Archive for January, 2009

Chris Donnelly debut CD, SOLO, reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Chris Donnelly, SOLO, 11 songs, 67’, Alma Records, 2008. ACD92382.

To be frank, I have not cared to hear much jazz piano lately: I have been up to my ears in classical piano, particularly Marc- André Hamelin’s take on Haydn’s Piano Sonatas.  So when Jane gave me Chris Donnelly’s debut album Solo, I heard the first cut—Bill Evans’ tune “Very Early”— as nothing more than sweet and low cocktail/dinner piano music. Very nice, but so what? I kept listening.

He developed the next chorus with a touch of swing. In the next chorus, Donnelly came in swinging a bit harder on an angle of discord, and in the next stepped into some surprising chord and tempo shifts. That’s when I started hearing Haydn, the master of surprise. It’s a fact that for a time Bill Evans “worked on Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Dvorak and Mozart, for “three hours a day,” so I wasn’t just hearing things.

Donnelly also has a thorough classical background. Like Haydn, Donnelly puts something new into every variation of this 5’17” second tune, and if you think that is solely due to Evans and not Donnelly, just keep listening to the other half a dozen Donnelly tunes on this album, and you will get it.

The album has three Donnelly originals entitled “Song in B Minor”, two of them homages to classical composers Satie and Fauré. Each is recognizably in the style of the composer, and both show the taste and wit of Donnelly as he modulates from classical to jazz feeling. Comes to jazz feeling, he works skillfully off two other great jazz masters, Bud Powell (“Hallucinations”), and Charlie Parker (“Donna Lee”). Both cuts show impressive keyboard chops as well as startling improvisational talent.

The Powell and Parker tunes are totally progressive and hip, not to say a little weird. In a cool show of class, Donnelly dares to go Disney and offers a “Cinderella Medley – “So This is Love/ A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” So pretty you want to believe it, and still very compelling jazz.

Smart, beautiful, and funny: a great listening date.

Chris Donnelly, SOLO, 11 songs, 67’, Alma Records, 2008. ACD92382.

Mooredale Concerts Kuerti & Kuerti reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, January 12th, 2009

Sunday, January 11, 2008, MacMillan Theatre, Toronto.


The buzz that conductor Julian Kuerti would be joining his pianist father Anton for their debut duo concert in Toronto created a sell-out house. The duo did not disappoint. Bartok’s Hungarian Sketches, BB 103, introduced us to the synergy uniting Julian Kuerti, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, and the house acoustics. We heard music that was articulate: it spoke, it sang, it revealed itself as pleasure. Maestro Kuerti created nice spaces for the sequence of soloists on clarinet, flute, oboe and piccolo who introduce the thematic variations of the first Sketch. He skillfully negotiated the shifting tempi and moods that modulate subtly from lyrical to dissonant to sardonic and mocking and brought out the sense of clarity in Bartok’s music.

When Kuerti père joined his piano to the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s Capriccio Brilliante, Op. 22, the synergy doubled. This lively, free flowing, virtuosic piece opens with a slow melancholy passage. Anton Kuerti’s cleanly planted rests between phrases created a clarity that allowed the music to flow like a breeze between the bars of a swinging garden gate. And the orchestral richness followed right behind him.

Their collaboration in the Piano Concerto that followed, Mendelssohn’s G Minor Op. 25, was remarkable.  As the violas led the orchestral surge during the Andante second movement, the piano seemed to be singing an anthemic farewell to a time when a great love had been in bloom. That was a moment of great unity. The movement ends on an ambiguous note and the Finale runs through its shapely measures with great speed, energy, and decisiveness. Clearly a triumph.

After intermission, we had Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93. It is the shortest of the Nine and is said to be the composer’s favourite. One hears an abundance of rich textures in the first movement: waltzes you could skate to, Mozartean elegance mingled with Ludwigean thunder and lyricism. The second movement is justly famous for its comic opera humour based on the voice of the metronome.

There is a wonderful duet of horn and clarinet in the Menuetto that also recalls the theme of the first movement. And so on. Though all was well, except perhaps for a bit of heaviness in the brass, the magic seemed to be missing.  Nonetheless, one left this Mooredale concert feeling buoyed by a sense of this memorable musical celebration.

Humperdinck – Hansel and Gretel (The Metropolitan Opera HD Live Series) (2008) Emi Classics DVD reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

January 10, 2009

Every time the economy lurches these days, the story of Hansel and Gretel, particularly the operatic version by Humberdinck produced by Richard Jones at the Met earlier this year seems more poignant. Now is a time that the hunger we hear about in far off countries is coming closer to home.

The opera is about hunger. Hansel and Gretel in the opening scene are hungry, and sing (in English) “hunger bites me.” The parents are a modern couple: they both work but the family is not making it. Mother sings, “Hunger eats away your soul.” She is irritable and mean to the children and sends them out to pick berries for everyone’s supper: they get lost in the forest. And so on.

The materials are painful and often grisly, but the production is buoyed up by a kind of innocence that reminds me of the children in William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” who never lose touch with a vision of tenderness that could be theirs someday. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Wagnerian sized orchestra with subtle intimacy and pleasure. Humperdinck’s masterpiece mixes simple folk tunes, toe-tapping waltzes, grand melodies, dreamy, sad passages, with delicate forest sounds that are orchestrated with sophistication and sort of lift your whole being above the scary horrors that threaten but never actually happen.

