Unusual opera recording features CU graduate Ashraf Sewailam

Fairy-tale opera has influences from Star Wars and Disney

By Peter Alexander Sept. 9 at 10:10 p.m.

The Thirteenth Child, Danish composer Poul Ruders’ fifth opera, had its world stage premiere this past summer at the Santa Fe Opera.

81BovRD6EDL._SL1500_But even before the Santa Fe performances, you could hear the entire opera in a recording that was made on two continents, used two conductors, cast members who were never in the same room together, and featured a role sung by the voice of the Arabic Ursula the Sea Witch. The disc was released by Bridge Records June 1, and can be purchased here or here.

For all its quirks, the recording was a labor of love for David and Becky Starobin, who are both the owners of Bridge Records and the librettists of the opera. Because it is very expensive to assemble a cast all in one place for an operatic recording, the Starobins decided to take another path: the orchestra parts were recorded in Denmark by the Odense Symphony Orchestra; American cellist/conductor Benjamin Schwartz conducted the orchestra in the first act, and David Starobin, a professional musician as well as producer and librettist, conducted the orchestra in the second act.

With the orchestral parts recorded—no voices yet—Starobin moved his activities to a recording studio on the east coast of the U.S., where the singers came in one at a time for their recording sessions, singing their parts while Starobin conducted. Each in turn was mixed with the orchestral tracks. To keep everyone together, Starobin and the singers listened through headphones to both the orchestral recording and a click track that was customized for it.

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David and Becky Starobin

“I would not recommend [this] as a good way to spend one’s time because it took me two-and-a-half years to put the recording together,” Starobin says. “This is sort of pop studio style, and doing it for an opera is a completely different thing, because you need to look at much longer spans of time and tempo fluctuations.

“The one thing that all the singers and the instrumentalists had in common was that I was there. And either as producer or a conductor I was trying to realize Paul’s and my vision for what that opera was, interpretatively. And I have absolutely first-rate singers and orchestra and chorus, so the process in the end came out quite well.”

The process does have some advantages, Starobin says. “You actually get to perfect each line, and when you have all of the lines done, edited and in the kind of sound that you want, then you mix them together and it gives you a chance to balance in ways that you couldn’t possibly do in the live recordings of opera.”

But you are probably still wondering about Ursula.

Ashraf in Magic Flute.cropped1

Ashraf Sewailam (l) in the 2018 Central City Opera production of The Magic Flute, with tenor Joseph Dennis.

That would be Egyptian bass Ashraf Sewailam, a graduate of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has memorably performed with the CU Eklund Opera, Central City Opera, the Boulder Bach Festival, Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra, and other organizations in the area. A rising star of the operatic world, Sewailam has also appeared with New Zealand Opera, Austin (Tex.) Opera, Opera San Jose (Calif.) and San Diego Opera.

Sewailam voiced Urusla when he was working for the Disney company, as music director dubbing Disney films into Arabic. Incongruously, he also did the Arabic voice of Mickey Mouse, among others, and he got a lot of experience recording material alone that would later be combined with recordings by other actors.

“I learned so much from that job [with Disney] that went into my operatic practice,” he says. “Being the music director and responsible for a product that was highly quality controlled, I developed a really good diagnostic ear. I could hear anything that goes wrong with the voice.”

Sewailam got a role in Thirteenth Child because he knew the Starobins through Patrick Mason, his voice teacher at CU, and had made other recordings for them. Sewailam was the first singer that was hired for the recording, and he was given his choice of roles. He picked the role of Drokan, the villain of the opera—which seems fitting for the voice of Ursula, if not Mickey.

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Full cast listing on the CD back cover

The Thirteenth Child is loosely based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, so the villain is the evil in a good-vs-evil story. (Read the full synopsis here.) Others is the cast include Matt Boehler as King Hjarne, the victim of Drokan’s deception; Tamara Mumford, veteran of Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts, who sang Queen Gertrude on both the recording and in Santa Fe; and Sarah Shafer, whose wide-eyed, fairy-tale-princess photo as the title character appears on the album cover.

Sewailam says he worked on understanding Drokan so he could portray him as a rounded character. “He could very easily be two-dimensional, just evil through-and-through,” he says. “I always ask myself why someone is like that, and you always learn that the person is small and insecure. It’s all about compensating for feeling inadequate.

“The only way to portray how terrible he is, in a not two-dimensional way, is to develop sympathy for him. It becomes more troubling, being understanding of where all his evil comes from.” Even without appearing onstage, Sewailam aims give depth to Drokan through vocal coloring and nuances of vocal interpretation.

At only 80 minutes, the opera packs a lot of action in a small package. The music is genial, a change from Ruder’s earlier operas, written on dark subjects including Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Kafka’s The Trial and Lar von Trier’s grim melodramatic film Dancer in the Dark, all of which incorporated a dissonant, atonal style. The music is often full of menace and threatening growls from the orchestra.

PoulR

Danish composer Poul Ruders

The more friendly and consonant style of The Thirteenth Child is likely due in part to the libretto. “We had the music in mind when we were writing all of the words, and the kind of music that Poul might write,” David Starobin says. “There were some things where we really wanted him to express his full romantic voice, and he did,” Becky Starobin adds.

The Starobins admit to pop-culture influences in their libretto. “I see our background growing up watching Star Wars films, [and] there’s no way that Becky or I could get away with writing a fairy tale without having some Disney crop up,” David says.

The Odense Symphony offers a fine performance of Ruder’s complex and varied score, warming to the more consonant and lyrical moments, but also handling the dissonant and threatening passages very well. Both conductors seem to have kept things together well. David Starobin deserves extra credit for keeping singers and orchestra together in the studio as well.

The recording cast is, as he says, entirely first-rate. As King Hjarne, Matt Boehler has a wonderfully deep and resonant bass. He managed the very lowest notes, and the leaps into falsetto that signify his madness, with aplomb. Thanks to recording technology and the opportunity to achieve a ideal balance, every word of his part could be clearly heard—something that Santa Fe showed is not always possible in live performance.

Sewailam was in fine form as Drokan, his voice dripping a menace conveyed through vowel coloring and shaping of the voice. I would love to see him onstage in this role, which fits his strong voice very well

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Tamara Mumford (r) as Queen Gertrude in the Santa Fe Opera production of The Thirteenth Child, with David Leigh as King Hjarne. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

Tamara Mumford sang with warmth and expression, showing why she was engaged for the Santa Fe production. She found the expression and shape in even the most disjoined vocal lines, and sang with a strong voice that connects well with the hearer.

As Lyra, the story’s princess who suitably for the 21st century needs finding but not rescuing, Sarah Shafer brought a shining soprano and a lyrical line to the performance, spinning her vocal lines eloquently, even across wide leaps.

Alasdair Kent was effective as the prince who finds Lyra and will, in the end, marry her to being peace to the kingdom of Frohagord. His bright, clear tenor was just as heroic as the part requires.

These are the individual singers, who did in fact sing separately. And in the completed recording, it was the individual moments by the leading characters that came across most effectively—reflective moments and arias. In other places, singers who should be interacting sounded slightly abstracted from the drama. In these moments you can see that the text implies a rising tension, but sense that the actors are not in fact reacting to one another.

The most memorable bits are King Hjarne’s aria “The Night Air Groans,” Lyra’s lament “Oh Dear Mother,” the duet scene when a ghostly Gertrude returns to explain the spell that Lyra has inadvertently cast on her brothers, and the comic scene of the hungry brothers, “We need beef, lamb, goose, duck!” Significantly, these stand out in part because they are contrasting—a comic moment breaking a sequence of increasingly dire developments, and moments of tonal lyricism among passages of atonal dissonance.

To those I would add Drokan’s dramatic scene in the second act, where his motivations are made clear and the depth of his betrayal is revealed, more for its dramatic impact and Sewailam’s performance than its purely musical qualities.

This disc is highly recommended. Anyone with an interest in contemporary opera should want to hear The Thirteenth Child. As a relatively short opera with a modest cast, it seems a likely choice for regional opera companies and university programs, while its setting makes it a candidate for the glittering productions that larger houses can offer. I look forward to seeing and hearing the next new production.

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Bridge Records 9257

The Thirteenth Child, an opera in two acts by Poul Ruders (music) and Becky and David Starobin (libretto). Odense Symphony Orchestra, Bridge Academy Singers, with Matt Boehler, Ashraf Sewailam, Tamara Mumford, and Sarah Shafer. David Starobin (vocal music and orchestra, Act 2) and Benjamin Schwartz (orchestra Act 1), conductors.

Available here and here.

Edited 9.10 to add recording details and sources for the CD.

 

 

Starkland’s latest adventurous releases: diverse, fascinating excursions in sound

New works, virtuoso performances

By Peter Alexander Dec. 28 at 12:25 p.m.

With 2018 coming to a close, now is a good time to take note of the past year’s three releases from Boulder’s Starkland Recordings. Specializing in new works, Starkland features performances of the highest quality. And in keeping with the label’s wide-ranging catalogue, the new recordings are very different, but each adventurous and challenging in its own way.

A1AdBe8paYL._SX522_Nakedeye Ensemble: Storylines Crossing. Jonathan Russell: Sextet. Zack Browning: Decade of the Dragon. Richard Belcastro:Smoke n’ Wid. Rusty Banks: Surface Tensions. Randall Woolf: Punching the Clock. Frederic Rzewski: Coming Together, arr. by Belcastro. Starkland ST-228.

The NakedEye Ensemble is a group of eight young musicians based in Lancaster, Penn. Directed by pianist Ju-Ping Song, they have been performing together since at least 2014, and have now released their first recording.

Characterizing themselves as an “electro-acoustic group with classical, rock, and jazz DNA,” their mostly new repertoire reaches back to an arrangement of a work from 1971 by Frederic Rzewski, who remains a touchstone for younger, politically motivated composers. The other five works on the disc all date from the current centurySettings range from a quartet to the full ensemble of eight.

With six such accomplished performances, it seems unfair to single out specific works, but as a child of the 1960s I have to start with Zack Browning’s Decade of the Dragon. Written for NakedEye to mark the 50thanniversary of the beginning of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War—the dominant event of my generation’s younger lives—it refers to two searing, Pulitzer-Prize winning photographs from that struggle, “Saigon Execution” and “Napalm Girl” (the first and third images here).

The jazzy, rock-inflected score incorporates a traditional Vietnamese song, “City of Dragons.” The music is marked by sudden shifts of sound and mood, including suggestions of the ‘60s and even a trace of Hendrix. Decade of the Dragon is too energetically likable to quite evoke the horror of the subject, but it clearly deserves a place among works inspired by the Vietnam War.

In Randall Woolf’s intriguing Punching the Clock, recordings of work songs from around the world are embedded in the musical texture. The episodic score darts from one musical world to another. It is fascinating to follow Woolf’s blues-inspired imagination from scene to scene, even if it doesn’t quite add up to much more than the individual parts.

Two works on the album are sheer fun to hear. Jonathan Russell’s Sextet is a delight, from the “groovy little bass line” (in the composer’s fitting words) that opens the piece to the long, teasing fadeout ending. Richard Belcastro’s Smoke n’ Wid must be the most playful, cheerful piece ever written about cats in a box with catnip.

