Holiday happiness is…

..revisiting my Spotify Yuletide Swing playlist. Always curating, refining, polishing.

While some of the titles may suggest a particular denomination or belief, I’ve included them solely for their musical contribution. This is

Whatever situation the pandemic may have placed you in this year, I hope this brings you some smiles, warmth, comfort, groove, a swing to your step and extra light to your holiday season. We’ve surely needed it more this year than any in my lifetime.

Let me know of any tracks you think should add to this!

Swinging serenity

I can’t believe I haven’t lauded this group yet, after months of savoring their sweet stylings. Like the entirety of the performing arts community, this super suave jazz trio had to scramble to find performance alternatives in the face of the pandemic closures, and began streaming live Facebook sessions on Monday nights early this spring. These have become one of my top psychological palliatives in the turbulence of both the virus and the malevolent insanity of the current U.S. administration. If I haven’t been able to create much music of my own, having these cats remind me of what brilliance and joy is still possible has been mana.

Fronted by their wunderkind eponymous pianist, superbly backed by drummer Kyle Pool and bassist Russell Hall (who has to be the most stylin’ jazz performer currently on the interwebz), these concerts from Emmet’s living room in Harlem include featured guests from across the jazz spectrum. Each week is a blast.

The group has an extensive discography which I highly recommend, but increasingly legendary archive of live performances on both Facebook and Youtube is equally delectable. Donations are requested and I highly encourage it: live music this good and visceral, right in the comfort of your own home, shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Oh happy day

If – like me – you have spent the past few days in a state of bewildered jubilation at the prospect of sanity and decency to the government of the United States, you may have been searching for a means of expression. One of mine has been the creation and continuing curation of this playlist. Here’s hoping it promotes your own mood!

And feel free to send me suggestions for additions.

Full disclosure: the composer featured on this album of solo piano works, Alex Shapiro, is one of my dearest friends, staunchest champions, and a paragon of elegance, courage, indefatigable energy, generosity, and sagacity. So I don’t claim for a minute that this recommendation is remotely unbiased.

Still I can’t imagine any fan of living new/concert music not being swept away by these widely ranging pieces ranging across two decades, more introspective than virtuosic. Their various impetuses are wide ranging, as Shapiro herself describes: “From a fiery, unexpectedly uplifting elegy, to a somber and despairing childhood flashback; From the bleakness of the Mexican desert, to the lilt of kelp strands along the San Juan Island shoreline; From homages to R. Schumann and L.V. Beethoven, to affirmations of the fragile power of healing herbs; From lyrical angularity, to frenzied comedy.”

The creation of this album involved a fascinating two-stage process. Pianist and Yamaha Artist Adam Marks first played the tracks into a 9′ Yamaha DCFX, which captured them as digital files. These were then edited and polished. The tracks were then recorded via the piano’s playback of those revised files in New York City’s American Academy of Arts and Letters, allowing the hall’s superb acoustics to add their richness to Marks’ superb renditions.

The suite from which the album derives its title is simultaneously lyrical, reflective and haunting, and all the tracks are captivating.

But I unashamedly claim a favorite amongst these: the opening work, “Spark”, a commission in honor of Dale Mara Bershad who succumbed to cancer in 2010. This luminous, soaring piece reflect’s Mara’s “remarkable inner light cast an indelible glow. Her essence remains radiant and present: a spark from a life filled with passion and delight, burning brightly, intensely, and without end.”

A capella musical theater

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As a still – if not eternally – aspiring musical theater orchestrator, it may seem self defeating to be lauding a show that uses no instruments at all. But this a capella musical is so extraordinary, especially in its use of voices in a panoply of sonic textures, that it’s truly inspiring on any music level.

Along with Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, this show by polymath composer Dave Malloy was the talk of New York’s theater scene in the summer of 2019, and in my opinion should have split the Pulitzer Prize. The piece (the Times dubbed it a “chamber opera” but it could also be called a multi-voiced song cycle) is an almost dizzying exploration of the effects of our obsession with and addiction to the digital world. And even with no instrumental backing, the score holds nothing back: this is as demanding a piece as you’ll find in any genre.

