Jonathan Powell Plays Sorabji (CD Review)

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji

Sequentia Cyclica – Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis

Jonathan Powell, piano

Piano Classics PCL10206 (7 CD boxed set; digital)

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) was the composer of some of Western classical music’s most intricate, extended, and ambitiously virtuosic works to date. His output encompassed seven decades, from 1914-1984. The serial composer Milton Babbitt, often himself described as the creator of tremendously difficult pieces, ranked Sorabji, alongside Brian Ferneyhough, as the most complex composers of the Twentieth century (Talking Music, William Duckworth). This is not just due to the massive scope of the pieces – several last a number of hours in duration – nor to their formidable technical demands, although both of these aspects of Sorabji’s music are ubiquitous. The notation of the music poses challenges as well. It is a welter of corruscating counterpoint and its rhythmic shapes are seldom delineated with bar-lines; nor do their gestures readily suggest metricity. Dynamics and tempo indications are infrequent and the music is often laid out on several staves. Thus, a lot is left open to interpretation.

Despite these challenges, Sorabji’s music is being documented by stalwart performers. Happily, a performance practice for the music is taking root that is helping to clarify some of the aforementioned difficulties. Noteworthy among these interpreters is the English pianist Jonathan Powell, who has championed the composer for over two decades. He has taken a number of Sorabji’s works in manuscript and transcribed them into performing editions, toured them widely, and begun the challenging task of creating recorded documentation of the piano oeuvre. His most recent project has been Sequentia Cyclica, a piece lasting nearly eight hours that he has presented in marathon single-day concerts in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States. Piano Classics has released a seven-CD boxed set of Powell’s rendition of the piece. It is an extraordinary recording of a totemic work. 

Sequentia Cyclica (subtitled Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis) is a set of twenty-seven variations on the Dies Irae sequence from the Catholic liturgy of the Mass for the Dead. Composed sometime in the thirteenth century, the Dies Irae has taken on extra-liturgical significance through its use in a number of concert works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most famously in  the Symphony Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, but also in a plethora of other piece including ones by Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saens, and Dallapiccola. Sorabji’s employment of the theme serves multiple ends. It gives a nod to its presence in works by predecessors, particularly in Rachmaninoff’s piano music, it serves as a contrapuntal motive that is treated with a near-encyclopedic array of variants, and, judged by the voluble praise-filled postscript appended to the work, as an object of Christian devotion. Sorabji made an initial (201-page long!) pass at a set of Dies Irae variations in the 1920s. They were to be dedicated to the recently departed composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, but the piece was withdrawn in favor of the 1949 version recorded here, dedicated to Busoni’s pupil the pianist Egon Petri (1881-1962). 

True, eight hours is a long time to fill with a very familiar melody, but Sorabji creates a startling array of presentations, sometimes only employing the head motive and at other times the entire sequence. Elsewhere, it is submerged in other material, only to triumphantly rise up when called to the surface. Character pieces such as Hispanica, Marcia Funebre, and Quasi Debussy demonstrate imaginative deployments of the sequence in myriad styles. Trying to play “spot the influences” will provide the listener with glimpses at a panoply of creators, including Busoni, Liszt, Alkan, Debussy, Beethoven, Bach, Messiaen, and Rachmaninoff, to supply just a partial listing. None of these reference points is overarching; it is remarkable how adroitly Sorabji distills their essence into his own distinctive language. An enormous passacaglia with 100 variations takes up a disc-and-a-half worth of the recording and the piece concludes with an eighty-minute long fugue that successively builds from two-voice counterpoint to six, followed by a stretto on steroids that rousingly concludes this magnum opus. 

Jonathan Powell’s traversal of Sequentia Cyclica is authoritative. The program notes are some of the finest I have read in a long while. His performance is deftly nuanced, technically assured, and powerfully rendered. It is a benchmark that will provide a tough act for future interpreters to follow, but hopefully his performance editions will encourage them to do so regardless. Powell’s dedicated work on behalf of Sorabji makes the composer’s legacy seem assured. 

