Saturday, November 17, 2018

Focus On: Contemporary Classical

I often get the question, “How do you keep up with new music?” My answer is usually a detailed description of the various playlists I maintain, the different newsletters, websites, Facebook pages and magazines I monitor, the emails I get from publicists and labels, the Friend Feed on Spotify, etc. But the real answer should be brief: Barely. So, with the year-end looming, here’s a quick rundown of some recent albums and an extraordinary concert in the realm of contemporary classical. I've also included information on three concerts I strongly recommend finding time to attend.

Dan Lippel - "...through which the past shines...": Works by Nils Vigeland and Reiko Füting A truism in the nonprofit world is that "people give to people," meaning that donors are more likely to support an organization when they are asked personally, usually by someone to whom they have a connection. But people also listen to people and I think one of the reasons it's taken me so long to write about this excellent album is that it has a bit of an identity crisis. WHO will we be hearing from and WHAT will they be playing? The title is a mouthful, for one thing. If I were marketing the album, I might have titled it Recent Guitar Masterpieces (admittedly cheesy!) so curious listeners might have at least some idea of the wonders that lie within. I also would have reserved the largest font on the cover for the name Dan Lippel, for it is his virtuosic and deeply musical guitar playing that defines the experience of listening to the album. Fortunately, you have me to explain it all to you.

What we have here are seven pieces, five of them world-premiere recordings, of exquisite solo and chamber music focusing on the acoustic guitar. If you are a fan of the instrument, you need read no more than that before laying cold hard cash down for this record. Four of the pieces are by Nils Vigeland, an American composer, performer and teacher who seems to have a true sensitivity for the guitar. His La Folia Variants from 1996 was recorded over a decade ago by Lippel and included on his album Resonances. Its three lovely, Renaissance-inspired movements should be standard practice at guitar recitals worldwide. Vigeland's Two Variations, from 1990, bookends the album, instilling a sense of absolute peace as you begin and end your journey. The title track, from 2017 and the most recent work here, is also the longest. On it, Lippel is joined by Vigeland on piano and John Popham, of Either/Or and Longleash, on cello, and its sparkling interactions make a stunning case for these forces working together. The final work by Vigeland on the album is Quodlibet from 2011, three movements for guitar and cello based on The Beatles' Hey Jude and Good Day Sunshine, which avoids feeling like a pastiche thanks to the composer's structural skills and depth of invention.

Reiko Füting is a German-born composer and educator who studied around the world, including with Vigeland. His wand-uhr: infinite shadows (2013/16) takes inspiration from a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff but my ears picked out sonorities and techniques that reminded me of Davy Graham's jazz-inspired folk guitar solos. It's even easy to imagine Jimmy Page interpolating some of this into his Black Mountain Side, were he to grace a stage with his presence ever again. Füting's Red Wall (2006), uses dissonance and a broad dynamic range in tribute to the natural beauty of The Alps. Füting's arrangement of the traditional Jewish song Hine ma Tov is also included, using an almost Cubist approach to deconstruct the familiar melody. A digital-only bonus track contains three further variations by Vigeland, a young Icelandic composer named Halidór Smárason, and Lippel himself, a fine dessert after the sonic feast of the album proper. Along with Duo Noire's Night Triptych, this is the best classical guitar album of 2018. Maybe that should have been the title!

Nordic Affect - He(a)r My love for this Icelandic chamber ensemble is well documented (here and here, for starters!) so it pains me slightly to have even a minor quibble about their new album. But the fact is that, no matter how many times I tried, I could not accommodate the title piece by Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir. Made up of spoken word soundscapes, its seven parts interspersed throughout the album, I found it only interrupted the mood rather than added to it. So I made a playlist with the other six works, an easy fix that revealed yet another classic album from the quartet.

Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir bookends my version of the album with Spirals and Loom, the latter of which I saw performed live last year with a beautiful abstract video component by Dodda Maggy. Even without the visuals, it is a meditative piece, its long, interweaving notes inviting your breathing to...slow...down. Spirals is a wonderfully sleek and brooding affair that grows lusher as it continues, with electronic elements seemingly designed to unsettle. The way Mirjam Tally's Warm life at the foot of the iceberg opens with a hammered chord on Gudrún Ôskarsdóttir's harpsichord will certainly give you a start and leads to what feels like a competition for sonic resources among the three strings and the keyboard - thrilling.

