Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Three Best Recordings of the Year # 2 Steve Reich

I, for one, am glad to see some new classical recordings released on LP. Being of a certain age, I grew up on LPs and when I began collecting them again, I again relished the feel and heft of the big 12-in circles of vinyl. I have few new release LPs, they tend to be pricy, but every once in a while, it is worth it.

This Nonesuch release seems to retail for around $30 US, less than some I have seen. I, for one, to repeat that phrase, am a big fan of Steve Reich. Yes, I can not take hours of it, heck hours of Beethoven or Dvořák can drive me nuts. Maybe I am blessed with an ear that can catch the subtle changes as the piece goes on. I love the hypnotic rhythm and bright colors, a welcome contrast to some of the darker, heavy music to which I often listen. This is music to nod your head to, tap your foot and even conduct as if you are the maestro on the podium. 

This disc contains two works, "Runner" (2016) first performed as a choreographed piece in London and "Music for Ensembles" (2018) Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a consortium of other orchestras including New York, San Francisco, London, Sydney and Baltic Philharmonic. This and "Runner" are recorded by the LA Philharmonic, under the wonderful Susanna Mälkki, who gave the world premiere of "Music for Ensembles." 

The two works feed off each other. In the enclosed notes (O how I love liner notes I can actually see, rather than the microscopic ones on CDs) Reich tells interviewed David Lang that the works are indeed intertwined and that he wanted to compose a second "Runner." That he did, an extension of the previous work in the same format 1) Sixteenths, 2) Eights, 3) Quarters, 4) Eights, 5) Sixteenths. The arch symmetry and progression of pulse is perfectly realized. Not a real long disc, but just fun, colorful and well recorded. The vinyl was flawless and heavy, with excellent notes as mentioned. Minimalist fans, this is your “disc of the year!”

Saturday, April 09, 2022

A Breath of Fresh Air: The 2022-23 Classical Symphonic Music Season in Kansas City and an Update!

Yes, my first blog entry since 12/2016. Even then there was only one for the year. Has it been that long? Guess so. Lots has happened since then.

1) I just kind of lost my muse; writing became forced and a chore. I would write something and then throw it out, unsatisfied at my ability to put thoughts to paper. I was doing some occasional writing for a web magazine but quit when a format change was made. Was just too much for me. I thought of going back and doing just topics of interest or musing/rants about life but that didn't work either. I was washed up.

2) Work at my former job got nuts. Lots going on, people always wanting something and never satisfied. I was so tired; I had no time to write.

3) Late 2019 I had a small stroke. It was not huge by many standards but affected by walking and balance. I had been suffering from stomach issues too, which just knocked me for a loop. This guy was getting old.

4) In April 2020 I had to retire, just as the Pandemic played havoc on live concerts all over theworld. There was nothing to write about.

So now, the concert world is getting back to business, we hope.

In KC, we are upon the last season for Kansas City Symphony Music Director Michael Stern, who is leaving after 18 eventful years. We got to hear a lot of great music during that time, witness the orchestra grow in stature and make some acclaimed records for Reference Recordings. Starting his tenure, Stern programmed much new and under-performed music. But as time went on, the repertoire settled on the standard classics, with scattered newworks here and there, most notably the wonderful works of Johnathan Leshnoff. I found myself less motivated to attend.

The 2022-2023 season features several guest conductors, many of whom are likely "trying out" for the position of musicdirector. Few are familiar to me, and I am still an avid listener. The guests seem to be bringing new and exciting works, most never heard here before to my knowledge.

Stern contributes the wonderful, seldom heard choral elegy "When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom'd" written by Paul Hindemith in 1946, one I have not heard live. Walt Whitman wrote the poem in memory of Abraham Lincoln, when the country was still in mourning over his assassination. Hindemith used the poem to commemorate the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Moving, powerful, a profound work of genius, full of American spirit and pathos. Definitely hearing this one.

