Classical Music - Part 16 - August, 2000
Made in America: A Three-Part Survey of Recent Recordings of Music by American Composers
Ratings: Extraordinary Good Acceptable Mediocre Poor
COPLAND THE POPULIST • SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY • MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS • RCA 09026-63511-2
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Aaron Copland (1900-1990). While Copland wrote a great deal of wonderful music, some of it quite innovative and daring, he is best known for his three irresistible “American” ballet scores: Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944). These tune-filled works, either complete or in suite form, comprise Michael Tilson Thomas’ “Copland The Populist,” a follow up to his earlier Grammy-winner, “Copland the Modernist.”
Tilson Thomas seems the perfect heir to late conductor Leonard Bernstein’s mantle as “the” Copland champion. Both men began to work with Copland when they were quite young. Bernstein, who eventually served as one of MTT’s mentors, became Copland’s protege at the age of 19 after playing Copland’s Piano Variations at the composer’s 37th birthday party. Twenty three years later, the young MTT was entrusted with conducting Copland’s 70th birthday concert. (There’s an excellent photo of MTT and Copland at Tanglewood in 1973 on the back cover of the liner notes). Following Bernstein’s lead, MTT recently performed Copland’s Piano Variations at a June, 2000 San Francisco Symphony Mavericks concert that celebrated the full range of Copland’s output.
In his liner notes for the Sony reissue of Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic recordings of these ballet scores (SMK 63082), Charles Michener asserts that the "stringent passion" of Billy The Kid may owe much to the special sympathy that Copland, who was gay, had for the "social outlaw." Copland was also a Jew, consciously choosing to compose rousing, life-affirming music at a time when millions of his Jewish brethren were being exterminated. Copland had as his model as an “American music” composer his friend, New York Herald Tribune critic Virgil Thomson. A special kinship also existed with composer/conductors Bernstein and Tilson Thomas, both of whom share Copland’s dual "social outlaw" status.
MTT s performances are anything but a carbon copy of Bernstein’s. Take Rodeo’s four dance episodes, written for Agnes de Mille and the “Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.” Anyone who has ever heard “American music” will probably recognize Rodeo’s infectious “Hoe-Down,” based on square-dance tunes. While Bernstein’s performance comes across as the more brash, energetic, and glitzy of the two, MTT’s more successfully highlights the moving, evocative passages of the work, especially the pensive “Corral Nocturne.” The same holds true in the orchestral suite from Billy the Kid. As for Appalachian Spring, famed for its concluding exposition on “It’s a Gift to be Simple,” MTT’s slower pace in the “Very Slowly” movement more successfully contrasts it with the succeeding “Allegro.” (MTT performs the entire ballet score, while Bernstein conducts the shorter suite).
While this does not make one conductor “better” than the other, what definitely does make a difference is the recording quality. RCA’s sonics may not be demonstration class – they are too one-dimensional and lacking in hall resonance to merit that accolade—but they are eminently smooth and listenable, and feature fabulous, stunning percussion. Sony’s Bernstein Century Copland 20-bit remastering, on the other hand, does not cure the brassy, glaring sonics, shallow midrange, and poorly captured percussion of the original recordings. Unless you’ve got tone controls or a minimally intrusive equalizer, you’re bound to find the Tilson Thomas disc preferable.
NOTE: Reference Recordings, the one label to so far earn my FIVE STAR sonic rating, is set to release a Minnesota Orchestra recording that contains at least one or two of the above works. A review will appear either in Part III of this series or in the review that follows that.
COPLAND CHAMBER MUSIC • THE VANBRUGH QUARTET WITH MICHAEL COLLINS, CLARINET AND MARTIN ROSCOE, PIANO • ASV CD DCA 1081
COPLAND AND FOOTE • CHAMBER MUSIC WITH FLUTE • FENWICK SMITH, FLUTE & JAYNE WEST, SOPRANO WITH MEMBERS OF THE BOSTON CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY • Koch 3-7494-2 HI
AMERICAN LANDSCAPE • RICHARD SHERMAN, FLUTE & RALPH VOTAPEK, PIANO • Summit DCD 270
In 1942, when choreographer Agnes de Mille first approached Copland to suggest the Rodeo project, Copland protested that he had already composed a cowboy ballet. “Can’t we do a ballet about Ellis Island?” he replied. While Copland did in fact produce a glorious score for Rodeo, and went on to create Appalachian Spring for Martha Graham, his protest referred in part to feelings within him, no doubt related to the “outlaw” oppression he felt, that could be better expressed in his more “modernist,” atonal works.
