Black Violin – Stereotypes

Black Violin Stereotypes

Title: Stereotypes

Artist: Black Violin

Label: Universal Music Classics/Deutsche Grammophone

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 18, 2015

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet – Rebirth of a Nation

DJ Spooky Rebirth of a Nation

Title: Rebirth of a Nation

Artist: DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet

Label: Cantaloupe Music

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

Release date: August 28, 2015

 

 

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

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

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

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by David N. Lewis

FLūTRοNIX – City of Breath

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Title: City of Breath

Artist: FLūTRοNIX

Label: Flutronix Records

Format: EP CD, MP3

Release date: August 13, 2015

 

 

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

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

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

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

Listen on Spotify here.

Reviewed by Annette Farrington

Sons of Serendip – Sons of Serendip

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Title: Sons of Serendip

Artist: Sons of Serendip

Label: NIA

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 17, 2015

 

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

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

Reviewed by Christina Harrison

The Spirituals Database: An Art of the Negro Spiritual Project

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

Artists: Various

Format: Website/Database

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

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

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

Eliesha Nelson – Permutations

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Title: Permutations

Artist: Eliesha Nelson

Label: Sono Luminus

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

Release date: February 2015

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Lawrence Brownlee – Virtuoso Rossini Arias

brownlee

Title: Virtuoso Rossini Arias

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

Label: Delos

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: March 25, 2014

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reviewed by Frank Villella (twitter: @fvillella)

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

Hannibal Lokumbe – Can You Hear God Crying?

Hannibal
Title: Can You Hear God Crying?

Artist: Hannibal Lokumbe, composer

Label: Naxos

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

Release date: November 11, 2014

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Raynetta Wiggins

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – Hallowed Ground

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Title: Hallowed Ground

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

Label: Fanfare Cincinnati/dist. by Naxos

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 9, 2014

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Daniel Clarke Bouchard – Scènes D’Enfants

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Title:  Scènes D’Enfants

Artist: Daniel Clarke Bouchard

Label: ATMA Classique

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 2013

 

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Various – Black Europe

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Title:  Black Europe

Artists: Various

Label: Bear Family

Format: 44-CD Box Set

Release date: October 2013

 

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

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

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

Reviewed by Patrick Feaster

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

559188 bk Harbison US

Title: Richard Danielpour – A Woman’s Life

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

Label: Naxos American Classics

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 24, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

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

Ensemble Paladino – Bach (Re)inventions vol. 1

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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

Black Violin – Classically Trained

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Title: Classically Trained

Artist: Black Violin

Label: Di-Versatile Music Group

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 30, 2012

 

 

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

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

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

Reviewed by Cara M. Morgan Rogers

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.

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

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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