George Perle Orchestral Music (CD Review)

George Perle

Orchestral Music 1965-1987

Jay Campbell, cello

Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

George Perle Vol. 4, Bridge Records 9499

 

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.

Quattro Mani at Weill and on CD

quattromaniresctructurescdcover

Quattro Mani

November 15, 2017

Weill Recital Hall

Works by Gosfield, Moravec, Machover, Lansky, and Ben-Amots

NEW YORK – Since 2013, pianists Susan Grace and Steven Beck have been performing together as the duo Quattro Mani. Their recent recital at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall presented several New York premieres, including pieces by Annie Gosfield, Paul Moravec, Tod Machover, and Paul Lansky. Gosfield’s mix of dissonance with rollicking rhythms was winning in “Refracted Rhythms and Telepathic Static.” Lansky’s three Color Codas – “In the Red,” Purple Passion,” and “Out of the Blue” – indeed embodied multihued harmonies and sparking ostinatos. Moravec writes in an elegant, idiomatic style for the piano. His Quattro Mani contains a substantial amount of memorable material — dare one hope it is a sketch for a double concerto? The evening culminated in a scintillating performance of John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction, which was both fiery and superbly coordinated.

Quattro Mani’s latest CD recording for Bridge Records, Re-Structures, is an engaging outing. The title work, also heard at Weill Hall, is by Machover. Scored for piano and electronics, it juxtaposes frenetic acoustic virtuosity with correspondingly penetrating digital commentary. Lansky’s Out of the Blue, one of the Color Codas also on the New York program, is an attractive post-minimal exploration of small cells of material that gradually expand into boisterous passages in octaves and quick scalar runs.

The multi-movement work Cembal d’Amore, Book Two by Poul Ruders changes up the duo’s instrumentation: Beck plays harpsichord while Grace remains at the piano. Its corruscating textures, varying duplications and canons in a sequence of movements based in part on Baroque dance suites, revels in chromaticism and wry wit in equal measure. Yet another shift in approach is found in Életút Lebenslauf by György Kurtág. Basset horns, played by Andy Stevens and Sergei Vassiliev, accompany the pianists playing instruments tuned in microtones. Mysterious timbres bump elbows with thornily dissonant angularity in a piquant, unforgettable piece.

The CD’s closer is a bit more straightforward, but no less captivating.  Tango for the Road by Ofer Ben-Amots is an eight-minute long exploration of traditional tango rhythms and gestures, with a few surprises and a left turn or two along the way. The piece gives Grace and Beck an ideal vehicle to showcase the supple phrasing and suavity they bring to bear whenever given a chance to swing.

Re-Structures is an adventurous exploration of many facets of 21st century piano music: highly recommended.

-Christian Carey

Scott Wheeler on Bridge

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Scott Wheeler

Portraits and Tributes

Bridge CD

 

Scott Wheeler, composer

Donald Berman, piano

 

Boston composer Scott Wheeler is a prolific creator of large-scale compositions. However, his latest Bridge CD, Portraits and Tributes, reveals a different side of the composer: the author of occasional pieces. Twenty-seven pieces devoted to friends and family, anniversaries and birthdays, reveal Wheeler’s comfort in an array of styles, ranging from Copland-esque Americana to ragtime. The latter style plays an important role in this collection: Wheeler seems to love ragtime with an enthusiasm rarely heard since William Bolcom’s principal works were in wide circulation. I’m particularly fond of those pieces, such as “Bleeker Study,” that blend styles – it channels both Kurt Weill and early Arnold Schoenberg with equal skill. The gentle “Cowley Meditation” is also a nice contrast to the plethora of rags here.

 

Donald Berman is the fleet-fingered pianist who plays all of the works on the CD. Like Wheeler, he has chameleon like tendencies when it comes to interpreting various styles. Any collection of occasional pieces is bound to vary in quality to a certain degree, but Portraits and Tributes is surprisingly strong and, perhaps even more crucially, entertaining from beginning to end.

Paul Lansky – Idle Fancies (CD Review)

Idle Fancies

Paul Lansky

Gwendolyn Dease, marimba and percussion

Bridge Records CD 9454

 

Not so long ago, a composer portrait CD consisting entirely of solo marimba music would have been unthinkable. Idle Fancies, a new Bridge Recording of Paul Lansky’s complete music for marimba, demonstrates that the composer, despite being a non-percussionist best known for his contributions to electroacoustic music, really knows his way around mallet instruments too. The three substantial works here, each different in character and demands, provide plenty of variety; something that, given the instrumental palette on display, is no mean feat.

 

Spirals (2013), vide the title, surveys a panoply of chromatic harmonies in swirling, constant movement. Three Moves are a simultaneously virtuosic and charming set of character pieces. The title work is a collection of six pieces. Lansky adopts the detailed ostinati found in his post-minimal music as a foundation on which to build interesting variations. Some of the movements incorporate additional percussion instruments. Used judiciously, at times these supply the proceedings with non-pitched punctuation; at others with a Gamelan-like ambience.

Marimba player Gwendolyn Dease is a superlative advocate for Lansky’s music, bringing out every nimble run and nuanced dynamic with accuracy and artistry. One can readily hear why he entrusted her with this project. Though this may be it for Lansky’s marimba scores, perhaps we can look forward to another large-scale work for percussion instruments, written, of course, for Dease.

 

 

 

 

Peter Lieberson Volume 3 on Bridge (CD Review)

Music of Peter Lieberson Volume 3

Piano Concerto No. 3

Viola Concerto

Stephen Beck, piano; Roberto Diaz, viola;

Odense Symphony Orchestra, Scott Yoo, conductor

 

Peter Lieberson (1946-2011) was a composer capable of creating affecting works in a wide range of styles. He was well known for collaborations with his wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; songs resplendent in lyricism.  On the other hand, many of his earlier compositions were written in a more modernist vein. Later concertos for piano and viola  point out that the composer covered a great deal of musical terrain between the two aforementioned approaches .

“Leviathan,” the first movement of Piano Concerto No. 3 (2003),  pits incisive piano lines against muscular gestures from the orchestra. Alternating between richly hued  and fragile passages, in “Leviathan” Lieberson convincingly threads his way through an intricate  structure.  “Canticle,” the piece’s second movement, revels in an extended triadic language. At its outset, roles are exchanged; here the piano is often the more assertive party with the orchestra supplying a lush and sustained background.  Eventually there is a changing of the tide, with gentle gestures from the piano being offset by arcing lines and punctuating percussion from the orchestra. The concerto’s final movement is a Rondo. The main motive here, a polytonal chordal cascade, is presented in various permutations and is contrasted by far flung episodes.  Of considerable interest are the sudden contrasts one finds here. Varying motives and meters, and transformations of harmony and orchestration provide a bevy of (pleasant) surprises. Soloist Steven Beck plays with thoughtful grace and, where required, strongly articulated virtuosity. Scott Yoo leads the Odense Symphony in an assured performance that takes the concerto’s many contrasting sections and technical demands in stride.

The first movement of Lieberson’s Viola Concerto (1992, revised in 2003) is a catalog of  the many ways that you can treat the interval of a minor third. It serves as a motto in the solo part, but also infiltrates the orchestra quite thoroughly: from the flutes right down to the double basses. The second movement, a Scherzo, keeps the minor third around, but often treats it as an ostinato from which ornate altered scales emerge. The piece’s final movement features an expansive and ardent Adagio section, with some lovely cadenza passages and a tapering denouement, capped off (relatively late in the game) by a boisterous Allegro. This features a reintroduction of (you guessed it) that minor third in a variety of new guises. The Viola Concerto is an excellent example of a composer restricting himself to a particular palette, yet allowing a plethora of permutations from it to emerge. And while there are passages in which harmonic centers are ambiguous, the overall musical language of this piece is more conservative than Piano Concerto No. 3. Not that this is a bad thing; it demonstrates the composer’s versatility. One only wishes that Lieberson could still be here to enjoy the stirring rendition of this piece provided by soloist Roberto Diaz and, once again, the stalwart Odense Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Yoo.  This is one of my favorite recordings of 2014.

 

Dmitri Tymoczko – Crackpot Hymnal

crackpot hymnal

Dmitri Tymoczko

Crackpot Hymnal

Bridge Records CD

In recent decades, there’s been a move in some American academic circles to put more separation between the disciplines of music composition and music theory. It seems especially curious to those of us who have, to greater or lesser degrees, modeled our careers and aesthetics on our forebears, adopting the “composer-theorist” approach (some of us even adopt the “composer-performer-theorist” tag, but that’s another story for another day). Happily, academics like Dmitri Tymoczko thrive, pointing out that a hyphenated or, more properly, interdisciplinary existence is still amply possible without compromising one’s standing in either or both disciplines.

Tymoczko is one of the best known scholars discussing geometric modeling in music theory; his “The Geometry of Musical Chords” was the first music theory article published in Science Magazine; his first book, A Geometry of Music (Oxford University Press, 2011) is thought-provoking and, given its subject matter, surprisingly accessible: It has engendered a great deal of discussion in music theory circles. However, Tymoczko teaches at Princeton University in the Composition Area; while many important theorists have studied at Princeton, there is no Theory Department in the Graduate Music program, only Composition and Musicology.

On his first CD, Beat Therapy (Bridge, also 2011), Tymoczko flexed his third stream muscles, presenting a program of concert works influenced by jazz including improvised solos. Crackpot Hymnal, his second recording for the Bridge imprint, features fully notated chamber pieces played by estimable ensembles: the Amernet and Corigliano Quartets and the Illinois Modern Ensemble with pianist Daniel Schlossberg. The pieces address crossover, or polystylism, though, for the most part, instead of jazz, popular and rock styles interact with folk and modern classical music. Given Tymoczko’s early background playing popular music, and his subsequent theoretical writings that point out the ways that geometrical modeling of scales and chords is applicable to the analysis of both classical and popular music, his exploration of similar issues in his compositions makes perfect sense.

He has a bit of fun as well with this idea of similarity of collections between disparate styles. In the album opener, The Eggman Variations (2005), a quintet for pianist John Blacklow and the Corigliano Quartet, the first movement, titled “Pentatonia,” overwhelmingly employs pentatonic collections. But is the listener guided to hear them as aspects of Asian folk music, Impressionist chamber music, or box riffs by a guitarist in a garage band? Depending on where you are in the piece, it could seem to be any one, or several, of these archetypal references to a five-note scale. Alongside the glissandos one might expect, permutations of chordal extensions (7th chords, 9th chords, et cetera), populate the piece’s second movement, “Bent.” “A Roiling Worm of Sound” (what a fantastic title) mixes multiple layers of ostinato repetitions into an ebulliently undulating whole.

Another aspect of polystylism that Tymoczko embraces in these pieces is the ever-expanding condition of our varied digital music libraries, with the concomitant use (abuse?) of the shuffle button on our iPod, iTunes, or other digital delivery system. With a few clicks of a mouse or remote, listeners can leapfrog throughout music history and a plethora of musical geographies. Typecase Treasury (2010), another piano quintet for Kevin Weng-Yew Mayner and the Amernet Quartet, is a seven-movement suite of miniatures that revels in stylistic juxtaposition. It is neoclassicism versus post-minimalism in “Where We Begin.” “Hurdy Gurdy” channels Nancarrow in its not-so-well oiled musical motor and bluesy cast. Sheared off blocks of angular rhythms and deliberately schmaltzy chords inhabit “Crackpot Hymnal” in a quirky coexistence. You can imagine what happens in “This One was Supposed to be Atonal.” The composer describes “Russian Metal” as “Shostakovich orchestrating Black Sabbath,” which is a nice summation for this simmering aural snapshot. “Intermezzo” explores polytonality and harmonics in an appealingly piquant scoring that seems to take Bartók as its starting point. “Anthem” brings the piece to a close in rollicking fashion, bringing back some of the material from the opening, but transformed into a kinetic finale.

This Picture Seems to Move (1998), is also played by the Amernet Quartet. Even though it is a relatively early Tymoczko work, one can already hear a penchant for juxtaposition. Its first movement’s title, “Twittering Machine,” is a Paul Klee reference; obviously, it significantly predates our default assumptions about “twittering” today. It pits a modernist rhythmic language against a neoromantic harmonic palette. The work’s other movement, titled (after Boccioni) “Those Who Go,” features a beautifully brooding quasi-tonal melody alongside five-against-three pizzicatos.

The recording’s final piece, Another Fantastic Voyage (2012), is a chamber piano concerto. Schlossberg and the Illinois Modern Ensemble supply a rousing performance of the piece, which is filled with abundant virtuosity for the soloist and hairpin turns and tricky rhythms aplenty for the sinfonietta. Its title references Asimov, and one can image the subtitles being the names of short stories by Ray Bradbury. As the three movements’ monikers – “The Mad King,” “Changeling,” and “An Evil Carnival” – suggest, this is a piece in which Tymoczko is willing to explore darker thematic terrain. It is also where he best demonstrates a flair for the dramatic.

Once again, we hear the composer unwilling to take received norms – the formality of the concerto form, for instance – at face value. Instead he seeks to subvert our expectations of what a piano concerto does by placing it inside the inspirational context of genre fiction. Of course, the piano concerto is one of the classical forms that is longest in the tooth, and there are a significant number of 20th and 21st century works that seek to deconstruct it. That Tymoczko is able to find still another way to reframe the concerto design is no mean feat. If you are one of those who distrust the “hyphenated” contingent of composer-theorists, assuming their music is overly cerebral and lacking immediacy, take a listen to this piece. When one hears its vividly orchestrated and vibrantly paced carnival ride closer, all bets are off. You’ll likely think twice before making extravagant claims about “interdisciplinary types” again.

– Christian Carey