All the excitement is the perfect introduction for two pieces by the great Anna Thorvaldsdottir, one of the most significant composers of our time. Reflections (2016) conjures up some of the loneliness of the buzzsaw whine of a small aircraft flying over a forest and gradually accumulates drama, pulling you surely along its narrative thread. Impressions was written for Ôskarsdóttir and works both as an haunting exploration of light and shade and showcase for how her technique pushes the harpsichord into new areas. Finally we have Point of Departure by Hildur Guônadóttir, Nordic Affect's cellist, another piece they played in concert. This grave and hymnal work has the musicians singing long notes to accompany their instruments, a reminder of both music's origins in the human body and the symbiotic relationship between artists and their tools of expression.

By all means listen first to He(a)r as Nordic Affect intended; it's possible that you will find the dialogues an enhancement. There's no doubt that some of the thoughts, including quotes from the composer, Roni Horn, Pauline Oliveros and others, are fascinating: "Each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the lines of his footprints." But if you feel the way I do, don't turn away from the rest of the album, which is truly exquisite.

Du Yun's Stories

Any concert that begins with flute superstar Claire Chase barely visible and summoning the spirits with a bass flute and her voice is already a success. And what followed at Du Yun’s Composer Portrait (with the International Contemporary Ensemble) at the Miller Theater more than lived up to that auspicious start. Chase was playing the finale from An Empty Garlic (2014), an incantatory piece exploring bereavement with compassion and depth (see the complete premiere here), but she was not alone on stage. In a stunning reinvention of the retrospective concert, all 12 players for the first five pieces were placed just so on the darkened stage, ready to perform their piece at their own individual spots, what Du Yun called LEGOs. 

The richly immersive lighting by Nicholas Houfek only increased the sense of seamlessness as the pieces went by with no applause in between. The second LEGO was occupied by Rebekah Heller (bassoon) and Ryan Muncy (saxophones) playing a mashup of Ixtab, 10 PM (2013) and Dinosaur Scar (1999), the pieces combining to seem even more like a free jazz freakout than they do when played on their own. Heller, whose technique is jaw-dropping, had some electronics going as well and vocalized a little along with her instrument. Her and Muncy's grasp of extended techniques made all the clicking and breathy sounds an organic part of their instruments.  

Just as my mind was about to lose the thread, David Bowlin picked it up, playing the ancient-to-modern Under a tree, an udātta (2016) on his violin. It seemed as if the bending, keening notes were coming directly from his soul. Du Yun, whose soul created it, was slowly revealed to be sitting on her own LEGO, in a posture of careful listening. When Bowlin finished, the audience remained in stunned silence as Du Yun stood, her fantastic costume now fully visible, and began Zinc Oxide (2010), a duo with cellist Katinka Kleijn. This had the two of them reciting a brief surreal narrative that sounded like a memoir or a nightmare while ramping up the intensity with Kleijn's cello and Du Yun's "tree trunk," what looked like a small log with strings and a guitar pickup that she played with a bow. 

Between the poses she struck and the delectable distortions of the sounds she made it occurred to me that Du Yun is a post-punk rebel masquerading as Pulitzer-Prize-winning classical composer. That impression wasn't dissipated in the least by the following performance of Air Glow (2006/2018), the newest piece on Du Yun's instant classic Dinosaur Scar, with the five brass players stepping up to their LEGOs from their seats, and Dan Lippel (yes, him again!) sitting alongside them to play the moody guitar and bass parts. It was no less impressive than it is on the record. When the first half was over all I could think was: this show should go on the road!

After a brief intermission, we were treated to a warm and wise discussion between Du Yun and Heller, almost like eavesdropping on old friends, and two pieces for larger ensembles presented in a more conventional, if completely excellent, fashion. Vicissitudes No. 1 (2002) almost felt like  a series of simultaneous solos, with Joshua Rubin seeming to levitate as he unfurled his clarinet part and percussionist Nathan Davis throwing down like John Bonham with head-nodding authority. Then Lippel entered stage right and burned the place down with the steel string guitar solo featured on Dinosaur Scar. He really can do it all! Impeccable Quake (2014) closed the show with the entire ensemble giving it everything they had. I would have put Lippel's guitar higher in the mix so that it cut through the way it does on Dinosaur Scar, but it was still a great performance. Like the entire evening it served to solidify Du Yun's strengths and forced the imagination to consider all the places she can go from here.