Another work that grew from the Vietnam War is Rzewski’s Coming Together, the tour de force and culmination of the album. It is based on a letter written by Sam Harris, who was arrested and convicted for eight bombings in New York protesting the war. Incarcerated at the infamous Attica Prison, he died there in the 1971 riots that he helped organize.

Readings from Harris’s letter are underlaid by repeated bass lines and improvised parts that reflect and surround the spoken texts. The effect is cumulative over the 20-minute duration: the combination of Rzewski’s boundless musical creativity and commitment have made this a masterpiece of political music theater.

NakedEye Ensemble plays with virtuosity and verve, demonstrating what a wealth of musical talent there is beyond our experience in Boulder. This meticulously played, fun and varied album has landed near the top of my list of favorite Starkland albums. Adventurous listeners in love with the new should make it a priority.

912LkDwsYHL._SS500_Peter Garland: The Landscape Scrolls. 1. mid-day 2. sunset 3. after dark 4. late 5. early morning. John Lane, percussion. Starkland ST-229.

The Landscape Scrolls feature virtuosity of another dimension. There are five monochromatic movements, each inspired by a time of day and an imagined landscape, and each calling for a single percussion sound.

The tour de force here is clearly for percussionist John Lane, who must in sequential movements perform on a set of eight drums, nine rice bowls, three triangles, the glockenspiel, and tubular bells; and then create an arc and a sense of direction out of a limited sound palate in each movement. That he does so is indeed a virtuosic accomplishment.

The drums of the first movement effectively evoke the subject, “jagged peaks, endless mountains, receding in the distance—early spring.” In the second movement, ringing rice bowls recreate the effect of “peepers”—pond frogs—near the composer’s home. In the third movement, the magical sight of fireflies in the summer is reflected in the sound of triangles. That Lane maintains the effect for 10 minutes is a triumph of concentration as much as musical technique.

My favorite movement is the fourth, which refers to van Gogh’s famous painting “Starry Night” through the sound of the glockenspiel. The reference to a much-loved painting , the greater compass of pitch provided by the instrument and the rhythmic variety make this movement stand out from those that went before.

The longest movement is the last, “early-morning: sea smoke on the river—winter.” Using tubular bells—commonly called chimes—the composer aims create a fog of sound that duplicates aurally the sight of the thick fog that often hovers over cold or frozen water. In this he is successful; whether it is worth of 20 minutes of listening will depend on your interest in pure sound and tolerance for near stasis as a single musical idea is repeated and slowly transformed—just like the fog slowly swirling over the river.

91p1XxsY4+L._SS500_Tim Brady: Music for Large Ensemble. Désir: Concerto for electric guitar and large chamber ensemble; Eight Songs about: Symphony #7. Bradyworks Large Ensemble, Tim Brady, electric guitar and conductor; Cristian Gort, conductor; Sarah Albu, soprano; Vincent Ranallo, baritone. Starkland ST-230.

This disc is Tim Brady’s second appearance on the Starkland label following the strikingly original Instruments of Happiness of 2016. It represents a turn in a different direction from the former recording, which featured an electric guitar quartet.

This time Brady is featured, first as soloist in his Désir: Concerto for electric guitar and large chamber ensemble, and then as conductor in Eight Songs about: Symphony #7. His own Seventh Symphony, this is also a highly original response to the Seventh Symphony of Shostakovich.

The concerto is in the traditional three movements in the order fast-slow-fast. Nothing else about it feels traditional or predictable, however. The first movement, titled “Ecstasy,” is marked by frenetic, driven activity interrupted by sudden stops, then a total change of sound. The frenetic activity returns, as if powered by an internal engine, until it tapers into a cessation of movement at the outset of the second movement, “Beauty.”

In some ways this movement represents a conventional concept of musical beauty—slow moving, more consonant. But it is also uneasy, edgy, unpredictable. This is an uncomfortable beauty that leads into the third movement and a return to frenetic activity. It is titled “Wisdom,” but this is no reflective, contemplative wisdom. It is rather the wisdom of the virtuoso who can make any difficulty seem effortless.

Shostakovich dedicated his Seventh Symphony to the City of Leningrad, where it was performed in 1942, during the German siege of the city. That performance, by a pickup group of Soviet musicians, was broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the city and even to the German troops  outside the city.

Eight Songs about: Symphony #7 is a setting of texts by Douglas Smith, forming a fever dream of that performance as experienced by different people, including a German soldier, a Russian prostitute in the city, musicians in the orchestra and Stalin himself. The texts are sung and declaimed by a soprano and a baritone, accompanied by an ensemble of players who provide what critic Alan Kozinn accurately describes as “ominously opaque musical textures.”

Brady’s music expresses something basic about the despair and brutality of war, and does it in a powerfully original way, but it is not necessarily enjoyable to listen to. The two soloists present vivid characterizations while taking very different approaches to the material: soprano Sarah Albu sounds conversational, almost detached, while baritone Vincent Ranallo gives a more mannered delivery. Brady’s conducting is naturally assured, and the Bradywork’s Large Ensemble performs with commitment.

All Starkland recordings may be purchased through the label’s Webpage.

 

Three New CDs have Boulder connections

Music by Max Wolpert, performances by Altius, and Starkland’s latest

By Peter Alexander

Wolpert.CDAmanda Harberg: Viola Concerto; Elegy
Max Wolpert: Viola Concerto No. 1, “Giants”
Brett Deubner, viola; Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, Linus Lerner, conductor
Naxos American Classics 8.559840

Max Wolpert is the only composer I can think of who has begun a piece of music with the end of the world.

