Posts filed under 'Classical Music'

Lawrence Brownlee, Iain Burnside – This Heart That Flutters

lawrence

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

black violin

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

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

Title: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

Artists: Various (Broadway Cast)

Label: P.S. Classics

Formats: 2-CD set, MP3

Release date: May 22, 2012

 

 

Don’t let the title fool you—this is not exactly the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. This cast recording of Diane Paulus’s Broadway adaptation of the Gershwins’ great American opera is at times familiar and foreign to devotees of the original, but should definitely be praised for successfully realizing Paulus’s goal of “introduc[ing] the work to the next generation of theatergoers.” By replacing large parts of the recitatives with spoken dialogue, adding completely new scenes with the assistance of Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, and re-writing parts of the score (aided by Diedre L. Murray), Paulus managed to produce a more accessible and less problematic version of this canonized work.

The politics of the production can be put aside fairly easily, however, due to the fantastic performances from everyone involved. The bar is set high from the first sung notes, when Nikki Renée Daniels lilts out “Summertime” as Clara, with a strong warmth that is illustrative of this production’s attempts to integrate African American performance practice. What this production does most effectively, though, is not the musical re-writing, but rather the fleshing out of the characters.  David Alan Grier’s Sporting Life is more than a stock villain, he is a fully realized hustler, and Audra McDonald’s Bess is much more than just a sympathetic addict.

Following is the official Broadway trailer:

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It shouldn’t be said that Porgy and Bess was improved by fleshing out characters and making some stylistic shifts, but this Broadway version of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess serves as an engaging and more contemporary counterpart that will undoubtedly provide pleasure to new listeners and many old diehards.

Reviewed by Dorothy Berry

View review October 1st, 2012

Brahms

Title: Brahms

Artists: Zuill Bailey, Awadagin Pratt

Label: Telarc

Formats:  CD, MP3

Release date: March 29, 2011

 

 

 

Zuill Bailey, one of the world’s finest cellists, and Awadagin Pratt, concert pianist and the first person to graduate from the Peabody Conservatory with concentrations in three areas (piano, violin, and conducting), have performed together regularly since the late 1990s.  They have just released their first recording as a duo: an all-Brahms CD on the Telarc label.

I could not help but be swept into the sonic lushness and variety of the duo’s playing when I heard the first strains of Lerchengesang (“Lark Song”), Op. 70 No. 2, the cello/piano transcription of a vocal piece that opens the recording.  Bailey’s control of the cello’s tone color is superb: whether he is playing a gorgeous, lyrical section or a more aggressive passage, the cello’s sound is velvety and rich.  Pratt’s playing is technically superb, beautifully voiced and, where appropriate, nicely supportive of the cello line.  The engineers and producers should also be congratulated for the sonically rich and engaging recording they helped create.

The program contains some pieces written originally for cello and piano, notably Brahms’s Sonata in E Minor, op. 38, and Sonata in F Major, op. 99.  One of the finer moments in the recording is the final movement of op. 38, which has a densely fugal texture; it is quite cerebral music, but Pratt and Bailey avoid playing the movement with the incessant, almost robotic forward motion that such writing often engenders.  The F Major sonata, with its wandering to F# in the second movement, is also well-rendered.  This reviewer especially enjoyed the opening of the Adagio Affetuoso movement; the chordal, mildly dissonant piano with the pizzicato cello has a brief jazz-inflected moment, a quality that is also present in some of Brahms’s later solo piano works.

These two larger works are interspersed with shorter pieces, mostly transcriptions of Brahms’s vocal works, whose lyricism translates quite well to the cello.  Lerchengesang (“Lark Song”), Op. 70, No. 2,  that opens the album is hushed and delicate; the duo performs it slightly slower than is customary, to great dramatic effect.  Though the choice of Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 15 (also known as “Brahms’s Lullaby”) to close the album is fitting, and the piece is sonically as gorgeous as everything else on the album, I would have preferred that Pratt and Bailey dig further into Brahms’s collection of lieder for an equally suitable, lesser-known work to close the album.

Following is the promo video (courtesy of Concord Music Group):

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Minor quibbles about repertoire aside,  Brahms is a fantastic recording by two extremely talented performers.  It is a rewarding listen for classical music aficionados and an engaging, approachable performance for everyone else.

Reviewed by David Lewis

View review July 1st, 2011

Robert Pritchard, Pianist

Title: Robert Pritchard, Pianist

Artist:  Robert Starling Pritchard

Label:  Smithsonian Folkways Special Series

Formats:  CD, MP3

Catalog No.:  SFS60002

Release date: March 29, 2011

Smithsonian Folkways has recently remastered and reissued this little gem of an album, originally released as an LP by Spoken Arts, Inc. in 1962.  The performer, Robert Pritchard, was one of the first successful African American concert pianists in the United States. He also toured in the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa, including a stint as artist-in-residence for the Liberian government.  His extensive training with pianists at Julliard, Mannes, and Manhattan schools of music is evident: his rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in C minor is swift, precise, and engaging, and his performance of Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses and three of Chopin’s etudes are technically strong, lyrical, and compelling.

Pritchard’s gifts as a pianist, however, are matched by his drive to foster cross-cultural musical exchange and understanding.  Aside from his work in Liberia, Pritchard helped found the PanAmerican PanAfrican Association whose goal, according to their website, is to “promote, encourage and foster better understanding and good will among and between peoples of the United States, the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East through the interchange of ideas and persons.”  Pritchard fostered just this sort of interchange, advocating for musical works from Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly by Pan-American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, whose “Le Banjo” from his Fantasie Grotesque is included on this album.  Pritchard’s interpretation of “Le Banjo” is bright and technically solid, though it lacks some of the whimsy and humor that the piece seems to demand.  Finally, Pritchard’s recording of his own composition, “’Ti Jacques’ Suite sur Melodie Folklorique d’Haiti” provides listeners the opportunity to hear a composer play his own work, influenced by the music he experienced during his travels in the Caribbean.

While the underlying performances are excellent, even this newly remastered version presents some auditory problems for the discriminating listener.  While background hiss has been greatly minimized and there are no jarring audio problems, some of the subtlety of Pritchard’s touch, phrasing, and coloring seem to have been lost, likely due to problems with the original recording.  Aside from this minor problem, this disc is highly recommended, both as a musical experience and a cultural document of a great African American artist.

Reviewed by David Lewis

View review May 2nd, 2011

Jubilant Sykes Sings Copland and Spirituals


Title: Jubilant Sykes Sings Copland and Spirituals

Artists: Jubilant Sykes, London Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton, cond.

Label: Arioso Classics

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 12, 2010

Arioso recently reissued Jubilant Sykes’ 1994 album of Copland’s “Old American Songs” and traditional spirituals. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios on March 30-31, 1993, the American baritone was paired with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Litton, a native New Yorker who specializes in American vernacular music. Included among the eight spirituals, which comprise half the album, are “Go Down, Moses,” “City Called Heaven,”  “Ride On, King Jesus,” and “Weepin’ Mary.”  Though Sykes is classically trained and has performed with various orchestras and opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, he is also a respectable jazz singer.  Consequently, his renditions of spirituals are extremely free flowing and often improvisational in nature, never reverting to the overtly operatic interpretations produced by many classical singers.  Equally free spirited are Copland’s “Old American Songs,” from the humorous “I Bought Me a Cat” to the closing “Ching-A-Ring Chaw.”