Guest conductor Teddy Abrams programs two incredible newer works, Caroline Shaw's "The Observatory" and Missy Mazzoli's "Violin Concerto" with Jennifer Koh as solo. Shaw's work, inspired by a trip to the Griffith Observatory in LA, is chaotic, colorful, calm and full of symphonic structure. Mazzoli's concerto was written for Koh in 2022. This will be one of the earliest performances of the work. Subtitled "Procession," the violin leads the ensemble through a series of escapades and healing spells. Not heard yet, but should prove to be a winner, as Mazzoli's music so often is.

Thomas Wilkins (one I have heard of as the long time Music Director of the Omaha SO and currently the Hollywood Bowl SO) brings us Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's "Suite from Hiawatha" drawn from his epic triptych "Song of Hiawatha" along with Gershwin and Nielsen. So admired was Coleridge-Taylor in the early 1900's that he gained the nickname "The African Mahler". Certainly one to hear.

Other notable works include Ligeti’s “San Francisco Polyphony”, Mason Bates’ “Garages of the Valley”, the late Polish Composer Grazyna Bacewicz’s “Overture” and Billy Childs’ Saxophone Concerto (a KCS co-commission,) both conducted by Ruth Reinhardt, plus Stern Leading “Five Freedom Songs” by Jessie Montgomery (another KCS Co-commission, Carlos Simon’s “AMEN!” and the Percussion Concerto by KCS favorite Adam Schoenberg.

Stern also conducts Amer’ican by James Lee II and “Jeder Baum Spricht” (Every Tree Speaks) by Iman Habibi early in the season.


But the biggest event I am looking forward to is the Kansas City debut of Marin Alsop with her Orquestra Sinfonica Do estado de São Paulo and a program of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and some wonderful, seldom heard works by the prolific Brazilian Hector Villa-Lobos.

We hear selections from “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 one of his series of works in homage of Bach, with a Brazilian flare (hopefully the gorgeous opening string only chorale Prelúdio (Introdução), the charming “Harmonica Concerto” and the exciting, more Brazilian folk inspired Chôros No. 10 ("Rasga o Coração") (Rend the Heart.)

The Choros, a favorite piece of mine, is scored for chorus and orchestra with a colorful, slower first half and a rowdy choral folk song 2nd half. Just exciting, rhythmic and a work of genius. So happy to hear Villa Lobos played in Kansas City and knowing that his works continue to be recorded as well, with a new Symphony cycle in progress. Know where I’ll be on October 10th!

Join me! It is so gratifying to see such diverse and new programs next season!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Short Dozen of the Year's Best CDs, 2016

Past Beethoven's birthday and only my first entry for 2016. Unfortunately my weak wrists and right arm, victims of years of abuse through driving and spending too much time on the computer, prevent me from writing as much as I used to. But I will not be totally silenced! Thus my usual "Baker's Dozen" new, new to me, or, in one case, dusted off from the shelf CD list is a bit shorter this year. But as usual,each disc has stood out from all the rest I listened to or even bought in 2016.

In no order in particular:

1) Gounod: Complete works for pedal piano and orchestra
Roberto Prosseda, pedal piano;
Howard Shelley, Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana                         Hyperion CDA67075

The pedal piano, popular in the late 1800's, is an impressive contraption meshing two pianos together with a pedal board much like an organ. Roberto Prosseda is the foremost proponent of the pedal piano and shines in this interesting and excellently recorded disc. This is volume 62 of the indispensable "The Romantic Piano Concerto" series on Hyperion which has brought back some incredible yet forgotten jewels from the Romantic era.

2) Martha Argerich "Chopin: The Legendary 1965 Recording"
Martha Argerich, piano
Warner Classics 5568062

This recording first became legendary because it was not available for years. Finally released in 1999 it lived up to its hype. Chopin is not always my first choice in listening, but Argerich blows the cobwebs off the music and brings it to life. Dusting this one off (literally) revealed anew Argerich's superb combination of steely technique and consummate musicianship.