What could come after that? As it turns out, quite a bit in Wolpert’s Viola Concerto, subtitled “Giants.” As recently recorded by violist Brett Deubner, for whom the concerto was written, and the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra with conductor Linus Lerner, “Giants” is an attractive, effective and intriguing bit of musical depiction.

The title comes from Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days.” Each movement refers to a different giant, starting with Father Time as imagined in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. A giant who slumbers deep beneath the earth, Father Time is awakened to “blow his horn and call the stars down from the sky.” If Wolpert’s end of the world is not as apocalyptic as we might expect, the chimes and final trumpet calls make a clear announcement.

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Max Wolpert

After this mild apocalypse, Wolpert looks to the sky and the familiar cloud-dwelling giant, soothed by a magic harp. Here, a lovely harp solo accompanies lyrical lines in the solo part. The sky giant grumblingly awakes when the harp ceases, to orchestral chords that call out “fee-fie-fo-fum.” As the harp resumes, the threat is evaded.

The third giant is a rollicking “Cloud Woman” who enjoys thunderstorms as “a wild dance party.” Her revels are evoked by a “Balkan-influenced groove,” with lots of non-symmetrical rhythms.

There is a clever bit of musical symbolism running throughout. Wolpert sees the disappearance of giants as the diminishing of the world. “To encapsulate this notion,” he writes, “the concerto is framed around a melodic interval which gradually diminishes”: A fifth in the first movement, a fourth in the second movement, and a third in the final movement.

Wolpert, who lives in Boulder and works at Rocky Ridge Music Center, describes himself as a “composer and storyteller,” and the giants are depicted vividly in his music. It’s all great fun, and this must be a pleasure to play. An accessible piece for audiences, I can imagine this Concerto showing up on programs for both adults and children. Brett Deubner plays with a lovely, deep viola sound, lyrical flow and great technical assurance.

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Brett Deubner

The disc is filled out with another Viola Concerto written for Deubner, by Amanda Harberg. The second movement, described as “a meditation on the fragility of life” is particularly lovely, again combining the viola with harp—an especially congenial pairing—at the outset.

The final piece on the disc is Harburg’s Elegy, written for piano and viola and arranged by the composer for viola with strings for Deubner to play. Written in memory of Harberg’s piano teacher and drawing from the same well as the concerto’s slow movement, this is an even more lovely and deeply affecting piece of music. I have a suggestion for orchestral programmers: the next time you need music for a somber occasion, perform Harberg’s Elegy.

The Southern Arizona Symphony is a community orchestra located in Tucson. Aiming to have an influence outside their own region, they have recorded, toured to China, and commissioned new works. If lacking brilliance or exceptional power, their performance is never less than effective.

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Altius.coverShostakovich: String Quartets 7, 8 & 9
Altius Quartet
Navona Records NV6125

 The Boulder-based Altius Quartet, formerly in residence with the Takas at CU, have released their second full CD, and it is one to be relished by their fans.

After their somewhat whimsical first recording, “Dress Code,” with its offbeat mix of Haydn, Led Zeppelin, and others, they have turned to a more weighty region of the quartet repertoire: the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth quartets of Shostakovich. Written at a critical point in the composer’s life, 1960 and 1964, these quartets are deadly serious and challenging to even the most experienced, mature quartets.

For the most part, the Altius prove themselves equal to the task. The members of the quartet are never less than completely assured in playing this challenging music, and they know what they want the music to say.

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Altius Quartet

From the first notes of the Seventh Quartet, they play with a nervous energy and palpable anxiety that matches the composer’s life under the Soviet state. Their tightly controlled performance of the Seventh reflects Shostakovich’s emotional state in 1960, suggesting that there is a hidden emotional depth that could burst through at any time.

The Eight Quartet was a literal cry of despair, written when Shostakovich was contemplating a suicide that his friends may have only just averted. Here the performance is cold, distant, at times as bleak as the composer’s mood. Even the demonic waltz of the third movement seems repressed.

I like more threat in the ominous thee-chord outbursts—recalling every Soviet citizen’s greatest fear, the KGB’s knock in the middle of the night—but the performance is consistent in its restraint. There is a brief moment of warmth near the beginning of the fifth movement, but that too fades into desolation. It’s not easy to enjoy this music, but this is a performance to admire.

Written four years later, the Ninth Quartet is somewhat sunnier, if not exactly cheerful. This is again music of great complexity, but the Altius plays with a remarkable transparency of texture throughout—you can hear every individual line. Restraint is again the keyword for the performance, and the shifting character of the movements is well delineated.

The disc is more than three works by the same composer: it is a satisfying whole, helped both by the selection of works, moving from anguish to near-manic cheerfulness in the composer’s outlook, and by the Altius Quartet’s keen perception and effective communication of the emotional narrative.

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Myers.CDDavid Lee Myers: Ether Music
Starkland ST-227

Boulder’s Starkland records has released a CD by one of the pioneers of electronic music, David Lee Myers. Also creating under the name Arcane Device, Myers has been constructing his own sound-producing electronic circuitry since 1980 and has more than 30 CDs to his credit.

The winner of Global Music silver medals for Creativity/Originality and Innovation in Sound, Ether Music features “Feedback Music,” comprised of sounds that are entirely generated by electronics—or as the printed notes explain it: “The album’s content spontaneously emerged from Myers’ self-designed, hand-built conglomerations of elaborately interconnected sound processing devices, with no external input.”

From the raw material of electronic hums, pops, clicks, thumps, and other sounds, Myers has crafted ten separate pieces. The different sounds are layered in ways both simple and complex, creating varied and shifting clouds of sound.

I know that not everyone will hear this as “music,” depending on how they define the word, but it is certainly creative use of sound. Like most of Starkland’s releases, hearing it expands the listener’s horizons and opens the ears to new possibilities.

