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.

altius.2

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).

# # # # #

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

 

Advertisements

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.”

img_3821_ret_sm

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.

michaellowenstern

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.

# # # # #

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.

Hamelin

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.

# # # # #

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.

# # # # #

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.

Olestudio320

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”
StarkLogo04c2
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.