3) Post-Haste Duo "Beneath a canopy of angels ... a river of stars."
Sean Fredenberg, Saxophones, Javier Rodriguez, Bassoon
Aerocade Music AM001

A bassoon and saxophone duo? Really? Yes, and it works just fine, thank you. A highly entertaining and inventive program so you just gotta hear this one! See my whole review on I Care if you Listen.

4) Charles Ives Piano Sonata # 2 "Concord, Mass. 1840-1860" Aaron Copland Piano Sonata
Easley Blackwood, piano
Cedille Records CDR900000 005

I love this work. Much of Ives leaves me cold, but the "Concord" (along with the 4th Symphony which shares much in style and form with the sonata, The Symphony: Holidays and a few others) is a masterpiece in the truest meaning of the word. Blackwood is an accomplished composer (listen to his symphonies sometime) as well as a formidable pianist. Blackwood brings out the inner voices and quirky but often breathtaking harmonies and, importantly, has some fun with the piece when required. A fine performance of the seldom heard, knotty Copland is a perfect filler. This is an older recording (1991) that I just got around to exploring this year.

5-7) Ben Johnson The Ten String Quartets
Kepler Quartet
New World Records 80637-2 Quartets 2, 3, 4 & 9 (2006)
New World Record 80693-2  Quartets 1, 5 & 10   (2011)
New World Records 80730-2 Quartets 6, 7, & 8,  "Quietness" for quartet and narrator  (2016)

I ran into Professor Johnston a few times at the University of Illinois in the late 70's. This music crazed but musically untalented psych major (organizational and industrial) regularly studied at the music library and thus occasionally rubbed elbows (including getting smashed drunk with a soon-to-be famous singer, no I will not name the guilty party) with the esteemed faculty and students. Johnston was famous then, as now, for using microtonal techniques and influences of Harry Partch in his works. His quartets, written between 1951 and 1995, are his most familiar works, if you can call them that. The final disc features the world premiere of Quartet # 6, alleged to be the most difficult quartet in the repertoire. It, along with most of the other works, defies description by this amateur. Suffice to say, all are totally absorbing works that transcend their frightful complexity.

There may be more than that out there, I am probably forgetting one or two discs, but I am leaving it at that. If I remember, I might add one or two.

See you around sometime.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Baker's Dozen Best CDs, 2015 Edition

Here it is, for all it is worth, my list of best CDs of 2015. Everyone seems to do it, so why not? Since it is my list I make the rules, thus some of these are discs that have been released earlier but I first encountered this year. Fair enough?

In further news, no Havergal Brian this year but we have Handel and Vivaldi instead. Those who know my listening habits might know those two masters are not often on my list, but two great recordings changed that this time around. There are, as usual, discs of 'new" music, 5 out of 13, about a right mix.

Happy listening, there is something for all here from Vivaldi to Gibson.

Edward Burlingame Hill Symphony # 4, Concertino # 1 for Piano and Orchestra, Concertino # 2 for Piano and Orchestra, Divertimento for Piano and Orchestra
Anton Nel, Piano, Austin Symphony Orchestra, Peter Bey
Bridge 9443

Edward Burlingame Hill, 1872-1960, is more famous for his pupils, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, and Virgil Thompson, than his own work. Bernstein never really championed his teacher; he recorded Hill's Prelude for Orchestra and that was it. The 4th Symphony and 2nd Piano Concertino are both world premieres. Hill's music combines a bit of Brahms and jazz with a French touch now and then, decidedly conservative, well crafted but really rather average despite the eclectic influences. The two Concertinos are the highlights here. Anton Nel, Piano, and the Austin (TX) Symphony under Peter Bay, are to be thanked for these revealing performances of a neglected figure in American music.

