Lately, it seems that major news outlets take delight in continually listing the recording industry's many and continuing woes: the eradication of labels caused by the consolidation of media conglomerates, flat/falling sales, the challenges of converting to a digital method of distribution, and its consequent threat to "brick and mortar" establishments. The latter is the most painful to those of us who value ready access to hard copies (liner notes and all) of recorded music. In spite of the convenience that online sales of both hard recordings and digital files offer, the decimation they have caused among record sellers is a truly unfortunate byproduct.|
In my backyard, the NY/NJ area, a number of stores have downsized or gone under altogether. Even the "big guns", large chain stores, seem to be suffering from the twin depredations of downloading and downsizing. On a recent visit to Tower Records, I felt as if I had entered a half-empty warehouse. The cavernous space, which had once housed shelf after shelf of music of all varieties, with separate rooms for jazz and classical, was now the home of perhaps a third as many shelves. Gone were the classical and jazz rooms, replaced by a DVD section, which had 10,000 copies of the Lord of the Rings and nary an independent film in sight. It seemed like there had been a sort of musical triage; hot sellers were marked up from list price and placed in prominent bins in the front of the store, the overstocked pop and rock reissues from the '70s and '80s were thrown into bins in the middle of the store and marked way down, and anything of a "challenging" substance (jazz, classical, world, indie etcetera) was crammed into a single darkened space in the back of the store (and, incidentally, also marked above list price!). It was a truly saddening experience.
But in spite of this bleak landscape, some small labels are persevering. Bridge Records, an imprint specializing in contemporary music, particularly that of American composers, remains undaunted in the face of adversity. If anything, their releases are becoming even more wide-ranging, uncovering many neglected corners of the aforementioned repertories. This month, we look at a few recent releases on Bridge.
Yehudi Wyner - The Music of Yehudi Wyner
Boston composer Yehudi Wyner is a professor of music at Brandeis University. He is also a skilled pianist and conductor -- I remember with great fondness a late 1990s Boston performance by Wyner and Andre Previn of the Mozart Double Piano Concerto, which paired ebullient energy with formidable virtuosity. Wyner's compositions, while modernist on the surface, are strongly connected to the classical tradition; influences range from Mozart to Brahms to Schoenberg. As a consequence, this can be seen as slightly conservative fare for those who favor the avant-garde or experimental, but it is enormously well-crafted music, and much of it is substantially beautiful.
This disc includes three works from the late 1990s. The Second Madrigal: Voices of Women (1999) features soprano Dominique LaBelle and a large ensemble, conducted by Wyner. The poems are from A Book of Luminous Things, a collection of poetry edited by Czeslaw Milosz; they are all either by or about women. LaBelle has an attractive voice, which she marshals with impressive dynamic and expressive range. The madrigal's orchestration is varied as well; Wyner draws upon a multitude of gestures and colors to create an attractive musical accompaniment for the vocal soloist.
The Quartet for Oboe and String Trio (1999) follows. It is performed by oboist Peggy Pearson, violinist Bayla Keyes, violist Mary Ruth Ray, and cellist Rhonda Rider. Pearson's supple tone and her ease with the florid and angular gestures of the oboe part is noteworthy, as is the tight ensemble and keen intonation of the string players, particularly in service of the frequently lustrous harmonies. The quartet is cast in a single movement, 25 minutes in duration. This expansive canvas is primarily an extended theme and variations, with the additional unifying device of a ground bass in the cello. It is a compelling work that intersperses contemplative lyricism with more active passages of dissonant counterpoint.
The disc's final composition is Horntrio (1997), performed by violinist James Buswell, horn player Jean Rife and Wyner at the piano. Horn trios are famously difficult pieces to write, as balancing an inherently unbalanced ensemble is no mean task. Still, several of terrific ones are in the repertory, by Brahms, Ligeti, etcetera. Wyner takes a competitive approach in his trio; the violin, horn, and piano act as individuals vying for supremacy over the course of the piece's three movements. Who "wins" is hardly the issue, as the pungent harmonies and rhythmic vivacity of the work are sure to win audiences over well before the double bar.
George Crumb - Complete Crumb Edition Volume Seven
There was a slightly mean-spirited joke in circulation when I was a student at Juilliard. "Q: Which George Crumb piece is the best? A: The first one that you hear." While this was no doubt the product of the stodgy conservatism of much of the student body, and their suspicion toward anything new, there was a small kernel of truth to the quip. The first time you hear a work by George Crumb, you enter a sound world unlike any previously experienced, filled with sound effects, kaleidoscopic colors, and snippets of familiar melodies transformed into otherworldly energies. In short, it is an experience that can never be repeated in exactly the same way, even by another Crumb work.
