Posts filed under 'Classical Music'

Hear in Now – Not Living in Fear

HiN
Title: Not Living in Fear

Artist: Hear in Now (Mazz Swift, Tomeka Reid & Silvia Bolognesi)

Label: International Anthem; dist. Redeye

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 2, 2017

 

Formed in 2009 through a commission from WomaJazz, the string trio Hear in Now features New York violinist Mazz Swift, Chicago cellist Tomeka Reid, and Italian double bass player Silvia Bolognesi. Individually the three women have performed and recorded with artists ranging from jazz musicians Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and Butch Morris to rappers Common, Jay-Z and Kanye West.

On their second studio album, Not Living in Fear, the trio displays their affinity for free jazz and the avant-garde across 13 tracks of original music composed variously by members of the group. The project is a natural fit for the International Anthem label, dedicated to promoting boundary-defying recordings and occurrences of creative music in Chicago and beyond. Through the label’s sponsorship, we’re now able to appreciate these works, recorded by HiN in 2012 and 2014.

Rather than easing into the album with a more accessible work, the trio fearlessly opens with “Impro 3.” The track builds slowly over long, sustained harmonies punctuated by a flurry of glissandos that provide a sense of foreboding as they lead to a freely improvised and frenzied climax. This is followed by “Leaving Livorno,” a more melodic work with a yearning quality that features a jazzy interplay between cello and violin. “Requiem for Charlie Haden,” composed by Bolognesi, is dedicated the late jazz bass player who died two months prior to this recording session. Bolognesi adds a touch of free jazz to the bass line and takes an extended solo, but otherwise incorporates Haden’s penchant for blending simple melodies with classical harmonies.

Chicago jazz vocalist Dee Alexander is featured on the title track. Reid frequently performs with Alexander, so it’s fitting that they collaborated on this composition. To say this song is a highlight feels like a bit of a cop out, given its broader appeal, but I make no apologies. Clearly it was sequenced at the album’s midpoint to provide a bit of breathing room, and displays the trio’s extensive background in jazz (all have various jazz side projects).

Throughout the album, the three musicians employ extended playing techniques. For example, col legno and other percussive effects are used in “Transiti” to emulate the chugging rhythm of a train, and the opening of “Terrortoma” is punctuated by an ominous thumping reminiscent of the sound of advancing soldiers. But these techniques are never overused; each composition offers multiple sections and thematic complexity.

Not Living in Fear is a courageous album, brilliantly performed by three very accomplished women. They may frequently present concerts in museums, but the museum analogy often applied to classical music is certainly not relevant. Instead, HiN challenges us to hear the music of the present, defined in their own terms.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 7th, 2017

Leontyne Price; Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma; Sir Georg Solti, conductor – Verdi – Aida

Aida
Title: Verdi – Aida

Artist: Leontyne Price; Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma; Sir Georg Solti, conductor

Label: Decca

Format: 2 CDs + 1 Blu-ray Audio (Deluxe Edition)

Release Date: June 30, 2017

 

On February 10, 2017, the great soprano Leontyne Price celebrated her 90th birthday. The occasion was marked by numerous articles, including an online tribute by NPR Classical, which referred to Price as the “first real [African American] superstar” who was “among the very best Verdi sopranos of her time.” In that article, Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page offered the following thoughts on what he considered to be one of Price’s most notable recordings:

“In my opinion, still the best performance of Aida I know on record would be [Leontyne Price] with tenor Jon Vickers. There’s a sense of longing to it. There’s a real identification and loneliness, an ease in the high notes, as well as the medium range. There’s fierce musical intelligence and emotional intensity. The singing with Jon Vickers is extraordinary. There you had two spirits who were very much in alignment—the ferocity, the tenderness. It’s beautiful, it’s songful, it’s grand. It’s a marvelous statement from a great artist.”

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The Aida referenced above was recorded in Rome in June and July, 1961, with the Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma conducted by Sir Georg Solti and featuring the “Verdi dream cast” of Price, Vickers, Robert Merrill, Rita Gorr, and Giorgio Tozzi. Produced by Richard Mohr with engineers Lewis Layton and René Boux, the RCA Living Stereo recording won the Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording in 1962.

Price was at her peak during this period, in terms of both vocal prowess and international stardom, and by 1961 had been performing the role of Aida for several years. A few months prior, in January of 1961, she also made her début at the Metropolitan Opera House, where her legendary opening night performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore received a 42 minute standing ovation. This occurred six years to the month after Marian Anderson paved the way as the first black woman to sing at the Met.

In honor of Price’s 90th birthday, Decca just released a special deluxe edition of her 1961 recording of Verdi’s Aida. Though reissued numerous times over the years, many of these recordings have been criticized for poor sound quality, having been dubbed from LPs. This three disc set is newly remastered from original analog sources by former Decca engineer Paschal Byrne. Since CDs don’t support sampling rates greater than 44.1 kHz, the third disc is a Pure Audio Blu-ray featuring 96kHz/24-bit high fidelity sound. The hard-back edition includes liner notes by William Weaver, an essay on the recording by Richard Mohr, as well as the libretto and synopsis in English, German and French translations.

If you don’t already have one of the recent reissues of Leontyne Price’s 1961 Aida, then this deluxe edition is highly recommended if you have a Blu-ray player.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review July 7th, 2017

Richard Dowling – The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin

Joplin
Title: The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin

Artist: Richard Dowling

Label: Rivermont

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 19, 2017

 

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death (and roughly 150 years since his estimated birth date of 1867), pianist Richard Dowling offers this splendid 3-CD box set containing Joplin’s complete piano works—over 50 waltzes, marches and rags. These include all authenticated Joplin compositions as well as those for which he received an arranging credit. The same cycle of works were performed in their entirety by Dowling in two historic concerts at Carnegie Hall on April 1, 1917, exactly 100 years to the day that Joplin died in New York City.

Now widely considered one of America’s most important composers of the late 19th – early 20th century, Joplin’s first solo piano works were published in 1896. His earliest piano rags, including “Original Rag” and the iconic “Maple Leaf Rag,” were printed three years later. This, of course, was the genre that made Joplin famous and cemented his place in history as “The King of Ragtime,” while ragtime’s distinctly African American syncopated rhythms formed the foundation of jazz.  Joplin’s career reached its peak from 1908-1914, culminating in the completion of his opera Treemonisha and his most innovative ragtime compositions, including “Fig Leaf” (1908), “Wall Street Rag” (1909), “Euphonic Sounds” (1909) and “Magnetic Rag” (1914). Sadly, Joplin died three years later at age 49—without realizing his plans for a symphony, piano concerto, or the staging of his opera—and nearly forgotten since ragtime music had been overtaken by jazz. Even more tragic from an archival perspective, there are no surviving letters or other personal papers.

Richard Dowling has made a career of interpreting the works of American composers, from Louis Gottschalk and George Gershwin to Eubie Blake and Fats Waller. Three of his previous CDs are devoted to ragtime music. As an official Steinway Artist, Dowling’s instrument of choice for The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin was a Hamburg Steinway concert grand. While one might argue this is surely a much finer instrument than any available to Joplin in his lifetime and thus is not a “period instrument,” it certainly speaks to Joplin’s desire for his works to be considered and performed as “higher class music,” and one can’t deny the magnificence of the piano’s tone and the richness of the recording. In all other matters, Dowling states that he followed Joplin’s performance instructions to the letter: “[my rags were] harmonized with the supposition that each note will be played as written…to complete the sense intended.” To that end, he recorded Joplin’s works “without adding embellishments or improvisations as is often done … carefully observing his phrasing, voice leading, placement of rests, use of ties, articulations, and dynamics.”

Dowling approaches each work with incredible sensitivity and scholarly intent. Noting that “Joplin’s piano music sings like that of Chopin,” he definitely strives for this effect. His carefully chosen tempos, magisterial tone color, delicate phrasing, and subtle dynamics bring out the sophistication and beauty of each composition. I particularly enjoyed listening to each of Dowling’s stated favorites, including ““The Crush Collision March” and “Antoinette” (for their drama), “Sugar Cane” and “Sun Flower Slow Drag” (for their sheer virtuosity).”

Dowling and musicologist Bryan S. Wright, who served as co-producer and recording engineer, eschewed the standard chronological programming order in favor of creating a more harmonious musical flow. They succeed brilliantly, and an alphabetical index allows listeners to quickly locate any work among the 54 tracks. Wright also composed the liner notes for the accompanying 72 page booklet, offering tremendous insight with his analysis of each composition, pointing out Joplin’s penchant for striking key changes and innovative modulations. Also included are full color illustrations of the original sheet music covers.

Though there are many recordings of Joplin’s piano works, including the landmark interpretations by Joshua Rifkin who was at the forefront of the Joplin revival in the 1970s, Richard Dowling’s The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin is highly recommended for its superb sound, excellent packaging and, last but certainly not least, his carefully articulated, virtuosic performance.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

View review June 2nd, 2017

Piano Works – Zenobia Powell Perry

Zenobia

Title: Piano Works—Zenobia Powell Perry

Artists: Josephine Gandolfi, Deanne Tucker, LaDoris Hazzard Cordell

Label: Cambria

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 12, 2016

 

 

Composer Zenobia Powell Perry’s long lifespan witnessed momentous upheavals in the course of African-American music; when she was born in 1908, Scott Joplin still had nine years to live and when she died at 96 in 2004 Tupac Shakur had already been gone for eight. The music collected on Cambria’s Piano Works: Zenobia Powell Perry mostly belongs to the latter half of her life, from the ‘60s to the ‘90s, and is performed by three pianists: Josephine Gandolfi, Deanne Tucker and LaDoris Hazzard Cordell. Gandolfi and Tucker join forces on a duet arrangement (by Gandolfi) of music from Perry’s 1987 opera Tawawa House that is handily the most appealing and immediate music in the collection. Tawawa House tells the story of a mixed-race resort in Tawawa Springs, Ohio that served as the predecessor to Wilberforce College, the first historically black institution of higher learning in the United States. The dramatic potential of this little known subject, combined with Perry’s interest in the folk idiom of the era around the Civil War, moved her to write some especially exciting and engaging music for it. Perry held a long time composition residency at Central State University, which began within Wilberforce, and while some listeners may feel that Tawawa House smacks of Copland and/or certain William Grant Still pieces like Miss Sally’s Party, it strikes this listener as being in tune with the music of the French neo-classical school exemplified by Les Six, an interest Perry would have shared with Copland.

