Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Duchen's List: Women Conductors Brought to the Fore

An article in the Guardian prompted a firestorm of controversy in the classical music world. "Male conductors are better for orchestras, says Vasily Petrenko" read the headline.
The principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has provoked outrage by claiming that orchestras "react better when they have a man in front of them" and that "a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things".
(It's since been noted that Petrenko's comments were taken out of context from the original Norwegian newspaper article).

And while criticism was quick to follow -- especially on social media sites -- music journalist and author Jessica Duchen was prompted to do something constructive. She began tweeting the names of women conductors to show that such a thing wasn't unheard of. And soon others were joining in on the conversation.

She's compiled a list of over fifty names of professional women conductors from around the world. Duchen's posted that list on her blog, JDCMB, and is still updating it. The list, titled Fanfare for the uncommon woman conductor, is very much a work in progress.

As Duchen notes on the page: "The women conductors I know are heartily sick of being asked why there aren't more women conductors - mostly because there are [as this list proves]. They would like, please, recognition first and foremost and, ideally, only for their work as musicians, regardless of gender.."

A very positive response to a very negative opinion.

Note to local readers: yes, Maestro Kate Tamarkin is on the list!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fellow Traveler: Attacca Quartet's fresh take on Adams

Fellow Traveler - The Complete String Quartet Works of John Adams 
Attacca Quartet

The Attacca Quartet is a relatively new quartet, which is significant. Because they bring a youthful attitude and energy to Adam's music -- and the works benefit greatly from it.

"John's Book of Alleged Dances" is a wonderful collection of made-up dances. And its a set that should be played with a sense of fun. How can you take movements named "Dogjam" or "Alligator Escalator" otherwise? Yet this is demanding music that only works when played with precision and energy. The Attica pulls it all together, and delivers a winning performance. I won't say this is the definitive performance, but it's pretty darned close.

Also included is Adams' 2008 String Quartet, and the title select, "Fellow Traveler." The latter is a birthday present to Adams' opera collaborator Peter Sellers, and receives its world premier with this release. Although a short work, its unaffected nature and spontaneity makes it an ideal encore piece -- a function it sort of serves in this release.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Thea Musgrave: Chamber Works for Oboe - an unusual but effective composer portrait

Thea Musgrave: Chamber works for oboe
Nicholas Daniel, oboe

Harmonia Mundi

Oboist Nicholas Daniel is uniquely qualified to present this program (which is probably why he did so). Daniel commissioned a concerto from Thea Musgrave, and the working relationship they established gives Daniel special insight into Musgrave's music. This recording brings together Musgrave's compositions for the oboe in chamber settings, and represent over fifty years of compositional development.

The earliest work is the Trio for flute, oboe and piano (1960). To my ears it sounds academically atonal, as was the fashion then. And yet, it's not at all harsh or unmusical. The inherent lyricism of Musgrave might be buried, but it's lying very close to the surface.

The featured piece, Night Windows for oboe and piano, is more recent, dating from 2007. Based on a Edward Hopper painting of the same name (which appears on the cover), Night Windows is a series of musical sketches, each one delineating a different emotion: loneliness anger nostalgia despair and frenzy. The sparse piano part coupled with the single-line of the oboe present these emotions in a simple and straight-forward manner. Here Musgrave's melodic gifts are to the fore, making this work quite effective and appealing.

There are some shorter and lighter works on the album, such as the two impromptus and Take Two Oboes, which is just some good-natured fun.

For me, works for live performer and tape don't age well, but Musgrave's Niobe is an exception. Although composed in 1987 for oboe and tape, its atmospheric and ethereal sounds have a timeless aspect.

The Threnody for cor anglais and piano makes a fitting close to the program. The cor anglais has a warmer and darker sound than the oboe, an the change in timber from the previous oboe pieces almost serves as a coda. The work was commissioned to make the passing of a beloved teacher, Musgrave effectively conveys deep sorrow and a sense of loss without sounding maudlin or trite.

Daniel plays with a clean, clear tone and is in complete command of this material. He has the ability to be warm and expressive, and to play aggressively and with great agility as the music demands. An unusual but very compelling portrait of a modern master.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Higdon: Early chamber works hold their own

Higdon: Early Chamber Works
Serafin Quartet
Charles Abramovic, piano
Eric Stomberg, bassoon

In this collection of early chamber works, one can hear hints of the composer Jennifer Higdon would become -- and the amazing amount of talent she already possessed.

Amazing Grace (written when Higdon was 24)  breaks this overly-familiar hymn into small bits and rearranges them in a kaleidoscopic fashion. Great fun, and a great way to open the program. 

