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New Recordings by American Composers
For the past several months, this column has spotlighted American composers who continue to create vital and challenging music in spite of the challenges facing them: hostile critics, a lack of sufficient public and private support, the record industry's continuing woes and a dearth of music education in this country. The current economy has had a particularly deleterious effect on music, especially in the realm of concert music; many orchestras are downsizing or folding and a number of arts organizations are struggling to reorganize amid slashed budgets and flat ticket sales. Despite this, a number of fine late 2003 and early 2004 releases demonstrate the steadfast optimism and unwavering dedication of American composers and their supporters, a small number of tenacious recording companies and performing organizations. This month's column focuses on some of the fruits of their labors, recordings that are diverse in style and ambitious in scope.

The Music of Stephen Jaffe, Volume Two (Bridge)

Composer Stephen Jaffe teaches at Duke University; he co-directs a new music festival there entitled Encounters with the Music of Our Time. His own works have been widely performed and have received numerous awards: the Rome Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize and fellowships from the NEA, the Guggenheim Foundation and Tanglewood. Two of Jaffe's compositions -- the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and the Chamber Concerto ("Singing Figures")-- are presented here.

The Violin Concerto is an impressive piece, demonstrating the composer's masterful handling of orchestral color and instrumental deployment. It receives a fine performance by soloist Gregory Fulkerson and Donald Palma conducting the Odense Symphony. Stylistically, the concerto references a number of characteristics present in music of the first half of the Twentieth century in terms of harmony, rhythmic gesture and structure. Its favorite touchstone seems to be the neoclassical music of Igor Stravinsky, whose own Violin Concerto is an important contribution to the genre. Jaffe's vivacious rhythms, solo writing and post-diatonic triadic references frequently hearken back to this earlier piece.

This is not to say that Jaffe's music does not have its own voice; there are also passages with lush voicings, not at all Stravinskian in demeanor. In fact, what is most impressive about the Violin Concerto is that Jaffe revisits material that has been imprinted so strongly by previous creators, but still finds a way to work it into a configuration and disposition all his own.

The Chamber Concerto is an equally attractive piece. It also seems to rely on neoclassical models, not only Stravinsky but also Twentieth century French music by such composers as Milhaud, Poulenc and Honegger. The solo part is written for oboe, and is superlatively performed by Stephen Taylor. He is ably abetted by the members of Speculum Musicae and conductor William Purvis. The interplay between harpsichordist Stephen Beck and pianist Stephen Gosling, a keyboard pairing reminiscent of that in Elliott Carter's Double Concerto (a piece discussed later in this month's column), is of particular interest.

Elliott Carter -- Homages and Dedications (Naive)

One of Carter's preoccupations during the past couple of decades has been a series of dedicatory pieces, either to musicians or friends. Often these works are miniatures; often, too, they serve as some of Carter's most exploratory compositions, where he works out techniques that are later employed in his large scale compositions. This disc from Naive (a French label distributed in the US by Naxos America) presents twelve works by Carter that are, as the title suggests, either homages or dedications, composed between 1983 and 1997.

The largest work in this collection is the sextet Luimen (1997), written for and dedicated to the Nieuw Ensemble, an Amsterdam-based new music group that performs all of the works on the disc. Luimen's unusual instrumentation, scored for mandolin, guitar, harp, vibraphone, trumpet and trombone, would seem to create a host of potential balance problems, but Carter turns this lopsided deployment into a virtue; most of the time, he creates unusual configurations and spacings that don't allow the instruments of slighter amplitude (mandolin, guitar) to be overwhelmed by the brass. Occasionally, the piece's narrative flow calls for one strand to be overcome by another; in these instances, the brass players gleefully pile on the poor plucked strings.

Scrivo in Vento (1991), for solo flute, is dedicated to Canadian flutist Robert Aiken. Here, it is performed with consummate poise and tremendous dynamic sensitivity by Harrie Starreveld. Gra (1993), dedicated to Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, has always been one of my favorite Carter solo pieces. Its reading here, by Harmen de Boer, is impressive indeed, performed with lithe runs and a rich, sonorous tone.

