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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Enigmatically Ominous Michael Hersch Works for Soprano, Orchestra and Small Ensemble

Michael Hersch might be the most macabre of all contemporary classical composers. While the macabre is one of many themes in his music, it’s hard to think of anyone who goes as deeply into it as he has, from his chilling musical portraits of the inmates of a closed ward in a mental hospital, to the torments of terminal cancer patients. His latest album The Script of Storms – streaming at New Focus Recordings – comprises two suites.

The first is Cortext and Ankle, a setting of texts by the doomed writer Christopher Middleton, sung by soprano Ah Young Hong and backed by innovative chamber group Ensemble Klang. In the second, she sings the words of Fawzi Karim with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tito Muñoz.

There’s horror, and fingertips being torn off, “the dead tangled in a heap,” and an ineluctable end to all things in the initial eleven-part sequence. It’s prime material for prime Hersch, although the music itself is generally more airily portentous than sinister.

The brief overture is the closest thing to traditional film noir music that Hersch has written: an anxious, acidic bustle with furtive percussion flickers. Hong enters with a poignant, wistful resonance, until the group explodes with brassy growl and dramatic intensity behind her, a recurrent and judiciously utilized device. Austere, slowly shifting segments follow in turn. Hersch is known for employing a lot of space, and he does that here.

Anton van Houten’s determined trombone crescendos along with sudden bursts of activity from saxophonists Michiel van Dijk and Erik-Jan de With contrast with Hong’s resolute calm, but she leaps without warning to a full-throttle arioso power. Pianist Saskia Lankhoorn is often required to do the same. Percussionist Joey Marijs gets to contribute occasional surreal, clanking industrial textures, while guitarist Pete Harden’s contributions are even more skeletal.

The nine-part title suite, a grim reflection on the 1958 coup d’etat in Iraq and summary execution of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Said, is closer to Hersch’s earlier work, even as it follows much of the same template as the album’s first piece.

Ominous trombone also features heavily here. Anxious clusters of strings and reeds burst in, only to disappear. Familiar and juicily spine-tingling Bernard Herrmann tropes appear everywhere: shrieking high winds, ghostly slithers, and doppler crescendos. The drifting close harmonies and microtonal mist toward the end of the suite are particularly delicious, if disquiet is your thing. The persistent rhythmic overlays are just as clever as they are effective. As fits the subject matter, this is a horror film for the ears and a mighty effective one. Not for the faint of heart, but Hersch is the rare composer who seems committed to never backing away from any subject matter, no matter how disturbing.

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October 27, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A World War II Symphony Offers Solace and Hope For These Times

It was 1943, and the Allies were battling the Nazis and their collaborators on several fronts. In bomb-cratered England, Ralph Vaughan Williams stepped in on short notice for his one and only performance as conductor for the world premiere of one of his symphonies. Desperate times, desperate measures.

Considering the conditions under which it was written, it’s no surprise that his Symphony No. 5 is the most smallscale in his notoriously lavish cycle. Contemporary accounts called the premiere a success. There’s a new recording with Martyn Brabbins leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra, whose often transcendent performance resonates just as strongly in our even more troubled era.

The ensemble open with a familiar Vaughan Williams trope, a constant, increasingly turbulent round-robin of windswept counterpoint. Led by the brass in its most somber moments of foreshadowing, this is the pinnacle of British Romanticism. If you wonder where the towering angst of the art-rock bands of the 1970s, particularly the Moody Blues, came from, the source material doesn’t get richer than this. How absolutely heartbreaking it is to hear these panoramas, knowing that the citizens of the countryside that so profoundly influenced this music are now under siege and largely unable to see those landscapes in person. Where is this era’s Martin Niemoller?

The orchestra execute the swirls and leaping riffs of the second movement with a poinpoint precision across the spectrum, drawing equally on Sibelius and a series of themes the composer had written around the same time for a broadcast of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. The distantly disquieted, nocturnal vastness and aching lustre of the third movement packs a wallop in this era: when will this be over, Vaughan Williams seems to be asking. Bringing the circling intensity of the introduction full circle, the orchestra offer hope with the mighty, prayerful fourth movement.