Her String Trio (another student work), is a well-structured work, although a trifle unfocused. The style of the work doesn't sound completely gelled. The trio sometimes leans towards the academic, before settling into Higdon's characteristic quasi-modal style towards the end.

Bassoonist Eric Stomberg admirably performs Dark Wood, a fast-moving work for bassoon and piano trio. This engaging work full of energy that casts the bassoon not as a clown, or as a mournful crooner, but as an agile and aggressive solo instrument.

Higdon's Sonata for Viola and Piano lets the viola sing in the first movement, and contrapuntally interact with the piano in the second, trading ideas back and forth. The Sky Quartet evokes the grandeur of the Western sky (which inspired its composition). Elegiac and expansive, the quartet is definitely a work of a composer in command of her material.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A delightful mixture of music, and an observance of Yom Kippur

We have another fun and busy edition of Vivace coming your way this Friday.  In the first hour, we'll listen to the Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 by Rachmaninoff.


In the 7 o'clock hour, we have a delightful horn concerto by Rosetti played by one of the world's finest horn players, Radek Baborak (above).  And at about 7:30 am, you can enjoy the Duo in C-Major for Guitar and Piano by Fernando Carulli.

As Friday is the Eve of Yom Kippur, we will mark the occasion at 8 o'clock with a very special piece of music, Max Bruch's arrangement for cello of Kol Nidre, the prayer (above) set to an ancient melody which begins the synagogue service at the start of the 25-hour fast.  Last February, when cellist Amit Peled visited Charlottesville, he kindly gave me a copy of his recording of Kol Nidre, to be saved for this Friday's show.

It's a little unusual because Mr. Peled's gentle yet vivacious and refreshing touch on the cello brings what we might call an Israeli perspective to the work, giving it a modern feel, rather than the soulful, melodramatic renderings, guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings of Diaspora Jewry, which have been the norm until now.  So that's the version you will be hearing at 8 am this Friday.  See what you think.

After that, we have a harpsichord sonata by Cherubini and a piano concerto by Mozart.

And a quick program note about Vivace on September 27:  we'll feature an exclusive interview with violinist Ray Chen, who will be performing in Old Cabell Hall, Charlottesville on October 1 as part of the Tuesday Evening Concert Series.

As ever, I look forward to the pleasure of your company, this Friday from 6-9 am on Vivace.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. The program will be available for replay through 9/20/13

Nine Notes That Shook the World

Nine Notes That Shook the World
Ronn McFarlane and Mindy Rosenfeld
Sono Luminus
Blue-ray Audio & CD

Is it OK to call a classical release a "feel-good recording?" Because to my ears, that's what Nine Notes That Shook the World is.

Lutenist Ronn McFarlane and flutist Mindy Rosenfeld have been playing together for over thirty years in various groups (mostly the Baltimore Consort), and are more than comfortable with each other's style. Plus, this release features some of their favorite early music works. The performances have a natural easiness to them that I find quite relaxing.

Not that this is background music by any means. McFarlane and Rosenfeld present a first-rate program of renaissance and baroque music that draws the listener in. While one might be used to hearing "My Lady Carey's Dompe" performed as an early music duet, arranging Handel and Bach for recorder and lute gives those works a fresh sound.

And McFarlane and Rosenfeld vary their instruements from piece to piece, sublty matching texture and timbre to the character of each work. In the end, though, it's the chemistry between the performers that makes this such an appealing release. Two old friends playing the music they love best -- what could be better?

Sono Luminus sweetens the pot by including two versions of the release; CD, and Blu-ray audio. If you've got the equipment, stick with the Blu-ray disc. The full, natural sound makes these soft-spoken instruments come alive.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Blurred Lines blurs lines -- John Beckwith vs. Robin Thicke

You'd think the cover art would give it away.
It turns out that the biggest scandal in the pop world -- Miley Cyrus' performance at the MTV Video Music Awards -- had an impact in the classical world. Because of all the attention Ms. Cyrus created twerking with Robin Thicke as he sang his hit "Blurred Lines," downloads for the song spiked.

As did downloads for any track titled "Blurred Lines," including the work for violin and harpsichord by Canadian composer John Beckwith. It was on Jalsaghar, an album by harpsichordist Vivienne Spiteri.

According to a post at Classic FM,

Suspicions were roused after staff at the contemporary music record label Centerdiscs spotted a sudden increase in international hits, as thousands of visitors flocked to their site to hear the composition [Blurred Lines]. It seemed odd that only the one track from the album was being downloaded, until they realised the music shared its title with the summer anthem.

