Monday, June 30, 2014

Weiss-Kaplan-Newman Trio's Successful American Tour

An American Tour
Weiss-Kaplan-Newman Trio
Bridge Records

"An American Tour" presents a quick survey of American piano trio music in the 21st century. It's an ambitious program, but the Weiss-Kaplan-Newman Trio is more than equal to the task. The ensemble worked closely with two of the four composers featured, and counts one as a member. These personal relations let the ensemble go deep into the works to get at the essence of what the composers were trying to express.

Lera Auerbach's Triptych almost sounds like a musical collage. Eastern European cafe music mixes with extended instrumental technique, pointalistic melodies, and slightly off-kilter tonal passages. Yet, in the capable performances of the Weiss-Kaplan-Newman Trio, it all blends together into a coherent - and highly expressive -- whole.

Chen Yi is another composer the group has worked with. Her "Tunes From My Home," is a fascinating blend of Oriental and Occidental musical traditions. Yes, the source material is Cantonese, but it's been completely reworked. The pentatonic melodic outline is there, and occasionally the violin and cello mimic the plucked sound of Chinese string instruments. The working out of the material proceeds in a manner more familiar to Western audiences.

Clancy Newman is the group's cellist -- and also a talented composer. According to the liner notes, his piece Juxt-Opposition is based on a methodical working-out of an eight note motif. And it one that works. Like all good music, it lives on the merits of its own sound, and requires no extra-musical information to help the listener make sense of it. The work just naturally seems to unfold from its sparse opening, branching out in many directions in the process.

Paul Schoenfield's Cafe Music is probably the most famous piano trio written in the last few years (or at least the most popular). Four Music Videos, given time, may run a close second. It sprang from a request to write something for MTV -- but the results are much better than that. The four movements, "Rock Song," "Bossa Nova" "Film Score" and "Samba" all deliver on the promises of their titles. But Schoenfeld uses these genres as a starting point, not the destination. The music is sassy, high-energy, and perhaps more jazzy than rock -- but great fun to listen to from start to finish.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Vivace: Where unknowns mingle with megastars!

On this week's Vivace, we have the normal abnormalities.

At 7 am, we'll have a half-hour of musical megastars: a marvelous Mozart sonata for violin and piano performed by the great Isaac Stern and Yefim Bronfman, followed by a Beethoven work with Vladimir Ashkenazy, Itzhak Perlman and Lynn Harrell.

Just before 8 am, we'll celebrate the 155th birthday of this good lady, Mildred Hill, a Victorian-era spinster who was a Sunday-school teacher, church organist and pianist.  She didn't have a dazzling career, and she didn't write anything particularly noteworthy or memorable ... except for one short song.

At 8 o'clock, we have a dazzlingly unique version of a well-known favorite, cooked up by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet,

... and we'll round out the show with a Hoffmeister Clarinet Quartet and a sonata by Mendelssohn.

A cheerful start to your Friday is guaranteed, so, as ever, I hope you'll join me for Vivace, this Friday, 6-9 am, right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.  I look forward to the pleasure of your company.

Stradella: Arias and Cantatas

Alessandro Stradella: Cantate Ed Avie
Complesso Barocco Di Milano

Few composers had as colorful history as Alessandro Stradella. He took part in a scheme to embezzle money from the Catholic Church and had to flee Rome. He was an inveterate womanizer, causing not one but two families to take out a contract on him (as he hastily left town). The first group of assassins failed, the second group succeeded. It's important to remember, though, that during his lifetime Stradella was as famous for his music as he was infamous for his deeds. And this recording helps the listener understand why.

Stradella was a professional opera singer, which informed his writing for the voice. This collection features three of his solo cantatas along with a concert aria and a duet. Stradella's melodies are supple, fluid things that move gracefully with the text.

Il Complesso Barocco Di Milano performs with refreshing directness and clarity. While singers of Stradella's time might have more heavily ornamented his melodies, this ensemble chooses to let the music come through with minimal interference. The sound is a little soft and details are somewhat muted (I suspect this is a vintage analog recording).

One major drawback -- no librettos are included. Stradella's music is so closely intertwined with the text that this is a real minus, as it prevents the listener from fully appreciating Stradella's artistry. And why he was so eagerly sought after by more than just angry husbands.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Timeless Classics from 18th Century Czech Masters

Music from 18th Century Prague
Zelenka: Sanctus et Agnus Dei
Tuma: Stabat mater
Collegium 1704
Vaclav Luks, conductor

The latest installment of Supraphon's long-running Music from 18th Century Prague series features mostly sacred music by two composers, and an instrumental work by a third. All three share a connection with J.J. Fux, whose highly influential teachings on composition and counterpoint left their mark on virtually all Czech composers of the period.

The album opens with a Stabat mater of Frnatisek Tuma, who spent most of his working life in Vienna, rather than Prague. Written in the stile antico, the Stabat mater follows the ideals of Fux (channeling Palestrina). Tuma's composition is a glorious work of church counterpoint.

Jan Dismas Zelenka was known as a daring and inventive composer. And while that's true of his instrumental music, his sacred works are more conservative, following the guidelines set out by Fux. Still, the counterpoint seems fresher and brighter than that of Tuma, with a strong sense of forward motion.

Johann Orschler's Sonata in F for two violins and basso continuo provide an instrumental interlude between the choral works of Tuma and Zelenka. His sonata sounds Italianate, although somewhat understated in the solo parts.

The Collegium 1704 directed by Vaclav Luks performs these works admirably. The choir's blend is a little sparse, and the voices sometimes have an edge to them. For these works, though, it works. The dense counterpoint of Tuma especially would be muddied with a more homogenous vocal blend.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

This week's Vivace: Not just for humans!

This Friday, Vivace will open with two long works:  Max Reger's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Beethoven, and the Serenade No. 1 by Mozart. 

At 7 am, we will celebrate the birthday of the German-Swedish composer, Joseph Martin Kraus, with his viola concerto.

At about 7:30 am, we have a special treat for your four-legged furry friends:  It's National Take Your Dog to Work Day, and we'll have almost half an hour of calming music specially designed to please those of a canine or feline persuasion.

Dioji will join me in the studio

After 8 am, we'll celebrate another birthday, that of Jacques Offenbach with a surprising work, one of his Suites for Two Cellos, and we'll end with a rarely-heard piano concerto composed by Beethoven when he was only 13.

Beethoven at about 13 years old

As ever, I hope you (and your four-legged companion) will join me for Vivace, 6-9 am on Friday morning, right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Johann Nepomuk David: Symphonies 1 & 6 -- a confluence of influences

Johann Nepomuk David
Symphonies Nos. 1 & 6
ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien
Johannes Wildner, conductor

Johann Nepomuk David's (1895-1977) was an Austrian composer, teacher, and conductor who managed to go his own way. As a young man he was fascinated by Bruckner and Mahler. He later became a devotee of Brahms, and in the 1930's studied with Arnold Schoenberg. But it was the music of Bach that remained his life-long obsession and inspiration.

All of those influences come together in David's music. The result isn't a mishmash of styles, but a unique sound that happily acknowledges its roots.

The Symphony No. 1 (1936) starts with a bold, simple theme. That theme grows and expands, as Schoenberg might develop a 12-tone motif. In this case, though, the development remains firmly grounded in tonality (albeit the expanded tonality of Mahler). Structurally, the work moves from event to event like Bruckner. But it's the rigorous counterpoint that provides development and overarching organization for the work.

Written in 1954, David's Sixth Symphony shows how far the composer progressed. The orchestration is more adventuresome, the harmonies more ambitious, and even the counterpoint sounds more relaxed and intuitively written. David never totally abandoned tonality, although this work has a more modal sound than the major/minor melodies of the first symphony.

Johannes Wildner nad the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna perform these works with clarity and precision, making the counterpoint easy to follow. The ensemble has a warm, smooth sound that seem to give David's harmonies an added richness.

I found these symphonies quite appealing, and I think listeners who enjoy Zemlinksy, Reger, or Martinu might find them so as well.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Running the European Gamut ... and saluting while we're at it!

This Friday on Vivace, we'll really "run the gamut" of European music, (as it has been said - Book of R. Graves, Chapters 1-1050).

In the first two hours, we'll start with a long work by Mozart, and move on to music by Czech composer Václav Pichl, French composer Francois Devienne (his delightful Bassoon Concerto No.1), Italian composer Ferdinando Carulli, Johann Christian Bach (the London Bach), Austrian composer Ignaz Holzbauer and Czech composer Bedřich Smetana.

After 8 o'clock, we'll celebrate some birthdays including those of the US Army, the Flag of the United States and the Austrian composer, Anton Eberl, who was a student of Mozart.

As ever, I hope you'll allow me to keep you company as you go about your preparations for the day, for Vivace, this Friday, 6-9 am, right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Julia Wolfe: Steel Hammer - John Henry Redux

Julia Wolfe
Steel Hammer
Bang on a Can All-Stars

Trio Mediaeval
Cantaloupe Music

The legend of John Henry has grown and changed over the years. Was John Henry real or fictional, black or white, short or tall? Virtually every detail of the story has multiple answers -- and that's the point of Julia Wolfe's work, "Steel Hammer." Wolfe ingeniously presents the multiplicity of the story with layers of sound that simultaneously obscure the text and make transparent its interpretations.

This is high-energy, complex material, and as with many of Wolfe's compositions, the music demands your attention in an insistent and aggressive manner. But it's only when you give "Steel Hammer" your full attention that the music can convey its meaning.

Trio Mediaeval sing with pure, unwavering tones, providing an unemotional narrative to the work. Wolfe incorporates a number of folk instruments and sounds into her ensemble to provide color and context. Hearing the banjo, dulcimer, or the sound of clogging deep in the mix give the listener a hint of Appalachia without being overtly folk-like.

As always, the Bang on a Can All-Stars hold nothing back in their performances. This is difficult, demanding music, but these musicians don't just play the material -- they own it.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Start the week on a lively note!

Start your week on a lively note when I'll be filling in for John on Dawn's Early Light.  As ever the program opens with music of Bach, this week, the English Suite No.1 in A-Major, BWV 806.

They'll both be on the show.

At 7 am, we'll celebrate our first birthday of the day with music by Otto Nicolai, most famous, perhaps, for being the founder of the Vienna Philharmonic. As well as hearing music by Glazunov and Corelli, we'll also celebrate the birthdays of the London Symphony Orchestra, Danish composer Carl Nielsen - and, just before 8 o'clock, the 80th birthday of America's most-beloved Anatine-American.

After 8 o'clock, we'll have a symphony by Johann Stamitz, a piano sonata by Mozart and there's one more birthday to celebrate: that of a great 20th Century American composer.

I hope you'll join me bright and early for Dawn's Early Light, this Monday morning, 6-9 am, right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The D-Day 70th Anniversary Special

On Vivace this week, we have some musical birthdays to celebrate: Siegfried Wagner, Aram Khachaturian and Ignaz Pleyel.   

However, the main focus of the show will be to mark the 70th anniversary of a date that everyone knows: June 6, 1944.

It was on that morning that Allied forces crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, in northern France to liberate Western Europe from the occupation of Nazi Germany. 


On the first day, 176,000 troops, including 73,000 Americans, arrived by landing craft and ships as well as nearly 14,000 aircraft. The Allied forces were able to secure Northern France within 3 months, despite considerable resistance by Nazi forces. It proved to be the turning point in World War Two.

Early on Friday morning, exactly 70 years after that momentous morning, many world leaders, including Britain's Queen Elizabeth, 28 European Heads of Government and the presidents of Russia and the United States will gather in Normandy to remember and pay homage to those who died. The American commemoration will be a concert, which we will reproduce for you in its entirety starting at 7 am. 

This is sure to be compelling listening. As ever, I hope you'll join me for this special D-Day edition of Vivace here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

"O Fortuna" Mondegreens -- Animated!

A mondegreen is a misinterpretation of a phrase with a near-homophony of the original. Usually this results in a new (and often humorous) meaning. In the case of Carl Orff's "O Fortuna," it can also provide some welcome relief to this over-used and often over-blown work.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Lowenthal Delivers a Potent Post-Modern Program

Jerome Lowenthal: Rochberg, Chihara & Rorem
Jereome Lowenthal, piano
Bridge Records

Pianist Jerome Lowenthal presents an attractive program of works that he has some kind of direct connection to. And that connection makes these not just informed, but exciting and insightful performances.

George Rochberg's compositions make up the bulk of the release, with three works that are similar in construction, yet yield different results. "Carnival Music" (composed for Lowenthal) is a wild mix of academic atonality and commonplace blues, tangos, and marches -- filtered through a fun-house mirror. "Nach Bach" a work Lowenthal champions, is more aggressively atonal, with snatches of Bach interspersed, like sunshine glimpsed through roiling clouds.

"The Partita Variations" features a number of pastiches (again, mixed with atonal elements) that culminate in a decidedly tonal three-part fugue.

Lowenthal easily sails through the sudden shifts in style -- one moment playing heart-on-your-sleeve Tchaikovsky, the next icily stabbing disjunct notes across the keyboard.

Paul Chihara's work, "Twice Seven Haiku for Piano," is the result of a suggestion made by Lowenthal to the composer. It's a set of quite short characteristic pieces that cover a wide range of styles and genres. These are fun little musical vignettes that Lowenthal plays with relish. The album concludes with Ned Rorem's "75 Notes for Jerry," written for Lowenthal's 75th birthday. Lowenthal's tender performance makes the work sound very close to Debussy, a fitting end to this post-modern program.