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.

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.

Miranda Cuckson at Miller Theatre (concert review)

The violinist Miranda Cuckson (USA), New York, New York, April 8, 2013. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan http://www.beowulfsheehan.com

Miranda Cuckson – Pop Up Concert at Miller Theatre

March 7, 2017

Published in Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – Violinist Miranda Cuckson is one of the stars of new music in New York: a fearless, visionary, and tremendously talented artist. On March 7th, she presented a solo program of 20th and 21st century works in a “Pop Up Concert” at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. In her introduction to the event, Miller Theatre’s Executive Director Melissa Smey pointed out that their “Pop Up Series” has hosted dozens of world and New York premieres. Cuckson’s program was no exception, leading off with the New York premiere of En Soi (2017) composed by Steve Lehman, a Columbia alumnus who is now on the faculty of CalArts. It is a very strong piece, written with a bevy of plucked passages using both hands. This is designed to make the violin resemble an African instrument called the ngoni. To further cement this association, Lehman specified a microtonal tuning and scordatura. Accordingly, Cuckson performed En Soi with one violin and the rest of the program with another.

 

Two pieces by Aaron Jay Kernis followed. Both showed the Pulitzer prize winner’s absolute command of idiomatic writing for strings. Aria-Lament (1992) departs from an introduction filled with soft altissimo passages to a gradual buildup of energy in the main section, incorporating meaty double stops and angular allegro melodic lines. A Dance of Life (2010) juxtaposes fast moving chromatic passages with ruminative sections of achingly sustained lines.

 

Cuckson has performed a great deal of Michael Hersch’s music. A recent work composed specifically for her, the weather and landscape are on our side (2016), demonstrated the composer’s keen affinity for Cuckson’s capabilities. A multi-movement work, it features numerous delicate passages, employing bowing techniques, pizzicato, and harmonics to differentiate gestures. All was not introversion however, as the piece also accorded the violinist dynamic sections which burst forth in eruptive fashion.

 

The concert culminated with Huang Ruo’s Four Fragments (2006), pieces requiring considerable virtuosity that use sliding tones and melodic patterns from traditional Chinese music. The frequent resemblance to vocalisms from Chinese opera were striking. The Fragments were a thrilling way to end the concert.

 

Cuckson is an ideal emissary for contemporary music. Assaying a formidable program, her preparation was exquisite and presentation consistently engaging. Miller has more “Pop Up” events in the Spring, including performances by the Orlando Consort, ICE, Ensemble Signal, JACK, and Mivos Quartet. The price can’t be beat – free – and one can even enjoy a libation to boot.

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Khasma Duo Plays Romig (CD review)

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Time Seems to Pass

James Romig

Khasma Piano Duo: Ashlee Mack, Katherine Palumbo, pianos

Parallax Music Press CD/Download

 

Composer James Romig’s piano duo work Time Seems to Pass, a nearly forty-minute opus commissioned and performed by Khasma Piano Duo (Ashlee Mack and Katherine Palumbo), is something of a turning point in his work. In recent years, Romig has undertaken several residencies at parks and similarly verdant venues. Concurrently, his music has become more expansive. Under girded by the rationale of extended twelve-tone techniques in the pitch and rhythmic domains, Time Seems to Pass’s surface is prevailingly gentle and gesturally supple. Individual lines move independently, interweaving a complex interaction that yields a sonorous sheen of resulting harmonies. Khasma perform the work delicately but with a strong sense of rhythmic coordination.

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For an overview of Romig’s other music, Leaves from Modern Trees (also Parallax) is a strong compilation of his chamber music from 1999-2016. Khasma may also be heard on their debut recording Switchback (self-released), which features compositions from their 2014 Call for Scores by Michael Ippolito, Marti Epstein, Symeon Waseen, Lawrence Moss, Cosimo Colazzo, and Jean Ahn.Links to listen further and buy here.