Surprisingly, this CD has garnered little attention and as of this date hasn’t even been added to Sykes’ All Music Guide discography.  Now that Arioso has made the CD available again, along with downloadable MP3 files, we are offered a second chance to add this very enjoyable music to our collections.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 2nd, 2011

Flutronix

Title: FLūTR°NIX

Artist: Flutronix

Label: Flutronix Music

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: October 2010

The New York flute duo, Flutronix, has been infiltrating NYC-area clubs and concert halls for the past few years, making a name for themselves with 21st-century indie chamber music “rooted in influences as diverse as Steve Reich, Radiohead, Terry Riley and Aphex Twin.” The petite powerhouse is comprised of Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull, who have extensive experience in classical music performance as well as multimedia collaborations.

Loggins-Hull earned her BM in flute performance at the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music, and a MA in composition from NYU, studying under Joan la Barbara. Her primary focus has been on electro-acoustic musical styles, production and film scoring, which she has utilized in a number of cross-disciplinary projects.  Joachim received her degree in flute performance from Juilliard under the mentorship of Carol Wincenc, studied experimental music at NYU, and completed a MA in media and sound studies at The New School.  In addition to her many awards as a classical flutist, Joachim also works with the performing arts collective Ditch Productions.

Flutronix, their debut album, is a masterful collage of electronic and acoustic music, woven into multi-faceted textures that combine the instruments and digital effects in a very accessible, contemporary manner. The opening track, “Crazy,” is a composition by Joachim that features  contrapuntal flutes over an electronic bass line and drum machine, with intermittent hip hop sensibilities:

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Joachim also composed two of my favorite compositions on the album—“Wander” and “Aware” —for flute, voice and electronics. “Wander” opens with Joachim’s pop-styled vocals. The melody is taken over by the flute, then subverted by a punchy electronic bass, concluding with a peaceful resolution between the three.  On “Aware,” a disembodied voice loops over tribal drumming, while the flute enters with the melodic line. Of the compositions by Loggins-Hull, the highlights are “Pray,” which features an improvisational virtuosic flute line over an atmospheric minimalist undercurrent, and “Stacked,” arranged for two flutes and loop pedal, creating the effect of a contrapuntal flute choir.

Flutronix was self-produced by Joachim and Loggins-Hull, with assistance from noted mastering engineer and cellist Steven Berson.  The album is very highly recommended, and belongs in every university music library. The duo also offers printed music for several works, and is currently sponsoring a competition for young composers (under 30) working with electronic components—the deadline for submissions is March 1, 2011.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 6th, 2011

Shout for Joy: Spiritual Christmas

Title: Shout for Joy: Spiritual Christmas

Artists: Barbara Hendricks

Label: Arte Verum/Allegro

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date:  November 18, 2010


Barbara Hendricks, the American-born soprano who is now a citizen of Sweden, just released her second holiday album, Shout for Joy: Spiritual Christmas, on her own Arte Verum label (EMI released Barbara Hendricks Sings Christmas Favourites in 1995).  On standards such as “Joy to the World,” “Stille Nacht,” and “Ave Maria” she is accompanied variously by the Drottningholm Quartet and the Drottningholm Barockensemble.   Other featured musicians include guitarist Mats Bergstöm, organist Björn Gäfvert, and Harald Pettersson, who specializes in Swedish folk instruments and provides interesting accompaniments to “What Child Is This?,” “Coventry Carol,” and “Sussex Carol.”  Hendricks also performs a selection of spirituals including “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” “Shout for Joy,” and “Oh Jerusalem.”  Overall, Shout for Joy contains an eclectic blend of classical and traditional holiday music.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review December 1st, 2010

Recordings from the African Diaspora

Title: Recordings from the African Diaspora

Artist: New Black Music Repertory Ensemble

Label:  Albany

Format:  CD

Catalog No.:  ALB 1200

Release date: August 8, 2010

Recordings from the African Diaspora includes two works composed by the noted African American composers Mary D. Watkins and Olly W. Wilson, performed by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble. Both were commissioned—Five Movements in Color in 1993 by the Camellia Symphony Orchestra and Of Visions and Truth: A Song Cycle in 1989 by the Center for Black Music Research for the Black Music Repertory Ensemble—and are modern representations of African Diasporic musical elements presented within a sonically orchestral musical setting.

Five Movements in Color, by Mary D. Watkins, is an instrumental piece consisting of individual movements that create slightly different sonic atmospheres utilizing strings, mixed percussion, xylophone, woodwinds, piano and brass. One of the most common musical elements within this particular work is the introduction of small gestures in a fashion that creates conversations between instruments within the piece.  The first movement, “Once Upon a Time” specifically quotes African musical elements through the use of African drums and polyrhythmic layering within the mixed percussion. “Soul of Remembrance” sheds light on a different aspect, creating a sonic image of a march that could be attributed to civil disobedience marches or simply to the struggle of African Americans within America. This element is created through a slower paced presentation, where strings serve as the dominant instrument supported mainly in climax by brass instruments.  This climax immediately fades into a more solemn atmosphere initially introduced in the beginning of the movement.  The third movement, as indicated by its title “Playful Jazzy”, showcases jazz influences most obviously through jazz founded rhythmic combinations as well as what can be perceived as improvised trumpet solos. “Slow Burn” returns to a slower paced representation with the reintroduction of the African drum.  It is in this particular movement that the instrument palette is enhanced with the introduction of flugelhorn, piano, and harp creating a sonic environment that can not only be perceived as African influenced, but can also make connections to other cultures as well.  The last movement, “Drive By Runner,” reintroduces the strings as a prominent instrument with other woodwinds entering in a supportive manner.  The element of gestural, musical conversation between instruments, returns here as a more obvious and prominent compositional decision, specifically as a tool to generate climax within the piece.

In contrast to Watkin’s composition, Olly Wilson’s Of Visions and Truth: A Song Cycle is primarily vocally driven.  This work consists of four songs—“I’ve Been ‘Buked,” “Mama’s Little Brown Baby,” “Ikef” (a setting of Henry Dumas’ poem of the same name), and “If We Must Die”—separated by two instrumental interludes.  Interlude I is more striking, utilizing horns, strings, and percussion in order to emphasize attacks and rhythmic pulses while Interlude II is slower with an elongated melody.  The first movement of the piece is a contemporary setting of the spiritual “I’ve Been ‘Buked,” featuring an elongation of the melodic contour of the original spiritual as well as the placement and displacement of pieces of the melody and verses of the song amongst instrumental accompaniment. “Lullaby” makes use of non-lexical vocables followed by the singing of the lullaby “Mama’s Little Brown Baby,” evolving over sparse instrumental accompaniment. “Ikef,”  like Watkins’ “Playful Jazzy,” incorporates some jazz influenced rhythmic elements presented alongside the quotation of the plantation song “Shortenin’ Bread.”  The voice is the driving force of this movement, placed in a manner that allows for the perception of the voice leading the instrumental accompaniment.  Following “Interlude II” is the final movement, “If We Must Die,” which incorporates the conversational element between instrumentals with accents by piano and strings.  This movement is metrically flexible with sharp and instrumental entrances leading to the climactic moment in which the vocals layer the last two lines of the piece in two different vocal registers, presented with two different rhythmic patterns.  This climactic point is reached with the settling of these two vocal registers in harmony, followed by the proclamation “If We Must Die,” and concluding with a horn and percussion attack.

Recorded Music of the African Diaspora brings together two representations of musical elements influenced and presented in an orchestral medium, composed by two African American composers.  Bringing together African, African American as well as European musical elements is successfully executed in this representation of recorded music of the African Diaspora.