To put the symphony in even more resonant context, the album also contains a series of short themes from Vaughan Williams’ postwar operatic epic Pilgrim’s Progress. The excerpts here were recorded in 2019 (a year after the symphony) with a considerably different cast of musicians. Vocal soloists Emily Portman, Kitty Whately and Marcus Farnsworth are bolstered by the BBC Chorus and BBC Singers Quartet in these thirteen selections, ranging from fleeting set pieces to folksy dances and more expansive songs, many of them echoing themes recycled in the symphony.

January 3, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why a Symphony From 1935 Matters More Than Ever

The events of 2020 under the lockdown are eerily similar to 1935. By then, the Nazi campaign of genocide had begun, with the mass murder of disabled and cripped people, all of them euthanized by the German medical establishment. Here in the US, the President recently announced a deal with the huge pharmacy conglomerate Wallgreens to kill off residents of nursing homes with the Bill Gates needle of death. When are the general public going to wake up? Eighty-five years ago, Europe didn’t until it was too late to stop the Nazi war machine. If that historical precedent holds true, we are in trouble. As Pastor Martin Niemoller famously recalled, “Then they went after the Jews. Then they came for us.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 was premiered in 1935, by an earlier version of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Martyn Brabbins, lifelong champion of the Romantic tradition, conducts them in this latest recording, which hasn’t hit the web yet. If there was specific content or narrative in his music, the composer usually made that very clear, and he didn’t do that in this case. Still, this symphony is chillingly a reflection of its time, and in that sense, a cautionary tale.

As this storm gathers momentum, chromatics that stop thisshort of frantic cede to restlessly circling, gusty variations that rise with an increasing unease: hindsight may be 20/20, but it’s impossible not to read rumors of war into this. Brabbins immediately dims the lights for the comforting nocturne that morphs out of it: could this be a reflection on the momentary honeymoon between wars for the English people?

Likewise, a stalking pulse from the strings rises to enigmatic lustre, persistent disquiet disappearing in favor of twilit serenity in the second movement; yet it ends broodingly. A darkly bristling, distinctly Russian-tinged dance opens the third and transforms into a march in the last movement, albeit with suspiciously sarcastic humor. Again, Brabbins pulls the orchestra for a comforting lull, which doesn’t last. The Beethovenesque series of false endings grow more and more foreboding, to the point where the impact remains long beyond the final, seemingly sardonic blast of low brass.

Where is the 2020 counterpart to this troubled masterpiece? Probably still being written. The operative question is whether we’ll ever be able to hear it. In the UK in 1935 it was legal for an orchestra to perform in front of an audience..

This album opens with Vaughan Williams’ radically different “Pastoral” Symphony No. 3. As inspired by World War I gravesites as by the English countryside of the composer’s youth, it’s one of the quietest pieces in the symphonic repertoire, at least before the explosion of spectral music in the early 1980s.

The first movement comes across as sleepy time for heroes –an update on the wave motion the composer explored in his Sea Symphony – along with vast Dvorakian vistas. Maybe that influence explains the minor blues riff that anchors one of the main themes. The gentle, steadily ratcheting counterpoint introduced in the first movement comes further to the forefront in the more stark, spare, folksy second one. Alan Thomas’ long, restrained, distantly troubled trumpet solo is the highlight here.

Heroes wake up vociferously as the third movement gets underway, larks quickly ascend to the trees and some bustling and strutting ensues – yet quietly. Soprano Elizabeth Watts animatedly brings back the blues riffs over an almost imperceptible stillness to introduce the conclusion, rising to disorienting, fragmentary exchanges before the serene intertwine of the first movement returns. From there Brabbins meticulously leads the slow rise to a momentary triumph and descent into nocturnal content and contemplation, Watts adding celestial lustre at the end.

The record is also noteworthy for including the world premiere of Vaughan Williams’ previously unpublished cantata Saraband “Helen,” a setting of a Christopher Marlowe text about Helen of Troy. Brabbins’ arrangement is sober and understated; tenor David Butt Philip sings expressively over the increasingly bittersweet sweep of the orchestra and choir.

October 22, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment