Monday, August 27, 2012

The Music of Romitelli, Talea & Kaminsky

How does new music come into your life? It could be a podcast, a magazine, a personal recommendation, one of those cute little notes on the shelf of a good record store, a streaming service, or even the radio. Sometimes, unfortunately, it comes through the death of a friend. Ralph Kaminsky, who died in January, was the second husband of an old family friend of mine. I hadn't seen him frequently but knew him as a passionate devotee of music, mainly Wagner, and as a mentor to young musicians, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some time in the past decade, that had changed.

While still a Wagnerian, he had become deeply involved with the new music scene, especially in New York. I learned this at his memorial service from the obituary his widow prepared. My surprise quickly turned to admiration. He had become a patron and passionate supporter of an area of the arts that can sometimes lack for friends. As is the custom, the obituary suggested a few places to make a donation in Ralph's memory, with one being particularly close to his heart: The Talea Ensemble. I like to think that I'm fairly au courant - I know my Eighth Blackbirds, my JACK Quartets, my Bang On A Cans - but here was an established new music group in my own backyard and I had no inkling of their existence.

I explored their website and made a donation. They seemed to be up to some very interesting stuff and it also turned out that they were wonderful people as well. Elizabeth Weisser, violist and Development Director, sent me a nice email, thanking me for the contribution, and an even nicer note. In the months since, I've seen three of their concerts, attended their gala and become friendly with Beth and Alex Lipowski, the percussionist and Executive Director. Both of them joined my team for the 3rd Annual Hope & Heroes Walk (an event near and dear to me personally and professionally) - talk about nice!

Despite being founded in 2007, Talea has only just come out with their first album: Anamorphosis, focusing on the work of the late Fausto Romitelli. What a perfect choice - this is the first Romitelli on an American label (Tzadik) and all five works are world premiere recordings. There is a spirit of public service and impassioned ambassadorship - call it proselytizing, if you will - about everything Talea does so this makes fits right in to their overarching project. It is hard to imagine better acolytes to spread the gospel of Romitelli. As always, their playing is superb and never academic. The recording is gorgeous, simultaneously warm and crystalline, with a sense of the dimensions of the space inhabited by the instruments that makes the album immediately engaging.
Romitelli was born in 1963 and was firmly a member of the rock generation. A quote from the CD booklet says: "Ever since I was born, I have been immersed in digital images, synthetic sound and artifacts. Artificial, distorted, filtered - this is the nature of man today." He also mentions that an "increasing importance is given to the sonorities of non-academic derivation and to the sullied, violent sound of a prevalently metallic origin of certain rock and techno music." His final work (2011) was called An Index Of Metals, after a piece by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno on their album Evening Star.

For all that, the pieces on Amamorphosis have more in common with the work of Messiaen, Boulez, and Ligeti than with Nine Inch Nails or King Crimson. Very few of the sounds here would be mistaken for rock music but it is in the DNA of the way the drums push the rhythm along in Amok Koma, in the glacial surfaces of La Sabbia Del Tempo, and the distorted guitar of Blood On The Floor, Painting 1986. Like Gerard Grisey, to whom he pays homage in the second part of Domeniche Alla Perferia Dell'Impero, Romitelli was a master of orchestration. He seems to embody the essence of each instrument he chooses to compose for, with a deep understanding of their characters and possibilities. The bass clarinet figures in the Grisey homage evoke nothing other than the opening of Rhapsody In Blue, a signature work by another pioneer of mongrel music who died too soon - and that's just one example.

Romitelli's mastery of arrangement and structure makes for a lush and inviting sound world even when the music is at its spikiest, and Talea delivers every note perfectly. If "new music" is not in your repertoire or if Romitelli is unfamiliar to you, start here.

Ralph Kaminsky's death brought music into my life in another way when his wife generously asked me if I wanted to look through what remained of his CD collection after they donated the bulk of the contemporary music recordings to Talea for their library. I was very moved by the offer and had a pretty good idea of what I would find: Wagner, and lots of it. I am now the proud owner of three Ring cycles instead of one and second and third recordings of nearly every major Wagner opera. There was also some Mozart, Verdi, Strauss, Berg, and miscellany, most of them impeccable recordings and some out of print. This is a true gift to me as I agree with my brother in law when he says "Opera exists in the mind" - and the more recordings and approaches you can hear and see of a work the closer you are to grasping its totality.

I am grateful to Ralph and his family in so many ways for bringing all of this great music into my life and am happy to give these recordings, so lovingly assembled, a good home. Slowly going through the two boxes of CD's has been a real treat. Although my wife is not an opera lover and hopes to never hear Verdi's Don Carlo again, we were surprised at how delightful we both found Wagner's early work, Die Feen. That my wife now has a favorite Wagner opera is a whole other kind of gift!


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