Reviewed by Christina Harrison

View review December 1st, 2010

Die schöne Müllerin

Title: Die schöne Müllerin

Artist:  Barbara Hendricks, voice; Roland Pöntinen, piano

Label:  Arte Verum

Catalog No.:  ARV-008

Formats :  CD/DVD; MP3

Release Date:  May 11, 2010

African-American soprano Barbara Hendricks has never been afraid to forge her own path:  from obtaining undergraduate degrees in math and chemistry before obtaining a music degree from Juilliard, to relocating to Europe and obtaining Swedish citizenship, to working as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she has shown a passion for her broad interests and the conviction to pursue them.  Her performance repertoire spans opera, jazz, and chamber music, and in 2007 she founded her own label, Arte Verum, to record vocal recital repertoire and allow herself (and other artists on the label) more control over their artistic endeavors.

Hendricks’s newest release on Arte Verum reflects her self-directed tendencies.  Accompanied by pianist Roland Pöntinen, Hendricks sings Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, D795 (1823), a 20-lied cycle setting poetic texts by Wilhelm Müller.  Though Schubert’s many lieder have been staples of Hendricks’s recital repertoire for decades, this album marks her first recording of a complete song cycle; moreover, Hendricks challenges the vocal tradition in selecting Die schöne Müllerin, a cycle typically sung by male singers.  In her liner notes, Hendricks writes that she was convinced of the emotional universality of the cycle that transcends the need for a male performer: “Schubert painted his harmonies and melodies onto the canvas of the words in such a natural way and I felt that my great task was to match his simplicity.  I wanted to sing them in a way that allowed that perfect marriage of music and text to flow as naturally as speech.”   Her performance here does justice to this goal, her voice conveying warmth, sorrow, excitement, and despair, while Pöntinen’s sensitive playing allows the piano to participate in the narrative and paint emotional landscapes.

The deluxe edition includes substantial liner notes on Schubert and Die schöne Müllerin by Jean-Marc Geidel.  It also includes a bonus DVD containing interviews in French and English with Hendricks and two of her collaborators, pianist Love Derwinger and lighting designer Ulf Englund, discussing their approach to performing Schubert’s Winterreise, D911 (1827), during their 2009 Swedish concert tour.  It also includes live excerpts of Hendricks performing Winterreise, another cycle traditionally performed by male singers (Hendricks is planning to release a recording of the complete Winterreise in 2011.)  While the CD alone offers a fine recording of one of Schubert’s most beloved cycles, the DVD offers tantalizing glimpses of a fuller sensory journey that Hendricks and her collaborators create in live performance, enough to hope, perhaps, for a full-length video release at some point.

Reviewed by Ann Shaffer

View review August 1st, 2010

Dear Mrs. Parks

Title:  Dear Mrs. Parks

Composer:  Hannibal Lokumbe

Artists:  Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Wilkins

Label:  Naxos
Catalog No.: 8.559668

Format: CD

Release date:  December 15, 2009


Hannibal Lokumbe is a classical composer and jazz trumpeter also known by his first name only. In his classical compositions, Hannibal isn’t looking to enlarge the sound of jazz among the Western orchestra in order to create a concert entertainment but to compose music that celebrates the African American experience on its own terms, and in a wholly serious manner. His previous effort, African Portraits (Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim, 1995) was released by Nonesuch with much fanfare but was ultimately criticized for eclecticism and over ambitiousness.

Dear Mrs. Parks was a 2005 commission from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and, if anything, the eclecticism is held in check.  Although the instrumental forces are still very large– with four soloists, two choruses and an expanded orchestra with an added battery of percussion– this work has a very singular purpose in mind.  The oratorio in ten movements  is based on Hannibal’s own text in the form of letters addressed to Mrs. Rosa Parks from four different characters, portrayed by soloists Janice Chandler-Eteme, Jevetta Steele, Kevin Deas and child soprano Taylor Gardner. The chorus fulfills numerous functions– interacting with the soloists, hovering as angels in the background or assuming the foreground role of the vox populi. The music is often very still and focuses on supporting the texts, though it comes alive with rich and riotous percussion in movements such as “For We Have Walked the Streets of Babylon” and “Like Luminous Rain.”

Overall, the character of the music is not particularly jazzy but has a strong African flavor, based in modes, utilizing drones and employing an underlying rhythmic funkiness. This Naxos recording is edited together from the premiere performances at Orchestra Hall in Detroit in March 2009, and the audience is certainly present and quite involved; vigorous applause is heard at the end of livelier movements. In Dear Mrs. Parks, Hannibal has achieved the serious statement that he has sought to make in a standard concert work -music that enjoys a kind of contextual integrity yet still contains enough splash to captivate a predominantly African American audience and to bring them into the concert hall. Certainly this is readily apparent from the recording, where the approval from the crowd is most enthusiastic.

Read more about the work at the Naxos blog.

Reviewed by David “Uncle Dave” Lewis

View review February 4th, 2010

Quincy Porter Complete Viola Works

Title:  Quincy Porter: Complete Viola Works

Artist:  Eliesha Nelson

Label:  Dorian sono luminus

Catalog No.:  DSL-90911

Format:  CD; MP3

Release Date:  Sept. 29, 2009

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The music of American composer Quincy Porter, a younger contemporary of Charles Ives, is perhaps less familiar to classical audiences than it deserves to be.  Like Ives, Porter grew up in Connecticut and studied composition with Horatio Parker at Yale; but unlike his more famous colleague, Porter took on a full-time musical career as a composer, performer (on violin and viola), and educator.   After graduating from Yale in 1921, he studied composition at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, then in New York with Ernst Bloch and Vincent d’Indy, finally returning to Paris in 1928 on a three-year Guggenheim Fellowship to compose in earnest.  Throughout his career, he taught music theory and composition at several prestigious American schools, including the Cleveland Institute of Music, Vassar College, the New England Conservatory (of which he was dean and later director), and finally Yale.

Porter continued to compose actively during his years of professorship, winning the 1954 Pulitzer for his Concerto Concertante for two pianos and orchestra; his greatest works were perhaps his nine string quartets, which Howard Boatwright has described as “one of the most substantial, and very likely permanent, additions to the repertoire contributed by any composer of Porter’s generation.”1 Porter’s musical style was at once modern and accessible, often featuring long scalar melodic passages over occasionally dissonant accompaniments, and always written with an ear for the idioms of the particular instruments called for in any given piece.

Porter’s works for viola, then, are perhaps his most lovingly written, in the idiom of his own instrument.  Cleveland Orchestra violist Eliesha Nelson chose wisely when programming this recording; not only are Porter’s chamber works long overdue for fresh recordings, but this collection allows the viola to shine as a solo instrument and duet partner.  The crowning piece on this album is the Concerto for Viola and Orchestra from 1948, a neoclassical gem that alternates virtuosic passagework with elegant lyricism.  The smaller chamber works offer plenty of engaging moments, however, particularly the Suite for Viola Alone (1930), Blues Lointains for Viola and Piano (1928), and the intimately entwined Duo for Violin and Viola (1954).

Following is a “film noir” performance of Blues Lointains (courtesy of Dorian Recordings):

Nelson’s playing is warm and graceful, accommodating the technically virtuosic sections and the more lyrical ones with equal ease.  Douglas Roth provides sensitive counterpoint as Nelson’s duet partner in the Duo for Viola and Harp (1957); but the unsung hero of this recording is John McLaughlin Williams, who conducts the Northwest Sinfonia in the Concerto, then doubles as accompanist and duet partner on piano, harpsichord, and violin in nearly all of the other works.  Overall, this album is a fine exploration of little-known twentieth-century viola repertoire, a deserving revival of the chamber music of a respected American composer, and an introduction to some very skilled performers.

