Category Archives: My CD Reviews

Usually mini-reviews for the WRTI monthly e-newsletter

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.

Francis Pott in the Heart of Things

My latest CD review for WRTI, podcast with musical examples below. You can read all my CD reviews here

In the Heart of Things: Choral Music of Francis Pott
Commotio. Matthew Berry, conductor
Naxos 8.572739

FrancisPott480Whether communication is too easy, or articulation is too difficult, our time is not a time of counterpoint. Instead of corresponding, we post or tweet; instead of reasoning, we shout and repeat, louder and louder. Music is often an event or a stepping-up of rungs of events: hooks and ladders, clanging past, looking for a fire.

The choral music of Francis Pott, however, flows by, refreshingly contrapuntal. That joy in the working of voices is particularly evident in his 2012 CD, In the Heart of Things. If counterpoint seems anti-modern, he admits it, and points to Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and other past masters of the polyphonic Mass as models. That’s appropriate, because In the Heart of Things is a collection of his choral music revolving around the most substantial work on the recording, his Mass for Eight Parts.

From the Kyrie through the Agnus Dei, this Mass is a triumph of intricate beauty. Upper, middle, and lower streams of voices glide by and mingle, their complexity unnoticed because they shimmer. Sometimes they sneak in, as the “Hosanna” does at first in the Sanctus, or roll in waves, gathering strength as at the end of that movement.

Sometimes the power is overwhelming, as at the end of the Gloria, the final “Amen” surging, unexpected, rank upon rank. Pott composed the Agnus Dei in memory of someone he didn’t know, a past singer of Commotio, the choir that commissioned this. His gentle, pointed lyricism melts the voices into a sea of comfort.

Francis Pott was raised in the English chorister tradition, and knows this repertoire from the inside. His setting of a familiar text, such as Balulalow (known by many from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols), or the new Mary’s Carol (Pott wrote this in memory of his father-in-law), always balances freshness of expression with aptness to the language.

His Lament honors a soldier killed in Afghanistan. Using the poem of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, “But we, how shall we turn to little things / And listen to the birds… nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things,” we know the composer feels deeply what we also feel. This fellow-feeling is at the heart of artistry.

Francis Pott weaves a living counterpoint of music and emotion because he himself has sung it. His music breathes the life of tradition, but it is ever fresh, ever modern.

The Treasury of English Church Music

My latest CD mini-review for WRTI, podcast with musical examples below. You can read all my CD reviews here.

The subtitle of this five-CD set is “1100-1965,” and this is, in fact, a new release of the 1966 recordings, with 30 bonus tracks added. The original LPs accompanied the publication of a new edition of the printed music, and the project brought together the finest English sacred choral repertoire, from the conquest of the Normans to the conquest of Howells.

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) himself opens the album with an address about the importance of the Treasury project, with some humble remarks about his own contribution. If you know English church music, you know Howells. If you don’t, this is a chance to hear the lion of the last generation, and to contemplate how much modern choral composers owe him in the apposition of thoughtfulness and passion.

The Treasury of English Church Music is nothing less than a history of Western music itself, but from the vantage of this sceptered isle. Unison chant begins it, and soon, second and third voices join in parallel motion, the gently sweet fauxbourdon and open cadences that herald the first stirrings of modern counterpoint.

Dunstable, Tallis, Morley, and Byrd are giants, but appearing next to lesser-known names such as John Merbecke and Walter Frye, they solidify their own standing while they magnify the others to a well-deserved hearing. Merbecke’s Nunc dimittis (“Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace”) breathes a tune that church musicians still use.

Everywhere you turn, major and so-called minor composers complement each other: Gibbons and Weelkes with Richard Farrant and Robert White (with excruciatingly subtle harmonic pressure-points); Purcell with Pelham Humphrey and Maurice Green; and into the 1700s, William Boyce with the very classical James Nares.

The 19th and 20th centuries give us, among many others, T. Tertius Noble, Charles Villiers Stanford and his pupil Ralph Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw (his Creed, not With a Voice of Singing, which every chorister of a certain age knows almost by heart), Britten, Walton, Howells, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Elgar.

