MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Seattle Pro Musica: love came down

Immense gratitude to Karen P. Thomas and Seattle Pro Musica for an inspired performance last night at Seattle First Baptist Church. These holiday concerts mark their return to live singing for the first time in about two years.

The beautifully curated program featured a thoughtful menu of new choral pieces in a wide range of styles, interspersed with gems by Josquin des Prez in honor of the 500th anniversary of his death. Even singing with special masks, the chorus — performing in its various subgroups and in the larger, full-strength ensemble — filled the space with Seattle Pro Musica’s signature clarity, fullness of color, and meaningful expression.

Personal highlights of this program: Welsh composer Paul Mealor’s moving setting of the e.e. cummings poem i carry your heart, which carried the audience away with its sublime, vulnerable honesty and directness; Afro-Brazilian composer José Mauricio Nunes Garcia’s elegantly voiced setting of Domine Jesu; and First Nations composer Andrew Balfour’s Qilak, an a cappella ode to nature that uses harmony and the resources of the singing voice with great imagination to depict the awe-filling vastness of the Northern landscape.

The program contains many other epiphanies. Seattle Pro Musica will perform a live broadcast this evening at 7.30pm PST (available online thereafter until 31 December). We all need such uplifting experiences more than ever.

love came down

by Christina Rosetti

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Stars and angels gave the sign.
Alleluia. Gloria in excelsis Deo.*

Worship we the Godhead,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Alleluia. Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and love to all,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Alleluia.

*Hallelujah. Glory to God in the highest.

Filed under: choral music, recommended listening, Seattle Pro Musica

New from Kinan Azmeh: FLOW

The clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh has just released a marvelous new studio album, FLOW, with the NDR Bigband. Recorded in October 2020 at Hamburg’s North German Broadcasting (NDR) Studio 1, the album presents a collaboration between Azmeh and the improvisatory jazz playing of the NDR Bigband musicians, with arrangements by Wolf Kerschek.

“Jazz has been an incredible vessel in accommodating and hosting other world music traditions,” says Azmeh, who was raised in Damascus, Syria, and is a graduate of New York’s Juilliard School. A member of the Silkroad Ensemble and other formations, Azmeh is a powerful new-music advocate and international performer. “[Jazz] does that so naturally by blurring the lines between the composed and the improvised,” he adds, “and also by celebrating the sound and ideas of every individual…. For me, the NDR Bigband is not only a jazz ensemble; I see it as a great and flexible collective of composers, arrangers, improvisers, instrumentalists, and human beings.”

FLOW includes Azmeh’s Clarinet Concerto, whose premiere in 2019 I reviewed, along with The Canteen, Little Red Riding Hood, And We Are All Optimistic, Daraa, Jisreen, Rituals, and Love on 139th Street in D.

“While I use seemingly contrasting music vocabularies I try to stay honest, real and true to myself and to the ideas I am trying to convey,” says Azmeh. “I believe that art is humanity’s most important product. I also think that people who experience art on a deep level, whether they are artists or art lovers, have a more profound understanding of themselves, their surroundings, other cultures, and the human condition at large; which in turn can translate into more understanding and compassionate societies.”

Filed under: Kinan Azmeh, recommended listening

Will Liverman: Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers

The American baritone Will Liverman’s new recital album Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers releases on 12 February.

With pianist Paul Sánchez, Liverman sings his first full-length recording for Cedille — “a passion project,” in his words, that gathers art songs by Black composers spanning from the early 20th century’s Henry Burleigh through Margaret Bonds, Thomas Kerr, and Robert Owens to such contemporary composers as Leslie Adams, Damien Sneed, and Shawn E. Okpebholo (in the world premiere recording of Two Black Churches, which Liverman commissioned).

Liverman also plays piano in his own arrangement of Richard Fariña’s Birmingham Sunday. The album includes two booklets: a 20-page booklet with extensive program notes and a booklet with the complete song texts.

Filed under: music news, recommended listening

Deep Listening with Arvo Pärt

The best-of lists for a worst-of year are being finalized all around. One sure contender is this remarkable collection of choral music by Arvo Pärt from Gloriæ Dei Cantores.

The Cape Cod-based choir, which is led by Richard K. Pugsley, has a deep affinity for the Estonian composer. Each member of the choir has participated in study projects on Arvo Pärt’s style and his approach to text setting.

Gloriæ Dei Cantores’  repertoire includes larger Pärt works such as Passio and the Stabat Mater as well as the less frequently heard L’abbé Agathon and Berliner Mass. The recording is rooted in their experience singing his music in worship, on tour, and as part of an extensive concert series at their home, the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts. 

The recording offers a powerful sampling of the range of Pärt’s choral writing, including his settings of Salve Regina and Nunc dimittis. L’abbé Agathon “sets the scene of an ancient 4th century story of the chance (or was it?) meeting of the hermit Agathon and a leper. After several testings of the hermit’s patience and his generosity, the leper reveals himself to be an angel, and blesses the hermit Agathon, and goes on his way. “

The exuberant Peace Upon You, Jerusalem and the Magnificat are juxtaposed with Pärt’s unforgettable setting of the sorrowful Stabat Mater, the culminating work on this collection. Originally commissioned to mark the centenary of Alban Berg’s birth in 1985, the piece was expanded in a new version that premiered in 2008.

“Music is my friend, ever-understanding. Compassionate. Forgiving, it’s a comforter, the handkerchief for drying my tears of sadness, the source of my tears of joy,” says the composer. These six selections span a large part of Pärt’s career and encourage a state of deep listening, far past the poisonous noise of the year now coming to a close.

Filed under: Arvo Pärt, choral music, recommended listening

Jupiter Quartet’s Alchemy

At the end of this week, the Jupiter String Quartet (now in its 16th year together) releases Alchemy (Marquis Classics), an album of four works commissioned by Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. Three of these receive their world premiere recordings here: Pierre Jalbert’s Piano Quintet (2017); Steven Stucky’s Piano Quartet (2005); and Carl Vine’s Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013). Also included is Jalbert’s Secret Alchemy for violin, viola, cello, and piano (2012).

All of the premieres occurred at the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival. Australian pianist Bernadette Harvey joins the Jupiters (violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel, and cellist Daniel McDonough). Harvey also performed in the world premieres of Secret Alchemy and Vine’s Piano Quintet.

From the press release:

Pierre Jalbert’s Piano Quintet consists of four separate, contrasting movements: ‘Mannheim Rocket,’ a modern take on the 18th-century musical technique in which a rising figure speeds up and grows louder; ‘Kyrie,’ a chromatically transformed chant-like motive; a scherzo in which the strings and piano sometimes alternate and imitate each other, reacting to each other’s gestures, and at other times combine and synchronize to produce a more blended sound; and ‘Pulse,’ made up of perpetually moving 8th notes, but always pushing forward.

As one who loved nothing more than to play the piano quartets of Mozart, Brahms, Fauré, during his youth as a violist, Steven Stucky was inspired by these works his entire career, and later by 20th-century piano quartets of Copland, Palmer, Hartke, and Weir. Stucky noted that, “Attempting my own first work in this medium at the comparatively late age of 55, has stirred conflicting emotions—intimidation at the idea of ‘competing’ against the masters, but also a feeling of coming home to familiar, much loved surroundings.”

Stucky’s Piano Quartet is in one continuous movement, but flows in and out of many distinct sections: A short allegro (Risoluto) presents the theme and introduces bell-like sonorities that will recur throughout the piece. In the next, slow section (Lento, molto cantabile), the piano continues to imitate bells. A fast interlude (Allegro) reverses the roles—strings take on the bell sounds and leads quickly to a scherzo (Scherzando e molto leggero) conjuring the composer’s memories of pop music. The trio (Comodo, non affrettato) makes way to a second slow movement, with the piano now cast as soloist, and a brisk coda recalling the clangorous bell sounds of the opening.
Carl Vine (b.1954): Fantasia for Piano Quintet

Carl Vine writes about his Fantasia: “I call this single-movement piano quintet Fantasia because it doesn’t follow a strict formal structure and contains little structural repetition or recapitulation. The central section is generally slower than the rest and is followed by a presto finale, but otherwise related motifs tend to flow one from the other organically through the course of the work. It is ‘pure’ music that uses no external imagery, allusion, narrative, or poetry.”