Of the many Copland chamber pieces offered on the ASV disc, none speaks to Copland’s Ellis Island side more than Vitebsk: study on a Jewish theme (1928). Based on a folk song used in Ansky’s play, The Dybbuk, its tight, angular structure reflects the hardship of Jewish life in White Russia. It’s a beautiful piece whose harmonies make one stop and listen. The disc also includes a very early Movement for string quartet, Two Pieces for string quartet (1928), Quartet for piano and strings (1950 – based on an 11-tone serial row), and Sextet for string quartet, clarinet and piano (1937). Some aspects of these works reflect jazz elements, others the influence of Stravinsky, twelve-tone composers, and Copland’s teacher, Nadia Boulanger. All are quite wonderful. The ASV sound is a little distant, over-reverberant and washed out, with the first violin sounding a bit weak at times, but this does not hinder appreciation of fine, committed performances of Copland’s rarely-encountered, beautiful music.
The Koch disc, with all but one track recorded digitally in 1984 and 1987, offers fine performances and mostly flat, less-than-totally involving sound; the flute certainly doesn’t ring out as it should. The Copland works include Threnody I, a sad piece written in 1971 in memory of Stravinsky; and Threnody II, a lighter work composed two years later. Soprano Jayne West does a fine job on As it Fell Upon a Day (1923), a silly song whose superior sonics reflect that it was recorded in March of 2000. The Vocalise (1928/ arr. 1972) for flute and piano is a bit wistful, while the 1971 Duo for Flute and Piano is quite evocative, its last movement filled with movement and energy.
Arthur Foote (1853-1937), whose pieces also appear on the Koch disc, was a member of the “Boston Classicists” whose romantic “art music” rose to prominence at the turn of the century. Foote was totally trained in America, receiving from Harvard the first higher degree in music awarded in the United States. All of his music is well crafted and compelling. The 1920 At Dusk, featuring magical scoring for the harp, impressed as one of the loveliest, most delightful, pieces heard in many a moon. Another winning disc.
The Summit disc, recorded in clear and natural (though less than glowing) sound, offers Copland’s three-movement Sonata for Flute and Piano; Copland composed it in 1943 for violin and piano, and transposed it down a third for clarinet and piano in 1986. The CD also includes the fine 1896 Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 34 by Amy Marcy Cheney Beach, written in a romantic style that bears relation to Foote’s idiom; and modern works by William Wallace, James Willey, and Kent Kennan. For those who can take only so much atonalism in a day, the delightful Beach may prove just the perfect cup of tea.
PIECES OF MY CHILDHOOD; AMERICAN HYMNS REVISITED • DAVID FRANCIS, PIANO • Available only from or by writing David Francis, 1749 North Hudson, Los Angeles, CA 90028 USA DTF9000@aol.com
Los Angeles-based pianist/composer David Francis, who frequently composes for television, was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Known for his championing and performance of 20th century music, he has earned the accolade “expert pianist” from two-time Pulitzer Prize winning composer Ned Rorem. (This self-produced disc will be followed by another featuring previously unrecorded 20th century American piano compositions, and will include the debut recording of Ned Rorem’s “Eight Etudes.” Reviews of two superb discs of Rorem songs, performed respectively by Susan Graham and Brian Asawa, will follow in Part Three of this survey).
The CD at hand reflects Francis’ upbringing in the Baptist church. To quote from the brief liner notes, it reflects “his nostalgic yet bittersweet memories” of 12 hymns, including “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” and “Amazing Grace.” Although to Francis, these pieces may evoke bittersweet memories, to these ears, the sweetness of a lovely, fluid touch and a sensitive soul predominate. “Only Trust Him” does have its share of irony, and “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine” its force, but as the Precious Lord takes Francis’ hands in a jazzy manner, one senses that the pianist has, in many ways, made peace with his upbringing. This is an easy-to-listen-to CD that can provide perfect accompaniment to a hazy afternoon or a mellow evening. It certainly warms my heart and sweetens my day as I type these words.
Francis plays a Steinway, digitally recorded at close range without any equalization or signal processing. Curiously, while the recording contains a fair amount of natural resonance, engineer Michael Guerra has decided that the way one records a piano in stereo is to put the bass notes on the left and the treble on the right. Perhaps if one sticks one’s head under the cover of a piano (or is forced to do so by one’s Baptist minister as punishment for playing wrong notes), this is the case, but it does not reflect concert realities. Hopefully a more realistic perspective, and a recording technique that allows the piano to ring out more, will mark Francis’ next recording.
YO-YO MA EDGAR MEYER MARK O’CONNOR • APPALACHIAN JOURNEY • Sony Classical SK66782
A follow-up to its successful 1996 APPALACHIA WALTZ disc by these same artists, Sony has again chosen to market this “crossover” CD by putting the artists’ names ahead of the title. Special guests James Taylor (guitar and vocals) and Alison Krauss (violin and vocals) are also highlighted with a red sticker on the cover. Given the expertness of Ma (cello), O’Connor (violin), and Meyer (bass); the fact that almost all compositions are either by or arranged by Meyer and O’Connor (with Ma and Taylor joining in the arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More”), and that Taylor performs a solo on his own piece, “Benjamin,” these fine artists certainly deserve to be in the spotlight.
As with Dave Francis’ CD, this is eminently likable, easy to listen to music. You will get no sense of the grinding poverty, choking dust of coal mines, or lack of education that have traditionally blighted this area of the United States. Instead, Taylor strums and whistles along amiably, an unidentified violinist joining in; Krauss reels along, and life is tuneful and good. As long as you want something tuneful and light, this CD is great. The recording is also excellent, with a judicious amount of resonance and a nice soundstage spread on the instruments.
PAUL HALLEY • TRIPTYCH • Pelagos PEL 1003 Available from or by contacting Pelagos Inc. PO Box 264 429 Bald Mountain Norfolk,CT 06058 USA 1-877-PELAGOS or 860-824-4000
As in the case of the Francis CD, Pelagos contacted me directly to secure a review of the latest disc composed and played by three-time Grammy winning composer, conductor and keyboardist Paul Halley. Pelagos distributes many discs recorded by Halley, Paul Winter, Pete Seeger, Gaudeamus, etc
A graduate of England’s Cambridge University, Halley was born in Sussex. He currently resides in Norfolk, Connecticut. The artist spent 17 years with The Paul Winter Consort, and 13 years as Director of Music of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Hae currently serves as artistic director of Joyful Noise, Chorus Angelicus and Gaudeamus; Founding Director of Keramion; and Director of Music, Trinity Episcopal Church, Torrington, Connecticut.
This CD of “new works for a unique ensemble of piano, organ & harpsichord” features the most beautiful packaging I have ever seen on a CD. The colors are alive and wonderful, the use of non-recyclable plastic kept to a minimum, and the generous liner notes, which are easily removable from the jacket, printed in a warm and inviting purple. Pictures and graphics abound. Most important to the sensibilities of this reviewer (who, among other things, once received a song from Paul Winter to whistle in a campaign to help stop the slaughter of baby seals, and has been quite involved with holistic healing), is the quote from mystic Sufi poet Rumi that greets one upon opening the CD:
Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments
breaks, it doesn’t matter.
We have fallen into the place where
everything is music.
Alas, I must confess that the energy that surrounds this beautiful production touched me far more than the music itself. I have given the CD several tries, and have even shared it with a Sufi composer friend whose music will someday be heard in Nashville and around the world. Frankly, we found it un-involving. For a composer who writes in the liner notes that his inspiration for composing works for piano, organ and harpsichord trio stems from his love of the continuo instruments he heard in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea when a teenager, Halley evidences none of the sophisticated mixture of melody and sentiment that distinguish Monteverdi's work. Halley's music is too simple and repetitive for my taste. One does not have to relinquish harmonic complexity or simple charm in order to transition into a New Age of Sisterhood and Brotherhood. I am certain that Halley can do better.
MIKLOS ROZSA • CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN AND ORCHESTRA, OP. 24; CONCERTO FOR CELLO AND ORCHESTRA, OP. 32; THEME AND VARIATIONS FOR VIOLIN, CELLO AND ORCHESTRA, OP. 29A • Robert McDuffie, violin; Lynn Harrell, cello • Yoel Levi, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra • Telarc CD-80518
(COMPARISON) MIKLOS ROZSA THE COMPLETE ORCHESTRAL MUSIC VOL. 5 • CONCERTO FOR PIANO & ORCHESTRA, OP. 31 (1966); CONCERTO FOR CELLO AND ORCHESTRA, OP. 32 (1969) • Evelyn Chen, piano; Brinton Smith, cello; • James Sedares, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra • Koch 3-7402-2HI 1998
Born in Budapest to a classically trained pianist mother and Hungarian folk music afficionado father, composer Miklos Rosza (1907-1995) trained in classical composition at the Leipzig Conservatory. At the suggestion of organist Marcel Dupre, he moved to Paris in 1931, where his compositions attracted the attention of such eminent conductors as Monteux, Dohnanyi and Walter. After composer Arthur Honegger’s suggested that Rosza try composing motion picture soundtracks, Rosza moved to London, where he was hired to write a song for a Marlene Dietrich film produced by Alexander Korda. After the onset of WWII made filmmaking difficult in Britain, Rosza followed Korda to Hollywood, where the composer remained for the rest of his life. While contract work for MGM, and Academy Awards for the scores of Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1948), and Ben-Hur (1959) assured Rosza his place in history, they also served to obscure the mastery which distinguishes his sizable number of classical compositions.
During the war years, Rosza met monthly with a group of fellow European musicians and composers who settled in Southern California and called themselves the Crescendo Club. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Rachmaninov, Iturbi, Rubinstein, Heifetz, Szigeti, Piatigorsky, Walter, and Stokowski were among the club members who developed relationships with Rosza and inspired his compositions. Thanks to these associations, Rosza’s Violin Concerto (1956) was composed for Jascha Heiftez, the Double Concerto for Heifetz and Piatigorsky (1958), and the later Cello Concerto (1968) for Janos Starker.
The pieces on this disc are all wonderful, energetic, immediately involving works, distinguished by a lyric beauty that marries Hungarian folk energy with twentieth century harmonies. They inhabit a unique sound world; they are not warmed-over Bartok or anything of the sort. The beautiful beginning of the Violin Concerto, sounding nothing like a film score, touched my heart, while its ending literally had me cheering. Similarly, the darker, more dramatic Cello Concerto held me rapt with attention. Robert McDuffie and Lynn Harrell are superb soloists, the orchestral ensemble and conducting near-perfect, and the sound the 20-bit wonder that Telarc is famed for..
A while ago, one hi-fi editor put the Koch disc of Rosza works on his Super-List. This may be due in part to the deep bass of the Piano Concerto, a work not duplicated on the Telarc disc. Be that as it may, auditioning both discs on two different high-end systems leads me to conclude that the Telarc, although lacking both the last bit of air around instruments and the ultimate “sound of the hall,” boasts far superior sonics. Koch has recorded the pieces too far back, the brilliance of the soloists somewhat lost in a not sufficiently colorful atmospheric mix. Furthermore, of the two cellists, Telarc’s Lynn Harrell is unquestionably the finer artist. I urge you to hear it now. You deserve this disc!
Ah, so many more discs, and so little time. I shall be briefer in discussing the remaining works.
LIBBY LARSEN • SYMPHONY NO. 4, STRING SYMPHONY; SONGS OF LIGHT AND LOVE; SONGS FROM LETTERS: CALAMITY JANE TO HER DAUGHTER JANEY, 1880-1902 • SCOTTISH CHAMBER ORCHESTRA, JOEL REVZEN, CONDUCTOR • BENITA VALENTE, SOPRANO • Koch 3-7481-2 HI
Libby Larsen came on the scene, as it were, in 1973, when she and Stephen Paulus co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum. This eventually transformed into the American Composers Forum, with ten centers across the United States. Determined to find a meaningful role for the American composer, Larsen has composed eight operas, five symphonies, numerous concertos and chamber works, and many song cycles, some of which celebrate women writers and artists.
Larsen’s String Symphony was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, and premiered in November 1998. Songs of Light and Love, to poetry by May Sarton, was commissioned by the Network for New Music of Philadelphia, and premiered by Benita Valente in April of 1998. The work, scored for a chamber ensemble of English horn, harp, marimba, vibraphone, two violins, viola, cello and bass, represents Larsen’s dual attempt to honor the melody of American English and “musicalize the ever-present, ever-changing quality of light. …Each of the five poems uses the metaphor of light ever-present even in darkness. In each piece, light illuminates love and love is in turn accepted.” Songs from Letters, commissioned and first performed by Mary Elizabeth Poore in 1989, takes its text from the letters of a woman who worked like a man, lived like a man, nursed the dying, was infatuated with Wild Bill Hickok, and died a wasted alcoholic just a year after writing her last letter to the daughter she may have had by Wild Bill.
Many will find themselves drawn to Larsen’s music; I was not. Nor was I enamored of the singing of the excellent artist, Benita Valente. Valente has been singing admirably for many years, and has graced our lives with innumerable memorable performances and recordings. While her voice retains much of its beauty, it frequently sounds weak and a bit pressed, At least on this recording, Valente sounds as though her best vocal years are behind her.
DAVID DIAMOND • TRIO FOR VIOLIN, CELLO AND PIANO (1951), QUARTET FOR PIANO AND STRING TRIO (1936, REV. 1967), TRIO IN G MAJOR FOR VIOLIN, VIOLA AND CELLO (1937) • NOTRE DAME STRING TRIO WITH RALPH BOTAPEK, PIANO • Centaur CRC 2437
Performance: Not for me to say
Born in 1915 in Rochester, New York, where he still resides, David Diamond was a student of Roger Sessions and Nadia Boulanger. His many works have seen premieres in the hands of Howard Hanson, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Bernstein, Szell, Yo-Yo Ma, Janos Starker and Gerard Schwarz. A recipient of many awards, he joined the faculty of the Juilliard School in 1973, and has also served as chairman of composition at the Manhattan School of Music. Among his compositions are 11 symphonies, 11 string quartets, three violin concertos, and over 100 songs. His Eighth Symphony was written for the 60th birthday of his friend and mentor, Aaron Copland.
Gerard Schwarz has recorded most of Diamond’s major orchestral works, some of which have Jewish themes, for the Delos label. Thanks to the inclusion of at least two of these recordings in the BMG Record Club classical catalogue, Diamond’s works have reached a wider public in recent years.
I was drawn to Diamond’s work when I briefly auditioned one of his Delos discs some years back. In fact, I had book marked that Diamond disc for further listening. These days, however, my listening pile is filled with more deadlines CDs than I can shake a Schwann Catalogue at, and time for non-review listening is sorely limited. I thus greatly welcomed the opportunity to sample some of Diamond’s chamber works.
Alas, I found these works distinctly uninviting. I tried many times, but simply could not penetrate beneath their seemingly cerebral surface. I know from the other Diamond compositions I’ve heard, as well as from capsule summaries of other Diamond works in the current Penguin Guide, that the artist is capable of deep feeling and touching music, but I could not feel it here. Hence I do not rate this recording for performance. I’d be interested in hearing if your reaction differs.
MORTON FELDMAN • FOR SAMUEL BECKETT • KAMMERENSEMBLE NEUE MUSIK BERLIN, ROLAND KLUTTIG • cpo 999 647-2
Performance: Not for me to say
Morton Feldman (1926-1987) created a sizable body of work that explores the worlds of sound, space, and silence. While the author of the disc’s liner notes acknowledges that one “observer” has described the piece at hand as “claustrophobic;” the author prefers to state that for over 43 minutes, “we are held captive within [Feldman’s] sound space.” My 20th century piano music specialist friend Jerry Kuderna loved this music, immediately hearing its kinship with a work by Arnold Schoenberg. I, on the other hand, refused to listen for more than a few minutes. Chalk it up in part to spending many years working as a freedom fighter I am one who chooses captivation over captivity. I was also dismayed by the sonics, which are flat, one-dimensional, colorless, and, for a 1995 recording, absolutely the worst of any disc I have reviewed in the last eight months.