(Those looking for a more theoretical explication of Sequentia Cyclica are directed to Andrew Mead’s excellent article Gradus ad Sorabji in the Winter 2016 issue of Perspectives of New Music).

Two Recordings by David Felder (CD Review)

David Felder

Jeu de Tarot

Irvine Arditti, violin; Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman, conductor; Arditti Quartet

Coviello CD COV91913

David Felder

Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux

Laura Aikin, soprano; Ethan Hesrchenfeld, bass;

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor

BMOPsound CD 1069

David Felder has taught for a number of years at SUNY Buffalo, running the June in Buffalo Festival and mentoring countless contemporary composers in the school’s illustrious graduate program. His own works are multi-faceted, incorporating muscular gestures, modernist harmonies, innovative timbres, and, oftentimes, electronics. Felder’s recent music is given sterling performances on two CDs, one of his chamber music on Coviello and another of his orchestra piece Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux on BMOPsound.

The Coviello disc consists of three works that feature violinist Irvine Arditti. Its centerpiece, Jeu de Tarot, a chamber violin concerto based on seven of the twenty-two main tarot cards, reveals a mystical side to Felder’s music. Each movement is an interpretation of the character on its card – The Juggler, the Fool, the High Priestess, et cetera. Thus, the musical surface is multifaceted, unspooling a variety of characteristic textures. Arditti performs the solo part with laser beam incisiveness and Signal supplies comparable clarity, performing the piece’s interlocking rhythms with impressive coordination. Some sections of the piece, such as its finale “Moonlight,” explore a mysterious ambiance akin to Expressionism. Here, Arditti’s tone takes on a supple quality. He dovetails with the winds to provide intricate counterpoint.

The Arditti Quartet contributes Netivot, a work for strings and electronics, to the disc. On Felder’s website, you can see the optional video component, which adds another layer to the piece. By itself in two channels, there is considerable antiphony and with this setting one can only imagine how immersive the piece must be live. The recording also has an SACD layer which allows for surround listening, an engaging adventure that gets the listener closer to being there.

At times, string harmonics and pizzicatos meld with synthesized parts. Elsewhere, the strings and electronics trade registers. The overall effect is one of extensive integration of the elements into a “super-instrument” that swirls colorfully. Irvine Arditti concludes the disc with a solo piece, Another Face. Motoric ostinatos, mercurial leaps, and microtonal inflections contribute to an overarchingly variegated impression. Arditti plays with virtuoso technique and a questing manner.   

Joined by soprano Laura Aiken and bass Ethan Herschenfeld, Boston Modern Orchestra Project performs one of Felder’s most prominent pieces, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux. This is the second recording of the piece; the other is by Ensemble Signal with members of SUNY Buffalo’s Slee Sinfonietta. Each is an assured rendition, with BMOP stressing the dramatic sweep of the piece while Signal focuses with granularity of detail. The texts Felder employs in Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux are by Réne Daumal, Robert Creely, Pablo Neruda, and Dana Gioia. Most are Daumal’s, whose work Felder discovered via Buffalo-based writer Kathleen Frederick Rosenblatt’s biography of the polymath author. Felder does interesting things to treat the texts. He intermingles electronics with the vowels of the Daumal to create an ethereal quality. One of the two movements featuring Creeley’s poems emphasizes its sibilants, the other maps the consonant attacks onto the percussion, creating an intriguing sound world. Gioia’s poem is treated to the piece’s most stentorian and angular writing, clearly distinguishing it from the other texts.