 

Gidon Kremer at McCarter

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Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica

McCarter Theatre Center

Friday, February 3, 2017

By Christian Carey

 

PRINCETON – I’ve wanted to hear violinist Gidon Kremer perform Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s iconic work Fratres live since I was a teenager. Back then, Kremer’s rendition of the work on an ECM Records New Series CD was transfixing and game changing: it became an almost totemic art object for me as a composition student. On February 3rd, I got my wish at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Unlike the recording, here Kremer pushed the proceedings forward, taking a quicker tempo and engaging in more taut phrasing than he did on the CD. The work is still transfixing, but it was moving to hear its story retold in a new way.

 

Kremer and Kremerata Baltica, the chamber orchestra of Eastern European musicians that he leads, have a new ECM CD out, this one of the Chamber Symphonies of Mieczysław Weinberg, late works that sit astride Mahlerian late Romanticism and modernism that is a close cousin to the works of Shostakovich. Clarinetist Mate Bekavac, who also appears on the recording, was a sterling-toned soloist, unwinding breathless phrases and coordinating and blending seamlessly with the strings.

 

The second half of the concert had an interested concept that provided a bit of dramatic flair. Kremer began it with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade Melancolique, leaving the stage on the last note, which led directly into Kremerata Baltica’s rendition of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This was resolutely played, but the absence of brass and winds led to some strangely attenuated passages (Andrei Pushkarev, a percussionist, performed formidable gymnastics to reach all of the score’s instruments). At the piece’s conclusion, Kremer returned to the stage, playing Valentin Silvestrov’s solo Serenade nearly attacca.

 

There were yet more surprises to come. Two encores, Stankovich’s Lullaby and Alfred Schnittke’s Polka gave the audience distinct flavors of music-making – one poignant and one buoyant – to send them home.

 

This is Kremer’s seventieth birthday year. To celebrate, he has not only released the Weinberg disc on ECM, but has also recorded Rachmaninov’s Piano Trios and the Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto (available on vinyl!) for DG.

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Elliott Carter’s 103rd Birthday Concert (DVD Review)

 

Elliott Carter  – 103rd Birthday Concert

92nd Street Y

December 8, 2011, New York City

NMC Recordings DVD

Elliott Carter (1908-2012) knew how to throw a musical party. His 103rd birthday concert – held at the 92nd Street Y in New York City – featured twelve compositions, all but one written since his ninetieth birthday; four world premieres, two US premieres. Five of the pieces were written since Carter’s 102nd birthday – what an amazing valedictory event for the indefatigable centenarian.

Directed by cellist Fred Sherry, the concert featured several performers who have come to be associated with Carter’s work – in particular bass clarinetist Virgil Blackwell, violinist Rolf Schulte, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, clarinetists Charles Neidich and Ayako Oshima, and pianist Stephen Gosling. Their intimate acquaintance with Carter’s work, and his with their capabilities, provide a personal cast to the pieces Carter wrote for the concert, as communications between old friends.

There were new interpreters among the performers as well – tenor Nicholas Phan gave an impassioned first performance of the formidable 2010 work A Sunbeam’s Architecture, Carter’s first E. E. Cummings settings. Of the latest works apart from the Cummings settings, the Double Trio (a rejoinder to Carter’s earlier Triple Duo) is the most extensive and substantial. Compositions such as Rigmarole for bass clarinet and cello and Figment V for solo marimba are finely crafted miniatures that, despite being aphoristic, sparkle with energy. Others, such as the String Trio, clocking in at nearly half the duration of the Double Trio, and Mnemosyné, a solo violin piece filled with slow-moving legato lines that are occasionally interrupted in angular fashion, are smallish pieces true, but ones filled with weighty ideas.

This thoughtfully produced DVD of the event also includes extras – footage of a post-tonal rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” with Carter, beaming, looking on; liner notes by John Link, Sherry, and Colin Matthews; and a segment “On Carter,” with filmed tributes by UK composers Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, and Colin Matthews.