Picks of the Year: 2013

During the past year there were three recordings that met my criteria for Want List inclusion: a) little-known music of the past hundred years, b) in impeccable performances, and c) represented via the finest audio technology. The last criterion is not hard to achieve these days, but the first two are as elusive as they have always been.

The three composers are American, and range in age from 40 (Leshnoff) to 56 (Moravec), and all might be considered neo-tonal postmodernists. Leshnoff is based in the Baltimore area. His music, largely traditional in style, has only recently begun to surface on CD. The pieces I have heard—especially the pieces on this CD (reviewed in this issue)—display a soulfulness and sincerity that make a strong impression. The work that left me with the deepest impact of all his works that I’ve heard is the Double Concerto (violin and viola with orchestra). All the performances on this CD are excellent. I recommend it highly.

Paul Moravec is a considerably more established figure. I have included recordings of his music on previous Want Lists. He has developed an exuberant, mercurial compositional personality resembling that of no other American composer I know, although some may notice a peculiar and probably irrelevant similarity to the voice of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. What is especially appealing about this recent release (reviewed in 36:5) is that it features largely magnificent performances of four substantial orchestral pieces, including the Cello Concerto, one of the composer’s most impressive and deeply moving works.

A totally new discovery for me was the music of John Fitz Rogers, a versatile composer based at the University of South Carolina. Although he has a background in both jazz and rock, those genres are largely absent from the works on this CD (reviewed in 36:4), which chiefly follow the same sort of neo-tonal traditionalism as the two others discussed above. Also like theirs, Rogers’s music is expertly crafted, expressively meaningful, and meticulously performed. While strongly recommending this release, I look forward to hearing more of Rogers’s work, as well as acquainting myself further with the music on this disc. Leshnoff, Moravec, and Rogers are all composers whose music is rewarding on first hearing, and more deeply satisfying with greater acquaintance.

Although it was discussed at considerable length in 37:1 by me and four of my colleagues, and my own involvement in the production precludes my adding it to my Want List, I would just like to mention Naxos 8.573060, which features two symphonies for wind ensemble—one by Nicolas Flagello and the other by Arnold Rosner—that are essential listening for all enthusiasts of the wind band medium and its repertoire. Three additional pieces by Flagello are included as well, all in fine performances by the University of Houston Wind Ensemble, conducted by David Bertman.

LESHNOFF Double Concerto.  Symphony No. 1. Rush ● Wetherbee/Díaz/Stern, cond/IRIS O ● NAXOS 8.559670

MORAVEC Northern Lights Electric. Clarinet Concerto. Sempre Diritto! Montserrat—Cello Concerto ● Krakauer/Haimovitz/Rose, cond; Boston Modern O Project ● BMOP 1024

J. F. ROGERS Memoria DomiSonata LunarisBlue River VariationsOnce Removed ● Various chamber ensembles ● INNOVA 707 (65:54)

LEE PUI MING She Comes to Shore

LEE PUI MING: SHE COMES TO SHORE ● Lee Pui Ming (pn); Jed Gaylin, cond; Bay-Atlantic Symphony ● INNOVA 796 (64:20)
to …. coils. turning. open. dive. she comes to shore.… she. shimmers

Lee Pui Ming was born in Hong Kong in 1956, immigrating to the United States to pursue her musical studies in 1976. For the past 30 years or so, she has been based in Toronto, where she has developed an enthusiastic following for her piano improvisations. She is also a Biodynamic Craniosacral therapist. None of the foregoing information is available anywhere on the CD package. (From what I was able to glean from the Internet, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy is a mystical/New Age-flavored variant of massage therapy. But that is not what concerns us here.) Not only is the package devoid of informative notes, but what verbiage appears is barely legible, thanks to gray type on a blue background. Admittedly, this presentation did not exactly create a sense of positive anticipation for the music contained therein.

However, Lee’s music is quite pleasant, revealing a fertile creative imagination. Though I am not deeply immersed in the world of piano improvisation, her pieces call to mind the highly esteemed piano improvisations of Keith Jarrett, and I would think that those who are fond of that aspect of Jarrett’s work would respond favorably to Lee’s. Like Jarrett’s classic improvisations, Lee’s are not based on the familiar harmonic language of jazz and its elaboration of popular songs; instead, her work draws upon the styles of Impressionist and post-Impressionist classical music, some remote suggestions of Asian influence, and what is generally thought of as “New Age.” But these influences are well homogenized and integrated into a meditative, tasteful, yet highly virtuosic musical flow.

The “big piece” here is the 23-minute Concerto for Improvised Piano and Orchestra, dating from 2009. The work is divided into three movements, which elide smoothly one into another. Obviously, the fact that the piano part is improvised, at least to some extent, suggests that the orchestral contribution must be generic enough to accommodate whatever fancies Lee decides to pursue. The first movement is therefore rather simple, but not simplistic or insubstantial, contributing to the sense of motion as well as some harmonic support, creating a foundation for the piano’s attractive filigree. In the second movement the orchestra introduces some two-part counterpoint that probably displays the clearest suggestion of Asian influence, while cluster ostinati in the brass effectively inspire the piano to increased intensity. The third movement blossoms into a luscious melody featuring both piano and strings.

The solo selections offer some variety within the generally consistent style: some are more mellow, others are surprisingly feisty, with cluster dissonances, others utilize unconventional sound sources, such as percussion effects created by striking the body of the piano, and harmonics achieved by striking the keys of strings dampened by the hand—an effect pioneered by Henry Cowell. Altogether, the CD is authentically musical and attractive, and, as noted, is likely to appeal to listeners who will self-identify by reading this review. For this listener, while the talent of the composer-pianist is unmistakable, a little goes a long way.