Maybe I’m just an impatient boor who needs to be tied down and Feldmanized. Or perhaps the translator’s choice of the word “observer” instead of “listener” is more telling than some would wish.
Jerry will be happy to learn that I have finally reviewed this CD. Now he can borrow it and listen to his heart’s content without having to ignore the moaning interjections of a stultified Serinus.
FRANK FERKO • SABAT MATER • HIS MAJESTIE’S CLERKES, ANNE HEIDER, DIRECTOR • NANCY GUSTAFSON, SOPRANO • Cedille Records CDR 90000 051
The Cedille label, produced by the non-profit Chicago Classical Recording Foundation, is devoted to promoting Chicago area musicians and ensembles. This disc, recorded in 1999, features a major spiritual work by Frank Ferko (b. 1950). It includes three pages of liner notes by Ferko, full text and translations, and information about the composer and artists.
Born in Ohio, Frank Ferko is a freelance composer and organist who has served as director of music at various churches in the midwest. The American Composers Forum (see Libby Larsen review above) has been one of the sponsors of performances of his works, more than 20 of which may be found on compact disc, primarily on the Arsis label and The Liturgical Press.
Although I found much to admire on this disc, especially the fine singing, I did not come away with the feeling that Ferko’s Sabat Mater will earn a reputation as a major contribution to 20th century liturgical composition. Nonetheless, this music is well worth exploring.
KRONOS CARAVAN • THE KRONOS QUARTET • Nonesuch 79490-2
So many praise-filled reviews have already been penned about this CD that it almost feels redundant to say more. For those unfamiliar with the artists, the Kronos Quartet is the very hip, San Francisco-based string quartet that, since its founding in 1973, has become a leading exponent of new, cutting edge twentieth century music. Over 400 works have been written or arranged for the group. Kronos has worked or is currently working with such outstanding American composers as Terry Riley, John Adams, Steve Mackey, and Steve Reich.
This CD builds upon the success of Kronos’ best-selling Pieces of Africa CD. Caravan mixes tracks by Americans Terry Riley and the man variously known as Nicholas Roubanis/Richard Monsour/Dick Dale/”King of the Surf Guitar”, with contemporary and traditional tracks from Lebanon, Iran, Argentina, Portugal, Hungary, Romania, Mexico, Yugoslavia and India. Most are arranged by Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov, whose marvelous, highly recommended The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind was released by Kronos in 1997.
I first heard some of the music on this CD at a concert Kronos performed in Berkeley with special guest, soprano Dawn Upshaw. Upshaw was fabulous, a virtual chameleon, changing voice and styles from piece to piece. She had clearly studied the work of native singers, and did an impressive if not exactly authentic job at matching accents and inflections. She used her body, too, as she sang, making everything she did come alive. Alas, both she and Kronos were amplified. This is what Kronos seems to do in its live concerts these days, and it is a drag. The group carries its own amplifiers and monitors with them, but the amplified results fail to convey the unique timbre of individual instruments. Miking may allow them to fill a 2000 + seat auditorium, but it mars much of the beauty of their work. I would think, with all their success, they could at least afford a better amplification system.
Be that as it may, the music is great. It’s alive, intriguing, and of unfailing interest. Golijov’s arrangements deserve much credit here. Upshaw makes the music come even more alive, but that experience, it seems, must be savored at amplified live occasions.
The sound on the CD is okay, but not great. Although certainly better than the amplified sound I heard "live," there's too much echo around instruments to deserve more than 3.5 stars. What a shame. Unless Kronos drops its live amplification, recordings present our only opportunity to hear the sonic world these three gifted men and one woman are capable of producing without electronic intervention. The Kronos Quartet does not need reverb or enhanced sonics; they are superb musicians in and of themselves. Thankfully, the souped-up sonics are not overly offensive. And the music is absolutely too good to pass up.
