John Adams: Violin Concerto (CD Review)

John Adams Violin Concerto

Violin Concerto – John Adams

Leila Josefowicz, violin

St. Louis Symphony, David Robertson, conductor

Nonesuch CD

Some recordings become touchstones in one’s collection. Despite there being several fine renditions out there, the 1996 Nonesuch CD of Gidon Kremer playing John Adams’ Violin Concerto (1993), with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Kent Nagano, is an abiding favorite of mine. Now, more than twenty years later, Nonesuch has bested its own best with the release of Leila Josefowicz’s recording of the concerto with the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by David Robertson.

Josefowicz is front and center in the mix. Since the violinist plays nearly constantly in the piece, and tends to evoke the actions of the orchestra more so than one finds in traditional concertos, this seems entirely appropriate. Her rendition of the piece is filled with crisply fluent runs and fluid dynamic shifts. The first movement is appropriately dramatic in cast, the second takes on a poignancy that is most affecting, and the finale is truly a bravura showcase for the soloist. In addition to the vibrant energy of Josefowicz, under Robertson the St. Louis Orchestra gives a performance that is both dynamically potent and attentive to detail.

While repetition remains an important component of Adams’ music, the Violin Concerto is a watershed piece for the composer in that breaks out of the boundaries of post-minimalism into a more versatile gestural language than he had previously used. In addition to this change in rhythmic practice, the concerto features greater chromaticism than one had previously heard in pieces by the composer. He fluently wends his way through a variety of key centers – there are even moments where post-tonality reigns supreme over triadic writing. These facets of his writing have only blossomed in the ensuing years. However, it is pleasing to be reminded of their roots in the concerto, particularly by such a persuasive account of the piece.

john-adams-doctor-atomic-450

 

This is the label’s thirtieth CD of music by Adams; their connection to the composer dates back to the 1986 recording of Harmonielehre. On June 29th, 2018, Nonesuch will release yet another recording of music by Adams, and a particularly noteworthy one: the premiere CDs of his 2005 opera Dr. Atomic. More about that soon.

Ghost Ensemble: We Who Walk Again (LP Review)

Ghost Ensemble - We Who Walk Again
We Who Walk Again
Ghost Ensemble
Indexical LP/Download

Since 2012, New York’s Ghost Ensemble has pursued a deep listening ethos that incorporates a range of repertoire, both pieces by ensemble members and works by composers such as David Bird, Kyle Gann, Giacinto Scelsi, and Gerard Grisey. Any ensemble in the US that references “deep listening” invariably is also interested in Deep Listening, the piece that evolved into a discipline and subsequent body of musical and theoretical work from sound artist Pauline Oliveros.

Since its inception Ghost Ensemble has been associated with Oliveros’ work, both her compositions and sound practices. It is fitting that We Who Walk Again, their debut recording, features the first studio recording of the Oliveros piece “Angels and Demons.” A text score from 1980, its primary guideline is as follows: “any sound that has been heard inwardly first may be made.” Players may take on the role of “Angels,” the meditation’s “guardian spirits,” or Demons, “individual spirits of creative genius;” they may also switch back and forth between roles.  Here the piece manifests itself in an initial testing out period of slow individual tones that is gradually varied by means of timbre, density, and use of dissonance. Starting in the Feldman realm of spare pianissimo fragments, a long range crescendo shapes the piece. It is enabled by successively more penetrating held pitches, extended techniques, syncopated percussion, and an eventual blossoming of rangy melodic gestures. A belated denouement supplies a few furtive valedictions, but no dramatic close is supplied (nor does one seem necessary).

The group’s oboist Sky Macklay is also a composer on the rise, with a number of high profile performances and commissions to her credit. Macklay’s 60 Degree Mirrors revels in extended techniques available to winds. Her command of multiphonics and microtones on the oboe is prodigious and she gives flutist Martha Cargo a detailed part as well. The piece also has spectral roots, with shimmering overtones, particularly “crunchy” upper partials, demonstrating an edgier side of the “deep listening” continuum. 60 Degree Mirrors is not just technically sophisticated; it has considerable dramatic heft and proves to be a thrilling listen.

Ghost Ensemble founder, accordionist and composer Ben Richter, provides the recording’s other piece, Wind People. More than double the length of the Macklay and Oliveros performances, it affords the group the opportunity to stretch out and engage in the shaping of a larger arc. Long glissandos played by bassist James Ilgenfritz provide a particularly resonant touchstone, and similar sliding tones from violist Hannah Levinson and cellist Maria Hadge underscore its structural character. Meanwhile, the winds explore all manner of overtones, sometimes punctuating the proceedings with held pitches appearing in contrast to the yawning slides, at others engaging in pitch bends of their own. Percussionists Chris Nappi and Damon Loren Baker provide under-girding drums, subtle yet insistent. Richter and harpist Lucia Helen Stavros sometimes pepper the texture with melodic gestures, but more often are the harmonic “middle” that sustains the fabric of the piece. Over time, sustain becomes a powerful force traversing all instruments and registers, and sumptuous overtone chords saturate the work. A coda provides a long diminuendo in which overtones fade into thrumming drums, drones, and string glissandos. Wind Music is a well-crafted and eloquent work.