BECK In Flight Until Mysterious Night. Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano. In February. Gemini. Slow Motion. Third Delphic Hymn. September Music. String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2, “Fathers and Sons”; No. 4; No. 5

BECK In Flight Until Mysterious Night. Sonata No. 2 for Cello and PianoIn February. GeminiSlow Motion. Third Delphic Hymn. September Music ● IonSound Project (Peggy Yoo [fl], Kathleen Costello [cl], Eliseo Rael [perc], Laura Motchalov [vn], Elisa Kohanski [vc], Rob Frankenberry [pn]); Margaret Baube Andraso (sop) ● INNOVA 797 (69:21)

BECK String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2, “Fathers and Sons”; No. 4; No. 5 ● San Gabriel St Qt; Nevsky St Qt; Da Kappo St Qt ● INNOVA 867 (63:03)

These two discs provide a richly rewarding representation of the music of Jeremy Beck (b. 1960), with which I am making my first acquaintance. Having studied at the Mannes School, Duke, and Yale with such luminaries as Jacob Druckman and Martin Bresnick, among others, Beck has pursued a decidedly old-fashioned approach. Although the results are not strikingly individualistic by any means, his music is impressive for its thorough mastery of traditional craftsmanship, for its consistently engaging personality, and for some works that reveal considerable expressive depth. Of the eleven compositions represented here, not a single one is dismissible as unworthy, and all are heard in precise, polished performances that impose no compromise on the impressions they make. Beck is currently based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he maintains a law practice that probably enables him to compose without undue concern with the impact of his music in the marketplace.

The pieces on both discs are drawn from the same period—roughly 1980 through 2010—which essentially spans Beck’s creative life, but each offers music of somewhat different character. The first disc features the IonSound Project, a mixed sextet with whom Beck became acquainted during a year he spent as visiting professor at Chatham College in Pittsburgh. In residence at the University of Pittsburgh, the ensemble became enamored of his music, and this recording grew out of that relationship. September Music (2002) was the first piece performed by the ensemble, while In Flight Until Mysterious Night (2009) was composed specifically for this recording.

Most of the pieces on the earlier recording display a largely diatonic musical language, with a mild degree of dissonance, not unlike the populist musical language of Aaron Copland, but without drawing upon obvious “Americanisms.” Nevertheless the music reveals its national origin unmistakably through its pert and lively, syncopated rhythms. I would describe its style, within my own frame of reference, as exuberantly neo-classical. Thus his music might be said to resemble that of, say, Robert Baksa or Rick Sowash. However, Beck’s music is built upon a structural foundation that is considerably more elaborate and dense than theirs, and thus leaves a much deeper impression. In that sense, though not in surface sound, it calls to mind the two piano trios of Patrick Zimmerli, about which I enthused several years ago (Fanfare 29:4) and which made my 2006 Want List. Like Zimmerli, Beck writes what a certain type of listener would call “real music:” that is, essentially, music composed according to the formal principles modeled by Brahms (not that either composer’s music “sounds like” him). This gives Beck’s music a strength and substance not generally encountered among the more recent avatars of traditionalism. It also means that, regardless of the catchy titles of the pieces on the first disc, the music is thoroughly abstract, and would be no less attractive (though perhaps harder to remember) with purely generic titles (as on the second disc). Yet for the most part, their appealing surface and thorough craftsmanship make them infectious and very likeable.

I could discuss each piece individually, but while they are not carbon copies of each other by any means, they embody a certain aesthetic that the reader of the previous paragraph will be able to identify in relation to his own predilections. Nevertheless, so as not to shirk my responsibility altogether, I will note that I found the Sonata No. 2 for cello and piano (1988) to be the most impressive work on the disc, its character somewhat more serious than the cheerful exuberance of most of the other pieces, with a contrapuntal developmental texture that I suspect would have met with Brahms’s enthusiastic approval. In February is a vocal work set to the composer’s own text. Here I found the poem’s irony and ambivalence not matched by the straightforwardness of the music’s character. Beck notes that Slow Motion,for vibraphone and piano, was inspired by the music of jazz artists Gary Burton and Chick Corea, and their influence is easily detected in this delightful piece. Third Delphic Hymn, originally composed for viola solo in 1980, is the earliest piece presented here, written during Beck’s first year as an undergraduate at the Mannes College of Music. He rearranged it for violin solo in 2003. The title is a reference to the earliest known examples of written music. As a piece for an unaccompanied string instrument, it is brief enough to be effective rather than grating.

The second CD features four string quartets performed by three different ensembles. These are extremely solid works that cut deeper than most of the pieces on the first disc. While still largely diatonic, the contrapuntal lines produce a somewhat higher degree of vertical dissonance, and the sense of tonality is less obvious. They are thoroughly abstract, making them difficult to describe without resorting to the sort of structural play-by-play that is of virtually no interest to anyone first becoming acquainted with the music. (The liner notes fall into this trap, although—admittedly—what else is there to say?) But the music, while perhaps less appealing on first hearing, is no less impressive, and displays no less mastery in its presentation of expressive substance conveyed with consummate craftsmanship. Although they are more introspective compositions, with less overt resemblance to other, more familiar works, they offer the kinds of rewards that most traditional listeners expect from the string quartet genre. All four quartets (one wonders about the absent Quartet No. 3) are gratifying works, although No. 2 is perhaps a bit less successful in holding the listener’s attention. They receive generally excellent performances by the three different ensembles. While perhaps not as immediately ingratiating as the first disc, it is not one iota less impressive, and I expect that these quartets will prove to be increasingly rewarding with greater familiarity. I hope that at some point Beck’s music will receive the recognition that it deserves. I gather that he has also a number of operas to his credit, and I am curious to see and hear them.

J. F. ROGERS Memoria Domi. Sonata Lunaris. Blue River Variations. Once Removed

J. F. ROGERS Memoria DomiSonata LunarisBlue River VariationsOnce Removed • Joseph Eller (cl); William Terwilliger (vn); Robert Jesselson (vc); Lynn Kompass (pn); Andrew Cooperstock (pn); Marina Lomazov (pn); Cameron Britt, Scott Herring (mmb) • INNOVA 707 (65:54)

This recent release, comprising music composed between 2003 and 2005, was my introduction to John Fitz Rogers, although listening to it made me wonder why I’d never encountered his name—or, more important, his music—before. Turning 50 this year, Rogers has been on the scene for some time. Born and raised in Wisconsin, he studied classical and jazz piano at a young age, and began to compose at 12. He studied with well-known compositional figures at Cornell, Yale, and Oberlin, and has amassed a substantial portfolio of works, which appear to have been performed at a variety of auspicious venues. Many of his pieces show traces of jazz and rock (although there is little of that on this disc). Rogers is currently composer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina.

Beginning my listening with the Blue River Variations for piano solo, I knew within about a minute that this was music that warranted serious attention. Despite Rogers’s enthusiastic involvement in the other genres of music that have surrounded him, the works on this disc are thoroughly traditionalist in their aesthetics, applying a Pre-Modernist tonal approach in forming his own Post-Modern voice, “an authentically middle-American one that unapologetically embraces its Western European antecedents,” as stated in the excellent annotations by Phillip Bush. This is not to suggest that Rogers’s works offer a reactionary retreat into familiar, easy listening. Rather, each piece offers an initial impression of authentic expression sufficient to encourage the listener to delve deeper. Nor do these pieces suggest pre-1900 styles; on the contrary, they sound thoroughly 20th century, but with “rounded,” rather than “hard” edges.

These Blue River Variations are smoothly integrated, each eliding with the next, so that the work doesn’t display the familiar strophic quality that variations so often do, instead accumulating more along the lines of a narrative. The style of the work ranges from “serious modern classical” to a number of vernacular piano styles, the whole treated with remarkable fluency and taste. The keyboard writing shows the skilled hand of an experienced pianist, and the work is played here magnificently by the Ukrainian Marina Lomazov, for whom the work was written. She is also on the faculty at the University of South Carolina.

Memoria Domi (or “a memory of home”) is the most ambitious work on the program—in four movements lasting 24 minutes, scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. It is serious in tone and modern traditionalist in style, with emphasis on forms such as canon and chaconne. Again one gleans the sensibility of an artist of the “old school,” in which a deeply expressive emotional contour is inseparable from abstract musical development, creating a compelling sense of engagement. Moments of passion occasionally call the music of Ernest Bloch to mind (though without ethnic features). The third movement is energetic, with a brilliant central toccata, while the beautiful fourth movement reveals a serenity somewhat reminiscent of Lou Harrison. The performance displays precision and polish throughout.

Sonata Lunaris, a work in three movements for violin and piano, is sober, sincere music of a reflective cast, once more displaying fluent mastery of the chromatic tonal language that appears to be Rogers’s natural idiom, which the composer treats as “a living, breathing art,” in the words of annotator Bush. The emotional core of the work is the centerpiece, a deeply searching “Lullaby,” while the final portion again calls Bloch to mind, in this case the ending of Baal Shem, albeit with a thoroughly gentile character. The duo who identify themselves as Opus Two provide a fine performance.

Quite different from the three works just discussed is Once Removed, an 8-minute work for two marimbas that serves as the title of the disc. It begins in innocent simplicity, reminiscent of minimalism as practiced early on by Steve Reich, but before long the listener is aware of a more rapid, dynamic rate of activity, as well as a greater degree of both emotional and conceptual complexity. The performance is extraordinary, its coordination aided by separate “click tracks.”

All four of these works reveal a gratifying clarity and coherence that convey the impression that initial acquaintance only scratches the surface, and that there is plenty more of value to derive from them. I look forward to further acquaintance with Rogers’s music.

STARK Five Preludes. HUTTER Evening Air. BROBERG Constellations. HALLE Lullaby. Second Childhood. NASS Dance Preludes. CAVIANI Jazz Etudes.

SECOND CHILDHOOD • Matthew McCright (pn) • INNOVA 739 (56:47)

STARK Five Preludes. HUTTER Evening AirBROBERG Constellations. HALLE Lullaby. Second Childhood. NASS Dance PreludesCAVIANI Jazz Etudes

Matthew McCright is an American pianist who graduated from Westminster College, the Conservatory at the University of Cincinnati, and the University of Minnesota, where he earned his doctoral degree. Currently on the faculty of Minnesota’s Carleton College, he has fashioned a career that revolves around the performance of music by living composers, which he has played throughout the country (although I’d suggest he keep his day job). This recording is the result of a concept devised by McCright to create a program of music written for him by composer-friends. Each piece was intended to evoke some aspect of the pianist’s youth—hence, the title of the disc, which he took from one of the pieces by John Halle.