That’s not to say that the rest isn’t equally captivating, but it’s more of a mixed bag. The seven pieces that open the disc are obviously for use in elementary music teaching and total to no more than eight minutes of the disc’s 54 minute playing time; their impression is rather slight, even the second time around. The more extended pieces outside of the suite are very interesting; Perry shares with Erik Satie a sort of disdain, or at least disinterest, in usual formal development schemes, though her gestures are linked through internal formal and thematic relationships that make clear that these are not transcribed improvisations, even if her choices are sometimes a little baffling, such as in the conclusion of Times Seven.

Perry is strongly attracted to big chords and sometimes her textures are rather thick. In the 1930s, she assisted choral director William Levi Dawson at Tuskegee and her Homage to William Levi Dawson on his 90th Birthday attempts to take the standard accompaniment used at that time for spirituals into a more instrumental direction. Some listeners may find it heavy-handed, but it is a sincere and deeply felt creation, and that summarizes much of what is heard here. Beyond that, Piano Works: Zenobia Powell Perry is a little technically challenged; it has a couple of glitchy edits and is a very quiet recording overall, so be prepared to crank it up.

Reviewed by David N. “Uncle Dave” Lewis

View review June 1st, 2017

Daahoud Salim – Erwin Schulhoff: Forbidden Music

salim
Title: Erwin Schulhoff – Forbidden Music

Artist: Daahoud Salim, piano; Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam; Andrew Grams, conductor

Label: Challenge Classics

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 9, 2016

 

Challenge Classics International, a Netherlands based label, recently released this disc featuring the early piano works of Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). The Czech-born composer of German heritage was himself a gifted pianist who performed internationally. When Schulhoff relocated to Berlin in early 1922, he was introduced to American ragtime, dance and jazz music through the record collection of his friend George Grosz, an artist affiliated with the Berlin Dada group. This decade was extremely prolific for Schulhoff, who wrote many successful works synthesizing jazz and classical music, four of which are featured on Forbidden Music. The album’s title denotes the increasingly tenuous place of jazz in Germany by the late 1930s, which was one of the vilified genres designated by the Nazi party as “Entartete Musik” (degenerate music). Tragically, as a communist of Jewish heritage, Schulhoff was deported to a concentration camp in Bavaria, where he died in 1942. His music, considered unfashionable in the decades immediately following his death, has seen a much deserved revival over the last 20 years with numerous recordings of his works in print.

Pianist Daahoud Salim is certainly up to the challenge of interpreting Schulhoff’s music. Initially trained by his father, American composer and jazz saxophonist Abdu Salim, Daahoud studied both jazz and classical piano at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam.  The album begins with a brilliant reading of Schulhoff’s complex Konzert für Klavier und Kleines Orchester, op. 43 (1923), featuring the Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam led by Andrew Grams.  The initial “Molto Sostenuto” movement flows into Salim’s rapturous piano cadenza in the “Sostenuto” section, then sweeps into the cinematic “Allegro alla Jazz” with full orchestra. This final movement is loosely scored ABA, with a mid-section interlude for violin and piano reminiscent of café music of the era.

The remaining works, all for solo piano, allow Salim to display his brilliant technique. “Troisième Suite pour piano pour la main gauche” (1926) consists of five short movements that begin in a contemplative manner, gradually increasing in complexity through the third movement “Zingara,” before concluding in an intricate, rhythmically percussive finale.  In Suite dansante en jazz (1931), each of the six short movements represent a different dance style: Stomp, Strait, Waltz, Tango, Slow, and Fox-Trot.  The final movement sounds particularly “Gershwin-esque,” but overall this work holds up well and doesn’t sound overly dated. Salim performs with aplomb, bringing out the nuances of each dance style. He is joined by Russian pianist Nadezda Filippova for the closing work, Ironien op. 34, a six movement suite for piano four-hands that’s light-hearted and whimsical, with touches of Debussy and ragtime.

Forbidden Music is a fine introduction to the classical side of Daahoud Salim, who is already making waves throughout Europe with his jazz quintet—they just released their debut recording to critical acclaim.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 3rd, 2017

The Choir of Trinity Wall Street – Trevor Weston Choral Works

trevor-weston
Title: Trevor Weston Choral Works

Artist: The Choir of Trinity Wall Street; Julian Wachner, cond.

Label: Acis

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 6, 2016

This collection of powerful and eclectic choral music is the first album dedicated entirely to celebrating Trevor Weston’s compositions. The Grammy nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street performs under famed conductor Julian Wachner, with the Trinity Youth Chorus and NOVUS NY (Trinity’s resident contemporary music orchestra) providing accompaniment on a few selections. Weston is Associate Professor of Music at Drew University and has received several honors throughout his career, including the George Ladd Prix de Paris from the University of California, Berkeley; a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the MacDowell Colony.

Weston embraces both sacred and poetic influences in his musical compositions. In the album liner notes he discusses the inspiration and motivations for each piece. For instance, Weston wrote “My Heart Hath Trusted in God” after searching through collections of short expressive texts from the English Gradual while working as music director at a small Anglo-Catholic church in Berkeley.

Certain compositions reflect expressions of collective African American experiences. “Truth Tones” was written to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “revelation of hidden truths” using texts from the African Saint Augustine and the African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In “O Daedalus, Fly Away Home,” the choir engages in a percussive stomp and clap similar to the traditional juba patting performed during slavery. The piece was based on a poem by Robert Hayden that combines Greek mythology with the African American folktale, “Flying Africans,” to evoke the spiritual flight away from adversity.

The still and static sorrow present in “Ashes” is a response to the attacks on 9/11 and the senseless violence and suffering reverberating throughout the world. The voices echoing during the song represent the cries for mercy. As Weston explains, “The drama builds to a symbolic creation of the two towers, a ‘tall’ chord consisting of two notes for each voice part.” This eight-minute composition draws from Psalm 102, acting as a prayer in the face of terror:

Hear my prayer, O lord,
And let my crying come unto thee.
My days are gone like a shadow.
And I am withered like grass

The final tracks on this album consist of five movements called “Ma’at Musings.” Conductor Julian Wachner commissioned Weston to create this piece in 2004, in which he incorporated 5th century BCE Egyptian texts. Describing the movements, Weston states, “The texts are earthly and direct so I composed a musical fantasy responding to striking words from the ancient world.”

This 15-track album eloquently expresses Weston’s interest in exploring the limits of creativity within sacred and secular thematic elements.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review December 1st, 2016

Samora Pinderhughes – The Transformations Suite

samora
Title: The Transformations Suite

Artist: Samora Pinderhughes

Label: Gray Area

Format: Digital (MP3, FLAC, etc.)

Release date: October 12, 2016

 

Although originally composed in 2011, The Transformations Suite is one in a long list of artistic projects related to and inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement.  BLM has pushed many artists to engage with questions of civil rights, police brutality, and black humanity, and Samora Pinderhughes is a leading voice in this conversation.  The 24-year-old Juilliard trained pianist and composer is already a very accomplished musician, with a number of high profile collaborators.  Pinderhughes is the musical director for Ava Duvernay and Ryan Coogler’s Blackout for Human Rights, a Sundance film festival fellow, and recently premiered a song inspired by the death of Sandra Bland at the Kennedy Center with Lalah Hathaway.  His sister, Elena Pinderhughes, is also a successful musician in her own right, currently collaborating with Common as both singer and flutist, and featured in his most recent Tiny Desk concert at the White House as well as on his upcoming album.  In fact, the two perform together in The Transformations Suite, with Elena being featured heavily on “Cycles.”

The Transformations Suite is tone poem with five movements: transformation, history, cycles, momentum (parts 1 and 2), and ascension.  It features a combination of jazz and spoken word (with texts by Saul Williams and Tupac Shakur), and draws on all facets of the African-American musical tradition, from spirituals to hip-hop.  Highlights include “Cycles,” which features a motif that will haunt you even after the movement is over.  Another favorite is “Momentum (Part 2),” which questions the status quo and refuses to be silenced.

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The Transformations Suite is an ambitious, extraordinarily timely composition, coming on the heels of another summer filled with police brutality.  The music becomes a space of both collective mourning and healing, and also imagines a space of possibility in which we get free.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review November 1st, 2016

Marian Anderson – Let Freedom Ring!

marian-anderson
Title: Let Freedom Ring!

Artist: Marian Anderson

Label: JSP

Format: CD

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

Though illustrious contralto Marian Anderson broke many barriers over the course of her career, her 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. stands as a signal moment in the history of civil rights. Most know this story but it certainly bears repeating for a younger generation.

After concertizing around the world in the 1930s and becoming the toast of Europe, Anderson’s agent, Sol Hurok, brought her back to America in 1935 for a historic homecoming at Town Hall in New York. His hope that her international stardom would shield her from racial discrimination in her homeland was unfortunately not realized. As was the case with all African Americans, concert artists included, Anderson was subjected to many indignities—not the least of which were segregated concert halls and denial of access to hotels and restaurants while touring. Though she initially avoided taking a political stance, this role was thrust upon her in 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to rent Constitution Hall for Anderson’s proposed Easter Sunday concert. After being turned down by additional venues in the nation’s capital, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took up the cause (she had brought Anderson to the White House three years earlier), along with many other politicians and celebrities. To make a long story short, the Easter concert went forward on April 9, 1939, but was moved to the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall. Over 75,000 were in attendance, and the concert was broadcast live over NBC.

Let Freedom Ring! is advertised by JSP Records as the first state-of-the-art audio restoration of the NBC broadcast to be reissued on CD. In the accompanying notes by restoration engineer John H. Haley, he describes using noise removal to downplay the “noisy outdoor audience” in order to give justice to Anderson’s sumptuous voice. She was 42-years-old at the time, and the concert captures her in her prime. After the opening announcements, the concert begins with “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” as documented on this newsreel restored by UCLA:

Also included on this CD is a concert recorded over 20 years later at the Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen. Never before released, the October 27, 1961 performance includes Anderson’s typical mix of Brahms and Schubert lieder with a number of standard spirituals. Of particular interest are two lieder by Finish composer Yrjö Henrik Kilpinen, who died two years prior to this concert, as well as songs by Sibelius and an aria from Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila. As Haley notes, Anderson was 64 at the time of this concert and nearing the end of her career. Her performance is still captivating, even though a bit tenuous at times (Haley admits to making some pitch corrections).