Felder was a chorister with the Cleveland Orchestra in his teens but has only recently begun to set text. His vocal writing is ambitious, operatic in scope and compass. The piece opens with a series of spectral chords, over which Aiken’s voice soars, effortlessly managing pianissimo dynamics and altissimo high notes. She is worthily matched by Herschenfeld’s resonant low notes and seamless legato phrasing. The first section culminates in a rapturous duet in which the vocalists both navigate their upper registers fluently. In the section “Fragments (from Neruda),” an impressively thunderous tutti orchestral passage is matched by clarion singing from Aiken. A rousing duet rendition of Daumal’s “Stanza 3b” matches the Neruda’s intensity, and “Stanza 4a” is treated to a sepulchral solo by Herschenfeld in which he is accompanied by intertwining brass. He goes still lower on “Stanza 4b,” shadowed by sustained chords that move from strings to brass. Then, the vocal line is mimicked in counterpoint by the lower brass. Timpani thrumming is juxtaposed against choral-like passages as the piece moves into an instrumental postlude in which a clamorous buildup of drums heralds the final entrance of Aiken, her arcing solo haloed by trumpet glissandos, ascending to her top register and then plummeting down to conclude the piece.

Throughout, BMOP plays impressively. Rose shapes the piece beautifully and provides a detailed account of its myriad details. Hopefully, Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux will be followed by more vocal music from Felder. It is a formidable entry into his catalogue of works. Recommended.  

Christian Carey is editor at Sequenza 21 and an Associate Professor of Music Composition, History, and Theory at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey (www.christianbcarey.com).

Barbara Hannigan – La Passione (CD Review)

La Passione

Barbara Hannigan, soprano and conductor; Ludwig Orchestra

Alpha Classics

La Passione is soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan’s second CD with Ludwig Orchestra. Their first collaboration, Girl Crazy, won a 2018 Grammy Award. Like Girl Crazy, the selections on La Passione are disparate, but they cohere into a convincing program. Whether she is performing a solo vocal piece by Luigi Nono, conducting a Haydn symphony, or conducting and singing a spectral work by Grisey, Hannigan is a compelling performer. This is also true of Ludwig Orchestra, who thrive in this setting. 

Luigi Nono’s solo vocal work Cjamila Boupacha eulogizes a dissident who, during the lead up to the French-Algerian war, was raped and murdered. Her story galvanized anti-colonial resistance in the country. The piece is a vocalize that often accesses the extreme upper register of the soprano’s range. Hannigan navigates its wide range and visceral expressive qualities with eloquence and impeccable technique.

It might seem strange to pair a Haydn symphony with a Nono piece, but Symphony No. 49, “La Passione,” explores grief with depth of feeling and dramatic flair. Composed in 1768, it is one of Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” pieces. Its formal design is that of a church sonata, with an extensive slow movement preceding the sonata allegro second movement. In terms of both form and demeanor, it may have been played at Esterhazy during Holy Week. The first movement extends a mournful demeanor over a quarter-hour, and it is followed by a combative allegro. Hannigan provides a supple reading of the minuet and trio, with the latter finally allowing the listener let-up from f-minor’s pathos, which has thus far dominated the proceedings, with a glimpse, albeit brief, of F-major. The emotional finale truly embodies the “Sturm und Drang” aesthetic, ending the piece in powerful, albeit tragic, fashion.

French composer Gérard Grisey passed away in 1998 at age 52 from an aneurysm, leaving behind a compact but compelling body of work that helped to define the spectral approach to composition. His last completed piece was Quatre Chants pour Franchir les Soueil (“Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold”), premiered posthumously in 1999. In recent years Hannigan has championed Quatre Chants, notably performing it with Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Susanna Mälkki and Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. On La Passione, she undertakes the daunting task of both singing and conducting the piece. Of the recorded performance with Ludwig Orchestra, Hannigan has remarked, “It took us to our limits.”

