Meredith Monk turns 74 today. An early birthday present came from ECM Records on November 4th: a recording of Monk’s On Behalf of Nature project. We do not have the benefit of language: the “text” consists of songs, chants, and syllabification in unknown tongues. And there is no narrative per se, but there are clues present in the piece’s sound world that readily suggest its environmental message: at times with clarion calls; at others, with poignant vulnerability.
Joined by a versatile troupe of vocalists (many of whom also play instruments on the recording), Monk sings with tremendous vigor and impressive range. The panoply of extended techniques on display, both vocal and instrumental, elicit a veritable catalog of sounds. Some are imitative of all manner of fauna: insects, birds, and mammals. Vocal play with “nonsense” syllables moves between jazz scat and primordial language. Likewise, the materials inhabited by the instrumental forces coexist between rustic primitivism, minimalist ostinatos, and sophisticated microtonality.
Monk is not afraid to make sounds that aren’t conventionally “pretty:” howls, chittering, and screaming among them. However, she often manages to evoke beauty even in the most raw and unconventional moments of On Behalf of Nature. It is as if we are being implored, by any means necessary, to attend more fully to the world around us. While we are deprived the visual and choreographic elements of its staging in this audio-only recording (one hopes ECM might consider producing a film of the work’s acclaimed stage incarnation), the music is amply impressive all by itself. It is Meredith Monk’s birthday, true, but her gifts are shared with us.
ECM New Series CD 2327
Tõnu Kõrvits, composer and kannel; Anja Lechner, violoncello; Kadri Voorand, voice;
Talinn Chamber Orchestra, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tõnu Kaljuste, conductor.
Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits is presented to full advantage on his ECM Series debut Mirrors. Most composers would be leery of having a live concert (this one from 2013) represent the first entry in their discography. However, the performers recorded here are dedicated and superlatively prepared advocates. And the setting – the Estonian Methodist Church in Tallinn – couldn’t be more ideally suited to the ample resonance that makes Kõrvits’s music sing.
While Arvo Pärt is the most famous composer from Estonia in the West, his countryman Veljo Tormis is a compelling creator as well. Pärt has explored the Judeo Christian tradition throughout much of his oeuvre. Tormis’s work is deeply steeped in Estonian folk music. Given his own background as a folk musician, notably as a performer on the kannel (an Estonian zither), it is understandable that Kõrvits would gravitate towards Tormis as a mentor figure. In addition to Kõrvits’s own compositions, there are arrangements of songs by Tormis, as well as a piece based upon one, on Mirror. That said, one hesitates to unduly conflate the two of them, Kõrvits has an individual voice to share, even in his arrangements of Tormis. His sense of harmony is particularly special — it glints from one side of the divide between modal and chromatic writing to the other.
The star of the show is cellist Anja Lechner, whose gorgeous tone and technical command make her an ideal protagonist for Kõrvits’s intensely dramatic instrumental writing. The composer’s talents, coupled with Lechner’s, shine particularly brightly in the piece “Seven Dreams of Seven Birds,” in which the solo cello merges with vocal choir and strings. All manner of ensemble juxtapositions are demonstrated and Lechner’s effortless sounding upper register playing is marvelously displayed.
Kõrvits is a talent; one of the next generation of Estonian composers who, while paying homage to elder statesmen such as Tormis and Pärt, is carving out his own compelling voice. Mirror is well worth a sterling recommendation.
A Sequence by Manfred Eicher
ECM New Series 2454/55 2xCD
For over thirty years, producer Manfred Eicher has been one of the greatest champions of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Indeed, the very first ECM New Series release was Pärt’s Tabula Rasa. It seems only fitting that Eicher and ECM would celebrate the composer’s eightieth birthday in handsome fashion. With Musica Selecta, a double-CD retrospective, they certainly have done so.
Called “A Sequence” by Manfred Eicher, it includes seminal early pieces such as Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten and Für Alina as well as more recent ones such as Alleluia-Tropus and Da Pacem Domine. Performers often associated with Pärt’s work – conductors Dennis Russell Davies and Tõnu Kaljuste and groups the Hilliard Ensemble, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra – are represented. It goes without saying that, with such an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, the performances are all exemplary: some iconic. While this serves as an excellent starter kit for those previously unacquainted with Pärt’s music, even those who have some of the New Music CDs would still benefit from hearing Eicher’s sequencing. It is thoughtful and musical: compositional in scope and sympathy. Recommended.
Gidon Kremer; Kremerata Baltica
ECM New Series 2368/69 (2XCD)
The revival of music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) is provided significant momentum by this double-disc set from ECM. Violinist Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica project prove to be ardent interpreters of Weinberg’s works. The release’s program includes chamber music and compositions for larger ensemble (including the centerpiece, his Tenth Symphony); it provides a fine overview of Weinberg’s aesthetic. He is often compared to Shostakovich, not unduly, as the solo sonata performed searingly here by Kremer attests, but Weinberg is a distinctive figure in his own right who deserves more frequent and prominent placement on concert programs.
You can hear Kremer and Co. performing this music tonight in New York and over the next week in other US cities (dates below).
Kremerata Baltica in Concert
January 30 – New York, NY at 92Y Kaufmann Concert Hall
February 2 – San Francisco, CA at Davies Symphony Hall
February 4 – Houston, TX at Stude Concert Hall
February 6 – Ann Arbor, MI at Hill Auditorium
February 7 – Chicago, IL at Harris Theater
February 8 – St Paul, MN at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts