Kit Downes – Obsidian (CD Review)

Kit Downes - Obsidian

Obsidian
Kit Downes, organ and composer; Tom Challenger, tenor saxophone
ECM Records

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.

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.

Upcoming Performance: Westminster Kantorei

Westminster Kantorei in Boston

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.

Concert Details: Bristol Chapel, Westminster Choir College (101 Walnut Lane, Princeton, NJ 08540), 8 PM. $20/$15 students/seniors.

Ljova in Princeton

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Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin. Photo: Mark Gurevich.

“Sorry About the Mess – Portraits in Music:”

Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin and Friends

Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University

February 27, 2018

Sequenza21.com

By Christian Carey

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.

Thomas Strønen’s Time is a Blind Guide – Lucus (CD Review)

Thomas Strønen – Time is a Blind Guide

Lucus

ECM Records 2576

 

Ayumi Tanaka, piano; Håkon Aase: violin; Lucy Railton, violoncello; Ole Morten Vågan, double bass; Thomas Strønen: drums, percussion

 

Composer/percussionist Thomas Strønen’s Time is a Blind Guide has shifted membership since its debut recording. Distilled to a quintet line-up on Lucus, its latest outing for the ECM label, it retains a cohesive way of interacting that highlights a fluent interplay of textures. The Mediterranean-inflected album opener “La Bella,” the sole composition on which Strønen shares credit with Aase and Vågan, is a case in point. Fills from Strønen’s kit activate repeated notes in the strings and piano in a subtle build that gradually includes ever widening whorls of melodic snippets.

 

Often Strønen wisely deploys the quintet as an interlocking set of two trios – string trio and jazz piano trio. This is done quite effectively on “Wednesday;” the jazz side of the ensemble plays in a smoky swinging groove while Aase and Railton perform a gentle rainstorm of pizzicatos. Vågan is an interloper, moving from walking lines to sultry arco playing. On the title track, also undergirded by a propulsive string ostinato, Tanaka supplies limpid impressionist cascades. The strings build up successive layers, creating countermelodies that arc around the piano and accentuate the undergirding material of the rhythm section. The double trio idea also prevails in the standout composition “Truth Grows Gradually,” in which the players revel in a complex yet catchy groove.

 

Elsewhere, the ensemble activities vary. On “Baka,” the percussionist crosses over into the world of orchestral instruments, bringing out regular bass drum punctuations. “Friday” juxtaposes pizzicato solos with high string harmonics in a polyrhythmic duet enlivened by its textural contrasts. After an extended double bass introduction, “Tension” presents folk-tinged violin melodies and attenuated post-bop piano lines against a variety of jazz kit punctuations by Strønen. Gradually, Tanaka fills out the texture with rapid fire repeated notes against an expansive collection of string glissandos and harmonic minor pirouettes. The Eastern-tinged “Release” leads with a sweeping piano melody that alternates with oscillating strings and thrumming low register pedals. Oddly enough, “Release” is placed earlier on the disc than “Tension,” which would seem to be a corresponding antecedent. That said, the sequencing of these compositions flows organically with ample variety along the way. Whether performing again as a larger group or in the quintet that appears on Lucus, one hopes that Time is a Blind Guide are just getting started.  

 

-Christian Carey

Sheila Silver Composer Portrait at Merkin Hall

Sheila Silver

 

The Music of Sheila Silver: A Celebration

Merkin Concert Hall

February 8, 2018

By Christian Carey

Published on Sequenza 21

 

NEW YORK – Composer Sheila Silver has taught at Stony Brook University since 1979. On February 8th at Merkin Concert Hall, an all-Silver program celebrated her tenure at the university. In addition to colleagues and students past and present, the hall was filled with area musicians – including multiple generations of composers – who were most enthusiastic in their reception of Silver and the estimable renditions of her work.

 

Even when composing instrumental music, Silver often bases her work on literature and describes it in terms of its narrative quality. The earliest piece on the program, To the Spirit Unconquered (1992), played by Trio de Novo – Brian Bak, violin, Phuc Phan Do, cello, and Hsin-Chiao Liao, piano – is inspired by the writings of Primo Levi, a survivor of the Holocaust who was imprisoned in Auschwitz. One of Silver’s most dramatic compositions, in places it is rife with dissonance and juxtaposes violent angularity with uneasy passages of calm. In the video below, Silver mentions trying to imbue it both with the searing quality of Levi’s struggle and, at its conclusion, some sense of hope based on his indomitability in the midst of horrendous experiences. Trio de Novo are a talented group who performed with detailed intensity and imparted the final movement, marked “stately,” with exceptional poise.

