Musical Adventures 5: Music as a unifying power

Donna Weng Friedman supports the AAPI community with a recording of diverse composers

By Izzy Fincher May 11 at 11 p.m.

Donna Weng Friedman believes music is a unifying power.

As a Chinese-American pianist, she wants to use her platform to promote compassion and tolerance for people of all backgrounds, especially for the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community during COVID-19.

“I believe if I share stories and music of leading Asian-American musicians, people can feel more connected to (our community),” Friedman says. “I hope there can be more understanding and empathy and less blame.”

In honor of AAPI heritage month, Friedman released her EP (extended play recording) Heritage and Harmony: Silver Linings May 1. For the EP, she collaborated with Indian American soprano Indira Mahajan to perform four works by AAPI and BIPOC composers Beata Moon, Florence Price, Chinary Ung and Margaret Bonds. All proceeds will be donated to the Korean American Community Foundation. 

For Friedman, recording this EP has been an emotional and intensely personal process, which helped her cope with the trauma of 2020.

In March of 2020, Friedman experienced an anti-Asian racist incident. While walking in New York’s Central Park at midday, she was verbally assaulted by a large man, who shouted racist insults and tried to rush her. For the next six months, she felt unable to leave her apartment. Later in the year, she and her family all became sick with COVID-19.

Donna Weng Friedman

Meanwhile, anti-Asian violence continued to increase around the U.S. Last year, the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, a non-partisan research and policy center, reported that the number of anti-Asian hate crimes rose by nearly 150%. According to their data, hate crimes in New York City, where Friedman lives, increased by 833% to 28 in 2020 from only three in 2019.

“Seeing (anti-Asian hate) last year was so heartbreaking,” Friedman says. “I felt it was my responsibility to do something.”

In response, she decided to share music from AAPI composers and performers with her community. Last May for AAPI heritage month, she created the video series Heritage & Harmony in partnership with WQXR. The series includes eight traditional and contemporary works by AAPI composers, including Christopher Tin’s Baba Yetu, the first video game score to win a Grammy Award.  

Since then, Friedman has continued to perform works by underrepresented composers, leading to the creation of Heritage and Harmony: Silver Linings. The EP opens with Prelude for solo piano by Moon. A Korean-American composer and pianist, she was one of Friedman’s fellow piano students at Juilliard before she began composing professionally. Written in 1995, Prelude was her first composition. 

“This song touched me on a very deep level,” Freidman says. “It’s so hard to explain. It gives me this sense of calm and contentment.”

The third track is Ung’s Space Between the Fish and the Moon for solo piano, which Friedman previously recorded for the WXQR series. Ung is a Cambodian composer based in California who draws on elements of traditional Cambodian music and Buddhist spirituality in his work. Space Between the Fish and the Moon was inspired by the poem Night Oceans by Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet.

Friedman feels a strong connection to Ung’s works, which remind her of her own Buddhist upbringing.

“This piece is very special to me,” she says. “It reminds me of attending the Buddhist temple on Sundays with my parents. During the meditation, monks would ring these little bells. It would create this reflective atmosphere, which I hear in Ung’s music.”

Friedman with soprano Indira Mahajan

For the other two works, Friedman decided to pivot toward underrepresented composers outside of the AAPI community. Price, the first Black woman recognized as a symphonic composer, has seen a resurgence in popularity since her unpublished scores were discovered in 2018. Bonds, a former student of Price, was known for her arrangements of Black spirituals and collaborations with the poet Langston Hughes.

In collaboration with Mahajan. Friedman recorded Price’s art song Night, set to text by Black poet Louise C. Wallace, and Bond’s arrangement of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Hes Got the Whole World in His Hands is very uplifting,” Friedman says. “It makes me feel hopeful and optimistic, even after my family became sick with COVID. I am very grateful that my family and I are healthy now, and I’m grateful to have this music.”

Though sharing her story has been difficult, Friedman hopes it will inspire others to speak out about anti-Asian racism and empower others to becomes allies, even in small ways.

“I think the AAPI community is finally speaking out,” she says. “We are finally finding our voices together.”

“There are so many people who want to support the AAPI community, but they don’t know what to do and how to do it,” Friedman continues. “By streaming this EP, they can directly support our community. Every little bit helps.”

CORRECTIONS: Friedman was verbally assaulted by a man in New York’s Central Park, not a white man as an earlier version of this story stated. The sentence on Chinary Ung’s use of ideas drawn from Buddhist spirituality has been re-worded to better reflect the connection outlined in his personal bio. The source of information on hate crimes has been identified, information that was not originally included in the article.

Musical Adventures 3: New arrivals in my mailbox

From America’s musical heritage to 21st-century Geneva

By Peter Alexander Feb. 22 at 11:25 a.m.

One of the perks of job that I do is that people send me recordings.

They want me to review or write about them. Sometimes they come in the U.S. mail, actual CDs. Sometimes they come in the form of links to Mp3 files, although I prefer not to review those because the sound quality of CDs is better. Sometimes I write and ask for a CD instead, and sometimes they send me one.

These recent CDs that showed up in my mailbox all provide opportunities to hear music outside of standard concert fare. This is all the more welcome as the past year has shown even more clearly than usual how much of the music on offer is the same from concert to concert, place to place, year to year. These discs contain music that is definitely not standard concert fare, and they are recommended to help widen your horizons. 

A Quiet Madness” (Belarca records belarca-008) features music by composer William Susman (b. 1960). In addition to composing for concert and film, Susman heads the New York-based contemporary ensemble OCTET and Belarca Records

His music has the characteristics of post-20th-century minimalism—a term he apparently accepts, since it appears in the liner notes for the CD. It is generally characterized by sections of unchanging textures with shifting harmonies. Endings of sections and pieces are not preceded by any recognizable cadential momentum; they just stop, as if to say, “And that’s all I have to say on that subject.”

The CD has six tracks, opening with “Aria,” performed by Susman on piano with violinist Karen Bentley Pollick, who is known in Boulder as festival artist and principal second violin with Mahlerfest. Tracks 2, 4 and 6 are titled “Quiet Rhythms” nos. 1, 5 and 7, solo piano pieces played by Francesco Di Fiore. Filling the other slots are “Seven Scenes for Four Flutes,” all parts performed with apparently effortless cohesion by Patricia Zuber (Track 3); and “Zydeco Madness,” performed on accordion by Stas Venglevski.

In “Aria,” Pollick soars sweetly above a murmuring piano accompaniment for long passages broken by occasional spells of pizzicato and rhythmic double stops. The music moves organically through several sections that are unified by a mood of calm continuity At the end, the violin’s long descending scales build in intensity and weight. Not exactly purposeful, this is music of sustained grace and tranquility.

The three “Quiet Rhythms” convey the essence of Susman’s style. Each is in two sections separated by a sudden stop and instant of silence. While the rhythmic motion and mood of each section is distinct, they all convey a sense of a boundless vista, suddenly interrupted.

With a sense of nervous energy, “Zydeco Madness” stands apart from the others. The rate of change is faster, creating an impression of a series of studies in accordion techniques. Characteristic textures are animated by cheerful syncopations, creating the mood of zydeco if not the sound. 

All performances are exemplary, within the relatively narrow palette of emotions and musical impulses Susman requires. This is not a recording that will quicken your pulse, but in these days it is a welcome break from the tensions and stresses of our daily lives, a musical environment that you can sink comfortably into.

Pianist Jeni Slotchiver is catching the wave of interest in music by African-American composers with the well chosen and intriguing program for her disc titled American Heritage” (Zoho clasix ZM202008). 

The disc includes works by virtually all of the most important Black composers from the 19th and early 20thcenturies, starting with the American Jewish/Creole virtuoso pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829–69); Harry T. Burleigh (1866–1949), who sang spirituals for Dvořák; The English Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912), who toured the U.S. three times; R. Nathaniel Dett (1882–1943); the remarkable African-American women composers Florence Price (1887–1953) and Margaret Bonds (1913–1972); and William Grant Still (1895–1978).

Many of these composers have undergone a rediscovery during the past year, as political winds and the time to explore new repertoire have liberated performers from the tyranny of expected repertoire. (Note recent CU faculty Tuesday recitals by David Korevaar and Andrew Cooperstock.) The advantage of Slotchiver’s disc is that it brings so many disparate voices together in one place, giving both listeners and performers an entrée into an important and underrepresented part of our musical history.

The pieces that stood out for me were Burleigh’s suite of six small pieces From the Southland and Price’s three Dances in the Canebrakes, two sets of Romantic character pieces transported to the American south. They are marked with gentle syncopations, just enough to be a little “raggy” but not too much for the genteel listeners of their era.

Gottschalk contributes two showpieces to the collection: “Union,” a collection of Civil-War-era patriotic songs, including “The Star Spangled Banner” (not yet the National Anthem): and “Banjo,” a captivating pianistic evocation of the ultimate southern folk instrument. Dett’s “Juba,” his most frequently performed piece, sparkles along energetically, and Still’s “Blues from Lenox Avenue” enters a different expressive realm altogether.

One piece stands apart, as it is by a living composer and therefore stylistically removed from the others. Although it is by white composer, Frederic Rzewski’s “Down by the Riverside” is based on an African-American spiritual and thus dips into similar source material as other works on the disc.

One of the most interesting composers writing today, Rzewski is well worth knowing. If you have not heard his great set of variations “The People United will never be Defeated,” listen to it now. At just under seven minutes, “Down by the Riverside” cannot rival “The People United” for impact, but it is a good example of Rzewski’s virtuosic and dazzlingly modern style.

Slotchiver’s performances are precise and detailed throughout, with individual lines and syncopations carefully delineated. Her performances reflect the salon more than the concert stage. The syncopations are all gentle, the style refined, when a little more raw energy would bring the music more vividly to life and cast the profile of each piece into greater relief.

This is a worthwhile collection, perfect for our times. Here you can venture off the beaten path with music that sounds reassuringly familiar in its American-ness. It is an important part of our musical heritage that is way overdue for discovery.

The great Romantic violin concertos—Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and others—are standard parts of the concert repertoire. You may be familiar with the normal outline of those concertos. Meanwhile, violinist Andrew Wan will rewire your conception of music for violin and orchestra with his CD Ginastera – Bernstein – Moussa recorded with conductor Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (Analekta AN 2 8920).

Two of the three works on the CD are called concertos, but neither quite conforms to the standard mold. And the third piece may sound like a concerto, but it is actually a hybrid of the concerto and the descriptive tone poem.

First on the CD is the Violin Concerto of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). A late work in the composer’s output, the concerto does not have the colorful folkloric elements of his earlier music. Instead, it is a more thorny work based on 12-tone serial techniques.

Nor does it present a familiar concerto structure. Its barely discernible three movements unfold in five sections. The first movement starts with a wandering, introspective cadenza for solo violin. The second half of the movement comprises six studies, each a variation on the work’s tone row, each exploiting a different violin technique and a different orchestral sound quality.

The slow movement is a lyrical interlude that comes closest to a normal concerto movement. The finale is again in two parts: a pianissimo scherzo that leaps from one virtuosic flourish to another, interrupted by fleeting fragments, including hints of Paganini; and a fiery, whiplash Perpetuum mobile.

Wan plays with extreme delicacy when needed, but no shortage of flair. You won’t come away humming the themes of Ginastera’s score, but you might have a broader view of what a concerto can be.

The disc’s other concerto, by young Canadian composer Samy Moussa (b. 1984), stretches the frame in different ways. Three movements—an ethereal prelude, another written-out cadenza, and an ominous, driven movement that surges to a powerful close bound to elicit applause—are played without pause. Than, after the apparent ending, the beginning returns, a sweetly ascending line that takes the soloist into the heights of the violin’s range.

This is music that seduces the listener from the outset. Through the first two movements, there is a hint of menace beneath the soaring violin part. That menace is realized with a sudden outburst of ominous chords after the cadenza. These movements create a dramatic arc culminating with the final chords of the third movement, while the unexpected return to the opening idea provides relief and a surprise. I look forward to hearing more of the inventive composer’s music.

Between the two concertos is Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, after Plato’s “Symposium.” This work is hardly unknown—it was played at the Colorado Music Festival’s opening concert in 2018—but it has not quite entered the standard solo repertoire.

Plato’s Symposium presents a series of seven discourses on love, placed in the context of an evening of eating, drinking and carousing. Bernstein portrays Plato’s discourses in music, making the score half concerto, half program music. The seven parts are compressed into five movements, each in a separate and distinct style reflecting the content the speeches.

You need not read Plato to enjoy the Serenade. The score in unified by Bernstein’s genial, accessible style. The violin is shown to good advantage, particularly its lyrical qualities. Most memorable is the last movement, in which a sober, serious  speech by Socrates is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the drunken Alcibiades. As the party descends into raucous chaos, Bernstein’s jazzy side emerges, for a flashy and virtuosic ending.

Wan performs with aplomb in these three very different works. He charges fearlessly through Ginastera’s atonal fireworks, and soars sweetly through the first two movements of Sousa. Nagano and the Montréal players provide expressive support. This is a fascinating disc, a musical adventure to be relished.

The disc titled Journey to Geneva (Solo Musica SM 345) with cellist Estelle Revaz and conductor Arie van Beek with the L’Orchestre de Chambre de Genève is more a celebration of Geneva than just a journey. The composers represented on the disc, Frank Martin (1890–­1974) and Xavier Dayer (b. 1972) , are natives of Geneva, as is Revaz, while the orchestra and conductor are based there.

Martin is a highly individual composer who nonetheless observes the outer conventions of the form in his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1956-66). The son of a Calvinist minister, Martin wrote music of a seriousness derived from his Christian faith, which he described as “certainly broader than Calvinism.” His personal use of a more or less tonal variant of the 12-tone technique gives his music a searching, unsettled quality that is enriched by pulsing rhythms.

The Cello Concerto opens with a singing solo passage, played by Revaz with beautiful tone and great expression. The first movement continues with a faster section marked by motor rhythms that propel the music forward until the return of the opening soliloquy. The second movement presents a bleak landscape, with a melancholy, searching quality in the solo part. The finale has a driving, angst-ey feeling. Reflective, slower passages in the solo are interrupted by Martin’s characteristic rhythmic bursts in the orchestra. An uneasy cadenza leads to a rather sudden close.

The Concerto is followed by Martin’s Ballade for Cello, which the composer aptly described as “lyrical and epic.” A highly chromatic opening from the cello leads to a series of contrasting episodes in a free, fantasy-like form that is anchored at the end with a definitive, tonal-sounding ending. With its free-flowing form, this is an even more characteristic expression of Martin’s semi-tonal style: largely untethered from key, often slightly uneasy, always moving toward an uncertain resolution.

Martin’s music is highly individual and represents an eloquent musical expression of mid-twentieth-century anxiety. Not particularly comforting, not necessarily pleasurable on the surface, it is deeply human and powerfully communicative.

Dayer was born in Geneva and studied guitar and composition in his home country; today he teaches composition in Bern. An eclectic composer of many varied works, he finds inspiration in Renaissance polyphony, in contemporary visual arts and poetry, and the works of modernist composers including Webern, Elliott Carter and Iannis Xenakis.

His Lignes d’Est (Vanishing Lines to the East; 2020) opens with another solo cello statement, but in a very diferent world than in Martin’s works. Here the soloist is heard against a vibrating background of orchestra trills and emphatic, punctuating chords. Like Martin’s Ballade, the solo opening is followed by a series of loosely connected episodes, each marked by a distinctive sound from the orchestra.

I cannot hear what Dayer descries as “vanishing lines in a vast landscape.” The music moves through its various episodes, with the cello providing commentary to the orchestra’s varying landscapes. The solo part presents fragments of repeated pattens with no evident destination, until, with a sudden plucked, consonant chord, the piece comes to and end. 

All of these pieces are performed with dedication and commitment by Revaz and the orchestra. Her tone is gorgeous throughout, and she extracts deep feeling from every gesture. 

For me, their performances of the Martin works, fascinating artifacts from the mid-20th century, are the highlights of the disc. Dayer provides a glimpse of current musical work from Switzerland, something we do not often hear. As such it is an illuminating piece of the many-colored musical world that we live in. 

Musical Adventures 1: Now’s the time to explore new musical territories

A Grammy nominee and a new disc from the Takacs Quartet

By Peter Alexander Jan. 19 at 11:15 p.m.

I am someone who enjoys adventures, in music as in other ways.

I’m not as interested in new Beethoven recordings, although I got notices about plenty of them last year. (In case you were completely isolated last year: 2020 was the 250th anniversary of his birth.) But give me a recording with composers I have never heard before, and I will go straight to the CD player.

Since we are likely to be isolated for a while longer, now is a good time for you to have your own musical adventures. Committed performances of music we don’t know, even music we don’t like, helps clean out the ears and open the mind to new experiences. If you don’t like it, don’t listen again; but at least you know what’s out there.

In that spirit, this is the first of several articles I plan to write about recordings that offer musical adventures, small steps into new territory. And if one of these is not new territory for you, congratulations. I will have other suggestions.

There is no better place to start than a stunning recent recording by violist Richard O’Neill, the newest member of the Takács quartet. His performance of the Concerto for viola and chamber orchestra by Christopher Theofanidis with the Albany Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Alan Miller (Albany Records TROY1816, released August 2020) has been nominated for a classical music Grammy. Since the Grammy awards have been postponed until March 14, you can hear the recording before the winners are announced.

Theofanidis teaches composition at Yale and is co-director of the composition program at the Aspen Music Festival. His orchestral work Rainbow Body has been performed by more than 150 orchestras worldwide. He is a composer of remarkably wide imagination and creativity, as his Viola Concerto shows.

The concerto was written for the violist Kim Kashkashian in 2002 and revised for O’Neill in preparation of his performances and recording. Partly inspired by Navajo texts, it is by design a work of great emotional intensity. “It is written as a response to [Kashkashian’s] incredible intensity and focus as a performing artist,” Theofanidis wrote.

O’Neill provides all the intensity Theofanidis calls for. As soloist he creates a wide palette of sounds that match the kaleidoscopic moods and sounds of the score. The are passages of dark, brooding gloom and fleet passages of sheer virtuosity, with O’Neill flying through these changes without a hitch or a stumble.

Each movement has its own individual rewards. The first is dominated by pulsing sounds in the orchestra, an extension of drum patterns that open the movement, interrupted by fleet passages for the soloist. The second enters a totally different sound world, with a static orchestral haze overlaid with barely-musical fragments for the soloist that gradually coalesce to reach a moment of passionate intensity.

The emotional high point is the third movement, written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and using a Sikh melody that was sung at a memorial held at Yankee Stadium. Here O’Neill’s expressive playing creates a deep sense of mourning. This is eloquent music of loss, a barren emotional landscape that accepts the light of consolation only at the end. After this catharsis, the scurrying finale closes the concerto with an explosion of energy.

So varied are the movements and their internal sections that it is easy to see why this recording stood out to the Grammy committee. O’Neill’s interpretation and integration of the disparate elements seems flawless as he flies confidently through this emotionally virtuosic work. “No matter what happens with this nomination,” O’Neill says, “ I think this piece deserves to be in the repertoire.”

The Viola Concerto is paired on Albany’s disc with Theofanidis’s Violin Concerto, played by Miller and the Albany Symphony with violinist Chee-Yun. Another dramatic and varied work, it is dominated by a movement based on a theme the composer wrote for his new-born daughter. That moment of lyrical blossoming is framed by a dramatic movement where the soloist seems pitted in a struggle with forces of nature, and another whirlwind finale.

# # # # #

Takacs

The full Takacs Quartet, recorded before O’Neill replaced Geraldine Walther in the viola chair, offers a comfortable adventure with their recording of the piano quintets of Amy Beach and Edward Elgar. Released in June, the recording was made with pianist Garrick Ohlsson (Hyperion CDA68295).

The first American woman to achieve success as a composer, Beach was a teenaged piano prodigy in the 1880s but had to give up her public career when she married. She published first under the name Mrs. H.H.A. Beach until her husband’s death in 1910, and then as Amy Beach. Her Quintet in F-sharp minor for piano and strings of 1905 was widely performed in her lifteime, often with the composer playing the piano part.

The Quintet was heavily influenced by Brahms’s popular Quintet in F minor, which she had played. An echo of Brahms is heard in the first movement, but Beach announcers her own imagination at the very opening, sustained notes that overlay dramatic flourishes in the piano. Here the atmospheric performance by Ohlsson and the Takacs pulls the listener in from the first notes. They follow Beach’s expressive turns, through sudden changes of mood from warmth to spookiness and a gentle sigh at the ending.

The sigh is followed by a realm of sweetness and gentle repose through a second movement marked by long, lyrical lines that build to a strong climax, subsiding to a quiet close. The finale seems less integrated, as passage follows passage. This is no fault of the performers, who follow Beach in her rambling walk. Every section is well crafted, creating just the sound that the composer wants, but it fails to hang together as an organic whole. It is none the less pleasant for that, especially as played by Ohlsson and the Takacs.

Elgar is closer to the beaten path than Beach, although the Quintet is less familiar than his “Pomp and Circumstance” or “Enigma” Variations. Like his other works, the Quintet is marked by a cheerful mixture of drama and playfulness that seems thoroughly Victorian in style. It is a musically challenging work that lacks conspicuous flamboyance; even the most energetic passages remain genial in mood.

The first movement is a moderate allegro that anecdotally may be based on supernatural tales about a wooded copse near Elgar’s home. The exact source of inspiration remains mysterious, and any sense of menace the woods may have suggested is lessened by sudden bursts of song. 

The second movement begins in a state of serenity, in Elgar’s best warm if slightly fuzzy Romantic manner. One is easily carried along by the flow of the Takacs Quartet’s performance, which conveys a feeling of enveloping comfort, with no danger in sight.

One idea succeeds another succeeds another in the long, fantasy-like Finale. In the hands of Ohlsson and the Takacs Quartet, the changing tempos seem organic across a wide and shifting range. Each idea and section emerges seamlessly from the material before, even as Elgar extends and extends his material toward a final firm ending. The performance is well balanced among the instruments, with the performers achieving a notable clarity of texture in spite of Elgar’s luxuriant harmonic language.

Both performances are exemplary. There is no better place to begin your musical adventures than with these congenial and thoroughly enjoyable works. And if these works are not new to you, stand by for further suggestions.

HEARING BEETHOVEN, THE 19TH-CENTURY WAY

Jorgensen and Bryant discuss their CD of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, played on period instruments.

By Izzy Fincher Nov. 22 at 1 p.m.

Albany Records TROY 1825–28
(4 CDs)

Listening to Beethoven on early 19th-century instruments is the next best thing to time travel.

On their CD recording of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin (Albany Records TROY 1825–28), released in July 2020, violinist Jerilyn Jorgensen and pianist Cullan Bryant play all 10 sonatas on restored historical instruments, transporting listeners back in time to 19th-century Vienna.

As historical performance practice instrumentalists, Jorgensen, a member of Colorado College’s performance faculty, and Bryant, a chamber musician based in New York, are breaking new ground. They are the first duo from the United States to release Beethoven’s complete violin sonatas on period instruments from an American collection.

Jerilyn Jorgensen and Cullan Brant. Photo by Lee A. Brown

Their expertise in classical-era performance practice has led to invitations from the Historical Keyboard Society of North America in 2018 and 2021, performances at the National Music Museum in South Dakota, and an early-piano concert series in North Carolina.

In 2020, the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, a year flooded with Beethoven recordings, their interpretation stands out, offering listeners an opportunity to hear Beethoven’s music as it sounded during his lifetime.

On a first or superficial listening, listeners may find the sonic differences between period and modern instruments rather subtle. But after learning about the historical context and the technological developments in instrument making, listeners will be better able to identify and appreciate the musical nuances.

“Playing on period instruments doesn’t lend one to being more academic in one’s interpretation,” Bryant says. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It invites more emotional involvement, and in the case of Beethoven, a little more insanity, a more romantic interpretation.

Jorgensen and Bryant. Photo by Christopher Greenleaf.

“The instrument is telling you how to play. It is telling you what it needs to express the music. You don’t play the same (as on modern instruments), and you gain a new insight into what Beethoven was looking for interpretively. It is precious.”

On the album, Jorgensen uses a Viennese classical-era violin constructed by Andrea Carolus Leeb in 1797, and four period bows. The Leeb violin is one of few surviving period violins with the original neck setup, which allows for traditional gut strings.

The modern violin fingerboard and neck setup allows for greater tension on the modern wire strings. This creates a larger, louder sound that can fill a larger concert hall, but it does not necessarily reflect the sound that Beethoven had in mind while composing.

The distinctive aesthetic of Jorgensen’s period violin, when compared to a modern violin, is the most striking difference of the recordings. The sound is slightly thinner and quieter, almost delicate at times, yet it also has a deep, rich resonance and profound, lyrical expressivity.

Bryant recorded the album on five historical pianos from the Frederick Collection, which is located in Ashburnham, Mass., a small town located 50 miles north of Boston. The Fredericks own the largest playable, historical piano collection in the United States, which currently includes 24 restored pianos, dating from 1795 to 1928, mostly built in Vienna and Paris.

Anonymous piano from 1795, the oldest instrument in the Frederick collection

“We went up there originally to choose a piano for the set,” Bryant says. “But both of us were like kids in a candy store. The character of each piano lent itself so wonderfully to the music.”

“I was absolutely blown away,” Jorgensen adds. “This is the best collection of working early pianos that you can play in the United States.”

For Bryant, playing on these different period pianos was difficult at first, due to the difference in touch and size from a modern piano. For each recording session, he needed a few days to adapt his technique.

“The pianos sound dramatically different than a modern piano, (in terms of) the clarity, the smallness of the instrument and the technique,” Bryant says. “There is a great distance between a sforzando and pianissimo. For a pianissimo, you can’t even see your fingers move.”

Despite Bryant’s assertions, the differences between the period pianos and the modern piano can be quite subtle, especially when compared to the period vs. modern violin. Overall, the Frederick Collection’s pianos can be distinguished by a quicker speed of attack and less sustain when a note is played and a solid dynamic range, allowing for extremely quiet moments that maintain clarity and gradual, steady dynamic builds.

The collection’s oldest piano, an unsigned Viennese style piano from 1795, is featured on the album’s opening work, Sonata No. 1 in D major. The piano, with a reverse-color, five-octave keyboard and geometric-patterned case, has a somewhat sharp attack, though this is balanced by an overall lightness of sound.

Piano by Caspar Katholnig (1805–10)

A piano by Caspar Katholnig, used for Sonatas 3, 5, 6 and 7, has a notable historical connection with Beethoven. In the early 19th century, this piano, built between 1805 and 1810, was housed in Esterházy palace, located outside of Vienna in Eisenstadt. Prince Nikolas II Esterházy, known for being the last patron of Haydn, also supported Beethoven early on and in 1807 commissioned his Mass in C. This instrument has a deeper, richer tone than the 1795 piano, lending itself well to the passionate turmoil and expressivity of these four middle-period sonatas.

Bösendorfer piano, ca 1830

For the 10th sonata, composed in 1812, Bryant chose a Bösendorfer piano built between 1828 and 1832. Ignaz Bösendorfer was an apprentice of Joseph Brodmann, whose piano was used for Sonatas 2 and 8. He later became one of Vienna’s most influential piano makers, after being championed by Franz Liszt in 1838. The company still exists today, though owned by the Yamaha Corporation. The Bösendorfer‘s sound is almost modern, with more sustain, a smoother attack and greater aural consistency.

To complement the Bösendorfer’s aesthetic, Jorgensen uses a modern style bow, built in 1830, rather than the transitional bows she used for the first nine sonatas. The transitional bows, referring to those in use between the Baroque bows of the 17th century and the more modern bows of the 19th century, were designed to resonate more than project. 

Violin bows, from Baroque to modern

In contrast, the convex modern bow, developed in France by François Tourte in the early 19th century, was designed to project in larger concert halls. The bow is capable of more tension on the bow hairs and thus a louder sound. Jorgensen felt a modern bow would better match the “sustaining quality of the piano and the lyrical lines of the 10th sonata,” Jorgensen says.

”The 10th sonata is sitting on the cusp of Beethoven’s late period,” Bryant adds. “He got more introspective with more lyrical, longer lines.”

Overall, Jorgensen and Bryant present a unique window into Beethoven’s musical world that is both intellectually and sonically stimulating. Though the album is still enjoyable for casual listeners, to truly understand the musical significance, listeners must commit to deeper, dedicated listening with an ear for subtle differences.

“I hope that (listeners) will be able to hear the music in a new way,” Jorgensen says. “(Period classical instruments) are not anything that people have necessarily heard before. I am hoping that people will say, ‘Wow! That really caught my attention. I never really heard it that way before.’

“I hope they will be entranced with the sound and feel transported back in time a little bit.”

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NOTE: For more information on bows, watch the documentary The Bowmakers, presented online during the holidays by the Friends of Chamber Music in DenverThe stream of The Bowmakers will open Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 26, and be available through Sunday Dec. 6.

The documentary features Brooklyn Rider, the Miró and Dover quartets. More information and streaming tickets are available here.

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NOTE: Updated to correct the sentence “They are the first duo from the United States to release Beethoven’s complete violin sonatas on period instruments from an American collection.” The sentence as originally posted did not include the modifier “from an American collection.”

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.

91MDJ1OC7ZL._SL1500_

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.