Antonio Vivaldi Concerti per Flauto
Maurice Steger, recorders, I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis
Harmonia Mundi 902190

Vivaldi.....yawn.... yawn. Not so fast, well actually rather vivaciously fast. This stunning album of the flute concerti performed on recorders wins the “Most Fun” award this year. I am not sure if the quick (really quick) tempi, brash sonorities and virtuoso solo lines are “correct”.... I don't care; sheer musical excitement from first to last note. I have played this disc over and over, each track a jewel. A late 2014 release that I did not get around to hearing until this summer, much to my loss.

Otto Ketting Symphony # 3, Symphony # 4, “Printemps”
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, JaapVan Zweden, Thierry Fischer, Otto Ketting
Etcetera 2009

Not a new recording, but as I mention, sometimes I note recordings that are new to me. Ketting (1935-2012) was a teacher, composer and trumpet player. The big names in Dutch music (Haitink, van Zweden, Vonk, Porcelijn) have performed his works, but recordings remain elusive. This is a great intro to his powerful, imposing works, that are boldly colorful (even in the strings and brass only 4th Symphony) and accessible. Check out his final symphony # 6 on a YouTube performance as well, probably will be a while before it gets a recording.

Zhou Long/Chen Yi: Symphony 'humen 1839'; Zhou Long: The Rhyme Of Taigu; The Enlightened
New Zealand Symphony, Darrell Ang.
Naxos 8570611

Pulitzer winner and KC based Zhou Long's music tends to be a bit more elusive and introspective than the more brash and colorful compositions by wife Chen Yi. but it is always worth the effort. The attraction here is “The Enlightened” which was premiered by the KC Symphony in 2005. Glad to see it finally committed to disc under the fine direction of Ang and the NZ forces.

Saint-Saëns Symphony # 3, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, La Muse et le Poète"
Noah Geller, Mark Gibbs, Jan Kraybill
Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern
Reference Recordings 136

In an earlier review, I called the Kansas City Symphony and all associated with this recording “gutsy” for tackling some pretty established repertoire. Here again, Reference Recordings, Michael Stern and he Kansas City Symphony have proved they can compete with the best. The two concertante works are performed with all the necessary gusto, poise and flair to bring them off most successfully. The Symphony, the big draw for this incredibly realistic, audiophile recording, comes off highly successful, with the organ well integrated into the texture as it should be.

“Woman at the new Piano” new piano works by Tom Flaherty, Peter Yates, Adam Schoenberg and James Matheson.
Nadia Shpachenko, Genevieve Feiwen Lee, piano
Reference Recordings “Fresh” 711

Prodigiously talented, California-based pianist and teacher, Nadia Shpachenko (with the highly able of assistance of Genevieve Lee on the two piano works) has recorded a delightful and diverse program of brand new works she commissioned in 2013 from four outstanding composers. The usual fine and clean Reference Recordings sound and a most varied and energetic program make this a must hear and, better yet, own disc.

G. F. Handel, The Messiah
Doyle, Davislim, Zazzo, Neal Davies, B'rock Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent, Bavarian Radio Chorus, Peter Dijkstra
BR Klassik 900510

The Messiah has been recorded about as many times as McDonald's has sold a Big Mac. So like a big, greasy burger, do we really need a new Messiah? In this case, I would say “heck with the diet, yes we do.” “Period” Messiahs are often dry, mechanical performances with a chorus of 6 and an orchestra of 4. On the opposite, there are the bloated, bellowing affairs with the whole town as chorus, soloists who think it is a Wagner opera, a couple of orchestras, and the biggest local organ for good measure. Dijkstra's ensemble and chorus is just the right size to propel the drama forward without overwhelming or getting lost in the whole affair. The Bavarian Radio Chorus is unmatched, with clear and crisp diction and tight ensemble. The soloists are uniformly fine, and Dijkstra takes things at a fair, but not excessive clip. This is how historically informed music should sound, full of drama and life, not slow, icy sludge.