A variety of texts are used: Guez-Ricord’s The Hours of Night, Egyptian Sarcophagi of the Middle Empire, a fragment from sixth century Greek poetess Erinna, and an extract from the Babyloninan Epic of Gilgamesh (courtesy Tim Rutherford-Johnson).  Overtone chords and micro-tunings abound. The instrumentation is distinctive, particularly the percussion cohort that includes fifteen tuned gongs that are played in quick arpeggiations at a low dynamic level, an impressive feat and singular sound. The bass drum has an evocative role as well, serving to toll a memento mori that divides the piece’s several sections. In the first song, “Death of the Angel”, is one of the piece’s signatures, bracing unison lines between soprano and trumpet that shatter an otherwise merely ominous atmosphere. A variety of wind instruments are employed throughout, including saxophones. Hannigan’s singing seamlessly intermingles with the various instruments, moving from sinuous angular lines to altissimo shrieks with myriad gestures in between. After the four songs is a postlude, “Berceuse,” haunting in its comparative reserve with a number of duets between Hannigan and various instruments in floating vocal lines.

An ambitious program with a “can’t miss” piece (the Grisey) and all of it exquisitely executed: recommended.

-Composer Christian Carey is Associate Professor at Westminster Choir College, Editor at Sequenza 21, and regularly contributes to Tempo, Musical America, and other publications. He has created eighty some compositions for orchestra, choir, solo voices, and chamber musicians. His electronic score for Gilgamesh Variations was produced at Bushwick Starr Theatre in Brooklyn, NY.

Recordings of the Year

Recording of the Year: Terry Riley, Sun Rings, Kronos Quartet, Volti (Nonesuch)

            Terry Riley’s 2002 work Sun Rings simultaneously celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Voyager exploration and soberly reflects on September 11, 2001. Kronos Quartet, longtime collaborators with Riley, the ethereal voices of Volti, and a collection of space sounds are combined to create a fascinating and engaging amalgam. An exhilarating ride through the various styles that Riley has at his disposal.

Best Recordings of 2019 (in no particular order)

