Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Four Vast, Unhurried, Profoundly Relevant Minimalist Symphonies From Wadada Leo Smith

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith‘s music exists in a universe of due process for important ideas. In the past couple of decades, he’s focused on vast expanses: Great Lakes, decades of history and eternal philosophical questions. He explores them as if time stands still: everything is considered, judiciously, with plenty of room for individual contributions from a cast of like-minded improvisers. One of his most epic recent projects – his music may be on the slow side, but he works very fast – is the box set of his four Chicago Symphonies, They’re major works in a career full of them. He’s named them for precious metals and stones: in order, Gold. Diamond, Pearl and Sapphire (click each title for Spotify streams).

Smith was one of the prime movers of the AACM movement in the 60s, and he salutes many of the important figures from that era here throughout the first three symphonies. The fourth, dedicated to Presidents Lincoln and Obama, is the most upbeat and invites some controversy (full disclosure: this blog’s owner voted for Obama twice and is now considering how serious a mistake that might have been).

Smith cites Don Cherry’s landmark 1966 Symphony For Improvisers as a precursor. Each symphony features his Great Lakes Quartet: the first three including Henry Threadgill on alto sax and flutes alongside bassist John Lindberg and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Jonathon Haffner takes over the sax chair on alto and soprano on the final symphony. All of this is profound, unhurried, conversational music.

Although each symphony is a stand-alone work, the four share many consistent tropes. Smith and Threadgill frequently exchange resonant, tectonic sheets of sound rather than riff battles. Lindberg’s bass work is exquisite: for those who love low-register sonics. this melodic feast lasts for literally hours, through sepulchral, shivery cello-like lines, insistent, rhythmic hooks and variations, to looming chords. The muted mystery in the second movement of Symphony No. 2 and stark oldtime gospel allusions in the fourth movement of Symphony No. 3 are among the many, many highlights here.

Haffner is a good choice of foil for Smith throughout Symphony No. 4. As the Obama campaign becomes an unstoppable machine, his energetic flurries are the closest thing to straight-ahead postbop soloing here, and seem to drive Smith to some of his most high-voltage work in recent memory.

Likewise, DeJohnette’s sparkle, flash, mist and frequent rumble here are as purposeful as his steady forward drive is distinctive. There’s nobody who tunes his kit quite like he does, resulting in both an extra layer of melody, as well as colorful evocations of Asian temple mystery in Symphony No. 1 and a frequent devious employment of hardware and rattles, as if to say, “Let’s not get too full of ourselves.”

Threadgill seems to be in a particularly good mood here on alto sax, his gentle, often tender lines that once in awhile veering completely off course into surreal microtones or flickers of other extended technique. His flute is generally limited to wafting long-tone phrases.

For Smith, this is one of his most dynamic releases in recent years, and there are a handful of irresistibly funny quotes (one which he loops over and over) and a couple of unexpected wack-a-mole moments with Threadgill. Whether soberly constructing a valley of kings with immutable boulders of sound, alluding to or full-on embracing the deep blues which remains at the root of his entire career, or firing off rambunctiously optimistic flurries as he does repeatedly in Symphony No. 4, he’s at the top of his game. It’s astonishing that he’s now in his eighties and if anything, more vital than ever.

Whether creating Twin Peaks blues in the opening movement of Symphony No. 2, expanding on what seems to be a cynical O’Jays reference in the second movement of Symphony No. 1 or the dichotomy between Smith’s variations on a popular, celebratory theme and Lindberg’s obsidian chordal solo in the fourth movement of Symphony No, 3, this is a classic example of what four hall of famers can conjure when left to their own devices. Or enough for a close listener to come up with two pages of notes in ten-point type. Rather than making it an all-night listening party, you will enjoy these best at a leisurely pace across a few evenings.

January 26, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Insightful, Powerful New Recording of Harrowingly Relevant Shostakovich String Quartets

While classical musicians are expected to be able to play anything put in front of them, there’s no denying that harrowing emotional content makes it more difficult. So when a string quartet decides to record Shostakovich’s haunting String Quartet No. 8 – arguably the greatest and most relevant string quartet ever written – it’s worth checking out. Classical fans know the backstory well: the composer, fearing for his life as he was being pressured to join the Soviet communist party, decided to go for broke and write his own obituary. As protest music, it is unsurpassed for sheer horror…and for sheer bravery.

How does the Novus Quartet’s new recording – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the other fearless ensembles who’ve tackled it? They play this one in very high definition. For example, right from the first of the innumerable instances where the composer writes his own initials into the piece, the hazy overtones are front and center, especially from Wonhae Lee’s cello. Violinists Jaeyoung Kim and Young-Uk Kim slowly work a somber interchange alongside violist Kyuhyun Kim over elegaic cello drones as the first movement journeys to the grave.

The chase scene in the second movement, the KGB in frantic pursuit, has as much jagged menace as anyone could want, through fleeting references to some of the composer’s other works. Likewise, the sudden crescendos in the gleefully tiptoeing danse macabre of movement three are sharply executed. Movement four is the creepy scene where the death squad comes knocking, in this case done with a bit of restraint that underscores the sense of terror. At a time when big pharma, their puppets in government and law enforcement are waging war against majority populations who won’t take the kill shot, there’s never been a better time to take inspiration from Shostakovich’s insight into how fascists work.

The movement’s conclusion sets up the relentlessly drifting, especially lustrous mournfulness of the quartet’s last movement. The Emerson and Jerusalem Quartets have put out more distantly ominous, and arguably more suspenseful recordings, but this one is strong and needs to be heard as widely as possible, given the state of the world right now.

The Novus Quartet open the album with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3, which he wrote in 1945, hot on the heels of his crushingly cynical Symphony No. 9. In view of that work’s less-than-triumphant response to Soviet victory in World War II, this comes across as more serious and straightforward – although Shostakovich’s unsurpassed sense of irony is everywhere.

The group tackle the first movement, a Bartokian, reharmonized folk dance, with a visceral starkness, the babushkas at the local market surveying the damage with an energy that’s more wary than weary. From there, the ensemble waste no time in developing a sense of foreboding in the briskly waltzing second movement. Is the tiptoeing, balletesque interlude that follows an evocation of hope and renewal, or a typical Shostakovich caricature of the face of evil? Considering the brisk, pouncing, driving rhythms, chase sequences and witchy coda of the third movement, it would seem the latter.

The quartet let the pall linger in the fourth movement: Kyuhyun Kim’s righteously indignant viola out in front of the solemnity packs a wallop. The group return to an emphatic rusticity in lieu of courtly grace in the final movement’s dance sequence. The war may be over, but the dynamics that fueled it are still there, the composer seems to remind us. These insightful performances deserve an encore from the rest of the Shostakovich catalog.

January 26, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Colorfully Melodic Big Band Debut by the Sam Pilnick Nonet

If you want to make a big splash with your debut album, you put as many players on it as you can. Maybe you leave no doubt about where the record is going by opening with a nine-minute song which starts with the big riff from Also Sprach Zarathustra.

That’s what saxophonist Sam Pilnick did on the first album by his nonet, The Adler Suite, streaming at Bandcamp. It was not easy to resist being snarky about the album’s central concept: the mysteries of deep space (Pilnick came up with it on his first trip to Chicago’s Adler Planetarium). In all seriousness, Pilnick’s compositions are refreshingly uncluttered, tuneful and on the upbeat side: he and his formidable group managed to wrap up recording under the wire in February 2020, just ahead of the plandemic lockdowns.

The title of the opening number, Squawk Box refers to the NASA communication device which seems positively quaint after all these years. That famous Space Odyssey riff becomes a cheery march over an increasingly bustling rhythm, then suddenly the band drop out for a fleetingly sober break by pianist Meghan Stagl. She returns to deliver a longer, loungey twinkle. On bass clarinet, Ted Hogarth adds comfortable nocturnal ambience beneath growing lustre as the group wind their way out with an unhurried optimism. The far reaches of the galaxy have seldom been more inviting.

The album’s second tune, Star Launch opens with an attractively bustling theme, an intertwine between altoist Max Bessesen, trumpeter Emily Kuhn, trombonist Euan Edmonds, and Hogarth on baritone sax alongside guitarist Ben Cruz, bassist Ben Dillinger and drummer Matthew Smalligan. The bandleader races steadily through the song’s first solo, Bessesen raising the intensity to a genial 50s Basie-esque series of flurries which the ensemble ride out on.

