John Adams: Violin Concerto (CD Review)

John Adams Violin Concerto

Violin Concerto – John Adams

Leila Josefowicz, violin

St. Louis Symphony, David Robertson, conductor

Nonesuch CD

Some recordings become touchstones in one’s collection. Despite there being several fine renditions out there, the 1996 Nonesuch CD of Gidon Kremer playing John Adams’ Violin Concerto (1993), with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Kent Nagano, is an abiding favorite of mine. Now, more than twenty years later, Nonesuch has bested its own best with the release of Leila Josefowicz’s recording of the concerto with the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by David Robertson.

Josefowicz is front and center in the mix. Since the violinist plays nearly constantly in the piece, and tends to evoke the actions of the orchestra more so than one finds in traditional concertos, this seems entirely appropriate. Her rendition of the piece is filled with crisply fluent runs and fluid dynamic shifts. The first movement is appropriately dramatic in cast, the second takes on a poignancy that is most affecting, and the finale is truly a bravura showcase for the soloist. In addition to the vibrant energy of Josefowicz, under Robertson the St. Louis Orchestra gives a performance that is both dynamically potent and attentive to detail.

While repetition remains an important component of Adams’ music, the Violin Concerto is a watershed piece for the composer in that breaks out of the boundaries of post-minimalism into a more versatile gestural language than he had previously used. In addition to this change in rhythmic practice, the concerto features greater chromaticism than one had previously heard in pieces by the composer. He fluently wends his way through a variety of key centers – there are even moments where post-tonality reigns supreme over triadic writing. These facets of his writing have only blossomed in the ensuing years. However, it is pleasing to be reminded of their roots in the concerto, particularly by such a persuasive account of the piece.

john-adams-doctor-atomic-450

 

This is the label’s thirtieth CD of music by Adams; their connection to the composer dates back to the 1986 recording of Harmonielehre. On June 29th, 2018, Nonesuch will release yet another recording of music by Adams, and a particularly noteworthy one: the premiere CDs of his 2005 opera Dr. Atomic. More about that soon.

Ghost Ensemble: We Who Walk Again (LP Review)

Ghost Ensemble - We Who Walk Again
We Who Walk Again
Ghost Ensemble
Indexical LP/Download

Since 2012, New York’s Ghost Ensemble has pursued a deep listening ethos that incorporates a range of repertoire, both pieces by ensemble members and works by composers such as David Bird, Kyle Gann, Giacinto Scelsi, and Gerard Grisey. Any ensemble in the US that references “deep listening” invariably is also interested in Deep Listening, the piece that evolved into a discipline and subsequent body of musical and theoretical work from sound artist Pauline Oliveros.

Since its inception Ghost Ensemble has been associated with Oliveros’ work, both her compositions and sound practices. It is fitting that We Who Walk Again, their debut recording, features the first studio recording of the Oliveros piece “Angels and Demons.” A text score from 1980, its primary guideline is as follows: “any sound that has been heard inwardly first may be made.” Players may take on the role of “Angels,” the meditation’s “guardian spirits,” or Demons, “individual spirits of creative genius;” they may also switch back and forth between roles.  Here the piece manifests itself in an initial testing out period of slow individual tones that is gradually varied by means of timbre, density, and use of dissonance. Starting in the Feldman realm of spare pianissimo fragments, a long range crescendo shapes the piece. It is enabled by successively more penetrating held pitches, extended techniques, syncopated percussion, and an eventual blossoming of rangy melodic gestures. A belated denouement supplies a few furtive valedictions, but no dramatic close is supplied (nor does one seem necessary).

The group’s oboist Sky Macklay is also a composer on the rise, with a number of high profile performances and commissions to her credit. Macklay’s 60 Degree Mirrors revels in extended techniques available to winds. Her command of multiphonics and microtones on the oboe is prodigious and she gives flutist Martha Cargo a detailed part as well. The piece also has spectral roots, with shimmering overtones, particularly “crunchy” upper partials, demonstrating an edgier side of the “deep listening” continuum. 60 Degree Mirrors is not just technically sophisticated; it has considerable dramatic heft and proves to be a thrilling listen.

Ghost Ensemble founder, accordionist and composer Ben Richter, provides the recording’s other piece, Wind People. More than double the length of the Macklay and Oliveros performances, it affords the group the opportunity to stretch out and engage in the shaping of a larger arc. Long glissandos played by bassist James Ilgenfritz provide a particularly resonant touchstone, and similar sliding tones from violist Hannah Levinson and cellist Maria Hadge underscore its structural character. Meanwhile, the winds explore all manner of overtones, sometimes punctuating the proceedings with held pitches appearing in contrast to the yawning slides, at others engaging in pitch bends of their own. Percussionists Chris Nappi and Damon Loren Baker provide under-girding drums, subtle yet insistent. Richter and harpist Lucia Helen Stavros sometimes pepper the texture with melodic gestures, but more often are the harmonic “middle” that sustains the fabric of the piece. Over time, sustain becomes a powerful force traversing all instruments and registers, and sumptuous overtone chords saturate the work. A coda provides a long diminuendo in which overtones fade into thrumming drums, drones, and string glissandos. Wind Music is a well-crafted and eloquent work.

Of Wind Music, Richter says that he sought to “draw a sense of peace and comfort from our smallness, transience, and fragility in the face of an overwhelming immensity, the music mirroring the constant ebb and flow visible when zooming in or out to quantum or geological time.”

Amid today’s tumult, drawing peace and comfort from deep listening is a worthy goal, one that Ghost Ensemble appears poised to attain often.

Tangents – New Bodies (CD Review)

Tangents - New Bodies - cover scan

Tangents
New Bodies
Temporary Residence Ltd.