  • Terry Riley, Sun Rings, Kronos Quartet, Volti (Nonesuch)
  • Matana Roberts, COIN COIN Chapter Four: Memphis (Constellation)
  • Heinz Holliger and György Kurtág, Zwiegespräche (ECM)
  • Andrew Norman, Sustain, Los Angeles Philharmonic – Gustavo Dudamel (Deutsche Grammophon)
  • Bonnie Prince Billy, I Made a Place (Drag City)
  • Igor Levit, Beethoven Piano Sonatas (Sony Classical)
  • Thomas Zehetmair, Sei Solo – The Sonatas and Partitas (ECM)
  • John Luther Adams, Become Desert, Seattle Symphony – Ludovic Morlot (Cantaloupe)
  • Philip Glass, Symphony 5, Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Downtown Voices, Trinity Youth Chorus, Novus NY – Julian Wachner (Orange Mountain)
  • Cipriano de Rore, I madrigali a cinque voci, Blue Heron – Scott Metcalfe (Blue Heron)
  • Johannes Ockeghem, Complete Songs, Volume 1, Blue Heron – Scott Metcalfe (Blue Heron)
  • Six Organs of Admittance, Companion Rises (Drag City)
  • Dominique Schafer, Vers une présence réelle (Kairos)
  • Leo Svirsky, River Without Banks (Unseen Worlds)
  • Christian Wolff, Preludes, Studies, Variations, and Incidental Music, Philip Thomas (Sub Rosa)
  • Caroline Shaw, Orange (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch)
  • andPlay, Playlist (New Focus)
  • Jan Garbarek and Hilliard Ensemble, Remember Me, My Dear (ECM)
  • Lucas Debargue, Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas (Sony Classical)
  • Cassandra Miller, Songs About Singing, Plus-Minus Ensemble (All That Dust)
  • Sarah Hennies, Reservoir 1 (Black Truffle)
  • Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love (Sacred Bones)
  • Sergei Rachmaninov, Arrival, Daniil Trifonov, Philadelphia Orchestra – Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Deutsche Grammophon)
  • Kali Malone, The Sacrificial Code (iDeal)
  • Stile Antico, A Spanish Nativity (Harmonia Mundi)
  • David Torn, Tim Berne, Ches Smith, Sun of Goldfinger (ECM)
  • Ka Baird, Respires (RVNG)
  • David Byrne, American Utopia (Nonesuch)
  • Þuríður Jónsdóttir, Halldór Smárason, Páll Ragnar Pálsson, and Hafliði Hallgrímsson, Vernacular, Sæun Thorsteinsdóttir (Sono Luminus)
  • Matt Mitchell, Phalanx Ambassadors (Pi)
  • Julian Anderson, Poetry Nearing Silence (NMC)
  • Jaimie Branch, FLY or DIE II: Bird Dogs of Paradise (International Anthem)
  • FKA Twigs, Magdalene (Young Turks)
  • Kris Davis, Diatom Ribbons (Pyroclastic)
  • Angel Olsen, All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar)
  • Guided by Voices, Sweating the Plague (GBV)
  • Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Haukur Tómasson, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and Páll Ragnar Pálsson, Concurrence, Víkingur Ólafsson, Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, Iceland Symphony Orchestra – Daniel Bjarnason (Sono Luminus)
  • Michael Finnissy, Vocal Works 1974-2015, EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble, James Weeks (Winter and Winter)
  • Emmanuel Nunes, Eivend Buene, Andreas Dohmen, Márton Illés, Chaya Czernowin, Donaueschinger Musiktage 2017 (Neos)
  • Minor Pieces, The Heavy Steps of Dreaming (Fat Cat)
  • Zosha di Castri, Tachitipo (New Focus)
  • Morton Feldman, Piano, Philip Thomas (Another Timbre)
  • Aaron Copland, Billy the Kid and Grohg, Detroit Symphony – Leonard Slatkin (Naxos)
  • Ivo Perelman, Matt Maneri, Nate Wooley, Matthew Shipp, Strings 4 (Leo)
  • Liza Lim, Rebecca Saunders, Chaya Czernowin,  Mirela Ivičević, and Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Speak Be Silent, Riot Ensemble – Aaron Holloway-Nahum (Huddersfield-NMC)
  • Saariaho, Schleirmacher, Werthmüller, Sturm, Ensemble Musikfabrik (Wergo)
  • Josquin and Bauldeweyn, Missa Mater Patris, Missa Da Pacem, Tallis Scholars (Gimell)
  • Antoine Beuger, Traces of Eternity: Of What is Yet to Be (Editions Wandelweiser)
  • Richard Barrett, Timothy McCormack, Liza Lim, World-line, ELISION (Huddersfield NMC)
  • George Perle, Serenades (BMOP)
  • György Kurtág, The Edge of Silence, Susan Narucki (Avie)
  • American Football, American Football LP3 (Polyvinyl)
  • Julia Kent, Temporal (Leaf)
  • The Comet is Coming, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (Impulse)
  • Pan American, A Son (Kranky)
  • William Basinski, On Time Out of Time (Temporary Residence)
  • Shasta Cults, S/T (Important)
  • Harry Partch, Sonata Dementia, PARTCH (Bridge)
  • Robert Erikson, Duos, Fives, Quintet, Trio, Camera Lucida (New World)
  • James Tenney, Changes 64 Studies for 6 Harps (New World)

John Luther Adams – Become Desert (CD Review)

Become Desert

John Luther Adams

Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Cantaloupe Music

“Become Desert is both a celebration of the deserts we are given, and a lamentation of the deserts we create.” – John Luther Adams

Born in Mississippi, John Luther Adams first came to the attention of listeners as a composer and author based in Alaska, where he lived and worked for some forty years. Pieces such as Inuksuit, The Place Where You Go to Listen, and Dream in White on White are eloquent expressions of Adams’ time there and how it impacted him both as a creator and as a person. His book, Winter Music, is a required text for composers, as well as an accessible read of significant appeal to non-musicians. In a remarkable change of pace, Adams has recently moved to the desert, staying in Mexico and Chile.

In 2013, Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Become Ocean, a work for the Seattle Symphony that mourned the rising seas caused by climate change, posing a timely questions: would land-roaming creatures, humans among them, be subsumed and return to the waters from whence they came. Since then, the piece has become a trilogy, followed by Become River and now Become Desert. The latest piece deals with climate change’s impact on water supply and the effects of warming in dry climates.