If you wish to learn more about Anderson’s historic 1939 performance, the booklet includes the riveting story as excerpted from Harlow Robinson’s The Last Impresario: The Life, Times and Legacy of Sol Hurok (New York: Viking Penguin, 1994). Marion Anderson’s personal papers are housed at the University of Pennsylvania.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review November 1st, 2016

Lawrence Brownlee – Allegro io son

lawrence-brownlee
Title: Allegro io son

Artist: Lawrence Brownlee

Label: Delos

Formats: CD, MP3, Streaming

Release date: September 9, 2016

 

Lawrence Brownlee’s second release of bel canto opera arias on the Delos label—Allegro io son—is a welcome follow-up to the American tenor’s Grammy®-nominated album of Virtuoso Rossini Arias from 2014 (reviewed here). Once more he proves his rank as the leading proponent of this repertoire, consistently exhibiting rock-solid technique in spinning long legato lines, precise coloratura, and seemingly effortless high notes.

Brownlee again has again joined forces with Constantine Orbelian and the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, performing both popular and somewhat rarely heard selections—from Bellini’s I puritani and Donizetti’s Rita, La favorite, Don Pasquale, Dom Sébastien, L’elisir d’amore, and La fille du regiment, recorded in Lithuania’s Kaunas Philharmonic in April 2016.

Right from the beginning, he sets the tone with the joyful title track from Donizetti’s late (and rarely performed) one-act comedy Rita (or The Beaten Husband), tossing off B-naturals and C-sharps like they were confetti.

In the selections from I puritani—what would be Bellini’s final work—Brownlee negotiates the unforgiving tessitura with unbelievably remarkable ease. In Arturo’s entrance, “A te o cara,” the tenor floats the long lines in the ensemble—with fine support from soprano Viktorija Miskunaite, bass Liudas Mikalauskas, and baritone Andrius Apsega—always maintaining the pulse, notwithstanding the slow tempo. Equally, in Arturo’s third act “Son salvo,” Brownlee conveys (as does Miskunaite) with directness and full-bodied tone.

The two selections from L’elisir d’amore also are delivered in a straightforward fashion, without resorting to sentimentality, perhaps showing us that Nemorino might be more than just a “country bumpkin.” In both, he adds a little bit of ornamentation as well as mini-cadenzas that never distract from the character’s heartfelt declarations of love.

The concluding two tracks are from one of Brownlee’s signature roles, Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du regiment. The first selection, “Pour me rapprocher de Marie” is, according to the tenor “actually harder than ‘Ah, mes amis’—which you can sing if you have a solid high C—because it lies high overall and demands expressive phrasing.” He should know, because it is in this track, more so than any other on the disc, where Brownlee exhibits exactly why he is virtually peerless in this repertoire. Despite the slow tempo and flexible rubato, there is continuous forward motion even as he stretches the aria’s phrases to their limits, finally tossing off a C-sharp before floating a high A to pianissimo.

In the final track, Brownlee dives headfirst into “Ah! mes amis” from the opera’s first act. His earlier version on This Heart That Flutters with piano accompaniment (from 2013, reviewed here) may have had a little more urgency, but with support from the orchestra, Mikalauskas, and the men of the Kaunas State Choir, Brownlee takes his time and sounds much freer as a result. And all nine of those high Cs are as solid as ever.

Editor’s note: Lawrence Brownlee is an alumni of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he recevied his Master of Music degree.

Reviewed by Frank Villella, archivist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association

View review November 1st, 2016

Pretty Yende – A Journey

Pretty Yende
Title: A Journey

Artist: Pretty Yende

Label: Sony Classical

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 16, 2016

 

South African soprano Pretty Yende’s debut album, A Journey, will be released this month by Sony Classical.  Much-anticipated since her triumphant Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013, Ms. Yende’s album celebrates the lyric coloratura repertoire which propelled her to the top of the opera world.  She performs with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI Torino, under conductor Marco Armiliato, with additional assistance from mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich, as seen in the album trailer below:

Ms. Yende was born in 1985 in the small remote town of Piet Retief, about three hundred miles from Johannesburg. At the age of sixteen, her life was transformed by hearing the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’s opera Lakmé on a British Airways television commercial.  On learning that this haunting music was opera, she decided at that moment to abandon her plans to become an accountant and train to become an opera singer instead.  Soon she gained a scholarship to study at the South African College of Music in Cape Town with Professor Virginia Davids, who was the first black woman to appear on opera stages during the apartheid years in South Africa.  With Davids’ help, Ms. Yende’s extraordinary talent blossomed and she was taken from a childhood in a remote village in South Africa to sing on the major opera stages of the world.

Preparing to enter the opera world from such a background cannot have been easy, but in interviews with the New York Times, Ms. Yende has referred to South Africa as “… a singing nation. Music is something that we are born with, it’s like the African rhythm; it’s like a heartbeat.  In Sunday school you will have to sing one song, and a little girl will start harmonizing it.  Just like that, just by hearing.  It’s that kind of world.”  Such innate musicality is showcased in Ms. Yende’s album, featuring as it does selections from the bel canto and later French repertoire.  Her voice boasts a solid lower middle register not always heard in this voice type, and in her upper range, a ringing squillando which she manages with taste.  Her ornamentation is fresh and well-chosen to highlight her strengths: while her runs are not always clean, her pizzicato coloratura is excellent.

Overall, the album provides a refreshing take on some old favorites, while providing some more unusual repertoire for the jaded palate. Among the latter is the scene “Vous que l’on dit” from Rossini’s Le Comte Ory.  It was in this opera that Ms. Yende starred opposite Juan Diego Flórez as the Countess Adèle, at her Met debut.  With less than a month’s notice (having never sung the role), she replaced an ailing Nino Machaidze to complete the run of the show.  She has since performed the role several times, including at the Theater an der Wien where she replaced Cecilia Bartoli.  The performance reflects her theatrical experiences, communicating a thorough command of the French text and musical line, bringing Adèle’s character brightly to life.  One can only imagine the riches in store for us as this rising star finds her place in the operatic firmament.

Reviewed by Andrea Cawelti

View review September 1st, 2016

My Cup Runneth Over: The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett

clipper erickson_my cup runneth over

Title: My Cup Runneth Over – The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett

Artist: Clipper Erickson

Label: Navona; dist. by Naxos of America

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 13, 2015

 

 

Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was one of the most important and highly regarded Black composers of the early twentieth century. At that time, only a few had achieved widespread success in the classical music genre, most notably the British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Though born on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Dett’s father was a U.S. citizen and during his youth the family relocated to the New York side of Niagara, thus he is usually considered to be an American composer. The Oberlin educated Dett was also a noted concert pianist, choral conductor and educator.

My Cup Runneth Over: The Complete Piano Works of R. Nathaniel Dett gathers together, for the first time on CD, Dett’s solo piano compositions, brilliantly performed by Clipper Erickson (an alum of The Juilliard School, Yale University, and Indiana University). Like his mentor and teacher, British pianist John Ogdon (who taught at IU’s Jacobs School of Music in the late 1970s), Erickson has championed 20th and 21st-century music and American composers, in particular.  He was introduced to Dett’s music by Dr. Donald Dumpson, currently on the faculty of Rider University, who like Dett is also a noted keyboardist, choral conductor, composer and arranger. Thankfully, their relationship inspired this recording project, which recently garnered an Editor’s Choice citation from Gramophone UK—now let’s hope it receives wider recognition in the U.S.

My Cup Runneth Over features Dett’s neo-Romantic piano suites which were widely performed by artists such as Percy Grainger and Fanny Bloomfield-Zeisler. The CD opens with the earliest suite, Magnolia, composed in 1912. As one might guess from the title, the five movements call forth images of the Old South with names such as “The Deserted Cabin” and “Mammy,” though the final movement, “The Place Where the Rainbow Ends” was based on a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the Bottoms, composed the following year, is another five movement suite based on “scenes peculiar to Negro life in the river bottoms of the Southern sections of North America” (quoted from Dett’s own notes). Included is one of his most popular works, the folk-song based “Juba Dance,” played by Erickson with great clarity and verve.[i]

The year 1922 was obviously a productive year for Dett, which yielded works of increasing complexity: the four movement suite Enchantment (dedicated to Percy Grainger) and the solo piece Nepenthe and the Muse (dedicated to Arthur Foote)—a Debussy-esque work of shifting moods and tone colors convincingly performed by Erickson. Disc One closes with another programmatic suite, Cinnamon Grove; each movement based on poems and concluding with an Allegretto referencing two spirituals later used by Dett for choral settings.

Disc Two opens with Tropical Winter (1938), a demanding suite in seven movements which presents a leap forward in Dett’s compositional style.  “Parade of the Jasmine Banners” and, in particular, the more contemplative “Legends of the Atoll” are highlights of this suite. Dett’s final suite, Eight Bible Vignettes (1942-43), was composed at the very end of his life—possibly contributing to his use of Biblical texts as inspiration. Divided evenly between the Old and New Testaments, the movements reference many themes, including the African diaspora and slavery, expressed through some of the most heart-rending and insightful music Dett composed. Erickson eloquently breaks down each movement in the liner notes, indicating the intensity of his research which obviously aided his meticulous and multifaceted interpretation.

Not addressed in the liner notes are three of Dett’s earliest solo piano works that close the album: the ragtime based After the Cakewalk (1900), the march and two-step Cave of the Winds (1902), and the much more substantial show piece Inspiration Waltzes (1903), which Erickson performs with aplomb.

My Cup Runneth Over offers a wonderful overview of R. Nathaniel Dett’s captivating solo piano compositions, magnificently performed Clipper Erickson. A hearty bravo is in order—may these works find their way onto more recital programs!

 

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

[i]Dett had performed these works himself, to great acclaim, at the first All-Colored Composer’s Concert at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on June 3, 1914. Noted music critic and composer Felix Borowski, writing for the Record Herald on June 4 proclaimed, ” . . .it was not Coleridge-Taylor whose music at this concert disclosed the largest measure of individuality and inspiration.  Those qualities shone more brilliantly in two suites for piano composed and performed by R. Nathaniel Dett.  Without having heard of Mr. Dett or his music before, we believe that his abilities are such as to qualify him for leadership of the musical creators among his people . . . This composer’s performance was also a surprise.  Piano playing much less admirable, much less poetic, has often been heard in Orchestra Hall and in concerts much more pretentious than that which has formed the subject of this review.” [June 4, 1914]

View review June 1st, 2016

Black Violin – Stereotypes

Black Violin Stereotypes

Title: Stereotypes

Artist: Black Violin

Label: Universal Music Classics/Deutsche Grammophone

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 18, 2015

 

Three years have elapsed since Black Violin’s debut album, Classically Trained, garnered worldwide acclaim for its unique blend of classical music flavored with hip hop, jazz and R&B. The duo, featuring Kevin “Kev” Sylvester on violin and Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste on viola, demonstrate significant musical growth on their sophomore album and major label debut, Stereotypes. Whereas previous performances relied heavily on loops of arpeggios (primarily in the key of d minor), there is now a greater depth and breadth to their vision, as well as an attempt to balance instrumental tracks with songs in a variety of styles. Some of these changes can likely be attributed to producer Eli Wolf (The Roots, Norah Jones), who brought in a backing ensemble of top studio musicians—Rob Moose on strings (plus all arrangements and orchestrations), Eric Krasno on guitar, Al Carty on bass, James Poyser and Ray Angry on keyboards, Daru Jones on drums, and programmer DJ Infamous.

Stereotypes is the duo’s tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement, but the opening title track also serves as a commentary on the preconceived notions they regularly encountered as black violinists:

“Being big black dudes we’re ‘supposed to be’ athletes or we’re ‘supposed to be’ something else, but were classically trained violinists. Instead of shying away from or not being proud of it, we stand our ground. This is who we are, this is what we do, you didn’t think this was possible, but here we are.”

The spoken closing lines of “Stereotypes” eloquently express their goals: “completely crushing peoples’ perceptions of not only what a violin can do, or what music could possibly sound like, but also of what a black man is capable of.”

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Legendary MC Pharoahe Monch makes a guest appearance on the hard hitting message song “Invisible,” emphatically rapping the chorus: “I’m not Invisible, I’m not Invisible, I’m not Invisible/It’s not my fault you don’t understand/You can pretend not to care/That won’t make me disappear/As I rise it’s clear/Here I stand – Here I am.” For the remainder of the album, the focus turns more towards love and relationships. Wil B takes over the vocals on “Another Chance,” a convincing R&B song with shades of John Legend and a hip hop beat, with the violins alternating between static and melodic patterns leading up to the chorus “I just need a chance to show you, to make you understand/that I can’t change the past, but I control the future.”

Melonie Fiona and Black Thought of the Roots are featured on the heartfelt relationship song “Send Me a Sign,” with Black Thought spitting the line “throw on some Serge Gainsbourg” (if you’re a record collector you’ll catch the significance). This is followed by a jazzy cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Walk on By” with Angela Johnson providing the soulful back-up vocals. Wil takes over again on “Magic,” crooning over the rhythm section of Angry, Carty and Jones: “It’s Like magic, though I lost what I desire/It’s Like magic, there’s always hope to fuel the fire/and my world was once divided/now I’m feeling so alive/Yes, it’s magic and so are you.” On “Stay Clear,” rising vocalist and Prince protégé Kandace Springs is featured alongside jazz pianist Robert Glasper, with the violins intricately woven into the mix. “Losing Control” is a great showcase for Wil’s seductive R&B vocals, and there’s a nice violin interlude in the mid-section.

Drawing from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, “Shaker” is an instrumental based on “Simple Gifts.” After playing the folk tune in its original form, the duo begins inverting the melody, eventually turning it into a fugue with Angry providing the piano glissandi. Other instrumentals include “Day 2,” written in collaboration with Angry and Infamous, and the closing track “Runnin’” which showcases the violin technique of Wil and Kev with minimal backing from strings, keyboards, and programming.

Stereotypes provides the perfect balance between message songs, lively instrumentals, and heartfelt R&B ballads—while shattering preconceived notions and affirming Black Violin at the vanguard of classical fusion.

 

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review October 1st, 2015

DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet – Rebirth of a Nation

DJ Spooky Rebirth of a Nation

Title: Rebirth of a Nation

Artist: DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet

Label: Cantaloupe Music

Formats: CD/DVD; wav and MP3 (audio only)

Release date: August 28, 2015

 

 

Rebirth of a Nation was DJ Spooky’s (i.e. Paul D. Miller’s) first large scale multimedia piece, made in collaboration with the Kronos Quartet and premiered in 2004 at the Lincoln Center Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, Weiner Festwochen, and the Festival d’Automne á Paris. It has since been given some fifty times as a live performance, and the studio recording of the soundtrack heard here was made in 2007, but this combined CD/DVD release from Cantaloupe Music marks the first time the full musical score has been available as a separate entity. The film Rebirth of a Nation is a re-imagining, or “remix,” of D.W. Griffith’s notorious 1915 feature The Birth of a Nation, which—with apologies to Al Gore—truly may be the most ‘inconvenient truth’ in the history of cinema. The radical cinematic style, three-hour running time, sense of grandeur and the relentless publicity machine that fueled The Birth of a Nation’s prosperity spelled doom to the lowly Nickelodeon and paved the way for ambitious film epics of all kinds, and American film history cannot dispense with it. But its corrigenda of the Ku Klux Klan as the salvation of the American South in the post-Civil war period, and its vilification of African Americans, helped to revive a sleeping Klan into a new round of vigilantism that flourished into the early 1920s. Although Griffith’s centennial was widely observed and celebrated in 1975, in the years to follow screenings of The Birth of a Nation were picketed and often cancelled, and Griffith’s name was removed from the Director’s Guild of America’s Award in 1999.

Shutting down screenings of The Birth of a Nation doesn’t make the film go away, and suppressing it only prevents younger generations from seeing how prevalent and mainstream white supremacy was a century ago. DJ Spooky feels that some of the complex, painful and malevolent themes in The Birth of Nation still connect with America as it is in the twenty-first century, and utilizes digital editing, graphics, inserts, narration and a hip hop music track to render the hundred-year-old film into a commentary on itself. Collaborating with the Kronos Quartet, DJ Spooky’s work has a strongly post-classical feel and largely avoids nostalgic gestures that would normally play to the subject matter, save samples of wailing harmonica and occasional banjo-like pizzicati from Kronos. The character sketches, such as “Stoneman” and “Cameron,” seem the most successful from a purely musical standpoint, as if the persons connected to these names in the film elicited the most involved responses from the composer. Nevertheless it is difficult to appreciate the music without its visuals; some of the pieces are very restrained, and are understated even for film music, which is normally a little under the action. Rebirth of a Nation, the film (2008), runs about half the length of Griffith’s original and even that is a lot of screen time to cover; given that there is narration, but there’s also no direct dialog from the actors—the soundtrack has to be wall-to-wall. Without the visuals, the score comes across as partly inspired and partly padded.

Rebirth of a Nation is nonetheless an interesting investigation into William S. Burroughs’ idea that by cutting something up, you may be able to reveal the truth in it, neutralize it or at least recast it into another context, and there’s every reason to experience this project in the form that Cantaloupe Music has packaged it in; DVD and music, whereas before there was only a downmarket DVD and the music was only available as excepts.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by David N. Lewis

View review September 2nd, 2015

FLūTRοNIX – City of Breath

flutronix city of breath._SS280

Title: City of Breath

Artist: FLūTRοNIX

Label: Flutronix Records

Format: EP CD, MP3

Release date: August 13, 2015

 

 

Brooklyn-based urban pop duo, Flutronix, released their third CD, City of Breath, just in time for the National Flute Association convention held this August in Washington, DC. Perhaps it was with this event in mind that inspired Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull to include original compositions and a pivotal 20th century flute work that highlights their classical training. That said, their now signature style that blends classical, hip hop, soul, electronic music, and more is still dominant on each track.

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The first track, “She Is,” begins not with flute but with one haunting but clear, resonant female voice which is later joined by the Melodia Women’s Choir of NYC. It then transitions to the sultry sounds of the alto flute and flute blended with enchanting electronic backing, transporting the listener to another place and time. Their next original composition, “Flocks,” demonstrates their precise and fluid technique with melodic fragments that swoop and climb through the flute’s tessituras with the same ease as the feathered friends this work is intended to emulate. This is an acoustic version of the same work that appeared on their 2.0 CD. The sheet music is now available from Carl Fischer Music and is scored for four flutes and alto flute. Composed in 1982 by Steve Reich, “Vermont Counterpoint” is a minimalist work for a solo flutist (doubling on alto and piccolo) with 10 other flute parts pre-recorded on tape. With their extensive studio experience, Nathalie and Allison navigate the complexities of coordinating the rhythmically complex, repeated melodic fragments with great polish. Moreover, they are able to capture the subtle metric grooves that emerge as each fragment is layered on top of the others, creating a whole that sounds fresh and new in this offering.

The music comes to a repose in the final track, “Like a Storm (a tribute to Carol Wincenc).” Wincenc, in addition to being Natalie’s flute teacher at Julliard and a Grammy award-winning flutist herself, has become a great champion of this duo. Our performers/composers present here nothing bombastic as one might expect from the title, but rather a simple duet comprised of a seamless lyrical melody accompanied by scale patterns reminiscent of etude work they might have done under Wincenc’s tutelage. It is often punctuated by drum and triangle which I feel somewhat detracts from the beauty of the work. The storm fades away with flutes in Copland-esque harmonies.

Once again, these savvy ladies are raising the bar for any instrumentalists willing to push themselves to new possibilities of artistic endeavors. With pen and ink cover art by Natalie Cooperman, this CD is beautifully mastered at Avatar Studios in NYC and is available for download at Amazon and iTunes.

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Annette Farrington

View review September 2nd, 2015

Sons of Serendip – Sons of Serendip

SonsOfSerendip

Title: Sons of Serendip

Artist: Sons of Serendip

Label: NIA

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 17, 2015

 

In 2014, Sons of Serendip first wowed television audiences as a contestant on the ninth season of America’s Got Talent. Their passionate covers and distinct arrangements granted them the fourth place spot in the competition and are the heart of this debut release. On Sons of Serendip, these four friends who originally met during their graduate studies at Boston University, have transformed a few well-known classic songs with their artful arrangements that they perform on voice, piano, cello, and harp. The album includes eight tracks plus two bonus tracks, and all except one are covers originally performed during the America’s Got Talent competition. Some of the group’s covers are riveting arrangements of dance numbers they adapted to fit the character of their instrumentation, including a very slowed down version of Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child.” The group also softens the edge of the driving “Bring Me to Life” by the rock band Evanescence. In addition to dance tracks, the group makes great use of songs that easily fit the group’s character, performing covers of Bonnie Rait’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know.”

Sons of Serendip showcases the reason these four musicians grabbed America’s attention in competition on America’s Got Talent and gives good reason for us to continue to follow their careers.

Reviewed by Christina Harrison

View review July 1st, 2015

The Spirituals Database: An Art of the Negro Spiritual Project

SpiritualDatabase

 

 

Title: The Spirituals Database: An Art of the Negro Spiritual Project

Artists: Various

Format: Website/Database

As educational, public, and private institutions expand the breadth of information available on the internet, there is much that remains unrepresented and misrepresented, particularly concerning African American music. To address one area of this vast body of cultural expressions, soprano and researcher Randye Jones has developed a website called The Spirituals Database aimed at cataloguing “negro spiritual settings performed by solo classical vocalists.” Currently featuring information for over 2,700 recordings in multiple formats (CDs, 45s, LPs), The Spirituals Database is being constantly updated to include an ever growing range of materials. This site is fully searchable for categories like song title, voice part, performer, and composer. It also includes a browse feature that allows users to peruse recordings alphabetically by song title or by the composer’s last name.

Jones has intentionally crafted this site to be a resource for vocalists and teachers or vocal coaches interested in exploring this repertoire. It includes a brief historical overview of spirituals as well as several related resources that offer sheet music and primary documents that discuss the context and style of early folk and arranged spirituals. While The Spirituals Database is in its nascent phase, it is a valuable resource for those looking to hear and learn more about this timeless expression.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review July 1st, 2015

Eliesha Nelson – Permutations

Eliesha

Title: Permutations

Artist: Eliesha Nelson

Label: Sono Luminus

Formats: 2-disc set (CD + Blu-ray), digital (MP3, FLAC, WAV)

Release date: February 2015

 

Cleveland Orchestra violist Eliesha Nelson has established herself as a formidable interpreter of American music and champion of her instrument. She is also proof that a child raised in remote North Pole, Alaska can achieve her dreams through hard work and dedication. At the age of twelve she was sent to the Indiana University String Academy, and later was accepted into the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra. After matriculating from the Cleveland Institute of Music, she received an artist diploma from the Royal Academy of Music in London and was offered the position of acting principal viola with the Florida Philharmonic. But the girl from Alaska, unaccustomed to Florida’s heat and humidity, gladly returned to northern Ohio in 2000 when offered a position with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Nelson’s first album, Quincy Porter: The Complete Viola Works, received four Grammy nominations and won a Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Classical in 2010. Her new CD, also released by Sono Luminus, is just as likely to garner awards, for both Nelson’s performance and the sonic excellence of the recording.

Permutations features five virtuosic viola pieces from five different composers: Nikolai Kapustin, Ross Lee Finney (b.1906-1997), and notable African American composers John McLaughlin Williams, Jeffrey Mumford, and George Walker. Though each work is “of strikingly disparate character,” the unifying element is the focus on different aspects of American music. Oberlin Conservatory professor James Howsman is the featured pianist on all five works.

Nelson opens with the “Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 69” by Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin (b. 1937). Selected for its incorporation of jazz elements, the sonata is reminiscent of early 20th century compositions by Gershwin, though only occasionally offers short passages that really swing—primarily in the third movement. “Two Pieces for Solo Viola” by Washington, D.C.-based composer John McLaughlin Williams, is a showpiece in the style Fritz Kreisler. Like Kriesler, Williams is also a gifted concert violinist, and on this work sought to “bring out the burnished tone of the viola.” The introspective Sarabande leads into a Toccata, performed at breakneck speed by Nelson, but with great sensitivity.

Permutations takes its title from the second movement of Ross Lee Finney’s “Second Sonata for Viola and Piano” (1953; rev. 1955). Though based on a 12-tone scale, the sonata doesn’t strictly adhere to serialism, and in fact is extremely melodic. In a similar vein, Mumford’s “Wending,” employs harmonic material based on letters of Wendy Richman’s name, for whom the work was written.  This solo viola work is rhapsodic in nature, with somewhat improvisatory sections gradually fading into the ether.

The album concludes with the two movement “Sonata for Viola and Piano” (1989) by composer and concert pianist George Walker. After a lyrical but highly chromatic first movement, the work leads Nelson through a series of difficult triple stops in the middle section, then closes softly with a coda that quotes the French Renaissance song, “L’Homme Arme.”

Nelson proves she is more than capable of flawlessly executing these technically challenging works, while bringing to light many gems that expand the viola repertoire.

Audiophiles will appreciate the 2-disc set, which includes a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc with high resolution surround sound and stereo versions of the tracks, as well as a standard CD. If your Blu-ray player is connected to your computer, you can also use the mShuttle application allowing access to MP3, FLAC and WAV files.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review May 1st, 2015

Lawrence Brownlee – Virtuoso Rossini Arias

brownlee

Title: Virtuoso Rossini Arias

Artists: Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Constantine Orbelian, conductor; Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra

Label: Delos

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 25, 2014

 

Lawrence Brownlee’s new collection of Rossini arias—his first orchestral recital of opera selections—showcases the American tenor at the height of his powers. Throughout, he displays a remarkable command of secure high notes and spot-on, perfectly executed coloratura paired with innate musical sensibility and Italianate style. It’s no wonder the disc recently received a Grammy® nomination for best classical solo vocal album.

Recorded at the Kaunas Philharmonic in Lithuania in April 2013, eight arias from as many operas are included, with selections from La gazza ladra, Le Comte Ory, L’occasione fa il ladro, Otello, Semiramide, Il Turco in Italia, La donna del lago, and Zelmira.

Recital discs like this run the risk of being too much of a good thing and after a while, sounding somewhat monochromatic. So when asked if all Rossini is the same in the August 2014 issue of Gramophone, Brownlee responded: “There’s a similarity in his writing, but for me it’s about bringing out the colours and trying different things based on the words. Thankfully I speak Italian so I’m able to understand the weight of the worlds and the double entendres. Yes, Rossini has to be technically sound, the high notes have to be spot on, but it’s the words that express the emotions.”

And express he does. Barely two minutes into the first selection—from the first act of La gazza ladra—Brownlee sets the stage for the next hour of music to come, caressing the opening lines of “Vieni fra queste braccia” and tossing off a solid high D. And in “D’ogni più sacro impegno,” from the rarely performed one-act opera L’occasione fa il ladro, he gradually builds the tension and attacks the coloratura in the final section, concluding with a B-flat held for a full fifteen seconds. In all of the selections, Brownlee dives in headfirst, riding each Rossini crescendo to its inevitable climax.

Constantine Orbelian and the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra provide adequate yet somewhat uninspired accompaniment. All of the notes are there, but there is very little sense of Italianate style or finesse, and Brownlee is far more engaged than the orchestra throughout.

For comparison, one should also listen to Juan Diego Flórez’s Rossini recital on Decca from 2002, accompanied by Riccardo Chailly and Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. Even though both tenors perform five of the same selections, the approach is quite different. Flórez leans more towards the theatrical and Brownlee is a bit more technically secure, but that’s really splitting hairs. And to this listener, Brownlee’s delivery is the more comprehensively satisfying. You simply will not hear Rossini sung better.

In November and December 2014, Lawrence Brownlee performed the role of Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Metropolitan Opera. From the opera’s final scene, here he is singing “Ah, il più lieto” from a dress rehearsal of on November 14. Michele Mariotti conducts:

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Reviewed by Frank Villella (twitter: @fvillella)

Editor’s note: Lawrence Brownlee is a graduate of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University (our home base). In June he will be starring with another JSOM alum, soprano Angela Brown (who plays his mother), in the Philadelphia Opera’s new production Yardbird, about the jazz great Charlie Parker, composed by Daniel Schnyder.

View review February 3rd, 2015

Hannibal Lokumbe – Can You Hear God Crying?

Hannibal
Title: Can You Hear God Crying?

Artist: Hannibal Lokumbe, composer

Label: Naxos

Formats: DVD (71:31 min.; NTSC 16:9, Region 0); Streaming

Release date: November 11, 2014

 

 

In his spiritatorio, Can You Hear God Crying?, composer/trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe combines the sounds of jazz, gospel, chamber music and West African prayers to create a lyrical retelling of his great-grandfather Silas Burgess’s voyage from West Africa to enslavement in South Carolina, and his subsequent physical emancipation and spiritual awakening. This story as it appears in this live recording is told in ten musical veils—instead of movements—which Lokumbe believes better communicates movement from one level of consciousness to another.  Conducted by Dirk Brossé, the performance features several critically acclaimed musicians including soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, tenor Rodrick Dixon, Homayun Sakhi on Afghan rubâb, and vocalist Paula Holloway, as well as vibrant contributions from the Celebration choir (composed of members of several local church and community choirs) and the Music Liberation Orchestra alongside The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.

Following is a video about the spiritatorio (with different performers from those featured on the DVD):

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The tenor of this project is indicated in the first veil, “Who,” which opens with one of several prayers woven throughout this work. Indeed, much of this story is a result of consistent communication between the major characters—humanity, Silas, and Kunanamui (the designation for God in the Kpelle language of West Africa). Interestingly, the voice of Kunanamui is rendered by Chandler-Eteme’s rich soprano rather than the voice of a male.  Her dynamic performance is one of the most compelling elements of this concert as she colorfully breathes life into her character with finesse, passion, and shimmering reverence. Dixon presents the steady voice of Silas while the choir takes on multiple roles including humanity, ancestor spirits, and on occasion even the voice of God.

Crying is both conceptual and mystical as the story it conveys is not a linear unfolding of events. After Kunanamui’s call to humanity in “Who”, listeners are introduced to two prayers that Silas offered to God on his final day of life in which he referenced his early childhood in Africa. Because of his faithfulness, Silas’s spirit is allowed to travel back in time to look on the faces of his deceased parents. He is also allowed to witness his people as they move through the “door of no return” on the Bunce Island slave castle in Sierra Leone. Other veils like “The Jonah People” and “Hymn for the Living” address the physical, emotional, and spiritual hardships of the transatlantic slave trade experienced people of African descent. The spiritatorio ends with Kunanamui returning Silas’s spirit to his body just as his daughters surround him with song and prepare for his death.

Within this work, the textual and sonic dimensions are equally important to crafting the story. The lyrics for each veil differ as they illuminate new aspects of the Silas’s and more directly Lokumbe’s spiritual awareness. Nevertheless, he prioritizes clear communication as this production includes a booklet that features both the lyrics as well as contextual information for each veil. The music is rather eclectic and layered – perhaps reflecting Lokumbe’s many musical experiences.  Call and response between soloists, chorus, and instruments is featured in almost every veil as the music meanders between moments of abstraction and tangibility. For instance, Lokumbe characterizes the veil “I Have Come for You” as representing the sound of a descending leaf as it features unintuitive and even disjunct melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic movements. Conversely, “I Will Go to the Lord” harkens to the syncopated sounds of his childhood drawing fervently on blues and gospel with a spirted Holloway improvising alongside Lokumbe’s mesmerizing trumpet playing.

Can You Hear God Crying? is a complex musical journey that is meant to be absorbed immediately and savored over time. It is a celebration of the resilience and experiences of not only Silas Burgess but of many individuals who were forced to migrate to the Americas (much like his 1996 work on similar themes, African Portraits). And yet, it is also an expression of growth and healing. Through this music, Lokumbe invites us to share in his joys, pains, and discoveries as he reconciles the past with the present while striving toward a spiritually enlightened future.

