Saturday, June 22, 2019

Record Roundup: Contemporary Classical In Brief

The backlog is real, people, and the torrent of creativity from new music labels, composers, players and ensembles represents one of the most vital forces in culture today. In an attempt to lasso the whirlwind, here are brief reviews of some contemporary classical albums that have kept me coming back time and time again.

Seattle Symphony Orchestra - John Luther Adams: Become Desert This celebration and lamentation (in Adams’ words) is also a meditation. Like Become Ocean before it, this single-movement work is an invitation, in suspended chords and chiming bells, to your own mind. If you wish to contemplate the ecological issues that fuel Adams as he composes, that’s a valid choice as that's something that concerns us all. Or you could just sink into another masterful exploration of texture and structure from one of our finest composers. Of the Seattle Symphony and its conductor, Ludovic Morlot, I’ll only say that their touch is so sure you won’t give them a passing thought, as if the music were pure and unmediated - which may be the highest compliment of all. 

Caleb Burhans - Past Lives Remembering past friends like songwriter Jason Molina and composer (and Alarm Will Sound founder) Matt Marks has put Burhans into an appropriately elegiac mood in these four works for varied ensembles and performers. But there is always light in the darkness with the realization - which seems to dawn as you listen - that they will be known for their works, and works they inspired, long into the future. A Moment For Jason Molina is a perfect example, an essay in shimmering, layered guitar, gorgeously performed by Simon Jermyn, with a sense of constant ascension. The JACK Quartet play the reflective Contritus with what feels like barely held emotions and Burhans himself constructed the brief and mysterious Early Music (For A Saturday) from heavily treated electric bass and violin, further proving his versatility as a composer and performer, which can be said of Past Lives as a whole.

Alex Weiser - And All The Days Were Purple It's a rare thing when you hear new music that sounds both fresh and as if it has always existed. From the deeply felt performance by soprano Eliza Bagg and the sensitive playing of the ensemble to Weiser's deeply involving compositions, there is a palpable sense of stars aligning during this song cycle. The songs are based on Yiddish and English poems, which Weiser discovered in the YIVO archives, connecting with his own past as a child of Yiddish-speaking grandparents. As someone who heard some Yiddish around my house growing up, I was moved right away. Listen to the first track, My Joy, and tell me you're not instantly interested in hearing more. The beautifully recorded album also includes Three Epitaphs, another fine work by Weiser featuring an ancient Greek text alongside poems by William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, and additional evidence that Weiser is a very fine setter of words.

Matt Frey - One-Eleven Heavy Another recent vocal work that also serves as an act of reclamation and homage is Frey's chamber opera, which over its 15-minute length packs an emotional wallop you won't soon forget. Based on the tragedy of Swissair Flight 111, which crashed into the Atlantic in 1998 killing all 229 aboard, Frey incorporates Air Traffic Control recordings into gorgeously mournful vocal parts sung with extraordinary compassion by Jenny Ribeiro and Karim Sulayman. Hotel Elefant, conducted by David Bloom, find the perfect balance between detail and forward motion throughout, in an expertly balanced production. As Frey pointed out at a recent listening party, it's hard to know what the future is for this work, as it's so short and has never been staged. If it provides even a moment of comfort to those who lost loved ones on the flight, that will be even more important than the way it illuminates and humanizes the story for us listeners. His next piece is a musical about Mary Kay Letourneau - he's obviously unafraid of difficult subjects - and there wasn't a hint of exploitation in the excerpts I've heard, which is even more remarkable. Frey is now firmly on my radar and I recommend you keep an eye out for more from him as well.

Caroline Shaw - Orange One of the most astonishing things about this record is that it is the first to solely feature the music of Shaw, who won the Pulitzer-Prize six years ago. At the very least it seems like a marketing opportunity was missed! Over six pieces for string quartet, Shaw takes a number of approaches, all of which are embraced fully by the members of the Attacca Quartet. While she is free to be dissonant and dynamic, there's always a remarkable sense of proportion and balance, a measured sense of restraint and clean architecture. Lyricism abounds as well, as in Punctum's almost folk-like melodies. The recording is light and dry, perfect for her tart (yes, I went there) sound world. While I suspect Haydn (or Bartok) would not be shocked by what they heard here, it's likely they would also approve highly. It also strikes me that even for all of her accolades (not to mention highly visible collaborations with others like Kanye West and The National), I'm still getting her style and personality as a composer in focus. This album helps as will a portrait concert at The Miller Theatre on February 6, 2020 - put it on your calendar!