Like its performance and recording of Become Ocean, the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Ludovic Morlot, creates beguiling sounds eloquently shaped in their rendition of Become Desert. Whereas the former piece had an apocalyptic cast, moving from low to high and then cascading, the latter is filled with bells and chimes and sustained chords, creating the aura of aridity and hazy lights so appropriate to its subject matter. Partway through, rolling drums give us the only hit of respite from dryness, thundering against reiterated brass chords. Harps and plenty of sixth chords recall Impressionism, while the insistent repetition of overtone chords provides a spectral cast. Its end is a deliciously long denouement leaving us with faint chimes that evoke the piece’s opening.

Become Desert is one of the best recordings of contemporary music of 2019. Recommended.

Jan Garbarek and Hilliard Ensemble (CD Review)

Remember Me, My Dear (ECM, 2019).

Remember Me, My Dear

Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble

ECM New Series 2625

The Hilliard Ensemble disbanded five years ago. Happily, they made a few recordings for ECM that have allowed listeners to continue to enjoy new music from them. Remember Me, My Dear was recorded on their last tour in 2014 at the Collegiate Church in Bellinzona, Switzerland. It celebrates a quarter century of collaboration, beginning with the Officium album, released in 1994 to wide acclaim.

As with their previous collaborations, Remember Me, My Dear features both early music by composers such as Hildegard von Bingen, Pérotin, and the ever ubiquitous Anonymous, as well as twentieth/twenty-first century pieces by Arvo Pärt, Komitas, and Russian liturgical composer Nikolay Kedrov. Often the blending of resources is impressive. Garbarek creates imitative lines that further elaborate Kedrov’s “Litany” and revels in the modal scales found in “Procedentem Sponsum.” The saxophonist solos over the Hilliard Ensemble singing suavely arranged jazz chords on his original “Allting Finns.”

Elsewhere, there is a juxtaposition of disparate elements. On an Agnus Dei by the Renaissance composer Antoine Brumel, the counterpoint from the voices serves as a backdrop for cascading runs by Garbarek. In the title track, which originally appeared on the studio album Mnemosyne, a homophonic chanson is elaborated with saxophone filigrees between phrases.

Garbarek’s original “We are the Stars” is a rapturous piece, with soprano saxophone contributing altissimo register climaxes that are shadowed by countertenor David James in his own upper register. Guilliame Le Rouge’s fifteenth century chanson Se je fayz deuil ideally presents the autumnal warmth of the quartet’s sound in the Collegiate Church’s generous acoustic. Pérotin’s Alleluia Navitas provides a joyous colloquy between Garbarek and the singers. Who knew that medieval organum could so successfully afford rollicking, bluesy rejoinders?

Remember, My Dear amply demonstrates that, until the end of their work together, the Hilliard Ensemble remained in fine voice.  It is always difficult to say goodbye to a group that has played such a pivotal role in one’s study and enjoyment of music. The post-disbandment releases shared on ECM have been a generous surplus. The Hilliard Ensemble, and their collaboration with Garbarek, will be dearly remembered for a long time to come.

-Christian Carey

Urban Playground Premieres Florence Price

On Wednesday May 8th, Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra presents the New York premiere of Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2, music by Harry T. Burleigh,  and a rarely heard oratorio, And They Lynched Him on a Tree, by William Grant Still. The program, titled From Song Came Symphony. fits the ensemble’s mandate to prioritize the performance of composers who are women and people of color. It focuses on the legacy of Burleigh. I recently caught up with UPCO’s conductor Thomas Cunningham, who told me more about the concert.

Cunningham says, ”I found programmatic inspiration in Jay-Z lyrics: Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.”

“Burleigh wrote art songs so that the following generation – William Grant Still, William Dawson, and Florence Price – could write symphonies and concert works. Burleigh’s incorporation of African American music into Western art music, and his advocacy for this new American music genre through his work at Ricordi, had a vast influence on remarkable composers of color in America.”

Florence Price’s work has recently been receiving significant attention. Cunningham feels that Violin Concerto No. 2 will be a highlight of the concert. “Price’s second violin concerto is wonderfully idiosyncratic. The concerto is in so many places defined by its subtle and yet robust brass writing, atypical especially for a concerto for string instrument. All the while, this work demonstrates a novel voice, both aware and in touch with various traditions, but carving out singular nuance and identity.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Ph.D. candidate Kori Hill will deliver a pre-concert lecture at the event. Of Price’s work, she says, “This concerto, completed just one year before Price’s untimely death in 1953, is a fascinating example of her applications of African American vernacular and Western classical principles. It is an important component to understanding and fully appreciating her contributions to American classical music. We hope Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 becomes a staple of the violin repertory in the years to come.”

In addition to the aforementioned works, the program also includes a movement from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony. Cunningham says that the included excerpt is connected to multiple pieces on the program. “Incorporating the Largo from Dvorak 9 serves a dual purpose: first, to demonstrate the tangible connection between the spirituals sung by Burleigh to Dvorak, and second, to mirror the premiere of Still’s And They Lynched Him on a Tree, which also included the movement.”


This is the fifth year that UPCO has been active. Their advocacy is laudable, and the group has musicianship to match its ambition. Cunningham and company are persuasive performers of both standard-era repertoire and more recent music. May 8th’s concert should be a memorable one.

Event Info

Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra and Harry T. Burleigh Society present

From Song Came Symphony

Wednesday May 8th at 7:30 PM

Langston Hughes Auditorium

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

515 Malcolm X Blvd.

New York, New York 10037

Tickets

Þráinn Hjálmarsson on Carrier Records (CD Review)

Þráinn Hjálmarsson

Influence of Buildings on Musical Tone

Caput Ensemble, Krista Thora Haraldsdottir, Icelandic Flute Ensemble, Ensemble Adapter, Nordic Affect

Carrier Records

Composer Þráinn Hjálmarsson’s latest CD, Influence of Buildings on Musical Tone, revels in the exploratory sound world of effects and extended techniques. That said, his work is more than an assemblage of alternative ways to treat instruments. Rather, the technical extensions serve to expand Hjálmarsson’s considerable palette of expression.

The five different pieces on Influence of Buildings each employ a different ensemble. The title work features the Caput Ensemble, while “Grisaille” is performed by the Icelandic Flute Ensemble. Both pieces deal with an upper register melodic line that is slowly bent and distressed until it is entirely transformed.

 

https://vimeo.com/282605939

 

Kristin Thora Haraldsdottir plays the solo viola work Persona, adopting a penetrating tone and easily reaching stratospheric harmonics and digging in to sections with varying bow pressure. A flair for the dramatic allows this piece to move from pensive to more animated gestures in a captivating meditation. Mise en scéne plays up the percussive capacities of Ensemble Adapter, eventually deploying sustained upper register flute lines against the percussive attacks of harp and percussion and breathy exhalations and plosive pops from bass clarinet. The piece develops into a more harmonic terrain, with shades of spectra creating beguiling verticals.

The album’s closer is the string trio Lucid/Opaque, performed by members of Nordic Affect. The strings repeat pitch patterns that, while not necessarily tonal in orientation, encompass individual partials of a harmonic series. The overall effect is enhanced by a reverberant space, lending a naturally ambient character to the proceedings, even more so the case because of the number of repetitions of the opening gesture. Gradually, the opening shape is altered, with splashes of string noise and edgy bowing, changes in rhythm, and the overall duration of phrase overlaps developing the character of the main line over time. The material becomes even more forceful as octave displacements, notably a low cello line and repeating altissimo violin notes, are added. Here, and elsewhere, Hjálmarsson’s Influence of Buildings on Music Tone demonstrates a judicious approach to the selection of material that is then most imaginatively deployed and developed. Recommended.

