STARKLAND’S NEW RELEASES: FEARLESS, AUTHENTIC AND EXPERIMENTAL

Boulder’s new music label has added three albums to its catalog

By Izzy Fincher Sept. 24 at 1:15 pm.

Boulder-based label Starkland recently issued three CDs that explore contemporary music’s different personalities. Listeners who favor the familiar should begin with Danielle Buonaiuto’s aesthetically pleasing Marfa Songs, while adventurous listeners should dive headfirst into Kathleen Supové‘s bold Eye to Ivory and then Instruments of Happiness’ The Happiness Handbook

Instruments of Happiness: The Happiness Handbook Music by Scott Godin, Tim Brady, Jordan Nobles, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell and Emily Hall, performed by Instruments of Happiness. Starkland ST-232

Instruments of Happiness’ new release The Happiness Handbook explores eclectic guitar sounds, wandering through diverse textures and colors. 

The guitar collective Instruments of Happiness is led by Tim Brady, an innovative Canadian guitarist and composer. Since 1988, Brady has released 24 CDs. Instruments of Happiness is a diverse ensemble of electric guitarists that exists in three sizes: the original quartet, a chamber orchestra, and a 100-piece ensemble. Their second studio album The Happiness Handbook, which features music by Canadian composers, received Global Music Award’s Gold Medal in 2019 and Prix Opus in Quebec in 2020. 

The opening track, Scott Godin’s “Martlandia,” pays homage to British composer Steven Martland, who combined European minimalism with British aesthetics. After a convincing imitation of a Haydn string quartet, the electric guitars emerge with a minimalistic melody that after eight minutes peaks with light distortion. 

Meandering through different aural textures, the next four tracks at times lack cohesiveness. Brady’s “Equal But Opposite Reaction” begins with an ambient, foreboding texture, randomly exploding into riffs. Jordan Noble’s “Deep Field” sounds like bluesy improvisations wandered into a science fiction soundtrack. Maxime McKinley’s “Reflects de Francesca Woodman” opens with effervescent harmonics that later fall into distorted hard rock riffs. Gordon Fitzell’s “Bomb Crater Garden” emulates scraping space noises, rocket beeps and robotic bird sounds, with no clear direction.

But the final work, Emily Hall’s “The Happiness Handbook,” finds a sense of cohesion and definitive personality. In five movements, Hall constructs a minimalistic texture, underpinned by ambient noise, as rapid slurs, distortion, warbles, slides, harmonics and beeps fade in and out above. Intensity builds through the movements, and a direction emerges, until finally the last movement hints at a melody. Guitars strike bluesy chords and repeated notes amidst an echoey reverb, bringing a satisfying closure to the 15-minute adventure. 

The Happiness Handbook shows an expertise and mastery of electric guitar. The guitar collective can emulate nearly any natural sound and weave multi-layered textures with ease. At times, the tracks might seem aimless, but perhaps Instruments of Happiness is more focused on the journey than a clear destination—the first step toward happiness.

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Kathleen Supové: Eye to Ivory. Music by Mary Ellen Childs, Guy Barash, Nick Didkovsky, Randall Woolf and Dafna Naphtali, performed by Kathleen Supové, piano. Starkland ST-233

Kathleen Supové’s Eye to Ivory is an unforgettable album. It evokes overpowering visceral reactions, from confusion to fear to embarrassment, and leaves a pervasive sense of unease. My advice is don’t listen to it at night or when you are home alone.

Supové knows how to push musical boundaries. As a young pianist, she won top prizes in the Gaudeamus International Competition for her interpretations of contemporary music. In the Exploding Piano, her ongoing solo concert series, she has championed many contemporary composers, including Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski and Louis Andriessen. Her work earned her the prestigious ASCAP John Cage Award in 2012. On her newest project Eye to Ivory, she continues to stretch the limits of piano repertoire. 

The album begins eerily with the title track “Eye to Ivory” by Mary Ellen Childs. Housed in the piano’s lowest register, the opening notes blend together into a low hum, building to an angry crescendo. It is grimy and hazy with lots of pedal. Sometimes sharp high notes float in, fighting against the dark low sounds. The piece lacks clear direction—it is a collage of developing textures, all with the undercurrent of unease.

Guy Barash’s “Talkback IV” creates aural confusion. Static and garbled piano sounds bounce between the left and the right speakers. At times, the sounds seem to be coming from all directions, even bouncing straight through the listener’s brain.

With the next two tracks, “Rama Broom” and “In the Privacy of My Own Home,” the creepiness sets in. “Rama Broom,” composed by Nick Didkovsky, is an unsettling mind-twister. Using a homicidal fantasy text, Didkovsky introduces syllables out of order, leaving the listener to decode the threatening text. It’s like a drawn-out childhood nightmare. 

“In the Privacy of My Own Home” shows the different sides of laughter. It gets weird pretty fast. Supové’s husband Randall Woolf created the composition by mixing live piano with samples of Supové’s laughs during Abbot and Costello’s skit “Who’s on First?” The composition captures laughter in the contexts of humor, sadness, intimacy and insanity. At first, it’s interesting, but by the third or fourth movement, it’s unbearably awkward, creepy and a bit too personal. 

The final track, Dafna Naphtali’s “Landmine,” is a slight respite, though certainly not conventional. The composition seamlessly blends the acoustic piano performance with real-time processing. The music feels otherworldly, as if a conventional piano performance has been interrupted by space noise.

Eye to Ivory is emotionally challenging to listen to. At times, it’s not even aesthetically pleasing, but that doesn’t seem to be its goal anyway. Instead, the album succeeds where it counts—in its commitment to being fearless and memorable. 

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Danielle Buonaiuto: Marfa Songs. Music by James Young, Cecilia Livingston, Natalie Draper and Douglas Buchanan, performed by Danielle Buonaiuto, soprano, and John Wilson, piano. Starkland ST-234

Danielle Buonaiuto’s Marfa Songs is a conservative contrast to Eye to Ivory. With only soprano voice and piano, the album is beautifully raw and authentic. 

Buonaiuto is known for promoting contemporary art songs and chamber music. She has received grants from the Peabody Institute and New Music USA. In 2018, she received the Brooklyn Arts Council grant to launch ChamberQUEER, a LGBTQ+ chamber music series in Brooklyn, New York. She has been a founding member of several contemporary music ensembles, including REXDuo and the Lunar Ensemble. 

The final three tracks are the highlight of the album—Douglas Buchanan’s “Psalm 23,” “The Skye Boat Song” and “Loch Lomond.” Buchanan transports traditional Scottish folk melodies into the 21st century with colorful harmonies and dissonance. These tracks are a delight for adventurous Celtic music aficionados. 

“Psalm 23” and “Loch Lomond” stay true to the original Celtic tunes, though with reimagined harmonies. The simple melodies show off Buonaiuto’s delicate touch and vocal control. “Loch Lomond” mostly resides within her rich mid-range, building to a sparkling, mournful ending, as she laments “me and my true love will never meet again / on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.”

“The Skye Boat Song” is more romantic and experimental. Pianist John Wilson’s Debussy-esque arpeggios undulate like waves beneath free, improvisatory vocals. In the chorus, the ornamented vocals of “Speed, Bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing” seems to sway in the wind before taking flight.

James Young’s “Marfa Songs” are another notable work on the album. With nine movements in 14 minutes, “Marfa Songs” celebrates Young’s youth on the great plains of West Texas. The lyrics come from Anthony Madrid’spoetry collection I am your slave, now do what I say.

This work is more unpredictable and volatile than the Celtic tunes. At times, it sounds like an operatic, Wild-West version of Bernstein’s West Side Story.

”Heathen” sets the violent scene of western settlement, as Buonaiuto begs a  “war-weary general” to “call back your army, invincible army / show mercy to the heathen people.” The violent theme continues in ”Rope” and “Dragon,” before exploring love and heartbreak in “Mattress,” the jazzy lament ”Rival” and the cruel, mocking “Olympus.” “Olympus” is particularly aggressive, as Buonaiuto leaps to the top of her range, nearly screaming the word “Olympus.” Then the set waxes reflective on love and life with “Forgiveness,” “Ghost” and the eerie lullaby “Saguaro.”

Buonaiuto’s vocal and stylistic flexibility on Marfa Songs is impressive. From delicate Celtic folk songs to energetic western songs, Buonaiuto proves her profound vocal control—she can sing nearly anything convincingly and beautifully.

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

More music to fill the hours of isolation

The composer is familiar, the music is not

By Peter Alexander June 16 at 7:40 p.m.

Now is a great time to explore music you don’t know.

The last time I wrote on this topic, I suggested several unfamiliar composers whose music had been recorded by Boulder musicians. This time, the composer is very familiar—Leonard Bernstein—but the music is not—recordings of his solo piano and chamber music, including pieces written when he was an undergraduate student at Harvard. Contained in two albums and three discs, they all have been recorded by Andrew Cooperstock, professor of piano at CU, either alone or as part of the Opus Two duo with violinist William Terwilliger.

Leonard Bernstein: Violin Sonata • Piano Trio • New Transcriptions. Opus Two violin-piano duo ( William Terwilliger, violin and Andrew Cooperstock, piano) with Charles Bernard, cello, and Marin Mazzie, soprano. Naxos American Classics 8.559643

The chamber music disc features three large-scale works, all early: the Trio for violin, cello and piano of 1937; the Sonata for violin and piano of 1939; and the Sonata for Clarinet and piano of 1941–42, Bernstein’s first published piece, arranged for violin and piano by Terwilliger. The Trio and Violin Sonata were both written when Bernstein was a Harvard undergraduate. Both are student works, of historical interest but limited accomplishment.

The Clarinet Sonata is another matter. Written after Bernstein had left Harvard and begun studies at the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood summer institute, it was written for clarinetist David Oppenheim who was later director of Columbia Records’ Masterworks Division. This is an accomplished piece, marked by Bernstein’s ability to write attractive melodies without descending into triviality or cliché, and jazzy touches that anticipate Bernstein’s later style.

“I love that Sonata,” Cooperstock says. “I’ve played it a lot with clarinet, and we were looking for another piece to fill out the CD, and I thought this would be perfect. [The arrangement] was my idea, and I like it just as well on the violin as the clarinet.”

All three works are played with polish and expression. In the Clarinet Sonata particularly, Terwilliger displays a sweetness of tone that almost (disclosure here) allows clarinetists like myself to enjoy a borrowing from our limited repertoire. Violinists don’t have enough great music to play?

The arrangements mentioned in the disc title are from some of Bernstein’s musical theater works, as adapted by Eric Stern. In “Two House Songs,” Broadway veteran Marin Mazzie joins Cooperstock and Terwilliger. She brings a simple sincerity and clean diction to her gently affecting performances of songs from Peter Pan and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Four pieces from Candide have been arranged for violin and piano alone. This must be a great set for the performers, and all are fun to hear. In “I am Easily Assimilated,” one of the great show stoppers of Bernstein’s Broadway career, Cooperstock and Terwilliger enjoy themselves with the song’s raunchy sensuality, and they capture well the ironic tenderness of “You were Dead, you Know.”

The other two songs fare less well in the arrangement. “Glitter and be Gay,” another great showpiece, sounds too easy for violin for us to be dazzled as we are  by a coloratura soprano, and “Make Our Garden Grow” can’t build the way that the vocal version, taken up by one singer after another, is able to do.

Leonard Bernstein: Complete Solo Works for piano. Andrew Cooperstock, piano. Leonard Bernstein at 100, Bridge 9485A/B

The two-disc set of Bernstein’s piano music includes works both long and short, major concert works and occasional pieces. One disc is given over entirely to the latter, 29 “anniversaries” that Bernstein wrote for friends and family. These are extremely brief, ranging in length from 27 seconds (pianist William Kapell) to two minutes, 24 seconds (Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein’s wife).

The first of the two discs is devoted to the anniversaries, which Cooperstock compares to Romantic character pieces of the 19th century. “The anniversaries are my favorite pieces out of everything [Bernstein] wrote for piano solo,” he says. “They’re imaginative, they’re idiomatic, they’re well written.

“I like to compare them to Chopin Preludes.”

Each piece contains at least the germ of an individual idea and character, which Cooperstock’s performances capture well. I wish that some of them had developed the musical ideas further, since in their brevity some seem tossed off.

“Maybe there’s something to be said for less is more,” Cooperstock says. “I like that he’s composing them for friends and family, and that they have this extra meaning. They span most of his compositional output, so you see earlier pieces and later pieces.”

Some of the subjects are well known—composers, including Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss ad Stephen Sondheim—but others are not familiar to most of us—Elizabeth B. Ehrman, Craig Urquhart, and Helen Coates, Bernstein’s first piano teacher. The music has more depth and impact if you know something about the subject and their relationship with the composer—Cooperstock’s “extra meaning”—but they are all fun to hear in these eloquent performances.

The second disc is an eclectic collection of pieces. It includes another large piece from Bernstein’s college years, his Sonata for Piano, composed in 1938. The Sonata is taken seriously, befitting an undergraduate work, and is filled with both hints of the composer to come, and academic touches, including a fugue, to make the result as weighty as possible. There are also arid patches, where the young composer seems to run out of ideas.

Andrew Cooperstock

“If he weren’t Leonard Bernstein, I’m not sure we would play that piece very much,” Cooperstock confesses. “What’s interesting for me is that you can get a foreshadowing of what’s going to happen next. You can hear a little bit of West Side Story to come. And he’s experimenting with different sounds. It’s interesting putting context, knowing that it was hist first major piece for piano.”

The greatest point of interest on the second disc may be the “Bridal Suite” for piano, four hands, written for the wedding of two of Bernstein’s friends, Broadway lyricist/song writer Adolph Green and actress Phyllis Newman. “I love the Bridal Suite,” Cooperstock says.

In fact, he loves it enough to play both parts. “I just thought it would be fun to do both parts,” he says. “It’s not that there are not fabulous pianists in the area, but I thought, I want to do this by myself. I overdubbed myself for the recording, [which] I never did before.”

This is clearly one of Bernstein’s most clever pieces of work. It opens with a Prelude that is an adaptation of the famous Gounod Ave Maria—itself based on Bach’s Prelude to Book One of the Well Tempered Klavier—with Green’s “Just in Time” from Bells Are Ringing. There are wedding dances, including a cha-cha and a hora, and other delightful small character pieces. It ends with a tender “Magyar Lullaby,” too short for any baby to fall asleep and another piece that I wish were longer.

In summary, the music on both albums is uneven in quality, but the performances are not. And it is music that opens a door into one of the great figures of American music and culture of the 20th century. Bernstein had a profound influence on American musical life, and here you have the opportunity to see and hear more of his creativity. If you love West Side Story or any of his other works, or admire his work as conductor and educator to the American public, you should take the time to explore these works.

They are off the beaten path, but so are all the most rewarding adventures. 

How to fill the hours of isolation? Music by unfamiliar composers

New CDs from local performers offer rare pleasures

By Peter Alexander April 11 at 3:30 p.m.

The hours stretch empty before you, and you’ve already re-watched all 202 episodes of The X-files. Or was it Game of Thrones?

