rondos supply tunes of an angularity and variety that sometimes approaches C.P.E.’s father’s keyboard works. The disc is capped off by a number of shorter compositions, some less than half a minute long, titled Fantasies. One could see these wonderful miniatures serving as introductions to lengthier excursions or prompts for improvisation (Czerny’s book on improvisation is a commendable introduction to this method of learning impromptu playing).

Throughout, Lubimov makes the tangent piano the star, employing all of its various methods of expression to stirring effect. As such, it is one of my “Best Recordings of 2017” in the “solo instrument” category. One hopes that there will be additional outings in which he shares his art with us on this rare and fascinating instrument.

-Christian Carey

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: “An Intention” (Joe Goddard Remix)

a0666612268_10

Have you heard Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid (Western Vinyl, 2017) yet? Inspired by the loss of a friend, it is an electroacoustic journey from childhood to the loss of innocence, Armed with a Buchla Easel and supple voice, Smith articulates the experiences of childhood with winsome lyricism and an effulgent palette of synth timbres. It is easily one of the best electronica albums of late, and I’m naming it my choice for Best “Synth-pop” release of 2017.

Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan at Jazz Standard

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan - Claire Stefani
Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan, Winter Jazz Fest 2016. Photo: Claire Stefani

 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan

The Jazz Standard

December 10, 2017

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – Like the dearly departed duo of Jim Hall and Charlie Haden, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan make a sound much greater than the sum of their parts. This is not an issue of amplitude – their set on Sunday December tenth at the Jazz Standard was perfectly scaled for this intimate space. However, in terms of richness of rapport, musical detail, and imaginative improvisation, they can stand toe-to-toe with many larger groups. In part, they seem like a bigger ensemble because of the sheer number of notes per bar that their interplay encompasses and the quick shifts that occur between registers on their respective instruments.

 

There is another touching and musically fulfilling aspect to the pairing. While Frisell is the “veteran,” chronologically speaking, Morgan needn’t and doesn’t adopt a subordinate role: their interplay is on an equal footing. Frisell and Morgan began with “Days of Wine and Roses,” a venerable pop song turned jazz staple by pianist Bill Evans and memorably interpreted by guitarists such as Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. Here, there was no feeling out process; it was an interweaving dialogue from the get-go. Frisell and Morgan seldom look at one another; such is their sense of each other’s unfolding strategy that they seldom need to do so. They seamlessly “duck” above and below each other, covering several octaves in their musical repartee.

Small Town (ECM, 2017).

Some of the set took tunes from Small Town (ECM, 2017), Frisell/Morgan’s live recording of a March 2016 stint at the Village Vanguard. A standout that appears on the CD is the fetching ballad by Morgan, “Pearl,” a tune with a turn around that contains just a whiff of “My Only Love” and is adorned with chromatic changes. Frisell supplied an original of his own, “Strange Meeting,” originally recorded back in 1984 on the guitarist’s ECM album The Rambler.  While Morgan generally takes a polyphonic and harmonic approach to bass playing, here he imitated the pulsations found on the original recording (courtesy of Jerome Harris and Paul Motian), his instrument thrumming with intensity.

 

Both Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” and “Subconcious Lee” by Lee Konitz gave the two opportunities to switch gears to demonstrate facility in the bebop idiom. Later, the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” presented another avenue of inquiry long in Frisell’s kitbag: the refraction of Americana and folk music through a jazz lense.

 

In a year fraught with violence and strife, it seemed especially appropriate for the set proper to end with Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now is Love,” a tender, but not overly sentimental, take on yet another iconic pop song turned standard. Warmly received, the duo returned for an encore from the Bond song catalog, John Barry’s “You Only Live Twice.” You can hear another Bond film theme by Barry on Small Town: “Goldfinger.”

 

Worthy of mention is the hospitable atmosphere at Jazz Standard. Their “quiet policy” makes it most conducive to listening, and the audience on Sunday readily complied, seeming earnestly engaged throughout. The servers are attentive, but they observe the quiet policy too. In addition, the Standard supplies customers with the best food to be had in a New York jazz establishment. Planning to see Billy Hart in February!

 

Set list

Days of Wine and Roses (Henry Mancini)

Misterioso (Thelonious Monk)

Pearl (Thomas Morgan)

Strange Meeting (Bill Frisell)

Subconscious Lee – (Lee Konitz)

Wildwood Flower (folk / Carter Family)

What the World Needs Now (Burt Bacharach)

encore: You Only Live Twice (John Barry)

Upcoming concerts by Frisell/Morgan

February 15 Mill Valley CA

(Sweetwater Music Hall)

February 17 Eugene OR

(The Shedd)

February 18 Portland, OR

(Revolution Hall, Portland Jazz Festival)

February 19th Seattle, WA

(Jazz Alley)

Torres: “Three Futures” live on WFUV (Video)

Torres

Torres

Three Futures

4AD

 

Torres’ Three Futures is one of 2017’s most noteworthy indie releases and perhaps its best at dealing with gender issues in a courageous fashion. When recording the album, Brooklynite Mackenzie Scott, who uses Torres as her creative name, couldn’t have known about the sex scandals that would occur in popular culture in the late part of this year. However, there are resonances in her work to ideas of agency for females (for all gender identifications, really) to make choices about their bodies and private lives that both celebrate consensual relationships and protect themselves from exploitative behavior.

While the recording’s lyrics are powerful, and occasionally audacious, they are matched by equally compelling music. Torres has incorporated a broader range of synthesizers into her sound and layers of these are placed alongside her adroit rhythm guitar playing and a catchy spate of rhythms from bass and drums. Although the arrangements supply a great deal of variety using this instrumental template, it is likely Torres’ voice that listeners will remember most clearly. An alto with a chocolate-tinged lower register and secure upper notes, her singing alternately croons, growls, and dips into a sepulchral chest voice. Like the idea of Three Futures, the singing effectively takes on these three roles, replicating varying identities with poise, power, and sympathy. Recommended.

“Three Futures” on KEXP (YouTube).

“New Skin” live on KEXP (YouTube).