Each track pulls you into a distinct world. Some of these worlds seem familiar, some are exotic, some are hallucinogenic, and they all invite exploration. If Myers’ work has a weakness, it is the difficulty of using electronic sounds to build the tension and subsequent release that comes naturally to tonal music. Lacking a definitive closing gesture to resolve the music’s journeys, many of the tracks simply fade into silence, letting the final mood linger without resolution.

Myers

David Lee Myers

That said, every piece is worth hearing. If you wish to be engaged by new sounds, you should hear the entire CD. Of the ten tracks, the first, implicate order, is a good place to start because the layers of the texture are easily heard in their transformations and interactions. A pulsating, swelling and subsiding electronic drone is overlaid with drum-like clatters and clunks.

The third track, astabilized, is the most obviously derived from electronic feedback, including buzzes, static and electronic insect sounds. The fifth track, arabic science, features pitched drones and lines that sweep up and down the scale. The impression of a distant wailing chorus, birds and insects all invite the imagination to create a dramatic scenario.

The very rhythmic sixth track, the dynamics of particles, starts with bongo-like pops and snaps, soon joined by other pitched pulses that rise and fall in pitch. The steady meter of the drum sounds makes this one of the most purely enjoyable tracks.

Another thoroughly enjoyable track, radial axial, conjures a Fellini-esque world as if from a 1950s movie. A woozy electronic organ is transformed into a theremin—the staple sound of 1950s sci-fi—then a harmonica, then a wheezing calliope before shuffling off into the distance.

It must be great fun to create these pieces, and I find it great fun to sample, either all at once or just the occasional excursion into one or two of Myers’ sound worlds. Whether it adds up to deeper artistry probably depends on your taste and concept of musical art, but no one is likely to remain untouched by the wide creativity contained in this album.

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NOTE: A correction was posted 12.4.17. An earlier version of the story had stated incorrectly that Harberg’s Elegy had been arranged for viola and string by Deubner. It was arranged for Deubner by the composer.

Mixing things up on CD and at the Dairy

From Led Zeppelin to Haydn with the Altius Quartet

By Peter Alexander

The Altius Quartet likes to mix things up.

nv6078-dresscode-frontcoverThe string quartet in residence at the CU College of Music, Altius just released a new CD, Dress Code, which does just that, in original and unexpected ways. And they have a concert Saturday at the Dairy Arts Center, “The Many Faces of the Altius Quartet,” that aims in part for the same goal (details below).

“Part of our identity from the getgo has been, how do we introduce people to classical music who otherwise wouldn’t set foot in a concert hall,” cellist Zachary Reaves says. “When we were still in college we would play shows in pubs, and we’d start with Led Zeppelin or whatever. We’d immediately follow it with a Haydn quartet. It was amazing how people’s reaction to Haydn was when they knew we also played Hendrix.”

Ever since the Kronos Quartet broke that ground in the 1970s, a lot of ensembles have mixed popular music with contemporary and standard classical pieces. Altius goes beyond that, in both the CD and the Dairy program, by scrambling the classical pieces in creative ways.

Take the play list for Dress Code. Just like their pub sets, it includes both Led Zeppelin and Haydn. But the Haydn Quartet—Op. 74 no. 1—is spread across the disc, with other pieces between the movements. Those other pieces include Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as well as three rags by William Bolcom and other pop arrangements.

That description doesn’t quite do justice to the quirky and slyly subversive playlist. Apparent stylistic whiplash is better conveyed by the whole list—and even better by hearing the CD from beginning to end.

  1. Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op 74 no. 1, I. Allegro Moderato
  2. Dave Brubeck/Michael Jackson: Take it (arranged Reaves)
  3. William Bolcom: Graceful Ghost Rag
  4. Led Zeppelin: Stairway to Heaven (arr. Reaves)
  5. Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op. 74 no. 1, II Andantino grazioso
  6. Bolcom: Poltergeist Rag
  7. Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op. 74 no. 1, III Menuetto
  8. Bolcom: Incineratorag
  9. Ben E King: Stand by Me (arr. Reaves)
  10. Haydn: String Quartet in C major, op. 74 no. 1, IV Vivace
  11. a-ha: Take on Me (arr. Reaves)

Altius.1“The idea was that instead of putting all four movements of the Haydn together, for maybe a millennial to skip over, to intersperse it, while giving a taste of what a string quartet sounds like,” Reaves says. “In the arrangements, we try to sound like a classical ensemble, playing pieces that people are familiar with. Then, when they get used to that sound, listening to a Haydn quartet is not so weird.“

The same aesthetic applies in the program for the Dairy. In this case the most unorthodox program choice is a set of Beethoven scherzos, from three different string quartets: Op. 18 no. 6, Op. 59 no. 1 (“Razumovsky”) and Op. 131—one early quartet, one middle and one late.

This idea was hatched between Reaves and James Bailey, curator of the Dairy’s music series. “Bailey’s become a great friend,” Reaves says. “He and I will just talk about ‘What kind of weird things can we do?’ This program is a brainchild between him and me, showcasing how (Beethoven’s) style in general but also specifically his style in scherzos evolved over his entire career.”

The program also includes Through Fog, a piece written for the Altius Quartet by J.P. Merz, who was a masters composition student at CU when he wrote it. “We performed it at Carnegie Hall in November,” Reaves says. “It’s been a huge hit.”

For a portion of the concert, the members of Altius will be joined by violist Stephanie Mientka and cellist Matt Zalkind to perform three sextets: Atlantic Jigpipe by Mientka’s brother Gabriel; Reaves’s arrangement of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody; and Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night).