Most of the music on the program draws upon or veers close to vernacular styles, ragtime in particular, so that one’s receptiveness to this style in its more domesticated distillations will probably influence the degree of appeal it holds for the listener. Rags are contributed by Gregory Hutter, John Halle, and Daniel Nass. Hutter’s is especially touching, as it captures the poignant undercurrent that makes ragtime more than a one-dimensional form, without diverging far from its conventional roots. There are tangos, waltzes, and other familiar dance styles as well. Daniel Nass’s offerings seemed a little too close to the essential templates to be interesting, although there are occasionally surprising harmonic twists. Halle’s Lullaby is pleasantly insinuating, but the more ambitious Second Childhood, the symbolic and eponymous centerpiece of the whole program, is somewhat more fully evolved, displaying some delightfully clever rhythmic felicities.

I found Bruce Stark’s Five Preludes among the most appealing offerings on the disc. Descended from the long tradition of piano preludes, his contributions draw largely upon impressionistic harmony, and are improvisatory in character, with some reminiscence of jazz pianist Bill Evans. I found No. 5 especially impressive.

Kirsten Broberg’s Constellations touch upon McCright’s interest in astronomy, and is probably the one offering that has virtually no vernacular reference. Her piece, which is a little over-extended, nevertheless produces some mysterious and alluring harmonic sonorities, along the lines of later Scriabin.

Laura Caviani’s Jazz Etudes comprise a blues, a tango, and a boogie-woogie. They are a little too close to their vernacular roots for my taste.

Every piece is played with a great deal of gusto as well as finesse. Readers who are attracted by the concept are likely to find the disc a pleasant experience.

MACKEY Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. BOLCOM Concerto Grosso. CRESTON Saxophone Concerto (arr. R. Howland). DAHL Saxophone Concerto. D. DeBoor. CANFIELD Saxophone Concerto, “Martyrs for the Faith.” CHEETHAM Concerto Agrariana

MACKEY Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. BOLCOM Concerto Grosso • Gil Rose, cond; PRISM Quartet; Boston Modern Orchestra Project • INNOVA 731 (52:07)

MARTYRS FOR THE FAITH: American Saxophone Concertos • Kenneth Tse (alto sax); U of Iowa Symphony Band; Richard Mark Heidel, Ray Cramer, conds • MSR CLASSICS MS-1359 (78:15)
CRESTON Saxophone Concerto (arr. R. Howland). DAHL Saxophone Concerto. D. DeBoor CANFIELD Saxophone Concerto, “Martyrs for the Faith.” CHEETHAM Concerto Agrariana

DEDICATION • PRISM Quartet • INNOVA 800 (57:53)
Music by ETEZADY, Z. BROWNING, RIES, WANAMAKER, FAVAND-SEE, LARSEN, DIDKOVSKY, OSBY, DENNEHY, UENO, A.B. SILVERMAN, BOLCOM, M. LEVY, HIGDON, DESANTIS, CAPANNA, K. MOORE, ECKARDT, OTERI, P. GOLDSTEIN, BERNE, CHEN YI, PRIMOSCH

This review addresses two releases that feature the PRISM Quartet—one of today’s most celebrated saxophone quartets—and one that highlights the artistry of Kenneth Tse, an active and highly respected saxophone virtuoso and teacher on the contemporary scene. The PRISM Quartet is represented by major works for saxophone quartet and orchestra by two of today’s most prominent composers, and by a cornucopia of tiny pieces by a wide variety of contemporary composers, each written and dedicated to the esteemed quartet (hence the disc’s title) in honor of its 20th anniversary (in 2004). The Tse program comprises two 20th-century “classics” of the repertoire and two 21st-century additions to the repertoire. Collectively the three discs illustrate—as do so many new releases—the gradual yet ever-rising standards of proficiency and artistry in virtually all instrumental categories.

As John Schaefer notes in a short accompanying essay, the PRISM Quartet seems to have modeled itself after the Kronos String Quartet, with its focus on commissioning new works, its embrace of a stylistic range that extends from traditional approaches to experimental explorations of many different kinds, but, most of all, with its truly astonishing precision of technical execution, coordination of ensemble, and subtlety of expression. Dedication features music by 23 living composers, in pieces that average less than two minutes each. One might note that, in addition to the well-intentioned congratulatory motivation that underlies this whole project, there is also the more self-serving factor that each among this varied group of composers is given the opportunity to make a favorable and memorable impression within the limited time-frame of a minute or two. The experimental pieces, such as those by Moore and Eckardt (which I found among the least appealing efforts), include multiphonics, while a group of four pieces by Oteri explore microtonality, and are fascinating, weird, and even funny; and one tiny trio of pieces, by Didkovsky, was composed via a computer program. There are also several pieces that, as might be expected with saxophone music, cross over into the world of jazz, such as those by Osby and Primosch, some that are quite severe, such as the contribution from Capanna, some that are simply pleasant, and others that leave no impression at all. Chen Yi’s contribution manages to achieve the distinction of sounding utterly unlike a saxophone quartet. But three pieces stand out as stunning, memorable, and immensely enjoyable: They are Zack Browning’s Howler Back, Jennifer Higdon’s Bop, and, perhaps most of all, Perry Goldstein’s Out of Bounds. But I must emphasize that many, if not most, of the pieces pose extraordinary difficulties in execution—e.g., playing microtonally, coordinating precise uniformity of articulation—and the quartet’s success in meeting these challenges is breathtaking.

