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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.

Audacious and acclaimed new musical

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It seems bizarrely fortuitous that Michael R. Jackson’s musical A Strange Loop, which last week won both the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama (musical or otherwise) and the 2019 Hull-Warriner Award, was actually on my list to recommend this week. I was lucky enough to get in to one of the few remaining performances last summer after the show won across-the-board critical raves, and it literally blew me away. This is a daring, take-no-prisoners work, almost stream of consciousness housed within in an enfilated concept: Usher is a black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical: a piece about a black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical… etc etc. Jackson’s challenges to the boundaries he views from the world at large, the gay community, and the black community are searingly conveyed in a stream of funny and furious numbers.

This superb recording by the original cast captures the entire show.

Warning: this recording is Not Safe For Work nor for culturally sensitive types. Many expletives and trigger words are used.

Smoothing it out with Ms. Scott

I haven’t kept up with Jill Scott since her eponymous debut Who Is Jill Scott, so was it ever a treat to happen on this 2014 album as the grim covid-19 situation was cresting here in New York. The Light of the Sun is a particularly favorite jam right now. If you need both a diversion and fortitude, grab this. Scott’s skill at smooth, sweet groove backing trenchant lyrics has only improved as she strolls and swaggers joyously in the no man’s land between soul, funk, jazz, and swinging hip-hop beats.

Thom Jurek of Allmusic rightly describes this as “a record of the rocky road to empowerment… Scott expresses spoken and sung gratitude for and about her new baby, career, life, and support system. Poetry and song are woven with elegance in a nocturnal groove… On The Light of the SunScott sounds more in control than ever; her spoken and sung phrasing (now a trademark), songwriting, and production instincts are all solid. This is 21st century Philly soul at its best.”

While every track on this album is a bop, I keep repeating the addictive pre-release single “So in Love”: a modern Philly soul fan’s dream, with its lithe, fingerpopping bassline, shimmering drums, and seeming bliss arising between Scott and Anthony Hamilton, who turn in a grand duet performance.

Solace in Mozart

Everyone has their favorite solace music or composer. For many “classical music” partisans, it’s Bach. For some, like Alex Ross of The New Yorker, it’s Brahms. I’m firmly in the Mozart camp. In these days of unimaginably, almost medievally grim conditions in which New York City finds itself, compounded by unrelentingly inclement weather, I’ve been turning increasingly to the luminously inventive Salzburg Wunderkind for mental centering. From his extensive catalogue, this album of the violin concertos serendipitously popped up on my list and has been providing me great light in these dark times.

There are heaps of existing recordings of the concertos, but Isabelle Faust’s entry from 2017, which won major awards from both Gramophone Magazine and the BBC, is a lovely traversal of these beloved works, combining sunny, lilting charm with poignancy and depth. A wonderful reminder in this grim era that artists, both performers and creators, provide so much light, hope and reassurance of human potential.