Throughout, the men and boys choir tradition is upheld to great effect. The aspects of this style of music (if you allow eight centuries to be called one style) are apparent: creamy lines cunningly wrought and harmonies that reveal themselves slowly, as a landscape unwraps itself while you walk around a bend in a country path. Listening to all this together, however, you may begin to realize something else, negatively stated. In five CDs, there is not one moment of bombast.

Perhaps, for this royal throne of kings and this happy breed of men, there is no need for it. That may very well be stretching Shakespeare out of proportion (and the English love proportion), but if so, the intention is well meant. This Treasury of English Church Music is, indeed, a precious stone set in the silver sea.

Robert Moran, Trinity Requiem

My latest CD review for WRTI…

Robert Moran has written music for entire cities to perform—San Francisco, Graz, Bethlehem, Pa.—with cars, airplanes, multiple orchestras, choirs, and bands joining in raucous mélanges of celebration. You wonder what he would write for a city’s terror.

Trinity Wall Street commissioned Moran’s Trinity Requiem for the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 destruction of New York’s World Trade Center. Trinity is the Ground Zero church. Its St. Paul’s Chapel was covered with the debris of the 2001 terror strike, a lone sycamore tree’s upshot roots miraculously shielding it from damage. It held rescuers and mourners, and for months its sturdy iron fence supported an ever-growing drapery of photos of the thousands lost that day.

The Trinity Requiem is for youth choir, four cellos, harp, and organ. The youth choir became the compelling reason for Moran to take on the project. He thought of all the children in all the wars who lost their parents, who lost everything, and told Robert Ridgell, then the director of the Trinity Youth Choir, “Rob, this is what ‘our’ Requiem is about, these thousands and thousands of kids left with nothing.” Then he composed this haunting music.

It moves mostly at a calm and peaceful pace, not unlike Fauré’s Requiem. That may seem at odds with Moran’s post-minimalist tapestry, but he shares with the French master this quality: lyricism without shame. Moran makes you forget labels. All that’s left is to embrace the music.

Also on the CD is an intriguing collage of elements from Trinity Requiem remixed by composer Philip Blackburn, called Requiem for a Requiem. Moran has two more choral works here, Seven Sounds Unseen, introspective settings of passages from letters John Cage wrote to Moran, and Notturno in Weiss, a setting of a poem by Christian Morgenstern (1871–1914).

…The family of stone,
Fashioned from marble,
Kneels unto a lily,
In the deathly still of night….

Unearthly, questioning, and grounded at the same time, it reflects—as does Moran’s Trinity Requiem, as does all of Moran’s music I’ve heard—on the hope of humanness.

Carson Cooman, The Welcome News

My latest CD mini-review for WRTI, including podcast with musical excerpts. You can read all my CD reviews here.

Carson Cooman writes music as naturally as anyone I’ve heard. The number of his works is already approaching 1,000 for this just barely 30 composer, and represents every form, even multiple symphonies and operas. In addition to composing he is an excellent organist who frequently performs new music, and between editing organ and hymn music he is Composer in Residence for The Memorial Church, Harvard University.

Forty recordings contain his music, including seventeen complete CDs. His newest, The Welcome News, brings together his most recent a cappella choral works, many of them sacred motets. The CD will be released on July 31st.

Cooman’s music has always been strongly rooted in the Anglican harmonic tradition of sweetness and lush phrasing, but The Welcome News probes further into rhythmic vigor and textural surprise. The Rochester, N.Y. native has lived in the Boston area for some time, and New England may explain delightful fuguing-tune and shape-note threads (“The Welcome News,” “Awake My Heart”) that add to the tapestry of his confident, optimistic music.

But the surprises are real, with modal corkscrews and leaps of melody and mood. The final work, “O Lord, I Will Sing of Your Love Forever,” is a substantial example. Commissioned by King’s Chapel, Boston, for its 325th anniversary, it’s in the model of a coronation anthem. Cooman sets texts from the Psalms, the Gospels, and Zechariah, ending with an Alleluia that is at once triumphant and introspective. Teasing between major and minor, he ends on a soft unison that is as glorious as any shout.