The other PRISM CD, which features works by William Bolcom and Steven Mackey, is somewhat less rewarding, though not owing to any deficiency in the performances. William Bolcom’s four-movement Concerto Grosso, composed in 2000,is a representative example of his glib eclecticism, with much dipping into pop music styles. It is pleasant enough as a casual listening experience, but not one that inspires a deeper acquaintance. The final movement calls to mind some of the dance music from West Side Story, but the latter is edgier and more exciting—which gives you some idea of just how tepid this music is. But there is much to tax the quartet’s proficiency, and they master these difficulties with aplomb.

Less appealing than the Bolcom is Steven Mackey’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, composed in 2005. Mackey has been active in a variety of different areas, from serving on the faculty of Princeton to performing his own music for electric guitar. The piece at hand is relatively ambitious, comprising three movements that add up to more than half an hour. In composing this work, Mackey seems to have changed his mind mid-stream, beginning with the concept of skiing as an overall metaphor, but then deciding that the first movement suggested the braying of a jackass, the second movement the sound of bagpipe music, and the third an “off-kilter machine,” while at the same time proclaiming his work to be “pure music.” Talk about having it both ways! Although the work is not unpleasant to hear, and toward the end builds up a good deal of excitement, the whole concept seems contrived, and ultimately the piece seems to have very little to say and doesn’t add up to anything of enduring import. As with the Bolcom and the Dedications, the PRISM Quartet plays the Mackey piece with consummate mastery.

These two works are accompanied by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose. Like the PRISM Quartet, the BMOP is developing an impressive reputation for performing new music with extraordinary polish and precision. Sometimes their choice of repertoire seems misguided, and that becomes one of the factors on which the success of their ventures may be evaluated. But they do seem to approach their projects with great care and attention.

Attention is now turned to Martyrs of the Faith, the Kenneth Tse showcase that takes its name from the title of the work by David DeBoor Canfield. Just 40 years old, Tse was born in Hong Kong, but studied the saxophone at the University of Indiana and the University of Illinois. He has won many awards and numerous works have been composed especially for him. In addition to his active career of concertizing and recording, he teaches on the faculty of the University of Iowa.

Paul Creston was introduced to the saxophone as a concert instrument early in his compositional career, when he was invited to tour as accompanist for the erstwhile saxophone virtuoso Cecil Leeson. So impressed by the saxophone as an ideal concert instrument that he wrote an essay on the subject, Creston composed three works for Leeson: The first was a Suite for Saxophone and Piano (1935), and the second was the celebrated Sonata for Saxophone and Piano of 1939. Not only has this piece become the composer’s most often performed work, but it is arguably the centerpiece of the entire classical saxophone repertoire—and deservedly so! The Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra appeared in 1941. Though composed for Leeson, it was not performed until 1944, when Vincent J. Abato—America’s leading saxophone virtuoso during the 1940s through the 1960s—introduced the Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, under William Steinberg’s direction. (Creston went on to write several more works for saxophone, including a rhapsody and a saxophone quartet.) The Concerto is featured here in a 1948 transcription by Russell Howland. Interestingly, the transcription highlights the composer’s affinity with the “big band” sound that was popular at the time. This band transcription has been recorded previously; the original orchestral version never has.

Creston composed quite a few concertos, and they tend to follow a predictable pattern, in which virtuosic elements are emphasized at the expense of serious musical content. Typically they are lively, cheerful, and exuberant, with lyrical melodies and snappy, syncopated rhythms. Despite their overall similarity, the Saxophone Concerto may be identified as one of the composer’s lesser efforts in the genre. The work’s opening theme is full of bombast and bluster, somewhat reminiscent of the opening of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The remaining thematic material tends toward the banal, and is developed through workmanlike application of the composer’s usual skillful, concise procedures. Tse performs the work with a great deal of finesse, and his interpretation successfully minimizes the work’s gaucherie. But at times his playing is so delicate that the endings of soft phrases don’t always “speak.”

The Concerto for Saxophone and Wind Orchestra by Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970) is the composer’s most frequently-performed work—like the Creston, something of a repertoire classic. Dahl, whose music has been described quite accurately as “a cross between Stravinsky and Hindemith,” was born in Germany, but came to the United States in 1938, joining many other expatriates in Los Angeles. He was a composer of moderate interest, much of whose music did not emerge from the shadows of his influences. Although space does not permit elaboration here, I might note that Dahl’s personal history is arguably a good deal more intriguing than his music, and those whose interest is piqued by this comment are encouraged to delve into some of the recent biographical scholarship readily accessible on the subject.

The Concerto is a moderately interesting work, its first two movements revealing some noble, arresting ideas, while the last movement provides a showcase for the soloist’s virtuosity. The work was originally composed in 1949, but the composer subjected it to several revisions, the final one completed in 1958-59. It is that version by which the work is generally known today, and the one heard on this recording. Tse’s performance is excellent, although there seems to be something “boxy” about the sound quality.

The remaining two works are the more recent additions to the repertoire. One is the Concerto Agrariana (shouldn’t that be Agrariano?) for saxophone and band, composed in 2003 by John Cheetham. Now in his mid 70s, Cheetham taught on the faculty of the University of Missouri for many years. According to the accompanying notes, his Concerto is a tribute to the determination and resourcefulness of the pioneers who settled the American Midwest, and attempts something of a musical analogue to the perspective provided by the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton. The music is pure “Americana” at its most benign—extremely ingratiating and pleasantly entertaining.