If the stylistic mix sounds disorienting, I should note that the decisive playing of the Altius moderates the stylistic dislocations. Played with conviction and stylistic clarity, Haydn and Queen sit comfortably together on the same stage.

This is in the quartet’s toolkit, no doubt because, as Reaves says: ”We all grew up listening to so many different kinds of music that it’s hard to pick one.” But it is also a mark of their solid training and great musicianship that Dress Code is an artistic success as well as a milestone in the young quartet’s career.

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Altius has been in Boulder for nearly three years, working with the Takacs Quartet. They will shortly complete their residency, but they plan to stay in the Boulder area as they pursue a career as a professional string quartet. “We’ve kind of fallen in love with area,” the quartet’s cellist, Zachary Reaves, explains. “Being close to the mountains, but aside from that, we’ve met a lot of great people here and made a lot of really good contacts.”

In addition to Dress Code, they have also recorded an album of music by Shostakovich, which will come out in the fall. In the meantime, they will celebrate the first album with a CD release party 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13, at Caffè Sole, 637R South Broadway in Boulder (Broadway and Table Mesa Drive).

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Dress Code. Altius Quartet: Joshua Ulrich and Andrew Giordano, vioins; Andrew Krimm, viola; Zachary Reaves, cello. Navona Records NV6078

One Night Only: “The Many Faces of the Altius Quartet
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, the Gordon Gamm Theater, Dairy Arts Center

Atlantic Jigpipe by Gabriel Mientka
3 Scherzos by Beethoven
Through Fog by J.P. Merz
Bohemian Rhapsody by Freddie Mercury
Verklärte Nacht by Arnold Schoenberg

Tickets

 

New Starkland CD has the antidote to the news: Accordion tunes

By Peter Alexander

Are you suffering, as I am, from “election stress disorder”?

If so, now would be a good time to take a break from politics and the news, kick back and enjoy some great accordion tunes. And just in time, Boulder’s Starkland CD label has issued a recording of just that: great accordion tunes.

61dics4g8l-_ss500Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy by accordionist Guy Klucevsek and some friends is the latest from Starkland, and it is a delight from beginning to end. From the very first track, “Moose Mouth Mirror” played by Klucevsek and violinist Todd Reynolds, the listener is in a world that is almost familiar, but, as the CD title suggests, not quite. It pulls you right in, gets you smiling and your toes tapping, and then throws you some curves that make you smile even more.

If you are not familiar with Klucevsek, he is a musician who loves the edges. Reviews of his work often stress how he transforms his instrument into something simultaneously familiar and unexpected. Downbeat calls him “A rebel with an accordion . . . . forcing you to rethink the accordion’s limitations.”

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Guy Klucevsek

Long a feature of the downtown music scene, Klucevsek has performed with a remarkable list of new music artists and groups, including Laurie Anderson, Bang On a Can, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, the Kronos Quartet, Natalie Merchant and John Zorn. He is a founding member of Accordion Tribe, and has now released more than 20 albums. He has played on John Williams’s scores for Steven Spielberg films including The Terminal, Munich and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

 One of the things that makes Klucevsek’s music outside of “normalcy” is the use of odd and nonsymmetrical meters—5s, 7s, irregular 8s as 3+3+2. In that not-quite-normal opening track, ¾ is followed by 3/8, then 7/8, and so on. But Klucevsek performs these patterns with such fluency that it sounds smooth, whatever the meter. You don’t even notice until you try to count along.

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Michael Lowenstern

Some of the most engaging music on the CD was written in memory of, or as an homage to, other composers and friends. Among my favorites are “Little Big Top,” written in memory of Nino Rota, featuring some virtuoso bass clarinet playing by Michael Lowenstern. So well is Rota’s spirit conjured that Fellini scenes from Dolce Vita to 8 ½ flash before my eyes every time I hear it. “Three Quarter Moon” in memory of Kurt Weill evokes just the right tone of decadent melancholy.

Other favorites for me are two waltz tracks: “Bob Flath Waltzes with the Angels” and “Waltzing on the Edge of Dawn.” Klucevsek’s seamless partnering with violinist Todd Reynolds should be mentioned a particular pleasure of the disc.

imagesEspecially moving for anyone who loves opera and opera singers is the nostalgic “Song of Remembrance.” It was written for Tosca’s Kiss, a film about the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a home for retired musicians and opera singers founded by Giuseppe Verdi. “Pull up a chair, listen with me,” the haunting text begins. “In this beautiful garden, the opera’s about too begin. . . . We remember the rest.”

Pianist Alan Bern crashes Klucevsek’s party with a couple of solo pieces, including the wonderfully jazzy 5-beat “Haywire Rag.” Haywire, but delightful.

I won’t describe every track, so just get the CD. Take the advice of Seattle Weekly and “forget everything you thought you knew about the accordion.” Then settle back and go where Klucevsek takes you.

All the way to the edge of normalcy and back.

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Guy Klucevsek:  Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy. Guy Klucevsek, accordion, with Todd Reynolds, violin; Alan Bern, piano; Kamala Sankaram, voice; Peggy Kampmeier, piano; Michael Lowenstein, bass clarinet; Pete Donovan, electric bass guitar; and Barbara Merman, drums. Stark land ST-225.

Available from Amazon and iTunes.

Three recent CDs feature artists with Boulder connections

Albums from Takács Quartet, Sphere Ensemble and violinist Karen Bentley Pollick

By Peter Alexander

Takasce SQ

Takács Quartet

A number of CD albums of interest to Boulder audiences have come onto the scene in the past several months.

