Tuesday, August 26, 2014

'Excelsior' streaming at Q2 this week

Fifth House 

Q2, the modern classical music Internet radio station, is streaming the new Excelsior album by the Fifth House Ensemble, an album I listened to during my long commute to work this morning. I'm not ready to review it here, but it's worth a listen and you can try it for free this week, so I'm noting it today. On my first listen, at least, my favorite piece was the long title track by Caleb Burham.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Koh's 'Two by Four' thoroughly enjoyable

Few classical music albums in recent years have given me as much pleasure as Two X Four, the album Jennifer Koh released this year with fellow violinist Jaime Laredo, who was formerly her teacher.

The title comes from the concept (two violinists, an "elder statesman" still playing well and a young player in her prime) and the number of compositions (four, with three modern pieces and two world premieres.)

The paring of Laredo and Koh reminds me a bit of a blues album I bought years ago, one that combined  Stevie Ray Vaughn with Albert King.  Koh and Laredo play well together, as you might expect from Laredo's rep and Koh's previous efforts, such as this one. 

But an album like this ultimately will stand or fall on the quality of the pieces, and that's where Two X Four does particularly well.

It matches up a Bach warhorse, the "Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor" BWV 1043, with an Anna Clyne piece, "Prince of Clouds," Philip Glass' "Echorus" and David Ludwig's "Seasons Lost."

Hybrid albums of new and old can be a risky strategy — if the modern pieces aren't very good, they'll be exposed pretty quickly.

But when I heard the Anna Clyne, I felt I'd made a big discovery. I loved the moments of drama, the ethereal melodies and the way the piece unfolded in my brain as I played it over and over again. I'll disclose that I was sent a review copy of the album by Cedille Records. But if it gives you an idea of how I felt about the Clyne, who I'd never heard of before, I then bought everything available by her on Amazon's MP3 store and Google's Play store. I bought two whole albums, plus various pieces from other albums that I put together as a playlist. Clyne is the composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; I look forward to following her career.

Anna Clyne

The other pieces are a short, melodic Glass piece, "Echorus," and the Ludwig. Although the notes included with the CD don't mention it, the Glass is a chamber orchestra version of the second etude from Glass' lovely "Six Etudes for Piano" from 1994, which I first encountered on Bruce Brubaker's excellent Time Curve album.

The Koh-Laredo album concludes with Ludwig's "Season's Lost," four short pieces for winter, spring, summer and fall. They didn't make as big an impression on me as the Clyne, but they are vivid and pictorial and I was glad to meet Ludwig's music. The Clyne and Ludwig are both world premieres.

The media section of Koh's official site has several videos about Two X Four, but here's one with Clyne and Koh talking about Clyne's contribution. Koh explains that she heard a string piece from Clyne and thought it was the most beautiful composition she'd heard in a long time. That's how I felt about "Prince of Clouds."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Koh to return with another 'Bach & Beyond' set

A news release from Cedille Records reports that violinist Jennifer Koh's Bach & Beyond Part Two album will be released this year.

I don't know anything about the album yet, but I sure did like 2012's Bach & Beyond Part One. 

That album begins with J.S. Bach's "Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006" and ends with Bach's "Partita No. 2 in d minor, BWV 1004." Sandwiched in between is Ysa├┐e's second violin sonata, Kaija Saariaho's "Nocturne" and Missy Mazzoli's "Dissolve, O My Heart," the latter a world premiere.

All are solo violin pieces, which puts a lot of pressure on Koh, but I like her Bach partitas better than the other recordings I've heard so far. Check out her slashing attack on the "Prelude," the first track on the album, and the drone on the next track, the "Loure." She gets a great sound out of her instrument, so I want to record the name of the producer and engineer: Judith Sherman.

My music collection falls into two broad groups: Legacy classical music (which I can play basically anytime I want) and modern classical music (which I can play when the more conservative ears in the household are not present.) With the Koh, I can get my Saariaho fix in and listen to the Mazzoli but still answer any objections by pointing out that Bach will return soon. So it's an album I also can play anytime, a modern music "sneak it in" album.

(Disclosure Cedille sent me a copy of the album. See my blog post on freebies.)

Friday, May 9, 2014

A note about freebies

As I am determined to resume blogging, I need to say a word about some of the recordings I will be talking about.

From time to time, record companies and individual artists who apparently are completely desperate for publicity will send a complimentary commercial recording to your humble blogger.

I do my best to listen to these recordings, but a free recording does not guarantee a good review or even any attention at all here.