The effect is the opposite of vainglory but is instead all subtlety in its refusal to reach for effect. The naturalness of Carson Cooman’s writing is welcome news, indeed.

Mad Men CD, David Carbonara

My latest CD mini-review for WRTI, including podcast with musical excerpts. You can read all my CD reviews here

Matthew Weiner, the creator of the hugely popular TV series Mad Men—now in its fifth season—works very hard at going beneath the surface to capture the look of the 1960s, from company logo typefaces to office equipment tints to the shine in a pair of trousers. Mad Men composer David Carbonara labors just as much on the show’s music to express that era; he’s a composer of acutely original pieces.

Mad Men, Original Soundtrack from the TV Series, Vol. 1 is filled mostly with standards from artists such as Gordon Jenkins (“Caravan”), Vic Damone (“On the Street Where You Live”), and Ella Fitzgerald, who makes an appearance with “Manhattan.” “Fly Me to the Moon” is Julie London’s luscious pizzicato-tinged string version, not Frank Sinatra’s better-known big-band hit.

But for lovers of music in the cracks—not pop, not concert, but what, exactly—the reason to look for this CD may be David Carbonara himself.

Weiner chooses most of the period songs, but “Lipstick” by Carbonara is a distillation (if you will, given all the imbibing in the series) of music in the twilight: slightly lounge, slightly jazz, and as rebellious as one may appear while keeping one’s hair in place.

 It’s the sound of muted trumpets, punchy trombones, low flutes, snapping fingers, walking bass lines, one-handed laconic piano playing (necessary while stubbing out a cigarette), and that child of the time, the Hammond organ. His “Mad Men Suite” is likewise all delicately drawn atmosphere.

A big surprise is the inclusion of the traditional round “Babylon,” known by many (anachronistically for the show) from Don McLean’s 1971 album American Pie. In one episode it was worked into a Village mandolin-strummed folk happening (with Carbonara briefly on camera, playing autoharp!). Its text comes right out of Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon, we laid down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”

What that has to do with the advertising world, legions of die-hard Mad Men fans will know. There’s a lot going on here beneath the surface.

Mark Hagerty, Soliloquy

My latest CD mini-review for WRTI, including podcast. You can read all my CD reviews here.

Soliloquy: Music of Mark Hagerty

Mark Hagerty’s music is smart and sneaky. Let’s start with sneaky. He doesn’t show off: his music is so nicely grounded that you don’t appreciate the intelligence and difficulty needed to bring it off until later. Whether it’s the hipness grooved into High Octane (written for the new-music ensemble Relâche) or the Clavier Books 1 through 3 and Cello Suite 2 in his new CD Soliloquy, his music keeps surprising you.

In the 2-disc Soliloquy, the surprise is the strength carried by lightness. These suites float like a dragonfly and zing like peppermint tea. The Cello Suite 2, performed soulfully by Douglas McNames, is profound but never moribund, and it may occur to you later how seldom you hear that nowadays. I’d call it optimistic, but that’s not quite it. It’s full of life, the parts that are good and the parts that are, perhaps, just real.

Hagerty’s three books for harpsichord, played with precision and vigor by his wife Tracy Richardson, lay out a wonderful trajectory through Baroque dance forms of Capriccios, Arias, Toccatas, and Saltarellos. The bite of the harpsichord can make deviations from tonality appear tendentious. Hagerty knows this as well as anyone, and composes suites that are a refreshing—even remarkable—series of harmonic acrobatics that push to the edge of imbalance, but never topple. Ooh and ah if you like.

So it’s sneaky and it’s smart. Hagerty writes on his website, “the 20th Century is over. Pastiche, irony, alienation, avant-garde posturing, minimalism, and shock are played out. We need music that fights back and evinces the positive that still does, or could, exist.” A fine soliloquy, that.