 

Soprano Risa Renae Harman and pianist Timothy Long performed an aria from the opera The Wooden Sword (2010), in which Harman displayed impressive high notes to spare. Her acting skills were on display – comedically sassy – in “Thursday,” one of the songs from Beauty Intolerable (2013), Silver’s cycle of Edna St. Vincent Millay settings. Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, joined by pianist Ryan McCullough, presented another, more serious, Millay song, “What My Lips Have Kissed.” With Bak providing additional atmosphere, they also performed an aria from Silver’s current work-in-progress, the opera A Thousand Splendid Suns. Gibbon sang with considerable flexibility and purity of tone, at one point exuberantly spinning around while effortlessly holding a high note. Currently part of the group workshopping the opera, she seems perfectly cast. The songs and arias displayed a sumptuousness that served as a fine contrast to the denser language of the piano trio.

 

Dawn Upshaw was slated to perform with pianist (and longtime Stony Brook faculty member) Gilbert Kalish. Sadly, Upshaw had bronchitis and couldn’t sing on the concert. Gibbon valiantly stepped in, learning Silver’s On Loving, Three Songs in Memory of Diane Kalish (2015) in just two days. Her performance on the concert was supremely confident, betraying none of the last minute nature of the switch. Indeed, the three songs – settings of Shakespeare, St. Vincent Millay, and Khalil Gibran, were among the most stirring of Silver’s works on the program, displaying an autumnal lyricism and wistful poignancy. Kalish, a renowned accompanist, played with characteristic grace.

 

The second half of the concert showed still two more aspects of Silver’s work: a short film score and a more overtly political chamber piece. The first, Subway Sunset (1999), is a collaboration with her husband, the filmmaker John Feldman. It intersperses scenes of busy commuters with a gradually encroaching sunset adorning the sky near the World Trade Center. Although filmed before 2001, the duo dedicated it to the victims of 9/11. Seeing the towers on film will always be haunting. The musical accompaniment, a duet played by bassoonist Gili Sharret and pianist Arielle Levioff, created a solemn stillness that left space to contemplate the various implications of what used to be a normal scene for twentieth century commuters.

 

The program concluded with Twilight’s Last Gleaming (2008), a work for two pianists and two percussionists that is a commentary on the post 9/11 state of affairs. Its three movements’ titles – War Approaching, Souls Ascending, Peace Pretending – give a broad outline for the work’s impetus. Twilight’s Last Gleaming requires stalwart performers and Kalish, joined by pianist Christina Dahl (also on Stony Brook’s faculty) and percussionists Lusha Anthony and Brian Smith, provided a committed and energetic account of this challenging and penetrating piece. The large percussion setup included a considerable assortment of gongs as well as various pitched instruments and drums. The percussionists engaged in a complex choreography between parts, at times catwalking around the gongs’ stands to arrive perfectly in time for their next entrance. In the piece’s final section, an extended musical deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner” takes place with all of the musicians engaging in an increasingly fragmented presentation of the tune. The piece closes leaving the penultimate line “The Land of the Free…” cut off by a musical question mark: a powerful ending to an evening of eloquent music.

 

Mark Renner – “Saints and Sinners”

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On Febuary 16, 2018, RVNG Intl. digitally released Few Traces, a recording of rarities by Mark Renner. The physical release is this Friday (February 23rd).


Renner is an under-heralded icon of the Baltimore arts scene. A talented painter, printmaker, and musician, Renner’s work proved pivotal in the local community during the first early glimmers of post New Wave alternative rock.

 
Few Traces contains music from 1982-90. Built with a minimum of gear – a four-track recorder, guitar, and a Casio synthesizer – its songs and instrumentals are simply constructed but eloquent, tuneful, and charming in their immediacy. One can imagine college radio in an alternate universe spinning Renner’s “Saints and Sages,” “Half a Heart,” and “The Wild House” in heavy rotation. Given the resurgence of eighties synth pop, perhaps their time has come.


To garner some context for Renner’s work, Maia Stern has released a short documentary (embedded below). You can also check out streams of some of my favorites on the recording and there is a link below to purchase it via Bandcamp, as well as some information about charitable contributions that are being made from the release’s proceeds. Recommended highly.


 








“On behalf of Mark Renner, a portion of the proceeds from Few Traces sales will be donated to Ethiopia ACT, an organization committed to public health strategies to serve Addis Ababa’s community, under Come! Mend!, an initiative bridging RVNG’s work and interest supporting non-profit organizations and charities.”