 

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Hanoi 6” (Video)

During recording sessions in Hanoi for Sex and Food, their last LP, Unknown Mortal Orchestra also worked with local musicians to create IC-01 Hanoi, a set of instrumental tracks. This collection, emphasizing jazz and Krautrock stylistic signatures, will be released October 28, 2018 on the Jagjaguwar label. Check out a teaser video for album track “Hanoi 6” below.

Christopher Fox: Headlong (CD Review)

 

Christopher Fox

Headlong

Heather Roche, clarinets

Métier CD

MSV28573

 

Composer Christopher Fox has crafted an imaginative output, employing diverse approaches and many different technical resources. His latest Métier CD, Headlong, is devoted to clarinet music, for instruments of varying sizes. Heather Roche is the stalwart interpreter of these pieces. Her own versatility and facility with myriad extended techniques make Roche an ideal performer of Fox’s music. Indeed, the clarinetist’s website serves as a compendious catalog of techniques used to play contemporary works. This recording serves as an ideal accompaniment to her web-based pedagogical forays.

 

Several of the pieces here are ten-minute essays that have time to build and, in places, to breathe (as, one hopes, Roche is afforded as well). Even slightly shorter works like the gentle, fragmentary seven minutes of …Or Just After are given time enough to display significant exploration of the materials used in their construction. Here, there is a contrast between plummy low register melodies and higher single, sustained notes. Gradually and after many iterations, the upper line gains a note or two. This subtle shift in texture feels seismic and changes the registral give and take of the work. Likewise, small shifts are meaningful moments in the six-minute long Escalation. Originally written for Bb clarinet and here played on contrabass clarinet, the piece explores a mid-tempo stream of short phrases of chromatically ascending notes. In this incarnation, the sepulchral register in which these occur accentuates a kind of “walking bass” character that imparts a hint of jazzy swagger.

 

Some of the pieces include overdubs, either of electronics or other clarinets, and a couple are transcriptions of works originally written for other instruments or else for unspecified woodwinds. Originally composed for oboist Christopher Redgate, Headlong includes an ostinato electronic accompaniment that the composer suggests could sound like video games from the 1980s. The real fun here is the morphing of tempos through three different ratios:  5:4, 9:8 and 5:3. It makes for intriguing interrelationships between the instrumental part and the accompanying motoric bleeptronica. Headlong is an engaging mix of tempo modulation and minimal pulsation that shows a different and appealing side of Fox’s creativity.

 

On stone.wind.rain.sun, Heather Roche overdubs a duet with herself. The two clarinets converge and diverge throughout, with sustained and repeating notes in one instrument serving as a sort of ground for the chromaticism of the other voice. Registral changes, such as a leap downward to the chalumeau register to add single bass notes to the proceedings, divide the counterpoint further still, at any given moment affording one the impression of three or four distinct voices in operation.

 

One of my favorite compositions on the CD is Straight Lines for Broken Times, another piece employing overdubs. One track samples bass clarinet playing polyrhythms while the other two explore the “harmonic riches of the instrument,” as Fox describes a plethora of upper partials. Extended techniques are abundantly on offer. Altissimo notes, multiphonics, microtones, and harmonics create a swath of textures. However, the polyrhythmic underpinning assures that the piece feels guided in its course, beautifully shaping what could be a melange of overtone clouds. Straight Lines for Broken Times encapsulates Fox’s proclivity for experimentation in multiple domains: that of the recording medium, a wide palette of pitches that encompasses microtonal harmonics, and fluidly morphing tempos with intricate layers of local rhythms. The result never ceases to be of interest.

 

Fox and Roche are an ideal pairing. While Fox has a number of CDs to his credit, listening to this one, an ideal future project comes to mind. Next time out, one imagines the composer adding a couple other instrumentalists or a vocalist to the mix to provide Roche with more foils and a few less overdubs. Fox’s ensemble pieces also expansively embrace the musical materials that exemplify today’s experimental wing of contemporary music. With Roche aboard as “team captain,” the result would certainly be another serving of diverting performances.