Category Archives: CD Reviews

Matthew Levy: People's Emergency Center

[CD review for WRTI; published 22 May 2014 and used here by permission.]

LevyPrismSaxophonist and Prism Quartet founder Matthew Levy has spent his career getting other composers played; now the spotlight’s on him in a new CD, and what a brilliance it reveals.

Call the Prism Saxophone Quartet contemporary-classical, call them avant-jazz, even call them omnivorous, but whatever you call them, they’ve been setting the gold standard for three decades. 2014 is in fact their 30th anniversary, and in that time, while centered in Philadelphia, they’ve been everywhere, stretching styles while inhabiting classical, jazz, world, and rock idioms.

Prism has commissioned more than 150 works, but in People’s Emergency Center (Innova) they turn the entire two-disc set over to Matthew Levy.

People’s Emergency Center is the first movement of Been There, and is also the name of a shelter helping women and children in West Philadelphia. It and the second movement, Gymnopedie (the word Erik Satie coined for his most famous piece), are culled from Levy’s music for a documentary about the shelter. The Prism four (Timothy McAllisterTaimur SullivanZachary Shemon, and Levy), bass, drums, guitar, and former Prism member Tim Ries on soprano saxophone all create magic with swirling precision.

Levy’s voice is at once vernacular and otherworldly, steeped in jazz but living in—as Henry Cowell would have it—the whole world of music. Serial Mood seems to ponder that post-Schoenberg world of harmony, and in doing so reveals a tasty secret known to Dizzy Gillespie, Gunther Schuller, and a few other hep cats: If you play 12-tone music with a hard, swinging beat, it sounds for all the world like be-bop.

That’s one of the unexpected treats that Levy offers. Another is the overarching spirit of generosity—to the listener and to each player. All the music of his I’ve heard exhibits this. Whether it’s rhythmically striking, sonically challenging, or a charming tune, it is genial music offered warmly to a real world filled with real people who want something good to hear. An excellent example is Brown Eyes, which here employs the whole band, but which Levy first had played in public in a smaller version. The occasion of the premiere? His wedding.

[Been There and Brown Eyes were featured on Now Is the Time, 10 May 2014.]

from Matthew Levy: Brown Eyes 

Minneapolis Guitar Quartet: Thrum

My latest CD review for WRTI; you can hear the podcast with musical examples below. All my CD reviews are here

Minneapolis Guitar Quartet: Thrum (Innova 858)
Daniel Bernard Roumain: Ghetto Strings
David Evan Thomas: Thrum
Van Stiefel: Cinema Castaneda
Gao Hong: Guangxi Impression

Thrum480From the opening moments of its recent CD Thrum, the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet throws its cards on the table. Attitude and refined sound are the driving forces here. Even the first percussive beats that herald the strut through Harlem—the first movement of Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Ghetto Strings—are nuanced, a combination of tap, stroke, and pound. This is delicious playing.

Roumain’s work travels through places he’s lived and visited. The streets of Harlem, Detroit, South Florida’s Liberty City, and Haiti jostle and hum in this pop-influenced, attractive suite. Ghetto Strings is celebratory yet wistful, a yearning matched by the thoughtful performance.

If there is such a thing as a non-specific program, David Evan Thomas suggests one in Thrum. He writes about finding a box of papers in an attic, a stroll in a garden, a philosophy lesson. But behind its three contented movements, Thrum is a welter of magnanimous sonic gifts to the guitars.

Van Stiefel, Associate Professor of Theory at West Chester University and a guitarist, approaches the arms-wide-open Cinema Castaneda from within the instrument. What a hoot this is, but then you catch yourself. He envisions cowboy songs, The Velvet Underground, and Chuck Berry, but the music—even the singing—evolves out of the hope and violence, he says, mixed together on the border of the U.S. and Mexico. This fascinates.

A culture of yet another kind wafts in on the talents of Gao Hong. She is one of the foremost performers on the pipa, the Chinese lute, and Guangxi Impression combines her artistry on that instrument with the guitar quartet. Through Tiaodan Dance, Summer Cicada, and Celebrating the Harvest, the string instrument cousins dip together and whirl.

Throughout Guangxi Impression and the entire CD of Thrum, the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet offers a luscious introduction to these four composers, their affable work, and to balanced and tasteful playing—with attitude.

Randall Thompson, Alleluia

The last of six brief descriptions of music I’ve written up for WRTI’s 60th Anniversary Classical Collection of listener favorites. Here is a fuller description of the project, under the first post, the Ave Maria of Franz Biebl.

ThompsonAlleluia480Randall ThompsonAlleluia. Voices of Ascension, Dennis Keene. Hear My Prayer. Delos 3300, Tr 2

From Randall Thompson, then Director of the Curtis Institute of Music, Serge Koussevitzky wanted a choral fanfare, loud and festive, for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. But Thompson couldn’t do festive, not in July 1940. Evil was spreading in Europe, and France had fallen the month before.

