Erika Fox – Paths (CD Review)

Erika Fox

Paths

Goldsfield Ensemble, Richard Baker, conductor

NMC Recordings

Once one hears Paths, the octogenarian Erika Fox’s first CD, their first reaction may mirror mine: one of incredulity. How is it possible that a composer this talented with such a distinctive and assured musical voice had to wait so long for a monograph recording? To their credit, NMC has been a strong advocate of female composers for a number of years; I’ve recently been enjoying their recordings of Elizabeth Lutyens’s music. Thank goodness they have partnered with the Goldfield Ensemble to present Fox’s work while she is still alive to hear the results.

Born in Vienna in 1936, Fox was a war refugee who moved as a child to England. Her music is strongly infused with cultural heritage; Chasidic chant plays a large role in its conceptual framework. A strong sense of linearity is offset by a piquant harmonic palette and lively rhythms. In addition to a deft hand with pitched instruments, the works on Paths display Fox’s imaginative sense of timbre in her use of percussion. Goldfield had to retain a large battery of instruments to realize the CD’s program. Ensemble member Kate Romano points out in personable and informative liner notes that traditional development isn’t deployed. Instead a single line will weave discontinuous musical arguments that don’t return for a recapitulatory visit. 

The CD begins withPaths Where the Mourners Tread,a substantial work in which the aforementioned linear narrative is passed from instrument to instrument. One gets the sense of wending through a labyrinth of contrasting textures, holding on to the aforementioned linear thread like breadcrumbs through the forest. Fox’s provides a delightful, mysterious sound world in which to get lost. This is equally true of Quasi una Cadenza, which contains beguiling writing for winds. A downloadable bonus track, Kaleidoscope, is equally varied and compelling.

Pianist Richard Uttley supplies an incisive and persuasive performance of the solo work On Visiting Stravinsky’s Grave at San Michele, where Fox embraces the influence of other composers. Blocks of material and incisive rhythms evoke Stravinsky, particularly his late dodecaphonic pieces. There is also a hint of Messiaen in the bird call-like cries of the upper line. Another piece indebted to a twentieth century composer is Malinconia Militaire, which is based on a poem that references Anton Webern’s Opus 4 songs. 

Café Warsaw 1944 closes the CD. It is a piece inspired by the Czeslaw Milosz poem “Café. All four, relatively brief, movements, are led by the percussion section. The poem’s discussion of “the quick and the dead” and the small distance between them once again inspires Fox to inhabit the work of the Second Viennese School, but pointillism and chromaticism are contrasted with repeated chords and arpeggiations from the piano and taut percussion lines. 

Fox’s music often seeks rapprochement with the past, addressing the experiences of her refugee childhood and Jewish background as well as the ghosts of midcentury concert music. Still, the manner in which the composer synthesizes these elements supplies vividness and urgency very much in keeping with present day concerns. The Goldfield Ensemble plays assuredly throughout, giving these underserved works excellent documentation. Now it is up to the rest of the musical world to take up Fox’s compelling music and make it much more widely known. One hopes this will happen forthwith. 

-Christian Carey

Helen Grime in Tempo

The July 2019 issue of Tempo includes three contributions from yours truly: an analytical article on Helen Grime’s music and reviews of Joseph Straus’s latest book on disability studies and musical modernism and Zeno Baldi’s portrait CD on Stradivarius.

CD Review: Riot Ensemble

Speak, Be Silent

Riot Ensemble, Aaron Holloway-Nahum, conductor

Works by Chaya Czernowin, Anna Thorvaldsdóttor, Mirela Ivičević, Liza Lim, and Rebecca Saunders

Huddersfield Contemporary Records HCR20CD

2019


Riot Ensemble’s latest CD features five works by female composers who hail from a diverse group of countries: Israel, Iceland, Croatia, Australia, and the UK. Speak, Be Silentcomes at a time when, coinciding with overdue shifts in the broader culture, raising awareness of the abundant diversity of contemporary composers making vital music has taken on especial urgency. All of the pieces on Speak, Be Silent are recent; the earliest is from 2008. Thus, the CD also serves as a catalog of what vanguard composers are doing today.

Ayre: Towed through plumes, thicket, asphalt, sawdust and hazardous air I shall not forget the sound of, by Chaya Czernowin, incorporates all manner of noises alongside microtonal verticals and just a taste of the melodic line, often glissando, that its title suggests. It is a powerful piece in which Czernowin deploys a wide-ranging sonic palette with sure-footed trajectory. Ayre’s close sounds like the slamming of a plethora of recalcitrant, squeaky doors: a strongly articulated gesture of finality. 

Ró, by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, employs a more delicate palette, with sustained pitches building shimmering overtone chords that are punctuated by gentle solos and occasional articulations from the harp and the percussion section. Ró features sumptuous wind and string writing, with duets succeeding the aforementioned solos in sinuous counterpoint. Pacing is slow, deliciously so, and the final cadence serves as both harmonic and gestural closure.

Mirela Ivicevic’sBaby Magnify/Lilith’s New Toy is an acerbic piece with clangor at key points interspersed with uneasily spacious phrases. Ivicevic’s use of percussion as both a motor and for accentuation is effective. The piece builds to a plethora of sliding tones and wind multiphonics, serving as a convincing counterweight to a battery of chiming pitches and stalwart drums. 

The title work, by Liza Lim, is the most substantial on the CD. Cast in three movements, it is a chamber concerto for violin. Soloist Sarah Saviet plays impressively with nimble musicality and a silvery tone. Lim creates a shimmering, sinuous harmonic fabric. The orchestration is vivid. Lim provides each section of the ensemble a chance to interact with the soloist, who withstands brash brass interpolations and chattering percussion but firmly stands her ground, each interruption giving rise to an ever more virtuosic solo response. Finally, pitched percussion, winds and strings get their spotlight turns, nearly upending the soloist’s ever more vigorous cadenza. Just when you think that there will never be accord between ensemble and soloist, a heterophonic line develops between them, followed by a richly scored climax and a cadenza that serves as a scalar denouement.  

The recording concludes with Rebecca Saunders’ Stirrings Still III. Vertiginous harmonics are haloed by piano chords and icy woodwind countermelodies. Like Thorvaldsdottir, Saunders adopts a slow gait, but Stirrings takes on a pervasively pensive, rather than spacious, ambiance. About two thirds of the way through, sustained lines, rumbling brass, and timpani impart a degree of urgency, but this is soon banished to return to more or less the original unsettled demeanor, which gradually vanishes. 

The Riot Ensemble, conducted by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, plays skillfully throughout, attending to each score’s myriad details. it is worth noting that the disc’s aesthetic touches, from appealing artwork and riveting sound to an engaging liner notes essay by Tim Rutherford-Johnson, are potent reminders that a physical artifact trumps the current craze for booklet-less (information-less) and sonically compromised streaming. Speak, Be Silent is one of 2019’s best recordings and certainly one of its most culturally relevant ones as well. 

-Christian Carey

June 1st: League of Composers Season Finale at Miller Theatre (preview)

 

On Saturday June 1st at Miller Theatre at 7:30 PM, Louis Karchin and David Fulmer will lead the Orchestra of the League of Composers in a program of contemporary works, including two premieres. 

Karchin’s premiered work is Four Songs on Poems by Seamus Heaney, performed by soprano Heather Buck. Since I heard her in the title role of Charles Wuorinen’s opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I have been a great admirer of Buck’s singing Heaney’s poetry is another touchstone, making this work one I am particularly keen to hear.

Friedrich Heinrich Kern will perform his commissioned piece for glass harmonica and orchestra with the ensemble. Kern is a virtuoso glass harmonica player, and the choreographic component of pieces for this instrument, in addition to the attractive language in which Kern composes, promises something very different from the usual fare at League concerts. 

Curtis Macomber, a mainstay on the New York new music scene, will be the soloist in Martin Boykan’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. To celebrate Thea Musgrave’s ninetieth birthday, the strings of the orchestra will perform the composer’s Aurora. 

Event Details

Orchestra of the League of Composers
 
Saturday, June 1, 2019, 7:30 PM
Miller Theatre at Columbia University
 
Louis Karchin, Music Director and Conductor
David Fulmer, Conductor
Heather Buck, Soprano
Curtis Macomber, Violin soloist
 
Martin Boykan: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Louis Karchin: Four Songs on Poems on Seamus Heaney
Friedrich Heinrich Kern: Von Taufedern und Sternen (Of Dew Feathers and Stars)
Thea Musgrave: Aurora, for string orchestra
General Admission $30, Students/Seniors $15
Tickets can be purchased at the door or online at http://bit.ly/league2019

Barre Phillips in New York

Barre Phillips

Zürcher Gallery

By Christian Carey

Sequenza 21

May 20, 2019

Barre Phillips

NEW YORK – ECM Records has released a number of great solo bass recordings. The label’s producer, Manfred Eicher, was himself a bassist, and he has invited a number of fellow low string players to record for ECM. Barre Phillips is a pathfinder in the genre, releasing one of the first solo bass recordings, Journal Violone, on Opus One in 1968. Eicher and he have been keen collaborators for many years, beginning in 1971 with a duo recording of Phillips with Dave Holland, Music from Two Basses, the first of its kind, which was followed by a number of solo and ensemble outings for ECM. In 2018, the imprint released what was announced as Phillips last solo CD, End to End, which he called the last entry in his “Journal Violone.” 

It has been more than thirty years since Phillips last performed in New York. Originally from San Francisco and long a resident of France, much of the bassist’s career has been made playing in Europe. On Monday, May 20th, he appearedat the Zürcher Gallery, an art venue on Bleecker Street in lower Manhattan. The crowd was standing room only and contained a number of jazz and experimental music luminaries. They were attentive and enthusiastic throughout. 

Phillips turns eighty-five in October. In his performance on Monday night, he appeared energetic and fit. He easily hoisted a sizeable double bass to his shoulder, and deftly moved it around to play its entirety: not just the strings. His playing and demeanor are vibrant, inquisitive, and often imbued with puckish humor. 