Stagl switches to electric piano for extra starriness in Revolving Twins, a series of variations on a gentle, steadily circling riff, Cruz playing Luke S. to Smalligan’s Darth V. for a bit. Dillinger artfully shadows Pilnick’s deliberately paced upward trajectory to a febrile peak.

Kuhn does her best Venus impression in the tenderly resonant ballad Silver Light, and she’s got it, wafting over ambered horns and Stagl’s spacious chords. The moody duo number Constant Companion makes a good segue, the bandleader taking his time closing in on Stagl’s simple, loopy descending progression.

The album’s most epic track is House of the Massive (Pismis-24), inspired by a star system 6500 light years from home. With its hypnotically funky pulse, echoey electric piano, buoyant horns and shreddy guitar solo, it brings to mind late-period Steely Dan. Pilnick returns to spacious ambience with A Light Year, a contented canon for the horns and then takes that theme more bracingly and warily upward in Expanding Universe.

The group conclude with Falling Backwards, inspired by the return of the Gemini 12 expedition. Pilnick chooses his spots over a staggered, energetically syncopated drive and massed brassy atmosphere, Edmonds’ clusters and sailing phrases leading the group to the edge of night. Pilnick’s translucent compositions are a breath of fresh air: let’s hope we get to hear more from this purposeful crew.

January 25, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Etsuko Hirose Plays Thoughtful, Impressionistic Pancho Vladigerov Suites

If Pancho Vladigerov’s music is becoming a meme, so much the better. And if the recent release of two versions of his Impressions suite is only a coincidence, it’s a case of great minds thinking alike. Nadejda Vlaeva’s recording, reviewed here last month, reveled in the composer’s protean individualism, morphing from the High Romantic to the Balkans and portents of where artists like Chano Dominguez would take flamenco jazz. Etsuko Hirose‘s recording – streaming at Spotify – has somewhat more restraint, the advantage being that she focuses on different subtleties in the composer’s portrait of a love affair.

The unhurried initial movement, if anything, is more circumspect than Vlaeva’s version. Likewise, Hirose’s take of the Embrace is a little more spacious but also reaches a triumphant plateau pretty early on and hangs there. The Waltz-Capriccio has more of a contrast between romping joy and reflective glitter, although Hirose also downplays the uneasy Saint-Saens-esque vampiness.

The Caress is very much that, while Elegance is matter-of-factly expressive High Romantic joy. Hirose holds back from dramatic overstatement in Confession, although she lets the jaunty ragtime loose in Laughter.

Ripe little crescendoing waves permeate Hirose’s interpretation of Passion: it’s a rewarding ride. The same for the pervasive darkness in Surprise, even when the rhythm picks up – Hirose draws a straight line back to nocturnal Janacek wanderings. The finale, Resignation has both muted distress and towering angst: what a story Hirose has to tell.

Vladigerov’s Suite Bulgare, Op.21 and the Prélude, Op.15. get a similarly insightful treatment here. The suite’s regally marching, colorfully ornamented, increasingly Middle Eastern-tinged first movement gives way to enticingly allusive, quintessentially Bulgarian tonalities in the misterioso second, Hirose opting to let it trail out with a ghostly menace.

The chromatically gleaming dance that follows seems on the muted side as well, until she launches into a stilleto attack to set up the cheerier if labyrinthine Ratschenitza coda. With the concluding prelude, Hirose reverts to a glistening, expressive Romanticism, arguably a more chromatic take on Rachmaninoff: her execution of those ratcheting climbs is breathtaking. This is a feast for fans of music from the Balkans as well as more harmonically predictable points further west.

January 24, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vivid, Lush, Cinematic Big Band Jazz From Lawrence Sieberth

Pianist Lawrence Sieberth‘s big band album Musique Visuelle – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is aptly titled. There’s a cinematic sweep and an abundance of vivid narrative in his majestic compositions and arrangements. Sieberth likes to take brightly expressive neoromantic themes to unexpected places, has a refised sense of texture and doesn’t shy away from darkness. He recorded the basic tracks in New York with a couple of trios which include bassists Yasushi Nakamura and Ricky Rodriguez, and drummers Jamison Ross and Henry Cole. The symphonic orchestral arrangements were recorded in New Orleans. Much of the album is just piano and orchestra, or the orchestra themselves; when all the musicians are in the mix, the interweave is seamless.

