Sunday, September 27, 2020

Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 2

Continuing on from last time, here are six more albums from the vast universe of contemporary classical music in 2020. As promised, the playlist has grown...and will keep growing!

Grossman Ensemble - Fountain Of Time This powerhouse chamber ensemble, founded by composer and educator Augusta Read Thomas, has been growing in Chicago for the last few years, already amassing a portfolio of 36 commissioned works. Featuring five works from their first season, each one the result of a uniquely collaborative process directed by composers Anthony Cheung and Sam Pluta, it's hard to imagine a better introduction to their virtuosic interplay than this debut album. I'm sure it helps that all the players, including Tim Munro (flute), Ben Melsky (harp), Daniel Pesca (Piano), and the Spektral Quartet (strings) are brilliant on their own, but their sense of unity is a rare thing indeed. This is also no doubt aided by the spectacular recording, warm and nearly three dimensional, and the conducting of Ben Bolter, Michael Lewanski, Jerry Hou, and David Dzubay. 

The music ranges from Shulamit Ran's picturesque Grand Rounds, with its splashy percussion (played by Greg Beyer and John Corkill), and Cheung's supremely colorful Double Allegories, to the occasionally spectral PHO by Dzubay and the skeletal soundscape of Tonia Ko's Simple Fuel, which has some of the tension and release of a Lalo Schifrin score. The album ends with David Clay Mettens' Stain, Bloom, Moon, Rain, as spare and dramatic as the Japanese poems which inspired him. Kudos to Thomas for kicking this thing off and to the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition and the University of Chicago for giving it a home. Thanks to this spectacular album, the Grossman Ensemble is no longer solely the property of the windy city.

Páll Ragnar Pálsson - Atonement Quake, Pálsson's piece for cello and orchestra, was a highlight of not one but two albums in 2019, Vernacular by Saeunn Thorsteindottir and Concurrence by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, so I welcomed this opportunity to go deeper into his music on his first collection since 2017's Nostalgia. These are all chamber works, performed by Iceland's Caput Ensemble, and most feature voice, either the soprano Tui Hirv or poet Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. These forces combine in sympathetic performances that manage to give equal weight to the darkness Pálsson evokes through his harmonic invention and the sparkle he creates through his orchestration, which often takes on a form of serial interaction, with piano sparking flute, which in turn triggers violin, and so on. Hirv's rich voice is the perfect foil for the instruments on Atonement, Stalker's Monologue, which takes its text from the Tarkovsky film, and Wheel Crosses Under Moss, while Gunnarsdóttir recites her own poem for Midsummer's Night. The theatricality of the music in that last piece, combined with Gunnarsdóttir's understated delivery, makes for an enthralling experience - a feeling that will grow more familiar with repeat listens to Atonement.

Sarah Frisof and Daniel Pesca - Beauty Crying Forth: Flute Music By Women Across Time Literally a breath of fresh air, this album expertly compiles music composed by women for flute and piano (mostly), stretching from Clara Schumann's Three Romances (1853) to Shulamit Ran's Birds of Paradise (2014). Tania León's Alma (2007), brightly sets the tone of the album, which is rarely less than sunny. The one exception is Kaija Saariaho's Cendres (1998), which adds cello (Hannah Collins) to Frisof's flute and Pesca's piano. With wild flutterings from the flute and hard-driven cello, often slicing into harmonics, Cendre is a mysterious knockout, like a smoky cocktail that forces you to lay down and contemplate the inside of your eyelids. Pour me another!

Bára Gísladóttir - Hīber If you fell in love with the sharp sound of Saariaho's cello on Cendre's, you will be enraptured by Gísladóttir's blazingly brilliant song cycle for double bass and electronics. Taking her instrument to the limit, with whispering harmonic highs and grinding lows, she creates a universe that pulls you in from the start. Titles like No Afterlife Thanks and Fists Clenched give an idea of some of the emotional realms she's drawing on, but just listening will give you all the clues you need to get there. And get there you must - even if it means signing up for your first streaming account, as this is only available on those platforms. You'll want to be prepared for her upcoming release on Sono Luminus...

Patchwork This debut album for the saxophone and drum duo of Noa Even and Stephen Klunk goes a long way toward establishing a repertoire for a combo that is surprisingly versatile. Featuring five commissioned pieces by Osnat Netzer, Hong-Da Chin, Eric Wubbels, Erin Rogers, and Dan Tramte, and recorded in an appealingly dry acoustic, which allows every pop, tick, and scrape their own moments in the spotlight, it's an entertaining ride, too. Rogers' Fast Love is a perfect example of what Even and Klunk can do. If you've ever seen Rogers play, you know how brave it was for Even to assay a piece by her! But, in Even's hands, Fast Love sounds remarkably tossed off and spontaneous, especially during the wild fourth section, full of gutbucket honks and Desi Arnaz grunts. Klunk distinguishes himself throughout, up for any challenge thrown his way - check him out in Tramte's G®iND, inspired by a YouTube clip about wind-up toys. It's a nifty, inventive piece and as good a proof of concept as anything on this inspiring collection.

Hildegard Competition Winners Vol. 1 Since 2018, National Sawdust has been running this mentorship program for "outstanding trans, female, and nonbinary composers in the early stages of their careers," which provides a cash prize, guidance from established composers like Du Yun and Angélica Negrón, and a live performance led by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. Having managed to miss every one of those performances, I'm thrilled to have works by the first six winners available for on-demand listening. Eclectic in both conception and sound, works like the tremulous and lyrical Openwork/Knotted Object/Trellis In Bloom/Lightning Ache by inti figgis-vizueta or Casual Champagne + Cocaine by X Lee, with its iPhone noises and scrabbling violins, make a clear case that what may now be on the margins needs to move closer to the center. In addition to the two composers mentioned above, remember the names Kayla Cashetta, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Emma O’Halloran, Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, not to mention those of the 2020 winners (Flannery Cunningham, Jimena Maldonado, and Sonja Mutić), who have yet to be recorded. What National Sawdust is doing here is certainly noble, but there is nothing academic or appeasing about the music they're ushering into the world. Let it open your mind and your ears.

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