Following is a Q & A with Eliesha Nelson and John McLaughlin Williams (courtesy of Dorian Recordings):


NOTES:
1 Howard Boatwright, “Quincy Porter (1897-1966)”, Perspectives in New Music 5 (Spring-Summer 1967), 163.

Reviewed by Ann Shaffer

View review February 4th, 2010

Revolutionary Rhythm


Title:  Revolutionary Rhythm

Artist:   Jade Simmons

Label:  E1 (formerly Koch International)

Catalog No.: KIC-CD-7760

Format: CD

Release Date:  March 24, 2009

Jade Simmons wears her contrasting identities like a coat of arms, challenging the assumptions of what each identity should be or do.  Young black women aren’t supposed to like classical music; beauty pageant queens (Simmons was Miss Illinois and first runner-up for Miss America in 2000) aren’t supposed to be persons of real substance or significant talent; classical musicians aren’t supposed to intersect with popular music, or have time for such non-musical pursuits as teen suicide prevention (Simmons’s pageant charity platform) or high fashion (she designs her own concert gowns.)

Rather than shrug off such externally-imposed expectations, Simmons confronts them directly in her public persona, web presence, and recordings, crafting a vision of a youthful future for classical music.  Technology plays no small role in this endeavor.  Like many popular artists (but perhaps not so many classical ones), she’s on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, building a grassroots network of fans among classical buffs and youth alike; and lest you question her rank in the classical realm, it’s worth noting that she was asked to host the first online broadcast of this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

This constellation (or revolution, as Simmons would have it) of identity, genre, and technology is evident throughout her new release, Revolutionary Rhythm. The album as a whole is the first installment of what Simmons calls The Rhythm Project, dedicated to exploring the rhythmic and percussive qualities of the piano.  It comprises four contemporary piano pieces: Russell Pinkston’s TaleSpin (2000) for piano and pre-recorded electronics; Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, Op. 26 (1949); John Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy for Piano (1976); and three of Daniel Bernard Roumain‘s Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes (2006). 

TaleSpin combines the repetitive gestures of post-minimalism with electronic sound and dancelike rhythmic motives; as an album-opener, it has enough energy to catch a listener’s ear without sounding alienating.  The Barber sonata represents Barber’s foray into modernist techniques such as serialism, while still infused with Barber’s typical lush harmonies, and Simmons interprets its formidable fugue movement as a series of jazzy syncopations.  Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy, a lesser-known work, stands as a breath of stillness in the midst of the other pieces’ busier rhythms, as Simmons gives its stark left-hand-only opening plenty of space and deliberation.  Finally, DBR’s amalgam of hip hop beats and classical virtuosity in the Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes seems to herald one future for classical music:  it doesn’t sound like classical music trying to ape hip-hop, or vice versa, but suggests a more elegant fusion of the two, crafted by artists who understand both.  Although the piece was originally scored for solo instrument or ensemble, Simmons’s solo piano rendition includes pre-recorded hip hop beats laid under her piano lines (when she performs it live, she uses a loop pedal to self-accompany.)

Simmons’s technical skill and interpretive abilities shine throughout this album, making Revolutionary Rhythm not only a cohesive and interesting group of contemporary pieces, but a promising first step for an artist with a vision of where she wants to go.

Following is a YouTube clip of Jade Simmons talking about the pieces on the album:

Posted by Ann Shaffer

View review June 24th, 2009

DVDs

Jessye Norman: A Portrait (Decca, April 2008).

The in-depth interviews combined with thirteen staged performances should delight any fan of opera and Jesse Norman. According to other sites, the “staged performances” are actually lip-synched for this production, a sample of which can be found here.

Africa Unite. (Palm Pictures, Feb. 2008)

Finally available on DVD, Africa Unite is a concert documentary filmed in 2005 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the 60th anniversary celebration of the birth of Bob Marley. Featuring performances by three generations of the Marley family, the film is also sprinkled with archival footage and interviews.

Jazz Icons, Series 3 (Naxos, Sept. 2008)

The latest release in the Jazz Icon series, this box set includes 8 DVDs featuring Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Nina Simone and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The source of the footage is European television programs that aired between 1958 and 1975. The DVDs are also sold separately.

Experience Hendrix. (Image Entertainment, August 2008)

Enjoy two star-studded tribute concerts, one filmed in Seattle and the other in San Diego, celebrating the legendary Black rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Featured artists include blues guitarists Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin, along with Robert Randolph, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, and many others. Billy Cox and the recently deceased Mitch Mitchell, of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, also contribute to the mix.

View review January 9th, 2009

Classical Music

Barbara Hendricks, Henry Purcell, Georg Friedrich Haendel: Endless Pleasure (Arte Verum, January 2008)

American soprano and humanitarian Barbara Hendricks partners with the Drottningholms Barockensemble for this recording of English Baroque songs and theatrical music by Purcell and Händel.  While the Purcell selections tend towards his songs and incidental theater music, including “Music for a While” and “From rosie bow’rs,” Hendricks does not fail to include the inevitable recit-aria combo “Ah! Belinda / When I am Laid” from Purcell’s only full opera, Dido and Aeneas. The Händel selections, by contrast, draw entirely from dramatic works such as Giulio Cesare and Semele, as well as a lengthy instrumental dance suite from his ballet Terpsichore, which showcases the conductorless Barockensemble’s lively performance.

Carl MaultsBy, Eye of the Sparrow (Albany Records, February 2008)

Composer and conductor Carl MaultsBy leads the Rejoiceensemble! and the St. Bart’s Senior Girls Choristers in this recording of two of MaultsBy’s choral works, Eye of the Sparrow and The View From the Mountain, as well as his arrangements of several traditional spirituals including “Kum Ba Ya”, “Swing Down Chariot”, and the medley “Hold On.”  Eye of the Sparrow was composed in 2005 as a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., while The View From the Mountain (2007) commemorates both Dr. King and his late widow, Coretta Scott King.  MaultsBy’s classical training, combined with the gospel and spiritual traditions at the heart of these works, yields intricately crafted works that are thoroughly contemporary while acknowledging their roots in tradition.

Anthony Davis, Amistad (New World Records, October 2008)

Anthony Davis’s opera Amistad (completed, ironically, the same year as the Steven Spielberg film of the same title and subject) is now released in a full length recording, drawn from the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world premiere performances in December 1997. Though not stated in the liner notes, the length of this CD suggests that it may incorporate the significant revisions made for the work’s performance at the 2008 Spoleto Festival.  With a libretto by Thulani Davis, the opera retells the story of the 1839 slave rebellion on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, and the slaves’ subsequent arrival and struggle for freedom in America.  Anthony Davis’s music fuses Western classical avant-garde approaches with post-minimalist techniques, jazz and gospel traditions, and east Asian elements, to create a sound drawn from many cultures but representative of none.

Patmore Lewis, Rillito River Project (You-Entertainment, June 2008)

Patmore Lewis, composer and violinist with the Metropolitan Opera, spearheads this fundraiser album for the Rillito River Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to implementing the arts in raising awareness of the effects of climate change in the American Southwest (Arizona’s Rillito River now stands dry during part of the year.)  The cornerstone of the album is Lewis’s ambient composition Elemental Flow, which evokes the landscape and musical cultures of the Arizona desert through violin, drums, synthesizers, and field recordings of the desert environment.  The rest of the album features Lewis as soloist on violin sonatas by Richard Strauss and Alan Seidler, as well as Karol Szymanowski’s La Fontaine d’Arethuse.