The production is quirky in a way that disarms yet increases one’s alertness. Hansel and Gretel are both played by full grown women ( the feisty mezzo Alice Coote, and sparky Christine Schaefer, soprano, respectively). The witch is played by tenor Philip Langridge in a costume that makes him look like Mrs. Doubtfire, though his energy in more like a slightly sinister Ed Wynn as Mary Poppins’ Uncle Albert. Endless delight from all performers.

Richard Jone’s production is full of treats for the eye and mind. Instead of fairies in the forest, there are 10 grossly corpulent cooks who bring in a feast that the children eat in their dream. There is no gingerbread house in the forest. Instead there is a curtain with a huge, toothy mouth from which protrudes a gigantic red tongue offering a supersized Battersburg chocolate cake that the children actually eat.

The witch’s kitchen is a gourmet unit with a large centre island and restaurant sized oven. Her closets are filled with gingerbread children who come back to life after she herself has been been baked into a bread, but not before Hansel pushes her face into a cream pie. O yes, by the end of the opera, everyone is covered and smeared with food as if at a Hindu festival.

The whole two hours is a celebration of food, albeit based on hunger. Hansel and Gretel is the second in a series of operas filmed at the Met and issued by EMI as high-definition movie theatre broadcasts.

David Eagle and Hope Lee’s “Renew’d at ev’ry glance” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

David Eagle and Hope Lee, “Renew’d at ev’ry glance,” Tracks: 4, Playing time: 66′ , Booklet pages: 16, © 2008 Centrediscs, CMCCD 13708

This album has an arc like shape. It begins with David Eagle’s eponymous 19 minute mosaic of sonic tesserae produced by varied combinations of five performers on violin, piano, flutes, clarinets and percussion. Markedly tentative and delicate, the image of jagged filigree best describes this 1985 composition.

Dynamic energy flows upward in Hope Lee’s “Fei Yang [driven by the wind] (2000).” Joseph Macerollo’s masterful accordion growls, roars, and surges among propulsive rhythms of the excellent Accordes String Quartet. The energetic continuity of this piece is remarkable.

David Eagle’s “Breath” (1998), with the Accordes Quartet and an electronic soundfile blend a nature soundscape of grating branch rattle and snap of sticks with bird twitter and heavy breathing. Hope Lee’s “Voices in Time  (1992-4)” performed by the 16 piece New Music Concerts Ensemble with Lee’s soundfile completes the arc shape of the disc with weather-related stormy, wavy, fluidities that are somewhat meditative but still dynamic and wakeful.

The phrase “Renew’d at ev’ry glance” works as a title for this album that mingles the work of two composers because the details and the shape of the music here, so carefully made and artfully assembled, reward repeated listening with pleasure and insight.

ELLIOTT CARTER 100TH Anniversary Release reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

ELLIOTT CARTER 100TH Anniversary Release, New Music Concerts Ensemble, Robert Aitken, Director. Naxos 8.559614 (2008)

I enjoyed this album of ten short pieces in which Elliott Carter goes opposite. The central mood is melancholy but Carter always goes radially opposite to moods of elation, rapture, anger, pastoral reflection: he is often playful and jokey.

If a passage moves with the ponderous, creaking movements of age overcoming inertia, the getting started is slow. Then Carter goes opposite–to abrupt, shrill, explosive, as if finding relief in a burst of exasperation.

Ideas come to Carter seemingly one at time. He sets an idea down. What happens next is what happens next. There is not much building by imitation, repetition, modulated progressions. When an idea is done, another seems to drop in to take up the space. There is a freedom in this jerky flow that sometimes sounds like a small pickup truck with a bed full of junk bouncing along a washboard dirt road stopping often to allow the sound of a white throated sparrow, aspen leaves shivering in the breeze, some utterly tender moment finding its voice.

After several listenings, my mind feels adventurous, elegant and humane.

Carter wrote this music between his 75th birthday and his 100th. Most are occasional pieces composed as a present to honour friends who have contributed to music. The list is impressive: Charles Ives, Witold Lutoslawski, Goffredo Petrassi, Fred Sherry, Carlos Salzedo, and Robert Aitken, Director of the New Music Concerts Ensemble, dedicatee and soloist of “Scrivo In Vento”.

This piece, like many others on the disc has antecedents. “Scrivo” is a reflection on a paradoxical love poem by Petrarch. “Enchanted Preludes” for flute and cello performed by Aitken and David Hetherington is a musical description of the varying moods in a poem by Wallace Stevens. “Mosaic”, performed by Erica Goodman, recalls Carter’s friendship in the early 30’s with harpist Carlos Salzedo.

I find it deeply interesting that these pieces, so apparently pure in form, can also be listened to and explored as program music with antecedents in the rich friendships and cultures both musical and literary that Carter has enjoyed in Europe and America for a century.

Among the outstanding soloists these names need to be mentioned: Fujiko Imajishi, violin; Max Christie, clarinet; Virgil Blackwell, bass clarinet; David Swan, piano.