Finally we come to the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Symphonic Winds, subtitled “Martyrs for the Faith,” composed in 2003 by David DeBoor Canfield. I think that some disclosure is called for, especially because I have learned over the years that many Fanfare readers make erroneous assumptions concerning relationships among the magazine’s staff writers. So let me state that although Dr. Canfield has been reviewing for Fanfare for several years, I have never met him or communicated with him through any medium, although I imagine that he is likely to read this review. I will also add that this is my first exposure to any of his music.

Though born to a musical family in Florida, where he was active for many years, Canfield did his graduate study at the University of Indiana, working under the guidance of John Eaton and Bernhard Heiden. Now in his early 60s, he continues to live and work in Indiana. He has devoted considerable compositional attention to the saxophone, and the Concerto at hand was initially performed at the World Saxophone Congress in Slovenia in 2006. Religious themes appear to play an important role in Canfield’s music; the Concerto’s subtitle alludes to the fact that each of its three movements commemorates a particular Christian martyr, and each is based on a hymn melody. The overall impact of the music is clearly tonal and essentially romantic in its use of the saxophone to represent each martyr as a protagonist in a kind of drama. Unexpected modernist usages appear, but without altering the work’s basically traditional character. This is one of those works whose source of inspiration is explicitly religious, but whose musical impact is not fervently spiritual. I mention as a not unreasonable parallel the Symphony No. 3, “Three Mysteries,” by Paul Creston. This is a work that is also explicitly religious, based on chant melodies, while drawing upon musical usages that were relatively contemporary at the time it was composed (1950). Nevertheless, while the symphony is hardly austere or free from moments of melodrama, the sense of religious fervor is intense and convincing.

Kenneth Tse performs all four works with great sensitivity, agility, and finesse. The accompanying role played by the University of Iowa Symphony Band is good, but not impeccable, relative to the standards set by the best of today’s college wind bands.

In closing, I come away from many of the works discussed in this review with a fundamental sense of pointlessness, as if the laissez-faire attitude regarding compositional styles characteristic of the Postmodern generations has resulted in a kind of undisciplined indifference. It’s almost as if the composers are saying, “If there are no prohibitions, then I can do anything”—and “anything” is what we get. I suppose that regardless of the severity of the dogmas dominating the field at any one time, the proportion of music of enduring value and arresting impact is consistently small.

FAST JUMP ● LANG memory pieces. KOZIK Fast Jump. FITKIN Relent. BURHANS In Time of Desperation. NARVESON ripple

FAST JUMP ● Danny Holt (pn) ● INNOVA 734 (79:49) LANG memory pieces. KOZIK Fast Jump. FITKIN Relent. BURHANS In Time of Desperation. NARVESON ripple.

This is a remarkably rewarding program of music for piano solo composed between the years 1997-2005, and performed with convincing authority and extraordinary dexterity by the California-based Danny Holt. Despite the relative recency of the music on the program, there is nothing here likely to alienate listeners comfortable with the level of harmonic dissonance found in the works of Prokofiev, Bartók, and even Debussy. The chief clue to the later provenance of this music lies in the varied degrees of minimalist influence. But even this is not blatantly obvious, when one considers that many of the character pieces of the older composers just noted are based on repetitive figurations. What is also especially interesting about the program and typical of much  postmodernism is that tonality—the presence or absence thereof—is basically not an issue: Sometimes it is clearly discernable, sometimes not, but that particular aspect is subordinate to other elements, such as texture, speed, rhythm, and pattern figuration.

David Lang’s memory pieces constitute the earliest and most extended work on the program. Lang, now in his mid 50s, is probably the best known of the composers represented—a co-founder of the successful New Music ensemble, Bang on a Can, and recipient of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. His group of eight pieces was composed in 1997. Averaging a little less than five minutes each, the pieces are a bit longer than the typical character pieces for piano. They are also distinguished from their pianistic predecessors in that, rather than following a conventional narrative arc, Lang’s pieces tend to start somewhat abruptly, maintaining a more-or-less constant energy level throughout, and then end as abruptly as they began. Each piece was written to commemorate a friend of the composer who had passed away, and, taken together, the set offers considerable variety in character, energy level, and figurational patterns, ranging from mysterious, hypnotic meditations to brilliant and exciting technical whirlwinds. Some unusual sonorities led me to suspect the use of some electronic modification of the tone quality, but these effects may have been achieved through subtleties of pedaling. Although I believe that, at 38 minutes, the entire set tends to overextend its welcome a bit, I could imagine a selection of perhaps four or five sections contributing very nicely to a recital program.

Lona Kozik’s eponymous Fast Jump is subtitled, “Etudes and Interludes,” and these eight pieces date from 2002-03. Now in her mid 30s, Kozik hails from Arizona, and is a pianist in her own right, while actively involved with rock music as well. At 2-3 minutes each, her pieces do not wear out their welcome, while comprising a compelling, varied, and rewarding cycle that reveals a consummate familiarity with the resources of the instrument. There is no apparent attempt here to explore “original” expressive devices, but the pieces not sound hackneyed or derivative in the least.

The piece that I enjoyed the most on the program is Relent, an 11-minute toccata–like moto perpetuo written in 1998 by Graham Fitkin, an English composer now in his late 40s. Fitkin has supplied a number of compositions for use with choreography, and has worked with electronic music as well. Relent simplydoesn’t … relent. It is a driving, rhythmically irregular, and tremendously exciting piece. Despite a somewhat more subdued central section, the piece demands considerable endurance from the pianist, and Danny Holt provides a truly stunning rendition.