Pierre Jalbert’s Secret Alchemy for for violin, viola, cello, and piano:
“With any new composition, there is a sense of discovery and mystery during the creative process,” says Jalbert, and of the title, explains, “Though this piece is not programmatic, imagining the air of secrecy and mysticism surrounding a medieval alchemist at work provided a starting point for the piece.”

Composed in four separate and contrasting movements, Jalbert notes, “The first movement begins with this sense of mystery. String harmonics are used to create the rhythmic backdrop for melodic lines played by the cello and later, the viola. The second movement is a relentless scherzo characterized by pizzicato strings, turbulent piano writing, and quickly alternating rhythmic patterns. The third movement is influenced by medieval music with its use of open 5ths, chant-like lines played non-vibrato by the strings, and reverberant piano harmonies, simulating the sound and reverberation in a large cathedral. The fourth movement concludes the work with an energetic music characterized by strings playing fast measured tremolo figures (rapid movement of the bow back and forth on the string). These alternate with the piano’s massive chords and occasional rapid melodic figures, along with muted tones emanating from inside the piano.”

Track listing:
[1-4] Pierre Jalbert: Piano Quintet (2017) 18:08

I. Mannheim Rocket 3:03

II. Kyrie 6:57

III. Scherzo 3:33

IV. Pulse 4:35

[5] Steven Stucky: Piano Quartet (2005) 17:26

[6] Carl Vine: Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013) 15:46

[7-10] Pierre Jalbert: Secret Alchemy for violin, viola, cello, and piano
(2012) 16:46

I. Mystical 4:00

II. Agitated, relentless 3:15

III. Timeless, mysterious, reverberant 5:28

IV. With great energy 4:03

Pierre Jalbert (b. 1967): Piano Quintet
(premiered by Jupiter Quartet and Bernadette Harvey on March 19, 2017)

Filed under: chamber music, recommended listening

Now Playing: He(a)r by Nordic Affect

Nordic Affect, an ensemble from Iceland that was formed in 2005 by period instrument musicians, has released a new album on the Sono Luminus label. He(a)r is “an ode to hear, here, hér [the Icelandic word for “here”], and her,” writes Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, Nordic Affect’s artistic director and composer of the title piece, which is interspersed as seven tracks between the six other compositions on the album. “It springs from treasured collaborations that allowed us to ‘send sound and receive sound’ (Pauline Oliveros)” an offers a “meditation on embodiment, acoustics, and ecology. An album which rides on the wave of questions that rise and rise — Whose sounds? Whose bodies? Whose voices?”
Violinist Stefánsdóttir is joined by her colleagues Guðrún Hrund Harðardóttir (viola), Hanna Loftsdóttir (cello), and Guðrún Óskarsdóttir (harpsichord) — all of them contributing vocals as well. A total of five women composers are represented here, all in world premiere recordings about space, time, illuminating contrasts, and the auras projected by sound.
They build sonic environments that beckon and alarm, lull and awaken. Especially powerful is Warm life at the foot of the iceberg by Mirjam Tally. She found her title in the work of Estonian poet Kristiina Ehin, explaining, “I think this title describes well the character and technique of this work: contrasts between ‘cold’ airy colors in high register plus rustle, and rhythmic ‘rocky’ sections, sometimes performed with extra pressure; and gliding between these two contrasting worlds, Like a melting iceberg, unstable on the ground, rapidly vanishing.”
I’m also keenly drawn to the music of Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, represented here by two works: the exquisite violin-viola-cello trio Reflections and Impressions, which opens the ears to an entire new universe of sonorities using prepared harpsichord.
Along with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Point of Departure, which explores the “delicate relationship between a person and her instrument, with the addition of the tuning together with other musicians and their voices,” there are also two pieces by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir: Loom and Spirals (the YouTube track linked above), which is the last in a trilogy she has written for Nordic Affect. Its predecessor, Clockworking, became an international breakthrough for the ensemble and similarly ruminates on the meaning of time. The composer says: “In Spirals, dense chords, a lost cadence, sounding through an old piano, and fragmented sounds from old music boxes are the original departure points that the piece revolves around. These spirals are not precise or mathematical, they refer to time and musical motion.”

Filed under: recommended listening

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