Lecolion Washington, Legacy: Works for Bassoon by African-American Composers (Albany Records, August 2008)

This album offers an unusual collection of classical bassoon works by African American composers, collected and recorded by Lecolion Washington, professor of bassoon at University of Memphis and a member of the Memphis Woodwind Quintet.  Few of these works are well known, even among bassoonists, and represent compositional approaches of the twentieth century from composers such as Ed Bland, Adolphus Hailstork, and Ulysses Kay (nephew of jazz bandleader King Oliver) and the twenty-first century, with Gary Powell Nash and Daniel Bernard Roumain.  The three William Grant Still pieces are song transcriptions rather than original compositions for bassoon, but serve as a necessary homage to the first great African American classical composer.

Posted by Ann Shaffer

View review January 9th, 2009

Notable Holiday CDs

This Christmas– Aretha Franklin (DMI Records)

Fifty years into her career, the Queen of Soul has released her first dedicated Christmas album.  (An earlier collection, 2006’s Joy to the World, was merely a compilation of existing material cobbled together from various older releases.)  Released in an exclusive deal with Borders booksellers, This Christmas Aretha focuses on less commercial aspects of the holidays: faith, family, fun (of the grown-up variety), and, of course, food.  Plenty of the standard old chestnuts appear here (“Silent Night,” “Ave Maria”), but the more gospel-infused offerings (“The Lord Will Make a Way,” “One Night With the King”) make for more interesting spiritual fare.  Franklin’s earthiness and humor shine through on two tracks in particular:  the title track “This Christmas,” a soulful duet with her son Edward, in which she frets about burning her collard greens and swearing off chitlins, then teasingly interjects comments such as “Eddie, you mustn’t upstage your mama with those high notes!”; and her recitation of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” rewritten as a decidedly adult parable best listened to once the kids have been tucked away to dream of sugar plums.  The holiday standards on this album are perhaps more pedestrian and less vibrant than might be hoped from Aretha Franklin, but overall, This Christmas Aretha is a solid holiday offering with some rich and funny moments.

It’s Christmas– Ledisi (Verve Forecast)

While Aretha upheld tradition with her Christmas classics, New Orleans-born jazz and soul diva Ledisi treads new ground on her holiday album.  It’s Christmas features equal parts covers and original songs, the latter offering a welcome alternative to the glut of commercial standards heard all season long.  Of the album’s covers, only three are holiday standards, and Ledisi breathes fresh life into them:  “Children Go Where I Send Thee” becomes an earthy blues jam, while “Silent Night” is transformed into a cool jazz meditation.  The other covers are less overplayed-though still familiar-Motown and jazz classics, as well as an ecstatic cover of “What a Wonderful World.”  All in all, It’s Christmas is a fine contribution that’s even worth listening to after the tree comes down.

A Night Before Christmas– Spyro Gyra (Heads Up International)

Spyro Gyra‘s A Night Before Christmas received a Grammy nomination this week for Best Pop Instrumental Album.  Their signature light jazz-pop sound pervades this album, rendering the holiday tunes breezy, cool, and less sugar-coated than most other versions of these songs.  Not all of the album is instrumental-“Baby It’s Cold Outside” keeps to tradition with its conversational vocal duet by Bonny B and Janis Siegel, while Bonny B’s scatting and a cappella vocal fireworks pep up “The Christmas Song.”  This is the soundtrack for a holiday cocktail party-chic, sophisticated, and grownup.

This Christmas– Imani Winds (Koch International Classics)

Imani Winds lend holiday music a classical touch with their album This Christmas. While many of the arrangements are tinged with just enough jazz and Latin influence to avoid sounding staid, all of the tracks on this album are familiar chestnuts, both religious and commercial.  That said, their renditions of “Carol of the Bells” and “I Saw Three Ships” are lively and interesting, their “Jingle Bells” sounds like a grand joke, and they go heavy on the swing and blue notes in a Gershwinesque arrangement of “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”  There’s not much that’s new or unexpected on this album, but it delivers classics in fine form.

Jingle All the Way– Béla Fleck & the Flecktones (Rounder)

Stiff competition for Spyro Gyra, Béla Fleck’s Jingle All the Way has also been nominated for the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album.  Clocking in at a whopping seventeen tracks, this album stays true to the Flecktones‘ quirky but virtuosic jazz-bluegrass fusion style while drawing on a broader repertoire of holiday music than any of the other albums reviewed here.  Jingle takes on classical music with excerpts from Bach’s Christmas oratorio and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker; Christmas carol standards such as “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”; commercial classics such as Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” and Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride”; pop tunes from Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” to Joni Mitchell’s “River”; and even a nod to Jewish tradition with the Klezmer-inspired “Hanukah Waltz.”  Fleck’s arrangements are ever inventive, and occasionally plain weird, but always engaging- and the fabulous Wooten brothers (bass virtuoso Victor and percussionist Roy “Future Man”) contribute their considerable chops.  Jingle All the Way is fun enough for kids, complex enough for adults, and probably the best holiday album of the season.

Posted by Ann Shaffer

View review December 12th, 2008

Singin’ Sepia

Title: Singin’ Sepia
Artists: Tania León, comp.; Various performers
Label: Bridge Records
Catalog No.: 9231
Release date: March 4, 2008

If one had to use a single word word to describe Tania León’s music it would have to be “movement”: movement found in the tempo and rhythmic figures, movement between musical lines, and movement between contrasting timbres and textures. Movement is a salient feature in the works presented in Singin’ Sepia, an accurate representation of León’s compositional style and pallet. As a young musician in Cuba, León listened to traditional and popular dance music, and collaborated with popular music and jazz performers and composers such as Paquito D’Rivera. After moving to New York City she started her professional career in the U.S., working with dance companies and co-founding the Dance Theater of Harlem. Thus it comes as no surprise that movement is such an important feature in her works.

One should not, however, expect to hear replicas of Cuban clave and guguanco patterns, or quotes of jazz and soul melodies in León’s music. León extracts the essence from these musical traditions and uses this essence as part of her compositional pallet, which includes atonality, pointillist techniques, interlocking rhythms, ostinati, extended instrumental and vocal techniques, and electro-acoustic elements. León mixes the familiar with the unfamiliar, meeting and exceeding the listener’s expectations. Due to the variety of compositional techniques and styles León’s music defies categorization, and she would not have it any other way. As mentioned by Jason Stanyek in the accompanying liner notes, “avoiding reductive categorizations has become León’s trademark.” Her stance on categories and labels extends from her works to her personal life and background, refusing to be labeled Afro-Cuban, Cuban-American, or any other hyphenated term. In León’s words, she is a citizen of the world, and she is inspired by diverse musical cultures.

León’s works are also the result of the dialogue between composer and performer. Most were commissioned by a performer or an ensemble, so León created these works with specific performers in mind. In fact, three of the six pieces recorded for this album were recorded by the artists who commissioned them (“Bailarín,” “Singin’ Sepia,” and “Axon”). Her style appeals to performers of new music from diverse backgrounds, such as David Starobin (guitarist and executive producer of Bridge Records), Tony Arnold (soprano), and Mari Kimura (electro-acoustic music composer and violinist).

The title work of the album, Singin’ Sepia, also shows León’s penchant for working with texts by contemporary poets, in this case Rita Dove. The work is a set of five songs for soprano, violin, clarinet and four-hand piano. León’s writing for each instrument (including the voice) consists of both idiomatic and extended techniques, producing five virtuosic parts that need to be perfectly synchronized in order to convey the contrasts between stillness and movement, and the interlocking rhythmic figures that create subtle, evanescent moments of groove. The performance offered in the album goes beyond presenting and achieving these moments, and delivers a nuanced and emotional rendition of León’s work.