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

View review January 3rd, 2015

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – Hallowed Ground

HallowedGround

Title: Hallowed Ground

Artists: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; Louis Langrée, cond.; Maya Angelou, narrator; Nathan Wyatt, baritone.

Label: Fanfare Cincinnati/dist. by Naxos

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 9, 2014

 

Hallowed Ground, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s first commercial recording under Music Director Louis Langrée, features three works from his inaugural concerts that were “inspired by sacred spaces, from the battlefield to incredible vistas to beautiful community gathering points.” But that’s only one of the thematic connections between the music.

As the nation celebrated the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in November 2013, the CSO commemorated the occasion with a performance of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, a work premiered by the Orchestra in 1942.  In fact, Hallowed Ground draws its title from a passage in the Gettysburg Address, which is among the speeches quoted in the text of Lincoln Portrait.  Adding her distinctive voice to the performance is legendary author/poet/activist Maya Angelou, who serves as narrator.  During her pre-concert conversation, Angelou stated “You can’t be African-American and not have some particular close relationship with Abraham Lincoln. It’s amazing that we have lived through racism, sexism and ageism—all stupidity.” She also spoke about how deeply moved she was during the dress rehearsal while reading the Gettysburg Address section: “When I heard the orchestra, they lifted me out of myself, and I was suddenly on that battlefield, seeing the bodies…”[1]  Her emotions come across clearly in this live recording, which no doubt will be added to the list of seminal readings of the work, especially since it was one Angelou’s last public performances before to her death. Hallowed ground indeed.

Following is the world premiere of Mountain by Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Lang, commissioned by the CSO and recorded live on March 22, 2014. Lang was asked to commemorate the legacy of a great American and chose Copland due to his connection with the Orchestra (the CSO also commissioned and premiered Fanfare for the Common Man in 1942). Lang notes that Copland “used music to discover what being American meant,” while others used Copland’s music to express the “way we think of the relationship between our land and our selves.” Hence the title Mountain, which reflects the nature motif, yet also invokes the eternal.  Lang achieves a cinematic quality, opening with thunderous chords followed by a measure of silence. This pattern repeats in minimalist fashion throughout, the silence gradually filled with sonorous long tones echoing through the winds, becoming increasingly complex as the piece concludes.

The final work on the disc, Pleasure Ground by Nico Muhly, is yet another world premiere with deep connections to American history. A portrait in three continuous movements, the programmatic work depicts the life of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and features baritone Nathan Wyatt. As with the previous work, the performance was recorded in March 2014 as part of the MusicNOW Festival.

Through his study of Oldstead’s formal and private writings, Muhly discovered the landscape architect was “a melancholic deeply affected by his time in the Civil War” as well as “his private anguish about how his work had been mangled and abused.” The challenge was to reflect the transitions in Olmstead’s life through music, drawing upon his writings for the vocal text. But Pleasure Ground is also a play on words, referencing “a recurring bass line that gives structure and melodic content” to the work, often in a rather subversive manner.

As the first movement begins, the orchestral passages encapsulate the eager optimism of youth, at first irrepressibly energetic, then turning more contemplative when the baritone enters, singing about “sensitivity to the beautiful.” As the tension builds the music turns somewhat darker, with Olmstead encountering his initial struggle to “direct nature.” Text from Olmstead’s letters written during the Civil War are set to music in the haunting second movement, which uses a cycle of 12 chords to punctuate tragic moments.  The final movement finds Olmstead at the peak of his career, reflecting upon his achievements, such as his “attempt to develop open wooded or parklike scenary.” But problems inevitably ensue—nature begins to overrun his designs, illustrated through Muhly’s dense scoring for celeste, glockenspiel, harp, and a small gamelan. The work concludes with Wyatt repeating, “If man is not to live by bread alone, what is better worth doing well than the planting of trees?” Muhly’s expressive writing is extremely accessible, and the work is given an expert reading by Wyatt and the CSO. I expect Pleasure Ground will be programmed by other orchestras, particularly in cities such as New York and Chicago where Olmstead’s iconic parks define the urban landscape.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss


[1] Cincinnati.com, May 28, 2014.

View review September 3rd, 2014

Daniel Clarke Bouchard – Scènes D’Enfants

Clarke Bouchard

Title:  Scènes D’Enfants

Artist: Daniel Clarke Bouchard

Label: ATMA Classique

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 2013

 

Canadian wunderkind Daniel Clarke Bouchard, who recently turned 14, has already garnered his share of prestigious awards and media attention (he recently displayed his showmanship on the Ellen DeGeneres Show). His debut album, released last fall, is appropriately titled Scènes D’Enfants.  Bouchard selected the majority of the album’s 12 tracks from the standard classical piano repertoire, focusing on those works or movements that represent “the childhood spirit.” As one might guess, selections from Schumann’s Kinderszenen op. 15 are included, as well as “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” from Debussy’s Children’s Corner:

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Opening with Mozart’s Fantasia for 2 Pianos on the Variations “Ah vous dirai-je, maman” (aka “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), Canadian pianist/composer Oliver Jones joins Bouchard on this lighthearted duet that sets the tone for the album. Jones, also renowned as a jazz pianist, takes significant liberties, venturing off into a jazz improv midway through the work that interjects a delightfully contemporary twist. At the age of nine, Bouchard participated in Jones’ master classes at the Orford Arts Centre, where they first shared a piano onstage. Jones became one of Bouchard’s mentors, so it’s fitting that he was invited to participate on this project. The two come together again on the closing track, this time a jazzy rendition of La Grande valse Fofolle by the late Montreal composer Claude Léveillée.  On the remaining tracks, Bouchard tackles Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capricio op. 14 (selected because the composer wrote it at the age of 15); Beethoven’s Rondo & Capricio en sol majeur op. 129 (aka “Rage Over a Lost Penny”) which he first heard performed by another idol, Evgeny Kissin; and additional works by Schubert, Haydn, and Mozart.

Bouchard currently studies piano at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montreal, and is starting to venture into jazz. With his gregarious personality and prodigious talent, I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. This album would be an excellent choice to share with budding pianists.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review September 3rd, 2014

Various – Black Europe

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Title:  Black Europe

Artists: Various

Label: Bear Family

Format: 44-CD Box Set

Release date: October 2013

 

 Black Europe comes in a box the height and width of an LP and three inches deep.  Inside, two hardbound books give an account of every Black person known to have made a sound recording or motion picture in Europe from 1889 until the rise of electrical sound recording in the 1920s.  The hundred-plus chapters, mostly arranged in chronological order, are engagingly written and profusely illustrated with photographs, playbills, sheet music covers, record labels, and cylinder boxes.  Roughly half the text is devoted to African-American performers—some famous (e.g., Josephine Baker) and some relatively obscure (e.g., Pete Zabriskie)—vividly supporting the authors’ claim that “the activities of black Americans in Europe were more widespread and earlier than is commonly believed.”

And then there’s a third “book,” which is really a container for CDs—a staggering forty-four of them (track listings here), reflecting the project’s ambitious goal of bringing together the complete acoustic-era recordings of Black people in Europe.  The first twenty-three discs are devoted mostly to African-American performers and traditions, while the rest feature others in Europe of African descent, including ethnological documentation of speech and music, “Pygmy” records sold as exotic novelties, and Yoruba religious songs for the Nigerian market.  Some of the collection’s larger subgroupings are major reissue accomplishments in their own right—for instance, three CDs present the whole surviving recorded repertoire of Pete Hampton, a Black musician from Kentucky who “made more recordings than any white American in Europe in the 1900s and 1910s.”  Of course, many recordings that would have been within scope aren’t known to survive, as with Bert Williams’s rejected G&T tests, and a few others were deemed unplayable or were withheld by archival custodians from publication “without scientific-critical comment.”  Moreover, an earlier plan to include motion pictures on an accompanying DVD foundered on “exorbitant licensing fees.”  But such gaps in coverage only underscore how comprehensive this collection aspires to be.

Clocking in at just over fifty-seven hours, the audio is more like an encyclopedia to be consulted than an anthology to be devoured from start to finish, but all the restorations I’ve made it through so far are eminently listenable.  What stands out for you in the set will depend on your specific interests—the project’s promotional text cites “the earliest examples of stride piano and rhythm scat singing,” for example, and I personally found Belle Davis’s 1902 rendition of “Just Because He Made Dem Goo-Goo Eyes” a revelation, unlike anything recorded in the United States during the same period.   The print run for Black Europe was limited to five hundred copies and prices quoted on Amazon.com currently range from $699.99 to $1224.12 (or €750.00 with free shipping worldwide via Bear Family), but the budget-minded might instead try Over There, a separate three-CD release from Bear Family that features some of the same material.

Reviewed by Patrick Feaster

View review February 3rd, 2014

Angela Brown, Hila Plitmann, Nashville Symphony Orchestra – Richard Danielpour – A Woman’s Life

559188 bk Harbison US

Title: Richard Danielpour – A Woman’s Life

Artists: Angela Brown, Hila Plitmann, sopranos; Nashville Symphony Orchestra

Label: Naxos American Classics

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 24, 2013

 

Award-winning American composer Richard Danielpour is celebrated in this new CD from Naxos, issued as part of their American Classics series.  The album captures the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in live performances of three of Danielpour’s works:  Darkness in the Ancient Valley featuring soprano Hila Plitmann, described as a symphony in five movements inspired by recent events in Iran that utilizes a wide range of Persian folk-melodies and Sufi rhythms (recorded November 17-19, 2011); the orchestral work Lacrimae Beati or “Tears of the Blessed One,” referring to Mozart and the first eight bars of his Lacrimosa which served as Danielpour’s inspiration (recorded November 4-6, 2010); and A Woman’s Life, composed in the summer of 2007 for Angela Brown using texts by Maya Angelou (recorded September 20-22, 2012). All three performances, conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero, offer excellent interpretations of Danielpour’s compositions; however the remainder of this review will focus exclusively on A Woman’s Life.

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Angela Brown,* an American soprano from Indianapolis, studied at the IU Jacobs School of Music under Virginia Zeani and won the prestigious Metropolitan Opera competition in 1997.  She was catapulted to fame in 2004 after landing the starring role in Aida at the Met, and has since performed that role around the world. Her association with Danielpour began the following year when she was chosen to premier the role of Cilla in his opera Margaret Garner. According to the liner notes by Danielpour, Brown approached him about writing a song cycle expressly for her, and he in turn approached his friend Maya Angelou.  The result of this collaboration is A Woman’s Life, based on a cycle of seven poems by Angelou “which charts a moving trajectory from childhood to old age.” Brown premiered the work with the Pittsburgh Symphony in October 2009, with Leonard Slatkin conducting.

Brown is a diva in the best sense of the word, with an effervescent personality that allows her to deftly inhabit her roles. This ability serves her well in A Woman’s Life as she moves from childish innocence singing about Daddy and dollies in “Little Girl Speakings,” to the forced courage of adolescence in “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.” Out in the real world she seeks love, acceptance and romance, first unsuccessfully in the poignant “They Went Home,” then more provocatively in the jaded “Come. And Be My Baby.” One of the highlights is “My Life Has Turned to Blue,” featuring wonderfully evocative writing for vibes and harp in the intro. Brown handles this idiom with ease, darkening her timbre in the lower register and adding bluesy inflections. The closing “Many and More” is beautifully sung, the legato phrasing enhancing the contemplative text and blending with the lush strings of the orchestration.

A Woman’s Life is a wonderful vehicle for Brown, showing off a different side of the acclaimed Verdi soprano, as documented in this fine performance with the Nashville symphony.

*The Angela Brown Collection is housed at the Archives of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review October 2nd, 2013

Lawrence Brownlee, Iain Burnside – This Heart That Flutters

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Title: This Heart That Flutters

Artists: Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Iain Burnside, piano

Label: Opus Arte

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 28, 2013

 

Lawrence Brownlee’s newest collection of songs and arias provides a portrait of this excellent tenor, proving he is an insightful and evolving artist skilled on both the opera and recital stages. His latest release—his first on the Opus Arte label—includes a wonderfully varied collection of infrequently heard songs as well as signature opera arias. Brownlee and his accompanist Iain Burnside recorded in London in three locations: live at Saint John’s Smith Square in May 2010 (Liszt and Donizetti) and Wigmore Hall in September 2012 (Rossini), and in studio at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley in September 2012 (all other selections).

It is certainly a treat to hear the Liszt Petrarch settings sung by a tenor, as they were originally intended, and sung so well as they are here (even though the applause at the end could have been edited out). Brownlee is in his element and has the opportunity to show off his remarkable ability to seamlessly blend head and chest voice, especially in the cycle’s incredibly demanding operatic passages. Liszt demands equally of the accompanist and Burnside formidably meets the challenge. The Duparc songs and Ginastera’s Cinco canciones populares argentinas were an unexpected surprise, and it is enviable how Brownlee can negotiate the phrase “Du souffle de la bien aimée (“By the breath of the beloved”) in “Extase” and later toss off the rapid-fire text in “Gato” with such confidence.

In elevating “Deep River” and “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” to art-song status, unfortunately Burleigh’s arrangements—and Brownlee’s interpretations—sacrifice some of the spirituals’ original charm and poignancy. The other selections in English, Ben Moore’s settings of texts by James Joyce and W.B. Yeats, fare much better, as both Brownlee and Burnside throw themselves unapologetically into the songs’ sentimental melodies.

The inclusion of the two opera arias (as well as the applause at the end of each) was a bit perplexing in the midst of the various collections of songs. Of course, Brownlee’s authority of bel canto is unquestionable and the selections allowed him to show off his command of fantastically executed coloratura and solid high notes (all nine high Cs in the Donizetti and a high D in the Rossini). Both arias seemed a tiny bit rushed at times, but perhaps that was due to the excitement of a live performance.

Following is a video of Lawrence Brownlee and Iain Burnside performing “Ah mes amis!” from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment on May 25, 2010, at Saint John’s Smith Square in London:

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Georg Hall’s succinct liner notes were useful, but a description of the insight behind the programming would have been informative.

Reviewed by Frank Villella

View review October 2nd, 2013

Ensemble Paladino – Bach (Re)inventions vol. 1

paladino

Title: Bach (Re)inventions vol. 1

Artist: Ensemble Paladino

Label: Paladino

Format: CD

Release date: May 28, 2013

 

 

Ensemble Paladino is a collective of European musicians based at the ORF RadioKulturhaus in Vienna, whose mission is “to present uncompromising, diverse and fearless chamber music on the highest level.” Two founding members are represented on this recording: flutist Eric Lamb and cellist Martin Rummel.

By way of introduction, Eric Lamb (b.1978) is a native of Detroit who studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, then departed for Europe for further studies at the Hochschule für Musik Frankfurt am Main and the Sculoa di Musica di Fiesole, Italy.  A specialist in 21st century music, Lamb has performed as a member of the New York/Chicago based International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) since 2008 (learn more about ICE and Lamb in this interview by Flutronix). Austrian cellist Martin Rummel (b.1974) has gained international recognition for his performances of Bach’s solo suites, as well as his recordings of all the major cello etudes and the world premiere recordings of the cello concertos of Andrea Zani (1696-1757), to name just a few of his notable projects. Rummel is also the owner of the record label/publishing wing of Paladino, the president of the Vienna Music Group, and in his spare time hosts a monthly radio show and writes crime novels.

Bach (Re)inventions vol. 1 is cited as the ensemble’s “first collaborative adaptation project of musical examples from Bach’s keyboard works, in this case his two part counterpoint arranged for flute and cello.” Included in this exploration are the 15 inventions (BWV 772-786), in additional to movements from a partita and the English and French suites, as well as excerpts from the Notenbüchen für Magdalena Bach and Well-Tempered Clavier (all well-documented in the liner notes). Of course this idea is not novel,—Bach’s Inventions have been arranged for any combination of instruments—but Lamb and Rummel have now extended the flute and cello repertoire on these 31 tracks, while taking care to “(re)organize” their sequence “from a less logical [i.e., key/BMV ordered approach] to a more emotional order of short musical works.”

For this project it was necessary for Lamb to step aside from contemporary music, though these Bach (re)inventions must appeal to his entrepreneurial spirit.  He has certainly performed his share of the standard repertoire, and handles the Baroque stylings with ease, achieving a warm, round tone on his flute (Lamb is an advocate of wooden flutes and uses head joints crafted by S. Kotel). Rummel, as one might expect, is truly in his element here, providing a solid, melodious foundation.  Overall, the performance is fairly restrained and straight forward, with a well-matched articulation and timbre from Lamb and Rummel.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review October 2nd, 2013

Black Violin – Classically Trained

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Title: Classically Trained

Artist: Black Violin

Label: Di-Versatile Music Group

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 30, 2012

 

 

Grab your headphones—Black Violin’s creative vibes are coming through, where vibrant strings will undoubtedly electrify your senses.  With Kev Marcus carving up the violin and Wil B. jamming on the viola, the duo can’t help but captivate listeners with their ultramodern style.  Black Violin takes classical instruments and after a few tweaks and twists in the composition, an array of aural flavors including hip-hop, R&B, rock, bluegrass and jazz erupt from the strings.

Black Violin’s latest album, Classically Trained (2012), immediately bathes the listener in the sea of classical sounds found in “Overture” only to be broken by the intense hip hop rhythms in “Opus.”  The duo interrupts the barriers between genres, shooting pleasant varieties of sound through the speakers.  From the head bobbing vibe of “A-Flat” to the body knocking rhythm of “Rock Anthem,” they fearlessly tackle musical challenges that compel audiences to get on their feet.

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Black Violin’s music throws listeners from a world of closed doors into a universe of unbound opportunities.  As Kev and Wil intricately work their traditional instruments to give modern genres a lively new sound, their prolific style inspires the young audiences of today to pursue their passions regardless of the boundaries that encompass them.  Black Violin’s Classically Trained prescribes listeners with doses of creativity, confidence, liberty, and purpose in the form of vivacious tunes.

Reviewed by Cara M. Morgan Rogers

View review October 2nd, 2013

The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra – Black Manhattan, Volume 2

Title:  Black Manhattan, Volume 2

Artist:  The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra

Label:  New World Records

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date: December 4, 2012

 

 

Rick Benjamin, the prolific founder/conductor of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, has once again reached into his massive library of historic American orchestra music and pulled out a handful of early 20th century gems by African American composers for volume 2 of Black Manhattan. The title derives from James Weldon Johnson’s 1930 history of New York’s black music and theatre communities from the 1890s to 1920s that called attention to “an amazing group of achievers . . .whose work profoundly transformed the cultural life of this nation.” Included among this group were members of the legendary Clef Club of New York―James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook, Will Vodery, and the brothers James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamund Johnson, among others, who were the focus of the first volume.  The new release offers a wider range of composers and styles, featuring works written for pioneering African-American theatrical companies including the Black Patti Troubadours, Williams & Walker, and The Smart Set, as well as productions from Harlem’s famed Lafayette Theatre.

Covering a span of twenty-five years from 1896-1921, the disc’s earliest work is “Black Patti Waltzes” composed by Will Accooe (1874-1904) in the standard 19th century Viennese style and dedicated to the celebrated soprano Sissieretta Jones, who at the time had just formed her musical comedy company. On the other end of the spectrum, two highlights of the disc date from 1921 and offer wonderfully contrasting styles: W.C. Handy’s “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues,” sung to great effect by Linda Thompson Williams in the style of the great female blues belters of the 1920s; and the overture to Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along, the first successful African American musical, in an arrangement by Will H. Vodery that masterfully references hit songs from the production including “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” In between are many delightful examples of ragtime, ballads, one-steps, and even a Brazilian-themed tango by Will H. Dixon, who Benjamin considers to be a long-lost genius who wrote “some of the most hauntingly beautiful music” on this CD.

Of the 19 tracks, only a few were recorded during their heyday. “Nobody,” a major hit song from the 1906 show Abyssinia with music by Bert Williams and Will Marion Cook, was first recorded by white “coon” singer Arthur Collins (Edison 9084) and shortly thereafter by Williams for Columbia (cylinder 33011). Baritone Edward Pleasant covers the song on Black Manhattan and does a marvelous job bringing it back to life, no doubt drawing upon Williams’s recording for inspiration. “The Castle Walk,” a syncopated one-step composed by James Reese Europe and Ford T. Dabney for Vernon and Irene Castle at the peak of the social dance craze, was recorded by Jim Europe’s Society Orchestra in 1914 (Victor 17553).  “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues” and Wilbur C. Sweatman’s “That’s Got ’Em — Rag” were likewise recorded during the 78-rpm era and it’s interesting to compare all of these to the high fidelity contemporary renditions.* But most of us will be hearing the other works on Black Manhattan Vol. 2 for the very first time.