The album’s first number, Sus OAjos Espanoles is a fond ballad that soars on the wings of the strings, Sieberth’s piano coalescing out of starry runs to a tersely chromatic, flamenco-inflected waltz. The brass rises, then recedes for a minimalist, suspenseful piano solo. When the whole orchestra bursts in, the effect is breathtaking. Ernesto Lecuona is a reference point.

The second track is titled Twitter. Is this a snarky commentary on social media? Maybe. Sudden, suspiciously dramatic flares and droll, unfinished piano phrases alternate over rhythms that begin as oldschool 70s disco and shift to a jaunty, brassy, New Orleans-flavored shuffle.

Thorns & Roses is brooding and gorgeous: a bracing, neoromantic orchestral theme gives way to a spare, moody solo piano interlude, the strings adding haunted lustre. Percussionists Danny Sadownic and Pedro Segundo team up to open El Gringo de Fuego, which comes across as a mashup of Balkan brass music and an oldschool charanga, Sieberth building bluesy sagacity into his rhythmic, strutting lines. A tasty. gusty, brass-fueled arrangement fuels the flames on the way out.

Communion, an imperturbable, folksy gospel stroll, has gorgeously accordionsque, reedy textures as the orchestra bounces and sways along. Sieberth opens Threads of the Weaver solo with a baroque solemnity, then Erik Gratton’s flute and the rest of the orchestra come sweeping in. But this concerto for piano and strings follows a considerably darker, more complex thread as it winds out.

Titus Underwood’s oboe floats amiably over the orchestra as Suenos de Amor gets underway, rising to a lush, purposefully syncopated pulse, Sieberth choosing his spots in a spare solo. Once again, the ambiguity and complexity return to destabilize any potential drift into predictable comfort.

Sieberth reaches for Ellingtonian gravitas as Blue gets underway, the subtle counterrythms of the strings fueling a distant unease, the brass capping off a long, elegaic crescendo that the composer eventually brings full circle. The somber mood lifts in Brazilia, but not necessarily the suspense, in this balmy, catchy orchestral samba. McCoy Tyner’s Fly With the Wind comes to mind.

Waltz for the Forgotten begins with a wistful oboe solo over the strings and grows more nocturnal as it moves along: it has the feel of a closing credits theme. Cat & Mouse gives the ensemble a chance to have fun with wry cartoonish flourishes, but those quickly give way to an understatedly disquieted, syncopated sway. They take it out on a jaunty note.

The closing number is Paysage Africain, a briskly pulsing, gusty number spiced with trumpet and vibraphone. The modally tinged oboe solo on the way out is tantalizingly brief. What a gorgeous record, one of the most memorable releases of the past few months.

January 22, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epic, Historically-Inspired Collection of Rarities For One of the World’s Most Soulful Instruments

What better to brighten a dreary January in apartheid-era New York than an epic album dedicated to little-known material for the vastly underrated bassoon? Laurence Perkins knows as well as anyone else who plays a low-register instrument that his axe of choice is just as well suited to somber depths as it is to buffoonery. There’s some of both and a lot in between on his fascinating latest album Voyage of a Sea-God, which isn’t online yet It’s a dynamically vast collaboration with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Carducci String Quartet, among others. Just as ambitiously, Perkins has assembled the program as a musical capsule history of the 20th century.

He takes the album title from a Mozart bio which likened the instrument to a mythical triton blowing a conch shell. He teams up with pianist Michael Hancock to open the record with the moodily expressive flamenco echoes of a real rarity, British Romantic composer Richard Henry Walthew’s Introduction and Allegro,

His fellow bassoonists Amy Thompson, Matthew Kitteringham and Catriona McDermid join him for another rarity, Prokofiev’s blithely strolling miniature Scherzo Humoristique: cartoonish as this is, the textures of the more resonant moments are luscious. A little later, they negotiate William Schumann’s colorful Quartettino for Four Bassoons, from an initial dervish dance, to nocturnal solemnity, a playfully fleeting waltz and a fugue.

One of the better-known pieces here is Saint-Saens’ Bassoon Sonata, with Hancock rising from a chiming triumph to more torrential heights as Perkins stays in wistful mode in the first movement. The second gives Perkins a challenging, slithery workout as well as moments of poignancy over a coy operatic bounce. Yet the baroque-flavored third movement is where Perkins squeezes out the most subtlety and pathos.