Those of us familiar with León’s compositions will also find delight in her use of pre-recorded materials in “Axon,” for violin and interactive computer. In this work she quotes sections from “Batey” and “A la par” to construct the soundtrack with which violinist Mari Kimura (who commissioned the work) interacts.

Singin’ Sepia shows León’s flexibility and ability to compose for a variety of performing forces, ensembles and combination of instruments (“Horizons” was written for a full orchestra, while “Satiné” was written for two pianists), therefore the listener should not expect continuity in performing forces from piece to piece. The album is a sample of León’s style, which would be difficult to present in concert to a live audience. However, the idea of movement, whether it is actual movement, its anticipation or interruption, cuts across all of the works presented in the album, and every piece is characterized by her ample use of a wide variety of musical styles and compositional techniques.

Posted by Marysol Quevedo

View review September 5th, 2008

Christine Brewer Sings

Title: Christine Brewer Sings Songs by Wagner, Wolf, Britten and John Carter
Artists: Christine Brewer, soprano; Robert Vignoles, piano
Label: Wigmore Hall Live
Catalog No.: 22
Release date: 2008

This disc is not exclusively devoted to African American music; one will note the presence of German arch-romantics Richard Wagner, Hugo Wolf and Anglo composer Benjamin Britten in the title, all gentlemen who rather obviously do not qualify. Nevertheless, this disc includes the second recording of a highly satisfying and historically pivotal song cycle, entitled “Cantata,” by St. Louis based African American composer John Carter.

Not much is known about Carter; he was born in 1937 and his death date is variously listed as having been anywhere between 1981 and 1989. His musical output appears to have been mainly vocal as the few compositions that have heretofore been recorded are either choral, or as in this instance, in the genre of classical art song. “Cantata” was composed in 1963—the peak year of the Civil Rights Movement—and ostensibly appears to be a typical collection of arrangements of traditional black spirituals into an art song format. However, anyone expecting settings along lines of what was germane to Harry Burleigh, Lawrence Brown or Roland Hayes will not find that in “Cantata,” as these are not conservative sacred settings. Carter was on the same page with twentieth century musical techniques, and his spiritual settings are highly individual, challenging, compelling and at times quite dissonant.

When it comes to the Civil Rights Movement of 1963 and its relation to music—apart from the ubiquitous folk hymn “We Shall Overcome”—there is a range which can be roughly described as running between Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” to the work of free jazz artists like John Coltrane. Carter’s song cycle does not represent an ambitious, and admittedly courageous, undertaking from an otherwise commercial artist, nor does it work from a basis of deep emotional sorrow and anger as does a piece like Coltrane’s “Alabama.” The cycle encapsulates mixed feelings of fear, elation, struggle, self-determination and self-sacrifice—some of the moods no doubt experienced on the ground by participants in the Civil Rights Movement, though composed in an equally brave manner that would not have found wide sympathy among Carter’s peers in 1963. “Cantata” is highly unusual in that it was both written with the future in mind and succeeds in accurately documenting the atmosphere of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 that would not have gone down in any other way; it is both heroic and anti-heroic.

Brewer’s performance is singled out as it so good—it demonstrates that a performer need not necessarily be African American to sing African American art songs well, and that bodes well for the literature itself in terms of its potential outreach. Brewer is a native of St. Louis and maintains strong ties with that community; otherwise it is unlikely that she would ever have come in contact with Carter’s “Cantata.” Brewer also contributes a fine reading of Hall Johnson’s setting of “A City Called Heaven” in the encore section of this live performance.

Posted by Uncle Dave Lewis

View review July 18th, 2008

Classical

sing_to_the_sun.jpgSing to the Sun – Alvin Singleton (Albany TROY902)
Albany released a new CD last February devoted to Alvin Singleton, a former Composer-in-Residence with both the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Featured are five of his chamber works, including the title track sung by Spivey Hall Children’s Choir, along with works for solo flute (performed by Sara Vargas-Barritt), clarinet quartet, clarinet and piano (with David Shifrin and Anne-Marie McDermott) and vibraphone and piano.

hailstork_symphonies.jpgSymphonies Nos. 2 & 3 Adolphus Hailstork (Naxos)
Adolphus Hailstork, Professor of Music and Eminent Scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, has composed numerous works for chorus, solo voice, various chamber ensembles, band, and orchestra, as well an opera. Hailstork’s Second Symphony (commissioned and premiered by the Detroit Symphony in 1999) and his recently composed Third Symphony are performed here by the Grand Rapids Symphony under the direction of David Lockington.

surprise.jpgSurprise Measha Brueggergosman (Deutsche Grammophon)
A wonderful selection of cabaret songs by William Bolcom, Arnold Schoenberg and Erik Satie, artfully sung by the dynamic Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman. These are the world-premiere recordings of Bolcom’s newly orchestrated songs.

singers_to_remember.jpgSingers to Remember: Oratorio and Lieder – Marion Anderson (Dutton/Vocalion, UK)
This new release out of the UK focuses on Marion Anderson’s lesser known performances of German oratorios and lieder, from recordings originally issued between 1946 and 1955. Includes selections from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, St. John Passion, Weihnachtsoratorium, and Cantata No. 112; excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, Elijah and Paulus; as well as various Schubert lieder.

coleridge_taylor.jpgColeridge-Taylor: Piano Quintet; Clarinet Quintet – Nash Ensemble (Hyperion, UK)
An essential recording that actually includes three works by the 19th century British Anglo-African composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: the Piano Quintet in G minor Op.1, composed in 1893; the Clarinet Quintet in F sharp minor Op.10, composed in 1896; and also the Ballade in C minor for violin and piano Op.73, composed in (1907). To the best of my knowledge, no other recordings of the quintets are currently available.

orchestral_works.jpgOrchestral Works – Ulysses Kay (Albany TROY961)
The first major release devoted to Ulysses Kay, one of America‘s leading black composers, who passed away in 1995. Included is The Quiet One, one of the first major film scores by a Black composer; Three Pieces After Blake for Soprano and Orchestra, performed by Janet Hopkins with the Metropolitan Philharmonic Orchestra, Kevin Scott, conductor; and Aulos for Flute and Chamber Orchestra, featuring flutist Melanie Valencia.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review January 11th, 2008

etudes4violin&electronix

DBR.jpgTitle: etudes4violin&electronix
Artist: Daniel Bernard Roumain
Label: Thirsty Ear
Catalog No.: 700435717923 (UPC)
Date: 2007

Haitian-American composer/violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain (otherwise known as DBR) is enjoying considerable success these days, thanks to his unique, experimental style which fuses classical, jazz, electronica, world music, hip hop and other elements of contemporary black popular music. Always on the move with a schedule that would seem to leave little room for composing, DBR frequently collaborates with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, performs as a solo violinist, serves as artist-in-residence and guest lecturer at various institutions, and tours with his band DBR & The Mission, a nine member chamber group comprised of an amplified string quartet, drum kit, keyboards, DJ and laptops. His latest projects include his fifth evening-length solo show “One Loss Plus” for violin, video and chamber ensemble scheduled for a mid-November debut at BAM’s Next Wave Festival; “We March,” a concerto for guitar and orchestra premiered in Denver last March with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra; and “Tuscaloosa Meditations,” commissioned by the University of Alabama to commemorate the “stand in the school house door” incident between Gov. George Wallace and African-American students, which premiered in April.