Australian instrumental quintet Tangents return with their fourth album via Temporary Residence. It is their finest work in some time, with an even broader palette of materials and stylistic reference points that are adroitly incorporated. The combination of cello, especially favoring pizzicato, and synth melodies remains, but along for the ride are prepared piano sounds, angular bass interjections, and skittering beats. Electric guitar textures and and undulating patterning are propelled by muscular acoustic drums.

Indebted to post-rock, jazz, alt-electronica, and a dose of contemporary classical sounds, it transcends these various categorizations and their carbon dating to create music that is entirely fresh and of the moment. Recommended.

Da Capo Players at Merkin (Concert Review)

Da Capo Chamber Players Perform a Potpourri of American Works

 

Da Capo Chamber Players

Da Capo Chamber Players

Merkin Concert Hall

June 4, 2018

 

NEW YORK – Themed programs and portrait concerts are all the rage these days. As such, it is refreshing when an ensemble goes eclectic, presenting a diverse array of music. Such was the case on Monday, June 4th, when Da Capo Chamber Players performed eight pieces by living American composers who write in a plethora of styles. Consisting of violinist Curtis Macomber, cellist Chris Gross, flutist Patricia Spencer, pianist Steven Beck and joined by guest artists soprano Lucy Shelton, clarinetists Marianne Glythfeldt and Carlos Cordeiro, and percussionist Michael Lipsey, the musicians are a formidable cadre of some of New York’s best new music performers. This was handily demonstrated in all of the works on offer at Merkin — how often can you depend on that level of consistency?

 

Few groups perform the rhythmic patternings of minimalism more assuredly than the Da Capo Players. Here they clearly delineated the differences between various types of ostinatos. Sweet air (1999) by David Lang juxtaposed its repetitions with distressed dissonances, In the sole premiere on the program, Dylan Mattingly’s Ecstasy #3 (2018) presented passages filled with an alt-folk-inflected melody. An arrangement by Robert Moran of Philip Glass’s Modern Love Waltz (1980) may have explored repetition in the most straightforward way of the pieces here, but its fluid playfulness made it a fetching addition to the proceedings.

 

The modernist wing of composition was represented too. Elliott Carter’s Canon for Four (1984) received an incisive rendition, with the contrapuntal details of the work vividly underscored. Tanoa León’s One Mo’ Time (2016) mixed a varied palette of chromaticism with inflections of gospel and jazz. She is one of the best at allowing these two traditions to coexist in her music in organic fashion. Christopher Cerrone supplied one of the evening’s most imaginative works. Hoyt=Schermerhorn for keyboard mixed a gradual build-up of soft textures that was somewhat indebted to the works of Feldman but through quicker changes of harmony. Over time, effects such as reverb and treble register loops brought the piece from its eighties origins into the twenty-first century. Amalgam (2015) by Taylor Brook, was the concert’s most experimental piece, with the players (and soprano Lucy Shelton) moving from disparate roles to unison playing, then heterophonic treatment of the piece’s melody. Amalgam is a fascinating composition that certainly proved to be a successful experiment for Da Capo.

 

The concert’s standout was Romancero (1983), for soprano and ensemble, settings of four medieval poems thought to be from the Sephardic Jewish tradition by Mario Davidovsky. Shelton was as expressive as ever and well-matched for the angular challenges posed by Romancero’s post-tonal pitch vocabulary. Her voice ranged from delicately floating pianissimo passages to forceful forte declamations. The instrumental parts are quite demanding as well, reminiscent of the complexly articulate language of Davidovsky’s electroacoustic Synchronisms. Shelton is a frequent collaborator with Da Capo (see a recent video of their rendition of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire below), and their association showed in the intricate interplay between voice and instruments: a gem of a performance.

 

As if to remind us of the celebratory catholicity of taste that bound together the disparate strands of this program, its finale was the brief, yet brilliantly multi-faceted, Encore (1991) by Bruce Adolphe. Composed to celebrate the Da Capo Players’ twentieth anniversary, it has remained a staple of their repertoire. It is hard to believe that the group has now been going for 48 years. Based on the vigor with which they performed at Merkin Hall, the sky’s the limit for their upcoming golden anniversary season.



 

 

Friday: ACF Goes Alt-Electronica

Demi Broxa
Austrian Cultural Forum prides itself on an eclectic array of offerings, with regular programs presenting excellent composers and ensembles on the cusp of new music making. Pop has been among past proceedings, but an event like the one this Friday treads new ground for the venue.
Viennese duo Demi Broxa (Jakob Schneidewind, bass/electronics and Agnes Hvizdalek, vocals) make their US debut at ACF. In addition to synth soundscapes and beat-driven electronica, vocal effects – whistles and mouth clicks – will be on display in their “Vocals, Electronics, and Bass” set.
Aki Onda
NY-based electronic artist Aki Onda supplies the other half of the show. Onda is known for his cassette soundscapes: for decades he has made field recordings from a variety of locales that then are transformed into sound art. At Friday’s event he will share Cassette Memories from Morocco.
 
The sound in at ACF is good but the seating is not commodious. Events remain free and demand can be high. I recall more than a few occasions where there were lines out the door of hopefuls seeking seats. Friday may just be one of those nights.

Aki Onda – Cassette Memories at Louvre Museum, Paris, 2011 – Part 1 from Aki Onda on Vimeo.

Details
Friday, June 15th, at 7:30 pm
Austrian Cultural Forum New York
Demi Broxa (in their U.S. debut) and Aki Onda.
Admission is free, and reservations (online at ACFNY.org) are required.
11 East 52nd Street, New York, NY (between Fifth and Madison Avenue)
Program
Aki OndaCassette Memories (Morocco 1988 & 2010)
Demi Broxa – Vocals, Electronics, and Bass