Siggi String Quartet - South Of The Circle When I expressed surprise at how good this debut album was, my son said, "What, you thought it wouldn't be?" and I realized that I should never have doubted a record featuring Icelandic compositions and released by Sono Luminus, who have brought wonders like Nordic Affect's Raindamage and Daniel Bjarnson's Recurrence to my ears. Bjarnson's own Stillshot (2015) opens the record and you know you're in good hands right away, with playing that's glassy smooth but warmly nuanced. Another familiar name is Valgeir Sigurðsson, who had two pieces on Raindamage, and whose Nebraska (2011) provides a unique perspective on the American landscape. As seems especially common in Icelandic ensembles, one of the players is a composer as well. Violinist Una Sveinbjarnardóttir's Opacity (2014) boldly explores solo lines by each instrument, just another way of developing the language of this fine quartet.

Duo Zuber - Blackbird Redux What a lovely surprise this is: works for flute and marimba, played by two complete experts, and touching on an international array of composers. Consisting of Patricia Wolf Zuber (flute) and Greg Zuber (marimba), both of whom play with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the duo sounds equally comfortable in the gentle kaleidoscope of Gareth Farr's Kembang Suling, in which the New Zealand-based composer transits through Bali, Japan and South India and William Susman's Amores Montuños, here in a world premiere performance and striking a balance between Reichian repetition and the Claude Bolling's sheer charm. Two arrangements by Zuber, of Messiaen and Villa-Lobos, fill out the album marvelously, proving there's little this combination can't approach with absolute confidence.

Rupert Boyd - The Guitar It's just possible that Boyd's technique has only grown more phenomenal since his last solo album, Fantasias - whatever the reason, he absolutely slays me on the opening tracks here, two Jobim pieces that find composer and player at their most expressive. I would not turn my nose up at an album called "Boyd Goes Brazilian," just saying. But he also assays works by Leo Brouwer and Piazzola, as well as transcriptions of Bach and The Beatles, with the latter his own tender adaptation of Julia. There's also a piece by Graham Koehne, an Australian composer who's new to me, and a fascinating nugget from the past, Fernando Sor's Introduction And Variations On A Theme By Mozart. Composed in 1821 partially to show off Sor's own guitar skills, its playful quality goes beyond mere virtuosity. Naturally, Boyd dispatches it like a child's exercise, but with warmth and feeling, which could describe this wonderful album as a whole.

New Thread Quartet - Plastic Facts Sometimes when listening to this record I forget that it's four saxophones producing all these wonderful sonorities, from the most dulcet of tones to wild flights of extended techniques - and I mean that as high praise. While this is their debut album, they have been playing these works for a few years and three of the four were commissioned by them, which may be why it's all presented so perfectly. Also, with Erin Rogers on tenor you know the musicianship will be at the highest level and Geoff Landman (soprano), Kristen McKeon (alto) and Zach Herchen (baritone) don't let the side down. I'm also grateful to NTQ for introducing me to Michael Djupstrom, Marcello Lazcano and Anthony Gatto, composers with whom I was unfamiliar, alongside Richard Carrick, whose Harmonixity (2012) ends the album in fine style.

Splinter Reeds - Hypothetical Islands This reed quintet pushes things even further than NTQ, emitting all kinds of outrageous squeaks and squawks along with glides and swoops right out of Raymond Scott's bag of tricks - but that must just be their taste as several of the composers here employ such noises. Matthew Shlomowitz's Line and Length (2007), for example, kicks off the album in wild fashion and Eric Wubbels' Auditory Scene Analysis II (2016) adds distorted electronics into the mix. Wubbels, known for his work with the Wet Ink Ensemble, produced the album, too, and lends everything a three-dimensional sense of space and detail, so important when some of the sounds could just be clicks and pops. Of the seven pieces here, including other works by Cara Haxo, Theresa Wong, Sky Macklay and Yannis Kyriakides, four were commissioned by the group, which also shows their good judgment. And Kyle Bruckmann (oboe), Bill Kalinkos (clarinet), David Wegehaupt (sax), Jeff Anderle (bass clarinet), and Dana Jessen (bassoon) deserve yet more praise for making everything on this thoroughly modern album sound as natural as a Baroque fantasia. 

Hear tracks from all of these albums (and many more) in this playlist and keep me in the loop if you think I'm missing anything!

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2018: Classical
Focus On: Contemporary Classical
Collapsing Into Nordic Affect's Raindamage
Immersed In Become Ocean

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