Over five days Thompson took the word “Alleluia”—literally, “Praise the Lord”—and turned it on its head, just as (he said later) it is in the Book of Job: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Thompson calls this a sad piece, this slow and insistent six-minute layered intoning of “Alleluia,” ending in “Amen.” It’s an atypical fanfare, but the Thompson Alleluia is one of the most beloved choral works of all time.

The theme to The Deer Hunter

The fifth of six brief descriptions of music I’ve written up for WRTI’s 60th Anniversary Classical Collection of listener favorites. Here is a fuller description of the project, under the first post, the Ave Maria of Franz Biebl.

DeerHunter1

Stanley MyersCavatina. Norbert Kraft, Guitar. Guitar Favorites. Naxos 8.553999, Tr 19

Film composer Stanley Myers scored The Walking Stick in 1970, and then guitarist John Williams convinced him to work up one bit of it for guitar. Williams played it eight years later on the sound track of one of the greatest movies of all time, The Deer Hunter.

Juxtaposing this bittersweet song against the struggle with brutality and love—in Southeast Asian jungles and Pennsylvania mountains—is as piercing now as it was in the years following the Vietnam War. Norbert Kraft performs the solo guitar arrangement with a graceful, glowing sound.

Above, from the scene with one of Robert De Niro’s great lines, “This is this. This ain’t somethin’ else, this is this.”

Mozart, Ave verum corpus

The fourth of six brief descriptions of music I’ve written up for WRTI’s 60th Anniversary Classical Collection of listener favorites. Here is a fuller description of the project, under the first post, the Ave Maria of Franz Biebl.

AveVerumCorpus480Wolfgang Amadeus MozartAve verum corpus. Kosice Teachers’ Choir, Camerata Cassovia, Johannes Wildner. Mozart: Mass No. 16, ‘Coronation Mass’ / Exsultate, jubilate / Ave Verum Corpus. Naxos 8.550495, Tr 9

Mozart wrote this for a church musician friend of his, for the Feast of Corpus Christi [which was celebrated this past Sunday, as I post this]. “Hail, true Body” is sung at the central moment of the Catholic liturgy, but is here so simple, so self-effacing, that it almost sneaks by.

The melody is nearly too sweet, the harmonies stay put, the bass line doesn’t travel much, the voices move together. But at “May it be for us a foretaste in the trial of death,” Mozart holds back the tenors and basses—just for a space. When they enter, oh so quietly, repeating the women’s “may it be,” Mozart’s genius detonates the mysterious celebration of the power of suffering.

He wrote this in June, 1791. In December he would be dead. Ave verum corpus may be the most stunningly compact explosion of music ever composed.

above, Joos van Wassenhove, The Institution of the Eucharist, 1473-75

Morten Lauridsen, O Magnum Mysterium

The third of six brief descriptions of music I’ve written up for WRTI’s 60th Anniversary Classical Collection of listener favorites. Here is a fuller description of the project, under the first post, the Ave Maria of Franz Biebl.

Nativity1480Ghirlandaio480Morten LauridsenO Magnum Mysterium. Elora Festival Singers, Noel Edison. Morten Lauridsen. Naxos 8.559304, Tr 17

“O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger. Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!”

This text was first chanted by monks in the cold, pre-dawn hours before Christmas mornings centuries ago. Now, the mystical, soaring music of Morten Lauridsen warms millions worldwide. Simple in structure and harmony, yet quietly overwhelming, the Lauridsen O Magnum Mysterium transcends style with its luminously expressive writing. Morten Lauridsen is one of the most-sung choral composers in America and around the world, and this work is a fine example why.

above, from Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 1480s Nativity

 

Gerald Finzi, Eclogue for Piano and Strings

The second of six brief descriptions of music I’ve written up for WRTI’s 60th Anniversary Classical Collection of listener favorites. Here is a fuller description of the project, under the first post, the Ave Maria of Franz Biebl.

CountryLane480Gerald FinziEclogue for Piano and Strings. Peter Donohoe, piano, Northern Sinfonia, Howard Griffiths. The Best of Finzi. Naxos 8.556836, Tr 14

When the boy was seven, his father died. Three brothers died. His first composition teacher was killed in WWI. He devoured poetry, wrote music, moved to the country, walked for hours in solitude. He cultivated apple trees, and cataloged and published a sick friend’s music. At 50 he learned he had Hodgkin’s disease; he wouldn’t live out the decade.

From this seemingly melancholy life Gerald Finzi sculpted music of soft, shimmering beauty. He never finished a piano concerto, but after his death one movement of it was published as Eclogue. The dictionary calls “eclogue” pastoral poetry. This is the essence of Gerald Finzi.