Thompson and McDermid return for two segments of Granville Bantock’s Incidental Music for Macbeth, the first a bagpipe-like Scottish air, the second a cheerily strutting “witches dance” for the full bassoon quartet. The string quartet, bolstered by bassist Michael Escreet, violist Susie Meszaros and harpist Eira Lynn Jones join Perkins for an expressively reflective, dynamic performance of Arnold Bax’s Threnody and Scherzo, shifting from a striking sense of longing to more puckish, Gershwinesque terrain, then bouncing and blipping between the baroque and, eventually, a more darkly acerbic chase scene.

This is a long album: there are many more treats here!

Hindemith’s Bassoon Sonata is more tuneful than most of his repertoire, veering in and out of rainy-day focus against Hancock’s steadily waltzing backdrop, then unexpected glitter, goofiness and pastoral touches. Henri Dutilleux’s Sarabande and Cortege for piano and bassoon have a bracing, chromatically-fueled bite matched by moments of creepy phantasmagoria with some devious quotes from more famous works.

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Concertino For Bassoon and String Orchestra, William Goodchild conducting the ensemble, begins with some jarring contrasts between vigorous lushness and Perkins’ introspectively wandering lines, then a more seamless counterpoint ensues. Serioso strings anchor Perkins’ moody march in the second movement; the similarly disquieted third features one of Perkins’ most incisive solos here.

Perkins premiered Alan Ridout’s two Shakespearean character studies for solo bassoon, Caliban and Ariel, in 1974. The former has a gnomic creepiness; the latter is spacious and airy yet far from carefree. The highlight of Andrzej Panufnik’s haunting Concerto for Bassoon and Small Orchestra – inspired by the murder of Polish dissident priest Jerzy Popieluszko – is a long, sparse, woundedly resonant Perkins solo in the second movement. From there, stabbing string motives alternate with methodical bassoon lines, then give way to vast Shostakovian desolation, distantly hopeful austerity, and Gorecki-esque prayerfulness. What a profound piece of music for an era where big pharma whistleblowers are being assassinated.

The last of the piano-and-bassoon pieces is Richard Rodney Bennett’s Bassoon Sonata, the most modernist but also strangely compelling piece on the program, with a persistently restless, sometimes furtive feel. The final track is David Bedford’s Dream of Stac Pollaidh, a Scottish mountainscape which Perkins plays solo with matter-of-factly cadenced, syncopated steps toward the summit.

Wait, there’s more: an enigmatically marching miniature by Herbert Howells. The amount of creativity and singleminded dedication that went into this record is awe-inspiring.

January 21, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epically Genre-Smashing, Deliciously Unpredictable Album From Charlotte Greve

Over the years there have been a ton of jazz records made with a string section, or even an orchestra. But jazz with a choir? Has anyone ever made a jazz album with a choir? Saxophonist/singer Charlotte Greve has. Her latest release Sediments We Move – where she bolsters her quartet of guitarist Keisuke Matsuno, bassist Simon Jermyn and drummer Jim Black with adventurous, endlessly shapeshifting choir Cantus Domus – is streaming at Bandcamp.

This seven-part suite is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Sometimes Caroline Shaw‘s new classical work comes to mind when the phrasing gets particularly cellular. Some of the most rhythmically straightforward interludes evoke bands like Wye Oak and My Brightest Diamond, when they straddle the line between artsy indie rock and modern classical music. There’s so much going on in this catchy but endlessly permutating album that what you see here is just the highlights. Conductor Ralf Sochaczewsky does Herculean work keeping the choir on the rails through Greve’s endlessly kaleidoscopic twists and turns.

The first interlude begins with a series of airy loops intertwining at glacial tempos. A delicate guitar figure enters and enlaces the choir’s stately vocals . Bass and drums become more prominent as the choir’s highs and lows coalesce into a quasi-canon. Greve moves to the mic with a stately, gracefully leaping melody over terse, steadily rhythmic bass and guitar, the men of the choir answering. The rainy-day feel warms as Black picks up the energy again. That’s just the first eight minutes of the record.

The second segment has a determined, emphatic sway, Greve’s unaffected, clear voice giving way to uneasy close harmonies from the choir and a simmering distorted guitar solo. From there she takes a carefree sax solo over subtly contrapuntal, looped choral parts, Matsuno finally kicking in toward the end.

