Friday, June 28, 2013

Michael Daugherty: Mount Rushmore - monumental music

Michael Daugherty: Mount Rushmore
Pacific Symphony 
Pacific Chorale 
Carl St. Clair, conductor 

This new Naxos release features three of Michael Daugherty's most recent compositions for orchestra -- as well the orchestra that commissioned them. And it's a winning combination. All three works crackle with energy and excitement. The   Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony know these compositions well. These are committed and self-assured performances.

Mount Rushmore is an ambitious undertaking, presenting musical portraits of the four presidents carved into the mountain. Daugherty's modern, populist style makes the composition mass appeal/ Any of these movements would be perfect for a patriotic orchestral program (I'm looking at you, "A Capitol Fourth").

George Washington uses Revolutionary War songs to create a rough hewn folk-art portrait of the General. The second movement, Thomas Jefferson, by contrast is a more sophisticated, restrained movement, befitting the cerebral nature of subject. Theodore Roosevelt, like the man himself, brims with energy, embracing the outdoors with a big sound and some Ives-like musical quotes. The longest movement is Abraham Lincoln, a lyrical setting of the Gettysburg Address that serves the text well.

Radio City: Symphonic Fantasy on Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra is a three-movement suite that captures the vintage lushness of a Toscanini recording. Without resorting to pastiche, Daugherty conjures up sound and emotion of the golden age of symphony radio broadcasts.

The Gospel According to Sister Aimee for Organ, Brass and Percussion uses source material of the period -- traditional American hymns and gospel songs -- to  paint a portrait of one of the first radio evangelists. Daugherty transforms his material effectively. As the work progresses, the simplicity of the music loses its way, and becomes wildly distorted.

Three distinctively American works, by an American composer with a distinctive voice, performed by an American ensemble. Not to purchase this would be, well, almost unpatriotic.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Zia: Del Sol String Quartet - Music of the world

Del Sol String Quartet
Sonos Luminus

The Zia Indians used a symbol for the sun that had rays going out to the four compass points. Zia gathers together music from the four corners of the globe for a truly international program of contemporary music. 

The album opens with Leyendas (Legends): An Andean Walkabout by Gabriela Lena Frank. The work is series of short sketches based on Chilean native culture. Some references are overt, such as using fourth and fifths in imitation of Andean pipes; while others are quite subtle, such as incorporating the Dies Irae into a movement depicting native professional mourners. Frank's amalgamation of traditional elements with contemporary classical tradition creates a work that sounds simultaneously exotic and familiar.

Harrison's best known for his explorations of non-Western music. His String Quartet Set, though, is based on European classical music, albeit not the kind one might expect. Harrison uses music of a medieval minnesinger, an obscure French baroque composer, and music of the Turkish court. Completed in 1979, the work sounds as fresh and modern as if it had been penned yesterday.

Spanish composer Jose Evangelista weaves 12 Spanish folk songs together in his piece Spanish Garland. This deceptively simple and attractive work presents the source material in a single movement that seamlessly glides from song to song.

Reza Vali's Nayshaborak is part of his "Calligraphy" series. It recasts the musical traditions of Vali's native Iran into Western classical forms. And quite successfully, too. The violins (to my ears) effectively emulate the Persian setar in an entrancing fashion.

Australia-based composer Elena Kats-Chermin's Fast Blue Village 2 is a sophisticated, cosmopolitan sketch of a major city. As the title suggests, there are bluesy bending of notes, coupled with the relentless drive of minimalism. Not that this is minimalist piece. The texture is quite thick and the melody churns and changes continually, capturing the high-energy of a bustling metropolis.

Although the styles on this release are wide-ranging, the Del Sol handles it all with ease. And no wonder. The quartet actively promotes contemporary music that stretches beyond the borders of this country. And they frequently work directly with the composers (as they did with some on this album). With that level of commitment, the results can't be anything other than a great performance. And in this case, a great program, too.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Woof, woof!

This morning on Vivace, you heard the complete incidental music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Mendelssohn (6 am) in celebration of Midsummer Day, and after another celebration - this time of Franz Danzi's 250th birth anniversary, we observed "Take your dog to work day" at about 7:30 am, featuring music by Chopin, JS Bach and CPE Bach.  Today, we enjoyed a 10-legged edition of Vivace: Dogg and Dioji were with me in the studio. Also, we had Sir Neville Marriner conducting three different orchestras (not at the same time!) and music from three members of the Bach family.    Woof woof!

Here are the two doggies in the studio, helping me to host Vivace!

You can also replay the program anytime from our archives. The program will be available for replay through 7/5/13

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dan Visconti: Lonesome Road - Music for explorers

Dan Visconti: Lonesome Roads
Scharoun Ensemble Berlin
Trio Bridge

Dan Visconti is a composer who's equally at home with classical and popular music traditions. The works on "Lonesome Roads" benefit from this convergence. Their vernacular gestures and rhythms help audiences immediately connect with them, giving even non-classical listeners readily understood points of reference. And the classical underpinnings to the works give them a satisfying complexity and structural integrity that reveals new details and relationships with every hearing.

This album presents a sampler of Visconti's chamber music. And while there is a certain consistency of aesthetic, the variety between the individual pieces is remarkable. "Remembrances" is a sweetly post-romantic work for cello and piano that's quite beautiful and serene. "Fractured Jams" is a series of abrupt mood changes, beginning with a movement full of sudden outbursts and halting motion, and ending with a rag distorted through a fun house mirror.

"Low Country Haze," for chamber orchestra shows Visconti's skill as an orchestrator. The music seems to coalesce out of the air, resolving into something that hangs shimmering before the listener. "Drift of Rainbows," for chamber orchestra and delay unit, has a similar quality to it. Think Arvo Part meets Barber's "Agnus Dei."

Then there's "Hard-Knock Stomp," a bluesy work for solo viola. And "Ramble and Groove" for solo bassoon -- a work that encourages the performer to make rude noises with his instrument (one of my favorite tracks).

"Lonesome Roads" is the centerpiece of this album. It's a fast-paced single movement work for piano trio. String techniques borrowed from bluegrass suggest rural roadways, while the relentless pressing of the rock-inspired rhythms imply that we're driving ever onward over these two-lane county roads hurrying towards an undisclosed destination.

This is an album for explorers. If you're fed up with Top 40 and are exploring the boundries of alternative music, "Lonesome Roads" will take you just a little further. If you're tired of the same old/same old classical repertoire, and are looking for something other than dry academic exercises, "Lonesome Roads" will renew your faith in classical music's contemporary relevance.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Music Feeds Us ... on Vivace!

This morning, it was a great pleasure to welcome the string quartet from Music Feeds Us to the studio for a live concert during the final hour of Vivace. These fine young people, led by Avery Waite (cello) and Fitz Gary (viola), are playing to support the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, which serves more than 120,000 people each month. In 2012, they distributed more than 17 million meals to hungry families across the Blue Ridge - made up of some 145,600 different people - through a far-reaching network of food pantries, soup kitchens, schools, churches and non-profit groups.  They deserve your support!

Avery and Fitz were joined by Dorothy Ro and Audrey Wright (violins).  You can catch the whole show at WTJU's Tape Vault. Here's a photo of Avery Waite (left) and Fitz Gary (right) as they were performing live in the studio:

This special edition of "Vivace" is available in the WTJU Tape Vault through June 28. 2013. You can access and replay the program anytime during that period for free.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Snapshots: Peter Knell miniatures shine in new collection

Snapshots: Piano Works
Piano works of Peter Knell and Sergei Prokofiev
Markus Pawlik, piano
Sonos Luminus

This recording features two works by Peter Knell, and one by Sergei Prokofiev -- but there's a good reason for its inclusion.

The title work, Snapshots is a set of 22 short vignettes for piano. Each one is a delightful miniature. Knell has arranged them so that they form a logical progression, making Snapshots an enjoyable 20-minute listen.