As with his recording of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (2011), Benjamin strives to achieve an accurate restoration of this music as opposed to a reconstruction. Hence the musicians of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra perform on period instruments and the vocalists take care to follow the performance practices indicative of early 20th century music theater (soprano Anita Johnson and tenor Robert Mack are also featured soloists).  Add an authoritative 48-page booklet that sheds new light on many of these African American composers (also including Frederick M. Bryan, J. Leubrie Hill, Al. Johns, Chris Smith, Scott Joplin, J. Tim Brymn and James J. Vaughan), and you have a truly spectacular package that performs a great service to the advancement of the study of American music.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

*Notes on the recordings were taken from Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 by Tim Brooks (University of Illinois Press, 2005) and the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project website.

View review February 1st, 2013

Tami Lee Hughes – Violin Music of African-American Composers

Title: Legacy: Violin Music of African-American Composers

Artists: Tami Lee Hughes, violin; Ellen Bottorff, piano

Label: Albany

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 1, 2011

 

 

A new collection that challenges simplistic notions about what it means to be an African American composer of classical music, this album contains an eclectic group of pieces for violin and piano. Its selections arch across nearly two centuries and include some works that explicitly draw on Black musical idioms and some that do so more subtly, or not at all. The performers, faculty members at the University of Kansas, skillfully interpret this wide range of styles and eras. Composers represented include Francis [Frank] Johnson, George Morrison, David N. Baker, Ozie C. Cargile II, and Chad “Sir Wick” Hughes. Particularly exciting is that the album captures voices from the past as well as presenting the work of three living African American composers.

Although the album proceeds in chronological order, it also replicates the sensation of attending a well-programmed concert. Johnson’s brief and peppy “Bingham’s Cotillion” (1820) functions rhetorically as an overture. Next come two weighty, multi-movement pieces: Morrison’s “Five Violin Solos” (1947) and Baker’s “Jazz Suite” (1979). Here the album’s narrative trajectory culminates as the two lengthy works demonstrate different approaches to engaging with Black musical traditions. Morrison’s “Solos” are simple settings of four spirituals (plus an original lullaby), while Baker’s pungent “Jazz Suite” subtly riffs on elements of jazz style and heritage without literally arranging extant melodies. Two brief, single-movement pieces in contrasting tempi and moods conclude the album: Cargile’s “Mixed Feelings” (2000) and Hughes’ “S.L.I.C.E.” (2009).

Each piece represents a sonic snapshot of a moment in American musical history. Johnson’s sprightly “Cotillion” evokes upper-crust social dancing of the early nineteenth century, a scene the Black bandleader, violinist, and bugler dominated in Philadelphia. On hearing the piece, one imagines the vibrant social pageantry that accompanied it, along with the reverence Johnson was accorded (one contemporary called him “the presiding deity” of such social affairs, and “an important personage, certainly!”). Morrison’s slow, sparse settings of “Motherless Child” and “Steal Away,” on the other hand, recall the postbellum tradition of spirituals arranged for solo voice and piano, with the violin standing in for the voice. Morrison was also a dance-band leader in Colorado in the swing era; this legacy is foregrounded in his raucous, rhythmic setting of “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.” And Baker’s “Jazz Suite” calls forth, retrospectively yet in a progressive voice, a kaleidoscopic range of jazz styles: boogie-woogie, bebop, and Afro-Caribbean influences.

This wide range of repertoire is performed convincingly by the duo, who move from a clean, brilliant, “dry” approach in the “Cotillion” to a lush, resonant sound in sonorous pieces such as Cargile’s “Mixed Feelings”:

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The album’s excellent audio quality is marked by immediacy, clarity, and balance. Thanks to the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, the album’s liner notes (by Horace Maxile, Jr.) are thorough, presenting biographical data and images, a discussion of each work’s significance, and brief listening guides. This album, unique for its chronological range, stylistic diversity, performance quality, and focus on rarely-recorded chamber works, constitutes an important addition to any collection of art music by African American composers.

 

Reviewed by Carrie Allen Tipton

View review November 1st, 2012

Noah Stewart – Noah

Title: Noah

Artist: Noah Stewart

Label: Decca

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: July 3, 2012 (U.S. edition)

 

 

The opera world has long been engaged in a battle for cultural relevance, fought on the turf of pastiche albums, public television specials, outdoor concerts, and increasingly attractive singers—trends aimed at consumers firmly entrenched in pop music sensibilities. The latest, most intriguing singer to blossom within this pop-opera matrix is Harlem-born tenor Noah Stewart, whose first album, Noah, announces his crossover intentions quite clearly. Receiving positive coverage by Essence, the UK Guardian, Opera News, and NPR, Noah did well on the UK classical music charts. In tandem with the release, Stewart toured several continents while maintaining an opera production schedule. The album is an achievement of historical interest, not necessarily for the novelty of its contents, but for Stewart’s being the first African American singer to effectively tap into the “Andrea Boccelli market.”

The album accomplishes this task via the standard crossover cocktail of classical favorites (Puccini’s “Recondita Armonia and the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria”), heavily orchestrated pop covers (Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”), and American folk songs, including the spiritual “Deep River.” Stewart’s tenor is pleasing and rich, well-described by one reviewer as “baritonish,” and yields consistently lyrical interpretations. The tracks share an identical dramatic trajectory: thinly-orchestrated early verses build to a choral and orchestral climax while Stewart powers into the high range. Although the device feels formulaic when applied across such diverse repertoire, it works well in the stunning arrangement of “Shenandoah” since it effectively reflects the lyric’s intensifying narrative of poignant longing.

Stewart’s first music video from the album is “Without a Song,” from the 1929 Broadway musical Great Day by Vincent Youmans. The use of the music video medium to frame Stewart as the object as both erotic desire and musical admiration reinforces the PR narrative that this is no stout, musty old tenor warbling obscure recitatives, but that he is one of a bold new breed of crossover stars intent on maximizing their multimedia presence just like the pop artists do:

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Probably a function of the crossover singer’s perpetual dilemma, Stewart occasionally shows technical indecisiveness about whether to use exclusively vibrato or to incorporate a pop-inflected straight-tone delivery. Additionally, in the American songs, Stewart pronounces “ah” for the long “i.” Occurring first in “Deep River,” this initially sounded like an effort at vernacular southern dialect; but since it recurs in other American selections, one assumes it was an intentional, if puzzling, artistic decision. Also related to the crossover paradigm, Opera News criticized the album for the application of pop studio production values to classical repertoire, and one indeed hears odd echo effects at the ends of some tracks.

Despite these minor issues, the album is worth owning for the general pleasantness of Stewart’s timbre and for its cultural significance. Stewart stands self-consciously in the lineage of iconic Black opera singers, although his pursuit of crossover success prior to the firm establishment of an operatic career and the marketing of his physical appearance delineate a contemporary career path. Further augmenting Stewart’s unique profile is his publicly gay identity, which he readily discusses in interviews. After studying at the Juilliard School on the recommendation of Leontyne Price, Stewart built a CV blending artistic riskiness and conservatism: backup singing for Mariah Carey; appearances in contemporary operas by Philip Glass and John Adams; roles in bel canto warhorses; and forays into Baroque opera. Whether some of these diverse musical enterprises will compromise his legitimacy with the purist variety of opera fan remains to be seen. Although Noah only partially captures Stewart’s musical versatility, it still marks his successful entry into the “popera” world.

Reviewed by Carrie Allen Tipton

Editor’s note: the original U.K. release includes Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” Massenet’s “Pourquoi Me Réveiller” and “Silent Night;” on the U.S. edition these songs are replaced by “This Land Is My Land,” “Star-Spangled Banner” and “I Have a Dream.”

View review November 1st, 2012

New Black Music Repertory Ensemble – Florence B. Price: Concerto in One Movement & Symphony in E Minor

Title: Florence B. Price: Concerto in One Movement & Symphony in E Minor

Artists: New Black Music Repertory Ensemble (Leslie B. Dunner, conductor); Karen Walwyn, Piano

Label: Albany Records

Catalog No.:  Troy 1295

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: December 1, 2011

 

 

Although you wouldn’t know it from the scarce recordings of the works of Florence B. Price (1888–1953), she stood alongside William Grant Still, Hall Johnson, and William Dawson in an elite group of African American composers active early in the twentieth century. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her Symphony in E Minor in 1933; she won major compositional prizes; she was proudly cited by the Black press and favorably reviewed by the Chicago Tribune; and her arranged spirituals were sung by Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson. Although southern-born, Price studied at the New England Conservatory and moved to Chicago in 1927 to teach and write. Like other composers impelled by what Samuel Floyd identified as a broad “Negro Renaissance” ethos that flourished in Harlem and Chicago, Price produced nationalistic works that melded Western classical composition techniques with Black musical idioms.

Price’s relatively conservative neoromanticism marks these pieces, with their lush orchestral textures, standard forms, lyrical melodies, and tonal harmonies shot through with rich chromaticism. Their real innovativeness hinges on the incorporation of Black musical traditions: for instance, both pieces draw on the antebellum folk dance tradition of “pattin’ juba.” Additionally, while neither work quotes a spiritual or uses the 12-bar blues, a mournfulness sometimes associated with those genres permeates the symphony’s second movement and the concerto’s middle section (although in one movement, the piece contains three discrete sections that map onto the standard three-movement concerto form).

Also quite neoromantic is the virtuosity of the Concerto’s piano part, which the composer played at its 1934 debut and which is ably and clearly performed here by Karen Walwyn. With Rachmaninoff-like keyboard figuration and textures, the piece announces its aesthetic intentions immediately with a minor, blues-inflected descending motif voiced in call-and-response between brass and winds. The lyrical middle section and dancing final section give a cinematic quality to the 18-minute work as it traverses multiple moods. The current album represents the piece’s first recording, a labor of imagination and research. As Horace J. Maxile, Jr., explains in his liner notes, no copies of the orchestral part of the Concerto are extant. What is heard here is a reconstruction of the instrumentation by composer Trevor Weston, drawn from Price’s manuscript sources.

The tale of lost or overlooked works has marked Price’s legacy; many of her compositions, including the two on this album, were never published. Although the Symphony in E Minor marked the first time a major orchestra played music by a Black female composer, the current album is only the second recording of the work. This is unfortunate, since the symphony’s second movement is the high point of both the piece and the album. Built around a lyrical, chorale-like tune in the brass that alternates with other musical episodes, the movement concludes with chimes and a soaring tutti that reinforce its sacred sensibilities. The Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, the force behind this album, is to be thanked for re-introducing Price’s music with this high-quality recording and its detailed liner notes containing biographical data and stylistic descriptions.

Reviewed by Carrie Allen Tipton

View review October 1st, 2012

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