Jean Martinon, The Complete Chicago Symphony Orchestra Recordings
Robert Casadesus, Piano; Benny Goodman, Clarinet; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jean Martinon
RCA/Sony 88843062752 (10 discs)

Oh Chicago... you did not know what you had with Jean Martinon. The caustic critics berated him and compared him unfairly to Reiner; Martinon being a polar opposite of the autocratic German. We are richer, however, for what we do have. Repertoire ranging from Weber (Clarinet Concerti with Benny Goodman) to the definitive performance of Peter Mennin's Symphony # 7 (tragically neglected) and Martinon's own 4th Symphony. The Nielsen 4th is still a benchmark today, as are the Roussel selections. A bargain price too.

NOW Ensemble “Dreamfall”
Music of Scott Smallwood, Mark Dancigers, John Supko, Nathan Williamson, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Andrea Mazzariello & Judd Greenstein
NOW Ensemble
New Amsterdam 64

Upon first listening, one might think of this as background music since much of it is consonant and melodic. Closer listening, which is highly recommended, opens a larger world of color, drama and sound. The brilliant members of NOW derive lots of color and textures from such a small ensemble, owing to the eclectic but well balanced instrumentation. The Gorgeous sound lets the listener hear all the sonic nuances and intricate rhythms.

ArtIfacts Recent Chamber Works Of Mara Gibson
Thomas Aber, Michael Hall, Robert Pherigo, Luisa Sello, Mark Lowrey, Ya-Ting Liou, Blas Gonzalez, Alvin Wong, Instrumentalists
Available on Spotify, CD Baby, Amazon or old fashioned CD by contacting

Kansas City based Mara Gibson writes demanding music requiring concentration and an open ear. A Gibson composition, either a solo work such as “Flone” for solo flute or a larger scale work “Moments” scored for clarinet, viola and piano always opens a world of color, drama and unexpected sound. These works are making their CD premiere so hopefully many more listeners will come to appreciate her distinctive voice.

Alan Hovhaness, Symphony # 48 “Vision of Andromeda”, Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, Soprano Saxophone Concerto
Greg Banaszak, saxophone, Eastern Music Festival Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz
Naxos 8559755

So what?? Hovhaness is my guilty pleasure...sue me. Yeah, I know the story, it all sounds the same, simplistic, uneven in quality, etc. etc. With performances this fine, in high class sound and music that is so perfectly melodic, exotically colorful and ultimately enjoyable, who listens to critics anyway? Listen and get absorbed in Hovhaness' world.

Vladimir Jurovski Symphony # 5, Russian Painters: Symphonic Pictures
Michail Jurovski, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
CPO 777875

A bit of geneology, Vladimir Michailovich Jurovski (1915-1972), the composer of these two fine examples of Soviet era symphonic works, is the father of conductor Michail Jurovski (1945-) and the grandfather of conductor Vladimir Michailovich Jurovski (1972-). Got that? Symphony # 5 is one of those wonderful, colorful, bold, brassy works composed in Shostakovich's and Prokofiev's shadow toeing the line (usually) of Socialist Realism. Symphony # 5, (1971, one of his last works) is a big affair full of drama, but never over done. The recording is marred only by the inadequate organ in the final bars. “Russian Painters”, an earlier work, is an update on Mussorgsky, and quite interesting in its own right.

Patrick Castillo “The Quality of Mercy”, “Cirque”, “This is the hour of lead”
Abigail Fischer, Mezzo, Karen Kim, Violin, and Ensemble and electronics.
Innova 926

“This is the hour of lead” sets two poems (Dickinson and Yeats) that bookend a center section of short interludes and vocalise. A substantial meditation on death and loss,“this is the hour of lead” seems more of an opera scena than a song cycle. “The Quality of Mercy” combines the ensemble, mezzo (Fischer is excellent, never harsh or screachy) in an “abstract mediation on reconciliation.” “Cirque” is an austere outing for solo violin, a nice contrast to the busier larger works. Further proof that “classical” music is not dead, but evolving quite well, thank you.

