Kit Downes, organ and composer; Tom Challenger, tenor saxophone
Prior to this recording, Kit Downes was primarily known as a pianist in jazz settings, notably leading his own trio and quintet. Obsidian is his debut CD as a leader for ECM Records; he previously appeared on the label as part of the Time is a Blind Guide release in 2015. However, Downes has a substantial background as an organist as well. The program on this recording consists primarily of his own works for organ, but there is also a noteworthy folk arrangement and engaging duet with tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger.
The organs employed on Obsidian are all in England, two in Suffolk at the Snape Church of John the Baptist and Bromeswell St Edmund Church, and Union Chapel Church in Islington, London. Instruments from different eras and in very different spaces, they inspire Downes to explore a host of imaginative timbres and approaches. Over an undulating ostinato, skittering solo passages impart a buoyant character to the album opener “Kings.” An evocative arrangement of the folk song “Black is the Colour” pits piccolo piping against ancient sounding harmonies in the flutes and bagpipe-flavored mixtures. “Rings of Saturn” is perhaps the most unorthodox of Downes’s pieces, filled with altissimo sustained notes and rife with airblown glissandos, an effect that is not found in conventional organ repertoire. The piece is well-titled, as it has an otherworldly ambience. Pitch bends populate “The Bone Gambler” as well, while vibrato and frolicsome filigrees animate “Flying Foxes.” “Seeing Things” is a joyous effusion of burbling arpeggios and the more usual fingered glissandos, demonstrating an almost bebop sensibility. Suitably titled, on “The Last Leviathan” Downes brings to bear considerable sonic power – with hints of whale song in some of the textures – and fluent musical grandeur.
Although some of the release seems inimitable, closely linked to Downes’s improvisatory and textural explorations, other pieces cry out for transcription; one could see other organists giving them a wider currency. “Modern Gods” is an exercise in modally tinged dissonant counterpoint, while “Ruth’s Song for the Sea” and the folk-inflected “The Gift” possess the stately quality of preludes.
The duet with Challenger is a tour de force, in which each adroitly anticipates and responds to the other’s gestures and even notes, as the fantastic simultaneities that occur at structural points in the piece attest. Once again, there is a supple jazz influence at work. While Downes provides room for Challenger’s solos, he also challenges him with formidable passages of his own. Obsidian contains much textural subtlety and fleet-footed music, but it is also gratifying to hear Downes and Challenger celebrating the power of their respective instruments. Heartily recommended.
A recording of five previously unrecorded pieces, Orchestral Music 1965-1987 supplies excellent renditions of an underserved segment of composer George Perle’s output. Best known for his chamber music – he received a Pulitzer for his Wind Quintet No. 4 – Perle (1915-2009) also had significant orchestra commissions, including a residency with San Francisco Symphony and a 150th anniversary commission from the New York Philharmonic. Those who know his work as a music theorist will also be aware of his significant contribution to the field of 12-tone theory, as well as publications on his own idiosyncratic compositional method, “12-tone tonality.” The latter practice, with its use of carefully cultivated chromatic collections that obliquely refer to pitch centers, is fully on display in lithe and elegantly proportioned works such as Dance Fantasy (1986) and Sinfonietta 1 (1987). A bit more astringent in harmonic language are Six Bagatelles (1965), which seem indebted to Alban Berg, a touchstone figure for Perle, in their use of forceful angularity.
An intriguing entry on the disc is Short Symphony, 1980, which seems to be something of a response to Copland’s own, early and modernist in design, work by that name. The contrapuntal nature of its woodwind components recall some of Perle’s best chamber music. Elsewhere the orchestration is more muscular, with heraldic brass and rich passages for strings. Short Symphony display the composer’s consummate craftsmanship.
The standout piece on the disc is the Cello Concerto (1966), played with suppleness and impressive virtuosity by soloist Jay Campbell (also of JACK Quartet). The Seattle Symphony, under the estimable leadership of Ludovic Morlot, plays with both verve and precision. The finale is particularly varied in its demeanor, contrasting fluid cello solos with complex chords and supple wind duos, and forceful brass punctuations. It neatly resolves the well-known issue of balance in a cello concerto by bridging solos, small sections in counterpoint, and full orchestral interruptions to create a form where cello and ensemble eloquently coexist. One could readily see this piece having a substantial rebirth, particularly if Campbell continues to serve as its persuasive champion.
On April 28th, 2018, two of my Magnificat Antiphons will be performed by Westminster Kantorei, Amanda Quist, conductor. Kantorei will be recording them the following week for release on Westminster Choir College’s imprint (distributed by Naxos).
I have been at Westminster since 2004. I am thrilled that, for the first time, my work will be featured by one of the choirs.
You can hear Lumina, the choir’s superb debut recording (long-listed for last year’s Grammys), here.
Performances at Zankel Hall on March 6 at 7 PM (note the early start time) will feature two of contemporary classical music’s estimable chamber ensembles. JACK Quartet and SO Percussion team up in a program that includes a string quartet premiere by Philip Glass, a pitched percussion work by Donnacha Dennehy, and a piece for the combined forces and prepared disklaviers by Dan Trueman. (Tickets here).
Open Source Music Festival 2017
Recently Open Source Music Festival was kind enough to send us some videos of JACK and pianist Joel Fan performing as part of the 2017 Festival. We’re still decoding the JACK offerings and will post them another day. But below, Fan plays two pieces by Augusta Thomas and Bernard Rands. Collectively titled ‘Two Thoughts about the Piano,’ they demonstrate the pianist’s virtuosity, with trills, repeated notes and angular gestures abounding to explore the entire compass of the instrument. Follow the YouTube link to hear the rest of the performances.
PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY – Violist and composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin has been a guest artist this semester at Princeton University’s Atelier. The special courses in this program feature guest artists in interdisciplinary collaboration: student participants can “mirror” or “shadow” their work. Zhurbin’s course, “Grandma’s Russian Painting: Puppetry and Music,” also involves puppeteer Basil Twist.
As part of his residency, on Tuesday, February 27th Zhurbin gave a composer/performer portrait concert. Held in The Forum, at the Lewis Center for the Arts, the event’s vibe was casual; the intensity of the actual performances was anything but.
The core ensemble for the concert was The Secret String Quartet: Zhurbin with violinists Cornelius Dufallo and Jennifer Choi, and cellist Yves Dharamraj. They presented the violist’s first string quartet, “Culai,” an homage to one of the violinists in the Gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks. Boldly polystylistic and exquisitely well scored, it is a formidably challenging piece that hybridizes classical and folk music. All the members of the Secret Quartet amply demonstrated an affinity for the various playing styles contained in the piece. It is rare to hear such a seamless performance of demanding and versatile music.
Secret Quartet was joined by Vasko Dukovski for “Clarinet Quintet: The Refugee,” a poignant work that references the current refugee crisis in the United States and elsewhere. Zhurbin showed a depth of feeling in this piece with corresponding sensitivity to scoring and pacing. It equaled the quartet’s polished performance standard.
Much more music was on offer. A solo with loops provided an impressive sequence of post-minimal layering. Arrangements of repertoire from Zhurbin’s other ensemble, Ljova and the Kontraband, as well as a set of Yiddish and Russian folk songs, added vocalist Inna Barmash and accordionist Patrick Farrell to the assembled musicians. Both are tremendously talented exponents of Eastern European folk music who supplied performances that encompassed lilting inflections and, where required, burning intensity. An excellent concert; one looks forward to what Zhurbin’s collaboration with Twist will yield.