Archive for January, 2008

Philharmonia Quartett Berlin at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Thursday, January 24, Jane Mallett Theatre

With each bow stroke, you could feel Shostakovich taking hold of a piece of his life and letting it go. The Quartet No.15, in E-flat Minor, Op.144, that Shostakovich wrote a year before he died of a long illness, is his requiem, and when the performance dissolved into space, it was as if his life went with it.

There was hearty applause for the synchronous artistry of these four section heads of the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the best orchestras in the world, but nothing like the ovation that followed their offering, after intermission, of Beethoven’s third ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet in C, Op. 59.No. 3, an extraverted, assertive, exuberant composition. The Beethoven relieved the audience of the problem of how to express joyful praise of a first rate ensemble after immersing us in six adagio movements of Shostakovich’s personal anguish and cosmic sadness.

The six movements are all very slow, played without stop, relying on basic repeated rhythmic patterns, with the melody of some parts, like the second violin in the ‘elegy’, or the cello in the ‘intermezzo’, consisting of a single note, repeated or sustained for a long time. There is also a lot of material that is introduced, repeated, mulled over, and summarized, especially in the final movement.

Shostakovich’s instruction to the Tanayev Quartet that premiered the work may be the only bit of humour connected to the piece. He is reported to have said,” Play it so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience starts leaving the hall from sheer boredom.”

Adagio is my tempo of choice, as it happens, and this was a feast of sadness, protracted to abundance, a requiem to “beauty that must die, And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips Bidding adieu.” The Quartett Berlin were playing out a great truth, with perfect unity in their strokes, a glowing, pulsing sureness, and rich unisons. The ‘Epilogue’ concludes with the Quartett members playing so lightly it is as if the music were insubstantial as the smoke of a single stick of incense dissolving into the petals of a rose.

The players are: Daniel Stabrawa and Christian Stadelmann, violins; Resa Neithard, viola; and Jan Diesselhorst, cello.

Chou Wen-chung and the Varese Story at New Music Concerts reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

January 13, 2008


Edgard Varèse, who died in 1965, is currently considered one of the leading composers of the 21st Century.

His legacy is curated by Chou Wen-chung, Varèse’s student since 1949 and subsequently his assistant, amanuensis, editor and collaborator of the later works. A considerable composer in his own right, Chou Wen-chung shared his reminiscences of life with Varèse, his insights into Varèse’s music, and introduced his own compositions during this weekend festival presented by New Music Concerts and its ubiquitous artistic director, Robert Aitken.

Both composers saw the need to change the paradigm of what was considered ‘serious music’ of their time. Varèse, a Frenchman, emigrated to New York in 1915, having burnt all his manuscripts that linked him to the Wagnerian tradition of European Music, and set out in “Ameriques”(for large orchestra) to discover new worlds of sound: “fiercely dissonant chords, rhythmically complex polyphonies for percussion and wind, forms in continuous evolution with no large-scale recurrence.” In 1931, Varèse wrote the first European work to dispense with pitched sounds. Subsequent compositions introduced electronic instruments purely electronic music, produced by means of tape recorder.

Chou Wen-chung, born in China, writes music as ‘a humble tribute to the universality of the genius of Bach.’ His composing is based on principles drawn from tradition Chinese paintings and the Chinese theories of ‘yin/yang’ and ‘I-Ching’. Chou’s works are uniquely free of the grammar of both Western and Oriental musical traditions.

If there were such an organization as ‘ Composers without Borders’, both composers would be charter members. If the organization had a manifesto, it would contain phrasing to the effect that the unparalleled development of Western music during the past 500 years is nearly at a standstill and can be revived only by input from other musical cultures. This means looking to World Music, and to Jazz, Rock, Electronic and non-terrestrial cultures, as we hear in the music of Frank Zappa, another admirer of Varèse.

The music, 7 pieces by Varèse and 3 by Chou Wen-Chung, spread over two concerts and performed by ensembles of up to 40 instruments, was spectacular. The compositions ranged in scope from Varèse’s “Density 21.5”, a 4 minute piece for solo flute performed by Robert Aitken, through “Offrandes” for strings, winds and soprano, to “Ionisation” for more than a dozen non-pitched instruments (percussion, sirens).

The most accessible pieces were Chou Wen-Chung’s “ Twilight Colours” (2007), and Varèse’s “Offrandes”, featuring soprano Teri Dunn. The former, a double trio for woodwinds and strings is gentle, melancholy music, spacious, solitary and sad, in a pastoral mood, that captivates with an opening dialogue of foghorn tones from the bass clarinet echoed by cello, that is paralleled by the viola and oboe. The Varèse piece has a jazz/bluesy flavour, is funny and light, with extremely long-held notes of the winds, fanfare of brass, plangent harp runs and floaty transparent soprano vocalizations. It is highly imaginative in the way of Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.”