Each singer/character is given an aspect of internet addiction to explore. Much like Loop, this is also a raw, no holds barred work that is giddy with achievement.

This recording, funded by public contributions, was culled from several live performances which adds immeasurably to the viscerality of the experience: audience reactions are great signposts throughout the show.

One of the bizarre ironies of this catastrophic pandemic is the amount of creative content available at a click – almost overwhelming in both quantity and breadth. (I’ve unquestionably seen more Shakespeare in the last three months than in the rest of my life, and certainly more opera than in the last five years). Which is why a few weeks ago I took a breather from Weighty Content when I noticed Birdland’s Facebook stream presenting this trio’s weekly Monday night jam.

Who knows if I ever would have encountered this group were it not for the current circumstances? But have they ever been a tonic (in addition to what’s usually in my glass when I’m listening to them).

Their talent speaks for itself: these guys groove every which way and then some. And while almost all their streams are archived, I’m still making a point to catch them live: this weekly appointment has made the start of what are increasingly tense and exhausting weeks so much more tolerable. They accept donations of any amount (scroll down their Facebook page for the various options), and they’re well worth the financial love.

If and when in person events ever start up again, this group will be high on my list. In the meantime, these virtual gigs are superb.

Living Color

The recent seismic events in the U.S. – particularly the long overdue revolution to address police brutality and systemic racism – has had the welcome and yet sad side-effect of adding to my listening list a number of living composers of color I’d never heard of before. Sad because my listen-to lists, which admittedly rely on well known outlets, rarely include this demographic (and that’s a whole other and much longer post). A situation the current times is happily changing.

Aside from a handful with whom I’m personally acquainted – Shelley Washington, Omar Thomas, Evan Williams, Kevin Day, Tania Leon, Marcos Balter (whose gorgeous Pan I had the honor to perform in) – I feel like I’m rarely exposed, virtually or at concerts, to the music of composers of color, particularly black composers.

Politics and optics aside, this baffles me. In particular this album of string quartets by British Jamaican composer Eleanor Alberga, has been a repeat listen since it was recommended several weeks ago by Evan. I would place any these vivid, imaginative, colorful, varied and voyaging works ahead of a number that are routinely trotted out on concerts because of name recognition. I hope that happens, especially with these superb performances by Ensemble Arcadiana. These pieces should be in the top of any quartet’s repertoire of living composers, regardless of demographics or box checking.

I realize one can’t listen to everything – well, Frank Oteri can, but some of us actually need sleep. I can’t wait to have my listening horizons expanded even wider, especially exploring more of Alberga’s work.

Symphonic Sisters

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This blog really ought to be run by the extraordinary Frank J. Oteri, who is a considerably more omnivorous listener than myself – many of his explorations wind up on my list.

In addition to being a remarkable composer, Frank is the Composer Advocate at New Music USA and the Co-Editor of NewMusicBox, a web magazine he founded, which has been online since May 1999. He is also the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and serves on the board of directors of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC).

All these roles feed Frank’s insatiable interest in new music of all forms. One fascinating exploration he recently made was a single numbered symphony, in ascending order, each by a different female composer. (He actually went considerably more in depth and farther afield than that, but let’s start here).

This has been my listening for the last several days, and it’s a fascinating range of either works or composers I didn’t know.

N.B. While I’ve posted youtube links where possible, I urge you to purchase these works. Streaming pays next to nothing to the living composers. Album purchases actually compensate the artists.

