Peter Kairoff, piano
If “classical” audiences absolutely must have the constant comfort of their Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Saint-Saens, at the very least we might stir into their diets the sounds of the American composers who employed a similar vocabulary. Largely forgotten, the piano music of George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931) isn’t likely to ruffle any programs. His Chanson Orientale is a little gem of a piece offering an American take on the 19th century European fad of penning “exotic” classical works.
The latest release from Philip Glass’s archival label Orange Mountain Music is his world music epic Orion which combines the sound of his own Philip Glass Ensemble with important traditional music innovators from around the world including some he has worked with in the past—Chicago-based Gambian kora master Foday Musa Suso, the experimental Brazilian ensemble Uakti, and legendary Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar who has composed music performed here by Gaurav Mazumdar—as well as a few new faces—Australian Mark Atkins on didjerido, Chinese-American pipa virtuosa Wu Man, Cape Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, and Greek vocalist Eleftheria Arvanitaki. Premiered a year ago today at the commencement the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, the work will receive its American premiere at the Ravinia Festival, outside Chicago, on June 21, 2005.
In lesser hands an over-the-top travelogue project such as this, especially one created for the Olympics, might come across as something akin to the music Yanni performed on a PBS broadcast a few years back. But Glass delivers music that absorbs all of these traditions while still retaining his now trademark cyclical repetition of arpeggiated melodic motives and oscillating minor-thirds. The result is a welcome and often surprising expansion his harmonic vocabulary.
Though surely there are enough cellists in the world to avoid the necessity of it, recording technology means that if you want to play chamber music all by your lonesome, you can. Cellist Stephanie Winters gives it a whirl on her “solo” CD release Through the Storm. Though arguably less stylistically adventurous than that other multi-tracking cellist (yes, I’m talking ’bout you, Maya), Winters takes an interpretive crack at music from Ornette Coleman to Bela Bartok and sprinkles in several of her own compositions. This featured track, by James Winters and arranged by disc producer Alan Williams, is a moody, cinematic essay for which one cellist wears four faces.
Before listening to this disc, Carei Thomas was completely unknown to me, although this sixty-year-old African American composer/pianist has been creating wild free improvisational music in the Twin Cities for over 30 years. Perhaps that’s because apart from a few self-produced homemade cassettes, his music only just started to appear on commercially released CDs. “Ibidem,” from his new album on innova, synthesizes a variety of musical approaches: in only a few minutes it goes from a scorching violin-laptop duet to an almost Feldman-esque tranquility highlighted by Thomas’s spare piano phrasing.
Over the past 15 years, The Barton Workshop has garnered a reputation for their topnotch interpretation of New York School composers. Naturally they are the obvious choice to disseminate Morton Feldman’s mid-period graphic scores, the subject of this latest release in Mode’s ongoing Feldman Edition. Personally, I love the few loud and fast Feldman gems like Intersection III. Here, pianist Frank Denyer manages a proper freak out on the keys, evoking a Tudor-like gusto. And for the obsessed collector, the disc contains three premiere recordings: Intersection I, Marginal Intersection, and In Search of An Orchestration.
When pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin took the stage at the 2001 Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, I still recall staring at the T.V. in disbelief and then, once I was over the shock of seeing a classical artist playing live at the ceremony, wondered aloud if this would be the industry’s Field of Dreams, “build it and they will come” moment. Surely, after the millions of viewers heard Hamelin, the concert halls would be flooded with the newly enchanted? Ok, so perhaps it was a naïve fantasy on my part, but Hamelin, especially when he’s alone at the piano, continues to charm me. His performance of Sonata Rhythmikosmos by Jay Reise (a revised version of the 1993 work) is no exception. It’s a cerebral bit of music that maintains contact with its softer side, and Hamelin offers a reading to match.
The American Symphony Orchestra; Leon Botstein, conductor
Beginning a symphony with maracas usually implies a Latin tinge. Not so for Roger Sessions’s Eighth Symphony, composed in 1968, which uses maracas as the sole accompaniment for the first utterance of an angular twelve-tone row. The result is one of the most clearly stated openings of a serial orchestral work I have ever heard. The Sessions symphony is one of four extremely cerebral works collected on a new CD featuring the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein. The common ground between it and its companions on this disc—George Perle’s Transcendental Modulations (1993), Bernard Rands’s Beckett-inspired …where the murmurs die… (1995), and Aaron Copland’s Inscape (1967) from his late serial period—is that all of these were New York Philharmonic commissions funded by Francis Goelet, who was arguably the most significant music patron in U.S. history.
Orchestra 2001; James Freeman, conductor
A friend mentioned recently that encountering something small done perfectly is one of the most satisfying experiences. Listening to the molto lento of Gerald Levinson’s For the Morning of the World, I had a similar epiphany. It turns out that the simple melody that snakes through the entire movement is based on the “highly refined, archaic Gamelan Semar Pegulingan (Gamelan of the Love God).” Performed by Orchestra 2001 using western timbres, the lines lose any specifically “world music” edge and instead float exotically in the mist just off the coast of an unnamed country.
If you hear a raucous clamor of guitars, bass, and drums wafting from your local museum, chances are the New Humans are somewhere inside. Their distinctive brand of alt-rock noise made a splash at the re-opening of the Walker Art Center, raised some minimalist-styled hell at the Swiss Institute – Contemporary Art, and are slated to shake things up at PS1 sometime soon. In a gimmicky sort of art-informed slapstick, the group often performs in colorful conjoined outfits, sporting loud matching stripes—real cute. Of course the artworld glitterati eats it all up. This limited edition self-titled CD captures the collective’s improbable mélange of bona fide punk, noise, and old school minimalism. If pressed, I’d have place it somewhere in the Ernstalbrecht Stiebler meets Black Flag camp.
Sandwiched in between two of William Schuman’s most potent symphonies is a shocking three-minute waltz from 1963 that is so anachronistic it’s downright revolutionary. Long before Dennis Busch and Milos Raikovich’s new classicism or Stefania De Kennessey’s Derrier Guard, Schuman proved with gusto that in the post-Cage universe where anything goes, new ideas could still emerge within the trappings of old sounding music. An arrangement of an Austrian folk song that sounds more Robert than William, this innocuously-titled ditty reveals itself to be a product only possible in our time through its completely fresh orchestration.