A dancing bassline and incisive guitar lead to an unselfconsciously joyous crescendo of voices, then the sound grows more stark as the voices back brief sax and bass solos. Press repeat for extra joy…and whisper en masse when it’s almost over.

The deep-space interlude midway through comes as a complete shock, first with starry guitar, then pensive sax and ambience disappearing into the ether, followed by agitation and roar. Greve’s sax pulls the melody together tersely over Black’s steady tumbles before the nebula sonics return.

Part four opens with a couple of slow, lingering choral themes. There’s extra reverb on Greve’s judicious sax spirals and warmly conversational counterpoint from there, winding down to the most minimalist point here. But Black gets restless…he doesn’t want to let the pull of deep space get the best of everybody a second time around.

Guitar jangle and clang careens over calm resonance as the fifth segment kicks in and motors along: the point where the choir pick on the punk rhythm is irresistibly funny. Likewise, this is probably the first album to feature a sputtering bass solo backed by a towering choir in insistent 4/4 time. Scrambling guitar over an enveloping atmosphere evaporates for a funkier sway, the choir at the center.

Calmly and hypnotically, band and ensemble segue into the concluding portion, the bandleader’s sailing solo introducing a funky/stately dichotomy and hints of circling Afrobeat. Greve’s sax leads a reprise of the lush opening interweave. After a couple of triumphant, well-deserved crescendos, the choir take over with a carefree but unwavering rhythm. At this point, there’s no sense in giving away the ending: it’s not what anyone would expect. Maybe, ultimately, it’s not even an ending.

January 20, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting a Rare Surrealist Relic

One of the most bizarrely entertaining, inimitable largescale ensemble albums to come over the transom here in the past several months is the live recording of Harry Partch‘s “ballet satire” The Bewitched, streaming at Spotify. Recorded by a sixteen-piece group in concert in Berlin in 1980, it’s a dadaesque, often cartoonish suite written as a spoof of musical and societal pretensions. Partch was the quintessential outsider and took great satisfaction in deflating any bloated ego within earshot.

The twenty-minute prologue sets the stage, a defiantly swaying, percussion-heavy, quasi-gamelanesque theme featuring several of Partch’s inventions including the “marimba eroica” and “cloud chamber bowls” along with swooping winds and strings. If Spike Jones did a joint parody of Robert Ashley and Juan Esquivel, it might sound like this. With its persistent clickety-clack phrasing, some might say that you have to be stoned to appreciate this kind of beatnik excess.

Isabella Tercero plays the Witch as an operatic diva, sent to thumb her nose at a long list of hypocrites and other targets of derision, some more obvious than others. She doesn’t get much time singing out in front of the band. The first scene concerns the Transfiguration of American Undergrads in a Hong Kong Music Hall via anvil rhythms, warpy kithara and koto, and ersatz Asian tonalities.

Beyond the titles of the successive variations, it’s often not clear exactly what Partch is critiquing. The Permutation of Exercises in Harmony and Counterpoint turns out to be a comfortable baroque-tinged theme and what sounds like vocal warmups within an increasingly noisy environment. Faux Middle Eastern allusions come to the forefront early on, especially in The Inspired Romancing of a Pathological Liar.

What is The Alchemy of a Soul Tormented by Contemporary Music? Not a happy place to be. It’s easy to imagine a young Terry Riley hearing Partch’s Visions of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room and having a eureka moment.

The Euphoria on a Sausalito Stairway could be a subtle sendup of suspense film cliches. There is suspense, along with moments of phony jazz, in The Transmutation of Detectives on the Trail of a Culprit.

The haziest interlude is where Partch has a court address its own contempt. From there, a Political Soul wanders Lost Among the Voteless Women of Paradise. Then the ensemble get to pounce and clatter their way through the groupthink of the Demonic Descent of the Cognoscenti While Shouting Over Cocktails. The coda is wry and caricaturesque.

Maybe this is too much to ask for, but the suite also has a visual component involving audience participation and a basketball drill: a DVD might offer additional insight into what Partch is up to here.

January 18, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saluting a Great Orchestra From a Country Under Siege

The Vienna Philharmonic have been revered as one of the world’s finest orchestras for over a century. One of their more recent traditions has been an outdoor Summer Night Concert. They’ve released their 2021 performance, with Daniel Harding on the podium and pianist Igor Levit, streaming at Spotify. The ensemble are obviously jumping out of their shoes with the joy of being allowed to play again. At this point in history, there’s no doubt that this magnificent concert represents the people of Austria far more than the sinister apartheid state being erected with echoes of another historical development just over the German border a little more than ninety years ago.

They open with a spacious, unhurried, utterly suspenseful performance of the Overture from Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes. The brass/string harmonies are lusciously lustrous; the sudden leap into a gallop as the music picks up with a start is unselfconsciously breathtaking.

The piece de resistance should be Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and the balance of energy and pillowy Romanticism that Harding draws out of it is visceral. It’s on the fast side, especially in the beginning, but who can argue with the shivers of the fleeting eighth movement, or the furtive bustle of the ninth, especially in context? And Levit builds expectant triumph into the famous andante cantabile love theme. What’s annoying is that like many other recent recordings of the suite, these intervals – many of them under a minute long – are broken up into individual tracks. You have to build your own playlist to fully enjoy this without having to constantly click on the next one.

Levit gets the stage to himself for a spare, somber take of Beethoven’s Fur Elise: as he sees it, what a sad, serious girl she must have been! Next on the bill are four of Leonard Bernstein’s Dances from West Side Story. The group launch into a dynamically swinging Prologue, complete with fingersnaps, then an aptly starry, summery Somewhere, a lilting Scherzo and a positively feral Mambo.

There’s not a lot an orchestra can do with Elgar’s schmaltzy Salut D’amour, but the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite gives Harding and the ensemble a chance to bring up the lights slowly and memorably, with meticulously swirling strings and understated brass: this is a peace march, not a warlord’s pageant.

Plaintive woodwinds and a hypnotic lushness permeate Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, arguably the most vivid piece on the bill. The orchestra wind up the concert on a jaunty, bubbly note with Jupiter, from Holst’s The Planets. Who knew how fast all this optimism and good cheer would evaporate in the months after this concert. The challenge will be to get it back: it only takes one generation for a totalitarian regime to annihilate the memory of any beautiful past.

January 15, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vast, Magical, Mystical Russian Choral Works

What’s most striking about 56-man Russian choral ensemble PaTRAM‘s album More Honourable Than the Cherubim – streaming at Spotify – is the group’s vast range. The basses reach gravelly lows usually unheard of beyond the world of throat-singing, often balanced on the top end by harmonies that rise into soprano territory.

Many of the Russian Orthodox works which the group sing here are considerably more colorful than you might expect. It’s not all glacial tempos and minor keys – although those are abundant. Most of the music on the program dates from the pre-Revolution era, the early 20th century in particular.

Vocal acrobatics typically take a backseat to unwavering resonance. The longest and arguably most dynamic work is a remarkable student composition by Rachmaninoff. The ensemble follow a matter-of-fact trajectory from muted, stygian rapture, to a triumphant wavelike motion, and eventually a rustic cheer. Likewise, an expansive eighteenth-century composition by Stepan Degtiariov has a folksy charm and a surprisingly animated, proto-operatic coda.

The most recent works – a slowly drifting prayer and a warmly enveloping tableau – are by Sergiy Trubachov, born in 1919. The oldest piece here, dating from the late 1600s, is a brief, soberly minimalistic setting of the central Russian Orthodox Marian hymn. The group open the record with a considerably more bracingly harmonized version by 20th century composer Petar Dinev.

The album’s most memorable interlude is a set of four hymns by Pavel Chesnokov, which give the choir a chance to cut loose with the closest thing to reckless abandon they reach for here, through sudden crescendos and toweringly anthemic passages,

Perhaps serendipitously, the album recording session coincided with an exhibit of a well-traveled 725-year-old relic known as the Kursk Root Icon, to which miracles have been attributed. Did any miracles take place there? Maybe it’s a miracle that the group managed to finish the record before choral performance was criminalized throughout most of the world. Considering that this repertoire has survived Tsarist tyranny and soul-crushing Soviet censorship, it’s a good bet that it will survive this moment’s global totalitarianism. In the meantime, we have PaTRAM to thank for helping to keep such a rich, robust tradition alive for future generations.

January 14, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment