Odyssean Ensemble, Colm Carey, director; Christian Wilson, organ
William Byrd is often associated with Catholic church music, contributing three masses and collections of propers. He also composed one of the finest collections of Anglican music, a “full” or “long” service of the music for the daily offices. After his death, it was dubbed “The Great Service.” One can readily hear why in this superlative debut recording by Odyssean Ensemble, directed by Colm Carey. Written for two vocal quintets – placed on either side of the chancel – the piece is a feast of antiphonal effects with many vocal combinations and a plethora of contrapuntal techniques. Byrd was mindful of reformers’ insistence on textual clarity and primarily syllabic declamation; all of these peregrinations are accomplished while incisive text-setting is maintained.
Singing from a new edition of the piece prepared by Andrew Johnstone (who also contributes informative liner notes), recorded in a sumptuous space, Odyssean Ensemble deploys a warm sound with impressive diction. Carey’s shaping of the piece yields spry rhythms and elegant phrasing. A selection of English anthems appealingly augment the program. In addition to accompanying the singers on the lovingly reconstructed St. Tello instrument, organist Christian Wilson contributes a nimble reading of a Fantasy by Byrd. Devotional texts, read by the actor David Suchet, are a welcome inclusion. The recording is an example of fastidious detail to history breathing new life into an underserved work. One hopes that a recording of Byrd’s masses will be soon to follow.
Born in 1967, Swiss composer Dominique Schafer spent time in Paris and Boston before taking up his present academic position at Chapman University in California. This is his first monograph CD. Ensemble Proto Bern supplies the recording’s eloquent performances, illuminating intricate timbres and revelling in the rhythmic intricacies of Schafer’s music.
While musical style and geography of scenes aren’t always complimentary, Schafer’s time in Paris is a clear point of departure for post-spectralist works Cendre, for bass flute and 8-channel electronics, and Ringwood, for clarinet and live electronics. Both flutist Bettina Berger and clarinetist Richard Haynes are estimable advocates who take extended techniques in stride. Microtones and colorful alternate fingerings are haloed by electronically deployed harmonic series.The varied, muscular gestural palette that ensemble works such as the title composition, Anima, and INFR-A-KTION possess suggests that Schafer’s time at Harvard may have imbued his work with more than a hint of East coast modernism. Whatever the source of his inspiration, Schafer’s is an attractive, polyglot musical language.
Vers une présence réelle demonstrates the variety Schafer seamlessly brings to bear. Verticals are frequently treated to intervals that fall outside of the equal temperament spectrum, coloring chords with tart microtones and overblown howls. Piano and harp, both playing in equal temperament, supply a contrasting harmonic spectrum. These are offset by half-step oscillations and repeated notes in the strings and dissonant trumpet fanfares. Surging wind harmonics, contrasted by wide-ranging piano arpeggiations and flurries of violin, populate the coda with echoes of the main body of the piece.
The instrumentation of most of the pieces can be accommodated by standard instrumentation. However, INFR-A-KTION features lupophone, an extremely low oboe, played by Martin Bligginstorfer, and contraforte, a contrabassoon on steroids played by Elise Jacoberger. The overall registral deployment of the piece sits low, providing a sepulchral environment in which to hear these portentous low winds to good effect. Strings arc overhead, playing angular filigrees in contrast to the bass register utterances.
Vers une présence réelle provides an excellent introduction to the breadth of expression in Dominique Schafer’s music. One eagerly awaits future recorded documentation, perhaps of some of his orchestra music.
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.
Works by Chaya Czernowin, Anna Thorvaldsdóttor, Mirela Ivičević, Liza Lim, and Rebecca Saunders
Huddersfield Contemporary Records HCR20CD
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.
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’sConcerto for Violin and Orchestra. To celebrate Thea Musgrave’s ninetieth birthday, the strings of the orchestra will perform the composer’s Aurora.
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)
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.
On Wednesday May 8th, Urban Playground Chamber Orchestrapresents the New York premiere of Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2, music by Harry T. Burleigh, and a rarely heard oratorio, And They Lynched Him on a Tree, by William Grant Still. The program, titled From Song Came Symphony. fits the ensemble’s mandate to prioritize the performance of composers who are women and people of color. It focuses on the legacy of Burleigh. I recently caught up with UPCO’s conductor Thomas Cunningham, who told me more about the concert.
Cunningham says, ”I found programmatic inspiration in Jay-Z lyrics: Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.”
“Burleigh wrote art songs so that the following generation – William Grant Still, William Dawson, and Florence Price – could write symphonies and concert works. Burleigh’s incorporation of African American music into Western art music, and his advocacy for this new American music genre through his work at Ricordi, had a vast influence on remarkable composers of color in America.”
Florence Price’s work has recently been receiving significant attention. Cunningham feels that Violin Concerto No. 2 will be a highlight of the concert. “Price’s second violin concerto is wonderfully idiosyncratic. The concerto is in so many places defined by its subtle and yet robust brass writing, atypical especially for a concerto for string instrument. All the while, this work demonstrates a novel voice, both aware and in touch with various traditions, but carving out singular nuance and identity.”
UNC-Chapel Hill Ph.D. candidate Kori Hill will deliver a pre-concert lecture at the event. Of Price’s work, she says, “This concerto, completed just one year before Price’s untimely death in 1953, is a fascinating example of her applications of African American vernacular and Western classical principles. It is an important component to understanding and fully appreciating her contributions to American classical music. We hope Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 becomes a staple of the violin repertory in the years to come.”
In addition to the aforementioned works, the program also includes a movement from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony. Cunningham says that the included excerpt is connected to multiple pieces on the program. “Incorporating the Largo from Dvorak 9 serves a dual purpose: first, to demonstrate the tangible connection between the spirituals sung by Burleigh to Dvorak, and second, to mirror the premiere of Still’s And They Lynched Him on a Tree, which also included the movement.”
This is the fifth year that UPCO has been active. Their advocacy is laudable, and the group has musicianship to match its ambition. Cunningham and company are persuasive performers of both standard-era repertoire and more recent music. May 8th’s concert should be a memorable one.
Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra and Harry T. Burleigh Society present