Now is the time to expand you horizons and discover music you don’t know, by composers whose names are not familiar. And happily, Boulder-area musicians have new offerings that you can order by internet and have delivered directly to your front porch without violating social distancing.

Here are four that are worth attention.

81OtBx57QHL._SL1200_Ernst Dohnányi: Piano Quintets Nos. 1 & 2, String Quartet No. 2. Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin, piano. Hyperion CDA68238

Hungarian composer Ernst Dohnányi is best known for his set of orchestral variations on the French nursery tune Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman, which you probably know as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” A highly skilled and original composer, he also wrote chamber music and pieces for piano that provide a more complete perspective of his output.

The Takács Quartet teamed up with pianist Marc-André Hamelin to record Dohnányi’s two piano quintets and the String Quartet No. 2. Presented in chronological order on the disc, the quartet falls neatly between the two quintets.

The First Piano Quintet, composed in 1895 when Dohnányi was 17, is a remarkably assured student work, and a perfect representation of post-Brahms late Romanticism. The movements are carefully plotted out and filled with attractive themes. This is music to let wash over you and enjoy the warm blanket of sound. There are moments of excess, when the layering of figuration and overripe harmonies threaten to over-thicken the soup, but Hamelin and the Takács players do a remarkable job of maintaining transparency.

Dohnányi’s style matures and shifts over the course of the three works, but it is always marked by the late Romantic ethos. The String Quartet, composed in 1906, 11 years after the First Quintet, is at times lighter in tone, with notable playful touches in the first movement. The second movement (marked “presto acciacato,” or “crushed presto”) is a propulsive, driven scherzo-like movement, which the Takács plays with perfect precision, with a thoroughly contrasting, gentle chorale in the center.

The Second Quintet, written on the precipice of the First World War in 1914, is the most original and striking piece on the disc. Too early to have been influenced by better known works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev, it almost seems to foreshadow the neo-classical style that would emerge after the war. It is marked by sudden, quirky changes of direction and mood. Here Hamelin and the Takács are at their best, bringing out every swerve of mood without losing the forward movement of the music.

This is a disc filled with remarkable pleasures: engaging, interesting music given exemplary performances. Whether you listen with attention to details or prefer to sit back and simply enjoy, you will find much to appreciate on the disc. Available here and here.

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TOCC0528_webcoverHermann Grädener: Orchestral Music, Vol. One. Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, op. 22; Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, op. 41. National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, Gottfried Rabl, conductor, with Karen Bentley Pollick, violin. Toccata Classics TOCC 0528.

The German/Austrian composer Hermann Grädener taught at the Vienna Conservatory for 35 years (1877-1913). His works were often found on concert programs in Vienna and elsewhere, if not warmly embraced by the stern critics of the time. After his death, however, he disappeared, and in recent years his music has gone unrecorded and is nearly impossible to find.

Or it was until Viennese conductor Gottfried Rabl and his Indiana University grad-schoolmate violinist Karen Bentley Pollick began investigating his music. (Pollick is a Colorado Mahlerfest festival artist who has performed in Boulder and served as principal second violinist in last year’s Mahlerfest orchestra. Disclosure: I also knew her when we were both students at Indiana University, and we have stayed in touch over the years.)

Pollick and Rabl have teamed up for the first volume of a planned series of recordings of Grädener’s orchestral works, a CD of his two violin concertos with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. This is a well played and well engineered recording of music that is available nowhere else. As such it is a worthy addition to any collection.

Grädener was born before Dohnányi, and is consequently more in the Romantic mainstream than post-Romantic—or as the liner notes laconically state, he was firmly “downstream from Brahms.” His music is lush, sometimes overripe, always attractive to the ear. It is filled with striking Romantic moments, from the very first opening solo by the horn in the First Concerto.