Trilogy (1992), a group of three pieces that feature oboe and harp, is another highlight. The first piece, Bariollage, is for solo harp and is dedicated to Ursula Holliger, its first performer. The second, Inner Song, was written for oboist Heinz Holliger in memory of composer Stefan Wolpe. The third, Immer Neu, was written for and dedicated to both Holligers. It is a tough act to follow the duo dedicatees' performance of this work (which is available on a recording from Philips), but oboist Ernest Rombout and harpist Ernestine Stoop create a memorable interpretation of their own here, tremendously controlled and nuanced in its musicality.

Canon for 4 (1984), was written for Carter's longtime friend and former Music Controller for the BBC, Sir William Glock. It is scored for flute, bass clarinet, violin and cello. A brief but compelling work, it is filled with intricate interplay, vacillating between outbursts of violent loquacity and sections of lyrical stillness.

The disc also includes Esprit rude, Esprit doux II (1994, dedicated to Pierre Boulez), Con Leggerezza Pensosa (1990, dedicated to Italo Calvino), Changes (1983, for David Starobin), Enchanted Preludes (1988, for Ann Santen), and 90+ (1994, for Goffredo Petrassi). The Nieuw Ensemble and their director, Ed Spanjaard, are talented advocates on Carter's behalf; I hope that this excellent collection is not their last recording of his music.

Sequitur -- Concertos (Albany)

Sequitur is a New York-based new music group conducted by Paul Hostetter. They have commissioned and premiered works by many prominent composers and maintain an interest in linking contemporary music to other artistic disciplines -- theater, visual arts and dance. This recording includes concerti by four composers: Harold Meltzer, Thea Musgrave, David Rakowski and Elliott Carter. Its featured work is the Carter Double Concerto (1961), an important part of Carter's oeuvre that has been long overdue for a new recording.

The performance of the Double Concerto is an exciting one, clearly articulating the various intricate proportional rhythmic relationships in the work while maintaining a keen sense of linear phrasing flow. The recording is well-balanced, too, which is no mean feat; a frequent complaint about earlier performances of this piece was that the harpsichord part was over-amplified. While this is clearly a group effort and achievement, mention must be made of the fine performances by harpsichordist Sarah Laimon, pianist Steven Beck and Sequitur's fantastic percussionists.

Sequitur's artistic director, Harold Meltzer, contributes a concerto for harpsichord and chamber orchestra entitled Virginal (2002). Its use of harpsichord is a stark contrast to the instrument's employment in the Carter work. Here, much in the spirit of Baroque chamber concerti, the soloist is also a member of the ensemble. Thus, sometimes Sarah Laimon is front and center in the musical texture, but at other times her part recedes into the background. In what Meltzer calls "an anti-concerto of sorts", the soloist actually loses more and more primacy of place until it is overwhelmed by the orchestra when the piece finishes. Virginal serves not only as an interesting commentary on the soloist vs. orchestra "Us vs. Them" construction of many concerti, but it is also an affecting work in its own right.

Both David Rakowski and Thea Musgrave also tinker with the juxtaposition of soloist and group in their respective offerings. Rakowski's Locked Horns (2002) is a horn concerto in which the horn soloist is only gradually revealed to actually be the soloist. It starts out as a member of the ensemble, contending with the orchestra's horn player and various other ensemble members who try to assert themselves and take center stage. It is only at the end that the horn soloist (in a valiant performance here by Daniel Grabois) effectively vanquishes his rivals and comes to the fore. Rakowski, a professor at Brandeis University, always seems to create energetic music with an attractive pitch language and forceful dramatic thrust. Locked Horns is no exception.

Musgrave, a Scottish composer who has taught for years in New York as a professor in the City University system, presents an even more intricate dramatic plan in her concerto Lamenting with Ariadne. The piece starts as a viola concerto, with the viola solo representing Ariadne mourning the departure of her lover Theseus. Soon, however, it morphs into a double concerto for viola and trumpet. The trumpet represents Dionysus, and his music replicates the feverish dancing of a Bacchian orgy. Unwilling to be drawn into the celebration, the viola reasserts Ariadne's lamenting music at the piece's conclusion. This imaginative scenario is realized with the utmost compositional grace and facility. Musgrave's use of diaphanous instrumental textures and luxuriant harmonies makes this a most appealing piece; Lamenting with Ariadne works whether you listen with the program in mind or just appreciate it as abstract music.