Choral Cascade: I can't remember a year when we've had such an embarrassment of vocal riches as we've had in 2018. Impermanence, from Boston's all-female Lorelei Ensemble, spans 800 years of music, including the Codex Calixtinus from the 12th Century and Peter Gilbert's Tsukimi from 2013. In between we have some 15th Century music by DuFay and from the anonymous Turin Codex - three of those pieces are recorded here for the first time - and excerpts from Toru Takemitsu's Windhorse from the 60's. The end result is sublime, as is the recording from Sono Luminus. Notus, a 40-year-old student ensemble from Bloomington, IL, has finally released its first album, Of Radiance And Refraction. Well worth the wait, it is a fascinating assemblage of five world premiere choral works by composers with whom I was completely unfamiliar, including Dominic Diorio, whose Stravinsky Refracted (2015) riffs on Amy Lowell's poem about Stravinsky's Trois pièces pour quatuor á cordes in phantasmagoric fashion. The Zora String Quartet is here to play the original string quartet piece so you know to what Lowell was responding - a wise choice. Diorio also leads Notus and should be commended for bringing polish and passion to the student performances. All the works are of more than passing interest, with John Gibson's In Flight (2015) for chorus and electronics especially substantial. Finally, we have Zealot Canticles by The Crossing, which includes only the title piece by Lansing McLoskey - another name new to me - which is subtitled "An oratorio for tolerance." Written for clarinet, string quartet, and 24-voice choir, the libretto is drawn from 12 Canticles for Zealots, which uses poetry to investigate the minds of fanatics, and other writings by Nobel-Prize-winning Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. It's dark stuff, but McLoskey's melodic expansiveness and the always extraordinary work of The Crossing, led by Donald Nally, make for a highly absorbing listen.

Chamber Catch-Up: I hesitate to call Peter Garland's The Landscape Scrolls "chamber music," but in this context it will have to do. It could also be filed under "ambient" or "new age" but it doesn't quite fit there either. The album-length work, played to a fare-thee-well by percussionist John Lane, who also commissioned the work, takes us through the cycle of a day by exploring the possibilities of instrumental groupings that are "timbrally monochromatic." My favorite is Part 3: After Dark, which is played on three triangles and creates extraordinary resonances. Sample the piece in this artful trailer for the album. Ken Thomson, the composer and reed player for Bang On A Can and other groups, gave us a modern classic in Restless for cello and piano in 2016. This year, we have something entirely different in Sextet, written for a small ensemble that looks a hell of a lot like a jazz band. The music within is fully composed, however, and harks back to some of the west coast sounds of Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, etc. The album begins with a Ligeti piece which harmonically informs the rest of the album the way Thelonious Monk took off from the spiritual Abide With Me on his classic album Monk's Music. This is bright, busy and brainy stuff, played with intensity and swing, and you can't help but be carried along by the sound of one of our most brilliant musical minds following his muse. If you find yourself smiling too broadly after Thomson's cacophony has died down, I give you Michael Hersch's Images From A Closed Ward, played with phenomenal concentration by the FLUX Quartet. Bleak, slow, inexorable and breathtaking, this hour-long piece is a major new contribution to the string quartet repertoire and should put Hersch firmly on your radar.

Upcoming Concerts
Tuesday, November 20th, 6:00 PM - Isabel Lepanto Gleicher: Pop Up Concert, in which the flutist will perform a world premiere by Barry Sharp, music by 12th Century mystic Hildegard von Bingen, and everything in between (Miller Theater, 2960 Broadway at 116th St., NYC) Free

Friday, November 30th, 8:00 PM - Talea Ensemble: Soper + Adamcyk, featuring Kate Soper's Voices from the Killing Jar (2012), sung by Lucy Dhegrae, and a world premiere from David Adamcyk (America's Society, 680 Park Ave. at 68th St., NYC) Free with RSVP

Saturday, December 1st, 8:00 PM - Hotel Elefant: Letters That You Will Not Get, featuring a world premiere by Kirsten Volness and special guests Opera Cowgirls (Church of the Intercession, 550 W 155th St., NYC) $20 at the door

Full disclosure: I'm on the board of both Talea Ensemble and Hotel Elefant, but I would be ride-or-die for both groups either way!

Tracks from the albums mentioned above and so many more from this amazing year can be found in this playlist. As always, tell me what's grabbing YOU. Also, if you like the anthology format of this post, let me know.

You may also enjoy:
Three Portraits: Cheung-Trapani-Du Yun
Record Roundup: Avant Chamber And Orchestral
Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations
Best Of 2017: Classical
Record Roundup: On The Cutting Edge
A Nordic Night At National Sawdust
Collapsing Into Nordic Affect's Raindamage
Best Of 2016: Classical
Record Roundup: Composed, Commemorated And Beyond
Record Roundup: Classical Composure