However, there are Crumb compositions that, although they are certainly not as transformative after dozens of hearings over the years, take my breath away. One of these is Black Angels, for amplified string quartet. One of the first CDs of contemporary music that I purchased was the Kronos Quartet's recording of it on Nonesuch. I still vividly remember playing it for some string players in the Juilliard dorm, and having one run from the room, screaming that it was "not music". By this, he meant "this is not classical string quartet music", as his listening habits began with Mozart and ended somewhere around Dvorak.
In truth, Black Angels (1970) might be considered the first psychedelic piece for string quartet; it is rife with distortion and hyper-amplified, much like the rock music of the Woodstock generation. It also shared in that era's tradition of protest music, and served as Crumb's commentary on the Vietnam War. Filled with spoken word exclamations and percussive sound effects, it doesn't sound like a string quartet from the classical repertory, but instead functions as a kind of postmodern theater.
The Kronos Quartet used Black Angels as their calling card for years, and performed it with the pageantry and amplitude of rock stars. Much as their recording, my initial experience of Crumb's sound world will never be replaced by any subsequent reading (for purely sentimental reasons at the very least), but there is a lot to admire in the Miro Quartet's performance here. The recorded sound itself is very impressive, and reveals more of the score's details than the Nonesuch CD. The Miro's rendition is cleaner and more articulative too. Although it lacks some of the visceral power of the Kronos's enthusiasm, the Miro Black Angels made me feel as if I had gotten to know the score better by the end of the performance, revealing different facets previously unconsidered.
Also included on this recording is a new work, Unto the Hills (2002), for soprano, percussion quartet and amplified piano. It is performed by the composer's daughter, Ann Crumb, and the Orchestra 2001, led by James Freeman. The material consists of Appalachian folk songs, material rich with cultural resonances of the Crumbs' West Virginia roots. Crumb selects many familiar old tunes for treatment: "Poor Wayfarin' Stranger", "Black is the Color of my True Love's Hair", "I Gave my Love a Cherry" and others. Onto these he grafts his own singular orchestration, replete with percussive sonorities and poignant harmonies, and blurred around the edges by dissonance.
Ann Crumb has a background in jazz and musical theater. Her delivery here is that of a popular singer -- appropriate given the material. Sometimes, the jarring utterances from the orchestra seem at odds with the simplicity of the source material, but such has always been the case with Crumb's use of melody (be it Bach or folk). Still, there is much that is affecting about this new work, made more so by the sensitive interpretation found here.
Guido Deiro - Vaudeville Organ Classics: The Complete Works of Guido Deiro
We all have our own musical predilections. I used to joke that the Fourth Circle of my own personal Hell was populated by accordion ensembles (the Fifth Circle had bagpipers, but that's another story...). In my own defense, growing up on Long Island, I heard a lot of sub-par accordionists -- a last resort for those whose wedding bands had canceled at the last minute. This recording forces me to eat my words, with a healthy side dish of guilt at casting aspersions on the fair accordion.
Guido Deiro (1886-1950) was a colorful figure. In addition to being a prominent composer and virtuoso accordionist, he was also married to famous vaudevillian Mae West. He authored a book on accordion technique, The Royal Method for Piano Accordion (a piano accordion has piano keys in addition to buttons), was the first accordionist to play on the radio, and recorded 112 sides for Columbia, becoming their most prominent Italian-American accordionist.
All of his compositions are available on this substantial two-disc collection, superlatively performed by Henry Doktorski. Sentimental tunes like "Il Pentimento Waltz" and "Lido Tango" recall a bygone era in which unabashed lyricism needed no ironic temperament. Others, like "Deiro's Rag", "Royal Flying Corps March", and his biggest hit, "Kismet Fox Trot", remain stirring dance music, even for those of us uncertain of the steps.
Deiro's music is replete with imagery that recalls the turn-of-the-century immigrant experience in a rapidly modernizing America, personified in vaudeville shows, silent films, European dances, and incipient jazz and ragtime. It is music that looked both forward and backward from its own time. For us, however, it can remain not only a valuable time capsule, but also a musical document filled with timeless expression. What's more, the liner notes, compiled by Doktorski, are filled with period photos and documents that serve as a wonderful visual accompaniment. A real treat.
Thanks very much to Becky Starobin of Bridge Records for providing materials and information. Bridge recordings can be found at www.bridgerecords.com.
Next month: A Milton Babbitt conference at Princeton University
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-- Christian Carey