The bassist gave a veritable masterclass of standard and extended playing techniques. The latter appear prolifically on End to End, among them high harmonics, different varieties of strumming such as plucking notes with both hands, a number of approaches to bowing, microtones, glissandos, and all manner of percussive playing. However, the CD intersperses these with a fair bit of cantabile playing. Less of that was on offer live. Instead, with a mischievous twinkle and disarming banter, Phillips went to work showing what it meant to “do your own thing” when, as he described it, career paths in more traditional jazz and classical music were denied him. 

Each piece, most of them improvised but some selections fromEnd to End that had been crafted into compositions, centered on a different palette of techniques. At times Phillips played his instrument caressingly, seeming to coax delicate high notes and thrumming vibrations from the strings at a pianissimo dynamic. At others, he virtually attacked the instrument, scratching it from stem to stern with his bow. If a luthier were in attendance, they would have likely had a panic attack. 

There was considerable variation in the harmonic vocabulary employed. Some of the music was in the ‘out’ post-tonal language of free jazz. Phillips also supplied an etude of octaves, another of open string drones, a third a chameleon-like shift to Eastern scales and gestures, and on “Inner Door, Pt. 4,” a plaintive modal jazz solo grounded in double-stopped fifths. Here, as elsewhere, Phillips displayed a penchant for executing a long, unerringly controlled decrescendo, bringing the music to a whispered close. Zürcher was an ideal location in which to hear these small details: an intimate space but one with good acoustics.

It is unfortunate that New Yorkers haven’t had more opportunities to hear Barre Phillips up close and personal. His performance was an unforgettable experience. Phillips joins Mat Maneri, Emilie Lesbros, and Hank Roberts for a performance on Saturday night at 8 PM at Brooklyn’s I-Beam. One more chance …    

-Christian Carey

Blue Heron Sings Ockeghem in Cambridge

Blue Heron. Photo: Kathy Wittman

Blue Heron Sings Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum

First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts

By Christian Carey

Sequenza21.com

March 9, 2019

CAMBRIDGE – Blue Heron’s Ockeghem@600 project has steadily worked its way through much of the composer’s repertoire. On March 9th at First Church, one of the most special evenings of this series was performed: Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum. The mass is constructed almost entirely out of a set of double canons, presenting imitative counterpoint throughout and at every scalar interval (a feat only matched by Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but Bach’s include single, not double, canons). The jaw-dropping intricacies of this work’s construction, and the comparative irregularity of its presentation on concert programs, made me more than happy to make the trip from New Jersey to Boston to experience it live.

Johannes Ockeghem, who died in 1497, was during his lifetime highly esteemed as both a composer and singer (some say the low bass lines one sees in his music would likely have been performed by Ockeghem himself). A number of composers and theorists referenced his music, employing it in paraphrase and parody works and holding it up as a paragon of craftsmanship. One of Josquin’s most affecting pieces is Nymphes des bois, a Déploration on the death of Ockeghem. So why isn’t he a household name today among choral enthusiasts? The challenges posed by pieces like Missa Prolationum keep them beyond the reach of any but the most skillful and dedicated ensembles. This is where Blue Heron’s Ockeghem@600 project comes in, raising both awareness for the composer and demonstrating that, while formidable, his is eminently singable music.  

Scott Metcalfe, Blue Heron’s director, carefully curated the program both to elucidate and to entertain. The concert opened with a brief canonic work by Jean Mouton, Ave Maria gemma virginum, which served as a talking point for a brief but animated lecture by Metcalfe. The singers of Blue Heron helped him to illustrate several musical examples that explicated the process of canon and how it was used by Ockeghem. Further demonstration of canonic procedure was provided by Prenez sur moi, one of Ockeghem’s most famous songs.

The program continued by interspersing some of Ockeghem’s songs with movements of the mass. Given the compositional rigor of Missa Prolationum, the inclusion of other music smartly broke it up into more manageable chunks for listeners. It also served to demonstrate the composer’s versatility; the chansons may not include double canons like the mass but are equally inventive in their own respective ways.

Throughout, Blue Heron sang with impressive tone, flawless intonation, and incisive rhythmic clarity. Indeed, the latter characteristic was particularly efficacious. One of the chief rewards of their rendition of the mass was being able to hear, clearly delineated, a veritable labyrinth of interlocking rhythms. As is their practice, Blue Heron shifts around the members of the ensemble (numbering nine singers plus Metcalfe directing and playing harp) from number to number. The upper part features both male and female voices and the rest of the singers, when singing solo, are heterogenous in tone color as well. However, when they join voices, the group adopts a resonant and supple blend.

The performance was inspiring, and the onstage remarks were spot-on in terms of content, level of detail, and duration. In addition to memories of the fine music-making, audience members left with another keepsake: a lovingly curated and detailed program book that was remarkably in-depth for such a document. It was yet another indication of the level of commitment that Metcalfe has brought to the Ockeghem@600 project. Blue Heron’s forthcoming recording of Ockeghem’s complete songs is not to be missed.

-Christian Carey