Of Wind Music, Richter says that he sought to “draw a sense of peace and comfort from our smallness, transience, and fragility in the face of an overwhelming immensity, the music mirroring the constant ebb and flow visible when zooming in or out to quantum or geological time.”

Amid today’s tumult, drawing peace and comfort from deep listening is a worthy goal, one that Ghost Ensemble appears poised to attain often.

Tangents – New Bodies (CD Review)

Tangents - New Bodies - cover scan

Tangents
New Bodies
Temporary Residence Ltd.

Australian instrumental quintet Tangents return with their fourth album via Temporary Residence. It is their finest work in some time, with an even broader palette of materials and stylistic reference points that are adroitly incorporated. The combination of cello, especially favoring pizzicato, and synth melodies remains, but along for the ride are prepared piano sounds, angular bass interjections, and skittering beats. Electric guitar textures and and undulating patterning are propelled by muscular acoustic drums.

Indebted to post-rock, jazz, alt-electronica, and a dose of contemporary classical sounds, it transcends these various categorizations and their carbon dating to create music that is entirely fresh and of the moment. Recommended.

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.

Ljova in Princeton

Lev_Ljova_Zhurbin-photo_by_Mark_Gurevich-20160807-IMG_6331-Edit-red_background_hat-sm
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.

Poppy Ackroyd: Resolve (CD Review)

Poppy - Resolve

Poppy Ackroyd

Resolve

One Little Indian CD/DL

 

Brighton-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Poppy Ackroyd has released her fourth album, Resolve, on One Little Indian. Like her previous work, ambient neoclassical instrumentals reign here. Ackroyd’s violin, piano, and synths are abetted by percussionist Manu Delago, wind player Mike Lesirge, and cellist Jo Quail. Together they create a formidable chamber group that realizes Ackroyd’s hybrids of synthetic and organic elements with grace and delicate shadings. This is particularly true of the winsome title track and layered keyboards of album opener “Paper” and the reverberant synthetic repeats of album closer “Trains,” a fetching post-minimal excursion led by Ackroyd’s piano and violin.

 

All is not gentleness. Delago, in particular, adds formidable beats to several album tracks, notably “Quail” and “The Dream.” “Time,” appropriately enough, leads with drums that are then rhythmically mimicked by a repeating piano ostinato. “Stems,” at a fleeting minute-and-a-half, sets up a memorably propulsive ground bass with a plethora of auxiliary beaters: one wishes it was at least twice as long and allowed to truly blossom.

 

Ambient neoclassical music has become all the rage again and many of the reissues and newer work are quite good. The best of it, like Poppy Ackroyd’s recordings, present lovingly prepared arrangements, harnessing one’s attention with little details that make all the difference between surface beauty and a deeper listening experience.

Mike Donovan: “Sadfinger” (Bandcamp)

how to get your record played in shops


A preview track from Mike Donovan’s “How to Get Your Record Played in Shops,” which will be out on 4/20 via Drag City.


https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=3650878242/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/track=844659316/transparent=true/

 

TOUR DATES:
FEB 10 San Francisco, CA @ RPMetaspace (Closing Party for William Keihn’s “Trapdoor” exhibition)
MAR 1 Ojai, CA @ Ojai Rancho Inn
MAR 3 SF, CA @ RPMetaspace (Opening Party for Jesse Wiedel exhibition)
MAR 15 Oakland, CA @ The Octopus Literary Salon
MAR 20 LA, CA @ Zebulon^
MAR 21 Phoenix, AZ @ Lunchbox^
MAR 22 Tucson, AZ @ Fly Catcher^
MAR 23 San Diego, AZ @ Bar Pink^
MAR 24 San Francisco, CA @ Light Rail Studios^
MAR 25 Oakland, CA @ Ivy Room^
MAR 29 San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop w/ U.S. Girls
MAY 24 Frankfurt, Germany @ Zoom*
MAY 26 Antwerp, Belgium @ Trix*
MAY 27 Winterthur, Switzerland @ Salzhaus*
MAY 28 Vevey, Switzerland @ Rocking Chair*
MAY 29 Clermont Ferrand, France @ Coopertive de Mai*
MAY 30 Lille, France @ Aeronef*
MAY 31 La Rochelle, France @ La Sirene*
JUNE 4 Brighton, UK @ Concorde 2*
JUNE 5 Manchester, UK @ Gorilla*
JUNE 6 Dublin, Ireland @ Tivoli*
JUNE 8 Newcastle, UK @ Boiler Shop*
JUNE 9 London UK @ O2 Forum*
JUNE 14 Paris, France @ Bataclan*

*w/ Ty Segall and The Freedom Band
^ w/ Lars Finberg and The Bakersfield Moonlighters