Prokofiev's Visions fugitives, Op. 27 follows Snapshots on the album. This collection of 20 short piano pieces invites comparison to the miniatures of Knell's work. Prokfiev's forward-looking acerbic writing nicely complements Knell's sometimes backward-looking style, and the two works kind of meet stylistically in the middle.

Knell's Piano Sonata No. 1 rounds out the program. Although a weightier work than Snapshots, it still fits with the other two pieces. This 12-minute sonata comprises of five short movements, all under three minutes in length. This is about the same length as some of the longer sections of Snapshots and Visions fugitives. The sonata moves from one distilled emotion to the next, each movement offering a dramatic contrast to the one before.

Knell's piano writing is idiomatic and sure. Knell incorporates elements of other musical genres (like rock and soul) into his pieces, making them true works of the eclectic 21st century.

Markus Pawlik's technique is flawless. His clean articulation at times makes the music sparkle.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A concert on Vivace this Friday morning ...

This Friday, we have an action-packed Vivace

After a peaceful first hour, we'll celebrate the birthday of the ballet Sylvia by Leo Delibes at 7:00 am. At about 7:30 am, we'll celebrate the 236th birthday of the Star Spangled Banner as the flag of the United States and the 238th birthday of the US Army. Included in that celebration, I'll have a very rare recording of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff himself playing the national anthem.

Then after another of Mozart's apocryphal symphonies and a visit to the world of operetta, we'll devote the final hour of this Friday's Vivace to a live concert by Avery Waite (cello) and Fitz Gary (viola) from Music Feeds Us

They will also be appearing in a kids concert on Wednesday (June 12) at 4 pm, at the Gordon Avenue Library, where they will perform "Carnival of the Animals", on Thursday evening (June 13) at 7pm at The Bridge PAI, on Saturday morning, 9am-11am, at an outreach performance at the Charlottesville City Market, as well as their two main concerts Saturday afternoon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton and Sunday afternoon (3 pm) at First Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville.

Avery has performed on Sesame Street and solo at the Lincoln Center, and is an extraordinarily talented cellist.

Please feel free to stop by the studio and be part of the audience. And if you can manage a small donation for the Blue Ridge Food Bank, I know they'd be grateful. This should be fun!

I look forward to your company on Friday!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Arabella Steinbacher: Bruch/Korngold Violin Concertos

Bruch/Korngold Violin Concertos
Arabella Steinbacher, violin
Gulbenkian Orchestra, Lisbon
Lawrence Foster, conductor

Arabella Steinbacher brings together three well-known works that all look to the Romantic Period; the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, Chausson's Poeme, and Eric Korngold's Violin Concerto.

Max Bruch was a staunch defender of the traditional romanticism of Mendelssohn and Brahms, an aesthetic reflected in his most popular work, the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) wrote his Poeme for Violin and Orchestra during the end of the Romantic period, and while somewhat forward-looking, still has its roots in the 19th Century. Eric Korngold finished his Violin Concerto in 1945, writing in the unabashedly late-Romantic style of his youth.

Because all three of these works were written for with a Romantic aesthetic, one might expect a release full of over-wrought drama and passion. Steinbacher takes a different approach.

Rather than focus on the emotive qualities of the music. Steinbacher plays with a clean, clear tone and temperament well-suited to these works. Her performances are thoughtful, eschewing overblown emotional and technical fireworks. Rather, Steinbacher colors the music more subtly. A light tripping over the strings sounds like a smile. A long, drawn out melody can seem wistful, a technically difficult passage played with ease and a little bit of self-effacement. Steinbacher's art is quietly attractive, and one that can make even these overly-familiar works sound fresh.

Of course one can play this release on a standard CD player, but to really appreciate everything that's going on here, I recommend using an SACD player. The more detailed SACD recording reveals all the nuances of Steinbacher's playing. And it also presents the Gulbenkain Orchestra more accurately. Conductor Lawrence Foster matches Steinbacher's approach to these works, and additional presence the SACD provides makes for a more satisfying listening experience overall.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Sokhiev marks Stravinsky Anniversary

Stravinsky: Rite of Spring / Firebird Suite 
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse
Tugan Sokhiev, conductor

It's a remarkable release for a remarkable occasion. May, 2013 is the centennial of the premier of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" in Paris. While the work no longer incites riots, it has become a repertoire standard, and one that can sound fresh and exotic even today.

