Monthly Archives: June 2009

Charles Ives, Maurice Wright

My latest CD mini-review for the WRTI E-newsletter. You can read all my CD reviews here.

Charles Ives / Maurice Wright / Marc-André Hamelin
Charles Ives Sonata No. 2 “Concord, Mass. 1840-1860”;
Maurice Wright Sonata
New World Records 378-2

80378.full[1]The “Concord” Sonata is the Mount McKinley of piano literature—towering over the surrounding terrain, the entire continent seems to arrive at one point, which in this case is a small Massachusetts town. Here stands Ives, discoursing on Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, Thoreau, transcendentalism, spirituality, and a New England manliness not unlike Beethoven’s (Ives’s very readable Essays before a Sonata fleshes out his strong likes and dislikes). The piece is unutterably difficult, but Hamelin wins us over with technique beyond compare. And poetry.

Maurice Wright’s first piano sonata is a find, and is an apt complement to the Ives. (Full disclosure: Wright is Professor of Composition at Temple University, and in his fine career has taught many talented pupils, and me.) All of Wright’s music shines with delight, intelligence, and vitality. This work is enjoyable, moreover, because of something more: it’s a great piano piece. Fully confident in every aspect, Wright’s Sonata should be a welcome addition to any pianist’s repertoire.

Hamelin surveys these works with lyricism, a sparkling delicacy, and, when called for, manic fury. He is thrilling. What a player, what a CD.

Where flames a word, Broad Street Review


Class act
Tom Purdom, Broad Street Review, 24 Jun 2009 

Donald Nally’s choir, The Crossing, occupies a unique niche in the musical ecosystem: Its singers perform new and unfamiliar music for a small chamber choir. I heard them for the first time last season, when they joined Piffaro for a major event: the premiere of Kile Smith’s Vespers for voice and Renaissance instruments. The Crossing’s latest a capella concert in Chestnut Hill was the first pure Crossing concert I’ve attended, and it met most of my expectations. The Crossing presents novel, beautiful, complex music that requires precise coordination and first-class voices.

The program’s main event was another premiere by Kile Smith, the final work in a trilogy Nally has dubbed the Celan Project: three settings for texts by Paul Celan (1920-1970), a Romanian Jewish poet who survived the Nazi death camps.

I’d never heard of Celan, and I found the texts obscure and complex. Celan grew up in the aftermath of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, speaking several languages, including Yiddish. But German was the language used by cultured Central Europeans in his youth, and he continued to write in it after the Holocaust, even though it was the language of his oppressors. Celan’s German is so personal and inventive that Smith referred to him as the “German James Joyce” when I queried him after the concert.

Smith’s piece used English translations, which only increased their opaqueness in my case, and I listened to his piece primarily as pure, wordless music. Smith treated the unaccompanied voices just as unpredictably—and effectively—as he treated Renaissance instruments in the Vespers and modern instruments in the horn concerto he wrote for the Classical Symphony. He’s composed a number of good pieces over the years, but lately he seems to be on a roll.

Vespers CD, City Paper


New Made Old
Vespers is almost preternaturally beautiful
Peter Burwasser, Philadelphia City Paper, 2 Jun 2009

This Vespers is almost preternaturally beautiful, presented with an apparent simplicity that reveals the timeless essence of musical expression. But it is not at all simple, as Smith subtly weaves contemporary figurations, pacing and textures into an old fabric. It is remarkable how seamless this effect is, and how utterly self-effacing is Smith’s technique. A casual listener might miss the impact of Vespers, but not for long. The music seeps into the consciousness with gentle stealth and power, finally disarming any resistance… This recording is one of those fortunate synergies of fine forces… The sum of the parts is magical. Don’t miss this one.

Where flames a word, Hotbed of Intrigue

Dave Allen, Hotbed of Intrigue, 10 Jun 2009

Kile Smith’s Where flames a word, the final world premiere in the Celan Project, and the first to incorporate a prose work by Celan. Gives a sense of immanence and of tremendous, overwhelming size and the struggle to comprehend it. Middle section, the prose setting, has text that reflects a struggle for language, a conflict between “green” and “white” language, and the build-up of clusters suggests language at war, green and white each fighting for their own space… the Smith piece was really impressive: a strong sense of lapping waves, of drawing closer to that nagging, inscrutable secret that seems to haunt Celan. One odd thing: ending on the word “delusion” with a sweet, major chord. Are we to come away thinking of peace and harmony as a delusion? Is this resignation in the face of the struggles Celan evokes? Not sure.

[I commented to Dave’s post:] Hi Dave,

Good question, and thanks for the kind words. Here’s how I see all the Celan texts in the piece. There’s you and me, and then there’s something else. You and I are delusion. The else is real. There’s comfort in that; struggling’s over; major chord.

But it is a deceptive cadence. I set up the final section to sound like it’s in C major, although it’s really C lydian (with the F#). But on “real” I take out the lydian and accentuate C major even more by going to its subdominant of F major. When they settle on the last syllable, “sion” of delusion, the bass even drops to that glorious low C. Sounds like the last chord. Did it sound like that to you? I was hoping so, anyway. But then it jumps up a ninth and the other voices settle to D F# A, and that’s the last chord. So it is major, but odd.