What most remains in the mind from this ‘festival’ is the energy of total dedication. The first example is that of Robert Aitken who made this homage to Varèse happen. The second is the example of Chou Wen-Chung, who seems to have dedicated major portions of his time and energy as a composer to ’ take care of’ Varèse’s musical legacy, enduring endless legal wrangling and bureaucratic pettiness to ensure that correct editions remain safe, secure, and available for the future. The warm, energy, and detail of his expositions of the principles behind his own music and that of his friend create a hunger to know more, and to hear more in this music.

Finally, we have been implanted with the example of Varèse himself, who set out to explore music 100 years beyond the boundaries of his own time, and who endured and overcame an indifference that almost silenced him, in order to fulfill his desire to hear music purely as sound, and to make that experience available to others who are willing to be guided towards spaces beyond convention.

Notes on A Few New CD Sounds for January by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

Tierney Sutton Band, On the Other Side. Telarc

Tierney Sutton and her band are something else. Whatever you want to say about this collaboration on her seventh album, and they say, “She is in a class by herself”, she is “a jazz icon-in-the-making,” she is the new “Ella”. Whatever they say, I say she is something else.

Comes to phrasing, Tierney uses her strong, flexible voice like an instrument, drawing you into the music rather than the story of the song. In this respect she is the ‘master’ of the unexpected, the happy coincidence. Working for the fourteenth year as part of this band, they work out musical settings are intricate and personal. The instrumental work as background, especially the percussion (Henry Trey/Kevin Axt on bass with Ray Brinker on drums), often moves to the front as a filigree among whose branches Tierney’s vocals glide like a gorgeous bird.

Many of the songs have the word ‘happy’ in the title but the point of the album is to question more than celebrate the idea that you can ever reach that state. Without question, I am definitely happy thing that Christian Jacob gets all the space he needs for his piano on “Blue Skies.” And, I am happy the Grammy nominated Tierney Sutton Band holds nothing back on this album I shall be listening to again and again.

Her band will be appearing for one night only at the Old Mill in Toronto on Thursday, January 10.
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NYOC/ONJC “Selections from the 2006 National Tour.” 2 CDs, NYOC2

Approximately one-third of Canada’s professional orchestral musicians are alumni of The National Youth Orchestra of Canada (NYOC), founded in 1960 to prepare young Canadian musicians for careers as professional orchestral players. Following the NYOC’s 1996 Tokyo performance, delegates of the World Youth Orchestra Conference Festival declared the NYOC as being “the best youth orchestra in the world.”

The current two-disc recording consists of selections from the NYOC’s 2006 National Tour with Jacques Lacombe as principal conductor. All the pieces are very listenable: the first one, Shostakovich’s Symphony No.1 in F Minor, Op.10, is especially apt. Written by a nineteen year old in 1925, it was an instant international success, and remains to this day in the active international repertoire. The NYOC give a good account of it’s formally classical qualities, as well as Shostakovich’s wit and deeper emotional tones.

The other works on this disc are also 20th Century, including Debussy’s La Mer, Stravinsky’s Chant du Rossignal in four movements, and the sixteen part Don Quixote, Op.35 by Richard Strauss. Here is a rich and varied offering well worth listening to.

Sir Andrew Davis, the TSO’s conductor laureate, will lead the National Youth of Canada’s Toronto concert – the last of its eight-city performances – at Roy Thomson Hall on Sunday, August 10, 2008.
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The Nightingale’s Rhapsody: Music for Clarinet and Strings. Jerome Summers, Clarinet, The Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra of Ottawa, Simon Streatfeild, Conductor. Cambria LC5882.

Jerome Summers, composer, conductor and clarinetist, commissioned five new works by Canadian composers that showcase the clarinet he plays in a winning way. This is Summers’ second album with ‘nightingale’ in the title, a metaphor for the clarinet coined by Brahms that aptly describes “the lyrical, yet melancholic nature of the instrument [as well as its] singing capabilities…with dramatic and humourous departures.”

Two compositions, “Romance for Clarinet and Strings”, and “Rhapsody for Clarinet, Percussion and Strings,” come from the pen of Ronald Royer. These masterful and witty pieces live up to Royer’s reputation for music that is both entertaining and imaginative. Royer has composed music performed before an audience of 20,000 people that was integrated Niagara Falls and a fireworks display. He also has written “Overture to an Unscripted Movie” which is a compression of ideas from hundreds of movie scores.

Oliver Whitehead’s music combines classical and jazz themes, music written for broadcast media and the theatre. This Juno Award winning guitarist and composer is represented here by “Pisarro Landscapes” which Summers describes as “ a superb balance of intimate whisperings and exuberant, even cheeky outbursts from the clarinet. Obviously, the composer knows me rather well!”

The disc features a new Michael Conway Baker “Clarinet Concerto” that is lyrical, melodic, and emotional, expertly crafted and orchestrated to be accessible.” Dale Reubart’s “Fantasy for Clarinet and Strings” rounds out the program with music that is strongly individualistic in a neoclassical style.

I have listened to this CD twice, and look forward to more listenings. It is pleasurable music whose charms deepen and unfurl in time.