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.