Monday, July 13, 2015

ArtIfacts: Recent Chamber Works by Mara Gibson

Mara Gibson's music is all about sound. That is certainly not to say there is no form or melodic elements, but rather to say conventionality yields to the palate of sounds and even visual media available to the modern composer. Mara celebrates sound through the stretching the limits of an instrument or ensemble. Her work celebrates the creative process as well through the connection of words and music and the connection of physical elements and musical sound. In all her works on this CD of recent chamber works, moments of lyric intensity are interrupted by sounds that one might think is coming from another instrument or sound world. Never done just for shock or display, the new sounds propel the works along and become a part of the long stitched fabric. Thus a key to experiencing her music to the fullest is not to concentrate only on the short motifs but to look at the long view of a work... it becomes crystal clear.

Yes, her music is tough listening. This is not music to listen to while folding laundry, Lord knows I tried that and soon the laundry was forgotten. It requires concentration and an open ear, which opens a world of color, drama and sound. Since Mara Gibson lives and teaches in Kansas City, I have had many opportunities to hear her music live and often experienced their first performances. Her music is even more engaging and satisfying heard live as you feel as well as hear its power and motion.

The generously programmed CD begins with 2013's “Moments” for clarinet, viola and piano. Gibson's epic trio in three parts further divided into eight movements (“methods and “improvisations”) is inspired by a quote from Confucius:

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” 

The piece starts with the viola and clarinet vaguely in unison. After this short introduction, their tones bend and separate as they go their own way. The piano's role is to comment and reflect on the other instruments musings while providing cohesion and framework. All three members have extensive, improvisatory solo “moments”. The clarinet's is melodic, even jazz edged. The viola explores the woody, earthy textures of its strings through extensive pizzicato. The piano grandly concludes the solo “moments” with a climatic cadenza worthy of Henry Cowell using both the piano's keys and the strings. The third part, “Experience,” serves as a coda, with the trio finally playing as an integrated ensemble. The music here had a tinge of bitterness and resignation but a also a certain final confidence and consonance.

Michael Hall, viola, Thomas Aber, clarinet and Robert Pherigo premiered this piece and give it a loving, compelling performance. Not likely to hear any better.

2014's "Flone", for flute alone, written for and performed here by Italian flutist Luisa Sello, is based on Bach's "Partita for Flute" BWV 1013. Atavistic fluttering and the pizzicato of tapped keys evoke earth sounds as the theme from the Allemande of the Partita emerges and takes flight. The theme is embellished until it climaxes and deconstructs into fragments, returning to the earth music of the opening. A most compelling and fascinating work and sure winner of the Most Cleverly Appropriate Title of the Year award.

“Canopy” for solo viola and mixed media was inspired by “Ferment,” a massive outdoor sculpture installation by Roxy Paine at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, and premiered by violist Michael Hall at the unveiling ceremonies in April 2011. The work has become one of Gibson's most performed works and receives its deserved CD premiere. “Ferment” is at once recognizable as a tree but also foreign and desolate in its cold, hard, metallic construction. Gibson’s substantial 15 minute piece has many of the same characteristics; the mixed media blending and contrasting its other worldly, metallic sounds with the warm wood of the viola. “Canopy” explores organic growth, long lines from the viola predominate while the media comments on and propels the soloist, alternating periods of stasis and growth finally reaching the fragile threads of a lone, barren tree’s highest, most delicate branches. “Canopy” is a most fascinating and colorful work, deserving of its many performances; the one here with the incomparable violist Michael Hall being as definitive as one can get.

“Map of Rain Hitting Water” (2006 rev. 2012), conceived for solo percussion and video (by media artist Caitlin Horsman), is inspired by the poem “Clarence Playing” by Wayne Miller....

By the song’s end, he reaches into a brief
Rapture of completion (as a child reaches
into a cabinet of sweets). Though,
Now he thinks perhaps the music’s
More like a map of rain hitting water—

...and the relationship between how words visually appear on the page and how they sound. Unfolding slowly and hypnotically, “Map” is just as enjoyable without the video (which can be seen here) as it is with the images. Compositions like this can often become meaningless Muzak. But Map, with mostly metallic percussion (with a persistent pulse of a woodblock and log drum) is always colorful and expressive, it slowly progresses and subtly draws you into its world. Brilliantly performed by Mark Lowery who commissioned it and for whom it was composed. The bright, clear recording brings out every nuance and shade of color in the percussion and associated sounds.