Symphony No. 1 in f minor, op. 41 (1916-17, rev 1920) [ca. 48’]
by Dora Pejačević (1885-1923, Croatia)
Recorded by Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Ari Rasilainen
(cpo 777-418-2)

Published by Muzički informativni centar, Zagreb

Symphony No. 2 (1993) [ca. 18’]
by Chen Yi (b. 1953, China; based in U.S.A. since 1986)
Recorded by The Women’s Philharmonic conducted by JoAnn Falletta (New Albion NA 090)
Published by the Theodore Presser Company

Symphony No. 3 in c minor (1938-40) [ca. 29’]
by Florence Price (1887-1953, U.S.A.)
Recorded by The Women’s Philharmonic conducted by Apo Hsu (Koch International Classics 3-7518-2)
Published by G. Schirmer

Symphony No. 4 ‘A Passing Shadow’ (2000) [23’]
by Tsippi Fleischer (b. 1946, Israel)
Score published by the Israel Music Institute (IMI 7265)
Players of the Prague Philharmonic conducted by Jiri Mikula (Vienna Modern Masters VMM 3053)

Symphony No. 5 ‘Amen’ (1989-90) [ca. 14’]
by Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006, Russia)
Recorded by The St. Petersburg Soloists conducted by Oleg Malov (Megadisc MDC 7854)
Published by Musikverlag Hans Sikorski

Symphony No. 6 ‘Patria eterna’ (1988-89) [26’]
by Liana Alexandra (1947-2011, Romania)
Recorded by the Romanian Radio Orchestra conducted by Paul Popescu
Score from the Liana Alexandra Estate available at the International Music Score Library Project via a Creative Commons Licence

Symphony No. 7 in f minor (1855-56 premiered 1862) [ca. 34’]
by Emilie Mayer (1812-1883, Germany)
(sometimes misidentified as Mayer’s Symphony No 5, a work which is actually lost)
Performed by the Kammersymphonie Berlin conducted by Jürgen Bruns (Dreyer Gaido)
Published by Furore Verlag

Symphony No. 8 ‘Indian Sounds’ (1991)
by Gloria Coates (b. 1938 U.S.A.; based in Germany since 1969)
Performed by Kathleen Eberlein and Rose Bihler Shah (voices and stones) with the Musica-viva-ensemble Dresden conducted by Jürgen Wirrmann (New World Records 80599)

Symphony No. 9 ‘Celestial Symphony’ (2014-15) [ca. 15’]
by Barbara Harbach (b. 1946, U.S.A.)
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Angus (MSR Classics MS 1614)
http://www.msrcd.com/catalog/cd/MS1614

Black Out Tuesday

In honor of the fight to confront the systemic racism and police brutality still ingrained in the United States, I am pausing my weekly recommendations to commemorate the murder of George Floyd, the latest in an abhorrent line of racially charged murders.

Please: put down your devices. Go out. On the streets. In person. Peacefully. But raise your voice.

We all must be the change. The authorities and government will never do it. We must. Us. Me. You.

#Blacklivesmatter

Exploring 18th century carnevale operas

Gramaphone magazine’s rapturous review of this CD introduced me to the superb Swedish soprano Ann Hallenberg. A specialist in Baroque music, she and her musicologist husband have for some years put together programs highlighting various epigones from the 17th and 18th centuries. This album focuses on the eight-week carnival period in Venice between December 26, 1728, and February 27, 1729, with selections from all seven operas performed during that season, including works by such well known names as Albinoni and Porpora.

I am not a major bel canto fan, but when performed as exquisitely as this both technically and expressively, all those runs and roulades can be captivating. Gramaphone’s review rightly laud’s “Hallenberg’s pinpoint virtuosity and lyricism, communicative use of language, idiomatic embellishment, intelligently sculpted phrasing (limpid, gentle or turbulent as the music demands) and astute theatrical characterisation: time seems to stand still in Adelaide’s lament ‘Quanto bello agl’occhi miei’, sung sublimely over a sophisticated rolling string accompaniment, and the voice’s dialogue with violinist-director Stefano Montanari is shaded elegantly in Ottone’s lyrical alla francese aria ‘Vedrò più liete e belle’.”

Exquisitely accompanied by period ensemble Il pomo d’oro, this is a superb listening experience.