The first movements of both concertos are on the longwinded side, with discursive passages that tend to wander. It’s all pleasant music, if occasionally overripe, that sometimes gives the impression of having lost the plot. The shorter movements are more successful, particularly the second movement of the second concerto, where a lyrical opening section with long, flowing melodic lines is followed by a more energetic middle section and a return of the opening mood.

Both finales are buoyant rondos. That of the First Concerto has plenty of fireworks which Pollick handles gracefully. The finale of the Second Concerto opens dramatically, but soon turns to a more cheerful character, again played with assurance.

Pollick plays with an alluring sound and great confidence. Rabl and the Ukrainian orchestra provide a solid background. They never threaten to overwhelm the soloist; indeed, either the performance or the engineering so favor the soloist that the orchestra seems understated.

These is no question that this is attractive music, skillfully woven together. The recording helps fill in a blank spot in the history of 19th-century music and is certainly worth enjoying, but whether either concerto adds up to more than a lovely 35–40 minutes in the concert hall—or sitting in front of your speakers—is something each listener will have to decide. Available here and here.

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91+vB0jSWxL._SL1396_Paul Juon: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1–3. Charles Wetherbee, violin, and David Korevaar, piano. Naxos 8.574091.

Paul Juon, much like Hermann Grädener, had a successful career as a teacher and composer before falling into obscurity. Born in Russia to Swiss parents, he was educated in Moscow and Berlin, and spent most of his professional life in the latter city. He is another conservative late-Romantic composer who music is associated with an earlier generation; during his lifetime, he was called “the Russian Brahms.”

Over the years there have been a few recordings of his music, most recently a disc from Naxos featuring CU faulty Charles Wetherbee, violin (known to many as concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic) and David Korevaar, piano, performing Juon’s three sonatas for violin and piano.

Although his style is comfortably Romantic, Juon is on some ways a strange composer who avoids the expected. Korevaar’s notes for the album says the his music “suggests a narrative,” which may be another way of saying that it is episodic. Juon often writes wonderful, striking fragments that never quite coalesce into whole themes.

This is especially evident in the first work on the disc, the Sonata No. 2 in F major of 1920. Playing different material, the violin and piano respond to one another in an interesting musical dialog throughout the first movement. Their disparate themes and motives are like pieces of a mosaic that create an image that is always colorful, never quite distinct.

The slow movement features mysterious meanderings full of odd twists and turns. Once again the violin and piano take turns commenting on each other’s different themes and motives. The finale moves from a light, airy opening that suggests a traditional finale, but transforms unexpectedly to a more spooky feeling.

The one-movement Sonata No. 3 in B minor from 1920 features a lovely central section in slower tempo. This leads to a jolly conclusion that is the closest Juon comes to providing the expected, but still with his own surprise twists.

The First Sonata in A major (1898) offers the most conventional music on the disc. All three movements have clear structures and identifiable, if highly individual themes. In spite of being the longest individual movement of the three sonatas, the first movement is the easiest to follow. Its attractive themes are laid out in a clear ex[position, and can be discerned though the extensive development section. The second movement is an uncomplicated set of variations of contrasting moods and styles, and the finale is a lively rondo.

The sensitive partnership between Korevaar and Wetherbee make this disc a pleasure to listen to. They match each other well through all the thematic give and take, maintaining a comfortable balance between the two voices. Wetherbee plays warmly and with great expression, especially in the slower, reflective passages. The performance is marked by a careful sensitivity to the shifts of mood and expressive swerves that characterize Juon’s style.

If you enjoy exploring unfamiliar byways of the Romantic style, this disc will be most rewarding. Available here and here.

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71GxFdVIH2L._SL1426_Longing: Chamber Music of Reza Vali. Charles Wetherbee violin; David Korevaar, piano; Dariush Saghafi, santoor; Carpe Diem String Quartet. MSR Classics 1738.

More adventurous than the CDs of music by Dohnányi, Grädener and Juon is Longing, a new disc from the Carpe Diem String Quartet that features the music of Iranian-American composer Reza Vali. Several disparate works of chamber music are performed by the quartet, and by their first violinist Charles Wetherbee, again with pianist David Korevaar. Dariush Saghafi joins them playing the Santoor, an Iranian and Indian hammered dulcimer, for one track.

Vali was born in Iran, educated in Tehran, Vienna and the United States, and now teaches composition at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. His music embraces both his Iranian/Persian cultural heritage and his education in Western styles and genres. It is an intriguing mix, though the two are more comfortably paired in some works than in others.

The album includes two sets of pieces for violin and piano, “Three Romantic Songs” and “Love Drunk,” five folk song settings. All eight movements are essentially very conservative, Romantic character pieces, relatively short (1”32” to 3’31”) and expressing a single mood. They are varied, from wistful fragments to strongly characterized dance pieces to a forceful memory of a lost beloved.

For the most part the music of these duets flows on the surface of romantic yearnings, with a heavy sense of nostalgia deriving from the conservative 19th-century idiom. Wetherbee and Korevaar’s expressive performances bring out the varied qualities of the movements, while revealing glimpses of deeper feelings.

The remaining other works on the disc—all for string quartet—draw heavily on Vali’s Iranian/Persian musical heritage. Some are based on folk songs, others make us of Persian modes, which are significantly different from Western keys and scales

Listening to these works I often had the sense of a meaning, a structure and a musical sense that remains just beyond my Western-trained comprehension. This music provides a great adventure for the adventurous listener, even when it seems partly hidden behind a veil of unfamiliarity.

santoor

Santoor

The most interesting work is Calligraphy No. 14, part of an ongoing series of works, also titled Âshoob. This work exists in two versions, both a little over 6 minutes in length, one for string quartet alone and one for string quartet and santoor, a type of hammered dulcimer found in Iran and India. For the recording, the santoor is played by Darius Saghafi, a medical doctor and master santoor player.

The version with santoor has an exoticism that is enchanting. The santoor gives the music a stronger profile than in the version for strings alone. For me this is the best track on the album, an engaging mix of Western and Eastern elements that fit comfortably together with no sense of unease.

I do not have the expertise to know how well the Carpe Diem Quartet handles the Persian elements in Vali’s scores, although it is clear that they play with confidence and commitment. They are a solid quartet, and in this unusual and challenging repertoire they have their parts well under control. Most likely a native Iranian will hear their playing differently than I do, but I find the result intriguing and engaging. At its best, this an adventurous and enjoyable album. Available here and here.

 

 

 

 

David Korevaar is appointed CU College of Music’s second distinguished professor

Two recent CDs illustrate his breadth and depth as performerSept. 18 at 3:50 p.m.

By Peter Alexander Sept. 18 at 3:50 p.m.

The University of Colorado, Boulder, has appointed prof. of piano David Korevaar as a distinguished professor.

DK.Horizontal

Distinguished Professor of Piano David Korevaar

Korevaar, the Helen and Peter Weil Faculty Fellow in the College of Music, joined the CU faculty in 2000. He is one of 106 CU faculty to receive that honor, and only the second faculty member from the College of Music. The first was former director of bands Allan McMurray in 2004.

According to the announcement from the university, Korevaar said “I got a phone call out of the blue from [University of Colorado president Mark] Kennedy. While I’d been fully aware that my name had been put in the pool, I did not expect the honor to come to me given the amazing contributions of so many in so many fields in the CU system. I’m completely blown away at the support I received from friends and colleagues both within and outside the university.”

Illustrating the remarkable breadth of Korevaar’s performing career, two CDs by him have recently be released by MSR Classics. Both come from relatively unexplored areas of the repertoire, reflecting Korevaar’s adventurous and energetic approach to music as well as the depth of his interpretations.