Also of compelling interest is In Time of Desperation, by Caleb Burhans, a Canadian composer in his early 30s who has also been active as a violinist, a counter-tenor with Early Music ensembles, and as a rock musician as well. The short piano piece from 2003 by which he is represented here is a rather passionate, frankly tonal outpouring. Based on a repetitive harmonic sequence with minimalist figurational patterns, it creates a mesmerizing effect that is strangely moving emotionally.

The only piece on the disc that held little interest for me was Jascha Narveson’s ripple from 2005. Like several of the other composers heard here, Narveson has been involved with rock as well as “classical” music; he is also drawn to the music of India. His short piece ripple presents a tonal melody in the right hand, while tonally unrelated counter-ideas are heard obliquely in the left hand. The piece suggested to the composer the impression of pebbles dropping into a quiet pool of water. This is an image that has been more effectively evoked by others.

On the whole this recent release is a most impressive testament to the highly impressive artistry of Danny Holt, as well as to the continuing fertility of composers in writing meaningful music for the piano during the early years of this still-new century. The program provides the opportunity for Holt to demonstrate tremendous power, velocity, subtlety of expression, and a great variety of tonal colorations. The sound of the piano is recorded with great richness and depth. My only complaint involves the pianist’s own program notes, which are skimpy and minimally informative. What little factual information is reported in this review was not gleaned from the notes, but was accessed elsewhere. I do not welcome the gradual disappearance of relevant background information, and believe that it is a disservice to readers who take their music seriously enough to want such information on the composer and his music. It is also a disservice to the composers, whose music leaves much less of an impression when it is offered without context. I can’t think of who benefits from this paucity of information, other than the record company, which can supply a cheaper booklet. 

MORAN There Appeared an Angel. Cortege. Elegy for a Young King. Mantra. Obrigado. Stirling: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs. KBOCO. Processional.

MORAN There Appeared an Angel. Cortege. Elegy for a Young King. Mantra. Obrigado. Stirling: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs. KBOCO. Processional • Alexander Hermann, cond; Chrismos Vocal Ens; Grassauer Wind Ens; Robert Ridgell (org); Latvian Radio Ch; Dan Moore, cond; Iowa Perc • INNOVA 714 (66:46)

Now in his early 70s, Robert Moran has been on the compositional scene for a long time, and has passed through most of the “isms” that have comprised the contemporary music landscape of the past 50 years. Born in Denver, he studied 12-tone composition in Vienna, worked with Berio and Milhaud at Mills College, ran a new music ensemble in San Francisco, where he created a work that involved the participation of much of the city, including 100,000 performers, two radio stations, a TV station, dancers in the streets, et al.—the first of several such large-scale “happenings.” During the 1970s he returned to Europe, serving as composer in residence for the city of West Berlin, where many new works were commissioned and performed. Returning to the United States, he served as composer in residence at Northwestern University, and worked with both John Cage and Philip Glass. He lived in New York City for several years, before moving to Philadelphia during the mid 1980s. There he co-composed with Philip Glass what may be his best-known creative product: an opera, The Juniper Tree, which has enjoyed a number of productions. Since then he has composed many operas, and made a number of visits to Asia, where he studied the indigenous music of these cultures, all of which influenced his subsequent creative work. His compositions have been choreographed and performed all over the world, and many have been recorded. The foregoing recounts only the highpoints of his varied and active career.

The eight works on this compact disc all date from the years 1995 through 2007. It is difficult to characterize them or categorize them collectively, except to state that they would probably be most accurately termed “post-minimalist.” As I hear them, they fall into three subdivisions, except for Processional, a remarkably ordinary piece composed for the wedding of organist Robert Ridgell and his wife. The first three pieces in the headnote above might be compared with the music of Pärt and Tavener. They are slow in tempo, with a commensurately slow harmonic rhythm, and a consonant harmonic language, aside from a few appoggiaturas and suspensions. They sound as if they were recorded in large churches, with long reverberation times. There Appeared an Angel (2006) is scored for mixed chorus, brass, and organ; Cortege (2005) features brass dectet. Elegy for a Young King was composed in 1999 for organ. Perhaps my favorite on the disc, this is an aleatoric piece written in homage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Wagner’s fanatical patron). My only complaint about this selection is that the program notes do not make clear just what degrees of freedom are left to the performer, versus what is specified in the score. All three of these pieces evoke a peaceful sense of rapture.

Occupying a category of one is the 9-minute Mantra, the earliest piece on the program—perhaps a brief example of Moran’s large-scale “happenings.” Here again the program notes are inadequate. They tell us that this work “is composed for three choruses, at great distances from each other, no text. This live recording comes from the 1997 Latvian Radio Chorus concert, conducted by Otto Hotarek, Fritz Neumeyer, Tomas Brantner.” That’s it. So we know that three conductors are involved, presumably conducting three separate choral groups. But where they are situated relative to each other, and how the entirety was coordinated is left to conjecture. The audible result is somewhat chaotic, with very slow harmonic rhythm (a necessity, one would presume, in order to actualize such a concept—regardless of exactly what that concept might be). 

The third category consists of three pieces for percussion. These are all pitch and rhythm-oriented, displaying the influence of African and Asian drumming techniques. The shortest is Obrigado, dating from 1995, and features mallet instruments as well as piano. The music is modal and energetic, with intriguing rhythmic irregularities. The longest of the three is Stirling: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs (2007). This piece mixes the sound of rain with some 50 percussion instruments. Moran calls it “a musical landscape in rain,” the rain being “an integral sound-event from start to finish.” Well, it doesn’t exactly unfold like a symphony, but it is effectively atmospheric as a sound ambiance. This recording was taken from the world premiere in Iowa. KBOCO was named for a well known Brazilian graffiti artist, and was explicitly written for choreographer Armando Duarte. The exotic musical influences here seem to be African via Brazil. 