Peace and harmony are not the delusion. In the face of what’s real, we’re the delusion. And that’s fine. That’s my take on the text, and what I tried to convey, anyway. Many thanks again for all your observations,



Vespers CD, Gramophone


Ancient practice through modern eyes and ears—the result is a success

Andrew Druckenbrod, July 2009

The trend of writing new music for period instruments has passed through predictable stages of gimmickry and pseudo-Hegelian synthesis to finally be, simply, “music”. Questions of genre and authenticity shouldn’t get in the way of our enjoying a spectacular work such as Kile Smith’s Vespers, based on ancient Lutheran liturgical German and Latin texts. Nor should they problematise the collaboration of the Renaissance band Piffaro, who commissioned the piece, and a contemporary vocal ensemble, The Crossing.

While Smith’s knowledge of Lutheran practice informs the work, the hushed awe that floats in every movement of Vespers is wholly appropriate in the generic sense. The Philadelphian composer displays a tender love for the texts of his church and Martin Luther with settings that express even the Latin or German in sparkling beauty.

The Crossing intones the chant-like passages well, but its expertise shines in the shimmering timbre it creates for Smith’s contemporary counterpoint. The flowing setting of Psalm 27 is an early example, but the a cappella hymn “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn” calls on its clearest and precise singing as it moves from four to eight and then 16 voice parts… The result is a quiet yet ecstatic work that offers a profoundly contemporary view of an ancient practice.

Here’s the link to the Navona blogsite about it, with that gorgeous photograph of Piffaro.

Where flames a word, Philadelphia Inquirer


The Crossing sings final concert of Month of Moderns festival

David Patrick Stearns, 8 Jun 2009

an important world premiereWhere Flames a Word took on Paul Celan poems that seem to be about soul recognition through sex – in words too fearlessly personal to be uttered in real life and that can perhaps exist only in a poem. The depth of expression easily surpasses his much-discussed Vespers. Some of the word settings are plainspoken as can be; others sail in through alien key signatures, racing in from some side door. Resolutions got sidetracked by bass notes that rise from under cover. Most of it makes little literal sense but, poetically speaking, feels completely right in spellbinding ways I never imagined.

Where Flames a Word will be reprised at the Crossing’s free opening concert of Chorus America’s National Conference, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 313 Pine St.

Now it’s me writing: You can look at the words here and see what you think they’re about. The parallel I draw from Celan’s poetry in general is to James Joyce, although everybody notices that. The parallel to these texts in particular is, for me, John Donne, and how the sensual is a portal to the eternal. The so-called metaphysical poets did not shy away from descriptions of physical intimacy in trying to fathom the reality of the spiritual experience. This is nothing new, and goes back, at least, to the Song of Solomon.

(The idea that religious people are prudes is a myth invented, let’s be frank, by irreligious people for whom intimacy has evaporated into mere pleasure. If you have a metaphysical appreciation, you understand perfectly well not only the power of both worlds, but the interleaving. The secular world invented this dichotomy, not religion. That some religious people have bought into it merely demonstrates how tightly they have become entangled in the world. Tsk, tsk.)

Whether this piece is deeper in expression than Vespers is something I can’t calculate. Maybe it is. I’m happy for the wonderful feedback I’ve received about both works. I am moved by the Psalms more than any other literature and think I invested that into the music, but that’s for others to decide. It may be true that I play Vespers close to the vest harmonically (that is, I think it’s very expressive, but within a smaller circle). One reason is that Renaissance instruments do not sit well with extreme harmonic shifts. Another is that Vespers is closely related to liturgical music, which should not be a vehicle for self-expression. (Art shouldn’t be concerned with self-expression anyway, but that’s another discussion.)

For instance, the reading of Scripture in worship should be accomplished simply and clearly, with no room for dramatic recitation. Chant, which is artful declamation, comes directly out of that. Sacred polyphony comes out of chant, and the same principles apply, I believe. But in a concert piece, one can loosen up one’s expression, since the purpose changes.

Come out Wednesday and see what you think. Did I mention the concert’s free?

Vespers CD, Audiophile Audition


Easily one of the best releases of the year of any type

Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition, 2 Jun 2009

Seldom do I come across a piece with such profoundly direct emotional appeal. I’ll say it outright: this work is a masterpiece of the deepest kind. The Crossing may specialize in new music, but the sound they produce here is of a kind that Palestrina would certainly have approved, and any Lutheran congregation in the seventeenth century would think they are in heaven. Smith’s use of the 20-odd instruments magnificently played by Piffaro are uncannily integrated in the very thick textures of this work, and then gloriously dissipate into brilliant solo and chamber-like combinations when called for… a masterly mélange of old and new that perseveres in a way that one can feel without necessarily having to explain. The writing is brilliant in all respects, and including the score of the entire work as a series of bonus PDF files is a luxury that all listeners with a degree of musical education can take advantage of… This is easily one of the best releases of the year of any typeit would be a crime to pass it up. ★★★★★