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Liebermann discLowell Liebermann: Piano Music, Volume 3: Nocturnes No. 8–11, Variations on a Theme of Schubert, op. 100; Two Impromptus, op. 131; and Piano Sonata No. 3, op. 82. David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics MS 1688.

Korevaar has now released three volumes of the piano music of Lowell Liebermann, a contemporary pianist and composer who lives in New York and teaches composition at Mannes College/The New School of Music. The latest volume features both shorter and longer works, ranging from impromptus of about four and five minutes length, and a sonata that is nearly 18 minutes.

The four nocturnes on the recording are filled with sparkling flourishes that recall the legacy that Chopin and the Irish composer John Field first bestowed on the genre. Korevaar’s restraint and transparency serves these passages well, but the delicacy of the decoration conceals a much more complex texture that Korevaar makes audible beneath the ornamentation.

lowell_liebermann_016

Lowell Liebermann

Liebermann’s Variations on a Theme of Schubert is for me the most intriguing work on the disc. Based on the lovely and uncomplicated song Heidenröslein (Little heather rose), the variations start with a simple statement of the song theme, then goes immediately into a variation that declares, regardless of the origin of the theme, that this is not music from an 1820s Viennese salon.

The music becomes increasingly distant from Schubert’s world, until the theme seems to disappear, with only passing diatonic passages to suggest where the journey started. Liebermann uses traditional variation techniques, including imitation and sequence, as he builds ever more complex and dense variations. Then approaching the end, the melody emerges again from the complex texture, and his briefly heard in its pure state.

All of this is easily described and followed because Korevaar’s playing is so clean, the texture is always transparent, and the emotional profile is so well defined. It is hard to imagine the piece played better.

The same is true of the Sonata, which however requires a different set of pianistic tools. This is adventurous pianism: Korevaar in his liner notes refers to a “frenzied outburst” of “desperate virtuosity” in the “wildly virtuosic finale.” If it sounds less than frenzied on the disc, you can attribute that to Korevaar’s calm control and his mastery of the necessary virtuosity.

Fan’s of Liebermann’s music or contemporary piano works will want to own this disc, which presents an attractive variety of works, beautifully played.

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Perrachio coverLuigi Perrachio: Nove Poemetti/25 Preludi per pianoforte. David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics MS 1710.

Korevaar’s most recent recording certainly exemplifies his adventurous approach to repertoire. He came across the music of Luigi Perrachio, a mostly forgotten Italian pianist, music teacher and composer from the first half of the 20thcentury, in the CU Music Library and was immediately intrigued. In this, the first recording of Perrachio’s Nove Poemetti (Nine little poems) and 25 Preludes, Korevaar makes a very strong case for the composer and his music.

Described as an “Italian Impressionist,” Perrachio wrote music that shows the influence of Debussy and Ravel, both of whom the composer met in Paris. This influence is shown in the poetic titles of the Nove Poemetti, including Sera (Evening), Zefiro(Zephyr) and Danzatrici a Lesbos (Dancers in Lesbos), as well as the atmospheric and somewhat dreamy style of the music.

These impressionistic sketches are the most successful pieces in the set, clearly reflecting their titles in music of gentle expressivity. Other movements (La notte del morti, The night of the dead) seem more abstracted, less tethered to an image or expressive current.

In contrast to the Poemetti, the Preludes are more direct, not nearly as delicate or atmospheric. The program notes describe the Preludes as muscular and neo-classical in style; to me, they recalled the Preludes of Chopin rather than those of Bach or any Classical-era composers.

Korevaar’s playing captures the mood and expression of each of the miniatures on the disc. His delicate touch and transparency of sound are particularly effective in the Nove Poemetti, but he is more than up to the stronger profile and more robust style of the preludes.

These are all attractive and worthwhile pieces that deserve a place in the repertoire. I hope that Korevaar’s beautiful and convincing performances will bring Perrachio to wider notice and his accessible, smaller works find a place on piano recital programs.

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.

David-and-Becky-portrait

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

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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.)