In summary, an intriguing survey of recent work by a veteran of many “new music” scenes. Recommended to those who follow and enjoy the branches of post-minimalism.

Alex SHAPIRO: NOTES FROM THE KELP . Slipping. Bioplasm. Current Events. For My Father. At the Abyss. Phos Hilaron. Music for Two Big Instruments. Deep

Alex SHAPIRO: NOTES FROM THE KELP • Robin Lorentz, Miwako Watanabe, Connie Kupka (vn); Victoria Miskolczy, David Walther (va); David Speltz (vc); Los Angeles Flute Quartet;7 Brice Martin8 (fl); Charles Boito9 (cl); Carolyn Beck (bn); Leslie Lashinsky (cbn); Alan Baer (tb); Susanne Kessel, Teresa McCollough, Frank Basile, Bradley Haag (pn); Kathleen McIntosh (hpd); Thomas Burritt (mmb, vibe); Dan Morris, Peggy Benkeser (perc) • INNOVA 683 (73:18)

Slipping. Bioplasm. Current Events. For My Father. At the Abyss. Phos Hilaron. Music for Two Big Instruments. Deep

Now in her late 40s, Alex Shapiro was born, raised, and educated in Manhattan, where her composition teachers included Ursula Mamlok and John Corigliano. At some point she moved to the West Coast, and now lives in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. All the works on this program feature small instrumental ensembles and were composed between 1996 and 2006, while she was living in Malibu, California. Throughout her program notes (beginning with the album title noted above) she makes abundantly clear that proximity to the ocean is of paramount importance to her, and many of the pieces in some way draw upon that affinity. This, and the overall “tone” of her notes prepared me for the prospect of more than an hour of environmentally-oriented sonic landscapes—the sort of thing generally associated with a “New Age” sensibility. Perusing the package, I expect that old-fashioned collector types, as well as hard-nosed academics, would be likely to sneer at its overall informality (“When she’s not at sea or exploring the tide pools, Alex procrastinates on her next piece by updating her website, …”; and in a note “From Alex: Composing is a lot like making love….”; somehow I can’t imagine that line in a program note by Charles Wuorinen, for example). On the other hand, I’m sure that Shapiro and her fans would defend her attitude as a healthy antidote to the stuffiness and pomposity of conventional classical music sociology—and they would have a good point. 

The fact is that the music on this CD embraces a fairly wide range of expression. One piece, Deep, an 8-minute piece for contrabassoon, percussion, and electronically generated sounds, is a sort of sonic landscape; extremely evocative, it would be ideal background music for a film documentary on the ocean depths. But other pieces that I expected might be along the same lines were not. 
For example, Bioplasm is a 12-minute piece for four flutists, who play a bunch of flutes—alto, bass, piccolo, in addition to the usual—and also vocalize. “Alex” writes, “I wanted to create an organism from the four flutists that oozes across the sonic floor as a unified entity, sometimes slowly, sometimes at a quick pace, but always as one, like a Slinky toy.” So I expected something evocative of a giant amoeba crawling across the ocean floor. Instead, Bioplasmproved to be an engaging substantive work, with a definite sense of musical “progress.”

Eventually I concluded that despite Shapiro’s titles and the concepts upon which she draws for inspiration, most of these pieces are reasonably absorbing and satisfying musical works, emanating from a roughly neo-classical stylistic frame of reference. For example, Current Events, perhaps the most ambitious and actively substantive piece, is a 16-minute string quintet in three movements. Despite the subjective and metaphorical nature of the composer’s comments (“Current Events ponders the ocean’s tides as well as waves of a more internal, emotional nature….”), the piece itself utilizes a highly chromatic but not harshly atonal language in a traditional manner that more than once calls to mind the string chamber works of Ernest Bloch (another devotee of the sea who resided on the shores of the Pacific). 

The other work of more extended proportions is At the Abyss, a 14-minute piece for piano, marimba, vibraphone, and other percussion. (“I titled this piece At the Abyss because as members of a species which remains too savage for its ultimate survival, we’re staring directly into a crevasse that is our future. We are poised to plummet to its depths if we do not react accordingly.”) Although I share Shapiro’s outlook, I can’t really say that any of it comes through in the music, which is never the right vehicle for such speculation. On the other hand, it is a fairly exciting piece in three movements, tinged with the influence of jazz. For the most part, the outer movements are rhythmically driving, with irregular meters, while the middle movement is slow, contemplative, and dark in mood. 

Of the other pieces, Slipping, for violin, harpsichord, and percussion, intends to give the harpsichord an array of musical styles as dissimilar to its customary repertoire as possible. The 10-minute piece is a playful potpourri of everything from tango to Japanese to Dixieland to rock to country. Somewhat similarly, Music for Two Big Instruments is a 7-minute piece for tuba and piano that sets out not to indulge in the sort of caricature customarily assigned to the lowest member of the brass family. The result is a straightforward piece of good music that builds to quite a serious climax.

For My Father is a short piano piece inspired by the composer’s experience of watching her father descend into dementia—a most painful experience to which her piece doesn’t really do justice.
The large array of musicians brought together on this recording seems drawn from among the West Coast’s top freelance musicians. The performances are almost all extremely fine. My only complaint is that the reading of At the Abyss seemed unduly restrained, with regard to both tempo and dynamics.

In summary, an intriguing and varied program representing a composer with a sincere interest in musical expression.