I do not claim to be a music expert, but I am a sincere enthusiast, and I will not express enthusiasm, or even mild pleasure, for a recording that I don't like.

For example, I'm a fan of eighth blackbird, but I didn't like the the Lonely Motel album. Obviously, other folks did not agree -- it did win a Grammy -- but I don't care. I was pleased to give a good notice for the Meanwhile album (which also won a Grammy.)

I'll try to note in my blog posts whether I paid for a recording or parted with cash for it or whatever.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Lou Harrison on UbuWeb

I was surprised to discover that one of my favorite composers, Lou Harrison, is heavily represented on UbuWeb, the Internet archive for avante-garde and hard to obtain material.

A page on the website has links allowing visitors to download MP3 files for five Harrison albums.

A FAQ on the website has the following answer to the question, "What is your policy concerning posting copyright material?" Here is the answer in full:

A. If it's out of print, we feel it's fair game. Or if something is in print, yet absurdly priced or insanely hard to procure, we'll take a chance on it. But if it's in print and available to all, we won't touch it. The last thing we'd want to do is to take the meager amount of money out of the pockets of those releasing generally poorly-selling materials of the avant-garde. UbuWeb functions as a distribution center for hard-to-find, out-of-print and obscure materials, transferred digitally to the web. Our scanning, say, an historical concrete poem in no way detracts from the physical value of that object in the real world; in fact, it probably enhances it. Either way, we don't care: Ebay is full of wonderful physical artifacts, most of them worth a lot of money. 

Should something return to print, we will remove it from our site immediately. Also, should an artist find their material posted on UbuWeb without permission and wants it removed, please let us know. However, most of the time, we find artists are thrilled to find their work cared for and displayed in a sympathetic context. As always, we welcome more work from existing artists on site. 

Let's face it, if we had to get permission from everyone on UbuWeb, there would be no UbuWeb.

The posting of the Harrison albums would appear to push the envelope a little bit on UbuWeb's own stated policy. I looked for Lou Harrison albums at Amazon's MP3 store. Four out of five of the posted albums were available for purchase (the exception being the album of Harrison's piano music.)

On the other hand, Harrison died more than 10 years ago, and as with any serious American composer who isn't named "Philip Glass," "Steve Reich" or "John Adams," I worry about whether Harrison will find and sustain an audience over the long term. (Yes, many people reading this blog will know who Lou Harrison is, but let's face it -- you're a small minority of a small minority.) I wouldn't mind at all if the UbuWeb posting resulted in many more people discovering Lou Harrison's music.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Colin MacDonald's 'Circle of Wind'

The saxophone usually is associated with jazz; even a moderately informed jazz listener can name some of the great saxophonists, such as Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, etc.

Colin MacDonald (the hirsute Canadian saxophone player, not the hirsute Canadian rock musician) makes a good case for the saxophone as a modern classical instrument on his recording Circle of Wind.

Informed by his study of Zen, yoga and the I Ching and by his interest in the gamelan and in minimalist composers, Circle of Wind features MacDonald on sax in a variety of settings, including solo, with a pianist, as part of a saxophone quartet, with a cellist and with a "choir" of 11 saxophones, with all of the pieces penned by MacDonald.

So what did I think? I bought this without telling MacDonald after meeting him in a nonmusical context, figuring that if I didn't like it I would never have to tell him. But I did like it. The term "minimalist" sometimes inspires a feeling of dread, but MacDonald provides enough variety in melody and settings to keep things interesting. I've listened to the album quite a few times.

I bought my copy from Amazon -- I love the way Amazon automatically back up everything I buy on the site's cloud player -- but MacDonald points out that if you buy direct, you can get a CD or you get get FLAC files or high fidelity MP3s with PDF liner notes and artwork.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A recording for Duckworth's piano concerto?

When composer William Duckworth died in September 2012, he left behind a piano concerto, BIG PIANO, a seven movement, 24-minute piano concerto composed for pianist Bruce Brubaker.

Duckworth was one of my favorite composers and I took his death hard. Over the years since discovering him on a recording by the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, I had tracked down much of his music, often buying a CD that had just one of his works. And lately, I've begun to wonder: Whatever happened to BIG PIANO? Is there going to be a recording?

I Tweeted Brubaker, "Any chance there will be a recording of Duckworth's 'Big Piano'?" He replied, "Yes, definitely."

I haven't pressed for more details -- I'll wait for his announcement -- but it sounds like he is working on some good news.