Etudes4violin&electronix, DBR’s fourth album (and his first release on the Thirsty Ear label), provides an overview of his compositional style. Unfortunately, none of his larger works are represented (no doubt due to monetary issues). Instead, we’re treated to a variety of chamber performances, all featuring DBR on violin (and other instruments ranging from keyboards to keys) in collaboration with various composers, including Philip Glass, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Peter Gordon.

The most interesting tracks on the CD highlight DBR’s electronica leanings, realized through his collaborations with DJ Spooky and DJ Scientific (aka Christian A. Davis). In the opening number, “black man singing,” DBR’s plaintive violin solo soars over a driving beat interspersed with electronic effects and improvisational flute solos contributed by Peter Gordon. The third track, “resonance,” continues the give and take between DJ Spooky’s beats and synth loops. “Fayetteville,” co-written and performed with DJ Scientific, should appeal to a younger generation grounded in electronica. Here DBR’s violin loops around synths, bass and beats in a brief but satisfying quest for dominance (click here to view a live performance of the work at Yale). DBR and DJ Scientific frequently perform together in works such as “Sonata for Violin and Turntable” and “A Civil Rights Reader,” each providing a virtuosic demonstration of the possibilities that exist through the combination of acoustic instruments with turntables, mixers, and laptops.

The remaining tracks on the CD (actually the majority) showcase DBR’s minimalist leanings. Philip Glass provides the piano accompaniment in “Metamorphosis” which comes across as a New Age meditation, though in my opinion DBR’s violin does not have sufficient depth of tone to adequately sustain the melodic line. The two duets with Japanese composer/pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto are the most satisfying. Sakamoto first came to prominence in the 1970s with his Japanese synth techno trio Yellow Magic Orchestra, and later delved into the acid house and techno movements. His piano clusters and minimalist loops provide the perfect backdrop for DBR in the contemplative “The Need to Follow,” while “The Need to Be” offers a shimmering interplay between piano and violin before branching off into extended solos.

Etudes4violin&electronix is highly recommended for anyone interested in exploring the intersection of technology with classically-oriented music. As DBR states in the liner notes, “I create, arrange, order, modify and amplify varying, separate sonic elements into a unified, meaningful whole.” This album proves that he has reached this goal, stretching the aural landscape in a most satisfying manner which leaves me yearning for an opportunity to experience a live performance.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review September 7th, 2007

Lost Sounds

lost.jpgTitle: Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922
Artists: Various
Label: Archeophone Records
Catalog No.: ARCH 1005
Date: 2005

I hope that all of you are familiar with the fabulous book by Tim Brooks, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922, published in 2004 by the University of Illinois Press as part of their Music in American Life series (now available in a paperback edition). The 634 page tome, the result of more than thirty years of scholarship, not only details the role of black artists and their commercial recording activities, but offers fascinating biographies that are meticulously researched with abundant footnotes.

In his Introduction, Brooks discussed how many of these historic recordings have been inaccessible to students and scholars because of stringent U.S. copyright laws. As Brooks explains, “Not only can present-day record companies decline to reissue this material themselves, but they can—and do—prevent others from doing so by legal action or by demanding exorbitant fees.” We can be grateful, then, that Brooks decided to take matters into his own hands. Working with Illinois-based Archeophone Records, a company specializing in acoustic-era reissues, a 2 CD set was released late in 2005 as a companion to the book and recently received a 2007 Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.

With 54 tracks by 43 artists (and over 2 ½ hours of music), Lost Sounds provides numerous early recorded examples of spirituals, minstrel & vaudeville songs, art music, rags, jazz, and blues performances by Black composers and musicians. Many of these recordings were meticulously transferred from wax cylinders, some of which are extremely rare and quite fragile, preserved largely through the efforts of private collectors. Included are a number of vocal quartet performances by groups such as the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, Polk Miller’s Old South Quartette, the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, and the Tuskegee Institute Singers, as well as lesser known ensembles. George W. Johnson, the first Black recording artist (who merits four chapters in the book), performs his most famous work, “The Whistling Coon.” Other notable tracks include Booker T. Washington giving a portion of his Atlanta Exposition speech, the Afro-American Folk Song Singers and the Right Quintette performing works by Will Marion Cook, art songs performed by Roland Hayes and Florence Cole-Talbert, and R. Nathaniel Dett and Clarence Cameron White playing their own compositions. The set concludes on the brink of the Jazz Age with the “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” as played by Jim Europe’s [i.e., James Reese Europe] 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band, “Camp Meeting Blues” with Ford Dabney’s Band, and the “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band.

The CD is accompanied by extensive program notes (60 p.) by Tim Brooks and David Giovannoni, which provide detailed information about the performers and original sources. If you want to hear more about Brooks’ research, including some fascinating stories about these early recording artists, an interview from the public radio program “The Story with Dick Gordon” is now available online.

Archeophone has issued other CDs that compliment Lost Sounds, including Monarchs of Minstrelsy (2006), three volumes devoted to early African American recording star Bert Williams (2001-2004), and their most recent effort, King Oliver: Off the Record- The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (2006). A complete catalog is available through their website. These CDs are “must haves” for every research library.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 19th, 2007

24 Negro Melodies

sc-t.jpgTitle: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: 24 Negro Melodies
Artist: David Shaffer-Gottschalk, piano
Label: Albany Records
Catalog No.: TROY930-31
Date: 2007

“What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies.”

The British composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, succeeded in preserving, uplifting and celebrating the music of Africans and African-Americans, just as his contemporaries did for their respective heritages. Coleridge-Taylor lived from 1875 to 1912, during the tail end of a “nationalist” movement in music. Composers across Europe and Russia sought to revitalize and glorify the folk songs, musical ideas and motifs associated with their nations’ people and history. A few other composers along this vein were Dvořák and Janáček in Czechoslovakia, Grieg in Norway, Sibelius in Finland, Albéniz in Spain, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia, and Coleridge-Taylor’s own teacher, Charles Villiers Stanford in Great Britain. Through this mighty conglomerate of artists we can understand the beauty and struggle of peoples far away from us in time and distance.

The culture of Africans and African-Americans is particularly rich in music. The toils and victories of these peoples have been carefully traced, through an oral tradition of song–a tradition with which Coleridge-Taylor was intimately familiar. This music encouraged farmers to labor all day in scorching heat, it helped a community to mourn its dead, it taught children to rise above their circumstances, it expressed deep praise and devotion to one’s Maker. Music united slaves and gave strength to their weary and abused bodies, keeping the eyes and heart on freedom’s promise. Music helped men sweating away in adjacent fields to know they weren’t alone in the battle. Music held hidden meanings that helped many outsmart their masters and escape. No words could express the pain, hope and joy of these peoples, but song united them in understanding.

Coleridge-Taylor chose 24 of these melodies to explore and celebrate as had not been done before. Covering a large range of geography–Southeast Africa, South Africa, West Africa, the West Indies, and America–the 24 melodies also cover a range of emotion and purpose. Coleridge-Taylor’s theme and variation setting of each helps us to meditate on the idea each song was created to express. His command of form, harmony, texture, and timbre is evident in pieces that stand on their own, needing no prior explanation of the original melody. A harmonic language reminiscent of Brahms, and the pianism of Liszt reflect rigorous training at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where Coleridge-Taylor enrolled as a 15-year-old. Alongside peers such as Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughn Williams, so much did Coleridge-Taylor excel that his music was performed publicly, as a student.