Two short works “Hands” and “Lullaby” (2006) for two pianos (fine performances from pianists Ya-Ting Liou and Blas Gonzalez) are movements from larger work titled “Duo”. “Hands” is a propulsive moto perpetuo of falling figures, starting in the lowest register and ending in the eerie highs. “Lullaby”, appropriate to its title, is a short, magical essay evoking a music box or two gently (and sometimes not so gently) tempting to leave reality and enter a world of dreams and suspension of time.

“E:Tip”, for cello and fixed media, is one of three works for varying ensembles inspired by the trajectory and refraction of an eclipse. “E:Tip” stretches the tones of the cello through time and space, ebbing a flowing through a cloud of sound created by electronically manipulating the droning of bullfrogs in a pond. Another successful example of Gibson's hypnotic and gently unfolding sound essays, wonderfully realized here by Alan Wong, cello.

Every work is worth a listen or twelve, each one always displaying Gibson's considerable, distinctive voice. Well recorded with excellent and intelligent notes and bios of the performers and composer, the CD is available through CD Baby, Google Play, Amazon, Spotify or in old fashioned hard copy by contacting the composer at

ArtIfacts is a labor of love, a festival of performers and a composer enjoying their craft and relishing their collaborations. And contemporary music is richer for the effort.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Nadia Shpachenko: Woman at the "New" Piano

Woman at the New Piano is an album with a surely cosmic purpose; a commemoration in music of an (almost) monumental (and now likely forgotten) event that thankfully did not come to pass. “In the year 2012”, pianist Nadia Shpachenko writes in the album notes, “the nation was swept by a fear that had not been seen since the Y2K transition of January 1, 2000." According to a Mayan calendar and accompanying legends, the world would end on December 21st, 2012 since the calendar went no further, or something like that. Waking up seemingly alive and in the same world as the day before, Nadia thought “let's celebrate and document this great transition! Let's write and perform new pieces which capture where we are, and where we are going. It's a whole new world, let's play it!”

Indeed this prodigiously talented, California-based pianist and teacher, has recorded a delightful and diverse program of brand new works she commissioned in 2013 from four outstanding composers, Tom Flaherty, Peter Yates, Adam Schoenberg and James Matheson. Released on the Reference Recordings FRESH! label, devoted to recordings of new artists and new repertoire. 

I was particularly interested in the four movement suite “Picture Etudes” by Adam Schoenberg for solo piano since I was very familiar with the orchestral version “Picture Studies” having attended the premiere with the Kansas City Symphony in 2012. But before I could program the machine to play those tracks, I was immediately immersed in the absorbing, colorful and animated sound world of Tom Flaherty's “Airdancing” for Piano, Toy Piano and Electronics.

Inspired by floating and falling images of cliff divers, giant squids and daredevil “Fearless Felix” Baumgartner's dramatic supersonic skydive from 39km above the earth, “Airdancing” is 8 minutes kinetic movement that takes you along on a falling, floating journey. The prominent timbre of the toy piano may first evoke the works of George Crumb and John Cage, but very soon dark and foreboding electronic percussion sounds contrast and then lighten to propel the work forward. Flaherty often integrates the instruments into a single entity and then just as suddenly unleashes them to go their separate ways, careening to a sweeping, swirling end that evaporates in to eerie silence.

Arresting, dramatic, exhilarating and sometimes briefly serene, “Airdancing” stretches the listener's imagination and challenges the ear while being accessible and frankly smile producing enjoyable. Reference Recordings' clear, detailed sonics bring out every nuance, never overwhelming the toy piano but also never distorting it to absurdity. Shpachenko clearly commands and loves this colorful work, and is more than ably assisted by Genevieve Feiwen Lee on the toy piano and electronics.