Naive marks the event with this deluxe release. The hardbound 90-page book contains a DVD of Tugan Sokhiev conducting the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulous in a live performance of the Rite. Also included is a CD with the same forces performing the "Rite of Spring" and Stravinsky's "The Firebird."

The multi-language booklet features essays about both works, and wonderful two-color illustrations by Sophie Chaussade. Yes, these recordings are also available for download, but get the book. The illustrations and the feel of this quality print edition are worth the investment.

Musically, Sokhiev and the orchestra perform admirably. The ensemble plays with energy and precision. The fast sections in the ballets are amazingly clean, and the articulation makes the music sparkle. The soloists are also first-rate, especially in the Rite of Spring.

The DVD is a 48kbps/16-bit recording, which sounds great, especially through a two-channel system. Intelligent editing keeps the visuals coordinated with the music. We see the soloists when they perform, and -- more importantly -- focus on relevant parts of the orchestra when the entire ensemble's playing.. Just as the conductor's gestures can draw the listener's attention to something that otherwise might be lost in the mix in a live performance, the cameras here do the same.

All in all, a nice commemorative package for an important milestone.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Apocryphal Mozart Symphonies (and more) on "Vivace"

I'm delighted to join the online blogging crew.  And I hope you'll make a regular date to join me for Vivace on WTJU (Friday mornings, 6-9 am).

As you listen to the program over the summer, you'll hear me play one of Mozart's apocryphal symphonies each week.  This Friday, I'll play Symphony No. 45. Most people are familiar with Mozart's symphonies up to No. 41, even though some of those are of uncertain origin.  However, beyond those, there are others, usually numbered 42-55, which were later attributed to him and which are rarely heard.

All the apocryphal symphonies have been recorded by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.  They are, as you might expect, sensitive, faithful recordings, expertly performed, and it is those recordings which will be featured on Vivace, usually sometime between 7 and 9 am.  I hope you'll tune in: enjoy fine classical music on a fine summer morning - and all year long!

This Friday, June 7, we have another special treat for you:  my esteemed co-host, Andrew O'Shanick is spending the summer in Austria, but you can hear his splendid singing voice this Friday on Vivace. As ever, thanks so much for listening to WTJU!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Zbigniew Bargielski String Quartets: Striking a Balance

Bargielski: String Quartets
Silesian String Quartet
Accord SACD

This 2-disc set present the six string quartets (and two works for string quartet plus one) by Polish composer Zbigniew Bargielski. Bargielski writes in a highly personal form of atonality, one that to my ears sounds similar to fellow countryman Henryk Gorecki in his early works. Bargielski's developed what he calls a "theory of center structures" that gives his composition direction. The idea is to balance the center sounds (melodies) with those of the harmonic centers, paying attention to dynamics, tonal color and duration.

One of the most effective works in this collection is "A Night of Farewells," for accordion and string quartet. I found it especially appealing because of the ensemble's interesting blend. The accordion doesn't playing anything remotely folk-like, yet it gives the work a decided Eastern European flavor. The clarinet in "Through the Looking Glass "(for string quartet with clarinet) also has a similar effect. Bargielski give the clarinet an aggressive sound and has it bending pitches that sound Klezmer-inspired.

At first hearing, the six string quartets seem remarkably similar. Only after living with the music for a while could I hear the gradual development of Bargielski's musical language from work to work as he explored the possibilities of his center structure concept. Make no mistake: this is difficult listening. But the music holds rewards for the thoughtful and attentive listener.

Bargielski's compositions are especially well-suited to the SACD format. His careful balancing of musical centers is done with precision and delicacy. Subtle changes in timbre and articulation that are lost on the CD version are easily heard on the SACD version.