For these melodies, Coleridge-Taylor has chosen a clear setting of each; every track begins with an unambiguous statement of the melody, followed by variations that develop in complexity, and wind down to a simple restatement. Many octave doublings of the melody, simple but rapid arpeggiations, and a clear tonal center to each piece give the album a traditional, classical and sometimes hymn like feel. Liberal use of chromaticism and modal mixture, however, maintain interest and showcase Coleridge-Taylor’s creativity. Tracks such as “Warrior’s Song” use modal mixture similarly to Brahms, adding a fresh, yet dark element to the song. In pieces such as “Many Thousand Gone,” the thick texture, rolled chords and use of the lower register bring Liszt to mind, in his dense and overtly dramatic style. Coleridge-Taylor adds a lighter touch with pieces such as “Going Up,” arranged almost as a parlor song. Others, such as “Deep River,” are hymn like in their sincerity and reverence.

While each piece displays remarkable ingenuity on the composer’s part, the album in its entirety can feel a bit repetitive in sound and style. Perhaps the pieces were intended to be heard and contemplated one or two at a time, rather than 24 at once; the heightened sense of drama prevalent throughout each piece loses its effect when there are few sections that aren’t grandiose. The overall effect is slightly theatrical, perhaps because the instrument chosen for the recording is not one that produces delicate sounds well. The pianist, David Shaffer-Gottschalk, clearly has an excellent command of the instrument and an impressively clear tone. The effect of the album, however, could be stronger if he reserved the sweeping drama for a few key moments.

Other pieces of Coleridge-Taylor’s to look for are the 1898 “Ballade in A Minor” and “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” both of which received excellent critical acclaim, and placed the composer in a position of prominence and influence. An overview of his works and select discography can be found at AfriClassical.com as well as in the biography The Hiawatha Man: The Life & Work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, by Geoffrey Self (Scolar Press, 1995).

Posted by Kristen Hoffman

View review June 19th, 2007

Paul Freeman Introduces David N. Baker

david baker.jpgTitle: Paul Freeman Introduces…David N. Baker
Artist: Czech National Symphony Orchestra; Paul Freeman, cond.
Label: Albany Records
Catalog No.: Troy 843
Date: 2006

David Baker (b.1931) is one of the greatest composers America has ever produced. His highly individual, ingenious writing style reflects a type of eclecticism enjoyed by only few composers who understand how to successfully synthesize various elements from jazz and classical music. Paul Freeman introduces…David N. Baker is a compilation CD that demonstrates the self-proclaimed influence composers like Bela Bartok, Duke Ellington, and Charles Ives have had over Baker’s style by showcasing four of his works written and/or revised between 1973 and 2004, including Kosbro, Concert Piece for Trombone and String Orchestra, Fantasy on Themes from Mask of the Red Death, and Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra.

“Kosbro,” which is an acronym for “Keep On Steppin’, Brothers,” was composed in 1973 and later revised in 1975.  Written at a time in America’s history where Black people were crawling out of segregation and stepping into new found freedoms, Baker’s music depicts the push of excitement, the pull of uncertainty felt by many Blacks after realizing they no longer had to sit in the back of the bus or drink from “colored only” water fountains, and the encouragement to be successful beyond integration. Most fascinating is that Baker’s socially conscious proclamation is made with the use of 2nd Viennese composer, Arnold Schoenberg’s, dodecaphonic system, coupled with a driving ostinato reminiscent of both Ellington and Bartok, in addition to the use of metric modulation, a technique made popular by American composer George Crumb.

“Concert Piece for Trombone and String Orchestra” is a neo-Romantic work encompassing three movements, masterfully performed by trombonist Jiri Novotny.  The piece was completed in 1991 after Dee Stewart, former Philadelphia Orchestra trombonist, commissioned Baker. Despite the varying characters of each melody contained within the individual movements, they are equally memorable and are supported by idiomatic string lines that weave a supportive fabric around the trombone’s melodic content. Each movement stretches the limitations of the trombonist and culminates with a cadenza in the third movement that explores the entire gamut of performance possibilities.

“Fantasy on Themes from Masque of the Red Death Ballet” was written in 1998 for the Indiana University Ballet Theatre’s production of Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red DeathIn this fantasy, as well as the full ballet version, Baker incorporates the “Dies Irae,” a famous 13th century Latin hymn, to represent death, which is a practice used by many composers such as Hector Berlioz in his work, Symphonie Fantastique. The performance of this piece by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra is quite stunning, and despite the absence of dancers one can easily detect the program on which Baker wrote due to the skillful direction of Paul Freeman.

“Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra,” composed in 1998 and revised in 2004, is a work in three movements written for and dedicated to Indiana University’s Associate Professor of Saxophone and Jazz Studies, Tom Walsh. I have had the pleasure of enjoying Walsh’s artistry live, and his performance on this CD is no less than great. This piece is a wonderful example of the success that Baker has enjoyed through his marriage of the jazz and classical languages.  Baker’s use of thematic transformation is prevalent throughout all three movements, as he produces a variety of musical styles based on the melodic cell initially performed by the saxophone at the beginning of the first movement.

For anyone not familiar with David Baker’s vast musical output, Paul Freeman introduces…David N. Baker is a wonderful compact disc to use as a vehicle for becoming acquainted with his writing. In addition to experiencing Baker’s phenomenal abilities, you have the opportunity to enjoy them at the optimal level of quality by way of Paul Freeman and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra’s performances, in addition to the talents of soloists Jiri Novotny and Tom Walsh. 

Posted by Marian Harrison

Editor’s note: This is vol. 12 in the Albany Record’s series Paul Freeman Introduces, which presents new music for orchestra. Previous volumes have included works by James Kimo Williams, Wendell Logan and Adolphus Hailstork.

View review September 6th, 2006

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: A Celebration

087_2.jpgTitle: Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004): A Celebration
Artists: Paul Freeman, cond.; Chicago Sinfonietta
Label: Cedille
Catalog No.: CDR
90000 087
Date: 2005


Cedille’s “Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: A Celebration” is the first comprehensive release of any kind relating to the music of Chicago-based classical composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004). This one must have been in the planning stages before Perkinson’s death at age 71, as its release follows his passing by a little less than two years. The works included span a time frame of six decades, beginning with his Sinfonietta for Strings (1954), composed when Perkinson was 22, and the Movement for String Trio, literally written by Perkinson as he lay in his deathbed.

The early Sinfonietta is intriguing, as its three movements map out some of his primary influences in contemporary music; namely Hindemith, Barber and Bartók. Yet while the piece may derive, it does not sound derivative as Perkinson has his own ideas about dynamic rhythms, maintains a penchant for melodic lyricism, and utilizes a harmonic profile that reflects the influence of jazz and blues. As the disc unfolds, European influences are gradually more fully digested into the music, although the example of Johann Sebastian Bach is a constant and most strongly felt in the works written towards the end of his life. While harmonic toughness is part of Perkinson’s profile, he does not allow this aspect of his personality to dominate the other elements within the music, which emphasizes transparency of texture and the full working out of ideas.


The performances on “Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: A Celebration,” by conductor Paul Freeman and others, are all very dedicated; this is music that is familiar sounding in its essence, but little known to most. “Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: A Celebration” makes clear that Perkinson sought, and achieved, a seamless blend between African-American musical concepts and Western concert music that is serious and not at all “folksy.”

Posted by Uncle Dave Lewis

Editor’s note: Cedille is currently running a Web-Only Sale on American Music through July 16, which applies to this CD in addition to the three volumes issued as part of Cedille’s African Heritage Symphonic Series.

 

View review July 7th, 2006

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