Charles Fussell -- The Astronaut's Tale (Albany)

Composer Charles Fussell has long been a fixture of the New England contemporary music scene. He is a professor of composition at Boston University and was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize, Artistic Director of New Music Harvest (a citywide contemporary music festival in Boston) and co-Founder and Director of the New England Composer's Orchestra. Fussell's symphonies, chamber works, songs and operas have been widely performed, but there have not been nearly enough recordings made available of his music. An attempt to correct this oversight is being made by Albany Records, with the recent release of recordings of Fussell's Symphony V and his chamber opera The Astronaut's Tale.

The Astronaut's Tale is a contemporary story that grapples with themes of technology's encroachment upon modern life, as well as (in the words of the composer) the "confrontation of science and religion" and "the nature of the cosmos and our experience of life and death within". It deals with the life story of a young boy who grows up to be an astronaut on the Challenger. Fussell's music is ideal for depicting a story that traverses both the modern age and one of a simpler time and values. Its flexible language is steeped in the recent techniques of contemporary music, but also has an affinity with earlier American music by figures such as Grainger, Copland and Ives. The libretto by Jack Larson combines a literate, savvy nature with eminent clarity.

The performance is persuasive, well-prepared by musicians who are clearly sympathetic to Fussell's music. Larson serves as narrator; his spoken-word dialogues are delivered with verve, helping to illuminate the settings and move the plot along (a boon in an opera recording without a visual component). Tenor William Hite sings the role of Ab the Astronaut. Hite has a lovely voice, which he martials with elegant phrasing and musicality. The other principals are affectingly portrayed by soprano Judith Kellock, who sings the role of Ann, Ab's girlfriend, and baritone James Maddalena, who performs the role of the Old Man, a spiritual guide figure. The challenging score is performed by the Monadnock Festival Ensemble, conducted by James Bolle. The Astronaut's Tale is somewhat reminiscent of Britten's chamber operas (Lucretia, The Burning Fiery Furnace, etcetera); Fussell's handling of both instruments and voices creates an abundant variety of colors and performing styles over the course of the work. The opera may be for small forces, but this does not limit its impact, nor does it diminish its capacity to engage large topics. In fact, chamber opera is an ideal vehicle for this piece, as it allows both for directness of communication and an intimate treatment of its subject. Hopefully it is destined for many future stagings.

Follow-up: Elliott Carter: Quintets and Voices (Mode)

After my recent review of this CD, I found out that there is a DVD version featuring video footage. Having had a chance to evaluate both versions, I must report that the DVD is the preferable edition to obtain if you have not already sought this out. It features a video of a performance of the Quintet for Piano and Strings by the Arditti Quartet and Ursula Oppens, as well as an interview with the composer, Irvine Arditti and Oppens by the Ensemble Sospesso's Joshua Cody. The video is a bit claustrophobic in terms of its reliance on constant close-ups of individual performers (although this is in keeping with some of the more agitato portions of the Quintet!). Still, it is interesting and instructive to see the group's interaction while listening to the piece.

The conversation yields several interesting remarks from Carter, both in the form of instructions to the performers and in terms of compositional strategies for the works. My favorite exchange involves violinist Irvine Arditti's question to Carter about marking a passage in Fragment II "non-vibrato"; he feels that it is a difficult way to perform it and wonders what the composer might mean to be done there. Carter responds, "I meant what I wrote!" Consulting the performance, I can attest that Arditti indeed played exactly what Carter wrote.

In addition to the bonus video footage, the DVD offers superior sound quality -- 24 bits as opposed to the CD's 16 bit version. If you have a chance to hear it on a DVD player, the difference in sonic resolution is considerable.

Next Month: File Under ? returns to the world of jazz with a look at six more releases from ECM's Rarum series.

Questions, comments, music that you think belongs in File Under ? -- click on my name and send an email.

-- Christian Carey



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The Goslings

Lair of the Minotaur

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