Broadly speaking, they would all fall into the “classical” category. That designation seems increasingly problematic, however, since it includes not only music that is what we generally mean by “classical,” but also contemporary music that isn’t anyone’s idea of classical, music by composers who are influenced by everything from world music to rock, and music for both traditional and a wide variety of non-traditional media.

I have seen several suggestions for a new term: concert music is one that has been floating around for a while without catching on, and Cuepoint blogger Craig Havinghurst recently offered the term “composed music.”

Whatever you want to call it, here are three recordings that I have recently heard with pleasure:

Takacs albumTakács Quartet with Marc-André Hamelin, piano. Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 2 in A major, op. 68; Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57. Hyperion CDA67987, 2014.

The oldest of the CDs on the list, the Takács Quartet’s disc of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 and, with Marc-André Hamelin, of the Piano Quintet in G minor, was recorded in 2014. It came to attention recently because it was nominated for the 2015 Grammy Award in chamber music. Although it did not win—the award went to the new-music sextet eighth blackbird—it is nonetheless a recording of great interest.

For one thing it is the quartet’s first recording of music by Shostakovich, one of two great composers of string quartets in the 20th century (along with Bartók, whose music the Takács is renowned for performing). And they are joined here by Marc-André Hamelin, one of the outstanding chamber pianists of our times.

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Marc-Andre Hamelin. Photo by Fran Kaufman

Hamelin’s incisive pianism gives the Quintet muscularity and drive. The final two movements, veering from relentless brooding to a fragile and overwrought cheer, are particularly characteristic of the Stalin-era Shostakovich, and here they receive an exemplary performance. Hamelin and the quartet are beautifully balanced throughout their deeply expressive interpretation.

The Second String Quartet lacks the savagery some bring to its performance, but it has the clarity and refinement that mark the best Takács interpretations. The Recitative and Romance movement is especially eloquent, and the individual variations of the last movement are clearly profiled.

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Divergence coverSphere Ensemble: Divergence. Various works. Performed and self-produced by the Sphere Ensemble. 2015.

Do you like variety in your musical collection? If so, “Sphere Ensemble: Divergence”—with repertoire ranging from the plush Victorian romanticism of Edward Elgar to a cheeky mashup of Mozart and Daft Punk—is for you!

Billing itself as “Colorado’s exciting new chamber ensemble,” Sphere comprises 11 classical trained string players who currently perform with the Boulder Philharmonic, Opera Colorado, Greeley Philharmonic, Colorado Symphony, Central City Opera, Colorado Springs Philharmonic, Fort Collins Symphony, Cheyenne Symphony and Ensemble Pearl. No strangers to Boulder, Sphere performs all along the front range. Coming events are in Estes Park, Brighton, Broomfield and Loveland. <  >

Daft Punk and Elgar aside, it’s in the material between the extremes that Sphere most comes into its own, pieces that combine pop, bluegrass, jazz, elements from world music and classical bits in various proportions. After an ardent if undernourished movement from Elgar’s spacious Serenade for Strings, the CD proceeds with Regina Spektor’s “All the Rowboats,” spiced with classical quotations; the bluegrass/Irish “Butterfly Jig” of Sphere members Emily Rose Lewis and David Short; a string arrangement of Ravel’s Sonatine for piano that is easily the most ethereally detached music on the disc; and Colorado jazzman Wil Swindler’s gloomy “Divergence,” which gives the album its title.

That is only a small sample of the unexpected pleasures to be found on this disc. A series of largely pop-inflected tracks culminates with the Daft Punk-Mozart mashup, “Get Mozart,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” But just when you think Sphere has settled into a pop groove, along comes the haunting “Romance” of 20th-century English song composer Gerald Finzi. Every piece is played with expression, energy, and an audible enjoyment of the journey.

My favorites on the album are Spektor’s “All the Rowboats,” Swindler’s “Divergence,” the tango-ish “Nueve Puntos” by Francisco Canaro, Karin Young’s Cajun-inspired “Rooster’s Wife,” and Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” That you will find your own favorites is the whole point. If you like music, you will find something to love on this CD.

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peace-piecePeace Piece: Karen Bentley Pollick plays music by Ole Saxe. Karen Bentley Pollick, violin and viola, with Justas Šervenikas and Ivan Solokov, piano, and Volkmar Zimmermann, guitar. Neptunus NEPCD012, 2015.

The extraordinary violinist/violist Karen Bentley Pollick has homes in Evergreen and in Vilnius, Lithuania. She performs widely in the U.S. and in Europe, and has performed in Boulder. (Disclosure: Pollick and I met when we were both graduate students at Indiana University and have remained friends since.)

Her recent disc “Peace Piece” is a good reflection of her interests: contemporary music, some written for her, music for both violin and viola, both accompanied and unaccompanied. In this case, the music is all by the Swedish composer Ole Saxe, and as the title suggests, most pieces are in some way related to the ideas of peace, justice, and human dignity.

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Ole Saxe

The centerpiece of the recording is the title track, Saxe’s “Peace Piece,” originally written for Swedish clarinetist Kjell Fageus and here arranged for violin and viola (both played by Bentley) and piano. This is the most musically dense piece on the CD, and perhaps the least approachable on casual listening. From different realms, the violin and viola seem to reach a musical accord—the symbolism is clear—and end sharing an energetic closing gesture.

The CD opens with “Human Rights Suite,” six pieces for solo violin based on six of the 30 articles of the UN “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Titled “Born Free,” “Right to Life,” “No Slavery,” “No Torture,” “Recognition,” and “Asylum,” the individual movements are both musically engaging and clearly expressive of their subjects.