PASSION WHEELS • CHRISTOPHER ROUSE • THE CONCORDIA ORCHESTRA, MARIN ALSOP CONDUCTOR • Koch 3-7468-2HI
Baltimore-born Christopher Rouse (1949 - ) won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Trombone Concerto. (The piece that won the 1999 prize, by Melinda Wagner, will be featured in the concluding set of American reviews). If the music on this energizing, captivating CD is any indication, many of Rouse’s works are filled with intensity, passion, darkness, and percussive energy.
Abetted by Koch’s superior sonics (which I might have even rated at 5 Stars had my reference system’s P300 Power Plant and Tara Decade interconnect not been disconnected for either upgrading or repair), the CD begins stunningly with “Ku-Ka-Ilimoku,” (1978). Rouse terms this short Hawaiian-inspired piece for percussion ensemble a “savage war dance.” It is certain to get both you and your soundsystem working. The darker, 25-minute, three-movement “Concerto per Corde” (1990), influenced by the work of Dmitri Shostakovich, takes one to a darker, somber place that also makes a great impact. “Rotae Passionis” (Passion Wheels), dedicated to Carl Orff (of Carmina Burana fame), was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva and first performed in 1983. Scored for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola, and cello, this 20-minute work places extreme demands upon the players, including calling upon the wind players to also play percussion. (A second percussionist was used instead). Rouse meant this piece as an elaboration of the human view of the Passion story as detailed in the artwork of German and Flemish artists. Composed of a triptych of movements, it is variously gripping, disturbing and serene. The percussion, again, is fabulous. The CD ends with “Ogoun Badagris,” another short percussion piece, this time from 1976, which derives its inspiration from Haitian drumming patterns, particularly those of the Juba Dance. Four conga drums, metal plates, sleighbells, cabasa, and human shrieks are employed. It makes for quite a finish.
Rouse’s music is more than just percussive and stunning. Its dark, at times savage beauty is unique among the over 40 discs auditioned for this survey. As with the Rosza, it is a CD I urge you to consider hearing.
As we near 5000 words, with 16 discs yet to go, I end with what shall serve as a special dessert treat:
DANCE ON A MOONBEAM • A COLLECTION OF SONGS AND POEMS • BILL CROFUT AND GUESTS • Telarc CD-80554
Sonics: (depending on the track)
I have been listening to so much 20th century atonal music of late that my Cuckoo Clock has begun to chime in a twelve-tone row! As captivating, fascinating and beautiful as this “modern” music may be, receiving this sweet, touching, absolutely precious CD felt like clicking my ruby red slippers three times and finding myself back home safe in my bed, surrounded by all my favorite teddy bears and images of innocence. (At least, this CD enables me to fantasize as much. It never really was like that in Serinusland).
Singer, composer and master banjo player Bill Crofut, who first learned his craft from Pete Seeger, conceived of a CD “offering poetry, song and the word-music of Shakespeare to children who I believe can be counted on to respond to the fresh impact of beauty. They need not be talked down to.” Crofut then invited artists he had worked with over the years – Julianne Baird, Benjamin Luxon, Dawn Upshaw, Frederica von Stade, Chris Brubeck, and others –to join the project and donate the profits to the Simple Gifts for Children Fund he founded in 1998. He also recruited Meryl Streep, who calls Bill’s Lullabies and Dreams 1990 CD collaboration “magical,” to read Shakespeare’s words for the project.
In October of 1998, Bill was stricken with esophageal cancer. Five months later, a few days before he died, he produced a session for this extraordinary disc. Other tracks were recorded after his death, or borrowed from earlier CDs or live performances.
Everything about the disc, including the delightful artwork by daughter Erika, is filled with love. From Bill’s first sung verse, “While you sleep you can talk to the angels all night long;“ to the penultimate “Children’s Prayer” from Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel, performed by the children’s Chorus Angelicus and the London Symphony Orchestra; the unique Streep take on Shakespeare; and Bill’s reprise, “While you sleep all the world will be peaceful all night long,” this work charms, soothes, and delights. Von Stade, who uses two very different voices for her two different contributions, is a wonder.
There is nothing else quite like this disc. You will want to buy one for every child and childlike being you know.
- Jason Serinus -
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