Sonically, the quarter-tone contemporary classical work has virtually nothing in common with its commercially-produced counterpart.

I wonder how listeners who were expecting Thicke and got Beckwith reacted to the music?

Perhaps we've found the opposite of twerking.

John Beckwith - Blurred Lines
Hear it here.

Robin Thicke - Blurred Lines (just the original song)

Friday, September 6, 2013


The great tenor Placido Domingo has retired from singing the tenor repertoire, now singing and recording the Verdi baritone repertoire. It is time to reconsider an article from BBC Magazine from about five years ago, surveying supposedly knowledgeable listeners on the greatest tenor "of all time." Domingo, although not high on that list, should have been (no singer ever has sung Parsifal, Don Carlo, Gherman, Don José, and Le Cid, let alone more than 120 other roles, with such consummate musicianship).

It all depends on one's criteria. How can we compare any tenor of today with all other tenors of the past? No one alive today ever heard Tamagno, Rubini, or Duprez, so how can we compare Corelli or Vickers to tenors we have never heard? We know from contemporary accounts what respected musicians of the time thought of them, but then again a critic as qualified as Berlioz never heard Pavarotti, so how is one to judge? If we limit the field to those tenors that we have heard, either live or on record, then the list makes some sense. That said, left off the BBC's list were Del Monaco, the greatest tenore di forza, and Simoneau, a superior Mozart tenor.

In terms of the influence on his contemporaries and future generations of singers and listeners, Caruso stands alone. Tulio Serafin, a conductor who heard more fine singers than anyone else, said that he had heard many great singers, but only three great voices, one of whose was Caruso's. His records are still best sellers.

If the criterion is sheer beauty of the voice, Pavarotti, Gigli, and Wunderlich are at the top of the heap. If the standard is technical excellence, singers today still learn from McCormack and Björling. There is no more demanding repertoire than Wagner, and Melchior sang that repertoire better than anyone else.

If the test is sheer visceral excitement on a given night, I would have bought a ticket to hear Corelli any time. And there was no more compelling singing actor than Vickers (along with Domingo perhaps). When it comes to suave, immaculate singing, then Bergonzi and Kraus are among the finest. Tucker was the "Italian tenor" of choice at the Met for years.

Although Caballé sang a huge repertoire, no one except perhaps the great 19th Century basso Luigi Lablache has even come close to the range of Domingo's repertoire. He did not have the beautiful, free, ringing top of a Pavarotti or a Gigli, but he has a warm, rich, baritonal midrange that is the envy of other tenors. Only Ramon Vinay may have been his equal in that respect. But Domingo is a towering stage presence, not to mention the consummate professional.

Vinay, like Vickers and Domingo, was a great Otello, and Vickers, like Domingo, was a great Siegmund. But while Vickers made Grimes his own, he would not have touched the lyric roles that Domingo sang. So, Caruso is still the "Babe Ruth of Tenors," but Domingo is not far behind, then maybe the next six or seven of your favorite tenors in whatever order you prefer. Bergonzi, McCormack, Corelli? Take your pick.

Do we have any future candidates from today's tenors? Maybe Kaufmann, or perhaps Floréz in the repertoire of his choice.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Music of Ursula Mamlok, Vol. 4 -- Overview and insights

Ursula Mamlok, Volume 4
Various Artists
2 CD set

Bridge Record's survey of Ursula Mamlok's music continues with a collection of works from all phases of Mamlok's career.

Although most noted for her serial works, Mamlock began as a neoclassical composer (albeit one that strained at the limits of tonality). "Grasshoppers" (1957) and Sonatina for 2 Clarinets (1958) show her affinity for counterpoint, even in a somewhat traditional melodic framework.

One can hear her move towards Schoenberg serialism with "Four German Songs" (1958) and fully embracing it with the Composition for Cello (1962). To my ears, the works of this period sound like notes hanging from an Alexander Calder mobile. Tone clusters and motifs align and move apart according to their prescribed paths, yet still yield unexpected and seemingly random combinations.

Most of the works with percussion on this release come from the 1970's when Mamlok was exploring the tactile aspect of music. Works like the "Variations and And Interludes for Four Percussionists" (1971) can sound like Varese at times, but the resemblance is passing.

For me, the most successful works in the collection are the most recent -- "Aphorism I and II" (2009) and "Rotations" for cello and piano (2011). Mamlok's grown into her own compositional style, synthesizing all the influences apparent in the different phases of her earlier career. The music sounds completely natural, while still conforming to its own internal logic.

Bridge doesn't order the works on this 2 CD set in chronological order, which helps the listener hear the connections between works that are sometimes decades apart. Well done.