The “Užupis Constitution Song,” celebrates the constitution of a self-declared “Republic of Užupis”—the artists’ district of Vilnius. The constitution, which may or may not be partly tongue in cheek, declares among other principles that “Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance,” “Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday,” and “Everyone has the right to be happy”—or, alternately, unhappy. (Read it all here .) But you can easily appreciate the flowing music, depicting the river Vilnelé that flows through Vilnius and along the border of Užupis, without reading the Užupian constitution.

Other tracks on the CD are dances: Daladans based on the folk music of Dalarna, Sweden; a sultry Tango Orientale; and a cheerfully Latinesque Rhumba de la Luna, part of a suite of dances that Saxe wrote for Pollick. Between the more serious pieces is a funky version of “Happy Birthday”—celebrating the rights of Užupians who choose to celebrate that day, or not?—and a beautiful and comforting final track for viola and guitar, arranged from Saxe’s “Faith” for clarinet and cello.

Pollick is a virtuoso who makes the music sound comfortably under her fingers. It is all played with great commitment, both musically and philosophically, by Pollick and her colleagues. A CD of such ideals and musical interest should find an audience in Boulder.

(Edited 2/29/16 to correct typos.)

Starkland’s new CD features music that is both accessible and deeply emotional

Boulder-based CD label releases acclaimed album of music by Martin Bresnick

By Peter Alexander

Pryaers cover“Prayers Remain Forever,” a new CD release from Boulder-based Starkland, is a wonderfully varied and deeply satisfying collection of six works by composer Martin Bresnick.

The six pieces on the album spring from very different sources: One was inspired by a personal experience, one by a painting by Goya, and three by literary sources. They are also diverse in instrumentation, ranging from solo violin and solo piano to a mixed quartet of violin, oboe, viola and cello. What they have in common is their expressivity. Bresnick, who teaches composition at Yale, is represented here by music that is personal, has an emotional depth, and is accessible to the listener.

Tom Steenland, who operates the Starkland CD label (which is under the umbrella of Spruceland Music, Inc., in case you were not already confused), is delighted to be issuing music that is easily appreciated. “I’m probably more excited about [new music today] than ever,” he says.

“In the mid-70s when I was studying composition, new music was pretty esoteric and not enjoyed much by the general public, but there’s been sort of a revolution since then. Music is more accessible, it’s exciting. People are interested in what composers are composing.

“It’s been a tremendous change I never would have envisioned.”

Tom Steenland

Tom Steenland

Steenland started the Starkland label in 1991 as a way of transferring music by Tod Dockstader from vinyl LPs to more up-to-date CDs. From that very first release, Steenland has seen the mission of his label to be the “promotion of alternative classical, experimental, and avant-garde music through the production of high-quality recordings.”

Composers in the Starkland catalogue include Jay Cloidt, Paul Dresher, Aaron Jay Kernis, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, John Zorn, and others. The label typically releases 3 or 4 recordings a year of about 1000 CDs each.

Martin Bresnick. Photo by Marc Ostow

Martin Bresnick. Photo by Marc Ostow

“Prayers Remain Forever” opens with “Going home – Vysoke, My Jerusalem” for oboe, violin, viola and cello. A mournful meditation on a visit to his ancestral home in Russia, where his immigrant grandparents had witnessed the murder of family members, this is a wonderful opening track that draws the listener in and prepares the emotional ground that Bresnick covers throughout the album. To my ears, this is the most deeply moving piece on the album, with the plaintive oboe weaving in and out of sustained strings, seeking but never quite finding repose.

“Ishi’s Song” for piano is based on a fragment of song recorded by Ishi, the last of California’s Yahi-Yani Indians, who died in 1916. The song fragment, sung by the pianist at the outset, is transformed into a bright, rhythmic minimalist sketch colored by pentatonic elements.

“Josephine The Singer” for solo violin is based on a Kafka story about a mouse who is—or fancies herself?—a great singer, although the fragmented, sketchy sounds from the violin do not suggest a singer of great lyrical qualities.

Francisco Goya: "Strange Devotion," Plate 66 of "Disasters of War"

Francisco Goya: “Strange Devotion,” Plate 66 of “Disasters of War”

“Strange Devotion” for piano was inspired by a Goya etching from “Disasters of War” in which peasants are kneeling before a cart of corpses drawn by a donkey. The plodding chords and the jingling of the donkey’s bells in the piano part both illustrate the image and convey the remorseless futility of war.

In “A Message From the Emperor,” two percussionists both recite and provide decoration for another short story by Kafka. Rattling marimba and xylophone capture the truly Kafka-esque tale of a messenger dispatched by a dying emperor with a critical message than can never be delivered.

The CDs final, title track, “Prayers Remain Forever” for cello and piano, takes its inspiration from a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever.” A virtuoso passage of accumulating momentum suddenly breaks down into a long, intense section that seems to illustrate the poem’s opening line, “Tombstones crumble.” The virtuosic, headlong rush into destruction ends the CD with a powerful image of finality.

I don’t listen to a lot of new CDs, but this strikes me as one of the best recordings of new music that I have heard in a long time. I am not alone in that evaluation: “Prayers Remain Forever” has been selected one of the best albums of new music in 2014 by Sequenza21, an important new music Web site; and received glowing reviews in the classical music publications Gramophone and Fanfare.

“Prayers Remain Forever”
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Music of Martin Bresnick: Going Home – Vysoke, My Jerusalem; Ishi’s Song; Josephine the Singer; Strange Devotion; A Message from the Emperor; Prayers Remain Forever. Performers: Double Entendre (Christa Robinson, oboe; Caleb Burhans, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; and Brian Snow, cello); Lisa Moore, piano; Sarita Kwok, violin; Michael Compitello and Ian Rosenblum, percussion and speakers; Ashley Bathgate, cello.

Starkland ST-221 (60:38)

Available from Amazon, Arkiv and iTunes.