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.

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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.

Kronos Quartet Plays Folk Songs (CD Review)

Kronos Quartet, with Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant

Folk Songs

Nonesuch CD

 

From its earliest recordings, which included transcriptions of jazz, Kronos Quartet has cast their net wide. The group’s repertoire encompasses music from the world over and from numerous composers in a variety of styles. To remind myself of Kronos’ earlier days, I put on their “Landmark Sessions” recordings of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. And what a reminder it was, pointing up the fluid nature of the quartet’s ability to shift tone and rhythmic feel to accommodate nearly whatever they approach.

 

On Folk Songs, their latest CD for Nonesuch, Kronos are joined by an all-star cast of vocalists – Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant – in a collection of American folksongs from various traditions.  The arrangements – skilfully wrought by Nico Muhly, Donnacha Dennehy, Jacob Garchik, and Gabriel Witcher – deploy the skills sets of the guests, including instrumental contributions, Amidon’s guitar and Chaney’s harmonium and percussion, to good effect. The aforementioned fluidity of the quartet affects the way that they serve as collaborators in the various selections. Amidon’s neo-folk adoption of Appalachia is well-served by fiddle tune melodies and straight tone chords. Merchant’s soulful voice is matched by chocolatey timbres and poignant phrasing. Frequent Kronos collaborator Dennehy’s contribution, an arrangement of the traditional Irish song “Ramblin’ Boy,” is an ideal vehicle for the supple singing and exuberant playing of Chaney. An arrangement by Garchik of Delta Blues vocalist Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words” is a suave and winning instrumental interlude. Giddens is a marvel, her beautiful singing winsomely swinging in two originals inspired by traditional blues: “Factory Girl” and “Lullaby.” While Kronos is currently busy with a multi-year commissioning project (titled “Fifty for the Future”), such thoughtful music-making in an entirely different vein is most welcome.

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Saturday: Record Store Day

Saturday: Record Store Day Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

 

April 22, 2017 is the tenth anniversary of Record Store Day, a celebration of brick-and-mortar record sellers. After a strong start and a bevy of good press for the venture, there has been some pushback of late. A lot of the debate over the past couple of years has centered around the efficacy of RSD for sellers. There are always the hot items that are grabbed up by opportunists to be flipped on eBay for exaggerated sums. However, of late there have also been reissues poured into the market by big labels who have not traditionally been supportive of nor representative of the fare that has made independent stores distinctive. Some of these releases seem to languish in seeming perpetuity. Perhaps in response to these issues, this year RSD has trimmed their list of “Exclusive” releases and acknowledged that some will continue in the bins for a while, and be resupplied, with the “Record Store Day First” category. Also, plastered all over the RSD site is the slogan,”Support stores, not flippers.”

 

My wife and I have “done” Record Store Day in some fashion or another every year since its inception. Even last year, when I had my surgeries and couldn’t go, Kay took a wish list to favorite record haunts on my behalf. We have chosen to ignore the ugly side of it – the grabby people, the line-cutters, and the crass commercialism that has creeped into what used to seem more genuinely about celebrating the love of records and record stores instead of exploiting both. We look at instead in a spirit of fun, as our own scavenger hunt for releases we will enjoy throughout the next year and beyond. So enjoy Record Store Day. Happy hunting and Caveat Emptor.

 

A few noteworthy Record Store releases:

Tompkins Square is reissuing Key, Meredith Monk’s 1971 debut LP. It features her early works for voice, composed from 1967-’70.

Dust-to-Digital is releasing a 45 of two of the label’s favorite Cambodian singers: Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea.

Nonesuch is reissuing recordings by Emmy Lou Harris, Randy Newman (his first five studio releases) and, the double LP I’m hoping to find, a compilation of selections by Allen Toussaint.

 

Christian’s Record Store Day “Wish List”

 

Animal Collective: Meeting of the Waters (12”)

Blitzen Trapper: Unreleased Recordings Series (12”)

Drive-By Truckers: Electric Lady Sessions (12”)

Bill Evans: Hillsun – Another Time (12”)

Follakzoi featuring J. Spaceman: London Sessions (12”)

Dexter Gordon: Walk the Blues (12”)

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Welcome to 1979 (12”)

Madrigal: S/T (12”)

Meredith Monk: Key (12”)

Thelonious Monk: Les Liasons Dangereuse 1960 (12”)

Lou Reed: Perfect Night – Live in London (Double 12”)

Sun Ra: Discipline 27-11 (12”)

Sun Ra: Janus (12”)

The Allen Toussaint Collection (2×12”)

Vangelis: Blade Runner Soundtrack (12” picture disc)

Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Delta Blues (12”)

Yes: 90215 (12” picture disc)

 

Bonnie Prince Billy: Beargrass Song (7”)

Nels Cline: In the Wee Small Hours (7”)

Iron and Wine: Archive Series Vol. 3 (7”)

Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea (7”)

 

Happy Birthday Terry Riley!

Happy birthday to composer Terry Riley, who turns 80 today.

There are CD releases out this week to celebrate the composer. My assessment of ZOFO Plays Terry Riley appears in the CD Reviews section of Sequenza 21 and on my blog.

But wait, there’s more.

Nonesuch Records has done right by Riley. They have released One Earth, One People, One Love, a 5-CD boxed set of the complete recordings of Riley’s music composed for Kronos Quartet. The set contains a disc of unreleased tracks, Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector: Music of Terry Riley. For those of you yelling – “No fair! I already have the Kronos discs. I want to buy the unreleased recordings as a separate CD!” – Nonesuch is allowing you to do just that, separately releasing these recordings on a single disc.

Once again, happiest of birthdays Mr. Riley! May you continue to write the eloquently beautiful music we have come to know and love for many years to come.