So after listening to “Airdancing” a few times, I skipped on to the Schoenberg (although taking the works in the CD's order is just as rewarding).

“Picture Etudes” and the related “Studies” draws obvious connections to Mussorgsky's “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Both works have piano and orchestra versions and musically reflect a series of paintings in a gallery. While Mussorgsky's pictures are of one artist, Schoenberg's inspiration came from paintings by a variety of artists in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, MO. Four of the Ten orchestra movements were selected by the composer to make up “Etudes” If curious about the orchestra version, it has been recorded by Reference Recordings and the Kansas City Symphony for future release.

“Three Pierrots”, inspired by Bloch's “Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2) is ironic, witty and pulsing with nervous, percussive energy. A lot of story and music in a short two minutes. Following is “Miró's World” a reflection on “Women at Sunrise” Joan Miró. Similarly spontaneous and rhythmically vibrant (even adding a part for a drum), “Miró's World” is playful and a bit jazzy, contrasting with the following “Olive Orchard” inspired by Van Gogh's same titled painting. Languid and romantic, “Olive Orchard” is simply beautiful music and the emotional core of the suite. Shpachenko never lets the music get mushy or sweet, Van Gogh's intensity and drama are never far from the surface. “Kandinsky” a musical portrait of Wassily Kandinsky's “Rose with Gray” serves as the finale to the suite. The percussion returns to accent the dry, starkly dramatic piano which sweeps and propels the piece to a crashing, sweeping conclusion.

Shpachenko makes a most convincing case for these portraits and we are unlikely to get such a definitive, affectionate recording soon. As with Mussorgsky, the piano only version gives the listener insight to the inner voices and the frame of the music while the orchestral can dazzle with color and power. Both are worth hearing.

Schoenberg also provides the concluding work on the CD. Also existing in an orchestral version, “Bounce”, for two pianos, is a ten minute playful romp inspired by the 100th anniversary of the “Rite of Spring” and the impending birth of Schoenberg's son. Danceable, fun, enjoyable and superbly executed by Shpachenko with Genevieve Feiwen Lee on the second piano.

Peter Yates' colorful “Pandora's box”, as the composer describes them, six movement suite “Finger Songs” ably demonstrates Shpachenko's range of technique. From sophisticated jazz in “Mood Swing”, misty landscapes in “Mysterious Dawn” and on to adolescent hijinks and light hearted fun with hints of Ragtime in “Gambol” and “All Better”, “Finger Songs” is an important addition to the contemporary piano literature, totally accessible, totally interesting and 100% fun to hear.

Tom Flaherty returns in “Part Suite-a” (to rhyme with partita), a decidedly darker and more introspective than “Airdancing”. A take-off on the baroque suite, the three movements are woven around characteristic elements of the passacaglia, sarabande and scherzo forms. The darker, complex “Passacagliatude” unfolds to a powerful essay from a simple bass ostinato. “Lullabande” is a sweet lullaby with the characteristic sway of the ancient dance. The concluding “Scherzoid” is a virtuoso, tumultuous, romp tinged just a hair with some drama.

The longest single movement in the program, James Matheson's “Cretic Variations” takes us on a kaleidoscopic voyage from a single repeated high note through contrasting variations to an ambiguous quiet ending. The title refers to the poetic cretic foot meter (long, short, long) which, as the composer notes may “..lend itself better to Dr Seuss than more serious poetic endeavors”. Matheson stretches and teases this inherently simple phrase to create a powerful, lyrical and demanding set of variations. Another work that can, and should, become a staple of recitals and programs.

Stellar performances, usual fine Reference Recordings sound throughout, informative liner notes and a most varied and energetic program make “Woman at the New Piano” a clear winner and a new favorite here.

Woman At the New Piano
Nadia Shpachenko, Piano
Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Piano and Toy Piano

Reference Recordings FRESH FR 711